Archive | music downloads for free/cheap/pay-what-you-like RSS feed for this section

May 2020 – single & track reviews – Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts’ ‘CONFINEMENT-release4’; Jack Hayter’s ‘Let’s Go Shopping’ (Sultans of Ping F.C cover); Billie Bottle sings ‘Ted Hughes – Wind: Upheaval Imminent’

11 May

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: 'CONFINEMENT​/​release4'

Jesse Cutts/Heavy Lamb: ‘CONFINEMENT​/​release4’

The fourth helping of Brighton psychedelia from the Confinement Tapes series is more Heavy Lamb, and more Jesse Cutts. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. As was the case last time, while Jesse isn’t the only Lamb player the line between what’s him and what’s Lamb is blurring into the inconsequential. Certainly ‘All Dust’ is an actual Heavy Lamb piece at least: revisited, re-arranged and re-seasoned by Jesse and the other remaining Lambkin (John Gee), with Jesse’s mum, frequent collaborator and core Confinementeer Jo Spratley back on lead vocals, as she was for last month’s take on Cardiacs’ ‘Odd Even’.

It’s tempting to suggest that they should make it a permanent arrangement: Jo sounds happier doing Lambwork than she does in any other project, and the song itself is a delightful complication, unpacking plentiful musical material from inside a sleek indie-pop/rock shell. Threes against fours, sudden teases of hot spaces; voice keeping inside the chords but finding any conceivable space to hop around inside there; Propelled by Jesse’s cunning, slippery bass the chords themselves obligingly fold over and flip into new spaces so as to give the melody more space to roam and loop back. The Cardiacs influence is strong, but so’s the love for any batch of raucous goodtime English sunshine-pop. The lyric’s as complicated, digressive and warm as the music; something about fragile hearts surviving on the tide, something about continual replenishment. So far, it’s peak Lamb: not just an ideal bridge between rock disco and broader music, but great fun in its own right.


 
As with ‘All Dust’, the two instrumental pieces also contained in the package are new recordings, all played in their entirety by Jesse; in contrast to some of the more archival odds and sods on Confinement Tapes releases, these were only put together this month. In ‘Gutter Pigeon’, wobbled piano encountered during a downpour switching into orchestrated chord clambering, a lazy little pavement circus. After a shimmery start, ‘Small Things’ compresses and unpacks an album’s worth of development in a single six-minute tune. Lovely. If there’s a prog tone to all of this, it’s in keeping with those leisurely Kent’n’Sussex prog tones from Canterbury, Herne Bay and all of the other Mellow-on-Seas these kind of sunny benevolent English meanders come from.



 
From up the Thames estuary (and following his life-blasted, gutter-country cover of ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at the end of last month), Jack Hayter continues his lockdown broadcasts with a visit to 1990s Irish indie. As he recounts, “in 2004 an American band provided the British with a national anthem… ‘Mr Brightside’. Back in 1992 an Irish band did the same thing with ‘Where’s Me Jumper’. In the time of Corona we’re not dancing in the disco bumper-to-bumper. Neither are we going out shopping much… so this is all a bit pants, really. Dunno why I did this.. and I played bum notes too.”


 
Yes, the bum notes are obvious (not least because Jack lampshades each one of them with a quirk and a chuckle), but his warmth, humour and charm – even via webcam – are so engaging that it’s all forgivable. More importantly, it’s what he brings to the song that matters more than a finger-slip or two. The original Sultans of Ping version of ‘Let’s Go Shopping’ – the product of young men imagining a contented, domestic afterlife for a reformed raver and pillhead – almost vanishes under the sweet conscious hokiness of its string arrangements and its honky-tonk drum click. Jack’s version (basic voice and guitar) gently trims off the hints of irony and any tongue-in-cheek trappings.

As I mentioned last time, few people have such a skill at uncovering the tender core of a song. Watching Jack’s treatment is like watching a great little bit of subtle pub theatre story unfold. In his hands, it’s no longer something simple and jolly, but something grown touching and tender. Love for one’s wife, a nostalgia for wilder times but no regrets of any kind; embracing grown-up responsibilities (and burdens) with a sunny chuckle – “you can push the trolley – and I’ll push the pram.” And then, after this cheerful jaunt, lazy and affectionate, the cloud comes: lockdown bleakness casting a shadow over Jack’s face for a moment as the world shrinks and chills, and even dull everyday pleasures become fraught with peril. “Let’s go shopping, / we can wish away our fears. / Let’s go shopping, / the shops are really… near.” Jack plays this cover down as some kind of throwaway. Nothing he ever does is really a throwaway.

Billie Bottle‘s life has been in flux for a while – the transition from “he” to “they” to “she”, the rearrangement of day-to-day living and bands and dressing and sundry ways of doing things. Still, Billie’s an unfailingly positive and proactive character (as shown in her series of songs with non-binary musician/activist Kimwei – the most recently-aired one being here) and most of the unsettledness had eased down just before the plague blew in this spring.

From indoors, she’s just revealed some multi-layered new work taking on and reflecting both her innate calm and musicality, and the impact of an unsettled world. For now, though it’s just a lyrics video, with Billie announcing “well me lovelies, it feels like the right time to share one of the projects that have been on the go here in Bottledom over seven weeks of UK lockdown. My auntie read me the Ted Hughes poem, ‘Wind’, down the phone and I was struck by its power and pertinence. It blew itself into a kind of song, ‘Wind: Upheaval Imminent’. May you also be filled with its gustiness!”

As a member of Mike Westbrook’s band, Billie’s an heiress to his chamber-jazz poetics as well as to the playful jazzy lilt of the Canterbury sound. Both were well in evidence on last year’s ‘Grazie Miller’ EP, and they’re just as clear on ‘Wind: Upheaval Imminent’, a Hughesian account of a storm which “wielded / blade-light, luminous black and emerald, / flexing like the lens of a mad eye.”). Initially it’s an interplay between Billie’s high androgynous tenor and a sketching, dabbing piano; with drums, subtle blocks of organ, a near-subliminal bass, and a few judiciously-placed sound effects and concrete-instrumental coloration making their way into the mix.


 
Mostly, though, it’s the words and the voice. Billie responds to a setting in much the same way that Robert Wyatt handles a cover, and her carefully-timed leaps from note to note (all with an underlying, broken-up sense of swing) recapture the poem’s sense of awe; its trepidation and exultation, its illustration of the way that fragility shades strength. (“The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace, / At any second to bang and vanish with a flap: / The wind flung a magpie away and a black- / back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house / rang like some fine green goblet in the note / that any second would shatter it.” ) She uses the sprung challenges of jazz – the rhythm eddies, the intrusion of unexpected harmonic currents – to dig into the hinted upheaval in Hughes’ words.

As with the poem, the music ends unresolved – “now deep / in chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip / our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought, / or each other. We watch the fire blazing, / and feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, / seeing the window tremble to come in, / hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.” Structurally brilliant, captivatingly emotive, and an excellent marriage of text and music, it’s one of the best things Billie has ever done in a persistently ripening career.

Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts: ‘CONFINEMENT-release4’
The Confinement Tapes, CONFINEMENT_release4
Download/streaming single
Released: 4th May 2020
Get it from:
free/pay-what-you-like download from Bandcamp
Heavy Lamb/Jesse Cutts online:
Facebook Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

Jack Hayter: ‘Let’s Go Shopping’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only single
Released: 10th May 2020
Get it from:
currently view-only on YouTube
Jack Hayter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Deezer Spotify Amazon Music

Billie Bottle: ‘Ted Hughes – Wind: Upheaval Imminent’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Video-only single
Released: 11th May 2020
Get it from:
currently view-only on YouTube
Billie Bottle online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

May 2020 – single & track reviews – MultiTraction Orchestra’s ‘Emerge Entangled’; Stuart Wilding’s ‘Spaces’ and ‘Horns’

5 May

Conceived during coronavirus lockdown, MultiTraction Orchestra is the latest brainchild of cross-disciplinary Sefiroth/Blue-Eyed Hawk guitarist Alex Roth (currently pursuing new avenues and familial roots in Kraków). It’s his way of fighting the entropy, fear and disassociation of the times: part-corralling/part-embracing a cluster of diverse yet sympathetic musicians, recruited via friendship and open-source callups on the web. ‘Emerge Entangled’ is the first result: twenty-seven players working from Alex’s initial two-and-a-half minute pass of treated, multi-layered minimalist guitarwork. If the video accompaniment (a graceful come-and-go conference call featuring most of the players) is anything to go by, Alex played the part of benign/mostly absent god for this recording. There are no solos, no aggressive chord comping. In the few shots in which they feature, his guitars and pedals sit by themselves in a system loop creating the drone with no further intervention. Instead, Alex acts as the invisible mind on faders, reshuffling the instrumental echoes and response which came back from his loop broadcast.

MultiTraction Orchestra: 'Emerge Entangled'

MultiTraction Orchestra: ‘Emerge Entangled’

It’s an eight-city affair; although the majority of musicians hail from Alex’s other base, London (including his percussionist brother and Sefiroth bandmate Simon, trombonists Kieran Stickle McLeod and Raphael Clarkson, Rosanna Ter-Berg on flute, Madwort reedsman Tom Ward on clarinet, drummer Jon Scott and effects-laden double bassist Dave Manington), the MultiTraction net spreads wide. Finnish cellist Teemu Mastovaara, from Turku, is probably the most northerly contributor; Mexico City saxophonist Asaph Sánchez the most southerly; and Texas-based glockenspieler and touch guitarist Cedric Theys the most westerly. (Muscovian tuba player Paul Tkachenko and Lebanon-based iPad manipulator Stephanie Merchak can battle out as to who’s holding it down for the east).

Instrumentally, although there’s a definite slanting towards deep strings, brass and rolling-cloud drones, there’s plenty of variety: from the vintage Baroque flute of Gdańsk’s Maja Miró to the Juno 6 colourings of London soundtracker Jon Opstad and the homemade Coptic lute of Exeter-based Ian Summers. Alex’s other brother, saxophonist Nick, features in the Dublin contingent alongside the accordion work of Kenneth Whelan and cello from Mary Barnecutt. Most of the remaining string players are dotted around England (with double bassist Huw V. Williams and James Banner in St Albans and Leeds respectively, and violinist Alex Harker in Huddersfield). There’s a knot of contributory electronica coming out of Birmingham from Andrew Woodhead and John Callaghan (with virtual synthesist Emile Bojesen chipping in from Winchester), and some final London contributions from jazz pianist/singer Joy Ellis and sometime Anna Calvi collaborator Mally Harpaz bringing in harmonium, timpani and xylophone.

Alex’s past and present work includes jazz, experimental noise, soulfully mournful Sephardic folk music and dance theatre; and while his guitar basework for ‘Emerge Entangled’ seems to recall the harmonic stillness and rippling, near-static anticipatory qualities of 1970s German experimental music such as Cluster (as well as Terry Riley or Fripp and Eno), plenty of these other ingredients swim into the final mix. I suspect that the entanglement Alex intends to evoke is quantum rather than snarl-up: a mutuality unhindered by distance. From its blind beginnings (no-one hearing any other musicians apart from Alex) what’s emerged from the experiment is something which sounds pre-composed; or, at the very least, spun from mutual sympathy.


 
There are definite sections. An overture in which increasingly wild and concerned trombone leads over building, hovering strings and accordion (gradually joined by burgeoning harmonium, filtered-in glockenspiel and percussion, dusk-flickers of bass clarinet, cello and synth) sounds like New Orleans funeral music hijacked by Godspeed! You Black Emperor; the first seepage of flood water through the wall. With a change in beat and emphasis, and the push of drums, the second section breaks free into something more ragged and complicated – a muted metal-fatigue trombone part protesting over synth drone and subterranean tuba growl, which in turn morphs into a double bass line. Various other parts make fleeting appearances (a transverse flute trill, Alex’s guitar loops bumped up against jazz drumkit rolls; a repeating, rising, scalar/microtonal passage on lute, like a Holy Land lament). Throughout, there’s a sense of apprehension, with something ominous lurking outside in the sky and the air and elements; the more melodic or prominent instruments an array of voices trying to make sense of it, their dialects, personalities, arguments and experiences different, but their querulous humanity following a common flow.

Via touches of piano, theme alternations come faster and faster. A third section foregrounds the tuba, moving in and out in deep largo passages while assorted electronics build up a bed of electrostutter underneath. During the latter, watch out in the video for benign eccentronica-cabaret jester John Callaghan, quietly drinking a mugful of tea as his laptop pulses and trembles out a gentle staccato blur. It’s not the most dramatic of contributions, but it feels like a significant one: the mundaneity and transcendent patience which must be accepted as part of lockdown life, an acknowledgement of “this too will pass”. For the fourth section, a tuba line passes seamlessly into a bass clarinet undulation with touches of silver flute; accelerations and rallentandos up and down. Initially some spacier free-jazz flotsam makes its presence felt – electronics and cosmic synth zaps, saxophonic key rattles, buzzes and puffs, fly-ins of cello and double bass. The later part, though, is more of a classical meditation: beatless and with most instruments at rest, predominantly given over to the dark romance of Teemu Mastovaara’s lengthy cello solo (apprehensive, heavy on the vibrato and harmonic string noise, part chamber meditation and part camel call). The finale takes the underlying tensions, squeezes them in one hand and disperses them. An open duet between Jo Ellis’ piano icicles and Asaph Sánchez’s classic tenor ballad saxophone, it becomes a trio with Jo’s glorious, wordless vocal part: hanging in the air somewhere between grief and peace. A moving, thrilling picture of the simultaneously confined and stretched worldspace we’re currently living in, and a small triumph of collaboration against the lockdown odds.

* * * * * * * *

Although ‘Emerge Entangled’ has a number of masterfully responsive drummers and percussionists in place already, it’s a shame that Cheltenham/Xposed Club improv mainstay Stuart Wilding isn’t one of them. His Ghost Mind quartet (three players plus a wide world picture woven in through field recording) have proved themselves to be one of the most interesting listen-and-incorporate bands of recent years. However, he’s continued to be busy with his own lockdown music. ‘Spaces’ and “Horns” are personal solo-duets – possibly single-take, in-situ recordings. Both created in the usual Xposed Club home of Francis Close Hall Chapel, they’re direct and in-the-moment enough that you can hear the click of the stop button. Stuart’s apparently playing piano mostly with one hand while rustling, tapping and upsetting percussion with the other. By the sound of it the main percussion element is probably his lap harp or a zither, being attacked for string noise and resonance.

Assuming that that’s the case, ‘Spaces’ pits grating, dragging stringflutter racket against the broken-up, mostly rhythmic midrange exploration of an unfailingly cheerful piano. Sometimes a struck or skidded note on the percussion prompts a direct echo on the piano. As the former becomes more of a frantic, swarming whirligig of tortured instrumentation (as so frequently with Stuart, recalling the frenetic and cheeky allsorts swirl of Jamie Muir with Derek Bailey and King Crimson), picking out these moments of congruence becomes ever more of a game: while in the latter half, the piano cuts free on whimsical, delighted little leaps of its own. About half the length of ‘Spaces’, ‘Horns’ begins with the percussion apparently chain-sawing the piano in half while the latter embarks on a rollicking one-handed attempt at a hunting tune. The piano wins out. I’m not sure what became of the fox.



