Tag Archives: Lake of Puppies

June 2018 – upcoming London rock gigs – gloriously complex experimental rock evenings – The Mantis Opera, Barringtone and New Born Animal (8th June); Lost Crowns with Sharron Fortnam and Kavus Torabi (June 14th)

27 May

Several of London’s more convoluted art-rock genii are emerging from the woodwork to play live in the early part of June, accompanied by assorted fellow travellers and burlesque pop sympathisers. Read on…

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The Mantis Opera + Barringtone + New Born Animal, 8th June 2018

If you’ve wondering what a band might sound like if it fused Henry Cow, Battles and early Scritti Politti, you’re in luck… and, to be honest, probably pretty marginal. Come over here and sit next to me.

Stemming from solo work by guitarist, singer and electronics meddler Allister Kellaway, The Mantis Opera now delivers his stirring, challenging constructions via a full electro-experimental synth-rock band, voicing a collection of “avant-garde grumbles” via a multiplicity of synth sounds and colliding pop tones. If this sounds inaccessible and snooty, it isn’t. It’s just that the tunes arrive in complicated cascading splinters, many parts urging in parallel towards an out-of-sight coda, while a dreamily precise atmosphere prevails: avant-prog keeping watch from under a dream-pop veil.

The pieces themselves display an ambitious, orchestral thinking – Reykjavik, for example, is less a guitar clang with lofty ambitions and more of a cerebral/visceral string quartet piece transposed for rock band. Allister’s winding, philosophical lyrics, meanwhile, are very reminiscent of Henry Cow and of Rock in Opposition preoccupations, dissecting as they do themes of resistance, logic, language and compliance with the air of a man trying to bring intellectual rigour to the pub, grabbing at the misty answers before the closing bell rings.



 
Assuming that recent reports of a broken-wristed drummer haven’t entirely torpedoed their availability, Barringtone should be in support, continuing their live drive towards the release of their debut album on Onamatopoeia this summer. Released songs have been sparse over the past few years; but enjoy this new-ish brainy little post-power-pop conundrum, exhibiting Barry Dobbins’ own ambitions as he moves up from the band’s previous wry, ornamented motorik drive into much more castellated, conversational proggy territories while keeping their knuckly XTC-inspired edge intact.


 
Seven-piece big-pop band New Born Animal complete the lineup at this Friends Serene gig. Headed by singer/songwriter/arranger Thomas Armstrong, they’re a sonorous wall-of-drunken-sound effort who sound like Blur (during their music-hall period) dragging the Walker Brothers into a dressing-room tipple too far. If so, they also sound like the stage before it all turns nasty: slightly discombobulated singalongs where self-consciousness is just rags in the breeze, the emotional valves have been opened up and everyone in the room is temporarily your lifelong friend. If this in turn sounds sloppy, then I’d suggest that there’s a lot of craft going into something which sags and collapses so gloriously and visibly, but which never disintegrates. There’s longing, wonder and helpless laughter all brimming at the back of this.


 

On top of this, the whole evening’s free if you turn up soon enough…

Friends Serene presents:
The Mantis Opera + Barringtone + New Born Animal
The Shacklewell Arms, 71 Shacklewell Lane, Shacklewell, London, E8 2EB, England
Friday 8th June 2018, 7.30pm
– free entry – information here and here

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Lost Crowns + Kavus Torabi, 14th June 2018

The following week, Richard Larcombe’s Lost Crowns spearhead “an evening of songs with a lot going on in them”. In many respects, it’s a re-run of their triumphant London debut at the same venue back in January. No Prescott this time, sadly (though their instrumental ping-pong twitch would have been welcome), but Kavus Torabi is back with a guitar, a hand-pumped harmonium and more songs from his ongoing solo project. Launched the other month with the ‘Solar Divination’ EP, this might be a holiday from the jewelled and roaring intricacies of his main gig with Knifeworld, but it’s certainly not an escape from the psychedelic shadows which nightwing their way through the band’s apparently celebratory rainbow arcs. For this isolated, darker, more grinding work, Kavus strips the flash-bangs away and leaves us with the droning echoes: the meditative bruises, fears and queries, many of which nonetheless contain their own seeds of determination and a kind of celebratory acceptance.


 
As for the headliners, last time I anticipated Lost Crowns as likely to be (deep breath) “a rich, unfolding master-craftsman’s confection… complex, artfully-meandering songs built from delightfully byzantine chords and arpeggios that cycle through ever-evolving patterns like palace clockwork; accompanied by rich, lazy clouds of hilarious, hyper-literate, wonderfully arcane lyrics; all sealed by an arch, out-of-time English manner which (in tone and timbre) falls into a never-was neverworld between Richard Sinclair, Stephen Fry, Noel Coward and a posh, Devonian Frank Zappa.”

