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Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 1 – the music)

18 Jan

photo-dann-01-15Looking for a little authority? I have as little as anyone.

However, in a year in which I personally failed to keep up with many things – developments, any number of fast-flying cutting edges, review promises – I can still offer a set of personal snapshots. I can’t tell you what was best, in terms of music – but I can tell you what I heard and saw, and how it affected me.

Embarrassingly, few of the recordings and events covered below actually made it into the blog on time as reviews. Many of them haven’t even made it in now. You can expect to see me working proper 2014 reviews into the blog during 2015, adding some belated tassels to the kite’s tail. For now, though, I hope that these retrospective mentions make up for my lack of effectiveness at the time; and there are so many playable tracks and videos embedded down there that it looks like a Tumblr account, or a drunken quilt. Enjoy.

* * * *

So… my 2014 as listener and attender, then…

Time-poor and money-poor in London, with heavy family commitments, I had to watch gig after gig slip by. In many respects the year has been defined by what I didn’t get to see. I missed Prince’s secret gig at the Electric Ballroom; I missed Steven Wilson, St Vincent, the Loose Tubes reunion and The Wolfhounds; I missed Henry Fool, Imogen Heap‘s Reverb, the Crimson ProjeKCt and the London Jazz Festival. I missed that shaky, defiant Henry Cow reunion at the Lyndsey Cooper memorial concert in November. I missed all of the TuesdaysPost gigs and the Drill Festival in Brighton. I missed #TORYCORE’s visceral jazz-doom-metal rage assault on the cruelties of government policy, a short bus ride away at the Camden People’s Theatre. Perhaps mostly painfully, I missed all of Kate Bush‘s ‘Before the Dawn’ shows. I missed the bands that I should have seen, and I probably missed the bands that you caught; and who knows how many classical concerts I didn’t even know about?

2014-live-variousWhen I did have the money for a concert, it was generally one which was off at the sides, but disproportionately rewarding. For instance – in a side room at the glossied-up Roundhouse, sandwiched in between Stars in Battledress and Arch Garrison (more on whom later), I saw Prescott. An unholy and hugely enjoyable alliance of Rhodri Marsden (currently with Scritti Politti, previously everywhere), onetime Stump bassist Kev Hopper and South London experimental drummer Frank Byng, they played a rolling, feinting game of improv-rock handball, like a post-punk take on Miles Davis groove gumbo.

On another evening I hung out underground in Dalston down at the Servant Jazz Quarters, dodging stuffed weasels. Slicked in purple light, I watched cuddly misanthrope Benjamin Shaw lay into Prince George, his girlfriend, his job, himself and most of the world, and then – from out of his cloud of slaggings – give his chuckling audience the doe-eyes to make sure that we still loved him. Also on the bill, Jack Hayter and son whittled us keen, humane songs out of musical driftwood, and the Superman Revenge Squad turned detailed geek-angst into pin-sharp bedsit art.

In October, I had reason to thank the five-quid standing ticket tradition at the Proms. Having joining a shuffling ticket queue that snaked from the Albert Hall past the Royal College of Music and practically to Queen’s Gate, I got into the concert by the skin of my teeth (the very last ticket) in time to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra deliver a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth which was so good that it made people in the audience literally scream with joy. Getting to hear Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Paraphrase’ (an eerie and nebulous deconstruction of the Ninth’s opening) as a companion piece was a delightfully sour cherry on the cake.

photo-oscar-the-butcherOut of sheer necessity, most of my journeys out into live music were via free gigs – generally, Ben Eshmade’s Daylight Music concerts at the Union Chapel on Saturday afternoons. This was a lifeline which I often shared with my wife and my three-year-old son Oscar, who continues to make his way into any resulting reviews as companion, unintentional critic and occasional disruptor (You’ll probably be hearing more from, or at least about, Oscar during 2015 – assuming that he gets over his current hatred of live music before I disown him). Yet I shouldn’t complain too much about being stuck with Daylight Music as a default destination. Every one of their gigs featured at least one act which traipsed out of Ben’s address book and won me over.

2014-daylightmusiclive-1As a result, I have plenty of Daylight memories. It was a good place to see instrumentalists (such as Dean McPhee and his smoky Yorkshire-via-Morocco loop guitar) and if you wanted to see a harp mixing it with a laptop or a percussionist moving from steel drum to typewriter – but still expected a tune – it was the gig to go to. The Ida Y Vuelta Ensemble offered explosive London flamenco and brought on a live, quick-changing dancer whose heels hammered hell out of a tabletop. The immaculately arty odd-couple duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk came with Yoko Ono’s endorsement, sang soprano, screamed flute, and offered us a melange of Colombian punk-jazz and beatboxing. Cross-cultural, mixed-instrumental families Flux and Digitonal took assorted cinematic, acoustic and electronic elements and blew them up into glowing paper lanterns, or drowned them five enchanted fathoms deep.

