Tag Archives: Mark Cawthra

April/May 2018 – solo tours in Britain/Europe for Kavus Torabi and Cosmo Sheldrake (4th April to 24th May various, with guest appearances from I See Rivers, Paul Morricone, Bunty, V Ä L V E, Peaks, Arch Garrison, Madilan, Stephen Evens, Bovril, Redbus Noface and May The Night Bless You With Heavenly Dreams)

25 Mar

It’s not exactly surprising that Kavus Torabi has finally gone solo. There’s too much hopeful, demanding inventiveness in him ever to submit entirely to the dynamics of a group, despite the fact that he’s currently got at least three on the go, most of them with him at the helm – the brassy lysergically-illuminated avant-pop of Knifeworld; the ritual instrumentalism of Guapo, and the cantering countercultural circus of Gong (transferred onto his lanky shoulders, history and all, following the 2015 death of Daevid Allen).

What’s more surprising is the direction he’s chosen for the first records under his own name (the new ‘Solar Divination’ EP and a full upcoming album for later in the year). A darker, more agrarian take on his psychedelic homeground, this time it’s drumless, bassless, hornless – rinsed clear of the capering squirrel energy he’s shown for twenty-odd years, in order to reveal muted, angsty bones. Mostly based around slow, smoky-lunged harmonium stretches and sparse flotsam drags of guitar chording, this is a more foreboding turn of song, haunted by deaths, loss and disintegrations. It’s never mopey or lachrymose, thank goodness (even in Knifeworld or The Monsoon Bassoon, Kavus knew how to undercut joyous tootling with passing shadows without souring the milk) but these new songs are overcast with sombre vulnerability: the gravel-grain in Kavus’ voice welling up from deeper, ghostlier territories than before.



 
Despite being a couple of decades younger than Kavus, Cosmo Sheldrake has been out on his own for a bit longer. It’s been four-and-a-half years since Cosmo put out anything as part of super-eclectic mongrel troupe Gentle Mystics, but during that time he’s been gently dabbing the release schedules with occasional singles, videos and EPs of his own. Earlier work brought some of the Mystics weird and charming vibe along with it: a homemade-toy, party-in-the-fairy-forest feeling, Cosmo lilting skewed nursery-rhyme verses over softly bouncing weaves of melody. In the videos, he came across as a generous digital troubadour on a set of meandering visitations, playing his lashed-up keyboards-and-tech assemblages for performances in model villages, truck beds, pigsties and fishing boats.

Byronic-looking but Branestawm-minded, Cosmo’s a shed-pop tinkerer and a baffling multi-instrumentalist with a mixed mystical/academic background. Part kid’s entertainer and part hippy-boffin, he has a shamanical nose for the margin between nonsense and connection. More recent efforts (trailing the imminent release of his debut album ‘The Much Much How How and I’) have seen chewier, pacier and poppier songs. The videos, meanwhile, have become an ingenious riot of increasingly theatrical, fantastical and sometimes macabre fabling in which foil monsters swim in canvas seas and giant fluffy headlice run amok. There’s a communal, childlike warmth to what he does: not perhaps a guileless wonder, but a sense of celebration, where fables and singalongs and misadventures become part of the accepted, useful junk with which we build our nests.

https://youtu.be/S8a35QScYaQ
https://youtu.be/qe79wTFoDGU
 
Kavus’ upcoming tour is a brief series of simmering April dots around England and Wales; Cosmo’s is a more leisurely, lengthy two-month loop, garlanding the British Isles and western Europe. They’re not sharing any shows, or even any venues. The only time they overlap in any respect is on the 25th of April, when they’re playing different but simultaneous one-man shows a stone’s throw apart in Bristol. It would be nice to think of them looking up midset on that one evening, peering across that city-central loop of the Avon, and nodding to each other. Not necessarily natural comrades but, in their way, parallel leywalkers. Each with a bit of Barrett in the back pocket, each with a peculiar charm of innocence, each with fingertips in the otherworldly and the mythic. The uncontainables…

Kavus’ tour also happens to be a chance to catch an intriguing spread of fellow musicians, reflecting the wide body of musical ideas and affinities he touches upon. While in Margate (squeezed into a former Victorian coach house transformed into the Japanese/Alpine cheese dream of a minature theatre), he lines up with two left-field folk acts: the organ-draped, ridge-walking green-chapel psychedelia of Arch Garrison and the mysterious brand-new “wonk-folk” of Bovril (featuring Tuung’s Mike Lindsay). In Birmingham, the bill sharer is Scaramanga Six songwriter Paul Morricone, providing gutsy acoustic songs of fear and brutality with lashing of dark Yorkshire humour. Paul and Kavus also reunite in York for the Tim Smith fundraiser Evening of Fadeless Splendour, alongside the off-kilter art rock of Redbus Noface and the sarcastic-bastard English songcraft of Stephen Gilchrist (a.k.a. Stephen Evens).