A tall order (even it was based on what Richard’s delivered in previous projects), but I wasn’t disappointed. With Lost Crowns, Richard’s created the most dynamic and surprising music of his career.

As before, the rest of the band’s lineup is a cross-section of London art-rock luminaries: Charlie Cawood, Nicola Baigent, Rhodri Marsden, Josh Perl, drummer “Keepsie”. Certainly the influence of Richard’s brother and usual collaborator James is missed (his genial, warm, embroidering effect on Richard’s work is underrated) but his absence allows both Richard and the band to stretch out in different directions – fiercer, more crammed, sometimes brutal in their complication.

A vortex of influences funnel around Richard, including Chicago math, witty Daevid Allen psych rampage, contemporary classical music and skipping, tuneful folk singalongs. Shaped by his particular persona and thought processes – as well as his innate Englishness – it all emerges as a kind of prog, but one in which the fat and the posturing has all been burned off by the nerves and the detail, and in which his dry, melodious wit winds around the work playing mirror-tricks, theatrical feints, and the conspiratorial winks of a master boulevardier. As much at home playfully slagging off the precious venerations of synaesthesia as they are with nine-minute epics with titles like Housemaid’s Knee, Lost Crowns are a delightful self-assembling puzzle.

Frustratingly, with Richard still keeping everything close to his chest (outside of Lost Crowns’ welcoming gig environment), I’ve got nothing to show you. No embedded songs, no videos, nothing but those words and these words. Richard’s likely to keep everything culty, so the best way that you can find out whether I’m just lying through garlands here is to go to the gig yourself.

Originally this was to be a double-header with Lost Crowns’ other friends and allies, the revived psychedelic-acoustic band Lake Of Puppies (re-teaming North Sea Radio Orchestra’s Craig and Sharron Fortnam with William D. Drake, in order to build on the bouncing life-pop they cheerfully hawked around London together in the late ‘90s). Sadly, the Puppies have had to pull out of the show following Bill’s collision with pianist’s RSI in early May. Instead, Lost Crowns will play an extended set with Sharron woven into it as a special guest; while Kavus will be stretching out his own set, covering the remaining time that’s not taken up with snooker-ace-turned-avant-rock-uncle Steve Davis on DJ duty.

Lost Crowns (with special guest Sharron Fortnam) + Kavus Torabi + DJ Steve Davis
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Thursday 14th June 2018, 7.00pm
– information here, here and
here
 

May/June 2018 – gigs for Crayola Lectern in London and Brighton with Joss Cope, The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Husband and others t.b.c. (16th May, 1st June); ‘A Spring Symposium’ fundraiser for Tim Smith near Salisbury with Lake Of Puppies, Arch Garrison, Crayola Lectern, Bob Drake, Kemper Norton and Emily Jones (12th May)

1 May

Crayola Lectern + Joss Cope + The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Husband, 16th May 2018First things first: the murmuring, brass-dappled Crayola Lectern trio are making their way up for a rare London gig in the middle of May, followed by a Brighton launch show for the new Crayola Lectern album, ‘Happy Endings’, at the start of June. The vehicle for Chris Anderson’s tidal, sometimes melancholic, often softly funny songs – low-key dramas of reflection, resignation and not-quite acceptance – they’re powered by his piano, Al Strachan’s sleepy cornet and percussion and Brighton uberdrummer Damo Waters’ parallel skills on keyboards.

It’s not been confirmed yet who’s joining in at Brighton, though the whispers are that it’ll be someone – or several someones – drawn from Chris’ Brighton psychedelic circles, which includes driving psych-rock ensemble ZOFFF, Kemper Norton (more on whom shortly), CLOWWNS and Spratleys Japs. However, the London bill has its two support acts.

Psych-pop journeyman Joss Cope, armed with his strongest project yet (last year’s ‘Unrequited Lullabies’) will be along for the ride. I recently described the album as “a luscious living-room tranche of psych-pop with a sharp wit; dappled with dextrous pop guitars, carousel prog, fake horns and laps of Mellotron”. Live, you may get a little less of the texturing, but you’ll still get the songs: chatty, wry commentaries on a world wobbling off the rails. The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Husband also happens to be Nick Howiantz, who otherwise divides his time between running Brixton Hill Studios and fronting sporadic, noisy Brighton psych-pop rompers Ham Legion. I’ve no idea about what’s behind the genderswapping ecclesiastical mask, but he/she/they are being tagged as a “veritable modern day Syd Barrett”, so come along and see whether that’s a claim worth claiming or whether it falls interestingly wide of the mark.