 

MultiTraction Orchestra: ‘Emerge Entangled’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming track
Released: 1st May 2020
Get it from:
download from Bandcamp, Apple Music or Amazon; stream from Soundcloud, YouTube, Deezer, Google Play, Spotify and Apple Music.
MultiTraction Orchestra/Alex Roth online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Amazon Music

Stuart Wilding: ‘Spaces’ & ‘Horns’
self-released, no catalogue number or barcode
Download/streaming tracks
Released: 5th May 2020
Get it from:
Bandcamp – ‘Spaces‘ and ‘Horns
Stuart Wilding online:
Facebook Bandcamp
 

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
 

November 2015 – upcoming London gigs – The End Festival in Crouch End, part 2

15 Nov

As promised, here’s the second rundown of people playing Crouch End’s The End Festival here in London this month (in fact, this week). It’s serving as my self-imposed penance for having been stupid enough to have missed the festival’s existence for so many years, especially as it’s been only a fairly short walk from where I live.

In case you’re interested at who’s already played this year, last week’s rundown is here (from math-rock heroes to underground pop hopefuls to assorted folk noises), but here’s who’s performing from tomorrow until the end of next Sunday…

* * * * * * *

The Mae Trio + Patch & The Giant + Elephants & Castles (Downstairs @ The Kings Head, 2 Crouch End Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 8AA, UK, Monday 16th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £10.75 – information

Much-garlanded Melbourne chamber-folksters The Mae Trio are a great example of can-do Australian vivacity – three women who juggle multiple instruments (banjo, ukulele, guitar, marimba, violin, cello and bass). While delivering spring-fresh, sparkling three-part harmonies and witty stage banter, they also volley songs at us which merge the whip-smart compassionate edge of Indigo Girls, and the dizzy chatter of The Bush The Tree And Me. Londoners aim plenty of jokes at Aussie visitors, but if they will keep on coming here and showing us up like this… Well, the city’s home-grown alt.folk scene is at least holding its own, since it can produce bands like Patch & The Giant, another gang of multi-instrumentalists (throwing cello, accordion, flugelhorn and violin in with the usual mix) who come up with a ‘Fisherman’s Blues’-era Waterboys mingling of Irish, Balkan and American country influences plus New Orleans funeral-band razz, rolling off heady spirit-in-the-everyday songs for a potential singalong everywhere they go.


The second of the two London bands, Elephants & Castles, might not share the direct folkiness of the rest of the night’s bill (being more of a brash and perky power-pop idea at root, with fat synth and chatty peals of electric guitar) but the band does have an acoustic side (which they might be bringing along on this occasion). Also, a closer look at their songs reveals a strand of outrightly folky protest and character witness, with songs about gentrification, the lot of manufacturing workers and the ordeals and victimhood of Justin Fashanu showing up in their setlist.

 

* * * * * * *

Howe Gelb (The Crypt Studio, 145a Crouch Hill, Crouch End, London, N8 9QH, UK, Monday 16th & Tuesday 17th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £22.00 – information

Tireless alt.country legend and multi-project workaholic Howe Gelb (the frontman for Giant Sand, Sno Angel and Arizon Amp & Alternator) takes in two dates in Crouch End as part of his ongoing tour. The first of Howe’s dates will be solo, but Nadine Khouri (fresh from her Hornsey Town Hall megagig appearance on the preceding Saturday) will be playing support on the 16th, with an extra surprise guest promised at some point in the proceedings.


* * * * * * * *

Romeo Stodart & Ren Harvieu (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Thursday 19th November 2015, 7.00pm) – £13.75 – information

Romeo Stodart (half of the frontline for familial, Mercury-nominated, cuddly-bear band The Magic Numbers) has been taking time out from his main group to write and sing with Salford soul-pop singer Ren Harvieu as R N R. This performance gives both singers a chance to show us what they’ve come up with. Expect a full-potential set: reinterpretations of both Ren songs and Magic Numbers numbers, reworkings of standards (as defined and chosen by the duo) and the full song fruits of their new partnership. One or two examples of the latter have sneaked out into the public eye previously, so here’s a taste – via YouTube – of what’s on offer.

 

* * * * * * *

Before the Goldrush presents Green Diesel + Tom Hyatt + Horatio James (The Haberdashery, 22 Middle Lane, Crouch End, London, N8 8PL, UK, Friday 20th November 2015, 8.00pm) – £5.00 – information

Kentish folk-rock sextet Green Diesel happily embrace a spiritual descent from an earlier ‘70s wave of English folk-rockers – Fairport Convention, Mr Fox, The Albion Band, Steeleye Span). As those bands did, they conflate dazzling electric guitar, a mass of acoustic folk instrumentation and a sheaf of traditional tunes mixed in with new songs (“old-fashioned, new-fangled”). In the same spirit, they’re enthusiasts and honourers of the old forms, but are never shy of splicing in others (“a reggae twist into an old sea shanty… spicing up a jig with a touch of jazz funk”) in order to communicate the songs to a fresher and perhaps less reverent audience during one of the frenetic and joyous live gigs which they’re becoming increasingly famous for.

If you’re a bunch of Londoners going for that country-flavoured Neil Young lonesomeness, then you’ll need the conviction, you need a certain selflessness and freedom from posing, and you’ll need the songs. Horatio James have all of this, carrying it off without slipping either into pastiche or into a faux-Laurel Canyon slickness, offering “songs of estrangement, heartbreak and malevolence” floating like dust off a pair of snakeskin boots. A cut-down version of the band charmed me at a Smile Acoustic live session in Shoreditch: the full band ought to be even better.


Tom Hyatt tends to work solo, delivering his clarion tenor voice and songs from behind a propulsive, percussive acoustic guitar or from the stool of a fluid, contemplative piano. There are strains of Tim Buckley and John Martyn in what he does, perhaps a little of the young Van Morrison (and, judging by his taste in covers, a dash of ABBA as well) but with their boozy, visionary slurs and blurs replaced by a clear-headed, clear-witted take on matters. Some might reckon that this was missing the point: if you don’t, Tom – heart and mind engaged – is certainly your man:. At this gig, he’ll be playing with a regular collaborator, cellist Maya McCourt (also of Euro-American folk collision Various Guises and bluegrass belle Dana Immanuel’s Stolen Band).


* * * * * * *

The Apple Of My Eye + Michael Garrett + The August List(SoftlySoftly @ Kiss The Sky, 18-20 Park Road, Crouch End, London, N8 8TD, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 3.00pm) – £4.40/£5.00 – information

Of course SoftlySoftly – who present regular unplugged folky gigs in Crouch End – fit perfectly into the festival, and present one of their acoustic afternoons (which are adults only, for reasons of booze rather than scabrousness) with barely a blip in their stride Offering “folk music for the drunk, the drowned and the lost at sea”, Bristolian-via-London sextet Apple Of My Eye write thoughtful, contemplative alt.folk songs tinged with country harmonies and displacement (mellow but slightly homesick, in the manner of the itinerant and accepting). Michael Garrett is another rising star on the London acoustic scene, usually performing with a backing band of Chums to back up his voice and guitar with viola, cello and cajon although this occasion looks as if it may well be a solo gig. There’s not much of Michael’s open, unaffected songcraft online, although I did find a video of him taking on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, as well as a brief homemade clip of one of his own songs. Husband-and-wife duo The August List belt out a take on Carter-classic stripped country with honey-and-bitter-molasses vocals, shading into occasional rock clangour and odd instrumentation stylophones – hardbitten songs of hardbitten ordinary folk, sometimes driven into cruel situations.


 
* * * * * * * *

The Feast of St Cecilia: The Memory Band + The Lords Of Thyme + Elliott Morris + The Mae Trio + You Are Wolf + Collectress + Spectral Chorus + DJ Jeanette Leech (Earl Haig Hall, 18 Elder Avenue, Crouch End, London, N8 9TH, UK, Sunday 22nd November 2015, 1.00pm) – £11.00 – information

The second and last of The End’s big gigs is also the festival closer. Apart from The Mae Trio (making a mid-bill return after their Monday performance) it’s a once-only grouping of End talent – “a fitting folk finale, a weird folk all dayer” with a wealth of bands tapping into or springing out of folk forms across the spectrum, plus DJ-ing by Jeanette Leech (scene authority and writer of ‘The Seasons They Change – The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk’).

The Memory Band is a folktronica project with a difference. Rather than clothing old or new folk songs in electronic textures, Stephen Cracknell builds new folk pieces up from scratch, assembling them via computer and a virtual “imaginary band” succession of guest players, Instead of smoothing the gaps, though, he makes the most of the eerie collage effect of digital sampling and patchwork. Some Memory Band pieces are familiar guitar and slap hollers with a folk baroque smoky swirl – hard-drive recordings with a trad air. Others are tapescape instrumentals, like an English-folk translation of Bomb Squad hip hop techniques: old-sounding folk airs carried on acoustic instruments against drones and percussion snippets like jingling reins, while backing tracks are made entirely out of ancient tune snatches and Sussex field recordings (hedgerow birds and bleating sheep, tractors, skyborne seagulls, landscape echoes; the tracery of air, wind and sky over downs). The live arrangements may lean more towards the acoustic and traditional style, but if they capture any of the vivid reimaginings of the recorded efforts they’ll still be well worth seeing.


The Lords Of Thyme are what you get when musicians from the wild psychedelic folk cyclone of Circulus decide that they want to slow down a little but go deeper. Joe Woolley, Tali Trow and Pat Kenneally (three Circulus players, former or current – it’s always hard to tell which) bonded with singer Michelle Griffiths over shared musical loves and have gone on to play and record songs which draw and build on the quartet’s steepings in both psychedelic esoterica and better known touchstones: Wizz Jones and Nick Drake, Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay, Nico, Davy Graham, early ’70s prog (Soft Machine and Yes) and even New York post-punk (Television). The results are a shimmering but solid acid-folk songbook, perfect for recapturing the tail-end of a half-imagined, cider-golden summer in these dank November days.


 

Celtic Connections award-winner Elliott Morris is the kind of young folk musician who makes both his peers and older musicians wince ruefully into their beers. Not only does he play fingerstyle guitar with the dazzling, percussive, ping-pong-match-in-a-belfry attack of Michael Hedges, Antonio Forcione or Jon Gomm, but he simultaneously sings with the controlled passion of a teenaged Martin Furey and writes like a youthful John Martyn. There’s something quite magical here.

Like The Memory Band, Kerry Andrew – who works as You Are Wolf – is a folk reinventor, taking ideas from current technology, leftfield pop, contemporary classical music and spoken word recording and then applying them to folk music. Her current album, ‘Hawk To The Hunting Gone’ is an invigorating cut-up of melodies and Kerry’s extensive vocal and production techniques, sounding like lost ethnology tapes of Anglo-American folk strands from a parallel history.

To call Collectress an alternative string quartet sells them too short – it suggests that the London-Brighton foursome can be summarised as an English take on Kronos. Aside from the fact that that any such position has already been taken (and reinvented, flipped and superseded) by the Smith and Elysian Quartets, Collectress just don’t play the same pattern as regards repertoire or instruments. They’re more of a quartet-plus, with musical saw, keyboards, woodwind, guitar, software, field recordings and singing as much in their armoury as their strings. Citing the Necks, Rachels, Bach and John Adams in their puzzlebox of influences, the group offer four very individual women musicians, a knack for full improvisation, and a sense of narrative that imbues everything from their songs to their suggestive spontaneous pieces.



 

Finally, Merseyside trio Spectral Chorus seem to have emerged from a post-dole background of disintegration, drifting and life lived one long ominous step away from the black. Their tale of sharing one hovel and a single bed as they honed their craft, living off pawn money from putting their instruments in and out of hock, and of nourishing themselves solely with spare hotel breakfasts from one member’s work as a caterer sounds like a grim joke: in these unsparing days, of course, it could well be true. Now homed at Skeleton Key Records (the Liverpool-based label-of-love set up by The Coral), they’re releasing their spooky semi-hymnal urban folk songs – part Shack and part Brendan Perry – to a waiting world, and there’s evidently enough in the kitty for live appearances too.

* * * * * * * *

And that’s it. More on the End Festival next year, when I’ll know what to expect.

January 2015 – singles & track reviews – Nocturne Blue’s ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’; Doldrums’ ‘Hotfoot’; We Are Kin’s ‘Home Sweet Home’; Swim Mountain’s ‘Love on Top’; Ardamus’ ‘At Least I Got Laid’

15 Jan

In the sensual slo-mo video for ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ a long-limbed, model-glossy woman rotates on a rope swing, or inside a net. Circus glamour, catwalk slink, passive heat – Nocturne Blue is clearly aiming for all of these things. The musical sideline of video artist Dutch Rail, it curves and strokes its own well-toned musical hips, a perfect solipsistic pearl. I don’t know whether to admire its sheen or to stay quiet and watch it stalk – slap-bang – straight into a doorframe.

Though it’s honed for club play, there’s a strong affinity for the more polished, aloof side of art-pop here – and despite Nocturne Blues’ Los Angeles origins, the project rapidly settles into a European home. All is textural – there’s a sultry, light-stepping beat; there’s bass rumble, silk-vapours and distant, tearing fuzz. Left to themselves, parts build and crystallise. A lone, calculated antique synth pyrographs a wheeling electronic line – a ‘70s nod to psychedelic German sequencing, or to Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’. There’s a little echo of centrozoon’s evasive, bumpy pop phase in here: appropriate, as Markus Reuter guests on stacked layers of touch guitar, building himself a stepped, dissolving tower of bluesy bass growls, ambient hums and looped Europop trills. There’s a pinch of Summer-and-Moroder disco trance, as well as a dash of Bowie’s Berlin.

‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ also bears a passing, slowed-down resemblance to ‘Only Baby’, no-man‘s criminally-ignored dance-floor symphony from 1993. Yet where no-man blazed with an urgent sexual heat beneath their violins-and-cream sophistication, Dutch prefers to sit alone crushing grapes against his palate and murmuring rapturously to us about the taste. Both songs sing about breath and imply transcendence; both involve a shadowy other around which to wrap emotion (in one of his purpler patches, Dutch asserts “the sweetest flowers bloom late at night / but you and I were born to break free into the light..”). Ultimately, however, the Nocturne Blue trail is a solo journey, with Dutch dreaming of an explosive transformation while describing slow, langorous circles around his own stalled obsession. “My eyes may never see the sun / Paper-thin, don’t know where I’ve been / Sleepwalking circles into what I might become,”, he murmurs.“My darkest deeds, my secret needs / A thousand fingers feeling every possibility. / I was crawling down, digging around, / diving deep to dreams within my dreams.” But he emotes so softly, with so much of an immaculate and poised façade, that he makes any dirt and frustration feel as smooth as patent leather.

* * * *

Doldrums are equally club-bound, but far more ostentatiously fucked-up. Their sound is twentieth-century pre-millennial angst of the kind that just won’t go away and get smoothed down – a Montreal hybrid of dirty warehouse techno, KAOSS pad tangents and the spattering, visual-art-inspired synth-pop of Grimes and co. ‘Hotfoot’ is a knocking bit of electronic rabble-rousing, filled with splurging ripped-speaker synth-bass, sundry distortions and barking vocals. A couple of tussling rhythm tracks battle it out in stop-time. The main riff sounds like a plastic bottle, tuned to baritone, being kicked around in an elevator. Rather than an elevating rush, the breakdown is a numbing blurt of hooting overload. In its dull, hopeless tyranny, it could be the klaxon announcing that another reactor has just hit meltdown.

Meanwhile, tousle-topped frontman/turntablist/sound-smearer Airick Woodhead drawls on about “keeping up an unnatural pace”, “sleeping in, in the age of unrest,” and “vampires who can’t compete.” Watch your back. While ‘Hotfoot’ does send you careening around the room in a wild spurt of dance energy, flailing your elbows and heels, it’s also manic and asocial. “If I can’t pull myself back up, I’m gonna go deeper down in the mud,” warns Airick, scribbling himself notes which he immediately shreds and tosses. “Hey problem, spin around. / Don’t stop smiling ’til you hit the ground.”