https://youtu.be/i3Q2d-Z6gZk
 
On his Manchester date, Kavus will be supported by Peaks (Ben Forrester, formerly of shouty slacker-punk duo Bad Grammar and Manc math-rock supertrio Gug, now performing “loop-driven emo pop”). In London, it’ll be V Ä L V E – once an avant-garde solo project (full of belches and found sounds, situational scoring and sound-art jokes) for Kavus’ Knifeworld bandmate Chloe Herington, now an increasingly ubiquitous three-woman live trio (evolved and evolving into a warm-hearted feminist/Fluxus/Rock In Opposition massing of harps, bassoon, punk bass and singalong bunker-folk). In Leeds, Kavus plays the quiet support act in a free gig for tintinnabulating Sheffield post-metallers May The Night Bless You With Heavenly Dreams (whose echoing tremstrumental pinings add a little magical shimmy to the usual doleful post-rock astronomy) and Bristolian experimental rockers Madilan (whose songs recall both the angst-shredded psychedelic night-journeys of Oceansize and also, in their spindly electronics and Autotuned vocal musing, post-Oceansize rocktronicists British Theatre).



https://soundcloud.com/madilan-2/your-scentwav-1


 
In contrast, most of Cosmo’s dates are solo – possibly because once he’s unshipped his assorted instruments and gizmos (from euphoniums and banjos to loop pedals and pennywhistles), there’s not much room for anyone else in the dressing room. Nonetheless, support for eight of the European April dates comes from Liverpool-based Norwegian girl trio I See Rivers, who wed their outstanding and eerily resonant Scandinavian vocal harmonies, sunny dispositions and scanty guitar to their own balloon-light, touching folk-pop songs and to heart-thawing covers of Daughter (Medicine), George Ezra (Budapest), and Whitney Houston (‘80s wedding fave I Wanna Dance With Somebody).

https://youtu.be/36WTprbQIJs
https://youtu.be/3o_v3-uu4UE
 
For the London album launch for ‘The Much Much How How and I’, Cosmo and I See Rivers are joined by Bunty“multi-dimensional beat merchant and vocal juggler” Kassia Zermon. Also to be found fronting jazz/junk/folk trio Le Juki, co-fronting dub act Resonators, and co-running Brightonian experimental label Beatabet, Kassia’s run Bunty for years as a loopstation-based “one woman electro-orchestra” bolstered by her multi-instrumentalism and vivid imagination. Parallels with Cosmo are clear (the looping and beatboxing, a life blossoming with social art initiatives and therapeutic work beyond the entertainments) and she guests on one of the ‘Much Much’ tracks (very much an equal passing through, with a cheeky hug and a bit of upstaging), but her own vision is distinct. Giddier, jazzier, less directly English in its whimsy, with input from her Moroccan heritage and from her taste for Andy Kaufman; a slightly more cosmic playbox; imaginary languages; an undiluted Brightonian fabulosity.

Kassia’s last Bunty album, ‘Multimos’, was a pocket-sized multimedia event spanning apps, interactive AV, dream machines, audience choirs and gaming cues. Time and occasion will probably only allow a smidgin of that, this time around, but it’ll be a window onto her explosively colourful world.


https://youtu.be/zWu1XwnQFx4
 

* * * * * * * *

Kavus’ full tour dates:

 

Cosmo’s full tour dates:

  • More Human Than Human @ The Haunt, 10 Pool Valley, Brighton, BN1 1NJ, England, 4th April 2018, 7.00pm (+ I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3PQ, England, Thursday 5th April 2018, 7.30pm (album launch, with Bunty + I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Soup Kitchen, 31-33 Spear Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M1 1DF, England, Friday 6th April 2018, 7.00pm (+ tbc) – information here and here
  • Headrow House, 19 The Headrow, LS1 6PU Leeds, Saturday 7th April 2018, 8.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Fluc + Fluc Wanne, Praterstern 5, 1020 Vienna, Austria, Austria, Monday 9th April 2018, 8.00pm (with I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Feierwerk, Hansastr. 39-41, 81373 Munich, Germany, Tuesday 10th April 2018, 7.30pm (with I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Artheater, Ehrenfeldgürtel 127, 50823 Cologne, Germany, Wednesday 11th April 2018, 8.00pm (with I See Rivers) – information
  • Molotow, Nobistor 14, 22767 Hamburg, Germany, Thursday 12th April 2018, 7.00pm (with I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Lido, Cuvrystrasse 7, 10997 Berlin, Germany, Friday 13th April 2018, 8.00pm (with I See Rivers) – information here and here
  • Paradiso, Weteringschans 6-8, 1017SG Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday 17th April 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Exchange, 72-73 Old Market Street, Bristol, BS2 0EJ, England, Wednesday 25th April 2018, 7.30pm (+ tbc) – information here and here
  • Ancienne Belgique, Anspachlaan 110, 1000 Brussels, Belgium, Friday 27th April 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Ninkasi Gerland Kafé, 267 Rue Marcel Mérieux, 69007 Lyon, France, Wednesday 2nd May 2018, 8.30pm – information here
  • Point Éphémère, 200 Quai de Valmy, 75010 Paris, France, Thursday 3rd May 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Unplugged in Monti @ Black Market Art Gallery, Via Panisperna 101, Rione Monti, 00184 Rome, Italy, Wednesday 9th May 2018, 7.00pm – information here
  • Serraglio, Via Gualdo Priorato 5, 20134 Milan, Italy, Thursday 10th May 2018, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • Freakout Club, Via Emilio Zago, 7c, 40128 Bologna, Italy, Friday 11th May 2018, 9.00pm – information here
  • The Hug and Pint, 171 Great Western Road, Glasgow, G4 9AW, Scotland, Tuesday 22nd May 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Globe, 125 Albany Road, Cardiff, CF24 3PE, Wales, Wednesday 23rd May 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Plug, Sheffield, Thursday 24th May 2018, 7.30pm – information here, here and here

 

February/April/August 2018 – underground rock flowerings at the Tim Smith fundraiser gigs in Birmingham (21st February), York (27th April) and Preston (11th August)

15 Feb

Following on from the various posts I’ve done on Tim Smith fundraiser gigs, here’s details on the first three to go public this year (in Birmingham, York and Preston). They’ll be shows which are obviously of interest to fans who’ve followed Tim’s work in and out of Cardiacs, but in their lively breadth, they offer plenty for those who’ve never even heard of either Tim or the band.

* * * * * * * *

Die Das Der & The Catapult Club present:
A Tim Smith Fundraiser: The Courtesy Group + The Nature Centre + Ghosts of Dead Airplanes + The Crooked Hooks
The Cuban Embassy @ The Bulls Head, 23 St Mary’s Row, Moseley, Birmingham, B13 8HW, England
Wednesday 21st February 2018, 7.30pm
– pay-what-you-can event – information

Tim Smith Fundraiser, 21st February 2018The Birmingham event takes place at a Moseley joint generally better known for Latin music: hemmed in by rum posters and playing under the Cuban flag are various Brum-area acts with assorted mind-expanding sympathies, from the slightly fey to the outright bolshy.

I’ve encountered The Nature Centre before – light-touch “fololoppy” banjo-and-keyboards Anglopop meeting a Barrett-y/Partridge-y/Smith-y sensibility, while smuggling in strange tales of misogyny and telepathy under the cover of cuteness – but the other bands playing this pay-what-you-like gig are new to me. Shades of Captain Beefheart, The Fall and Ian Dury infest The Courtesy Group, thanks to Al Hutchin’s pop-eyed, pop-jawed declaiming over tunefully abrasive hubcap-guitar rock grooves (which travel from beaten-up armchair argument to deafening industry, and which deploy an extended armoury including baritone guitar and beatboxing).


https://soundcloud.com/thecourtesygroup/the-new-beef
 
More zig-zagging commentary and tossed-salad narrative come from The Crooked Hooks, who seem to have started from an electric folk groundpoint (with a flick of country fingerpicking) but then rapidly twisted and buggered it up with dirty art rock. They’ve ended up sounding like a collision between Kevin Rowland and Stump: admittedly, a Kevin who’s let the quest for soul slip through his fingers while he was sunk in esoterica about lost continents, nursery rhymes, insults and horses.

https://soundcloud.com/crooked-hooks/between-the-stirrup-and-the-ground
 
Finally, the sludgy jangle of self-deprecating trio Ghosts Of Dead Airplanes defines itself, variously, as “post-post-punk” , “paunch-core”, “noise-pap” and “stupid”. Lurching about all over the shop on a sprawling, surprisingly diverse noise-pop chassis, they formerly bit chunks from what sounded like everything from Pop Will Eat Itself, Nirvana and Gary Numan through to The Double; but more recently they’ve been sounding like anxious boys sticking their bewildered heads out of the billowing trailsmoke-ball of My Bloody Valentine.