2014-daylightmusiclive-2Daylight was also a great place for songwriters – Clémence Freschard, keeping a chapelful of fans happy with a still, small, studiously cool performance; Daniel Marcus Clark telling us song-stories, muffing up a third of the verses, corpsing with rue and being warmly forgiven; Rachael Dadd skipping and clapping her band onstage and then capering from instrument to instrument to play her skittery folk. Via a soft-breathing, barely-there chamber-pop vision of strings and tantalisingly unfinished stories, Emily Scott unrolled her introspective vistas and promenades of solitude and reflection, like a James Joyce belle with a ukelele. Johnny Lynch of The Pictish Trail shed his lo-fi blip-boxes and courted us with a chalk-and-cheese mix of stand-up comedy and terrifying folk songs. Anchored by deep Pentangle-esque double bass, the Vespers trio offered three separate songwriter’s takes on the perils of loving.

Louis Barrabas plays Santa...

Louis Barrabas plays Santa…

And there was more… Robert Glover from epic45 turned up with his Field Harmonics side project, drowning pop songs in a bushy welter of chiming electronica. The Middle Ones travelled from separate ends of the country to gush, clang guitar, giggle, squeeze an accordion and deliver smart, unorthodox kitchen-sink songs of commitments, bicycles, romantic flutters and the interweaving of different generations. Franky & The Jacks charmed with smart suits, great barbering and a hot-jazz/Southern balladeer take on rockabilly; and while Crayola Lectern weren’t new to me (their debut album was a humble highlight of 2013), it was here that I first got to hear their waterlogged, beautiful Edwardian-esque melancholy in the flesh for the first time, complete with cornets, whispers and gentle lysergia.

Still, my attendance record was nowhere near perfect. I missed Bird to Beast‘s acid folk, Richard James, the classical triple-whammy of Oliver Coates, James McVinnie and Liam Byrne (complete with viol da gamba), Showman’s Wagon, and I’m sure that my old ‘Misfit City’ mate Vaughan Simons will be disappointed that I missed Louis Barabbas’ Christmas show – although I’ve now seen Louis’ Santa photos, and reckon that Oscar will probably thank me for not dragging him along to that one.

2014-mainstreamBack in the world of pick-up, plug-in-and-play music, I paid little attention to mainstream releases, but occasionally some things did get through to me. With ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’, Tori Amos left behind much of the heraldic esoterica that’s swarmed in of her work in recent years and turned out her most intimate and engaging collection of songs for ages. Back at the tail end of 1991, she’d made me cry, gasp, yearn and fall over myself when I first heard Silent All These Years: in 2014, she did the same thing with Invisible Boy. Another album which I’d looked forward to inexplicably failed to connect. Usually, Elbow’s Guy Garvey can sing about middle-aged men strolling through Manchester suburbs and make it sound numinous and heartfilling. Fuelled by the foundering of a long-term romance and by Guy’s inspirational sojourn in New York, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ took Elbow to the top of the British charts. Yet even as Guy sang about the magic of Manhattan, and invited us into dark metaphorical dreams of a coracle-frail love swallowed up in the Atlantic, all I could think about was how flat and grey these grand emotions sounded – and how Elbow’s gift for illustrating the extraordinary wonder of ordinary sights (and driving them up into the hearts and singing voices of arena crowds) seemed to have deserted them.

This was odd, considering the fact that quite a number of the albums which did touch me also mirrored my own greying state and the sometimes unsettling rollout of new perspectives that comes with it. Building workable compromises with age – or simply fucking it all off and being as honest as possible in what’s no longer, in truth, just a young man’s game – clearly had its own dignity, even its own triumphs. With ‘Double Chorus’, Michigan punk-poppers Kenny & The Swordfish delivered a semi-autobiographical record from hard giggers turned to compromised family men. Still holding to their noisy guitars and ska chops (like a two-man fusion of Fishbone and The Clash) they raged against the loss of youth’s freedom, shivered with the chill of fading targets and opportunities, and struck uneasy bargains with the new state of affairs, but never gave up.

A little extra gristle and grizzle also suited The Scaramanga Six and their ‘Scenes of Mild Peril’ DVD. Banged out rough and filmed live in a Brixton studio and in a commandeered Bridlington golf lodge, their cartoon-limned, carefully overblown tales of brooding everyday fury, murderous emotion and self-inflicted bruises were stripped of the elaborate visual wit of the band’s promo videos. Instead, they were gifted with an extra, claustrophobic grain; and as ever, the band kept up their reputation as the other kind of Yorkshire Gothic.

