January 2019 – upcoming London jazz gigs – memories of black resistance and striving in Elaine Mitchener’s ‘Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde’ (7th January) and Rufus Reid’s ‘Quiet Pride’ (29th January)

3 Jan

This month, there are two very different opportunities to immerse yourself in historical music stemming from black resistance and the American civil rights struggle; the conflation of brutual oppression, storms, suffering and self-assertion which inform today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement.

One of these events is an edgy art-scream of vintage fighting classics, happening inside a rough-walled underground music stronghold. The other features music that’s barely seven years old, takes place in a lofty varnished orchestral concert hall at the heart of the British classical music world, comes varnished by a couple of Grammy nominations and represents the other end of the struggle: more well-spoken, staunchly dignified, talking back at the oppressor in something closer to his own language on his own terrain.

Would each of these efforts give the other house room? I’d like to think that they would.

* * * * * * * *

'Vocal Classics Of The Black Avant Garde', 7th January 2019

Tireless vocal/physical-movement improviser and conceptual explorer Elaine Mitchener returns to Café Oto with a revival of her ‘Vocal Classics of the Black Avant Garde’ project (originally compiled and performed for the London Festival of Contemporary Music at the end of 2017). Re-examining 1960s and 1970s works composed by Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Joseph Jarman and Jeanne Lee, it studies and recreates “the overflow of experiment that occurred within improvised music, often springing directly from lived experiences of racial injustice… combin(ing) vocals and text with experimental jazz forms.”

Musical direction for the evening will come from reknowned saxophonist Jason Yarde – an improviser-composer who steps confidently between jazz and conservatoire culture. He’ll be at the head of a band consisting of pianist Dominic Canning, Elaine’s regular bassist Neil Charles, trumpeter and flautist Byron Wallen and the consistently staggering drummer/percussionist Mark Sanders. It’s a little unclear as to whether Elaine’s regular sparring partner Alexander Hawkins will be joining in on keyboards this time, but expat American poet Dante Micheaux is down to join Elaine on spoken/sung word.

Joseph Jarman

Joseph Jarman

It’s safe to say that while this music’s around fifty years old now, the content’s not going to be cosy. Expect some old wounds, some revolutionaries’ pride and some old fire to be raked over and rekindled. As Elaine writes, “these works illuminate an occluded moment in American cultural history, when the avant-garde aesthetics of new jazz doubled as a metaphor for the imminent politics of civil rights.

“Composed in very specific response to the perilous condition of black people in America, the works’ synthesis of experimental sensibilities, radical political sentiment, and gutbucket expression cuts across boundaries of time and space to resonate universally in the here and now. In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, these works speak powerfully of the need for resistance and resilience, sound stark and original, their hypermodernism firmly rooted in vernacular tradition.”

It doesn’t seem that anything of the previous show’s been recorded (or if it has been, it’s not been released), so here’s a little from one of Elaine’s previous projects as an indicator; plus a little Shepp, Lee and Jarman.





 
* * * * * * * *

Reminding us that the politics of dignity and survival (and the business of conveying an urgent message) comes in many different forms and tones, African-American double bassist Rufus Reid is reviving his 2012 jazz orchestra suite ‘Quiet Pride’ in London later in January. A limber, elegant musician and composer with profound roots in classical trumpet and bass, Rufus (like Jason Yarde) also straddles the worlds of jazz and music education with equal enthusiasm, grace and fervour. He has been playing in both small and sizeable jazz groups since the late ‘60s and composing for about the same length of time, moving into the world of large-scale compositions in 2011 with his symphonic orchestral work ‘Mass Transit’.

Rufus Reid (photo © Jimmy Katz)

Rufus Reid (photo © Jimmy Katz)

‘Quiet Pride’ was written to honour and illustrate the work of late African–American sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett, and Rufus has taken it around the universities and culture halls of the USA whenever possible. This particular performance of the suite will be rendered by the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra under the direction of London jazz composer and educator Scott Stroman (with, I think, Rufus as conductor). While Rufus prefers to play alongside or surrounded by actual Catlett prints and sculptures for honour, reflection and continuity, there aren’t any to hand at the Guildhall and so the performance will be accompanied by projected Catlett images.


 
Set against the Oto show, it could be tempting to decry this as bourgeois slickness, a birch-and-beech art gallery indulgence co-opting jazz into the spaces of white power structures or celebrating some kind of house-Negro ethic. That would be unfair, shallow and revolting. To dispel that kind of wretched political preciousness, consider Elizabeth Catlett’s actual life; the source of her art and the ultimate inspiration for Rufus’ humming, quick-footed, assertive music in which (according to ‘All About Jazz’s Dan Bilawsky) “chamber-esque civility can give way to a feeling of uncertainty which, in turn, can morph into swing. Focus shifts from the textural to the rhythmic, the background to the foreground, and the subtle to the obvious. The music is mutable and multifaceted but that’s not really surprising; sculptures can take on different meaning when viewed from different angles so the music should certainly do the same.”

A pioneering presence as both a black and a female sculptor in America (at a time when few of either were to be found – or, more pertinently, allowed) Elizabeth perpetually fused art and activism, mostly through effort and moral choices. Flat-out rejected as a scholar by the Carnegie Institute of Technology due to her skin colour; struggling against direct, demoralising racist university policies while studying for a Masters in Iowa (and, later on, being stripped of her American citizenship as a result of her Communist associations and her gestures of solidarity with striking Mexican railway workers), hers is a story of personal industry, profound ethical responsibility, and effort against the odds.

Her time in Mexico (where she settled for much of her life, first learning and subsequently teaching) was also the catalyst for the crystallizing of her artistic vision, uniting her early influences of Henry Moore, Diego Rivera and pre-Columbian American sculpture with a commitment to combining aspirational concepts of strength and fierce dignity with representative figure forms. “I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful” she’d assert, later. “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”



 

Elizabeth’s figures and prints survive her and bear witness to her particular vision. Emblematic of black dignity, of powerful maternal femininity, of a refusal to be chained down by prejudices and programmes, they cradle their children; staunchly assert their curves; stand straight-backed, defiant and admirable; reveal the hidden or overlooked complexities of the black mind and sense of self; or punch the air as a simple, stark and meaningful mark of resistance. They’re already, in their way, as direct and as intricate as jazz: something which Rufus clearly understood from the start and has strived himself to bring across in music.