It’s not just his punky sneer which gives the song its edge. It’s the death-disco sentiments: a party gone sour, nihilistic, borderline cannibalistic as Airick spits “my best friends all see me drown / my best friends all – c’mon – talk about it.” Halfway through, he’ll implore “Lady, won’t you come and swallow me?”, as if he’s courting Death for a final blowjob. Certainly he seems resigned to the fatal gravity well he’s worked himself into. “Guess I can’t pull myself back up, / I couldn’t grow deeper down any further / Fit right in, make some friends…/ fall asleep in the deep end.” He’s going to go down dancing, or nodding, or with some kind of hopeless swagger.

* * * *

After that, it’s something of a relief to change gears with some elegant Manchester progressive rock, courtesy of We Are Kin. Though it’s easier to be prog now than it used to be, those bad old off-the-peg snarkings about adolescent hang-ups on fairies and hobbits still sometimes hang around like a bad smell. I’d argue that what prog (especially British prog) actually tends to get hung up on is Victoriana. Shuddering flamboyantly on the cusp of romanticism and modernism, it often lolls back into the former, taking comfort in or shape from the trappings of an industrious imperial world in which even the mass-produced now seems to have to hearkened back to hand-craftsmanship, and in which running your hand over an antique street railing in the here-and-now triggers a kind of time-travel.

We Are Kin seem to fit into the same latterday Britprog school as Big Big Train – nostalgic for a history drawn from dips into books and museums and bits of folk history while quietly assembling its meaning on their own; building flesh around paper skeletons and guide pamphlets and tales handed down from elderly relatives. This isn’t as immediately credible as rattling history’s cage with upfront arguments about the present, but although it’s a gentler approach it’s not automatically naïve. Emblems and preoccupations of Victorian times still wash back and forth through the Western psyche in slicks of gold leaf or grime – empires of one kind or another, ideas about the deserving or unworthy poor, innovations and the turnover of new elites.

Prog musicians, like novelists, sometime lie on the wash of this wave and see where it takes them. ‘Home Sweet Home’ seems to be an overture to just this kind of journey. We Are Kin’s superstructure might be 1970s antique (a stately, tuneful Genesis sway of velvet-curtain Mellotrons, small bridges of jazz chording, the bowed and angular interplay of shifting time signatures and guitar escapements) but their intent might not be. Over three brief, lilting verses, singer Hannah Cotterill and lyricist Dan Zambas are describe three settlements – plains village, sea town, valley city – each with its own character and rhythm, its own buildings and way of life. In another sense, they might be describing the same place, or at least the same culture, swelling as history passes. Its buildings grow larger, casting greedy looming shadows. The ease of sustainable trade metastasises into a grotesque over-stimulated scrabble.

All right, the language is, ever-so-slightly, fairytale Gothic – but fairytales and fables work because they pare down the vital into simple, memorable lines. Through the fountains and courtyards (and the stone houses, with their “dwellers”) you can still see us, you can still see now, rocked by the same currents and the same shocks. If twenty-first century austerity really is 1930s repression revisited, and we’re sleepwalking back into repeating old history, prog’s retrofitted antiquarian stylings might have a place in telling the old stories and delivering the new warnings. If this is a taste of a longer tale, I’d like to hear more of it.

* * * *

London/Angeleno good-time band Swim Mountain also retrofit, but in an easier, breezier way. They cover Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’ like someone flirting under a blanket, musical lines and instrumental parts wriggling under the surface like coy, excited limbs. As he showed on the debut Swim Mountain EP last autumn, head Swimmer Tom Skyrme is very good at disguising fairly limited resources under a swelling, lucid-dream production style. He claims to have put this one together on a whim, belatedly falling in love with the song’s bravura modulations and ‘80s-inspired peppiness.

Personally, the Beyoncé diva-juggernaut leaves me cold. Despite her well-honed skills and precision vocals, much of what I see is branded, sub-Madonna acquisition and media powder-puffing (if she is the twenty-first century Madonna, we’ve all gone beige) so it’s interesting to hear the song outside her wind-tunnel of glamour. Tom’s lightly buttered, lysergic popcorn-soul take makes no attempt to match the ceiling-bumping, helium balloon assertiveness of the original. The pace is agreeable ‘70s midtempo; the wah-guitar plays peekaboo; the boinking bass comes sheathed in a tight reverb. The phaser button adds a gentle, sexy yawn; Tom’s warm nasal drawl (just on the likeable side of bland) dawdles amiably on the swooping paths Beyoncé cut, making no attempt to match her commanding calisthenics. A cloudy puff of keyboards fills the gaps, like a lazy pink smoke-bomb.

Previous Swim Mountain stylings have mostly recalled the stoned, sleeting Byrds guitar of ‘Five Miles High’: this one sounds like what Arnold Layne might have become if Syd Barrett had drunk deep on Memphis soul before he rolled another one, or like a more nappy-headed tie-dyed version of the Clarke/Duke Project. It’s all a little throwaway (despite the unexpected ending, which scrambles down an unexpected dip and clunks like a plastic lyre) but it’s lovingly crafted throwaway; a sugar basket which takes less time to eat than it does to admire. Plus I do like the way that Tom’s mix rolls out individual delicate moments for our attention, as if his faders were the sliding drawers in a jeweller’s desk.

* * * *

Sex raps are integral to hip hop: another part of that expressing-yourself-over-a-beat ethos, and a good way to keep a live and restless audience onside. Unless you’ve got a broad sense of humour, they can be touchy areas – too louche, or (at their worst) channels for power-posturing, misogyny and spite. Happily, Ardamus might bitch a bit – and might even settle a few minor scores on the side – but he doesn’t really hold grudges. ‘At Least I Got Laid’ could have been so damn nasty – a wheedler’s boast. Instead, it’s a shrug and a counting-of-blessings from a late-30s Washington rapper, thumbing through his temporary dating and mating memories for a piece that’s not so much bump-and-grind as bump-and-fall-off-the-couch.

Most of the endearing low-budget video (earthily-mimed rom-com looking like it’s been shot on the flickering, selective colour stock of memory) actually takes place on a couch, but what we see isn’t really love action. It’s the bits in between. The getting-to-know you exercises, the different books and the telling eye-rolls. The separate laptop and TV watching; the bumbling between what two different people want. The sulks and the missed tell-tales; the irritating or opportunistic friends. Eventually and inevitably, it’s the get-outs, fall-outs or peter-outs. (Heh. No pun intended). Yes, it’s a bloke’s record and a man’s-eye view. There’s annoyance and relief (“the divorce and the wedding would have been shotgun”; “if you want headaches then, shit, you can have her”) and Ardamus does delivers a superb low blow in the battle of the sexes when he complains about how “a tampon now becomes puppet strings.”

Still, it seems that Ardamus’ concerns aren’t about who stays on top, but how things are played out (“you can’t play games like that / and not expect to get called on it”). Rather than being coldly profane, he’s endearingly filthy – there’s some marriage-proposal wordplay which is well worth a spin or two. (Hint: it’s all about going down. And exactly where you put the ring. Veil optional.) When he’s not going for double-takes and horse-laughs, he’s also pretty good at pinpointing the sorry farce of how things go wrong (“the small talk that you want to step over: / pushed away at the table – you a leftover,”) and the mutual clinging (“getting mouldy, make-believe it / you need each other, so now trade diseases.”) He knows how two can screw up. The summery light of Soulful’s production textures – bass Rhodes figures and wobbly wipes of soul voice samples, like a cuddlier Wu-Tang sprawling back on a picnic rug – draws out any venom. Whatever had been said and done – if you’d been Ardamus’ girlfriend, I think at least he’d shake your hand at the end of it.

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’
Nocturne Blue (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’
Sub Pop Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download/stream single (released 13th January 2015)

We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’
Bad Elephant Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’
Swim Mountain (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 7th January 2015)

Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’
Ardamus (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 13th January 2015)

Get them from:

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ – Bandcamp or iTunes.
Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’ – Bandcamp; stream-only audio at Soundcloud, stream-only video at YouTube; or order from Sub Pop as part of ‘The Air Conditioned Nightmare’ album.
We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download).
Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’ – stream-only at Soundcloud.
Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download), or buy as part of the ‘I Can’t Replace Me Part 1 Improve’ EP.

Nocturne Blue online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp YouTube

Doldrums online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM

We Are Kin online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

Swim Mountain online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

Ardamus online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

January 2015 – single & track reviews – Giles Babel’s ‘2015’; Shot of Hornets’ ‘Elvis is Dead’; Heylel’s ‘I Talk to the Wind’; Marika Hackman’s ‘Animal Fear’; Tanya Tagaq’s ‘Uja’

10 Jan

Giles Babel: '2015'

Giles Babel: ‘2015’

Happy new year. How’s your irresolution?

Both as year and as song, ‘2015’ is another fitful emergence for Enfield polymath Glen Byford – poet, photographer, digital trinketer, small-time maker and on-off DJ. In the past, he’s put out his original music (anxious water-tank electronica, skinny-wistful glitch tunes, poppy plunderphonics and disillusioned spoken-word bedsit blurts) under the cover names of Hunchbakk or Giles Babel. As of this year, all projects seem to have merged under the Babel label and shrunk down to their most skeletal: or perhaps that’s just how it feels under a January hangover.

Peeling off and discarding his usual quilt of samples, the perpetually uncomfortable Glen distractedly slung this one together on an iPad app while reading and watching television – as if he was working behind his own back and didn’t want to catch himself at it. It’s downbeat, clipped and telegrammatic – budget-tronica pows and zips; a knocking and near-undanceable beat; minimal decoration. Rather than opting for best hopes and public drive, he chooses to sit back and take the poison pill – “Another new year, and another January of good intentions. / Another January of new perceptions, misconceptions that things could change.”

The music, though, seems to disagree – glitching and flipping into a rumble of double-time, or shoving the voice to the back of the drawer like an unwanted sock. Meanwhile, Glen fidgets between hope and cynicism (“This year will be my year – / yeah, just like last year, / and just like every year,”)and represents that year with a brief collage of Playstation chip music, pings and trills, mutters, and incongrous hip hop samples of block party shouts and cheering crowds (“we have a party, right?… I tell you what we do…” Uncertain inspirations reign. Glen pads, tentative and barefoot, around his room.

* * * *

Shot of Hornets: 'Elvis is Dead?'

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead?’

In the time that Glen would take to roll over twice and go back to sleep, Shot of Hornets would have squeezed five quick changes into a song. Apparently not much older than 2014’s Christmas wrapping-paper, this band’s blocky, power-oozing pounce-and-trap tones suggests a much longer-established band: they mingle math-metal’s block-feints with hot funk spaces, thrash riffs with anthemic grunge righteousness, but never entirely pin themselves to anything. When he’s not bursting into hardcore screams, the soulful wreck of singing drummer Conor Celahane’s vocals are reminiscent of gospel-tinged hard-rock heroes King’s X (as are the clotted, meaty guitar wails of his brother Dan), but there’s just as much of Megadeth’s grand irritation in the stew as well.

Elvis is Dead? is a shape-changing dust-off about nothing more specific than uncertainty, vague disappointment and finding the pieces to pick up. The King himself only shows up in a desultory moan about Spotify (so I’m guessing that there’s something being said about the commodification and shrinkage of cultural heroes here), but generally the song sees the band gathering together their compass-bearings and firing off the odd sarcastic broadside. “So here we are now, / no better and no worse off, / in the same world as everyone else,” notes Conor, going on to confess “I have a number of doubts.”

The music is sinewy and jumpy beneath the roaring guitar, and every couple of minutes, there’s a change – a glide of softer melody, a shift into death growls, a barrage of bouncing swipes and screams. “The first prize for gift of the gab / goes straight to you / how d’you feel about that?” Conor yells before the song turns anthemic, finding both the funk and its final feet. (“Turning my back on ignorance, turning my back on selfish people, turning my back on ignorance and lies.”) In a final riff-bout, the rhythm hurtles and rebounds like an evil-minded squash ball. Promising. Let’s see what they do when their concentration settles.

* * * *

Even compared to the other prog juggernauts of the ’70s, King Crimson aren’t given much credit for contributing to the classic songbook. Given the various song-gems lurking in their back catalogue, this is unfair. It probably owes more to Robert Fripp’s unfortunate (and somewhat unfair) reputation as a lofty demon headmaster, verbally withering casual listeners from his lectern before immolating them with sprays of burning guitar sludge – an image which does his Bowie collaborations no harm, but which drags his main band down like a concrete overcoat. The fact remains that outside of slavish interpretations from neo-prog bands, as far as Crimson cover versions go there’s been little more than a speckling.

In the past few years, though, this has changed significantly. In 2011, The Unthanks transformed Crimson’s Starless into a haunting Northumbrian chorale. The year before, Symbolyc One ripped 21st Century Schizoid Man to ominous ribbons and recombined them for Kanye West’s ‘Power’. A year before that, Maynard James Keenan of Tool snarled his way through a pure Schizoid Man cover for The Human Experimente (It was impressive, in an art-metal way, although personally I’m keener on Johnny G’s lo-fi delta-blues version from 1982).

I Talk to the Wind, however, is probably the closest King Crimson has to a standard. A ghostly, semi-existential folk song from their first album, it’s already attracted several reinterpretations. Italian new-wavers Violet Eves did a respectfully mournful and elegant cover in 1985; Camper Van Beethoven and Eugene Chadbourne tore up a hilarious country-punk version in 1987. Probably the most famous version is Opus III’s techno-house take from 1992 (complete with New Romantic Gilliam-cum-Dali fantasy video, mashing up ‘Dune’, ‘Logopolis’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ as Kirsty Hawkshaw’s androgynous glam-waif stalks, slinks and smoulders her way around a desert lodge).

For their own version, Heylel have chosen to recapture some of the original Crimson’s sumptuousness. Serving as a coda to the Red Giant sequence on the epic prog/folk/metal of their ‘Nebulae’ album, their take on I Talk To The Wind is solemn and sealed. The ceremonial pace, the full-scale orchestral tremble, the fathoms of shoegaze-guitar shudder and the solemn, Gilmourian guitar solo render it inter-generationally grand: touching on the string-swoons of Craig Armstrong or Sinatra’s orchestras, the stadium turbulence of ‘The Wall’ and the mournful psychedelic drones of Spiritualized or Slowdive. The video suggests that they’re heading up the live sessions in the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’.

Yet the original song is a small, lonesome beast – lyrical flute, a gentle fug of guitar, a pre-ELP Greg Lake singing the melancholy words with a vulnerable humility that he’d never show again. Heylel singer Ana Batista keeps this in mind. Her vocal might be full of assured, implicit soul-pop power, but she’s never tempted to let rip, never loses sight of that original restraint: and, restored to a waking dream, the song’s allowed to settle over us once again.

* * * *
Despite the underlying wildness of her songwriting, Marika Hackman also appreciates and makes use of the power of restraint. Previous songs such as Bath Is Black and Itchy Teeth have revealed a compelling songwriter with a cool fascination for messy play, for psychological dirt and guilt and the wracked physicality of the uneasy soul. That she doesn’t scream these things out adds to her power. Her cool, polished folk tones deliver her surreal, slithering insights and her deft, subtle analyses with the same thoughtful poise, whether she’s chiding or sharing, empathizing or emphasizing.