 
* * * * * * * *

An Evening of Fadeless Splendour, 27th April 2018

Maeve Pearson, Jock Bray, Ian Hughes and Simon Piper present:
An Evening Of Fadeless Splendour: Kavus Torabi + Redbus Noface + Paul Morricone + Stephen Gilchrist
The Fulford Arms, 121 Fulford Road, York, Yorkshire, YO10 4EX, England
Friday 27th April 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here

Several actual Cardiacs (and honorary family members) are showing up at the York gig. Kavus Torabi will be including it as part of his upcoming tour of new solo material featuring a more serious change of tone, in which he’ll be applying his offbeat psychedelic imagination to sombre-yet-colourful acoustic guitar wrangles, ghostly harmonium drones and dark airs about preoccupations and mortality… as well as the odd Knifeworld piece. (Note – if you’re in London on 22nd February, he’ll also be previewing this tour set in Kings Cross.)

Stephen Gilchrist (a.k.a “Stuffy” or, more recently, “Stephen eVens”) will be playing some of his guitar/melodica/microsynth songs about wilful disappointments, bloody-mindedness, childhood holidays and other sardonic aspects of the human condition. For a man who’s ostensibly such a downbeat bastard, he’s always proved a very engaging live performer, clearly relishing his own gallows humour and the grin beneath the growl. (Having delivered one of the finest British songwriter albums of 2017 also helps, I suppose…)

https://youtu.be/tgFh4FB8pZ8
https://youtu.be/qj57SwDeqyk
 
Stephen also pops up as part of the lineup of Redbus Noface, the ongoing band project by Mark Cawthra (Tim Smith’s primary foil in the early Cardiacs lineups). Helping Mark and Stephen land the Redbus cargo of chunky art-rock and skewed perspective are Bob Leith (another Cardiac) and Mick Russon (sometimes of Cardiacs-inspired Midlands wonk-pop band 7shades, more on whom later). Bar sporadic gigs, Redbus has been pretty quiet since the release of debut album ‘If It Fights The Hammer, It Will Fight The Knife’ nearly seven years ago: perhaps they’ll have something new for us now.

https://youtu.be/MXdYZLfaQg0
 
Completing the evening’s entertainment is an appearance by main Scaramanga Six songwriter and frontman Paul Morricone, delivering a solo acoustic guitar package of Scaramanga songs and (perhaps) some additional work in progress. His main band, with their Yorkshire-Krays schtick and their tuneful swagger, might be one of the proudest live acts around; but even without them Paul’s presence is undiminished. He’s still got that big, carrying voice, plus two decades of tough, smart tuneful rock songs behind him – many of them mercilessly skewering toxic masculinity from an insider perspective, focussing not just on its frightening cruelties and callousnesses, but also on its footling self-delusions, its stunted fears and resentments, its swaggering nightmares.

With his work given a new uncomfortable resonance in these days of exposed misogyny, Paul frequently offers grim theatre, with clear lessons beneath the tunes and the dark characterisations. Thankfully, the wider wit and elan of his songwriting – its other varied subjects include stagefright, dreams, and the battle for independence of mind and action, often addressed with dark and melodramatic humour – ensure that an audience with him is far from being a brutal drag-down.


 
Further details on the show are yet to be confirmed but the planned visuals by Kandle Voodoo, plus the efforts of assorted DJs, will help grease the brain and ensure that everything should roll on until two in the morning.

* * * * * * * *

Hyena Inc. presents:
The Whole World Window 2:
The New Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, PR1 8JP, England
Saturday 11th August 2018, 12:00pm
– information here and here

Whole World Window 2, 11th August 2018By far the biggest of the three events is the Preston one – a twelve-hour all-dayer happily yomping along in the footsteps of a previous attempt back in 2016.

