Tag Archives: gentleness

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 – Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’ mini-album, 1998 (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Apr
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

Bob Burnett online:
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CONCERT REVIEW – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

10 Apr

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
Homepage TwitterMySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Michael J. Sheehy online:
Facebook MySpace LastFM

Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM

Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’ album, 2002 (“easy, generous grace”)

2 Jul
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

Talk’s cheap, and so am I… at least, when writing intros. I was going to pursue the “conversation” theme by squeezing in comments of my own about eavesdropping on musicians, or about the Troggs tape, or the language of notes. Then I put all of my smart-arse lines down, and just listened.

There are some records about which it’s difficult to say anything. Much. They crop up when you want to get expansive and to show off: and then you find that you just can’t use them as launch-pads for spectacular rants about the state of music, or the permeability of the soul. They bob beyond clutching fingertips and wagging tongue, deflecting the last-ditch wafts of hype with which you try to lassoo them. They’re critic-killers. And the funniest thing is that you love them for it – for the best reasons (nothing to do with clenched teeth, uptight craftsmanship or sweating in front of paying audiences). ‘Conversations’ is one of those records. Go and buy it. Feel good.

Alternatively, accept that I’ve got to try to explain it anyway: so please humour me for seven hundred more words or so…

Basics, then. ‘Conversations’ is a set of immediate, improvised duets between two British musicians – Steve Lawson (fretless bass guitar, loops) and Jez Carr (piano, small antelope statuettes) – from one of the tasteful/tuneful intersections of jazz and the avant-garde underground. Two sprawling self-penned essays on the CD sleeve reveal a cheerfully anti-heroic approach to improv and to music in general. Lawson and Carr name-check Schoenberg and Yehudi Menuhin, note that “people think that free means ‘out’, when free just means free”, but steer clear of portentousness. Oft-revived improv traits – stoniness, pomposity, randomness, irritating mysticism – are ignored in favour of an earnest, open approach.

The music reflects this. Clean and quietly inspired, it resounds through comfortable air, sharing subtle humour. It makes you think of a friendly hand on your shoulder; not a scuffle in an alley, or six days at the foot of a grouchy guru. If it sent postcards home, they’d be of green hills in ECM-land, or soft-focus shots of Bill Evans’ study. A few pictures of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow’s backyard might be in there too: but from the quiet time, somewhen in late spring, a lull in the heavy blowing season. This sounds pretty, and it is. Ultimately ‘Conversations’ is soft-edged, as relaxed as winding English rivers. It never works up a head of steam when a delicate flow will do instead.

Despite Carr’s Romantic leanings (he owes as much to Chopin as to Evans or Dollar Brand), he doesn’t waste notes, or drown the music in florid chords: and although ‘Conversations’ is built on slick musical technology, it’s not hijacked by it. Lawson (usually a solo performer, with a warped melodic looper’s approach) has all of his digital gizmos and luscious overlaid textures to hand; but he never once swamps Carr with them. For his part, Carr draws as much warmth from a digital piano as others could from a concert grand or from a well-worn-in jazz-club upright (covered in cigarette burns, whisky spills and four-generations-worth of jazzmen’s fingerprints).

Each piece is double-titled, reflecting each players’ viewpoint. Although Carr’s serious-sounding Migration manages to also be Lawson’s flippant Whateverwhatever, the duo maintain remarkable accord as they play. As Lawson and Carr settle readily into light-footed slow-motion melodies or feathery grooves, rich smudges of bass tone or rapt curving anchors of sound are left revolving in the loop pedal waiting for counterpoint with quick, relaxed piano touches. There are plenty of opportunities for hearing the expansive, delicately embracing tones of Lawson’s solo melodies: but for most of the record he provides a low-volume dub menagerie of playful but expressive noises. These sit alongside Carr’s crisp, ever-fresh improvising like an inspired combination of Percy Jones and a New Age Squarepusher.

On Sweet’N’Spiky/Shades Of Creation, Carr outlines ideas of rapt melodic phrases over Lawson’s bedrock riff, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps. At his leisure, Lawson fills in gaps we hadn’t actually thought of – via distant scrunches, data streams, balloon pings, gargling clicks and spinbacks, all sitting in the pockets of the tune. Walking rhythms interplay for Whateverwhatever/Migration: Carr’s brittle and determined piano mileposts the journey while Lawson offers squeaky wheels, footsteps and theremin wobbles of bass loop. For 1, 2, 3, 4…/Broken Lead, the bassist offers a fragmentary free-funk undertow, further softened by layers of unorthodox spindly chords and gurgling harmonics as Carr provides bright spins of softly-fingered notes.

Destination Unknown @ Point Of Departure/Drifting Dreaming makes the most of a grand vista of musical space, but does it by filling up as little of the view as possible. Carr plants brave speckles of light on unseen crags while a variety of subtle Lawson noises low like distant cattle, or write backward circles in fizzing firefly textures. Signing off with Closing Statement/At First Sight, Carr opens up into ringing blue ripples of controlled delight. Lawson builds up from E-Bowed foghorning soundscapes, progressing to wah-wobbled groove pulses and shimmering echoed treble tremors. Two-thirds of the way in, the music finally slides gracefully into a straightforward duet. Lawson’s yawning fretless notes cradle an ever-sleepier Carr – though unusual tinges of chording promise colourful dreams. It’s a beautiful closer to an album on which nothing has got in the way of the music. Neither embarrassment, nor aggression, nor flash.

What is truly remarkable about ‘Conversations’ is its easy, generous grace: unobscured by its gadgets, the skills of its players, even the hints implicit in genre and background. Waylaid by catches and self-consciousness, few records of “open” music are truly open. This is one that is.

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0012 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st January 2002

Buy it from:
Download from Jez Carr’s Bandcamp page; CD best looked for second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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