Underneath the spooky Latinesque folktronica groove of ‘Animal Fear’ (full of Shankar-ish string wails and spaghetti western gunshots) a menstrual werewolf subtext is swirling. Part ‘Ginger Snaps’ and part ‘Being Human’, it embraces blood and feminity, bandages, and the helpless stink of male terror. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound. / Would you stitch me up or let the blood soak through, / watching my world turn from white to blue?” She sings as if she might be dying; she sings as if to a lover or a brother; but she’s never really pleading, never wholly dependent. She sits inside her transforming body and watches the changes come; watches the fumblings of her companion with the same half-resigned curiosity. “Look into my eyes and convince us both that I’ll last through the night; / I could land on my feet if I tried. / I’ve never jumped a chasm so wide / and made it to the opposite side. / Even now as we’re standing here, / I can see the doubt in your eyes, / I can smell the animal fear.”

The song is a tender, chiding mixture of vulnerability and disappointment, but its observations are shot through with self-awareness. “I was not a heavenly child,” admits Marika, “savage, with a temperament wild.” As the song travels through the changes, it blends into acceptance, a new understanding bleeding through in flashes (“oh, my body trembling… / and teeth… / I won’t bite.. / Sweet too soon, treacherous night.”) We don’t get to find out how this ends, but even as Marika (now more initiate than invalid) murmurs “she calls my name” you’re left with her finely-honed sense of self. Under the fur and nipples, under the wracking pain, an image emerges of a woman who may wander but will never be truly lost.

* * * *

Tanya Tagaq – a Canadian Inuit throat singer – also seems to have some empathy with this kind of lycanthropic humanity. She’s recently delivered a forthright cover of Pixies’ ‘Caribou’ like a tundra bolero with violins and horns, picking up on its occult hints and dreams of a changed, more animal life outside the city and slinging it back with an Inuit twist and the bloody-minded wit of a hard-bitten outdoorswoman. Tanya first came to broader attention a decade ago (thanks to her four-song turn on Björk’s ‘Medúlla’), and has continued to work her way into Western musical awareness via work with the Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton. This kind of collaborator choice suggests a determination to broaden and involve her music rather than dilute it. With last year’s award-winning Canadian success for her ‘Animism’ album, she’s pitched to continue making breakthroughs on her own terms.

‘Uja’ confirms this. A trailer single for a broader overseas release of ‘Animism’, it has something in common with previous deeply-involved folktronic endeavours such as or Foxout! and Mouth Music. It might mate and merge with electronic beats in longstanding worldbeat fashion, but rather than pandering to easy tastes it’s a stirring textural affair, deliberately pitched between ritual and pounding. It feels like an Arctic club night with all of the technology freezing round the edges and only kept functional by fierce body-warmth.

Log-clock ticks, harsh electronic reverb, and a ragged fabric of synth-noise and incisive drumming make up a base and a blanket. Over, under and around this Tanya works in multiple layers of percussive hum-grunts, drawls, gasps, seal barks and harmonic growls. Occasional shamanic interjections in Inuit (sliding in over the top like a wake-up call filtering through sleep) might be terse warnings, defiant fuck-you statements or camouflaged jokes at the expense of Anglo monolinguals. With Tanya being an assertively political artists and performer, they could be any or all. If I’m the butt of the joke, though, I can take it this time. ‘Uja’ made the blood jump in my feet and in my temples.

Giles Babel: ‘2015’
Hunchbakk (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’
Shot of Hornets (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’
Heylel (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single (released 7th January 2015)

Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’
Dirty Hit Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download-only single (released 9th January 2015)

Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’
Six Shooter Records (no barcode or catalogue number
Stream-only single (released 6th January 2015)

Get them from:
Giles Babel: ‘2015’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’ – Bandcamp or iTunes (as part of ‘Nebulae’ album)
Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’ – Soundcloud stream or iTunes (as part of ‘We Slept At Last’ album)
Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’ – Youtube stream; or Six Shooter Records store or iTunes (as part of ‘Animism’ album)

Giles Babel/Hunchbakk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp

Shot of Hornets online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Heylel online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp YouTube

Marika Hackman online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

Tanya Tagaq online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

REVIEW – Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’ single, 2014 (“thumbing his nose at the chillout stations”)

24 May

Dead Hippie Squadron: 'Chilling Spree'

Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’

Skittering through electronic dance music like a grinning cartoon centipede, Julian Michal Zembrowski (a.k.a. Dead Hippie Squadron) has remained tongue-in-cheek so far. He’s dabbled with pranky plunderphonics (as in the George Bush Jr.-baiting Skull And Bones). He’s teased and celebrated dance culture’s mongrelised New Age aesthetics via tracks like Dubsteppenwolf and Interstellar Transhuman Psyche (and via 2013’s ‘Black Magic’ album, a skimming sample-heavy techno grimoire). Most of his artwork consists of spooky, crudely-Photoshopped snapshots of his dog; or of himself posing next to pet-food displays, wearing a kitten mask.

However much he pisses about with themes and imagery, his music has been seriously solid: a more successful mongrelisation. No matter how flighty or parodic their names might be, DHS tracks are filled with cunning, tickling complexity and multiple levels. Power-dive pitch-shifts, plenty of real instrumentation (including throaty ping-bass and glitched-up piano studies), an argumentative bricolage of vocal samples and Julian’s own mumbling lo-fi intrusions. Spliced references abound – a Club Dog take on the Bomb Squad, silly Zappa voices, minglings of Art Of Noise mischief with Meat Beat Manifesto drive, spooked ambient drift and IDM clatter.

Though it’s a good deal breezier than what’s gone before, Chilling Spree is as much of a witty DHS mash-up as ever. I’m guessing that Julian had his radio on and was both cocking his ear to and thumbing his nose at the chillout stations when this one rolled off his mind. Downtempo and smoothly textured, it shimmers around on ever-so-slightly theatrical accordion musings (like an airy Joe Zawinul jazz track at a long-ago summer festival) before rising up to a silvery, tinselly synth-pop crest. The drums sound mostly Lebanese: those jazzy, ahead-of-the-beat Stewart Copeland rattles, the furry rills. Humming in the background, Joe makes his best approximations of a Bollywood chorus.

A lot of those little citizen-of-the-world, coffee shop boxes seem to be being ticked… but the boxes are collapsing under the pen-strokes. That occasional blurting stutter of bass drum stupidity is straight out of electro; the tunefulness is cunningly crumpled. Meanwhile, we’re hearing part of an argument in the next apartment. “I want you to get mad,” burbles a man’s voice – aggressive in a slightly fruity way, and convinced of its own righteousness. “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.” Someone’s not really getting along with the chillout programme – there will be splintered knick-knacks soon. Over in his corner, Julian takes a long cool sip of a dark-amber drink with a complicated name and a couple of ditzy umbrellas, and treats himself to a long, low chuckle.

Dead Hippie Squadron: ‘Chilling Spree’
Dead Hippie Squadron (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 30th April 2014

Get it from:
Free download from Soundcloud

Dead Hippie Squadron online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

January 2014 – EP reviews – Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ (“a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine”)

10 Jan
Bailey Cremeans: 'Celestial City' EP

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’ EP

Here’s what I hold against the all-conquering Coldplay – they write, and perform, the inflated ghosts of songs.

This is not, in itself, a problem. Songs don’t necessarily need clarity – nor do they need to sit foursquare on solid points, like well-built houses. Sometimes all they need to be are eerie, moaning rags blown by on the wind; or they could be dream-pop memory-blurs, a murmur of what might be or might have been felt. Yet with Coldplay you get the worst of both worlds (a thunderous arena-sized vagueness, a song which is all brightly-smudged outsides) and it means that when I draw comparisons between Bailey Cremeans and Coldplay, it sounds as if I’m setting him up.

Much like Chris Martin, the young Missourian’s a piano balladeer at heart. Despite the occasional damascene synth wash or passing organ-cloud, he keeps coming back to the sound of black wood, ivory keys and felt hammers on strings; everything pared back to a soft, lonely, reverberant toll. His rich, slurred high-tenor voice makes him sound like a broken-hearted altar-boy, drowning his sorrows in stolen communion wine. It can sing and shade a lyric all the way down from a heartfelt question into a dissolving liquid texture. It suggests that, like the Coldplay boys, he’s copped a listen to dream-pop’s narcotic meld of boy/girl, solid/disintegrating – but unlike Coldplay, Bailey never lets a song run away into outright vapour. These songs have body – they use the heft and strength of the piano. Sometimes they slump against its laquered wood, desperate and bereft, gripping for dear life. Sometimes they bloom out of it, their faith absolute – “you, my stars, my sun. / You, my lover, the one.”

Five songs. Five songs of the kind of reflective, raw-boned feeling that’s increasingly anathema to today’s meticulous pop. Tides is the kind of grief-stricken torch song I’d’ve cried myself empty over when I was seventeen: a slowly burning sailing ship carried on gliding multi-tracked harmonies, as Bailey struggles to hold his fractured memories and dignity together in song. “The tides rushed in. / Your hands were on my skin. / If you had told me then I wouldn’t have believed it… / Was just a sad, confused boy. / And you got what you wanted from me – / and now I’m free.”

Bailey himself is still only in his teens. It’s tempting to hype him as a ghostly, spontaneous child-man, bleeding himself out on every passing thorn – something self-spun out of a faded diva gown, who creeps quietly into abandoned theatres to carol over the wreck of a concert grand. Unfortunately, too many bits of truth get in the way. Theres’ the bright and bubbly Bailey whom you can track down on Facebook; those Lana Del Rey and Ellie Goulding covers on his Soundcloud page; the stint playing keyboards for an American Idol contestant… It’s hard to project lonesome Gothic fantasies onto someone when he networks so cheerfully. You end up wondering how the little bastard has the right to sound this sad – or to sound as if he knows so much – whenever he starts to sing his own songs, putting all of the high-school smiles aside and becoming the naked soul who calls on the stars themselves for comfort. “Orion, this air is wearing thin / and I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been. / Won’t you save me? / Won’t we burn bright? / Orion, I’m losing this fight – / promise I won’t be alone tonight.”

And then you don’t question – you’re just glad that he does sound that way. Great pop music’s just perverse like that.

Well, if you’re looking for songs of preening, there’s always Rufus Wainwright: and, while you’re at it, forget Coldplay. Bailey’s songs have more in common with that skeletal, devastatingly sad album of piano crooners which Paul Buchanan salvaged from the wreck of The Blue Nile a couple of years ago. You could throw in some other names, credible or otherwise – the Christine McVie of Songbird; the early, pre-glitz Elton John at his most open; a freshly-bereaved Francis Dunnery overlapping crafted pop and primal howl on ‘Man’. These are men and women who bring a helpless and beautiful tone to those songs when they sing them, as if the emotion is being flooded out of them in an soft and unending surge. Bailey sings lines like “face to face / This story is ending, we’re free in our hearts. / Wounds are mending, we’re never apart / No tears in your eyes, my love. / No tears in your eyes, my love,” with the same blend of heart-torn sorrow and fervent faith; each turned in on the other.

It’s not often that you get to hear someone who can sing into the core of simple words like this the way that Bailey does: illuminating them but making them bleed, putting flesh onto the old lines and making them ache again. He deserves huge success. I just hope that, if he gets it, it doesn’t hollow him out.

Bailey Cremeans: ‘Celestial City’
Bailey Cremeans (self released, no catalogue numer or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 6th January 2014

Get it from:

Free or name-your-price at Bandcamp, Freemp3fan.com or Soundcloud

Bailey Cremeans online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

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:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Kramies online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

March 2013 – EP reviews – Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’ (“picking carefully through detailed instrumental weaves”)

19 Mar
Henry Fool: 'The Free Henry Fool Download EP'

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue; and all in one package. Henry Fool (resurgent with the ‘Men Singing‘ album after over a decade of woodshedding) are offering a free look at what they do and what they’ve done. A four-minute edit of a rolling juggernaut from the new album; an exclusive, keyboard-led instrumental; two tracks lifted from the band’s 2001 debut album.

While the older tracks (touted via their expansive Steven Wilson mix) might pull in some attention, Henry Fool offer plenty on their own account. Like a number of their contemporaries (such as Sanguine Hum, with whom they currently share drummer Andrew Booker) the band pick carefully through the detailed instrumental weaves of progressive rock left behind by the likes of Soft Machine and Genesis during the early ’70s. Admittedly, they’ve also got the odd thing in common with the sometimes inspired, sometimes benighted neo-proggers of the 1980s. Keyboard whiz Stephen Bennett was one; while guitar puzzler and sometime singer Tim Bowness (better known for no-man) had his own mid-’80s brush with the genre via a bellowing one-night stand with Hertfordshire pompsters Gothique. However, the Fool’s music is churned and tinted by connections and cross-talk with jazz, Brian Eno, Cambridge, avant-garde texture loops and post-rock, making it a subtler and more diverse stew.

For the most part Henry Fool are reappraising that old-school prog fabric, re-cutting it via thinking shaped by four more decades of musical developments, step-backs and parallels. At no point does it feel that they’re simply replicating the old vintage – still less watering it down. It’s more as if they’re inhabiting it; as if they’d moved into an old house, given the interiors a fresh coat of paint, and are now at the stage where they’re hanging bright new pictures and squinting at them, trying to see if they fit with the lines of the beams. Plucked from ‘Men Singing’, the four-minute edit of Everyone In Sweden (trimmed down from its original fourteen) keeps much of its vigour and its cunning ancestry: slow-motion Soft Machine keyboard cascades married to the rapid aggressive wobble of a 1976 Genesis groove, layered with scribbling synth lines which scurry over the structure like a gang of weasels. While clipped, wrangling guitars (part-post-punk, part-post-rock) hack against the smoothness, the edit brings out aspects less evident in the long version – the chippy funk in Peter Chilvers’ fretless bass, or the ghost-train lean of the chords.

As you might expect from the punning title, the Bennett-led A Canterbury Scene (exclusive to the EP) reveals more Soft Machine elements. Centred around the brittle tones of electric piano – wah-ed and echoed in the style of late ’60s Miles Davis bands – it gradually shifts to more Egg-like territories collided with grand Yes string parts. Lurking in the shadows of pomp, it edges its way around the outside, never setting a foot in the brasher spotlight. Written in a dicey 25/8, Poppy Q (its counterpart from those 2001 tracks) is a careful pick-through of electric piano, like a tiptoe through a prog minefield. One minimal keyboard figure arches over odd chords and a faux-Mellotron counterpoint, before the whole band step up into a stately twitching rhythm, keyboards interplaying with a bass part which pulls its shape from the original piano line.

Heartattack (also from the 2001 album) is the only track on which Tim Bowness unleashes his whispered, impeccably English spring-water croon. It’s also the song that best shows how Henry Fool differ from the standard prog approaches. While so many bands in the genre expand everything from ballad to suite into a mass of crammed lyrics and grand significance, Tim opts for a quick peep-show look into a life more ordinary, with a jolt of inner panic. “Stone-in-love and lost again, / you’re walking through the fields. / Summer fresh, your life’s a mess, / you’re wearing down your heels. / Don’t look back, / you’ll have a heart attack.” Thirty-five syllables of narrative, and that’s it. The rest is your own guess, to be worked out against a backdrop of clover-burst keyboard chords, discreet-but-urgent guitar peals and clenching rhythms. Prog balladry from the leanest side, in which the musical scenery is as much the story as the words are, but in which the delicacy asserts a refusal to hammer home the meaning.