In some respects it’s a rerun, with plenty of the same faces showing up. Promoter Greg Brayford is bringing his own mutant power-pop trio All Hail Hyena (whom I described back then as “Bo Diddley rocking an birthday-cake castle”). Prime Cardiacs acolytes 7Shades are still probably as close to the punchy, cartwheeling late-‘80s Cardiacs sound as you’re going to find without a time machine. Also making return appearances are odd-fit acapella jazz’n’Latin pop singer Asha Hewitt (a.k.a. “Moon Ahsa”, sometimes part of Solana) and the deafening hardcore tinkle of Britney (I’m sorry, but I can’t top my 2016 description of them as “one-and-a-half-minute bursts of earsplitting rock numbers plastered with crumpled ice-cream-van melodies…”)

https://youtu.be/MN7cenKHkOg
https://youtu.be/LmNxV5In8zk


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70_mmoC-LqQ&feature=youtu.be

In other respects, WWW2 is a monstrously ambitious jump-up from the last time around, with Cardiacs-community names coasting in from all over the country and from further afield in Europe. The last of the 2016 returnees is Sterbus, bringing his lovingly boiled-up jam of Smith, Fripp, Zappa and ‘90s rock influences over from Rome (and travelling in cahoots with Dominique d’Avanzo, his usual clarinet-and-voice foil). As with the York gig, Kavus Torabi will play a mostly-acoustic solo set; also in attendance are his fellow Londoners The Display Team with their brass-heavy, complicated-but-catchy avant-rock songbook.

https://youtu.be/u9RH85tVVOE
https://youtu.be/9Sq0nTW6RpE
 
Continuing his ongoing journey from the American underground to the hearts of an increasing number of unsuspecting British freaks, former Thinking Plague/5uu’s polyinstrumental wildcard Bob Drake pops across the Channel from his south-of-France home with a cavalcade of lighthearted weird-fiction tales for guitar, voice and funnybone. From Tyneside and Northumberland, the recently reunited Sleepy People (complete with original frontman and ongoing Ultrasound icon Tiny Wood) will be bringing their pumping, spiralling kaleidoscopic psych-pop for strange city corners; while twilight-folk singer Emily Jones, from Cornwall, will be unpacking her own tales of sea-wives, suspect fairies and haunted post-war bungalows.


https://youtu.be/9ad_ssbsJig
https://youtu.be/WYK75LCkfJM
 
The rest of the bill features some rich north-western and Midland pickings which have caught Greg’s eye. Former Polyphonic Love Orchestra members David Sheridon and Debz Joy are making what I think is their first live appearance in their new post-punk fabulist guise as Army Of Moths; Telford-based punk-pop absurdists A Pig Called Eggs sound like John Otway and Syd Barrett happily sharing a single body, but struggling for control of a jouncing mathcore band. Rounding the bill off are Mancunian loop-pedal-pushing lo-fi noise-pop soloist RoBotAliEn (a moonlighter from frequent Hyena-gig guests Sweet Deals On Surgery) and folk-singer Cassandra Payne, whose 2016 debut EP ‘Sheltering Tree’ blends a Northern English folk heritage with lessons and Americana ideas picked up from journeys through the Appalachians, the wilds of Vermont and the bohemian idyll of Cape Cod’s Provincetown.



https://youtu.be/qSiCbhqNNhw
https://youtu.be/krmROCl5TWQ
 
Greg has also promised a rash of zines, merchandise and commemorative souvenirs, plus a couple of mysteries in the shape of Hannah’s Storey (a top-secret duo being assembled especially for the event) and a similarly secret headliner (which, given the calibre of the people he’s already managed to sign up, ought to be very special indeed…) Meanwhile, for a peek at the previous Whole World Window concert in 2016, see below.

https://youtu.be/kl9IAguFg5Y
 

REVIEW – Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ album, 2010 (“an unmapped musical crossroads… one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable”)

12 Sep
Various Artists: 'Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1'

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

In June 2008, en route back from a My Bloody Valentine concert, the world fell in for Tim Smith. A sudden heart attack (and in immediate cruel succession, a pair of devastating strokes) failed to kill him, but only just. Now he’s in long-term recuperation, condemned to that long wait in the margins. With his damaged body now his enemy, his brain’s left to flick over the days until something – anything – gets better and his luck turns. This is a sad story. Even sadder, given that many similar stories must shuffle out of hospitals every month.