On a similar tip, as well as nursing a reissue of 1987’s ‘Unseen Ripples From a Pebble’ reformed C86 post-punk survivors The Wolfhounds slung out their first new album in twenty-four years called (with a sour, proud prod and a wink) ‘Middle Aged Freaks’. If I’m going to listen to clanging, sneering garage rock, I’m going to listen to some that’s been made by weathered old dogs like these: men with plenty of miles on their clocks, a bloody-minded attention to texture and the world’s complications, and a collective bellyful of acid-dipped wit whether they’re turning out disturbing precises of current day morality, mocking their own deluded shadow-selves (“you’re a tough old tenderised piece of meat / and your sage advice is on repeat… / A line of charlie while the kid’s asleep. / A chopped hog Harley with a baby seat,”) or soothing the frustrations with sympathy and stoicism. (“Sometimes in each life we all must fail – / but those weren’t the words of your father. / And into each life must fall some hail. / You know – like rain, but harder.”) Amongst the harsh punchy guitars, a whisper of samples even recalled front Wolfhound David Callahan’s other old band, Moonshake (another of my ‘90s favourites).

Moving into his fifties and making the best of an enforced band hiatus, no-man singer Tim Bowness pulled together some of the project’s stalled work as well as sundry other personal musings and ideas and come up with ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, an album of brilliantly-lit and beautifully played art-pop spanning muscular to delicate and dealing with personal histories, mid-life stock taking and the choices and chokes which go to form people’s lives. Many of the songs (while not quite Morrissey-esque tirades) had an underlying seethe of north-west English non-conformance and grit: a quality which perhaps had lain a little too softly on his previous work, and which now finally put the lie to the recurring (and unfair) Bowness reputation as a solipsistic crooner. Beyond these more plangent stabs, there was space for moments of peerless spiralling romance and even a spot of Northern classical-fusion collaboration with Andrew Keeling.

‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ also spawned a brace of animated videos, including this one for rattling lead-in track The Warm-Up Man Forever. (For me, it suggests that in later life that skinny little candy-striped computer-graphic guy from Dire Straits’ old Money for Nothing video thickened into an embittered and flat-capped folkie; his polygons bloated, and Pixar never returning his calls. See what you think…)

I might have ignored – or simply missed – the pop music which most people were listening to this year but I found in other places. Bailey Cremeans – a teenaged keyboard balladeer from Missouri – offered me rapturously sad songs on ‘Celestial City’. On ‘Two Magpies’, hyperventilating clink-and-murmur Londoners Quimper burrowed into the toybox and assembled a manic play of fairy-tale shadows, fuzzy-felt and sexual menace. Stretched between America’s East and West Coasts, New York roots-polystylist Mama Crow and Ecuadorian player-producer Daniel Lofredo Rota teamed up as Liminal Digs – arriving with the playful and slightly scary ‘Dragonfly’ EP, which flitted between Latina acoustic acid-folk and electronica with wantonness, a wandering and salty female wit, and an occasional flash of teeth.

record-anawan-aTwo bands from Brooklyn, in particular, caught and held my enthusiasm. With a song called High Time, from their debut EP, Legs earwormed their way into my affections. It wasn’t that they were particularly new-sounding. That celebratory-sounding disco-pop – packed full of skatting, singable keyboard hooks – was pure ‘80s; part Prince, part Talking Heads, partly smooth Donald Fagen awkwardness (circa ‘The Nightfly’). So too, was their preppy shirt-and-tie look. But their songs were adorably infectious and cleverly layered, with lead singer Tito Ramsey sketching out a picture of a New York party scene raddled by insecurities, uptight resentful dancing, panic attacks, and unstable summer romances eaten away by drug habits.

Elsewhere in the borough, Trevor Wilson maintained his rickety, compelling psych-folk Vocal Ensemble by transforming them into a partnership of equals called Anawan although it was still his startling, deer-nervy songs that propelled them. If the renamed and, slightly repurposed band lost a little of their eerie incantatory fall-apart quality, they made up for it by strengthening their West Coast-inspired harmonies and sun-spattered glint. Imagine Syd Barrett directing The Mamas & The Papas and you’re partway there, though Anawan’s joyous mewl and trip-triggering song swerves are entirely their own.