 
Dates:

Elaine Mitchener Projects presents:
Vocal Classics of the Black Avant Garde: Jason Yarde + Elaine Mitchener + Mark Sanders + Neil Charles + Dante Micheaux + Byron Wallen + Alexander Hawkins
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Monday 7th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here

Guildhall Jazz Orchestra/Rufus Reid/Scott Stroman: ‘Quiet Pride – The Elizabeth Catlett Project’
Milton Court Concert Hall @ Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Silk Street, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DT, England
Tuesday 29th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here, here and here
 

January 2019 – upcoming London classical gigs – baroque, folk and present-day music intertwine at the second Baroque At The Edge festival (4th to 6th January)

2 Jan

Baroque At The Edge festivalAs regards classical music, this month appears to be opening with London’s second annual Baroque At The Edge festival across the 4th, 5th and 6th January. Dividing its time between the Clerkenwell classical-church venues of LSO St Lukes and St James Clerkenwell, it starts from a baroque basis but roughly postulates (as it did last year) along the genre-blurring lines of “imagine if Bach was a jazzman, Purcell a folk-fiddler, and Monteverdi a minimalist…”

Following on from 2018’s debut festival, there’ll be a return engagement with concert dramatist Clare Norburn. Having tackled the murderous guilt and glory of Carlo Gesualdo last time around, Clare’s new work ‘Burying The Dead’ (premiered in the West Country last May) is another deathbed dream drama: this time set in 1695 and focusing on the final protracted thoughts and hallucinations of Henry Purcell as “dream-like memories of the Plague, the Fire of London, family life and the vibrant Restoration stage merge seamlessly with his exquisite vocal and instrumental music.” Said music will be provided by London-based baroque ensemble Ceruleo, who commissioned the play, while actor Niall Ashdown features as Purcell.


 
There’s more Purcell-related goings-on via Cecil Sharp House choir director and Wing-It Singer leader Sally Davies, who with her chorally-minded pianist daughter Holly Cullen Davies is running an open-to-all English folksong workshop, focussing on the songs Purcell would have known and referred to. In a similar spirit, the festival’s closing concert features a team-up of Dipper Malkin (John Dipper on fourteen-string viola d’amore, Dave Malkin on guitar and vocals) and singing storyteller Nick Hennessy – all three keen folk-steeped reinventors, on this occasion exploring how “the sophistication of Purcell meets the soul of English folk.”



 
Several more cross-disciplinary players are taking part. Violist Liam Byrne promises a concert in which you can “expect anything, anyhow, from (Marin) Marais to (Nico) Muhly, although he’s keeping schtum on whether he’s playing pure and acoustic or with the electronics or conceptual tricks which make up the other side of his playing. Path-forging post-classical singer Nora Fischer, accompanied by theorbo lutenist Mike Fentross, will delve into the world of seventeenth century song with “intimate and exquisite re-imaginings of works by Purcell, Peri, Monteverdi and others.”




 

Elsewhere in the festival, vigorous violinist Elicia Silverstein will join the dots between Bach and Biber (representing the baroque) and Luciano Berio and Salvatore Sciarrino (representing the contemporary), as demonstrated on her 2018 debut recording ‘The Dreams And Fables I Fashion’. Replacing a planned baroque piano concert from Gabriela Montero (after she had to drop out following surgery), her fellow pianist David Greilsammer provides his ‘Scarlatti:Cage:Sonatas’ dual keyboard programme which constantly interlaces the music of Domenico Scarlatti with the twentieth-century prepared piano compositions of John Cage (hardware, wood and rubber resonating and burring between the strings).




 
Less compressed information, plus full dates and ticket info, can be found at the festival’s homepage and Facebook page.

‘Baroque At The Edge’
LSO St Luke’s, 161 Old Street, St Lukes, London, EC1V 9NG, England
St James Clerkenwell, Clerkenwell Close, Clerkenwell, London, EC1R 0EA, England
Friday 4th January to Saturday 6th January 2019 (various times)
– information here and here
 

January 2019 – upcoming London folk gigs – Laboratorium Pieśni (5th January); Sincere Deceivers + Amy May Ellis (18th January); Shirley Collins in the round (31st January)

1 Jan

Premiering last month’s new album ‘Rasti’, heady world-folkers Laboratorium Pieśni make one of their regular returns to London at the start of the month, playing the grand octagonal space of the Union Chapel. Entering their sixth acclaimed year as a band, they’re an all-female seven-piece of polyphonic harmony singers and multi-instrumentalists from the Tri-City district of northern Poland, cooking up a stew of song with traditional material (initially from the Ukraine, but with a songbook now swollen to incorporate music from Poland, Belarus, Bulgaria and Turkey among others).


 
In keeping with the group’s identity as a “song laboratory” – as well as with their connection to instinctive responses and to healing processes – the songs which Laboratorium Pieśni play are festooned with flutes, violins, rebabs, shruti box drones and a web of tuned and untuned percussion (from chimes, gongs and rattles to shamanic drums), adding a mystical cosmic-feminine shimmer to the music’s existing roots. You can listen to an interview with the Laboratorium women (conducted by Canadian television station TVNR) here.



 
* * * * * * * *

Closer to home and further forward in time, propulsive electro-acoustic folk-pop trio Sincere Deceivers (with roots in Yorkshire but now resident in London) return to action via a new semi-live EP of original songs – their first in half a decade. ‘Hot Handed’ is the lead-off track – a yearning, Martin Furey-esque song of romantic obsession, full of chiming guitar and swirling cello.




 
For their Sebright Arms gig, Sincere Deceivers will be joined by another Yorkshire friend: emergent singer-songwriter Amy May Ellis. She’s touting last autumn’s debut EP ‘Weathered By Waves’: five dreamy ukelele-driven, water-fixated, altered-state song musings on youthful restlessness and the dislocation of emotion (orchestrated with shruti drones, harps and the soft echoing ghosts of guitar strings).