There’s an extra layer of pain here in that for over four decades Tim Smith was a dedicated, compulsive fount and facilitator of music. As the singer, composer and main player of some of the most eerily intense, unique and cryptic songs ever recorded, he sat at an unmapped musical crossroads where apparently incompatible musics met. In turn, his songs were hymnal, punky and part-classical; shot through with crashing guitars, keyboard trills and mediaeval reeds; festooned with swings and changes. They were sometimes choral, or full of martial pomp or playground squabble. They were sometimes ghostly. They were a damned ecstatic racket, or a parched and meditative whisper. With what’s now become a brutal irony they also frequently fluttered, quizzically, across the distinctions of life and death; sometimes seeing little separation between the two states, sometimes hovering somewhere in between; sometimes seeing as much meaning in the wingbeat of a stray insect as in the scrambling for human significance.

Tim’s rich and puzzled perspective on life and the weave of the world travelled out to a fervent cult following via a sprouting tree of projects – the quaking mind-mash rock of Cardiacs; the psychedelic folk of Sea Nymphs, the tumbledown explorations of Oceanland World or Spratleys Japs. In addition (and belying the manic, infantile mood-swings of his onstage persona) the man was generous of himself. Via sound production, video art or simple encouragement, his influence and peculiar energy spread from feisty indie rock bands right across to New Music performers and bedroom-studio zealots. It spread far wider than his nominally marginal status would suggest. For all of this, Smith never received adequate reward or overground recognition for these years of effort – another sting in the situation (though, having always been a stubborn goat, he’s probably dismissed it).

Yet if he’s been slender of pocket, he’s proved to be rich in love. His praises may not have been sung by the loudest of voices, but they are sung by a scrappy and vigorous mongrel choir, scattered around the houses. The Smith influence haunts cramped edit suites and backwater studios. It lingers in the scuffed shells of old ballrooms, and in the intimate acoustics of a handful of cramped Wren churches in London: it’s soaked into the battered ash-and-beer-stained sound desks of rock pubs. Most particularly, it lives in the memories of thirty years of backroom gigs where people baffled at, laughed at and finally yelled along with the giddy psychological pantomime of a Cardiacs concert; and where they lost their self-consciousness and finally stumbled away with their armour discarded.

And now, all silenced?

No.

In many cases, these same people who yelled and sang from the audience (or, onstage, from beside Tim) would go on to form bands which demonstrated that three chords and a crude truth was far too blunt a brush with which to paint a picture of the world. All of this outgoing wave of energy comes rolling back with a vengeance on ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’. Put together by Bic Hayes (best known for galactic guitar in Levitation and Dark Star, but in his time a Cardiac) and Jo Spratley (Tim’s former foil in Spratleys Japs), it’s an album of Smith cover versions in which every penny of profit going back to raise money for Tim’s care. In effect, it’s swept up many of those people who sang along with Tim Smith over the years (all grown up now, and numbering characters as diverse as The Magic Numbers, Julianne Regan and Max Tundra) and brought them back for visiting hours.

And they sang outside his window, and they sang in the corridors; and from the ponds and rivers, from the windows of tower blocks and from lonely cottages…

Given Tim Smith’s own eclecticism, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ is one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable. Despite the familial feel, the musical treatments on here vary enormously. Lost broadcasts, festooned in unsettling noise, rub up against stately electric folk. Psychedelic grunge balances out colourful playschool techno. Unaccompanied Early Music recreations drift one way, while centipedal Rock-in-Opposition shapes charge off in another. None of this would work if Tim’s songs – seemingly so resistant – didn’t readily adapt. Anyone can get around the shape of a Neil Young song, a Paul McCartney song or even a Morrissey song for a tribute: but these rampant compositions with their peculiar twists are of a different, wilder order. However, every contributor has managed to embrace not only the unorthodox Smith way with a Jacob’s Ladder tumble of chords but also his dense lyrical babble, which grafts nonsense onto insight and the ancient onto the baby-raw. Everyone involved has striven to gently (or vigorously) tease the songs out of cult corner and bring them to light.

Take, for instance, what The Magic Numbers have done with A Little Man and a House. This anguished Cardiacs ode to the 9-to-5 misfit has never seemed quite so universal, slowly pulling out from one man’s chafing frustration for a panoramic view of a worldful of human cogs. (“And there’s voices inside me, they’re screaming and telling me ‘that’s the way we all go.’ / There’s thousands of people just like me all over, but that’s the way we all go.”) The original’s pained South London squawk and huffing machinery noises are replaced by Romeo Stodart’s soft American lilt, while massed weeping clouds of piano and drums summon up an exhausted twilight in the Monday suburbs. Likewise, when Steven Wilson (stepping out of Porcupine Tree for a moment) sighs his way through a marvelously intuitive and wounded solo version of Stoneage Dinosaurs, he takes Tim’s hazy memories of childhood fairgrounds and incipient loss and makes them glisten like rain on a car mirror while sounding like the saddest thing in the world. Even with Wilson’s own formidable reputation behind him, this is immediately one of the finest things he’s ever done – an eerie ripple through innocence; a sudden, stricken look of grief flitting for a moment across a child’s face.