One strand of music that I particularly enjoyed in 2014 was the sound of women, looping. There was Howlet, illustrating grand and dreamy obsessions on ‘Afraidarck’ by draping cavernous recording space with layered but minimal spider-silk vocal lines and the barest of beats. There was Georgina Brett, working with voice only to improvise spiralling spring-paths of call, response and return or detailed masses of counterpoint on-the-fly. Yasmyn Hendrix pursued the same method to decorate and festoon a capella pop songs, whether she was creating her own or working out a clever, rainy-day cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

Possibly the most outstanding for me was the spellbinding singer-songwriter-cellist Laura Moody, equally skilled at daredevil string playing and pyrotechnic performance-art vocal. She didn’t actually make use of looping technology; but her meticulous wreathing patterning, embedded minimalism and elastic poise suggested that it had had a strong impact on her anyway. Surprisingly, Laura’s ‘Acrobats’ album (released quietly in November) didn’t go for the same witty, barnstorming élan as her earlier work, condensing and reining in those extraordinary performance skills in favour of elliptical nu-folk songs: innerspatial and introspective, no less compelling.

In Seattle, the remarkable Kye Alfred Hillig pumped out two albums for free (‘Real Snow’ and ‘The Buddhist’), adding to an ever-growing catalogue coursing from genre to genre (this year it was synth-pop, alt.country and bare-bones sadcore). Unlike many of his sloppily prolific contemporaries, all of his work emerged diamond-clear, fully-formed and packed with striking, pungently-emotional songs. A better blogger than me would have been yelling about him all year: I suppose that I’d better be that better blogger in 2015.

record-va-cnpudOn another tack, it was good to see one of 2013’s lesser-known losses (that of promising Belgian art-punk Floky Pevée) commemorated and soothed by the multi-artist album ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Un Disque’. Here, the five songs which Floky recorded with his band Kabul Golf Club were restored and then revisited, turned inside out by eight different bands and a host of different treatments: indie-country, hardcore, electropunk, sludge metal, funk and post-rock. There was humour, but no cheap laughs; there was craft, but no sanctimonious genre purity. Instead, everyone involved did their best to show how far Floky might have gone, and just how much diverse potential already existed in the songs beyond the pummel and screams. It was the best of tombstones.

record-2014-psych1As has often been the case with ‘Misfit City’, much inspiration came from English psychedelic rock. Not in the shallow, easily-hyped mould of TOY or Temples (with their skinny young limbs, cloaking haircuts and by-the-book cribs of The Stooges, Hawkwind and Can) but in the high-and-low, the sidelines under the radar, the semi-secret pockets. Often, it came from men and women who’d already done several decades of growing-up away from the general public.

With little more than a nylon-strung guitar, a pair of archaic-sounding keyboards and a soft cracked voice, Arch Garrison’s ‘ I Will Be A Pilgrim’ delved into folk-baroque and folkways simultaneously. With equal amounts of airy beauty it unearthed and merged ancient English journey-ritual and personal soul-searching, its warm psychogeographic songcraft leaving the listener with nourished heart and aching feet.

Arch Garrison’s rarely-spotted cousins, Stars in Battledress, also broke cover; emerging under their own name for the first time in over a decade. With ‘In Droplet Form’ they provided an engaging, sometimes sombre record of pre-weathered, fully committed Englishiana, knitted together from the sound of antique wireless songs, bell-rounds, the water-dampened mustiness of old institutions, and eerie garden-shed-drones. Richard Larcombe’s cunning and tragicomic lyrics were the weft in the weave – feinting, bleeding, mystifying, bitingly literate and frequently hilarious.

2014-psych-2Descending from the same psychedelic cloud, Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ delivered flagrant horn-drenched excitements of guitars, tingling Rhodes and double-jointed rock punch, but was also drenched in hauntings and mournings which stayed with you long after the fadeout. One of Knifeworld’s members, Emmett Elvin (already a journeyman for innumerable other projects including Chrome Hoof) went on to build on the triumph of ‘The Unravelling’ with his own audacious ‘Bloody Marvels’ album, in which his own dazzling compositions built monkey-ladders to the stars and back. No less ambitious was Trojan Horse‘s ‘World Turned Upside Down’, in which four musically ravenous young Salfordians baked themselves a gigantic layer-cake of prog, psychedelia, hi-concept funk and Northern rock, laced it with history and hallucinogens, shared it around and then ate the rest, all with noisy gusto and generosity.