 
* * * * * * * *

A cornerstone figure of living English folk music is appearing at the Roundhouse at the end of the month, as part of the venue’s extensive In The Round concert season. Back in the mid-’60s Shirley Collins was one of the main exponents of the English folk revival: in her case, a revival drawing on a childhood fascination with the old folk songs which emerged from underneath the blanket of popular culture at times of stress or memory, as well as spells learning and researching alongside voracious American folk curator Alan Lomax and reconstructive British rule-setter Ewan MacColl (both of whom, to put it mildly, didn’t always credit or respect her for her own work, intelligence or contributions).

Shirley Collins, 31st January 2019

Beginning her career at the cusp of the ’50s and ’60s by taking Pete Seeger’s vocal-and-banjo American revival model of old and new work (and transmuting it into a more transatlantic mode), Shirley gradually worked her way deeper back into English forms. Along the way, she recorded the benchmark guitar-and-vocal album ‘Folk Routes, New Routes’ (with folk baroque guitarist Davy Graham) and a number of albums featuring the startling arrangements of her own keyboard-playing sister Dolly, plus foundational ’70s folk rock and Morris revival records with the Albion Country Band, the Morris On project and others.

Over the years she has inspired plenty of other musicians, be they the crop of folk-rockers who sprang up in her wake at the time, or more latterday disciples including alt.folk and alt.country explorers (such as Angel Olson and Josephine Foster), square-peg rock musicians with broad listening habits (such as Blur’s Graham Coxon and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), off-beat songwriters who delightedly snag themselves onto folk ideas (such as Richard Larcombe of Lost Crowns and Stars In Battledress) or folk-tinged textural experimentalists like Current 93’s David Tibet and eclecti-ambient duo Cyclobe (the former of whom coaxed her back into musical work in 2006, and the latter of whom produced her 2016 comeback album ‘Lodestar’). Most recently, she’s been embraced by various exponents of the New Weird Britain musical movement, drawn to her songs by their archaeological texture and their frequent accounts of dark psychological swells, stark menace and human injustice.


 
Yet Shirley’s spiritual legacy resides most purely in anyone (particularly, any woman) who picks up the thread of folk archetypes, winnows out any temptations towards twee fluffery and glib romantic posturing, and returns to the unadorned human grain of the music. Her own personal commitment and connection to the work, and to living the work honestly, is absolute (for good or ill – assailed by a traumatic late ’70s divorce from the Albion Band’s Ashley Hutchings, the impact of which slipped in under her staunch guard, she was physically unable to sing for the best part of thirty years). Shorn of the halo of veneration, her recordings are sparse and matter-of-fact, her voice that of a neighbourhood teller of tales (many of them harsh) rather than some fluting bel canto feelgood exercise. The natural habitat and venue for her work would seem to be some stone-flagged kitchen or ancient pub space rather than a concert hall: perhaps the focussing-lens effect of the Roundhouse’s setting and seating will meet that need halfway.




 
* * * * * * * *

Dates as follows:

Laboratorium Pieśni
Union Chapel, 19b Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, England
Saturday 5th January 2019, 8.00pm
– information here and here

The Folkroom presents:
Sincere Deceivers + Amy May Ellis
The Sebright Arms, 33-35 Coate Street, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9AG, England
Friday, 18 January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here

Shirley Collins
The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, Camden Town, London, NW1 8EH, England
Thursday 31st January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here

In memory of Vaughan Simons, 1971-2018

5 Dec

Vaughan Simons...

Vaughan Simons…

Sometime around the end of October, Vaughan Simons died.

I didn’t see it coming. As for Vaughan, he said that he didn’t want memorials, wakes or get-togethers. I’m finding it impossible to comply with all of that. For all of the self-erasing bluster we sometimes put out in our darkest moments, few of us can simply dissolve into the murk of other people’s forgetfulness after we die. Vaughan certainly won’t.

Probably many of you reading this won’t have heard of Vaughan. He won’t be on any of the end-of-year obituary lists of the great and good, or of the famous. If you have heard of him, most likely you’ll be one of the friends I’ve directed here… or you may, long ago in the mists of the late 1990s, have read one of his reviews in ‘Misfit City’. If so, you’ll been have scrolling through reams of clumsy HTML in order to alight upon one of his confections of barbed sugar, bile and forward-looking conviction.

If Vaughan were still here, he’d downplay any credit, but he was very much the ‘Misfit City’ co-founder. In the early days, while it was me who was driving the project, writing most of the material and doing much of the legwork, it was Vaughan who was ensuring that I was less lonely while doing so. Vaughan also played a big part in shaping the incipient webzine’s tastes, and its spirit of enquiry. He lifted some of my obsessive blinkers, gently challenged some of my own unacknowledged conservatism, opened a window or three. If you’re a regular reader, or you’re becoming one, much of what you probably like about ‘Misfit City’ is built on Vaughan’s efforts and encouragement.

I first met Vaughan in 1990, when both of us were new arrivals at the University of Hull. I was a Londoner, he was a West Country boy. Both of us were a little ill at ease in this battered city resting where east England shades into north England: out on its stalk of railway line, miles from anywhere much; a place where Northerners and Midlanders seemed so much more at ease, with their accents and outlooks settling better into the Humberside atmosphere. Vaughan and I had both shown up there looking for some kind of redemption or vindication: initially on the Drama course we both attended. Both of us being serious, thin-skinned people with a tendency to cover our fear with sardonic wit, we never quite figured out the rhythms and cues of a Hull social life.

This was one of the things that bound us. Another, in a jumpy and uneasy way, was music.

Again, we weren’t coming from the same place. I was formed from a background of musical theatre, classical, the pop I’d absorbed from years of independent library raids, and the extended palette of jazz and prog rock. Vaughan was more of a staunch indie-rock man. This was partially due to an affinity with that Lou Reed aesthetic, and partly due to close exposure to (and shoulder-rubbing with) arty indie strivers from his Yeovil hometown: The Becketts, The Chesterfields and Automatic Dlamini, the latter featuring future art-rock mainstay John Parish and a fledgling Polly Harvey. By the time I got into higher education, few people seemed to care all that much about music as something to listen to, something to think about. Vaughan was an exception.