Henry Fool: ‘The Free Henry Fool Download EP’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 8th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
Homepage Facebook

REVIEW – Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’ single, 2013 (“a five-minute garland”)

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

Damn, but latter-day post-rock bands can be dour. Something renders so many of them dry, or scrunched up into a kind of passive-aggressive melodrama. Too many of them belong to the post-Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky faction – increasingly hackneyed building blocks of minimal, stilted guitar arpeggios, building to a fuzzed-up tumble of noise via a gradual crescendo. I’ve heard it too often now. It’s like watching the same slow-motion fireworks every night – every time, the same chilly histrionics.

Perth sextet Apricot Rail, trailing this new single for their second album ‘Quarrels’, manage to avoid that disappointment. As ever, they bring some of the original post-rock enchantment back as well as plenty of enchantment of their own. Admittedly, on a first hearing Basket Press is more conventionally post-rocky than their previous outing (2011’s ‘Surry Hills’ EP, in which whirring warmth and a sun-dappled shuffling of approaches gave their music the vivid craft of a beautiful set of handmade holiday postcards). The band have even returned to those pluck/build/fuzz/hallucinate ingredients I’ve just been savaging, and there’s less of the generous instrument-swapping that’s freshened their approach in the past.

In spite of this, Apricot Rail manage to avoid drabness and predictability. Basket Press is a five-minute garland of distinct and graceful stages. Part summery harvest-time music, part rippling classical suite, part affectionate conversation, it’s bound together with a palpable friendliness. First there’s a lone guitar sketching out slow American-folk arpeggios with a touch of echo (the chords, save for one crucial falling note, reworking the floating Pink Floyd melancholia of Us And Them). Then, as woodwind player Mayuka airs a fuzzy flute trail of sustained notes, there are three. Guitarists Ambrose, Jack and Justin strum, curl and gently chisel out firmer chords over a cosy fuss of drums, as if they were rounding off a carved scroll. From this, a move to that on-the-one post-rock downstrum – then, as two guitars mix a light picking of melody with pinging counter harmonics, Mayuka’s flute wakes into a twining, rising counterpoint. Bass and drums move in via a low dotting – a patter, and a dialogue.

All along, the feeling is of a mutual binding, of teamwork, all six musicians facing inwards to share the exchange. The music slips through phases like breathing, like the momentum of thoughts; like assured working hands shifting their grip on a gardening hoe. A rare and understated joy wells through it, passing hints. In many respects, all of this is moving to a similar pulse as that mid-’70s sweep of world-folk and chamber-jazz melanged into being by Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner and their colleagues in Oregon. As the lowest-pitched guitar stirs a new folkier rhythm into the band circle, Mayuka responds with sweet McCandless-esque clarinet curves. Upping the ante, a detailed guitar study – a Mediterranean sparkle – works its way in over rising supportive drums. Another guitar, sitting in the mid-register, embroiders sweet minimal rosettes of lazy cycling notes.

Eventually the band builds through a mass of roaring pedalwork and noise into the kind of land-sliding, sleeting mass of guitar-descend which we’re used to as that conclusive Mogwai-tradition flourish. This time, though: it’s been prepared for. Rather than the expected ragged glory of a ruined Sysiphus-bound downwards into gravity’s clutches, it’s a payoff – a burst of energy from what the musicians have put into the song and stored there.

For the curious – a basket press is a wine-making device, one used for over a thousand years. I can see the connection. Harvest arrives.

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th January 2013

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

October 2012 – EP reviews – Leah Banks’s ‘Sincerely’ (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

18 Oct

Leah Banks: 'Sincerely'

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’

Someone you love. Just the thought of them gives you a little catch, right there, under the chest; like a hard kiss or a light blow, reminding you that even when it’s going right, love is never entirely safe.

Devotion makes us vulnerable. You’re never more than a moment from the topple or the stumble, from the interrupted step to the full-force sprawl. That’s what Leah Banks’ songs are like. They don’t need much amplification beyond their feather-soft country-folk shapes and the superb, subtle brush-drum work that stokes them (more like the breath and sinews of a jazz master than the shed-whack of honky-tonk). They’ve got their own transporting power, their own risk, wrapped up in the hush.

Riverside, the first song on Leah’s ’Sincerely’ EP, has the panting pitch of the Song of Solomon. A coil of eroticism rises up like a sacrament via a thudflutter rush of muted acoustic guitar, heartbeat bass and swimming cello. The words are breathless and obsessive – “I can’t wait to see you, to look upon your face / I’ll dive into your adoring eyes and hang on every word you say. / And I can’t wait to feel you, to be held in your arms – / one hand resting on the small of my back, and the other round my neck.”

Leah’s delivery is a tense urgent moan, stretching and bending phrases, pushing against the metre as if it were clothes that suddenly felt too hot and too tight. There’s a touch of Sinead O’Connor in her fervour as she rides the buried complexities of female desire, poised between a caress and a snap, between devotion and greedy hunger. “Lover, please hurry, / I’m not sure how long I’ll last, / waiting here by the riverside, / my breath is wasted on the wind and waves, / when it should be dwelling in a kiss… / I’ll press into your chest as the wind blows my dress / and steal warmth from your presence.” Towards the end, there’s a little lacuna of drop-away. The song vanishes for a second, then gusts back into place. “The water is rushing, and without you here / I think I might fall in,” Leah warns. There’s been a change in the climate. Ignore it at your own risk.

That hint of the Song of Solomon lingers in the mind: while Leah’s own spiritual beliefs are never stated, all three of the songs on ‘Sincerely’ could have a religious cast. The grit and carnality in them don’t have to be a barrier. If we’re following this line of thought, consider the steamy metaphor in the ecstacy of Saint Theresa, or, closer to now, Al Green singing “Belle – oh, it’s you I want, but it’s Him I need.” The blend of the holy and the earthbound-but-urgent is no new thing – it’s what lets gospel tug at the hearts of secular people, and what lends that numinous shiver to country, to blues and indeed to anything which reaches out of the mess in the hope of finding something higher. Leah herself is telling without telling, although ambiguous clues flicker through the songs.

In contrast to the feverish pulse of longing in Riverside, The Only One is a confessional. “I wish I could stop my eyes from wandering / and keep my mind from its hungering,” Leah sings, in a regretful insomniac sigh. “Listen, the struggle makes me weak – / now I can hardly stand on my feet.” A tattoo of snare and acoustic guitar sets the reflective pace, while a mandolin (and an occasional brush of banjo) draws slow, colourful paper hoops around the chorus. At the kernel, the song might be about keeping faith, and the sometime bitterness of submitting to it: “How long will I drink from this cup? / Maybe I should just give up, / give up trying to fight it out, / give up trying to live without doubt.”

At one point Leah craves to return to a time “before our hearts were involved”, suggesting a lovers wrangle; yet throughout the song’s soft bourbon haze she leaves the surface meaning blurred. It could be about straying from religious devotion; it could just be a lonely kitchen-table song as Leah tries to scrape herself up off the floor one wretched and heart-sore night. There’s reproach in here, and somewhere there’s a reckoning to be had; but it’s never quite clear who’s to blame, or even if she’s blaming anyone. “And how does it feel to be the only one standing? / and how does it feel to be the only one left?” she sings, with a touch of asperity, before settling on a conclusion which weaves not through what’s happened, but through what’s going to happen next. “Lets go back to the beginning, / bring it back to the start. / I won’t do it again now – / this time I’ll do it right.”

Blame is easier to pin down in the final song on ‘Sincerely’: its title track. Carried along on a light and rolling road-pulse of guitar (which, along with the restless jazzy jabs of vocal, echoes Joni Mitchell’s reflective road-burned floats on ‘Hejira’), Leah holds her own hands up in admission. “I know I said I would, but what if I can’t?” she asks. “Sometimes I say things without even thinking, / sometimes I jump the gun.” In flight from somewhere, in flight to something, honesty is being pressed out of her with every roll of the wheels; although she doesn’t claim to have cured her failings. In her apology, there’s a blunt statement of self-knowledge. “There’s a sinking in my heart, / I know that I have failed you. / I just didn’t see it coming / and you never warned me, / so, / well, I could say I’m sorry, and I would be sincere. / I could try harder next time, but I would still be here.”

Even with guilt admitted and delivered, and even hoping to be saved and forgiven by love, there’s still grit in Leah; enough for her to throw her own challenge out into the confession. Once again, the lines blur in the song – lover, saviour, self. “I know that you love me – so where are you now? she “Make yourself known – / no, make yourself heard.” Perhaps she’s hoping, like Jacob, to encounter her angel on the road and to wrestle some meaning out of him. I suspect that she won’t settle for less. A woman of heart and mind, by any measure.

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’
Inus Records (no catalogue or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 16th October 2012

Get it from:
Noisetrade

Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) online:
Homepage Homepage Facebook Tumblr

REVIEW – Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’ and ‘Secret’s Safe’ singles, 2012 (“a more interesting proposition”)

16 Jul

Evolutia: 'Objects Aside'

Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’

Beyond their knack for epic, florid rock melodramas, Muse-style (as heard on their 2010 EP ‘Fear’s Fall‘), there’s more to Evolutia than attempting to hone a journey into the heart of arena-rock. On the surface, Andrew Barnhart and Stephen Cameron are clean-cut multi-instrumental prog boys, verging on AOR. Underneath… not so much. Their love of dynamics, electronic fuzz and dubstep; their occasional digressions into piano-and-laptop sketchpaddery; the suspicion that some of their more outré and full-blooded vocal moments are more cabaret than rock club… all of these things make Evolutia a more interesting proposition.

In the run-up to a long-delayed debut album, they’ve popped out – within a single week – two syncopated new songs owing more to Ben Folds or to prime-period Stevie Wonder than to the shriller rock noises of Muse, Mew or Queen. Staunch prog fans may smell a rat – personally, I smell flowering. It sounds as if Evolutia have learned to please themselves, rather than just expectation; and in the process have upped their game a few notches. Hooray to that.

Out of the two, it’s Objects Aside – with its fancy footwork and vein of darkness – that bears the resemblance to Ben Folds. Stephen jags and dominates with a syncopated, flouncing curl of piano lick. Andrew tack-hammers it with a bass guitar line that’s part Rush, part snap-funk. Both of them fence around the rhythm; occasionally, they haul in guest drummer Zach Branff, gang up on the rhythm altogether, pin it against the ropes and pummel it with Uzi beats. Kneading furiously on a bass synth,Andrew half-sighs, half-growls the lyrics. “We take what we get, climb to the top of it / Throwing objects aside to the left and the right / ‘Til we see the light.”

I’m not sure whether all of this is about greed or about looking for something better than toys’n’favours. It fits both. There’s a tangle of frustrated persuasion working its way through the song, too (“It’s useless, I won’t give up – you’ll come around.”) Later on, Andrew and Stephen share the singing on an aspirational bridge, assuring us that “this darkness will never come, you’ll see that we’ll rest in peace. / Your heart’s buried in secrets that you’ll uncover eventually.” Briefly, the lighters come out. Mostly, though, this is about dancing aggressively, up on your toes, on unfriendly ground.

Evolutia: 'Secret's Safe'

Evolutia: ‘Secret’s Safe’

I made the mistake of listening to Secret’s Safe on headphones in the dark. Within the first forty seconds I jumped up, thinking that I was being burgled. This song has the best creaky-door sample since Thriller – unexpected, sliding mockingly through your head, ending in a sly lock-snick. It sits edgily against what’s otherwise a bouncy, funky shuffle, a latter-day Higher Ground. It renders it suspicious, as if someone was rifling your mind while you danced.

It’s certainly a ridiculously danceable song. Andrew’s laddering virtuosic bass-guitar riff skips and spirals around a pulsing tower of synth bass, while Stephen’s crunched-up electric piano stabs and bounces underneath. It’s also Stephen singing, in his clarion tenor, about trust and exchange. “You got something that you’re hiding; you’ve gotta make me believe. / Showed you mine now show me yours – / stolen whispers are the key.”

Actually, trust doesn’t come into it. This is all about coercion and manipulation, and it grows ever more slightly mocking as it swings onward. Stephen shifts in and out of character, between wheedler and withholder – “Promise not to tell / There’s nothing like a little pressure / You know I’ve kept it well / Lips are sealed forever.” While sometimes the song delves into the pressures of keeping things unspoken (“trying to get back the beats your heart skipped”) the payoff is power. “Your secret’s safe with me,” Stephen sings, before adding, in an aside “(She’s got nowhere to go.)” Stealth breaking-and-entering.

Evolutia: ‘Objects Aside’ & ‘Secrets Safe’
Bandcamp
Download-only singles
Released: 5th & 9th April 2012 (respectively)

Buy them from:
BandcampObjects Aside and Secret’s Safe. Both songs will be available on Evolutia’s debut album ‘Arm Yourself’.

Evolutia online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp YouTube

LOOKBACKS – Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ song-suite 1985/1988, released 2010 (“as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture”)

14 Jun

While some of her work has been set to music, Ursula LeGuin is best known for her reconfigurations of science fiction, fantasy and myth. The narratives of her stories sheathe cunning, detailed challenges to race, to gender and to the ways in which one can tell a story. More recently her tales have shaded into a kind of conceptual ethnography in order to build stories almost entirely out of explorations of culture.

Less well known, LeGuin’s poetry initially seems like a different beast. Close examination sees the same preoccupations written in microcosm. Sparse and spare, the words in her poems are the tips of long quills of implied experience; to be drawn out and savoured. In these mid-’80s recordings, Californian composer Elinor Armer has taken five disparate Ursula LeGuin poems and (working in a stark, economical style as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture) whittled a musical housing for them.

Assuming that it’s a song-cycle at all, ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ is a loose one. The poems are taken from three separate volumes spanning thirteen years, and the interconnections in LeGuin’s text are tenuous. There are fleeting references to bodies of water. A falcon links two songs; extending this, references to birds link a full three. Unspecified protagonists (all of them apparently female) are observed via brief passing notes and at various ages, generally in relation to a loaded past or a fervently desired future. The obscure bones of the title transform and recur in the shape of crustacean shells or as feathers or teeth; possibly even in the irreducible state of the lean phrases making up the poems.

Armer, in turn, faithfully honours LeGuin’s verbal economy. Her music stops, starts and leaves prolonged expectant spaces as she delicately feathers the text. For ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ she uses a quintet: flute, violin, piano and percussion set plus Wendy Hillhouse’s stooping mezzo-soprano. Armer keeps her own compositional liveliness on a tight leash. Nonetheless, she brings her particular yen for musical illustration to the table (as well as leavening touches of humour and compassion). Initially building up from a reserved, near-atonal sketchpad, Armer still works in tinges of modern America, ancient Greece and traditional Japan. Direct musical themes are hidden in favour of attentive, close-bound responses to the emotional charges of the poems. Ultimately, it’s this that provides the cycle’s unifying factor.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Anger’

In the first piece, The Anger, a young woman’s frustrations burst out. She’s trapped between worlds of experience – one outgrown and chafing, the other filled with promise but sealed away). Rira Watanabe’s chivvying violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi’s piano accents usher in a flare of rage, with the first line sung against tolling, breaking percussion: “Unlock, unlock! / So long a silence / needs shouting / and latches smashed / and the damned hinges broken…” In airier drifts, the middle section dreams welcome and ceremony – “open air, the wine / poured out, the hands / empty: and slowly, / grave, straight, smiling, / to step across the threshold.” It feeds the eventual conclusion, in which that earlier impotent frustration becomes a clear, confident command.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Child on the Shore’

The Child on the Shore is made up of a split dialogue between a daughter and her dead mother. Neither address each other directly: in the poem, their communications are carried by intermediaries of the natural world, by song, by death itself. The entire piece is a bleached landscape of bereavement rituals. Esther Landau’s lyrical flute-playing embodies the elements into which propitiatory gifts are flung – a ring into the sea, a feather into the wind.