2014-psych-3If after all that you really and truly just wanted the motorik, you could always opt for the big, bluff, quaking noise of ZOFFF (a late-in-the-year Brightonian supergroup of grizzled sprites and younger heads with assorted Crayola Lectern/Dark Star/Electric Soft Parade connections). And having seen him spend much of the previous year creating an exciting, crabbed and roaring punk-prog with The Fierce & The Dead, it was still good to see that irrepressible loop-strummer Matt Stevens back in the solo saddle with ‘Lucid’, maintaining his upward progress with a set of instrumentals peppered by multiple looped-and-lashed guitars and with guest stars and influences drawing from black metal, prog and jazz. With ‘Curious Yellow’, airy Bristolians Hi Fiction Science delivered a near-perfect Krautrock-blended approximation of West Coast acid rock and English acid folk (not to mention being a big hit with Oscar, who’s dubbed the entire band ‘Ladyhorse’ on the strength of their cover artwork). From Rome, still pegging away at his winning fusion of light-touch prog and fuzzy Britpop, Sterbus offered a little in-between-albums grab-bag in the shape of ‘A Wonderful Distrust’. From Florida, Scott Miller and Anjie Skaya sent over ‘Liquid Days’, a spontaneous song-album of cracked, wonder-struck voice, wandering guitar and Russian violin which (in its own humble, crumpled-loons way) evoked the Incredible String Band, Van Morrison and The Bathers. A compulsive scattershot releaser of albums, Scott reckoned that he was onto something better with this one; and he was right.

2014-smith-reissuesTwo revenant records from another psychedelic hero loomed in the background. Six years gone from music, and still an invalid, Tim Smith continues to command a tremendous love from the surprising number of musicians who continue to claim him as a key influence. His presence haunted several of my favourite albums of this year; those by Knifeworld and Arch Garrison in particular. Two opportunities to listen back to the fatherlode came with a reissue of ‘Extra Special Oceanland World’ (Tim’s lone, wounded-sounding solo project from the early ‘90s) and with a grand double vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ multiple-personality magnum opus ‘Sing To God’ (in all of its kaleidoscopic, childish inspiration).


Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Rita Novikaite/Keith Burstein: 'Keith Burstein: Symphony 'Elixir' & Songs of Love and Solitude'Apart from my encounter with Beethoven and Cerha at the Proms, my dips into classical music were few and far between. However, they were often pretty memorable. They began with Keith Burstein‘s evening at the Lithuanian Embassy on January 29th, at which the stubborn, stalwart neo-tonal iconoclast (veteran of numerous spats with both the musical establishment and the press) played and discussed the new Naxos recording of his ‘Elixir’ symphony and ‘Songs of Love & Solitude’ cycle. Despite ‘Elixir’s initial roots as a lambently romantic London concerto, Keith eventually had to make a long train journey to Lithuania and an appointment with the Kaunus City Symphony Orchestra in order to get the two works performed and recorded in full. He was rewarded for it. The KCSO’s velvety sound brought out fresh depth in the symphony’s lush nerviness (a nostalgic Brahms-in-Vienna majesty undercut and expanded by more contemporary slithering tonal planes and disruptive rhythmic upheavals) and the lingering, opulent reveries of the song-cycle (for the latter, see below). Keith Burstein’s life and work tend to be filled with metaphysical rumblings, whether sought out and attracted. This Lithuanian voyage, too, was suffused with both wonder and shadows as Keith reconnected with his own Baltic Jewish family history while stepping carefully around the last vestigial snags of Stalinism which once engulfed Lithuania, still haunt some of its old guard, and may have added to the darker tones in the recording.

More metaphysics were stirred up in May when Olga Stezhko released her ‘Eta Carinae’ album. The Belarusian pianist’s performance of idiosyncratic early-twentieth-century works by Alexander Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni wasn’t just a set of vigorous and individual interpretation: it was a philosophical exercise, and a multi-layered education in itself. Olga’s programmatic intent (and her intriguing sleevenote essay) mapped the pieces onto the explosion of knowledge at the time of their composition, from mysticism to astrophysics, from the development of human reason to the first pryings into the heart of the atom.

Another marriage of the scientific and the numinous arrived in June, when Markus Reuter (best known as an art-rocker who makes evanescent experiments on electric touch guitar) asserted his own entry into orchestral composing. ‘Todmorden 513’ (performed by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra) was at root a cycling, shifting, algorhythmic curtain of mathematical haunts and oblique manipulations. Emerging into the concert hall, it transformed into something greater; far more moving and psychologically suggestive than this dry, blackboard summary I’m offering here.

It was also wonderful to see a long-overdue release compiling music by Richard Causton, whose underrated, thoughtful and mercurial composer’s catalogue remains treasurable to a growing number of music directors but still mostly secret to the public. It deserves more. On the NMC release of ‘Millennium Scenes’, some of this imbalance was redressed. The Hallé Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group provided stunning interpretations of selected Causton works – the queasy alarm and anger of the title piece (which offered a stern critique of millennial triumphalism even as it set the cat amongst the party pigeons), the dense vigour of the Chamber Symphony, the nightscapes of Notturno, the suspended fever-dream of The Persistence Of Memory and the bright-flickering septet colourings of Kingfishers Catch Fire. It was an overdue reminder that (especially when set against the sleight-of-hand of much modern classical composition) Richard Causton’s vivid, surprising compositions have both a rare accessibility and a rare integrity.