Three of the covers have added poignancy from being connected to ends, to new beginnings, or to particular paybacks. When Oceansize abruptly split up at the peak of their powers, their final word as a band turned out to be Fear (this album’s loving cover of an obscure Spratleys Japs track). Rather than their usual muscular and careening psychedelic brain-metal, they render this song as a soft-hued exit, a fuzzed-up tangle of fairy lights which wanders hopefully down pathways as they gently peter out. Conversely, glammy Britpop anti-heroes Ultrasound set an acrimonious decade-old split behind them and reformed especially to record for this project. Their whirling clockwork version of the Cardiacs anthem Big Ship is all boxed-in and wide-eyed. It bobs along like a toy theatre while the band fire off first pain (“the tool, the tool, forever falling down / planes against the grain of the wood / for the box, for my soul / and my aching heart,”) and ultimately burst into the kind of incoherent, hymnal inclusiveness which was always a Cardiacs trademark – “All of the noise / takes me to the outside where there’s all /creations, joining in / celebrating happiness and joy; /all around the world, / on land and in the sea.” It seems to have worked for them – they sound truly renewed.

Some of Tim Smith’s songs have a strangely mediaeval tone or texture to them, and some have a twist of eerie folk music. These attract different interpretations. Foundling was once a particularly bereft and fragile Cardiacs moment: an orphaned, seasick love-song trawled up onto the beach. Accompanied by elegant touches of piano and guitar, the genteel art-rockers Stars in Battledress transform it into a heartfelt, change-ringing English bell-round. North Sea Radio Orchestra travel even further down this particular line – their bright tinkling chamber music sweeps up the hammering rock parade of March and turns it into a sprightly, blossoming cortege. Packing the tune with bells, bassoon and string quartet, they dab it with minimalism and a flourishing Purcell verve: Sharron Fortnam’s frank and childlike soprano clambers over the darker lyrics and spins them round the maypole.

Deeper into folk, Katherine Blake (of Mediaeval Baebes) and Julianne Regan (the shape-shifting frontwoman for All About Eve and Mice) each take an eerie acoustic Sea Nymphs fragment and rework it on their own. Julianne’s version of the children’s dam-building song Shaping the River adds rattling tambourine, drowsy slide guitar and a warm murmur of voice: it’s as if the faded lines of the song had washed up like a dead leaf at her feet, ready to be reconstructed at folk club. (“Pile some sticks and pile some mud and some sand. / Leave the ends wide, / three against the side, / plug the heart of flow.”) Katherine’s narcotic a-cappella version of Up in Annie’s Room might have shown up at the same concert. A world away from the pealing cathedral organ of the original, it slips away into empty space in between its gusts of eerie deadened harmonizing and Tim’s sleepy, suggestive cats-cradle of words (“Fleets catch your hair on fire. / The fleet’s all lit up – flags, flame on fire…”)

Max Tundra, in contrast, sounds very much alive and fizzing. His pranktronica version of the brutal Will Bleed Amen re-invents it as delightfully warm and loopy Zappa-tinted techno. Its abrupt air-pocketed melody opens out like a sped-up clown car: when a convoluted cone of lyrics punches his voice up and sticks it helpless to the ceiling, former Monsooon Bassoon-er Sarah Measures is on hand to provide a cool clear vocal balance, as well as to build a little open cage of woodwind at the heart of the rush. It’s a terrific reinvention, but perhaps not the album’s oddest turnaround. That would be courtesy of Rose Kemp and Rarg – one a striving indie-rock singer and blood-heir to the Steeleye Span legacy, the other the laptop-abusing keyboard player with Smokehand. Rose is a Cardiacs interpreter with previous form: this time she’s fronting a forbidding glitch-electronica version of Wind And Rains Is Cold with all of the cute reggae bounce and innocence pummeled out of it. While Rarg flattens and moves the scenery around in baleful planes, Rose delivers the nursery-rhyme lyric with a mixture of English folk stridency and icy Germanic hauteur, uncorking its elliptical menace as she does – “Now you remember, children, how blessed are the pure in heart – / want me to take ’em up and wash ’em good?… / Hide your hair, it’s waving all lazy and soft, / like meadow grass under the flood.”