In turn, Hillhouse gives voice to two exhausted threnodies, one for each woman. The child’s voice is angry with grief, demanding return of both tokens and parent. The mother’s is windblown and accepting; a thank-you for the gifts, a desire to soothe. Yet there is no confirmation that this message of comfort has been heard. The intermediaries themselves remain silent throughout. Armer divides the two voices with a bleak, unyielding curve of violin melody. Behind them, abrupt traces of marimba and piano stray and hit like bruising raindrops.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Footnote’

Footnote briefly enters the thoughts of a solitary woman. It’s unclear whether she’s an exile or a recluse, whether she’s young or old. Her hints at an aristocratic background could be no more than whim, or the last vestige of hauteur. Regardless of this, she finds kinship with nature in all of its wrack, decay and continuance – not just through the heraldic glamour of the falcons, but via the cast-up seaweed, the scavengers, the passing insects and the weather.

Armer treats this cultivated loneliness (and acceptance of the world) in kind. Still, slow and minimal in nature, the music is pierced and enlivened by visitants. After a drifting reflective start, a shift to a dissonant emphasis and Erica Johnson’s rattling wood percussion greets the naming of “crabs / prancing in the shadow / of fierce, stranded seaweed” while the appearance of bats is accompanied by violin and flute.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Hard Words’

In Hard Words, Armer abandons melody altogether and goes for a plosive, theatrical hayashi approach. Hillhouse speaks and swoops LeGuin’s words like a Noh theatre chanter, springing the rhythms in the poetry, which itself abandons all but the most essential nuggets of phrase in an oblique look at the failings of human language. “Hard words / lockerbones / this is sour ground / dust to ashes / sounds soft / hard in the mouth / as stones / as teeth / Earth speaks birds / airbones / diphthongs.” The instrumentalists respond with zings of percussion; with tongued flutes, piano fragments and instrumental noises (including a short resigned squall of violin like the last gasp of a fax machine). On the final word, a lacuna of mingled flute and gong ends in a sub-audible skirl of breath. Relief and release.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘For Katya’

The songs conclude with the wounded, optimistic For Katya. A muted and slender melody – seasoned by anger – fleshes out LeGuin’s words, which reinterprets the struggles for control between men and women in the form of a stark fairytale built from halting, frustrated syntax. “They always shut us up in towers / ever since once upon a…” Comfort arrives in the same mythic form, as a transformation of both sentence and outlook: “So we learn alone there / arts of unlocking / Till the old terrors / shed wolfskin and stand brothers…”

It’s an exhausted comfort: yet it’s indomitable, a long parched resistance holding out for a sane outcome. As Hillhouse sounds out the last word, a capella, its pitch hangs unresolved; waiting for the future to catch up with the hope.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’
Private release
Download tracks
Released: 2010 (recorded 1985/1988)

Buy it from:
Free download from Ursula LeGuin’s homepage.

Elinor Armer online:
Homepage Facebook

Ursula LeGuin online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’ single, 2012 (“waiting to be wrong-footed”)

6 Jun
Cceruleann: 'Fucking Wind'

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’

In love and on the road: it should be sweet. Instead, you’re continually waiting to be wrong-footed.

First, there’s the music – electronic dream-pop of a multiple-nostalgic kind. The tune is balmy. The blipping synth lines, the crude keyboard beats, the hiccuping voice cut-ups are all from ’80s sample pop. That dazed, wet-gossamer female vocal and the smudge of stretched-out organ goo (swirling from speaker to speaker), draws inspiration from shoegazery and similar blissful-nauseous mid-’90s psychedelia. The puffed hints of melodica and the yawns of bass swim in from first-generation post-punk; or perhaps I’ve just been drawn into the dream, and am imagining them.

Then there’s the song itself. A girl in a car, savouring the moment, coos the simplest, most sugary lover’s line. “It’s OK, baby, don’t worry / ‘cos we’re driving with the summer breeze in my face.” That’s it. There are four more words in the entire lyric, one of which is “ethereal.”

Finally, lurking around the corner like a mugger-in-waiting, there’s that blunt instrument of a title. It’s already plastered all over the cover art. You keep expecting it to come down hard and smash the reverie. Or, alternatively, for everything to turn metaphysical and carnal as the gale hits, the cuteness ends, the car pulls over and everyone starts rutting in the back seat.

For something so light and fluffy on the surface, Cceruleann’s debut single throws up plenty of confusion. Even more subtext gets plastered in when you discover that the band are a brother-and-sister duo (instrumentalist Elliot, singer Marilyn). If I were you, I’d do my best to ignore that for now. In some ways, that’s easy to carry out: though moving together in musical step, Elliott and Marilyn sound as if they’re musing in different worlds. Along the way, some of Marilyn’s words are caught up and shredded, then tossed like happy litter in the wake of the tune. As for that title, it never arrives in the song. The f-bomb remains undetonated. Have they scammed us? Did they just get sick of their own song and punish it with a sarcastic name?

Or perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe the real story is about the other person who’s out on that drive – perhaps listening to this endless burble of contentment and seething, their knuckles clenched white on the wheel or wrapped tight around the knees, wondering once again why it’s so impossible to see how another person sees, to feel their feelings, comprehend their tastes… even to understand how you can get through a single day of being with them anymore. Maybe the romance of the playful summer wind is lost along with that. As it teases and strokes at cheekbones, perhaps on the other side of the car it’s whipping petulantly at a cowlick; and while fringe blows aggressively into eyes, and as love heads into the sour spot for good, perhaps something vile is being muttered into that uncaring breeze.

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’
Holy Underground Recordings/Bandcamp
Download-only single
released 14 May 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cceruleann online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

June 2012 – demo reviews – The Many Few’s assorted Soundcloud demos (“as cosily misshapen as candle stubs”)

1 Jun

The Many Few don’t exactly do precision. One guitarist slops acoustic rhythms around like a drunken waiter losing control of a tray. The other doodles away cheerfully, or hiccups free-improv dribbles in a corner. Sometimes both of them land in the same song. Meanwhile, two singers are jostling together: Johnnynorms (he of the small, dry voice) and Melissa Wyatt (who aims for creamy breathiness and theatrical intimacy but ends up kittenish and blowsy). The drummer pins everything together, but worries and wobbles over anything more complex than a mid-paced chuff-along. The bass guitar stumbles vaguely after the other instruments, distracted by a nearby jazz gig.

Unless they’re deliberately deconstructing their pop, or unless they record only while cheerfully drunk (both of which are possible), The Many Few are a thorough fucking shambles, and I think they know it. Do you think I’m going to bury them for it? Hardly. That tumbledown, lopsided indie-pop stagger is integral to their approach and charm. You can toss in those usual Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart comparisons (you know, the ones applied to almost any wayward indie band who ramble outside the beat a little) but The Many Few are far too friendly and floppy for that. In their cheery, ramshackle way, they sound more like ’90s nouveau-skifflers Zuno Men… if the latter had been stuck in a house-share with a teenaged Kate Bush and spent most of their time half-cut.

You could easily imagine them all sprawled over a tatty sofa – arguing over the washing-up, loving each other and picking over the usual daily scams of living together. You can imagine them hurrying off, at any opportunity, to the local pub for the kind of lock-in which ends in howls of laughter and wrestlings over a battered old board game.  I wouldn’t want to be the one to try getting them organized. It would only spoil it. This scraggy comfort must have been all over the making of this enjoyable batch of songs, which they call “armchair surrealisms” and I’d call animated scrawls, as cosily misshapen as candle stubs.

On the irresistible Catching, Johnnynorms repeatedly starts off on a story, only for Melissa to barge in and take it over. As all of the stories are about naïve men making comically doomed attempts to win over smarter women, this is only appropriate. Wonky high-life guitar ambles around like a cheery woodpecker as Melissa teases “I’m sorry but she had a child when she was young / and she’s not catching that from you”, before announcing her intent of fleecing some other poor bloke for all he’s got.

The upbeat Sweep and Swipe (part genial commuter-belt revolt, part kid’s TV song) bumbles through work, procrastination and rebellion in a very British jumble. There’s a sense of urgent feelings swaddled up and hidden under a brittle, chirpy exterior: something which this song shares with another, Typical British Weather (itself tipsy, woozy and smiling a crooked smile in the rain). It’s left to the messy, chunky power-punk of Meet my Clone to sideline the shambling and the evasions via dirty guitar, a tight irritated momentum and the band’s most ingenious idea. Johnnynorms and Melissa wrangle over the doppelganger relationships of people grown close in appearance and habit, but not feelings: “Eye to eye you’d think we were the same. / But it’s me that feels all the guilt, and rage, and love, and shame.”

Past the 18th Town is entirely different. A haunting acoustic dirge touching (in the briefest of sketches) on transient people, it follows them as they move from rented room to rented room. As old roots fade and new roots become stunted, they lose their ability to recognize and return love. Tingles of guitar harmonics tickle the nerves while the band capture a world of disengagement in simple, telling lines like “send the letters on, / send them back unknown.” It suggests that the ghost of a cold and lonely wind, blowing under that gap in the door, sometimes haunts The Many Few’s sprawling house party.

The Many Few: assorted Soundcloud demos
Soundcloud (no catalogue numbers)
Free download tracks
Released: various dates in 2011

Get it from:
Free download from Soundcloud

The Many Few online:
HomepageMySpace Soundcloud

Glowing House: ‘Taming Lions’ single (“beating time on a tumbledown shack”)

12 May

Out at the helm of Glowing House, Steve Varney is raw, ruffled, hollering and sounds born to run. This is just as well. Trouble is hot on his tail. “I don’t think there is a gauge that will save me – / somehow they overpower gunpowder, like it’s easy…”

The head-up single for the second Glowing House album, Taming Lions is all about the incipient, savage disaster that’s just about to crash down on Steve’s head. The band’s fall-apart folky acoustic noise catches the feeling perfectly. They sound like the kind of band which survives credit crunches, small nuclear wars and the collapse of most of the functional parts of civilization. You can see yawing flashes of light straight through the gaps in the barefoot, wind-tossed rhythms.

Besides the cluck and clunk of Steve’s banjo, the song’s a superb stomping wobble of school piano, Salvation Army brass, foggy rasps of accordion and dirty cello, and someone beating time on a tumbledown shack with a handful of big sticks. (I checked back on this – it’s actually a third of the band playing on church pews. Talk about muscular Christianity…) At the top of his carrying, celebratory bruise of a voice, Steve’s making it quite clear that he’s stuck in a rigged and increasingly dangerous game. “They gave me a ten-minute head start, and they started counting. / I need a top-notch hiding spot I can hide out in. / Don’t be fooled they’ll give you space in the chase for a reason – / they wait for the perfect minute to stop the healing.”

Off he hurtles; firing a cartoon blunderbuss for cover, and to no great effect. They keep coming. As the song bounces on, there are more than a few suggestions that what Steve’s actually fleeing are his own demons, bouncing after him like a tin can tied to his ankle. Not much hope in escaping that way. But the sheer vigor of the band – of the song itself – suggests that they’re people who thrive on this kind of peril and the energy it kicks up. This is enormous fun. Keeping one step ahead of disaster rarely sounded so lively.

Glowing House: ‘Taming Lions’
Bandcamp
download-only single
released: 8th May 2012

Get it from:
Free download from Bandcamp

Glowing House online:

Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

March 2012 – EP reviews – StillWife’s ‘StillWife EP’ (“in love with the slow, subtly adult pains that they sing about”)

16 Mar
StillWife: 'StillWife' EP

StillWife: ‘StillWife’ EP

Be wary of barristas, especially in airy little cafés in quiet back-streets. They feed you your coffee, they bring you your cake and cookies – in return, you ignore them and any of their own dreams. While you’re unwinding with the brew, relaxing or kvetching, gossiping or confessing, they’re stuck there with the crunch of the grinder, at a loose end. On quiet days, you’re probably the entertainment. If they happen to be writers of some kind, one day one of your stories might come bubbling back up.

As it happens, two members of StillWife still put in time as coffee-shucking barristas back in the band’s Melbourne hometown. Have any washed-up conversations washed up into their songs? I’m just saying. Or is it the coffee talking?…

There’s little that’s caffeinated about StillWife’s debut EP. Apart from those moments when one of the guitarists drives in a power-chord, a pointed solo or a burst of white noise (generally with the reluctance of a man drilling a necessary hole in the porch) it’s primarily about detailed acoustic fingerpicking and sleepy man-and-woman harmonies. There’s a soft, dusty touch of country music here. There’s something of Grandpappy in those guileless dollops of antique synth tone, like bubbles in the sun. There’s a little of Low in the semi-hush, as if they’d recorded it all on a distant Australian veranda. The drums are played by someone who’s so good, so subtle and egoless, he becomes the invisible springs that hold in place the band’s buoyant way with disillusionment.


 
Of the two primary singers, Dylan has the stoic country clarity of a youthful Willie Nelson while Moat’s she-panther tones capture the langourous, wounded and incurably passionate feel of both Stevie Nicks and Briana Corrigan. As for the songs, they’re about awkwardnesses and aches rather than grand passions. Their stock-in-trade is the ambiguities you don’t grow out of; the kind that make you mumble (as StillWife do in Olympia) “I know it’s wrong but I can’t bring myself to say I’m sorry. / You’re all I want, but I can’t say that I’m not feeling worried.” Both Moat and Dylan sound as if they’re in love with the slow, subtly adult pains that they sing about. Each of their voices comes twined around with the murmuring sounds of various bandmates singing along: as close as lovers, and sounding like straying echoes.

 
The EP’s centrepiece, Out To Sea, begins life as a duet of unraveling and entwining love and goes somewhere more apocalyptic. Moat sings cryptically about fire, about names and letting go, while from the second verse, Dylan’s muttering a grim counterpoint – “searching for the meaning in closing fires – / I’m calling on awful writers – / I’m taking pleasure in my own undoing.” As the song winds on, Moat launches meaningful non-sequiturs to wash up on the beach (“The youngest child, it don’t feel right, / it never will – he’s lost his light,”) while Dylan circles in despair (“and there is no me and there is no you; / and if there is no us, then there is no love; / and if there is no love then there’s nothing that’s true.”) The longer it continues, the more hallucinatory it becomes: even as they sing of separation, the two singers drift closer together. By the end, they’re not so much duetting as singing different parts of the same mind, chanting out “it’s in the way that winter’s coming around; / it’s in the snow-like stain, blood on the ground; / it’s in the wave descending, pulling me out to sea…”


 
Olympia – simpler – could just be about being too shy to ask someone out, its hotel setting a place of missed connections and missed handshakes. Or it could be about a failure of nerve in general – not having the pluck or energy to ask for what you want, even if it’s just a question of knocking on a door and speaking. In comparison, Haven’t You Heard is fairly lightweight: but perhaps its whimsy and gentler touch is needed to counterbalance the deeper aches elsewhere. Slung in a hammock of wry country picking, Dylan muses on unthinking aggression and ambition (“When I was a kid I had a lot to prove, / I was young and angry, with an overactive muse”), and touches – ever-so-lightly – on human cruelty. When not singing about warning off unwary aliens, he gently salutes the time when he finally “opened up my eyes and saw the view. / Saw the world for what it was – unfolding and askew.” A wonky electric solo ambles in like a sheepish grin. A second one opens out into a concluding cobweb of pulsating guitar noise, like a countrified version of Heroes.