Wedding music...On an even more personal note as regards classical music… in October I was best man at the Anglo-Irish-Japanese wedding of Michael O’Callaghan and Yukiko Kondo, which sprawled happily across north London between Islington, Holloway and Highgate. On its own, this would have been an ambitious and inclusive event. The reception made it even more of a remarkable occasion, becoming a loose-limbed, semi-spontaneous classical concert (with various incursions from pop, ukulele cabaret and jazz). Assorted guests, most of them members of The Learning Orchestra, stepped up and played – taking turns to deliver assorted solos, duets and trios by composers including Borodin, Elgar, Mozart, Puccini, Fred Godfrey and Swedish traditional sources. It was a welcome jolt – a reminder to me (so often the lone, semi-detached listener) that music is not just something which we purchase, drip-feed into our ears by speaker or bud or sit in front of; but something that lives and lifts in our own hands, a natural expression of community. Part soiree and part shebeen, the evening’s final coda was a nifty and playful French horn solo by Jim Rattigan in which he fused Charlie Parker, Wagner and Miles Davis, with Donna Lee merging into the Siegfried Horn Call.

Jazz, 2014Jim Rattigan’s own gigs (with variously-sized ensembles) were apparently one of the joys of London jazz life over the past year. Sadly, I played far too little attention to jazz in 2014. I was delighted to hear about the return of Loose Tubes (reconvening to blow up a juicy brass noise for the first time since 1990) but that was yet another one of the gigs I missed. A particular highlight on record was Billy Bottle & The Multiple‘s ‘Unrecorded Beam’ – a sumptuous, slightly Canterbury-flavoured extrapolation from Henry David Thoreau poems which drew on an inspired, solid-yet-shifting ensemble including Kate Westbrook, Mike Outram and Roz Harding (Producer-engineer Lee Fletcher added a stunning extra dimension to the album, weaving and whirling the listener’s perspective into and around the band, as if he’d fitted his microphones to a darting bee). Other than that, my encounters with jazz were fitful. There were downloaded dates with the cinematic torchy musings of Slowly Rolling Camera, and with the bouncing vocalese and spilling piano salad of the Lauren Lee Jazz Project‘s ‘Makebeliever’, but otherwise it was all about old records, or appreciated stolen licks appearing in other genres. I should have done better.

Hip hop, 2014I prefer hip hop when it questions, weaves and converses rather than just constantly retreading a set of brags. With the megalomania and Renaissance man posturings of the main players reaching delirous levels this year (and consequently leaving me cold), my hip hop experience was sidelined. In spite of that, I had my favourites here as well. I enjoyed Ice Cold Sophist; and El-P and Killer Mike’s second album as their continuing Run the Jewels team-up, in which their occasional lyrical brutality was counterbalanced by their quick-shifting skill and invention. Animator and DJ JayMcQ‘s ‘Tales From My Parent’s Spare Bedroom’ was another hit for me: a cheeky turntable mash-up from behind a Philadelphian white-picket fence.

Surprisingly, assorted efforts by Christian rap collective Humble Beast also rode high. Speaking as an atheist (however gentle) if anyone had told me that one of my favourite rap albums of 2014 would be Propaganda’s ‘Crimson Cord’ I’d never have believed them. Still, there it was: a wise, profound, slam-poetic album in which Propaganda’s religious faith never snagged his flow, articulacy or questioning mind but proved to be an integral part of his compassion, positivity, social responsibility and outspokenness. Beautiful Oddity’s lively, omnivorous production style (from shimmering respiring ambience to rock-guitar-edged corner-slams) proved to be the perfect frame.

Overall, however, I didn’t pay enough attention to hip hop. Similarly, although the density and discursive potential of contemporary R&B genuinely appeals to me I heard little that I actually liked this year. As with jazz, I heard a few things bubbling away in assorted underground strata, a world away from perfume-deal hyper-commerciality or from the constipated melismae being squeezed out on TV talent shows… but all those songs were from before 2014. I’m clearly not listening in the right places yet. I must do better this year.