While most of the musicians on ‘Leader…’ could cite Tim Smith as an influence, Andy Partridge was a influence on Tim himself, way back in his XTC days. Three-and-a-half decades later he repays the appreciation by guesting on the dusky autumnal spin which The Milk & Honey Band‘s Robert White gives to a Sea Nymphs song, Lilly White’s Party. Redolent with regret (for more innocent times, before a fall), it covers its eyes and turns away from the shadows falling across the hillside. Partridge’s deep backing vocals add an extra thrum of sympathy: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s not open that can of worms, / Let’s not say what we did, and play by ear. / Back to square one…”

The backbone of ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ however, comes from the contributions of former Cardiacs players reconnecting with the family songbook. As with any family over time, they’re scattered. One of the earliest members, Pete Tagg, now drums for The Trudy, who take the bucketing psychedelic charge of Day is Gone and offer a more down-to-earth spin on it for the indie disco, keeping that heady chromatic slide of chorus but adding a suspiciously blues-rock guitar solo and Melissa Jo Heathcote’s honeyed vocals. One of the more recent Cardiacs additions, Kavus Torabi, brings his band Knifeworld to the party. He hauls a particularly involved and proggy Cardiacs epic – The Stench of Honey – back through a 1970s Henry Cow filter of humpbacked rhythms, woodwind honks, baby squeaks and rattletrap percussion. Double-strength art rock, it could have been a precious step too far. Instead, it’s triumphant, its skeletal circular chamber music salad-tossed by stomping bursts and twitches of joy.

Onetime Cardiacs keyboard player William D. Drake offers a gentler, kinder tribute, taking the shanty-rhythms of Savour and spinning them out into soft Edwardiana with harmonium, ukulele and a gently bobbing piano finale. Drake’s predecessor Mark Cawthra brings an eerie sense of pain to his own cover version: back in the earliest days, he was Tim Smith’s main foil, playing lively keyboards and drums as well as sharing the bumper-car vocals. Now he sounds like the head mourner, taking on the heavy tread of Let Alone My Plastic Doll and sousing it with Vanilla Fudge-slow organ, doubled guitar solos and sigh-to-wail vocals. The twitchy, baby-logic lyrics are slowly overwhelmed by an undercurrent of grief, but the kind of grief that can only come from a older, wiser man.

Under his Mikrokosmos alias, Bic Hayes takes on Cardiacs’ biggest near-hit (Is This The Life) and subjects it to startling psychedelic noise-storms and industrial drum twirling. In the process, he shakes out and enhances its original pathos. Blown splay-limbed into a corner by a tornado of white noise, plug-in spatters and buzzing malfunctions, Bic’s voice is nasal, lost and forlorn. It sings of split and rootless identity against a wall of forbidding harmonium: “Looking so hard for a cause, and it don’t care what it is; / and never really ever seeing eye to eye / though it doesn’t really mind. / Perhaps that’s why / it never really saw.” Although Jo Spratley coos reassurance under ululations of alto feedback, Bic still ends up cowering like a damaged crane-fly under showers of distorted harpsichords and Gothic synths. Bewitchingly damaged.

The last word goes to The Scaramanga Six, the swaggering Yorkshire theatricalists who were the main beneficiaries of Smith production work before the accident. By their usual meaty standards, the Six’s take on The Alphabet Business Concern (Cardiacs’ tongue-in-cheek corporate anthem, packed to the gunwales with flowery salutes) initially seems cowed, as if flattened by dismay and sympathy at Tim’s misfortune. But it doesn’t end there. Starting tremulous and hushed, with nothing but the embers of faith to keep it up, it builds gradually from tentative acoustic guitars and hiding vocals up through a gradual build of electric instruments, feeding in and gaining strength: “and now the night of weeping shall be / the morn of song…” Over the course of the anthem the Six go from crumpled to straightened to proud cheat-beating life. By the end, the recording can hardly contain their vigorous Peter Hammill bellows, as they sweep out in a grand procession with rolling guitars, pianos and extended Cardiacs choirs. It’s a stirring, defiant finale to an album that’s done everything it could to blow away the ghosts of helplessness and to charge up not just an armful of Smith songs but, in its way, a vivid sense of Smith. He might have taken a bad, bad fall; but the humming and rustling vitality of the music, the way that it’s become a spray of vivid lively tendrils reaching far and wide, is an enormous reassurance.

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’
Believer’s Roast, BR003 (5060243820372)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 13th December 2010

Buy it from:
Genepool (CD) or iTunes (download)

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