 
With its Bo Diddley beats and stutters, its sudden embrace of dirty noise and its chopped-up minimal lyrics, So Sued turns StillWife’s usual working methods on their heads. Yet it still ties in with the band’s exploration of heartbreaks and awkwardnesses. A barbed kiss-off from girl-left-behind to boy-off-to-find-himself, it’s sung by Moat in a sardonic hiccup like a raised eyebrow. “You’re going solo, into the night… / You’re going solo / so get it right.” she jabs, before mocking with a chorus of “On the road, uh-huh; / on the road, ah-hah; / on the road, eh-heh… / We get it.” It’s bitter honey, powering on into pileups of screeching guitar as Moat wails – blue and biting – like a sarcastic banshee.

Creatures, though, might be the key to it all – the kind of beautifully wracked, subtle-heartbreak song that any lovelorn person needs to hear at least once. Licked around by misty synthesizers like weeping foghorns, it offers more of a Blue Nile approach to heartbreak – an intangible moment or event which nonetheless means everything, stretched in time as it soaks into the soul. Across a room, a soft-singing Dylan watches his lover dance; and at that moment realizes that it’s over, that what they’ve had has somehow been lost. “Through the crowd I see your face – content and undirected gaze. / Barefooted you begin to sway; I dance under the twilight’s haze, / and though it hurts I hold my tongue – some things can never be undone.”


 
Exactly what’s gone wrong, or what’s happened, is never revealed. An unthinking betrayal; or maybe simply the moment when common cause slips away, leaving just two separate bodies moving in an ever-growing space. There’s a tremendously sad dignity to this song, but that’s not all. A desperate hope-against-hope breaks through in a final pleading chorus: a sudden flare of forgiveness stretched out like a shaking hand – “Tell me you make mistakes – mistakes can always be unmade. / Tell me I’ve faith and I will pray – / just don’t leave me here this way…”

Utter quality. More of this, please.

StillWife: ‘StillWife EP’, 2012
Bandcamp
Download-only EP
Released: 8th March 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

StillWife online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp

March 2012 – EP reviews – Vex Ruffin’s ‘Eulogy’ (“kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett”)

15 Mar
Vex Ruffin: 'Eulogy'

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’

Punk helps you cut loose from your roots. Where you land is your own business. Take lo-fi riser Vex Ruffin, who turns his back on the Californian sunshine of his Chino Hills hometown and dreams himself over the Atlantic to Blighty, to a soggy Stockport or a drizzled Haywards Heath. Once there, he’ll while away the time throwing some deliberately awkward shapes and kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett round a multi-storey car-park.

Back in his real home, Vex is fertile soil with a growing reputation – a onetime Cure fan with a parallel taste for Ruff Riders hip-hop, an anti-technique approach to guitar, and a wide-open yen for discovery and striking scratch-video. Potentially, it’s an interesting combination for creative confusion; especially as he doesn’t appear to be the fringe-dwelling white geek you’d expect, but a bandana-rocking American Asian with a penchant for moody or macabre photocalls (ruling alone on a bench with an intimidating glower, or playing shot-to-death up against a wall). Despite the gangster trimmings, Vex is also an artistic loner, playing with anyone but following no-one, and vocally eschewing scenes.

Strange then, that ‘Eulogy’ should so precisely capture the dank anti-achievement atmosphere of a single scene; English post-punk from the dying days of the 1970s. It’s all there – the rat-scuttle drum-machine sounds and tin-tube vocals; the primitive synth-blipping (from early Mute singles); the street-sweeping snarl-up of half-buried guitar. Even the jittery sheathes of reverb and echo, recalling Hannett’s work with the Invisible Girls and John Cooper Clarke.

Distant and detached, Vex’s voice funnels into the mix as if it’s been blown in with the leaves. The baleful alienation feels like Public Image Ltd. – on Eulogy itself, Vex even declares “I don’t wanna be seen, and isolate myself with your scene…  I don’t want it” in a gruff Jah Wobble growl. But Vex simultaneously goes both further and not so far, archly clipping his thoughts and lyrics down to a bare, bored minimum. On Perfect Congestion he just chants “I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear it.” Even the drumbox blip and cheap synth tang of Secret Weapon (with its hopeful refrain of “You’ll stand, you’ll see”, halfway to a classic cyber-single) sounds like a marching call bleached down nearly to nothing; like five-year-old graffiti traces.

It’s a freebie EP, so perhaps it’s best not to expect the cream. Yet this is bland coming from someone who recently made his name with postcard singles and fired up his restlessness with I’m Creative. OK, the sounds were similar, but this time Vex succumbs to a drizzling disaffection. In Tunnel Vision, Vex toys with a tale of inspiration (“it was late afternoon when I felt the brilliance, and it was truly original,”) but delivers it in a robotic monotone, ending up in a blind-alley moan over a slew of guitar fuzz. For Space Out , he flaunts his Cure fandom in a shambles of punk psychedelia and stair-tumbling drum loops, intoning “I can barely breathe, I need to clear my head, I need to get inspired” in a Peter Sellers joke voice.

I suspect that he’s taking the piss on a grand scale (why call anything ‘Eulogy’ when you sound so fucking bored with it all?) but the joke’s a pretty thin one. There’s something in the tone of this which suggests a smart guy deliberately turning his back. While this leaves a disappointing taste, it’s not quite enough to justify me returning the favour and turning my own: Vex has more in him, but it’s time to start taking some risks.

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’ EP
Stone’s Throw Recordings (no cat. number)
Free download EP
Released: 9th March 2012

Get it from:
free download from Stone’s Throw Recordings.

Vex Ruffin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr

March 2012 – EP reviews – Retribution Gospel Choir’s ‘The Revolution’ (“if Bad Company had written haikus”)

5 Mar
Retribution Gospel Choir: 'The Revolution' EP

Retribution Gospel Choir: ‘The Revolution’ EP

It really tickles me to see how Retribution Gospel Choir works, and how Alan Sparhawk is making up for his years of restraint. Although they’re a couple of albums into their existence now, it still seems hilarious that Low’s soft-singing frontman is also strutting around – hips aswagger – in a high-powered denim’n’leather rock trio, to which he’s also recruited all of the rest of Low bar Mimi Parker. Even his other sideline (reinventing the blues with Black Eyed Snakes) wasn’t so funny purely on spec. It does make a good joke: but close examination also reveals that it also makes perfect sense.

On the surface (and just by the sound of their crunching riffs, cowbells and stadium-size drumming) RGC is eternal boy-man stuff. Bollock-crushingly tight jeans, the roar of hot-rod chrome, huge dollops of garage grease. Underneath, though, there’s a series of smash-and-grab raids on assorted archetypes, delivered by Alan and co. with relish. It also turns out that RGC takes Low’s logic of song minimalism, and their gift for the simple telling phrase, and  transferred it wholesale to 1970s hard rock. The songs on this EP just punch past two or three minutes each, and seem shorter: they deliver their message, then snap out the light. As for those archetypes, they could hardly be more American – rock music, family, (obliquely Christian) faith and revolution – and, in their way, more conservative. Yet even within a couple of minutes or a couple of lines, Alan’s both turning over and living their contradictions. The setting’s gloriously dumb; the thinking is less so. If Bad Company had written haikus…

On Feel It, Superior, Alan plunges into temptation, risk, delight and inspiration over a Motown-savouring rock thump – handclaps and chopped-off chunks of guitar, a chassis of Hammond organ. Conflating the Beatles with the Fall of Man (“I remember the day / we fell for the apple…”) says everything about America’s protracted, near-religious teenage love affair with rock: all of the sin, all of the potential for growth. Throughout the EP, rock-gospel shout-outs demands that we “shake up the stage”, “drop in the echo”, or “turn it up / and ring the speaker like a bell”. At the same time, Alan bats around seeds of revelation and despair. The Stone (Revolution) asserts “The stone buried deep within the earth, / it doesn’t know, it doesn’t know it’s own worth”: elsewhere, Alan confesses “deep in my heart I feel your pain / I know the dark, / I know the darkness like a shame.”

The butch, confident sound might be ‘70s but the mindset is more ‘60s. Values in question, reactions in spate. Alan seems happy to straddle this. I’m A Man is full of masculine exhortations, muscle-flexing riffs, hero drumming and assurances that “I understand.” Yet it’s the briefest song on offer and, after the initial rush, quickly falls silent: a clumsy, sheepish giant. Maharisha slings both ire and sympathy at errant teens sleepwalking in search of belief. Over an assured and chunky stomp, (part-Cars, part-All Right Now) Alan casts himself as scolding parent: “You said you’d be right back, / you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Even when curling his lip at the attractions of dodgy philosophies (“The Maharisha is blind, you’re… wasting your time”) he still dredges up some rough kindness (“You’ve got to figure it out, it’s like you’ve got the amnesia”).

If it wasn’t for his lifetime of committed Mormonism, I could have sworn he was telling off his own wandering teenage self and ruffling its hair at the same time. Maybe he is. Despite all of the muscle and fervency, this band readily understands and accepts human weakness.

Retribution Gospel Choir: ‘The Revolution’ EP
Sub Pop Records, SP993
7” vinyl/download EP
Released: 29th February 2012

Get it from:
Free download from band homepage;  vinyl EP from Sub Pop.

Retribution Gospel Choir online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Last Harbour: ‘Never’ single (“a tremendous spit in the face of futility”)

7 Feb
Last Harbour: 'Never'

Last Harbour: ‘Never’

If you want to keep doom in your pop, you need a trade-off. For every reverberating song of blasted hopes, naked disaster and dramatic plummets into death, there must be a moment when the naked emotion cuts loose: beyond taste, beyond the little voice of reason and logic, and straight into the sweet spot. It’s the same emotional pornography that you’ll find in an overcooked opera, and it works like a charm. If you’re writing deep in the vein of Southern Gothic (in itself, a kind of blue-collar grand opera), this can be the only trick which makes that long black coat billow like it should.

For Never, this point comes about halfway in. Up until then, Kev Craig has been riding a majestic groundswell of piano, bass and anticipatory gushes of cymbal. He’s been singing, obliquely, of love’s fears; of chances lost under blushes, of words becoming “wingless birds.” The guitars and drums have been biding their time, creeping in and out, hinting at heart-crashes.

Now, as all but the piano slips away, here comes the payoff – an invisible gusher, with only Kev’s voice here to ride it. What, up until now, has been a fruity Johnny Cash-cum-Nick Cave impression summons up an even deeper Americana accent, rears high and (as Kev’s lover takes his hand) joyfully bursts its banks: “You told me this truth – / that lovers, unafraid, should open up their graves / and just jump in…”

It’s a tremendous spit in the face of futility; twisting off the sting of death while accepting that it will, one day, be back for its dues. The celebratory boom of instruments that follows could be Arcade Fire or the Waterboys. The blanketing, poisoned romanticism recalls Australia’s great lost desolation band, The Triffids. The weight – ultimately, the whole towering and fruity triumph – is all Last Harbour’s. From here on, the rest of the song is a view down the mountain, but no less grand for that.

There’s more hand-holding on The Heath. This time Kev is sunk deep in a fug of baritone foreboding, with a lone chamber organ looming through the murk to keep him company. There’s a pallid sun, and a gunshot. All else is blurs of detail: coldness, a sense of struggling and drowning, a need for escape. Sometimes the game tilts the other way. Sometimes the view just doesn’t come clear.  Sometimes the long black coat just hangs – just like that, just fine.

Last Harbour: ‘Never’
Little Red Rabbit Records, LRR030
CD/download single
released: 30th January 2012

Get it from:
Free download from Little Red Rabbit Records or Bandcamp

Last Harbour online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

January 2012 – EP reviews – Noise Research’s ‘Space Stones’ (“gigantic forces tapping on the outside of the bubble”)

7 Jan
Noise Research: 'Space Stones'

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’

Ever-conscientious, Noise Research’s Ian Simpson goes out of his way to admit the traditional approach of this album-length EP, with its use of tape-loop and musique-concrete methods. It’s not a confession that matters. Plenty of atmosphere musicians draw on those techniques; just as plenty draw on the traditions of 1970s kosmische music and Germanic space-drones, or nod to the eerie smudge-cascades of spectralism.

It’s a rarer achievement to not only conjure up those astronomical Krautrock noises (and those visions of spaceships with sports-car contours) but also to recreate the feeling of otherness impinging on your comfortable, oblivious life; of gigantic impersonal forces tapping on the outside of the bubble.  Each of the four pieces on ‘Space Stones’ sends me spinning back to my eight-year-old self, and the sense of awe that I felt each time I saw the silhouette of the antique Zeiss projector that squatted, like a giant querulous bug, at the heart of the old London Planetarium.

With all but one piece being over nine minutes in length, each has plenty of time to unfold as an event in sound. Simultaneous chilliness and warmth pervade Cosmic Stones, in which a ringing organ overtone sits serenely under chilly breathlike rushes of a galactic string section. Over time (and almost at whim) the home pitch slides mercurially into a new position, a new anchor for thinking at the heart of a gradually expanding pool of reverb. Sun Stones sounds like the solar wind made audible: deep tenor flute-edge sounds bending and straining themselves around invisible objects, with an open-pipe high tenor drone loudening behind them.

A single organ cluster-tone sits suspended in place for Earth Stones – a bullet-time slice of instrumental captured and magnified from the middle of a stabbed, jarring chord. Around this, overtones change with geological slowness. Buried inside them, intimations of voices and trumpets come and go, as if the sounds and those who eavesdrop on them are in parallel times – unmatched, and unmatching.

Most suggestive is Space Stones itself, in which Noise Research’s sounds imply a slow, relentless poisoning at a molecular level. Aluminium oscillations dominate the sound, like radiation wavefronts hitting the metal skin of a space capsule. In the background, single-chord clusters roll like a muted brass-band section; by a third of the way through they’ve faded, giving way to slow swells of barely-there unease. By then, the pulsed sounds are echoing more rapidly, penetrating the capsule and bouncing off the inside. Two-thirds of the way in we’re looking at a dead scene: sonic suggestions of bars of unheeded light rotate eerily and unheeded across cabin space as the music drifts onwards. All that’s left is the paralysed fascination as we float on.

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’ EP
Electronic Musik, EM162
Free download-only EP
Released: 2nd January 2012

Get it from:
Free download from archive.org

Noise Research online:
Homepage Tumblr

January 2011 – EP reviews – Bears in America’s ‘Bear Tracks’ (“the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle”)

29 Jan
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be getting some straightforward nature music, or an EP celebrating stocky gay men in the Appalachians. A part of me is a little disappointed that it wasn’t the latter.

Bears In America are elusive and oblique enough to be called just about anything – but the name fits. They sound like large, vague furry things; as if they’re moving past in secret, just out of eyeshot, grazing on the debris left behind towns and people. You hear their rustles and mumbles; you turn around; but they’re too difficult to spot clearly unless they want to be seen. They make small, gentle noises; generally much smaller and gentler than they are.

Matt Gasda (previously of Electioneers) and Daniel Emmett Creahan (instigator of various quixotic tape-music labels such as Prison Art and O, Morning) make up the band. They’re based in Syracuse, New York: a university town which, once upon a time, was a swamp. It sounds as if Matt and Daniel spend quite a lot of time dreaming about what it was like back in the Syracuse swamp days, and whether some of that time still soaks into today. The three tracks on here (allegedly recorded in basements and closets, and possibly while half-asleep) even feel waterlogged. While the songs themselves are light – barely sticking to the eardrum – the instruments are heavy; from the rumbling, staggering piano to the guitar which sounds like the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle, half-buried in the mud.