 
Dates:

  • Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England, Wednesday 16th May 2018, 7:30pm (with Joss Cope + The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Husband) – information here, here and here
  • The Rose Hill, 70-71 Rosehill Terrace, Brighton, BN1 4JL, England, Friday 1st June 2018, 8.00pm (support t.b.c.) – information here

* * * * * * * *

A Spring Symposium (for Tim Smith), 12th May 2018
I was talking about Crayola – and William D. Drake – only a few posts ago, as regards their Worthing fundraiser for Tim Smith on 19th May. A week before that, both of them (in various permutations) will be joining another Tim fundraiser – this one an all-dayer in Coombe Bissett, nestled in the Wiltshire chalk downs south-west of Salisbury.

‘A Spring Symposium’ is the brainchild – or heartchild – of onetime Cornish folkie Emily Jones, who’s now joined the cluster of Cardiacs family musicians living around Salisbury. Her own songs of seal-wives, haunted bungalows, witchery and other glimpses beyond the vale will be part of the event, alongside contributions from various other characters well-known to Cardiacs followers or to aficionados of certain weird-folk, Rock in Opposition and hauntological camps.




 
Emily’s near-neighbours, Craig and Sharron Fortnam of North Sea Radio Orchestra, will be taking part in various permutations. Craig will be bringing along his Arch Garrison duo with James Larcombe, singing soft songs (on gut-strung acoustic guitar and buzzing organs and monosynths) about long walks, lost brothers, ancient roads, dogs, death and bereavement and the various gentle tug-of-wars between family and necessary solitude, compromise and truthfulness, art and earning. Craig and Sharron will both be playing in a second reunion of Lake Of Puppies, the rollicking, affectionate acoustic-psychedelic folk-pop band they formed with avuncular ex-Cardiac and alternative keyboard virtuoso William D. Drake over twenty years ago. During the mid-‘90s they’d play regular small gigs around London; bobbing up with their bouncy songs of life, good humour and growing things, like a rosy apple in a tub. Sadly, they went their separate and amiable ways after only a few years and no more than a couple of rough demos. Having reconvened in the summer of 2013 (for a lovingly received appearance at the Alphabet Business Convention), they promptly disappeared again, but have been working out a long-delayed debut album on the quiet. Some of that ought to show up at this concert. See below for a couple of dashes of their particular flavour. Large Life might be billed as Bill’s, but it’s Puppies to the bone, and their 2013 set from Salisbury should give you an idea as to how they are now.




 
I’ve already mentioned the Crayola Lectern set; there’ll also be one from Bob Drake (the onetime 5uus and Thinking Plague guy currently bouncing around the country on a tour of his own). Sit at Uncle Bobby’s feet; listen to his electric guitar jangle, pop and change its mind every other mid-phrase; and take in some loveably bizarre constantly changing one-minute songs about sinister meerkats, experiments gone wrong, and the way in which assorted eldritch beasts from dark dimensions annoyingly disrupt your life, your shopping and your evening’s relaxation. If Ogden Nash, Fred Frith, Roald Dahl and Neil Young had all crept up to H.P. Lovecraft’s house one larky summer’s evening with a pint of moonshine and some tall tales – and really made him laugh – it would have sounded something like this.


 
While there may be a couple of extra guests showing up as a surprise, the Symposium roster is formally rounded off by Kemper Norton and by Libbertine Vale – the former an electro-acoustic folk-culture miner of music and landscapes, (armed with instruments, electronics and field recordings to remap both physical terrain and song terrains), the latter the Omnia Opera/7shades singer who’s revealed herself as a rebel Midlands folkie, digging deep into the more macabre corners of the folk-song catalogue and coming back with “uncomfortable songs about death, a capella sqwarking that will kill or heal your ears, dependent on your disposition.” It’s tough to track Libby down on the web, but here’s a bit of Kemper.



 
There’s only ten days to go ‘til the event, but there’s still time to arrange to get there. There’ll be cakes and ale, there’ll be vegetarian food; Tim Smith himself will probably be in attendance, and Emily’s suggested that you caravan-camp out on the chalk downs. If this English May makes its mind up (and settles for being a good springsummer), it all ought to be lovely.

Emily Jones presents:
A Spring Symposium: Lake of Puppies + Crayola Lectern + Arch Garrison + Bob Drake + Kemper Norton + Libbertine Vale + Emily Jones
Coombe Bissett Village Hall, Shutts Lane, Homington Road, Coombe Bissett, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 4LU, England
Saturday 12th May 2018, 2.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

CONCERT REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, Monument, London, 15th March 2003 (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

15 Apr

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

St Clement Eastcheap online:
Homepage

REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

28 Feb

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness. Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by SIB’s James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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Concert review – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, City of London, England, 15th March 2003 (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

18 Mar

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

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North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

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