Experimental releases, 2014In contrast to shortfalls in my hip hop and R&B listening, I did get to hear and engage with plenty of noise music, ambient material and post-rock. Although I’m not convinced that ‘Misfit City’’s avant-garde credentials are that predominant, I did receive a lot of music submitted from those areas, containing its fair share of gems. From Trondheim, there was the ferocious cosmic mood-rock of SVK’s ‘Avernus’; from Helsinki, the jazz-noise duo-roar of Good Romans’ ‘Open This Door, Never Look Back’. The far-flung Sontag Shogun collective made a virtue of each of its members being footloose on different continents; on ‘Tale’, they offered an aural world trek piecing together field recordings and accompaniments into a collection of pieces which pursued their playful “lullanoise” concept and also offered an essay on listening.

Experimental and noise releases, 2014From New York, Sufjan Stevens revisited 2001 and reissued his extraordinarily diverse album of poached’n’tossed electronica, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’. Back in Britain, Darkroom steered their flowing, beautifully etiolated landscapes of eerie guitar and airflecking synths into film soundtracking, via ‘Rhombus’.

If you were after purer noise experimentation, you could look to the overwhelming nuclear blatter and power electronics of Cthulhu Detonator ’s ‘Sucking The Blood Of Celestial Bodies’, the fuzz, breath, dazed piano and radiophonic space echoes of Con Rit‘s ‘Drawing Down Of The Moon’. One slice of noisiness which particularly appealed to me was the Herhalen label’s triple-artist cassette ‘Bourgeois Kerb Stomp’, which was split between the bouncing distortions, little mechanisms and samples of Splashy the Blame-Shifter, the torrential drum-machines-and-feedback onslaught of Lenina, and the downbeat Salford dole-life sound-paintings of Ship Canal (one of which was a lo-fi, dirty-Proustian ramble through the artist’s old takeaway food bills).

2014 - Fluttery Records, Hidden Shoal, Silber MediaThe enthusiasm and productivity of certain labels was inspiring. The longstanding wing-and-a-prayer avant-gardeners Silber Media were heroically popping out a little gallery of albums every month, of which ‘Absolut Gehör’ (Origami Arktika’s collection of scutter-and-drone Norwegian psych-folk) was a standout. So too was the gigantic ‘QRD – The Guitarists’ four-hour virtual box set, with no less than fifty-five tracks of experimental cross-genre players buzzing, strumming, droning, looping and mashing their instruments, accompanied by nearly two thousand four hundred pages of interview. (Talk about writing the book on something.)

Fluttery Records bombarded me with assorted post-rock promos during the year, including the expansive Anglo-Scandinavian sonic portraiture of Row Boat‘s ‘In Between’ and the mongrelised techno-rock of AL_X’s ‘Shunt’. Hidden Shoal continued to stake their claim to be releasers of some of the broadest, most accessible art-pop and avant-garde recordings. Some of my favorites were Markus Mehr’s ‘Binary Rooms’ (assorted interferences floating over majestic found sound) and Chloë March’s ‘Nights Bright Days’ (an art-pop songwriter cycle with a Eurydice twist).

Labelless, 2014The label-less and the isolated continued to prove themselves at least as good as the feted and celebrated. From deep in Sussex, Coriaplex offered an ice-dewed trip into space-rock with ‘One Way To Forever’. Perpetually unappreciated outside of certain small arty enclaves in Poland, David Hurn continued to prove himself much more than a London sadcore murmurer. His ‘Museum of You’ EP might not have contained a single syllable of his disillusioned and waspishly compassionate songwriting, but its eerie spacious chamber instrumentals impressed in other ways. Dank with air-driven keyboards, rattles, distant cellos and musique concrete samples, they rumbled like late Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis struck voiceless. Maybe it’s a coincidence that David lives in the East London regions, north of the Thames and east of the Lea, that spawned some of the best British post-rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; or maybe something’s rubbing off.

Another graduate of those particular times and places (former Redbridgian Ian Crause, once the creative force behind Disco Inferno) turned out one of the most outstanding experimental records of the year. Inexplicably snubbed by indie labels and small art endeavours alike, battling indifference and occasional homelessness, he gritted his teeth and completed ‘The Song of Phaethon’. We’d heard an early version of this piece back in 2012, but 2014 saw the whole uncompromising vision flood out as an EP. Like Chloë March, Ian drew on Greek myth, but in a far more immersive way. Using the legend of Apollo’s bastard son (whose sense of entitlement saw him wresting control of the sun-god’s chariot and carelessly scorching the earth before a thunderbolt brought him down) he wove it into a scathing metaphorical critique of neo-liberalism and the Iraq war. His “picturesound” technique melded a trudging bardic chant with a flooding rush of illustrative samples, the biting lyrical fable illustrated and orchestrated by the sound of screaming jets, whinnying horses, munitions, news broadcasts, snatches of other musics from Greece and the Gulf. The artful,vicious coda (Phaethon, lying prone and dying in the wreckage he’d created, still blithely justifying himself) was spiced with samples of Blair bluster. Slap. (Incidentally, right at the end of the year, and just when he seemed to have burnt himself out for a long time, Ian unexpectedly resurfaced with a couple of bright-sounding muttery pop singles, one of them in Spanish…)