 
The opportunities for clash and camaraderie were there from the start. During our first year, Vaughan and I would occasionally huddle opposite each other in our respective rooms, grumpily playing each other cassettes. Our sessions were sometimes aggressive, often temperamental: two lonely would-be tastemakers falling over each other’s feet, finding each other’s taste inexplicable. Notably, I tried to get him into Yes – the attempt was one of several five-second failures which I’ll not bother to list. But Vaughan, in turn, exposed me to Pixies, the nagging ennui of Bleach, the disillusioned angst of Furniture, bits of The Fall; my first dose of My Bloody Valentine’s holocaust guitar; the first fumblings into the Velvets and Lou Reed records I’d somehow missed as a teenager.

For what it’s worth, when we did reach a consensus it wasn’t entirely a matter of me being schooled. For instance, we reached a point of agreement over mid-’70s King Crimson (whose barrage of rattling noise, violin drone and gnarly guitar got through Vaughan’s resistance) and when I countered MBV’s microtonal pitch-bending hallucino-pop with the tonal guitar swerves of David Torn. As for me, I gradually absorbed what Vaughan was bringing to the table, and as I held onto my roots but expanded my tastes indiewards (into the likes of The House of Love, the rare-bird shimmer of Cocteau Twins and the classical-industrial sampler bombast of The Young Gods), we came more into line.





 
By then, of course, we’d become mutually accepting, mutually supportive friends, doing what we could to back each other up. Beyond the cassette sessions, there wasn’t much more music during this part of the tale. The story of our theatre work is probably best told some other time. We did once pitch in together for a cabaret cover version of Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus (Vaughan as a bulky balaclava’d terrorist on piano, me as a leathered-up comedy rock-god on bass with balled-up sports socks shoved down my trousers). There was also a brief period working on a body-politics University revue, with future Suede member Neil Codling (a rapid, matter-of-fact composer and multi-instrumental jack-of-all-trades, who took one of my lyrics about fashion and tailoring and spun it to a jaunty tune that’s yet to appear as a Suede B-side).

Vaughan probably had fonder memories of his staging of Jim Cartwright’s dream play ‘Bed’, which we took to the Edinburgh fringe in 1993. I worked closely with him on that one: acting under his direction, serving as his auxiliary brain while we combed through the script’s allusive dream-logic, and tracking down Jean Michel Jarre’s ghostly, uncharacteristic ‘En Attendant Cousteau’ as intro music. (It was one of the few times when I got the Euro-prog side of my musical tastes past Vaughan’s implacable guard. I didn’t tell him who’d created it until he’d chosen it…)


 
Post-Hull, Vaughan and I regrouped in London during 1994. While bumbling along wondering whether life was ever going to start, we kept each other stimulated by swapping homemade music comps via cassettes through the post. Quicker off the mark with job-hunting than I was, Vaughan had more ready cash than I did. He spent a fair chunk of it on hunting down left-field tunes and textures. An early adopter of communication technology, he appreciated my geeky fascination with recording details. He’d picked up a little tiny printer, and would always indulge me by sending his cassettes with little typed-out slips filling me in on who played what. These always came with irreverent miniature essays, which I appreciated even more. Even after I’d bought the original CDs myself, I’d keep Vaughan’s essays and slip them into the booklets.

Nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve still got them all. I loved Vaughan’s delighted enthusiasms, which overturned his guarded cynicism and dispelled his intermittent grumpiness. He’d wax lyrical on the phoenix-like, post-folk return to action of Eyeless in Gaza. He’d provide me with perky little ruminations on dubtronicists Seefeel; on murmuring post-Pale Saints duo Spoonfed Hybrid; on indie-folk songstress Heidi Berry, her albums festooned with various former members of Cardiacs (another of Vaughan’s favourite bands, and one which would reduce him to a guileless smirking mess of joy).

Vaughan introduced me to what we’d both come to see as a “holy British quadrinity” of post-rock – Moonshake, Laika, AR Kane and Disco Inferno (who collectively, while less prominent than the Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky consensus we’re stuck with today, achieved and meant so much more). He once bought me a copy of White Town’s ‘Your Woman’ and sent it along by post – just as the song hit number one – with a handwritten letter raving unguardedly about its homemade aesthetic, pluck and left-wing in-jokes.


 
When I decided – circa 1996 – to set up ‘Misfit City’, one of the first things I thought of were Vaughan’s miniature essays. It was natural to invite Vaughan onboard, and to encourage him to expand his original off-the-cuff enthusings into longer reviews. Also, since I’d been spending the last few years on a prog rock zine (trying, with mixed success, to get classic/neo-prog fans to expand their outlook into a broader concept of “progressive”) I thought he’d expand my own scope.

Consequently, during the first three years of the original crude-format ‘Misfit City’ webzine you’d have been able to find assorted Vaughan’s-eye views dotted through the pages. His enthusiasm for Eyeless in Gaza, Disco Inferno and Bark Psychosis made it into the early postings, and he was soon bringing in more. He covered Cranes (growling at them for slumping into college rock), one-off trip-hoppers Ragga & The Jack Magic Orchestra, and avant-pop trio R.O.C. (another new favourite).

Only a couple of years out of the closet himself, he explored Patrick Fitzgerald’s flagrantly gay post-Kitchens of Distinction romp, Fruit. He let his romantic side and his cynical side tussle it out over The Bathers. At a time when half of the arty writers in town were fawning over Spiritualized, he delivered a measured dissection of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’ (and although I’m not one for outright critical bitchery, I think I’ll always treasure his brutally blunt putdown of their parent band, Spacemen 3, in the opening paragraph).

I’d also occasionally feed Vaughan things from outside his immediate knowledge base and comfort zone, and wait for a response: whether it was positive (Jocelyn Pook, John Greaves & David Cunningham) or scathing (State Of Grace). Vaughan and I would also collaborate, via various methods, as “Col Ainsley”, combining our insights, our perspectives and our occasional cheap shots. Mostly, this involved me adding odd gracings to Vaughan’s stern dressing-down of James’ ‘Whiplash’, his intrigued exploration of ‘Wappinschaw’ (by transfigured noiseniks Cindytalk), and his surprisingly warm response to The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’. It also led to reviews of erratically ambitious skunk-rockers Lo Fidelity Allstars, of enigmatic early post-rockers Labradford and emergent art-tronica force Darkroom, and of Bill Nelson during his surprisingly successful drum-and-bass/Beat-poet period.

The Ainsley method generally involved Vaughan starting a review and me finishing it, chucking in an image or association which I thought was in keeping with his perspective. He always congratulated me when he thought I’d nailed it. When I didn’t, he kept a generous diplomatic silence. If he ever found me pushy or domineering, he didn’t say so.

Don’t expect any stories of wild times in grubby shared flats; or tales of baiting or celebrating indie-hopefuls to their faces. There are none. Likewise, there were no precarious nights out on coke, E or speed; and there were none of the I-Ching pranks, the gleeful bitching clubs or the twenty-four hour fire-station atmospheres which always seem to bubble up in the memoirs of the journalists who cut their writing teeth while working on the music weeklies. Vaughan and I were more sober, more obscure characters – mostly out of the music biz loop and generally half a city away from each other, with much of our contact by phone or email. While I spent several years in shared accommodation in Stoke Newington (turning my room and my shrinking amount of shared space into a man-cave), Vaughan was working his way up through one-bedroomers in Acton and, later, Clapham.


 
Occasionally I’d inveigle him out for gigs. I suspect that getting him over to Shepherds Bush to see Barenaked Ladies was an elaborate tease, but that seeing Sylvian & Fripp (and, later, a MIDI-ed-to-the-gills six-piece King Crimson) was more of a celebration of friendship. The camaraderie remained. We were a pair of lonely, earnest, sidelined brains; writing as and when we could; bobbing on the millions-strong sea of self-obsessed insomniac lights that made up London.

By 1999, however, things were changing. I was sulking in low-status clerical work by day and obsessively, stubbornly hammering out ‘Misfit City’ reviews by night. Vaughan, meanwhile, was shifting focus. He’d always been meticulous, but now he was going professional and doing it well, working for the BBC on then-nascent internet projects of the kind we take for granted now. He found the idea of “WAP phones” particularly hilarious, mostly because the name suggested Wile E. Coyote and slapstick. The irony is that you’re probably reading ‘Misfit City’ on one now; and Vaughan’s last-ever advice to me was on how I might tailor the blog to fit better into the world of phone-browsing.

At the same time, Vaughan’s musical stance was relaxing, and my former champion of esoteric left-field indie was guilelessly singing the praises of the early Coldplay singles. I wasn’t judgemental or stupid enough to feel that he was selling out, but I could recognise that he was unbending a little. He didn’t reject ‘Misfit City’ as such, but he no longer had the time to concentrate on it. We gradually, blamelessly drifted in our different directions, birthday meetings eventually yielding to radio silence.

Vaughan out and about...

Vaughan out and about…

The best part of a decade later, I reconnected with Vaughan via Facebook – not because I was looking for a writer, but because I missed my friend and because technology was now enticing old buddies back together again. By then, Vaughan had gained plenty more experience as a writer and solo blogger; as a sardonic forum star; as a man who knew how to put things together and lead teams. Musically, his fleeting enthusiasm for Coldplay and their ilk was long gone. During the last decade of his life he was sunk deeply and appreciatively in the world of Manchester indie-folk: Louis Barrabas, Ríoghnach Connolly’s ongoing adventures in Honeyfeet and The Breath. From what I can gather, it seemed to be one of the few things which dragged him out of his flat and out of London.

Vaughan was glad to hear from me, and we were talking on and off up until the month that he died; but we never met face-to-face again. There were various reasons for this. Throughout the whole time I’d known him, it had been obvious that Vaughan suffered from assorted illnesses and troubles which affected his self-image and how certain people were likely to view him (and even, sometimes, what he was allowed to do). Later on, these roadblocks even come to affect what he was capable of doing. On top of that, there were hauntings: tormenting bits of his past that circled like ghostly sharks and regularly savaged him. Often he preferred to be alone, ensconsced at home, safely insulated behind phones and wires – even while friendships remained central to his existence.

Despite his troubles, Vaughan soldiered on and, in many respects, achieved more than many of the unencumbered. This past month, I’ve been hearing from many people (most of them strangers) about how inspirational he was as a boss at the BBC internet coalface; or as someone to virtually cross swords/slap palms with on some forum or other; as a poster of vinegar-wry wit, or as an encourager of other people’s blossoming via their own blogs. In his last years, Vaughan single-handed ran the Pixel+Pilcrow web design company from his flat, assiduously providing excellent, state-of-the-art modular homepages for customers and friends (most of whom eventually overlapped, one way or the other).

Yet, metaphorically and literally, his illnesses and challenges were taking pieces out of him and eroding his life. As I saw these things happening (generally behind the fierce shield of Vaughan’s stubborn dignity, and often only perceptible via dropped hints) I came to regret my reticence. I wish that I’d had the brass neck to intervene sometimes, and maybe risk hurting his feelings, but perhaps providing the chance to help him to make things better.

And then, one morning, he was gone forever.

* * * * * * * *

When I relaunched ‘Misfit City’ in blog format about eight years ago, I’d decided to make it much more my own thing. By mutual consent, I didn’t re-mount Vaughan’s contributions. At that point, he considered them juvenilia and curios in a writing career which spanned original blogwork, technical writing and sardonic children’s stories.

Since his death, I’ve reconsidered my position, and those reviews are now all back up in ‘Misfit City’ as part of an ongoing reworking of the blog. You can read them via the links above; or, if you want to coast through them all, you can get them in a sorted sequence (with this memorial at the top) by following the tags for Vaughan’s name or for Col Ainsley.

Re-reading them now, two things occur to me: Vaughan was right about them being juvenilia, but it also doesn’t matter. Like many of my own writing at the time, these reviews betray many of the flaws, pretensions, awkwardnesses and quick judgements of writing by people not yet out of their twenties, yet also not quite on the ball as regards youth cool (whether spontaneous or studied), nor knowing which instinctive steps to take in order to pass themselves off as tastemakers.

Yet the man’s voice, and mind, razzes through regardless. Tart, salty, Anglo-Germanic; sometimes surprisingly coy or camp; clearly in love with his subject, and only partially covering up his enthusiasm with that deflecting humour and that peanut-gallery sarcasm. It was right for the zine. At the start, ‘Misfit City’ was unashamedly awkward, hopeful, geeky and anxious. It keeps those characteristics now; and Vaughan was, in those early years, an integral part of that spirit.

* * * * * * * *

Goodbye, Vaughanie. You never knew how much people were going to miss you. I know you hated phoney sentiment and how annoyed you got at people’s tendency to blather along with their half-arsed well-meaningness (when they should have been getting up and doing something solid to help), but I do what I can to commemorate you.

Right now, I’m tempted to pick up something I know you couldn’t get along with – one of the most balloon-headed Yes albums, say, or the Lloyd Webber ‘Requiem’ – just so that I can imagine telling you about it down the phone. Just so that I can invite you to write something about it. So I could hear the whistle of you sucking your cheeks in and squirming; and finally, hear that carefully polite, firm, impeccably-enunciated “er… No,” emerge from your mouth. As if you’d spent the intervening three seconds mouthing a sugar cube into a tiny statuette of a unicorn, and had just delicately spat it out, completed with its own little sculpted, candied glare.

You were always a sweetheart, in sarcastic-git’s clothing. Sleep well, you lovely fraud; you wise, spiky friend.
 

December 2018 – upcoming London rock gigs – Terry Bickers guests with ZOFFF at a psychedelic extravaganza also featuring Knifeworld, Spratleys Japs, assorted Cardiacs and Mike Vennart (21st December)

4 Dec

Spratleys Japs + Knifeworld + ZOFFF. 21st December 2018Just before Christmas, Terry Bickers (evergreen cult guitarist with The House of Love, and one of a slim pantheon of late ’80s/early ’90s Brit-indie guitar heroes alongside Johnny Marr, John Squire, Nick McCabe and a handful of others) is playing a London guest slot with Brightonian psych-rockers ZOFFF. This isn’t the first time he’s done it. A similar collision and happy entanglement is recorded and celebrated on ZOFF’s brand new live album ‘IV’, capturing the September 2017 set in Brighton in which Terry first joined them on stage.

It’s a reconciliation as much as a guesting – after his first spectacular falling-out with The House Of Love, back in 1989, Terry spent four years fronting post-punk psychmonsters Levitation, interweaving his cetacean-contrail guitars with those of former Cardiac Bic Hayes. It’s a period of his career that’s played down now, in the usual, conservative prodigal-son narrative which implies that he was a one-band indie hero who went astray, fiddled about with nothing much, finally saw sense and came back. But while Levitation lasted they were pretty inspirational: a hell-for-leather band of roaring textures and high anxiety which lasted until a depression-fuelled spat saw Terry falling out with the entire band and very publically ejecting himself.


 
It took a long time – and a long course of growing up – for rapprochement to happen, but happen it did. Bic now strums, wails and noises for ZOFFF (alongside Brighton go-to drummer Damo Waters, modular audio-visual synth maverick Richard Gorbutt and Crayola Lectern duo Chris Anderson and Al Strachan) creating a massive brass-laden textural throb of psychedelic sleet. As part of the renewed friendship, Terry’s increasingly been invited along to ZOFFF shows by Bic to resume their mutually supportive, strange-bedfellow guitar duello. By all accounts, he fits right in. Here’s a preview of all of them, including Terry, raising consciousness and the roof down at the ‘IV’ gig in Brighton last autumn (plus a brief phone clip of Terry in action and in the moment)…



 
ZOFFF are playing as part of a pre-Christmas bill which maintains a much-missed tradition. Until they were brought to a crashing halt a decade ago, Cardiacs hosted an annual gathering of their diverse fantribe (usually at the London Astoria) at which they’d play their exuberant, noisy, cryptid pop songs (transmissions from some imaginary Atlantic plateau where no musical forms either died out or became incompatible) and, like kind eccentric uncles, fostered support slots for the likes of Oceansize, Goddamn Whores, The Monsoon Bassoon, Sidi Bou Said, Johnny 4 and other acts from off the beaten track. It was one of the most warm and exciting nights in the alt.rock, or alt.universe, pop calendar, and since Cardiacs’ enforced retirement in 2008 (when leader Tim Smith got very sick indeed – see plenty of past posts), it’s been down to people from those bands, and others, to keep the tradition going. Which they have, building up to this biggest-yet post-Cardiacs event.


 
Nominally headlining are Spratleys Japs – at one time, an obscure Cardiacs/Tim Smith spinoff. In recent years they’ve been resurrected by their co-vocalist Jo Spratley to celebrate this studio-bound hedge-rock corner of Tim’s work: a kind of wild forest variant on Cardiacs (like a series of strange tome pages, faulty language primer scraps and tufts of Syd Barrett’s pubes ritually scattered and hung from briars throughout Mythago Wood). Now, they’re advancing along the neglected but still-open pathways it set up. Joined by her son Jesse on bass, plus ZOFF’s Damo Waters and psychedelic French escapees the Rodes brothers, Jo’s reinvigorated the original knotty/peculiar Japs songs and (over the past year) built some more of them from scratch, much to Tim’s delight. (“You get wisped away round some corner of God knows wot. You knew it was gonna be good, but not this good…”)

A few of these new songs will be made available at the show as the band launch a boutique vinyl single – the usual deal: limited edition, double-yer-action a-side, hand-carved by trained mice, signatures and so forth. For a longer, more fleshed-out story, try here. For a taste of Spratleys old and new, see below.




 
Also at the party are ever-rising post-Cardiacs crew Knifeworld, led by the irrepressible Kavus Torabi. His ever-broadening string of exploits have included fronting the current Gong and the long-lost Monsoon Bassoon, guitarring for Guapo and the late-lineup Cardiacs, gabbling nonsense in between records on DJ dates with snooker ace-turned-weird-rock patron Steve Davis, and adding a little extra weirdness to the interim-Pogues music of Spider Stacy. Over the course of a decade and four records, his Knifeworld work has spiralled up from a solo project to become a honkingly powerful brass-and-reed-laden all-star octet; interlacing prog, indie rock, psych, experimental tones and cycling minimalism into an exuberant package of lysergic babble and quadruple-ended hookery.


 
Everything’s being lit by south coast psychedelic illuminators Innerstrings; and for bonuses, Bic’s contributing a DJ set, as are Kavus and Steve Davies. Plus, there’s going to be a jamboree set of Cardiacs covers and reinterpretations. This will feature a pile-on scratch band featuring Spratleys Japs bolstered by members of all three of the night’s other bands, plus yet another former Cardiacs guitarist (wildcard and Wildheart Jon Poole) and former Oceansize frontman Mike Vennart (currently stretching ears and punishing stages with his post-Oceansize projects Vennart and British Theatre, as well as putting big-league time in as a hired-hand guitar ace for Biffy Clyro).

As a low-key taster for what this might be like, here’s Kavus guesting with Spratleys Japs for a couple of Cardiacs numbers in Brighton last year. This month’s full show is likely to be a friendly cyclone full of flying twigs and bright colours. If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, get on down there.


 
Spratleys Japs + Knifeworld + ZOFFF
The Garage, 20-22 Highbury Corner, Highbury, London, N5 1RD, England
Friday 21st December 2018, 6.00pm
– information here, here and here

December 2018 – upcoming London classical gigs – Shiva Feshareki’s turntablist ‘Firebird’ (6th December); a celebration of female choral composers for Christmas in Muswell Hill (8th December); Keith Burstein’s chamber music (14th December); Plus Minus play Armstrong, Franzson, Miller and Rodgers (18th December)

1 Dec

Some December classical manifestations of various kinds…

* * * * * * * *

'Shiva Feshareki: Late-Night Firebird', 6th December 2018

As part of the ongoing Spitalfields Music Festival, composer and turntablist Shiva Feshareki will be performing her own vinyl-manipulation rebuild of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ in Bethnal Green on the 6th December- as “a live turntable composition that she forms in the moment. Using her trademark turntabling techniques, she deconstructs Stravinsky into new forms and perspectives, using nothing other than the original composition on vinyl. Expect sonic manipulations that bend time and play with space and perspective, transforming The Firebird into new shapes that reveal its sculptural depths.”

Here’s the woman at work on various projects over the last two years: there’s a clip from her saxophones, ensemble and turntables concerto about four minutes in…


 
* * * * * * * *

Fortismere Community Choir: 'Composed By Women & Christmas Carols', 8th December 2018

Fortismere Community Choir: ‘Composed By Women & Christmas Carols’, 8th December 2018

On the same night, in north London, Fortismere Community Choir will be performing a concert mingling standard Christmas carols with music composed by assorted female composers. Alongside the tunes about mangers and heralding angels, you can expect to hear a programme of music stretching (in varied leaps) across a thousand years, from the mediaeval carnal/spiritual chant of Hildegard von Bingen‘s ‘O quam mirabilis est’, the Romantic grace of Clara Schumann‘s ‘Abendfeier in Venedig’ and Ethel Smyth’s 1920s suffrage anthem ‘March of the Women’.

There are also latterday works – the reinvented English chorale influences of Cecilia McDowall‘s ‘Ave Maris Stella’; the fusion of African-American spirituals, American art songs and German/Italian choral music tradition in Rosephanye Powell‘s ‘Glory Hallelujah’; and the world premiere of ‘Women’s Rights’, a new composition by an emergent young British contemporary composer, Phoebe McFarlane.

Examples of most of the programme below:






 
* * * * * * * *

'Keith Burstein. Chamber Music. The Beauty Power.' Friday 14th December 2018On the 14th, composer Keith Burstein returns to Waterloo’s 1901 Club for another lunchtime concert featuring an hour’s worth of Burstein piano and chamber music.

Some new pieces will be making their debut, with the trio lineup of cellist Corinne Morris, clarinettist Peter Cigleris and Keith himself on piano joined by mezzo-soprano Sarah Denbee on the sarcastically-titled Northern Irish Backstop March, and Keith also presenting the live premieres of his piano preludes ‘The Beauty Power’, ‘Sonata’ and ‘Moto Perpetuo’. In addition, there’ll be the piano/clarinet/cello trio ‘Memories of Lithuania’, the ‘Wiosna’ cello sonata and a fourth piano prelude (‘The Ferryman’) while the concert will open with Keith and Sarah performing four songs for mezzo soprano and piano (‘Longing’ and ‘Heaven Riven’, both originally from the ‘Songs of Love and Solitude’ cycle, plus ‘Futility’ and ‘Atonement’).

This summer’s performances of Keith’s latest opera ‘The Prometheus Revolution’ seems to be contributing to pulling him out of the relative critical cold he’s often labored under. He’s now being hailed for the “sheer fertility” of his melodic instinct by ‘Planet Hugill’, and received approving notes from venerable critic Meiron Bowen regarding his revitalization of “the virtues of pre-twelve-tone music and all the techniques that have been explored since.” You can choose whether or not you buy into his vigorous philosophy of “super-tonalism” (within which Keith reasserts the tonal idiom which he considers to have been steamrollered out of credibility by the more cultish aspects of serialism and atonalism, while also aiming to blend in other musical lessons learned throughout the twentieth century). What isn’t in question is his connection to direct expression, and to creating music with an accessible human connection, as is evident from the pieces below. (You can read a longer summary of Burstein music in my preview of last year’s 1901 December chamber concert here.)




 
* * * * * * * *

Plus Minus: 'Armstrong, Franzson, Miller, Rodgers', 18th December 2018

On the 18th, the Plus Minus ensemble returns to its regular concert berth at City University for an evening of instrumental music with electronics by “four of the most refined and distinctive voices in contemporary music”, in a more straightforward form than their recent, more performative tour. Ensemble member Newton Armstrong provides two pieces (‘thread—surface’ and ‘the way to go out’), while his former student Georgia Rodgers provides one (‘St. Andrew’s Lyddington’). The remaining two pieces are ‘Traveller Song‘ by Cassandra Miller (whose compositional sense was described by ‘Musicworks’ as “the wryness of Samuel Beckett in combination with the whimsy of Italo Calvino”) and a new, as-yet-unrevealed work by New York-based Icelandic composer Davíð Brynjar Franzson (whose compositions are characterised by “an installation character, transporting the listener into some sort of temporal limbo, where a sense of the static is layered with delicate inner quickening…. exquisite tangible tension.”).

According to the programme notes, “each of these composers is concerned, albeit in different ways, with the fundaments of the compositional act and the manner in which sonic materials can be contextualised, processed, layered and transcribed. Plus Minus aims to present an evening of music that is strikingly contemporary without recourse to outside references, current technologies or multimedia. it is a focussed program that seeks to sonically take stock of where we are in new music today by stripping back the layers so that only the sound remains.” This is a free event with limited capacity, so book for it soon.

 
* * * * * * * *

Dates, times, places and links:

  • Shiva Feshareki: ‘Late-Night Firebird’ – St John on Bethnal Green, 200 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9PA, England, Thursday 6th December 2018, 9.30pm – information here
  • Fortismere Community Choir: ‘Composed By Women & Christmas Carols’ – St Andrews Church, Church Crescent, Muswell Hill, London, N10 2DD, England, Saturday 8th December 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Keith Burstein/Corinne Morris/Peter Cigleris: ‘Keith Burstein. Chamber Music. The Beauty Power.’ – 1901 Club, 7 Exton Street, Waterloo, London, SE1 8UE, England, Friday 14th December 2018, 12.00pm – information here and here
  • Plus Minus: ‘Armstrong, Franzson, Miller, Rodgers’ – Performance Space, College Building @ City, University of London, St John Street, London, EC1V 4PB, England, Tuesday 18th December 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here

October 2018 – singer-songwriter album launches in London and Wales – Hazel Iris (25th October), Emma Lohan (25th, 26th October)

21 Oct

Looking for events with singer-songwriting women in London? This coming Thursday, you can go big or go small.

* * * * * * * *

If you’re going for the bigger option, there’s Hazel Iris’ album launch in Smithfield, at St. Bartholomew-the-Great, no less. It’s an event that sprawls across the entire church: its varied acts located in different places within the building, like a cross between a miniature festival and a stations-of-the-cross procession. In one corner, two classical musicians – Katrina Sheppeard and Jayson Gillham (who between them have racked up appearances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, ENO, Melbourne Symphony and the Sydney Opera House) will provide a piano-and-soprano duet performance of Richard Strauss’s ‘Vier letzte Lieder’ – the composer’s last work, a four-song death-and-transfiguration sealing of his legacy, composed during the dusk of the Romantic era. Next, in another corner, Kate Arnold – usually to be found as frontwoman for dark classical-folk fusioneers Fear Of The Forest – will be playing solo and acoustic with hammer dulcimer, violin and voice, providing a set of songs reflecting her folk, medieval and Middle Eastern influences.




 
And so to the headliner, who’s recently been making a name for herself as a standout performer at the Blind Dog Studio evenings. Hazel Iris is a storyteller with an overwhelming musical streak; her tales drawn from her travels, her own musings and her borrowings from the great stewpot of mythology and folklore. California-born and London-based but world-honed, her songs blend indie-folk habits, vaudeville brassiness, operatic training, lieder romance and a dash of country.




 
Bringing her brand-new ‘Nine Sisters’ album to life at St Barts is a similarly broad-based nine-piece band. The rhythm section – drummer Fred Harper and double-bassist Twm Dylan – come from the London and Leeds jazz scenes, while Winter Quartet violinist Aurora Del Río Pérez and French horn player Jessica Cottis are both established in the classical world (the latter, notably, as a conductor – she’s returning to a childhood instrument for this performance). Harpist Tara Minton straddles both jazz and classical worlds. Rounding out the ensemble is cellist and screen music composer Matt Constantine, classical accordionist Aine McLoughlin (Hazel’s regular collaborator at previous Blind Dog gigs), and up-and-coming guitarist Myles Peters (who plays anything and anywhere he can).

Also integral to the show will be the puppets of Alicia Britt, artistic director for Wondering Hands Puppet Theatre. Her usual gig involves using puppetry of all kinds for the entertainment and nourishment of all ages, with an undercurrent of healing, conversation and a restoration of our human nature: work that ranges from carefully-thought-out fairy tales of bereavement and development for children to bawdily sexual puppet-cabaret for adults. Quite possibly all aspects will be making a showing in her support work for Hazel. I’ve no idea whether huge rod-guided creatures will be leaping through the church or whether the puppetry will be on a smaller, more human scale with creatures the size of lutes or horns, but it should add an extra level of story texture.

* * * * * * * *

Speaking of smaller, more human scales – if all of the above sounds too grand, then on the same London night another songwriter – Emma Lohan – is launching her own debut album up in the south end of Hackney. ‘Black Atlantic’ pulls together Emma’s own particular blend of Irish hometown influences (she’s a Galway woman), pop leanings and traveller’s scraps, drawn from her footloose global roamings. Impressions and stories, a kind of global coast-combing or, as I put it last time, “beautifully-constructed cloud-tossed songs imbued with the flicker of constant motion.” The album itself is a small, quiet-reveal treasure imbued with a bouncing, soft-chatting liveliness. There’s jigs and kalimba, there’s age and youth, there’s plenty of story to unspool.

She’s doing it all again the following night in Wales – in an unusual display of synchronicity, at a puppet theatre in Cardigan – in a puppet theatre. Elusive ska band Julian’s Reluctant SKAfterparty are in support: no more info on them, I’m afraid. (Update, 24th October – sadly the Cardigan show has had to be cancelled, but they’re promising to reschedule it soon…)



 

All dates:

  • Hazel Iris + Kate Arnold + Jayson Gilham & Katrina Sheppeard – St Bartholomew the Great, Cloth Fair, West Smithfield, Clerkenwell, London, EC1A 7JQ, England, Thursday 25th October 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Emma Lohan – NT’s Bar, 1 Westgate Street #207, London Fields, London, E8 3RL, England, Thursday 25th October 2018, 7.00pm – information here
  • Emma Lohan – Small World Theatre, Bath House Road, Cardigan, Ceredigion, SA43 1JY, Wales, Friday 26th October 2018, 8.00pm (with Julian’s Reluctant SKAfterparty) – information here and here

 

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