Tag Archives: Fragile Human Monster Show

Through the feed – The Cricklewood Cats (Ian Ritchie and Holly Penfield)

6 Jul

The Cricklewood Cats: 'Shake Your Skeleton'

The Cricklewood Cats: ‘Shake Your Skeleton’

News in on The Cricklewood Cats, a new band formed by a couple whom I’ve been following on and off since the early ’90s. Holly Penfield sings, Ian Ritchie plays everything else. (I like bands in which one member plays “everything else”. Associates, Elephant, no-man – the tradition’s a good one.)

For those of you who don’t know them, both Holly and Ian have long pedigrees. Starting out as a teenaged Glaswegian jazzer with rock leanings, Ian began his career in the mid-’70s playing saxophone for Deaf School, the theatrical Liverpudlian art-rockers who also gave us Madness/Elvis Costello producer Clive Langer. In the ’80s Ian took a left turn into programming, becoming an early exponent of that decade’s techno-pop via his own project Miro Miroe. From there, he moved on to sleek, glossy electronic productions for Pete Wylie (‘Sinful’), Laurie Anderson (‘Strange Angels’) and Roger Waters (‘Radio K.A.O.S’). Amongst other unlikely adventures, he helped to pioneer digital home recording, flung together the ‘Lonely Planet’ theme after a two-hour crash course in ambient downtempo, and played the sax on Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’. By the early ’90s, he’d also met and married Holly as a result of working on her second album, ‘Parts Of My Privacy’.

A striking singer, Holly had been part of the flash and swill of the 1980s Los Angeles pop scene, into which she’d delivered ‘Full Grown Child‘ (a fairly average, commercially obscure album of New Wave pop-rock featuring, among others, future King Crimsoneer Pat Mastelotto). ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ was a much more psychologically involved work – a thematic dark-night-of-the-soul electronic ballad record, showcasing her passionate vocals, pulsating synths and Ian’s jazz-noir saxophone. It was based on Holly’s live ‘Fragile Human Monster‘ show – part rock torch-song revue, part performance art – which she performed in L.A and around the UK and Europe. Exploring her fractured psyche and pursuing human connection, while putting a contradictory twist on pop star roles, the show was a shamanic exploration of trauma and angst; persistently breaking the wall between performer and audience, and unafraid to fall on its face if it had to.

In some respects, Holly’s development at the time anticipated that of Tori Amos. Both travelled from brash hairsprayed Angeleno rock (‘Full Grown Child’, ‘Y Can’t Tori Read’) onto more eccentric, higher-achieving confessional efforts. Only one of them had hits and a grand piano; but then, only one of them regularly beat up an inflatable Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ doll onstage. The latter was one of the show’s regular features when I encountered Holly and Ian for the first time, one random night in Edinburgh in a year when they’d taken the Fragile Human Monster to the Fringe.

This in turn led to me becoming a regular at FHM gigs back in London at which Holly would deliver her naked-hearted synth ballads, display scars, converse with the audience and deliver climactic primal screams while Ian prowled the stage behind her, playing multiple saxophones and serving both as musical foil and wary backbone. Over the years, a diverse handful of support performers included Tim Bowness (with his occasional ambient folk band Samuel Smiles), Mark Bandola (ex-Lucy Show), psychedelic London songwriters Susan Chewter (Wise Wound) and Dean Carter, and Chapman Stick ace Jim Lampi. With varying degrees of buy-in, reluctance and affection, each were pulled into the culture of the show in one way or another. It was an intense cabaret of madness, compassion, stress relief and ongoing healing. Depending on how you felt on any given evening, it could be touching, ludicrous, therapeutic, alarming… you certainly had to leave embarrassment at the door. It was all too much for one show to contain for too long, and after several memorable years it finally burnt out.

For the last few decades, Ian’s continued his own explorations – early live techno and Big Chill electronica with Shen and Chance Element, ecstatic dance with Urubu, recreating the sax solos from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with the Roger Waters band, and innumerable jazz projects. Holly, meanwhile, has made a bigger name for herself in jazz cabaret in London and elsewhere, shaking down familiar standards with her own particular mixture of sass and kook: beyond the wigs and the campery, however, there’s always been a remarkable singer and performer. Over the years, Ian’s been a frequent contributor to Holly’s jazz bands, but they’ve not formed anything together until now.

In some respects – and on the evidence of their first single – The Cricklewood Cats doesn’t fall too far from what Holly and Ian have been up to in recent years. Rather than a return to the synth-pop balladry of ‘Parts Of My Privacy’, it’s a kind of virtual rockabilly with a strong flavour of jump blues and jumping jive. Ian’s “everything else” consists of plenty of saxophones, plenty of programming, bass, backing vocals and the ubiquitous ukelele; Holly’s collaborator on the lyrics is Tanya Chantier, who’s previously contributed to her jazz songs. Shake Your Skeleton’ is a life-affirming rattle-along on lusty, mocking baritone sax, with Holly setting the lighter and more vulnerable aspects of her balladry and cabaret aside in favour of delivering one of her gutsiest alto-range vocals to date. See above for the video cut (by Ian) from footage in ‘The Skeleton Dance’, a Walt Disney short from 1929.

The song pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously sounding faithful, sounding like a revival, and celebrating the art of the virtual band. As a consequence, there’s not much room for originality. All of the life here is in the happy, immediate unity of performance and production; and Ian cheerfully cites Louis Prima, Brian Setzer and The Cure’s 1983 swing diversion ‘The Love Cats’ rather than making any claims for breaking new ground. Still, The Cricklewood Cats seems to have brought out some of that same sense of fun and expression which Ian and Holly brought to the lighter side of the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ shows (yes, there was some of that too). I’m hope that as they grow into the project it becomes more of a channel for some of that era’s breadth of perspective and for Holly’s songwriting voice. Certainly their sheer musicality is intact.

In the meantime, you can download ‘Shake Your Skeleton’ from here. Incidentally, as far as I know there’s no connection with this.

The Cricklewood Cats online:
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Ian Ritchie online:
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Holly Penfield online:
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CONCERT REVIEW – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

19 Jul

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it.
Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
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The Washington, Belsize Park online:
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