* * * *

I seem to have started my look back across the year with a sense of shrunkenness and frustration. Getting to the end of it, I find that even in my own small subjective sliver of 2014 there’s a remarkable richness – and that’s comforting. All things considered, it was a surprisingly good year for music. Frequently, the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. But more about that next time…

REVIEW – Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’ EP, 2012 (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

17 Aug

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:
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REVIEW – Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’ EP, 2001 (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Apr
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

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

8 Apr
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:
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REVIEW – Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’ EP, 2013 (“a harbourful of soused and bobbing vinyl”)

29 Aug
Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: 'Colours'

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin: ‘Colours’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
CS² Recordings.

Jimmy The Hideous Penguin online:
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REVIEW – One Thousand Lucky Cranes: ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’ EP, 2012 (“restful hiccups”)

16 May
One Thousand Lucky Cranes: 'One Thousand Lucky Cranes' EP

One Thousand Lucky Cranes: ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’ EP

From Tennessee to the heart of the mountains of central Japan is a long way. I’m not sure what’s brought Ben Bryant from one to the other, but his debut offering as One Thousand Lucky Cranes shows the stretch. While these four tunes are nominally in the box for downtempo chillout electronica (with a side helping of glitch), they’re also attenuated, deconstructed tunes. Untitled agglutinations. Restful hiccups. A feeling that’s a little like that moment when, relaxing on a beach somewhere, you’re momentarily jolted into realising just how far from home you are.

Despite the tumbling data-flop of its intro (and the corrupting glitch atmospherics which score creases and interruptions into its texture), No.1 quickly reveals itself as deconstructed soul. More specifically, a Philly-inspired slow jam; from the lustrous breath-sighs to the jazzy climbs, to those Air-style analogue doodles with their pitch-bending vocalisé effect. Everything in it has that cushioned lushness and summertime daydream feel to it, with electric piano pads stroked and lovingly distorted into tiled, fuzzed chillout chimes. Notes and sounds have a fallaway feel to them, as Ben toys with wavering queasy pitching or leaves us in expectation. Japanese trinket tinkles worm their way into the mix: toys wearing down their batteries on the console.

There’s a little bit of soul in No.2, though only the slightest taste. One of Ben’s sounds is sourced from the sweetest electric organ sounds, but sliced off the top of the frequencies and rendered from gospel hints into an artful saccharin. Most of the other sounds are flickered by processing – treble-sharpened melody gurgles, a sweet baby-tone climb glimpsed through a strobing blur of reverb. Even the drum sounds (despite keeping a thread of industrial funk running throughout) are inverted and upended, imploded beats and cymbal hits trapped in a thicket.

On No.3, glitched beats are dropped into the music like someone dropping random glass beads into a Geiger counter. A slow phased sweep of synth pads (like the luminous cloud-roll Prophet-noise of the late ‘70s), offers something slightly meditative and slightly irritated, cross-legged but glaring sideways. Layers of glitched percussion twists and carpet-bomb bass distortions are folded into the mix. If you’ve still kept hold of that beachy simile from above, imagine the same, but with little smoke-shells bursting in mid-air above the mellow golden sands.

No.4 rises out of a sea of finely sifted white noise, revealing an ominous minor-key structure behind it. There’s something here that’s similar to the sweetly-sung anxieties of Horace Andy at work with Massive Attack on ‘Mezzanine’: a hint of ghost-town industry, of grand soul with the security sucked out of it… perhaps an echo of Detroit despair imprinted on in the architecture. Rather than Andy’s sensual suede-creak of a voice, though, the vocal here is an accelerated burble, part-housefly and part child-babble, stretching and meandering around the slow-stepping arches of fuzzy melody. Glitch-taps and dubstep activity fire about in the percussion, data-screeches kick some cold sparks off the chords. Throughout, the white noise comes through in hose-spurts; or tide-smacks, pushing its way through the buildings – a dream of the first drops of the flood. As with all of the tracks on this EP, the sense of solidity, dislocation and imminent upset come bundled close together, blurred over like a multiple exposure.

One Thousand Lucky Cranes: ‘One Thousand Lucky Cranes’
One Thousand Lucky Cranes (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Vinyl/download EP
Released: 26th November 2012

Get it from:
Nimbit Music, Bandcamp.

One Thousand Lucky Cranes online:
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REVIEW – no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’ EP, 1998 (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

9 May

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. no-man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single no-man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.

It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”

In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

no-man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.

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