 
At times, it’s like listening to an ancient, rural version of No Wave or a Steve Reich process chant – its back turned, its hat pulled down over its eyes, caught up by the waterline and engrossed in an endless pulse which it’s found and has tuned into. Wrapped in repetition, Rain King rumbles like a prayer, Matt singing “Put your trust in the rain king, / who’s going to move the mountain?” in a piping murmur while dark thunderheads of piano notes build up in the background. The Beta Band used to tap into sketched sounds and feelings like these back at the beginning, when they were still a well-kept secret. Bears in America sing and play as if they always want to remain that kind of secret, piping in music from a ghostly, gentler country.


 
Ratsbones spreads out the minimalism over six minutes. There’s a limping, leaning piano fragment; a drape of organ texture; a set of delicate vocal canons. Later on, there’s the sound of oyster-shells crunching. Melting together reticence, frail reedy singing and hypnotic structure, this is part Robert Wyatt reverie, part mournful Gavin Bryars ritual. The incantations themselves begin as no more than shack-mutterings (“Rat bone, the windows of the night”) but build to soft earnest cries (“The soul is leading me out, bleeding me out… / to the lamp-light, to the lamp-light and the soul…”) All feeling, no clarity. Clearer that way.


 
For Slipstream, Bears In America get up out of their huddle and turn around. You can almost hear them crack a gentle smile as they deliver a shimmering fragment of folk song based around a hushed and ebbing guitar figure, a jingle of ornament, a blanket of blurred marimbas bobbing like light-flecks on the skin of a river. It’s also a love-song of sorts, Matt singing “You are the lovely oak tree’s daughter / I’m just the lonely secret water” while immensely quiet passing sounds ruffle the air around him. At at one point the guitar starts to toy with a harder Velvet Underground pulse but the song is too liquid, too giving, to retain that kind of edge. It reaches one reedy arm back towards Nick Drake and River Man. The other stretches forwards towards something more forthrightly psychedelic, wrapped in echoes and various backwardnesses.

The song ends with a hooded country-folk flourish. So too does the EP, amid a soft cloud of hoots and murmurs as the band amble away. They vanish into the wilderness again in a rustle of battered hats and lowered eyes, as if they’d never been here. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever see them again. More than a little magical.

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP
Bears In America, no catalogue number
download-only EP
Released: 20th January 2011

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Bears in America online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

Soaring On Their Pinions (featuring Whitney Drury): ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’ single (“just the singing and what can be teased out of it”)

23 Dec
Soaring On Their Pinions: 'Veni, Veni, Emanuel'

Soaring On Their Pinions: ‘Veni, Veni, Emanuel’

Thinking drummers are to be treasured. Not just the sparky virtuosi cast up by jazz and progressive rock – clear and plain equals to anyone whom they share a stage with. Nor even just those examples of drummer-plus such as Levon Helm or Gary Husband, for whom drumming is just a part of their all-round musicianship, and hence nourishes (and is nourished by) everything else they strum, press, blow or sing.

Here and now, I’m talking about the drummers who get so involved with the idea of pure sound in itself that they down sticks (in some cases permanently), and sail away to pursue it. Mick Harris, for example, who quit Napalm Death and thrash metal in order to explore deep industrial noise and beatless drones with Scorn and Lull. Drummers’ projects in this vein don’t seem to have the half-hearted taint of similar work by guitarists or keyboard players. Maybe the physical immediacy of drumming, from big bangs to stroked whispers, breed a special restraint and particular listening skills – a sensitivity to how air moves and responds to touch.

Within Houston’s underground music scene Lance Higdon is best known for driving various math rock, improvisation, noisecore and psychedelic projects via superb kit-work. With Soaring On Their Pinions, his musical imagination moves him away from the drums – though probably not permanently. As Harris did in his ‘Murder Ballads’ collaboration with Martyn Bates, Higdon has turned to reworking traditional folk and liturgical songs via beatless ambient electronics. Where his method differs is that his electronics are, in effect, inaudible. Unlike the dark, low wind-noise of Harris’ machines, Higdon’s can only be detected by the imprints and embossing which they leave in other sounds. Specifically, he’s sifting and sampling the unaccompanied singing voices of women, getting deep into the grain in search of textures and fragments which he can then build back to the song. In some ways, it’s a nod back to the 1950s and the electro-acoustic methods of musique concrete, but it has a particular purity. No other sound sources – just the singing and what can be teased out of it.

At the heart of this debut single is the first of his guests-cum-raw-material – Atlantan mezzo-soprano Whitney Drury. She sings the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The original Latin title is kept, but the sung words are English. Drury’s delivery is sung straight and beautifully, with a lone candle-flame clarity. It’s also thoroughly American, with a creamy Southern curve to her “r”s. and “o”s. Is that relevant? Perhaps – if you consider that Soaring On Their Pinions is about layering, and that even before Higdon begins his own work on this particular song he is dealing with a long tradition of accretion.

As a song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel can look back over a thousand years of travel: from Hebrew and Latin antiphon through Franciscan hymn to the muscular piety of Victorian Anglicans. Anyone taking it on is joining a lengthy queue of interpretations. A Christian favourite, the song has almost become a cliché, with everyone getting in on the act: robed Episcopalians, clean-shaven New Agers with check shirts and acoustic guitars, even Whitney Houston (who gospelled up a version with Take 6 in 2003). It’s hardly less popular to secular ears, sparking (or surviving) multiple interpretations even recently (by Enya, North Sea Radio Orchestra and even metalcore heroes August Burns Red).

Perhaps mindful of this, Higdon’s treatment doesn’t make any attempt to dig into or smooth over tradition. Instead he rediscovers the song from the base level of Drury’s vocal. The latter may start off clean and polished and contemporary (like air-conditioning and throat-care capsules). Yet as Higdon shaves, clones and reattaches fragments from it, he shapes and reveals something more ancient: something which could have wafted from a lonely hermit’s cell. He buoys the vocal up on cellular flutters of transposed echo – first arresting it, later turning it into a kind of slipped, arrested madrigal. He enshrines it in a subtle crypt of reverb. He steals and multiplies Drury’s sibilants, feeding them back past her in fuzzy air-serpents of susurration. Later on, distorted shreds of voice, crushed beyond recognition, waft through the song like smuts: while higher shreds tap out a shattered, stuttering Morse.

Yet ultimately Higdon’s a gatherer, not a harrower – respecting the song and the singer even as he refracts it. Such is the serene melodic beauty of the original that it’s easy to miss that it’s actually a desperate prayer for deliverance: a call for a Messiah to revitalise law, to destroy tyranny and captivity, to open up Heaven. In other words, it’s a spiritual protest song… or just a spiritual. Higdon’s treatment returns it to that level, while rendering it vulnerable to collapse or corruption. His sound-sculpting surrounds that beauty with loneliness, threat and uncertainty (via loop hazard and eeriness) while retaining its core of beleaguered faith.

Soaring On Their Pinions (featuring Whitney Drury): ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’
Soaring On Their Pinions (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 20th December 2010

Get it from:
Free download from Bandcamp

Soaring On Their Pinions (Lance Higdon) online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp

March 2010 – album reviews – Meczûp’s ‘Hanging from the Purgatory’s Pendulum’ (“intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air”)

12 Mar

History can catch at things and mess them around. Take the theremin – a serious instrument, reduced to a circus trick, with a story that reads like a map of twentieth-century aspirations and follies. Early days were heady: born from Russian security research, Léon Theremin’s electronic instrument was quickly diverted to more high-minded classical music uses: mostly summoning up the sounds of the ethereal spheres for mystically-minded intellectuals. Now? The gimmick tray. Its “woo-woo” glissandi are used to evoke gimcrack spookiness, or as a quick and flashy shorthand for psychedelic derangement.

Worse – on half of those occasions when you’re assured that you’re actually hearing a theremin (Good Vibrations, the original ‘Star Trek’ theme, early Portishead) what you’re actually hearing is a forgery. Based on motion detectors and on hands that aren’t allowed to touch anything, the genuine instrument is tougher to play than a greased fiddle. Hence (for those who want a quick route to the theremin sound without the sweat, physicality and sheer involvement of playing one) the slew of knock-off devices and plug-ins available for faking the flitter.

It’s all a little sad. Despite the efforts of a distinguished handful of composers (not least Shostakovich and Miklós Rózsa) the theremin passed quickly from being the sound-of-the-future to becoming a sonic trinket and a source of freaky icing – all via pop culture, counterfeitery and the Cold War. You could scarcely blame Léon Theremin if he were spinning in his grave (sounding a heavenly wavering burble of rage as he did so). Hearing a theremin played in a way that’s even slightly close to the original intent is something of a rarity these days. While he’s not exactly a purist, Cihan Gülbudak (better known as Meczûp) clearly takes his own theremin seriously enough to steer it back to roots-level.

On ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’, Meczûp’s theremin is accompanied only by its own looped signals, and sometimes by a gauzy, delicate brushing of fuzz-noise shrouding the pure tone in a gentle, finely-milled distortion. Mostly, though, Meczûp suspends the instrument in wide space, sending its sliding, sustained tones out as a majestic keen. His control is exemplary, mastering the air-shaping swoops and pinches necessary to pull away from plain electronic tone and towards intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air. Where a little more flex is required there’s a whammy-pedal available, heaving the pitches up and down in tidal zooms, and giving the music the apocalyptic boom of a Messaien organ-blast.

Besides the skill of Meczûp’s fingertips, the other key ingredient in his work is locale. Based in Istanbul, he sits at the historic conceptual crossroads of East and West. Seemingly setting aside contemporary blendings of globalization and cyberculture, his music taps into older frictions and fertilizations. There’s an old-fashioned sense of discovery here. Geographies slide across each other and voices strain to mingle, from the earnestly mangled English of the song titles to the cross-sifting of the musical impulses. Throughout the album, echoes of the classical European yearn-to-order meet intimations of Eastern devotional. Despite Meczûp’s classic theremin technique his musical lines don’t have the chilly ethereality of the original approach. They sound more like ney flutes, duduks or zurnas – Middle Eastern wind instruments with their own connection to Sufi, shamanism and oral histories; to the angelic and diabolic aspects of spiritual experience; or the difficult memories of the region’s blood-mottled sway between the heights of civilization and the depths of brutality and pain. There are notes of beauty and agony here, calling up more than a few old ghosts.

Meczûp: 'Hanging From The Purgatory's Pendulum' (previous cover)

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’ (previous cover)

At its most basic, Meczûp’s music sounds predominantly Eastern (the brief Arabic piping of Shadow: A Parable) but the musical crossings-over are far more interesting. Beneath the long whining melodies that cap and guide A Tale For Lancinant Screws, a kind of slender and abbreviated suggestion of Renaissance counterpoint emerges. It’s less an outright structure than a kind of haunting, like the image of a face flattened out across an endless carpet. A similar device haunts The Ribald Genie, ghosting underneath a lonely melody which gradually alters from pure keen to distorted scream and finally to a melancholy sarangi moan. For the brief but wide-ranging Garoun A, more of these suggestions blur into whalesong glissandi: a succession of theremin voices from teetering soprano to slithering sub-bass chase each other before tailing off into echoes.

Meczûp’s sharp appreciation of lines of beauty dominates the record, although at points this is deliberately overstretch to the point of breakdown. On Puriest Morning of All Times, baroque intimation destroys its own bounds: a vaulting lead melody (first soprano, then alto) strides downwards into echo-space before more parts build into a looping, uneasy fugue. As it moves on, the theremin sound begins to rip and degrade, eventually becoming a mass of gargling sharp-edged rattles like a rockslide or a Geiger counter. Blossoming in Cemetery sits between Bach liturgy and Armenian lament, maintaining an ache and yearn for six minutes before the theremin’s translucent cloak of distortion cracks and dissolves, and the melody starts to reiterate as a scabrous insect buzz.

In spite of his austere tendencies, Meczûp allows a little fantasy into the mix for a couple of pieces, drawing on and transforming pinches of popular culture. The first of these is Kwaidan, rooted in Japanese ghost tales via Lafcadio Hearn and cinema. Relinquishing the counterpoint which informs the rest of the record, it brings out more of the Eastern melodies while walls of looped theremin churn in the background, fluttering and stuttering on a grand scale.

The second is The Bridge of Khazad-dûm – an etiolated isolationist drone which becomes perhaps the most powerful work on an album already full of grand-scale intimations. It takes its inspiration from Tolkien: specifically, that chasm-spanning subterranean stone bridge which (at a key point in ‘Lord of the Rings’) becomes a locus for death, despair and ruin. Meczûp interprets another aspect, capturing something of Tolkien usually drowned under torrents of merchandising: his valedictory quality, the way his stories shuffle and re-deal the racked old bones of history, romance and inevitable decay for one final mournful hurrah. Meczûp’s vision of the bridge is of an ancient, significant place deserted. Plangent teary layers of theremin fuse together, cold spaces emerge in the music, and entwined senses of antiquity and abandonment are caught in broad view.

In fact, this sense of stricken grandeur applies equally to the rest of the album. Meczûp’s eerie, assertive picking-over and teasing-out of elements within of his music feels like a week spent immersed in history. It has the same tasting of triumphs and fleeting beauty; the same dawning feeling that one somehow fits into something so much broader and complicated. Through it all, the theremin rises triumphant. Survival and vindication.

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’
BFW Recordings, BFW038 (no barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 1st March 2010

Buy it from:
BWF Recordings, Magyar Walltapper or Reverb Nation. 9-track version also available from Bandcamp

Meczûp online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

SWOONAGE

Swoon. /swo͞on/ A verb. To be emotionally affected by someone or something that one admires; become ecstatic. Here are some people and things that make me swoon. #swoon #swoonage

Post-Punk Monk

Searching for divinity in records from '78-'85 or so…

theartyassassin

...wandering through music...

Get In Her Ears

Promoting and Supporting Women in Music

Die or D.I.Y.?

...wandering through music...

The Music Aficionado

Quality articles about the golden age of music

THE ACTIVE LISTENER

...wandering through music...

Planet Hugill

...wandering through music...

Listening to Ladies

...wandering through music...

ATTN:Magazine

Not from concentrate.

Xposed Club

improvised/experimental/music

The Quietus | All Articles

...wandering through music...

I Quite Like Gigs

Music Reviews, music thoughts and musical wonderings

furia log

...wandering through music...

A jumped-up pantry boy

To say the least, oh truly disappointed

PROOF POSITIVE

A new semi-regular gig in London

We need no swords

Organized sounds. If you like.

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

...wandering through music...

When The Horn Blows

...wandering through music...

:::::::::::: Ekho :::::::::::: Women in Sonic Art

Celebrating the Work of Women within Sonic Art: an expanding archive promoting equality in the sonic field

Ned Raggett Ponders It All

Just another WordPress.com weblog

FLIPSIDE REVIEWS

...wandering through music...

Headphone Commute

honest words on honest music

The One-Liner Miner

...wandering through music...

Yeah I Know It Sucks

an absurdist review blog

Obat Kanker Payudara Ginseng RH 2

...wandering through music...

Pop Lifer

Waiting for the gift of sound and vision

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Do The Math

...wandering through music...

Archived Music Press

Scans from the Melody Maker and N.M.E. circa 1987-1996

The World's Worst Records

...wandering through music...

Soundscapes

...wandering through music...

OLD SCHOOL RECORD REVIEW

Where You Are Always Wrong

FRIDAY NIGHT BOYS

...wandering through music...

Fragile or Possibly Extinct

Life Outside the Womb

a closer listen

a home for instrumental and experimental music

Bird is the Worm

New Jazz: We Search. We Recommend. You Listen.

...wandering through music...

Life Just Bounces

...wandering through music...

Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Aquarium Drunkard

...wandering through music...

eyesplinters

Just another WordPress.com site

NewFrontEars

...wandering through music...

%d bloggers like this: