Tag Archives: Newcastle-upon-Tyne (England)

February/March 2019 – upcoming British folk/experimental gigs – Bell Lungs on tour with Raiments (20th February to 2nd March, various) with appearances by Despicable Zee, Michael Clark, The Nature Centre, Halcyon Jane, Tara Clerkin Trio and various DJs. Plus sundry other Bell Lungs shows in March including a København evening with Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen, a show with David Toop and Rashad Becker, a date with Gaze Is Ghost.

16 Feb

Working with a multi-instrumental, device-heavy palette which includes guitar, harmonium, Omnichord, electric violin, lyre, bouzouki, saz, voice and a host of effects pedals, avant-folk singer/writer/sometime promoter Ceylan Hay (a.k.a. Bell Lungs) sits at the middle of a host of possible routes. Her sound incorporates post-folk and drone, dream pop, noise and free improv, psychedelia and site-specific realisations, while her psychohistorian subject matter takes in the ancient, the near-ancient and the presently numinous: probing prehistoric spaces, the ghosts of the industrial age, day-to-day feelings and the slide into a new virtual existence space via online culture.

Reflecting these overlaid levels (and what might be, at different perspective points, either shockingly near or completely occluded), her vocal delivery steps between ornamental trad-folk crenellations, feathery ambient warbles and horrific screams. You can never quite tell whether she’s going to lull you or scare you, but you know she cares about what she’s ferrying across to you.

With a new EP, the wintry ‘Wolves Behind Us‘, to promote (apparently it’s a return to folk and landscapes after recent science fiction/site-specific digressions, and is “Joan Aiken’s ‘Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, caravan living in the Highlands and the ancient cosmology idea of dividing the year into two halves; the opening and closing of the wolf’s mouth”), Bell’s embarking on five weeks of touring (primarily alongside Raiments) through Scotland, England, Wales, followed up by other Raiments-less shows in Scotland, England and Denmark. (She’ll also be playing in Wales next month, but more on that later…)




 
Before taking a look at the tour, let’s take a look at her tourmates. Formed on the Berlin avant-garde scene, Raiments are fronted by sing-murmurer/left-field guitarist Mano Camatsos, and they sound like a soft-stepping muttering blend of Lou Reed and Momus fronting a band that mixes lurking dark-jazz styling (hardwood clarinet burr and groove-pattering trashdrums) with the DIY rattle of Pram and the dark throb of Morphine. Mano’s wildcard guitar is a clinking noisemaker and pulse generator taking note of hip hop, of avant-garde classical extended techniques and of mysterious instruments and methods gleaned from ethnological recordings. His songwriting voice is a oddball surreal instinct leading inexorably towards songs about ants or baffling seductions.



 
Tracing their upcoming footsteps on the tour is a joy, like following a plough which turns up small treasures as it reveals what’s in the earth. It’s partly the succession of intriguing off-the-beaten-path venues – squatty art-pubs, recovered eighteenth-century coal basins, pocket cinemas and art centres, diehard folk rooms and out-of-the-way sipperys – but also the revealing of similarly off-the-wall musical talents and enthusiasts they join up with en route.

In Edinburgh, Bell and Raiments are playing with Claquer – previously three-piece improvisers Claque until they spun off their American drummer an unspecified time ago. Now it’s just the Edinburgh contingent: free/experimental guitarist Jer Reid and viola player/speaker Lisa Fannen. They deal in lo-fi clangs, loopings and scrapes and spoken word: momentary moment-music.


 
In Newcastle, the main support comes from the soft melody murmurs and drowsy, cushioned keens of ambient/improv folk duo Halcyon Jane, a Tyneside/Humberside teamup. Upfront with the voice, guitar and devices is Newcastle performance art polymath Jayne Dent, better known via her own electronic/noisy folk project Me Lost Me, in which she buffers and buffets her singing with concertinas and samplers: when she played Hull back in December, support came from local ambient electronic beatsman Halcyon Neumann, who’s worked with The Body Farmers and with Sarah Shiels and who carries out sonic explorations of “the technological vs. the archaic/the spiritual vs. the scientific/the supernatural vs. the psychological.” Together they tease out a semi-improvised border music, part weird electro-folk and part post-shoegaze wisp.

Also playing is Michael Clark, providing slurred, wise, trepidatious and crepuscular folk music with fogrolls of noise behind an acoustic guitar. Despite being a Londoner, he sounds more like a moor-dweller; or like someone who lives in the kind of port city London used to be, one in which strange tales and intimation billow up the streets with the dock mist: this time out, his strange tales are backed up by a full band.

 
I’ve encountered The Nature Centre before. Headlining the Club Integral-hosted Birmingham show above Bell Lung and Raiments, they’re an affable rural/suburban pop quartet like a four-person one-man band, sprouting banjos and clarinets and found percussion alongside their drum kit and guitars. Drawn to playing at weirder gigs, they’ve shared bills with people like Bob Drake and have their own batchful of three-minute pop songs avidly reflecting the off-kilter visions of previous English songwriter eccentrics (the Syd Barretts, Robyn Hitchcocks and Tim Smiths). Handling the in-between-bands slot is someone new to me but not new to Brum’s vinyl-istas: Moseley Folk Festival’s house DJ and Moseley Record Fair co-organiser DJ Rome, promising his own selection of crate-dug oddities and inspirations.


 
In Bristol, the DJ backup comes from “bleary-eyed staggerer” Siegfried Translator of the Grey Area radio show (another haven for intriguingly weird music from all over the globe), but the gig predominantly features the Tara Clerkin Trio: the DIY musical brainchild of a ceramicist who also seems to have a yen for gamelan/minimalist-sounding pattern tinkling sprinkled with voiceloops, friendly saxophonic intrusions and other pitch-ins from whichever musical friends she can rope in for the occasion. (At other times, she creates her own slumberous take on experimental countrified pop.)

 
The Oxford show (promoted by Divine Schism) is primarily a launch event for the second EP by Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, a.k.a. Despicable Zee – a live-looper, improviser and conscious patterner of fifteen years standing, mixed Anglo/Irish/Iranian heritage, and a history of drumming in Oxford bands since her teens. Now the drums (plus loopstations and recordings) are used to create live solo tracks in which Zee employs a lo-fi, lo-technique approach to overlapping rhythm garlands and triggered conversations. As an artist (as well as an educator and mother), Zee’s increasingly conscious of the female lines she carries within her: the patched-in samples which wobble her current project along feature the voices of her mother and grandmother, mingling with Zee’s own sing-speak-raps as if they’ve dropped by for some kind of experimental music cross-cultural kaffee klatsch.


 
The London show (at Paper Dress Vintage) is an evening of music and spoken word put together by promoters Spilt Milk in order to raise money and awareness for North London Action for the Homeless. Shapeshifter experimental pop poet Alabaster dePlume comperes: also in the corner is Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business, who showed up in ‘Misfit City’ a little over a year ago.

Jenny’s another artist whose field extends from the visual and situational into action and music: the Mystic Business involves pulling together friends and strangers into a collective performance event that’s part communal clapalong choir, part percussion workshop and good-natured culture-jamming protest (with food). Guileless and charming, but nonetheless political and détournementational, it’s an attempt to get collective conscience back into the body, containing and encouraging a cheerful but insistent protest.



 
The Conventry and Brighton gigs appear to feature just Bell Lungs and Raiments on their own, but news just coming in re. the Liverpool date (at dockside art-pub Drop the Dumbulls) says that support there comes from Merseyside “synthwhisperer” and outsider synthpopper Claire Welles. She’s been rolling out her contrary songs for over a decade now, singing increasingly unsettling lyrics in a deep deadpan tone with a sarcastic medicated edge, while the backings deliquesce from elegant ageless Europop into something a little misshapen. It all becomes something like those conversations during which you wake up a third of the way in, not quite sure how you got into them, not quite believing that you’re stuck in there and will just have to ride it out.



 
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Following the Raiments tour, Bell heads off separately for other shows. A mid-March showing at Manchester’s Peer Hat is a solo gig, but there’s also an Argyll event (in the enchanting recording-studio-as-art-nook surroundings of St Marys Space) at which she’s supporting baroque poptronic project Gaze Is Ghost: itinerant Northern Irish singer/songwriter/post-classical composer Laura McGarrigle, noted for “spectral vocals and impressionist piano playing” as well as drifts into harmonium and ambient atmospherics. In recent years Laura’s let Zed Penguin drummer/artist Casey Miller into the project and (following a number of pre-Casey singles), Gaze Is Ghost are finally readying a debut album as a duo.

 
A return to Glasgow on 28th March sees Bell performing on a talk’n’play bill with musicologist and audio culturer David Toop and Berlin sonicist Rashad Becker (who, having polished over a thousand records by other people spanning noise to techno, has begun stepping out into music creation of his own with the resonant faux-ethnological synthwork of ‘Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. I’).

On the 30th she’s back in Edinburgh to support another experimental folker, looper and performance artist: David Thomas Broughton, whose brilliantly wayward path has included looping his own heckles, blurring the line between song performance and experimental theatre. Along the way he’s released eight albums of accessible, tremulous, oddly haunting alt.folk delivered in an arresting genderless vocal tone a little reminiscent of Anthony/Anohni, and won the respect and collaborative contributions of (among others) Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, and Aidan Moffat. David will be in the early stages of his own tour, which I really should cover on its own.





 
Before any of these, though, she’s crossing the North Sea to perform at an experimental folk event in København. Part of the city’s Fanø Free Folk Festival, it’s hosted by local label Dendron Records, specializers in “small runs of abstract electronics, ghostly folk songs and surprisingly hummable tunes.” The concert will also feature two København-based British emigres Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen. Hugh’s been operating for years under various names including The Weave And The Weft and Taiga Taiga, creating shadowy understated mostly-acoustic songs with a literary bent, and he regularly helps out with David Folkmann Drost’s homemade folk project Moongazing Hare. Previously known as a radical electric guitarist in Vinyl Dog Joy, Amstrong and Distortion Girls, Tanja recently struck out on her own with a solo debut, ‘Feeling Love’ in which she embraces and deconstructs pop songs, writing them acoustically before bringing assorted damaged amplification and effects-pedal interference to bear on them, resulting in songscapes covering a field from heavy-lidded noise-folk to cataclysmic “drone-metal disco”.




 
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Dates:

Bell Lungs & Raiments tour:

  • Henry’s Cellar Bar, 16A Morrison Street, Edinburgh EH3 8BJ – Wednesday 20th February 2019, 7.00pm (with Claquer) – information here
  • Cobalt Studios, 10-16 Boyd Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1AP, England – Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.00pm(with Michael Clark + Halcyon Jane) – information here
  • The Edge, 79-81 Cheapside, Digbeth, Birmingham, B12 0QH, England – Friday 22nd February 2019, 8.00pm (with The Nature Centre + DJ Rome) – information here and here
  • Cube Cinema, Dove Street South (off top-left of King Square), Kingsdown, Bristol, BS2 8JD, England – Sunday 24th February 2019, 8.00pm(with Tara Clerkin Trio + The Grey Area DJs) – information here and here
  • Fusion Arts, 44b Princes Street, Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1DD, England – Monday 25th February 2019, 7.30pm(with Despicable Zee) – information here
  • Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England – Tuesday 26th February 2019. 7.30pm (with Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business + Alabaster dePlume) – information here and here
  • The Rose Hill Tavern, 70-71 Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton, West Sussex, BN1 4JL, England – Thursday 28th February 2019, 7.00pm – information here
  • The Tin @ The Coal Vaults, Unit 1-4 Coventry Canal Basin, St. Nicholas Street, Coventry, CV1 4LY, England – Friday 1st March 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Drop the Dumbulls @ The Bull, 2 Dublin Street, Liverpool, L3 7DT, England – Saturday 2nd March 2019, 7.00pm (with Claire Welles) – information here

Bell Lungs standalone dates with various others (tbc):

  • Fanø Free Folk Festival @ Alice, Norre Alle 7, DK-2200 København N, Norway – Monday 4th March 2019, 7.00pm(with Hugh Tweedie + Tanja Vesterbye Jessen) – information here
  • St Marys Space, Fasnacloich, Argyll, Scotland, PA38 4BJ – Saturday 9th March 2019, 7.00pm(supporting Gaze Is Ghost) – information here
  • The Peer Hat, 14-16 Faraday Street, Manchester M1 1BE – Thursday 14th March 2019, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Stereo/The Old Hairdressers, 20-28 Renfield Lane, Glasgow, G2 5AR, Scotland – Thursday 28th March 2019, 7.00pm (with David Toop + Rashad Becker) – information here and here
  • The Waverley, 3-5 St. Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TA, Scotland – Saturday 30th March 2019, 9.00pm (supporting David Thomas Broughton) – information here

August-December 2018 – upcoming British and Irish rock gigs – Kiran Leonard on tour (26th August to 5th December, various)

20 Aug

Between late August and early December, the unsettlingly-talented Kiran Leonard will be making his way through England, Ireland and Scotland on a sporadic but wide-ranging tour; preparing for and celebrating the mid-October release of his new album, ‘Western Culture‘.

The first of Kiran’s albums to be recorded in a professional studio with a full band, ‘Western Culture’ comes at the tail-end of a comet-spray of home-made releases. Over the course of these, he’s leapt stylistically between the vigorous home-made eclectic pop of ‘Grapefruit’ and ‘Bowler Hat Soup’, sundry pop and rock songs (including twenty-plus-minute science fiction doom epics and explosive three-minute celebrations), the yearning piano-strings-and-yelp literary explorations of ‘Derevaun Seraun’ and the lo-fi live-and-bedroom song/improv captures of ‘Monarchs Of The Crescent Pail’ and ‘A Bit of Violence With These Old Engines’ (all of this punctuated, too, by the scrabbling electronica paste he releases as Pend Oreille and the prolonged experimental piano/oddments/electronics pieces he puts out as Akrotiri Poacher).

As much at home with kitchen metals as with a ukelele, a piano, or a fuzzy wasp-toned guitar solo, Kiran’s cut-up titles and his wild and indulgent genre-busting complexities are reminiscent of Zappa or The Mars Volta, while his budget ingenuity and fearless/compulsive pursuit of thoughts and his occasional psychic nakedness recall outsider bard Daniel Johnston. On top of that, he’s got the multi-instrumental verve of Roy Wood, Prince or Todd Rundgren; and his stock of bubbling energy and eccentric pop bliss means you can toss Mike Scott, Fyffe Dangerfield or Trevor Wilson into the basket of comparisons, though you’ll never quite get the recipe right.



 

As before, Kiran’s out with his usual band (Dan Bridgewood-Hill on guitar, violin and keyboards, Andrew Cheetham on drums, Dave Rowe on bass), which propels him into something nominally simpler – a ranting, explosive, incantatory mesh of art punk and garage-guitar rock which might lose many of the timbral trimmings of the records, but which is riddled with plenty of rhythmic and lyrical time bombs to compensate; a kind of punky outreach. Most of the dates appear to be Kiran and band alone, though supports are promised (but not yet confirmed or revealed) for Dublin, Brighton, Birmingham, Newcastle and Norwich; and his festival appearances at This Must Be The Place, End of the Road and Ritual Union will be shared with other acts aplenty. No doubt all details will surface over time.


 
What we do know is that the August date in London will also feature Stef Ketteringham, the former Shield Your Eyes guitarist who now performs splintered experimental blues: previewing his appearance in Margate last month, I described his playing as being “like an instinctive discovery: more punk than professorial, bursting from his gut via his heart to tell its shattered, hollered, mostly wordless stories and personal bulletins without the constraint of manners or moderation. For all that, it’s still got the skeleton of blues rules – the existential moan, the bent pitches and percussive protest that demand attention and serve notice of presence.” Judge for yourselves below.


 

The first Manchester date – in September – will be shared with Cult Party and The Birthmarks. The former’s the brainchild of Leo Robinson: multi-disciplinary artist, Kiran associate and songwriter; a cut-back Cohen or Redbone with a couple of string players to hand, delivering dry understated daydream folk songs (from the Americana mumble of Rabbit Dog to the twenty-minute meander of Hurricane Girl, which goes from afternoon murmur to chopping squall mantra and back again). The latter are long-running Manchester cult indie rock in the classic mold – over the years they seem to have been a clearing house or drop-in band for “people that are or have been involved with Sex Hands, Irma Vep, Klaus Kinski, Aldous RH, Egyptian Hip Hip, Human Hair, Sydney, lovvers, TDA, Wait Loss and many more.”



 
* * * * * * * *

Dates as follows:

(August 2018)

  • This Must Be The Place @ Belgrave Music Hall & Canteen, 1-1A Cross Belgrave Street, Leeds, Yorkshire, LS2 8JP, England, Sunday 26th August 2018, 1.00 pm (full event start time) – information here and here
  • The Victoria, 451 Queensbridge Road, Hackney, London, E8 3AS, England, Wednesday 29th August 2018, 7.30pm (with Steff Kettering) – information here and here
  • End Of The Road Festival (Tipi Stage) @ Larmer Tree Gardens Tollard Royal, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5PY, England, Thursday 30th August 2018, 9.45 pm – information here and here

(September 2018)

  • Partisan, 19 Cheetham Hill Road, Strangeways, Manchester, M4 4FY, England, Saturday 8th September 2018, 7.30pm (with Cult Party + The Birthmarks) – information here and here

(October 2018)

  • Ritual Union festival @ The Bullingdon, 162 Cowley Rd, Oxford, OX4 1UE, Saturday 20th October 2018, 11.00am (full event start time) – information here, here and here
  • The Cookie, 68 High Street, Leicester, Leicestershire, LE1 5YP, England, Monday 22nd October 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Portland Arms, 129 Chesterton Road, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB4 3BA, England, Tuesday 23rd October 2018, 7.00pm – information here
  • The Boileroom, 13 Stokefields, Guildford, Surrey, GU1 4LS, England, Wednesday 24th October 2018, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • The Crescent Working Men’s Club, 8 The Crescent, York, Yorkshire, YO24 1AW, England, Thursday 25th October 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Parish, 28 Kirkgate, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, HD1 1QQ, England, Friday 26th October 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Green Room, Green Dragon Yard, Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, TS18 1AT, England, Saturday 27th October 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here

(November 2018)

  • The Roisin Dubh, Dominic Street, Galway, Ireland, Wednesday 21st November 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Whelan’s, 25 Wexford Street, Dublin 2, Ireland, Thursday 22nd November 2018, 8.00pm (with support t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • Kasbah Social Club, 5 Dock Road, Limerick, Ireland, Friday 23rd November 2018, 9.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Cyprus Avenue, Caroline Street, Cork, T12 PY8A, Ireland, Saturday 24th November 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Green Door Store, 2-4 Trafalgar Arches, Lower Goods Yard, Brighton Train Station, Brighton BN1 4FQ, England, Monday 26th November 2018, 7.00pm (+ support t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • Soup Kitchen, 31-33 Spear Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M1 1DF, England, Wednesday 28th November 2018, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • The Hare & Hounds, 106 High Street, Kings Heath, Birmingham, B14 7JZ, England, Thursday 29th November 2018, 7.30pm (+ support t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • The Hug & Pint, 171 Great Western Road, Glasgow, G4 9AW, Scotland, Friday 30th November 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here

(December 2018)

  • The Cumberland Arms, James Place Street, Byker, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne & Wear, NE6 1LD, England, Saturday 1st December 2018, 7.30pm (+ support t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • Norwich Arts Centre, St. Benedict’s Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 4PG, England, Monday 3rd December 2018, 8.00pm (+ support t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • Rough Trade, Unit 3 Bridewell Street, Bristol, BS1 2QD, England, Tuesday 4th December 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Clwb Ifor Bach, 11 Womanby Street, Cardiff, CF10 1BR, Wales, Wednesday 5th December 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here

 

March 2017 – upcoming gigs – Coven ’17 English tour, 2nd-13th March (fightin’ women’s folk from O’Hooley & Tidow, Lady Maisery and Grace Petrie)

17 Feb
Coven, 2017

Coven, 2017

Last month’s astonishing Women’s March laid bare a fairly fundamental truth – that the backbone and much of the driving force of protest movements (certainly the successful ones) are made up of women.

Historically, one of the binding factors of this has been folk music – women singing, women playing, women writing or interpreting, and women inspiring from the stage. Though this kind of music’s often had a rough ride from the fashion police who drag it in and out of style, generally the performers have treated this as little more than an incidental matter – noted, grunted at, and set aside while the serious matter of talk’n’listen is gotten on with. Similarly, there’s nothing saying that folk performers whose public image might mostly be that of making pretty sounds on the radio won’t also retain, sustain or develop deep commitments to social politics, and thereby draw in anyone who’s prepared to think of them as more than an aural accessory to go with the wallpaper. At any time there are plenty of tours and shows taking place and reinforcing this, although I, for one don’t get to hear enough about them. Here’s one which I did get to hear about – six outspoken women on tour in March with a brace of songs and collective commitment, stirring up discussion and solidarity. Past craft; present engagement.

Woven from the usual brace of press releases:

“Coven are a collective of three of the British folk scene’s finest, most formidable and forthright female acts, taking to the stage to celebrate International Women’s Day in a week of unforgettable concerts. The exquisitely harmonic songwriting duo and BBC 6 Music favourites O’Hooley & Tidow (described as “defiant, robust, political, Northern, poetical folk music for the times we live in” by the ‘Independent’) will be joined by the enchanting BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Finalists Lady Maisery (“women with ideas, purpose and urgency… powerful, enthralling work” – ‘Songlines’) and the irrepressible Leicester songwriter, activist and performer Grace Petrie (“a powerful new songwriting voice” – ‘The Guardian’).

“Three years ago, they all got together to celebrate International Women’s Day in March with a series of three concerts. Since then, the tour has extended year on year… Experience these thought-provoking, entertaining and enthralling women debuting the music from their first collective EP, ‘Unholy Choir’ (recorded at Frome’s Cooper Hall in the early part of 2017), and performing both individually and collectively on one stage.”

Here are examples of work by each of the three Coven components; followed by a clip of all of them together, performing an extended harmony-folk take on Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work. A version of the latter is on ‘Unholy Choir’ along with the Maisery’s Rowan Rheingans’ resetting of female labour anthem Bread & Roses, a cover of the late Maggie Roche’s Quitting Time, an a capella version of Pat Humphries ’ Never Turning Back, a new version of Grace’s If There’s A Fire In Your Heart and a full sextet version of Coil & Spring (O’Hooley and Tidow’s Pussy Riot tribute, co-written with former Chumbawamba mainstay Boff Whalley). So far, the plan is for the EP to only be available at the gigs. Early on, at least, you’ll need to attend one to get one.





 

Full tour dates:

Coven, 2017
 

June 2016 – upcoming gigs – Merz’s English tour with Julian Sartorius (12th-19th) plus The Sound Book Project, Hayley Ross, Megan Carlile and Christopher Anderson

9 Jun

In 1999 Merz popped up, apparently out of nowhere, with the Many Weathers Apart single. It was delightfully bizarre – there were deck scratches, a warbling rubber-guitar lick, a screaming soul sample. Merz himself was a crowy, androgynous pop squawk riding on a reverbed conga boom as big as the circling horizon. A hippy priest with a boombox, plugged into the metaphysical mainline, he sang in fluttering scraps about separation, connection and rainstorms and somehow tied them all together. The equally out-there follow-up, Lovely Daughter, was a sideswipe at subjugation and exploitation – ostensibly about young brides, but perhaps also about outflanked cultures. It sounded like Anthony Newley trapped in a tropical aviary, sprinkled with reggae-dust while tussling with Prince and Beck. Refreshingly, both songs were modest hits.

A bold debut album followed, on a Sony subsidiary. Merz surrounded the darting, hummingbird heart of his songcraft with paper-chain folk guitar, string orchestras and rain-dewed colliery brass bands, as well as what sounded like tips of the hat to Public Enemy, Sinatra and Van Morrison. He also added psychedelic flourishes, looted with elan, from a range of sources (be they worldbeat, Eurodance, the buccaneering edges of late-‘90s club culture, or acid-fuzzed corners of the Incredible String Band’s cottage). Unfortunately, 1999 wasn’t the best year for innovative eclectic-pop. However unfairly, Merz seemed to be at the tail end of a wave of experimentalists riding in Björk’s cooling wake. In the face of a much bigger wave of Latin disco and lighter entertainment, the hoped-for bigger hits didn’t happen for him. The album sold indifferently, the record deal foundered, and Merz walked. In music business terms that should have been the end of a familiar and often-repeated story. A&R takes a punt on something unusual; it rapidly runs out of steam; and the pet eccentric promptly drops back into obscurity, a footnote for geeks.

Merz (photo by Tabea Hubeli)

For Merz, in fact, all of this was simply one chapter of work; and it hadn’t even been the first chapter. Under his real name, Conrad Lambert, he’d been recording and releasing songs for over a decade before Many Weathers Apart broke cover. Even though that stage monicker turns out to have been a chance appropriation (rather than a nod to Kurt Schwitters), Merz had, from an early age, followed the connective prompts of a Bahá’í upbringing and a personal artistic bent (which had had him picking up the bagpipes as a first instrument at the age of six). His own restless nature spurred him on to early travelling, and would later drive the adult Conrad to make homes from town to town and from country to country. Ultimately, parting company with Sony and with an audience of turn-of-the-millennium hipsters just seems to have been another thing to shrug off. Merz had different things to do. Even if he didn’t quite know what they were yet. Then, as now, open possibilities beckoned… and security was a straitjacket.

As for the obscurity, that’s a matter of perspective. Merz seems to been quietly and steadily embraced by continental Europe (perhaps one of the reasons why he now makes his home in the Swiss Alps). His albums – including last year’s ‘Thinking Like A Mountain’ – are persistently and publically hailed across magazines and online review sites as the welcome surfacings of an inventive, tuneful and touching mind. If, in spite of this, he still remains cult it’s partly because it seems to suit him. Musically, he’s mellowed without slackening. As with Geddy Lee, what was once a strident corvine vocal has matured into a warmer, more human sound without losing its fundamental chirp. Across time he’s delivered songs which might only rarely touch the earth but which flutter and roost in stray corners of the mind for years; from the Northern-brass love-call of Lotus to the offset rhythms and flamenco fairing of Goodbye My Chimera, the melding of baroque harpsichord waltz and bubbling phuture-pop on Dangerous Heady Love Scheme, and the melding of Buckleylalia with blootering, breakneck industrial techno in the recent Ten Gorgeous Blocks.


At the core, today’s Merz is a roaming twenty-first century folk troubadour – centred around voice, a keyboard or laptop and a single fingerpicked guitar, making the most of both local ingredients and things intercepted en route. He’s based around instinctive heart rather than roots, and around spontaneous initiative rather than the solidity of tradition; spurred on by intuitive choices of collaborators, such as British electro-concrète producer Matthew Herbert. His current musical foil, wingman and licensed disruptor is Swiss drummer and sound artist Julian Sartorius, whom Merz met while recording his ‘No Compass Will Find Home’ album, and whom he subsequently allowed to strip out and repurpose his songs to form a further album’s-worth of startling drum-and-vocal renditions

As for his tours, they manage to be both quietly exhilarating and easy to miss. Ducking around and under the radar, they mount a clear challenge to the business of tired pop promotion. He seeks to make concerts – like live art works – unique and permanently memorable to the attendees, taking care over matters like time, place and involvement. In addition to fairly familiar arty venue types (picture galleries, music churches and house concerts), last year’s ‘In Intimate’ tour took in a village chapel, a working-men’s club and an Air Force Legion hall: even a cow barn, a Scottish castle, a yurt, a forest clearing, a railway arch, and a snooker club. This season’s tour isn’t quite as unusual, although it returns to a couple of In Intimate venues (in Middlesbrough and Oswestry). Elsewhere, Merz seems to have gone where he was invited… and made sure that it was either somewhere interesting or somewhere that strives (sprouting rock clubs in transient locations, or the sites of hopeful songwriter nights).

For many of the shows Merz will be playing as a duo alongside Julian Sartorius, who’ll also be playing a solo drumkit set to open the concert. On some evenings, support acts will be drawn from more straightforward singer-songwriter turf – in Hinckley, sixteen-year-old local open-mic promoter Megan Carlile; in Newcastle, local acoustic bard-of-observations Christopher Anderson; in Brighton, Hayley Ross (who leans towards a classic ‘70s style and expression but with a darker, cruel-hinting edge and occasional bursts of garage rock).


 
To counterbalance, at Oswestry support comes from the altogether stranger Sound Book Project, a sextet of multimedia artists and musicians (including a pair of Pram members) who use books as noisemakers and instruments – “wound, sprung, strummed, slapped and thrown” as well as being modified or miked-up – in an experimental, slightly fetishistic celebration of the sensuality of bound text as opposed to digital media, and the way in which sounds trigger memories and associations.

Similarly, the opening show at Middlesbrough’s MIMA is somewhat different from the others: it marks the closure of ‘When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades’, MIMA’s exhibition of the work of British abstract/gestural painter and printmaker Basil Beattie. Over two hours spread across the ground floor galleries, Merz will play songs from his repertoire which “allude to Beattie’s paintings both from a visual and spiritual point of view” and promises “a roving and impressionistic solo set.”
 

March 2016 – upcoming gigs – Kiran Leonard tours Britain again (March into April) and reveals new single; London gigs from Whispers & Hurricanes (with Madam, Kat May and RobinPlaysChords) and a guitar double from Dean McPhee and Seabuckthorn

23 Mar

Details on two London shows from a packed upcoming weekend: but first, an extended British tour from a major talent…

* * * * * * * *

Tomorrow, explosively gifted singer-songwriter Kiran Leonard charges off on another British tour with his all-star quartet of Manchester art rock luminaries (completed by Dan Bridgwood Hill, Dave Rowe, and Andrew Cheetham – see the note on his previous tour for their credentials). Support on most of the tour comes from dark-glam Manchester pop act Irma Vep, although some dates feature folk musicians Richard Dawson and Salvation Bill (in Newcastle and Oxford respectively) and Bristolian “jazz/rock/post-op pop” quartet The Evil Usses (who fill the bill in Bath), with other acts to be confirmed (though they might have been added to the individual gig pages by now…)





Meanwhile, here’s Kiran’s brand-new nine-and-a-half-minute single – a terrific and spontaneous-sounding interweaving of otherworldly folk baroque, chamber prog, post-hardcore racket and kitchen-warrior percussion. The parent album, ‘Grapefruit’, is out on Moshi Moshi on Friday.


 

* * * * * * * *
In London, at the weekend, there’s a third-outing triple bill for Whispers & Hurricanes (the quieter wing of Chaos Theory Promotions, for when they fancy putting on an act that doesn’t sound like a giant metallic jazz centipede in manga boots)…

Whispers & Hurricanes, 26th March 2016

Chaos Theory presents:
Whispers & Hurricanes: Madam + Kat May + RobinPlaysChords
The Sebright Arms, 33-35 Coate Street, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9AG, England
Saturday 26th March 2016, 7.30pm
more information

“A five-piece London based band, fronted by charismatic singer-songwriter and composer Sukie Smith, Madam create nocturnal, intricate-yet-cinematic soundscapes showcasing songs that are at once confessional and a call to arms, and have been compared to both Mazzy Star and Cat Power. The band has amassed a loyal legion of fans at home and abroad, showcasing their smoky sound at intimate gigs and packed venues across Europe. Tonight they will launch their haunting single When I Met You, taken from their upcoming album ‘Back To The Sea’.” (Meanwhile, here’s an earlier track from their previous album, ‘Gone Before Morning’; plus their darned slinky cover of Oscar Brown’s tale of treachery, ‘The Snake’ – a welcome antidote to the song’s recent co-opting by Donald Trump.)



 

Whispers & Hurricanes, 26th March 2016“After many years we are reunited with the extraordinary singer-songwriter Kat May, who is inspired by the melancholy of Scandinavia, the urban textures of her base in London and the literary song-writing of her native France. Her atmospheric indie folk-pop has been hailed by France’s biggest music magazine, ‘Les InRocks’, as “cathartic and elegant”, and by ‘Lomography’ as “visually dreamy, melancholic and emotionally arresting all at the same time.” We caught the launch of her debut album ‘Beyond The North Wind’ at St Pancras Old Church back in 2014, and it’s still a regular feature on our playlists. Tonight she will perform her music on piano and voice, with violin and cello accompaniments.


 

Robin Jax’s exploits as RobinPlaysChords have been built on a slow but steady sonic development. Hailing from his remote country abode near Leamington Spa, the solitary songwriter uses his guitar and loopstation to create percussion, shimmering ambience and distorted hooks for him to place his honest lyrics over. Garnering comparisons to David Bowie and Patrick Wolf, RobinPlaysChords has previously won over audiences when opening for The Irrepressibles, Larsen, Thomas Truax and others, as well as undertaking his first shows in continental Europe in 2015.”


 

* * * * * * * *

Finally for now, a doubled gig of textured, looped and echoed guitar, but with a pastoral edge…

Dean McPhee + Seabuckthorn
The Slaughtered Lamb, 34-35 Great Sutton Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 0DX, England
Saturday 26th March 2016, 8.30pm
more information

“West Yorkshire based solo electric guitarist Dean McPhee plays a Fender Telecaster through a valve amp and effects pedals, combining clean, chiming melodic lines with deep layers of decaying delay and cavernous echo. Over years of improvisation and experimentation he has developed a unique style of playing which draws together influences from British folk, dub, kosmische, post-rock, Mali blues and modal jazz. His releases on the Blast First Petite, Hood Faire and World in Winter labels have been critically acclaimed by ‘The Wire’, ‘Uncut’, ‘Record Collector’, ‘Music OMH’, ‘Dusted’, ‘Brainwashed’, ‘The Out Door’, ‘Drowned in Sound’ and ‘The Quietus’ amongst others. He has supported artists/bands including Thurston Moore (as UK tour support), Acid Mothers Temple, Wolf People, James Blackshaw, Emeralds, Josh T Pearson, The Magic Band, Sharon Van Etten, Michael Hurley, Josephine Foster, Meg Baird, Bohren and der Club of Gore and Charalambides. Dean is currently working on a new album which uses a kick drum pedal to introduce a pulsing, percussive undercurrent to his most recent compositions,


 

Seabuckthorn is the solo project of UK acoustic guitarist Andy Cartwright. Releasing 6 albums since 2008 he explores alternative terrains on six to twelve strings, often with minimal layered accompaniments to form musical landscapes. Cartwright uses the techniques of finger picking & bowing combined with various open tunings to create a well curated mixture of approaches. Falling into the cinematic and soundtrack genres, his music is evident of influences ranging from the traditional styles of Robbie Basho and Jack Rose, to more modern players like Ben Chasny, Zak Riles, and Gustavo Santaolalla with whom Cartwright shares an emphasis on atmospheric and multi-instrumental compositions. Sometimes quietly ambient, often powerfully expressive. As well as live performances around the UK, Cartwright has performed in numerous shows & festivals all over France & the southern deserts of Tunisia.


 

Dean McPhee and Seabuckthorn are recording a split 7″ single to be released later this year.”

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News on more London weekend shows are coming up next time…
 

March/April 2016 – upcoming gigs – Motherese (Aby Vulliamy, Laura Cole, Maria Jardardottir and more) in a mothers-in-arms jazz tour

6 Mar

I briefly mentioned the Motherese project in passing during the previous post (having found out about them as one of the several support bands in the Schnellertollermeir tour). For various reasons – not least that they seemed to be bringing a specific and structured practical ethos to their live experience, one which voyaged above and beyond the music – I wanted to follow that up…

Aby Vuillamy, 2016

From what they themselves say, Motherese is/are “a band of mothers brought together especially for this year’s Women In Music Festival in Newcastle run by Jazz North East. The collaboration involves a core trio of composers and improvisers, using an exciting combination of pre-composed music, structured improvisation and free improvisation, loosely exploring the theme of parenthood. The core trio have several dates booked in various cities, and in each place, they will be joined by local musician mothers, whose impromptu contributions will be incorporated with flexibility, sensitivity and creativity; all necessary attributes for parents adapting and responding to their families’ ever-changing needs.

“The organic and spontaneous nature of the whole process, in terms of writing, developing and performing the work, reflects our experience of motherhood; we’ve felt very inspired and excited and energised, as well as a little lost and overwhelmed at times. We’re confident that the music will be interesting and challenging and exciting and beautiful and moving at times, and we hope folk will want to come and experience it.”

Sounds good…

The group is led by Aby Vulliamy, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and constant collaborator across multiple disciplines. In addition to ongoing work with Stevie Jones’s brain-rattling acoustic music project Sound of Yell and Bill Well’s National Jazz Trio of Scotland, this includes experimental rock (via a teaming with Faust’s Hans Joachim Irmler), indie rock (Norman Blake, Aidan Moffat, assorted Belle & Sebastian spin-offs), old and new folk strains (via work with Bridget St John, Mary Hampton, Ali Roberts, Lucy Farrell, The Trembling Bells and Mike Heron) , orchestral music (Scottish Chamber Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) and the jazz/improv field (Evan Parker, Matt Bourne, Maggie Nichols, Karen Mantler, John Tchicai and many others).

Though she can also play piano and musical saw, Aby concentrates on singing and playing viola for Motherese as well as handling the bulk of the composing, which is based around her recent musical explorations of the theme of motherhood. Aby also works as a music therapist, something which profoundly affects the working ethos of this new project. In addition to sharing the experience and challenges of motherhood, the two other core members of Motherese share sympathies or practical parallels (or both) with this latter strand of Aby’s work.

Singer/pianist Laura Cole has won plaudits as an established leader or co-leader of multiple bands in her own right. These include the Leeds-based Bennett Cole Orchestra and the London jazz-folk sextet Metamorphic (for which she’s also the main composer/arranger) and she also plays in Martin Archer’s percussion-heavy twelvetet Engine Room Favourites. However, she’s a past sufferer of both depression and Repetitive Strain Injury. Though recovered, she speak openly about both of these conditions and about their impact on her and (by extension) on other people, instead of submerging this part of her history under a brittle faux-professionalism.

The third member of the trio is Norwegian improvising singer Maria Jardardottir, who keeps herself busy with a frightening number of jazz and contemporary music projects. Performing as electro-acoustic solo project Melatonin, with singer-songwriter duo Caer Caradoc and with free improvisation trio Endenor, she’s also a member of the voice ensembles Røyst Trio and Curious Voice Duo (plus the former’s cross-arts collaboration project WoCalling) as well as a composer for the all-female nine-piece chamber ensemble evamigra. On top of this, Maria’s an Iyengar Yoga teacher interested in “the voice and body as one organic instrument for a natural, playful and raw expression of inner processes… serving the moment with openness, curiosity and a wish to share what is unspoken…”

All of these shared preoccupations throw up further questions and potential answers. Musicality and its wider implications, including its impact on health and wellbeing. The intricately interspersed and interstitial nature of how one simultaneously makes one’s way as striver and as parent. Interest in what a maternal perspective might add to the business of making music; and ideas of mutual support extending beyond simple musical gangs and artistic movements and into the fabric of a broader life. There’s nothing new about these ideas, but they’re often blurred into the background, If feminism, at its roots, is about shaping a better world by bringing constructive female perspectives into play, improving life for everyone, here – in the often oblivious, self-indulgent world of high-art music making – is an example of it in action.

It’s also true that similar initiatives exist up and down the country – I’ve seen similar things at the odd Ladyfest, and there’s probably one anywhere where there’s a community of inquisitive women whose explorations overlap health and music – but it’s rare and refreshing to see musicality of this strength brought to bear on one of them. Hopefully it might become less rare.

* * * * * * * *

So far, Motherese have three shows lined up:

Jazz North East present: “Women Make Music”:
Motherese + Jennifer Parry + Zoe Gilby Trio
Literary and Philosophical Society, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 1SE, England
Tuesday 8th March 2016, 8.00pm
more information

This debut gig feature Motherese in its core trio format, with Tynesider and experimental folk-jazz singer Zoë Gilby in support. Zoë blends a scat-bebop singing style drawn from voice pioneer Sheila Jordan with the 1970s art-pop and songwriter-folk methods of Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd, brings a clutch of original songs with her and also has a taste for transforming classic and challenging jazz compositions by the likes of Thelonious Monk into new songs by adding her own carefully thought-out lyrics. A musician who thrives on restlessness and change, Zoë’s albums and live shows have constantly seen her revise her approach, whether it’s by using loop technology to deliver a textured tribute to the versatility of the human voice, making herself part of a free-improv trio of relative strangers, or simply rejigging interpretations of the Great American songbook. For her WMM set, Zoe will be accompanied by her own Trio (featuring regular musical partners Mark Williams and Andy Champion).

Between the two groups, and adding yet another dimension to the evening, local artist Jennifer Parry will present a multimedia performance, manipulating pre-recorded vocals and projections to create a unique and shape-shifting environment.

Given the Motherese setup and working methods, it’s not impossible that Zoë and Jennifer may also augment the headliners for an expanded performance…

Fusebox presents:
Schnellertollermeir + Motherese
The Fox & Newt, 9 Burley Street, Leeds, LS3 1LD, England, Friday 18th March 2016, 8.00pm
more information

Supporting Swiss avant-rockers Schnellertollermeir on the Leeds leg of their Anglo-Irish tour, this gig sees Motherese augmented by Yorkshire-based guest vocalists Kari Bleivik (Maria’s Norwegian compatriot and colleague in Røyst Trio and WoCalling, as well as singer with Vehere and The Tommy Evans Orchestra, among others) and Stephanie Hladowski (who shuttles fluidly between pop, folk and reggae with a wide number of bands and projects – time allowing). A late addition to the bill is singer Cath Campbell, who’ll also be joining the Motherese huddle.

The Glasgow show – part of April’s Counterflows Festival – is a much less constrained event. Not simply a straightforward gig, it lets us see (and interact with) Motherese within the project’s full potential.

Counterflows Festival presents:
Motherese: Aby Vulliamy + Maria Jardardottir + Laura Cole + Nerea Bello
Glad Café Foundation & Bar, 1006A Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow, G41 2HG, Scotland
Sunday 10th April 2016, 11.00am
– free event – more information

At this gig, the group promise “a fun and accessible music workshop, with support from music therapist and trombonist George Murray plus some local guest musicians including Basque singer Nerea Bello (from post-punk folk improvisers Tattie Toes). Inviting volunteers from children and adults of all ages and abilities to ‘conduct’ the ensemble in whatever manner they like (anything from minimal eye movements to free-style dance), we will create a thrilling and intimate experience of interactive music-making, using instruments, body percussion and vocalisations.

The workshop explores concepts of ‘attunement’ (mirroring and tuning into the feelings behind actions and facial expressions) and cross-modal communication (eg translation from movement to sound and vice versa), both of which are powerful aspects of the instinctive relationship between a pre-verbal baby and parent. Activities will culminate in a ‘musical group self-portrait’, a vibrant and dynamic experience of spontaneous group expression, proving that whatever our age or ability, we are all inherently musical.”

If you’re interested in pursuing this deeper aspect of the project, three half-hour workshop sessions take place during the morning (the first one being at 11.30am) with the formal performance happening at 2.00pm.

More British concerts, first week of November (2nd-8th) – Illuminations London present Holly Herndon/Jam City/Claire Tolan in Bethnal Green and Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma in Hackney; Laura Moody plays solo in Cardiff and Sheffield; Jenny Hval/Briana Marela tour the UK

2 Nov

Some more concert dates for the current week. If you’re thinking that these have a definite female slant to them, you’re right. I’m indulging my latent X as well as stretching my perspective.

Holly Herndon expanded A/V show (featuring Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self) + Jam City + Claire Tolan (Barbican & Rockfeedback present Illuminations  @ Oval Space, 29-32 The Oval, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9DT, UK, Wednesday 4th November 2015, 7:30pm) – £15.00

Having already made a showing at Liverpool and Bristol during October, peripatetic techno-pop/IDM composer Holly Herndon brings her expanded show to London. This is a full multi-media experience including the usual music, visuals and dance elements but with an interactive component that goes far beyond Holly’s onstage collaborations with programmer/life partner Mat Dryhurst and with interpretative dancer/additional singer Colin Self. In particular, Mat’s adaptive and conceptual SAGA software reaches out beyond the stage to work – consensually – with the audience members’ own browser histories and Facebook content; mixing it all into the visuals (and, potentially, the sounds) as a communal mashup, both representational and communicatory.

Intriguing as this factor is, it’s an adjunct to Holly’s music; which remains the core material of the show. Continually glitched, tweaked and deconstructed, her compositions are a cool, complex, thoughtful and exhilarating mixture. They’re informed by post-classical forms, dance techno, and anthemic synth pop; they utilize experimental textures and broad vocal stylings (from standard singing to semi-voluntary sounds) and they bury philosophical queries deep within their tunes. Holly’s soundwork is as immersive as her stagings, full of implied questions and reflections regarding our access to and immersion in technology and how this affects the way in which we think and express ourselves, leaving comet-trails of information, interaction and yearnings.

All of these additional subtexts and pointers are there if you want them, but Holly is first and foremost a communicating musician, and her pieces are as melodious and accessible as they are multi-layered. Drawing on her ongoing music studies (doctorate level at Stanford) , her time as a precocious and enquiring teenager steeped in the heat and fun of the Berlin club scene, and her work with everything from choirs to customised laptop software, they sometimes sound like particularly complicated pop songs, stuttering their way through myriad changes of attention and focus. Sometimes they sound like accelerated dream-state dances; sometimes like madrigals sung during earthquakes (see Unequal, below). At other times, they’re like the chatter of path-switching in a circuit; or like carefully-directed cultural channel-surfings which quick-step deftly back and forth across a breadth of urban art and experience (from grand opera house to downloads in cramped bedsits). Brain food which encourages you to wander.

Also on the bill are Jam City and Claire Tolan, both of whom share Holly’s interest in interactions and in the results of our being embedded within a dense informational culture, although each has their own way of approaching the situation.

Jam City is the alias of dance-electronica producer and deconstructionist Jack Latham. Though Jack’s background in fashion and “corporate espionage” sounds almost too good to be true, as if it’s been dream-tailored for counter-cultural media discussions and for high-end elitist posing, he doesn’t use it that way. As a musician, he’s evolved from collaging various dubstep tropes towards using his work to develop and express questioning, outright political critiques of neoliberal capitalism (such as the Unhappy single, which explores the dulled angst of online porn consumers while juxtaposing it with riot footage). In the process, Jack’s also developed as a performer – backgrounding the laptops and the passive role of the standard electronica performer in order to retake the stage as guitarist and singer, and delivering a new phase of material described as sounding like a Prince record constructed from cold, chunky industrial sounds”.

Claire Tolan is an artist, programmer, sampler, writer and soundscaper specializing in autonomous sensory meridian r – a psychological process in which carefully-arranged sound and speech – usually a blend of themed, targeted whispers and quiet diegetic noises (scratches, scuffs, intimate room sounds) – triggers euphoric physical and mental reactions in the listener. With sharp wit, Claire links all of this to new developments in programming and acoustic surveillance technologies, exploring the question of how it might be applied: from simple mood enhancements and healing systems through to neurolinguistics and perception and to the potential manipulation and control of people. Her recent Holly Herndon collaboration Lonely At The Top (see below) might give some clues as to her concert performance. A cosseting monologue, coffee-pot dribbles and the close-up noises of small rooms are interspersed with the rubs and slaps of massage, fingernails ticking on keyboards and screens, and increasingly intimate sounds of hand and mouth: the language, desires and end results of relaxation tapes, executive relief, socially-reinforced senses of entitlement and prostitution blend and overlap to sardonic, disturbing effect.

Information and tickets for the concert are here  while the Facebook event page is here. At the end of the month, Holly will also be appearing at All Tomorrow’s Parties at Prestatyn.

* * * * * * * *

There are some similarities between Holly Herndon and Laura Moody  – not least an overlap with classical music and a sense of being on the outcrops of songcraft, delving up malleable truths and questions. Yet whereas Holly’s a post-classical theoretician (reconciling her education with her human instincts, and with life outside the college bubble) and works primarily on computer, Laura comes from older and more familiar traditions, and is almost exclusively an acoustic performer. Possessing outstanding talent both as a singer and as a cellist – and able to cover both fields simultaneously, as well as beatboxing and cello-drumming – she pounces into her own music with the terrifying, exhilarating technical skills of a top-drawer classical soloist.

Laura’s songwriting instinct, meanwhile, seem to come from multiple directions at once. Tense twentieth-century string figures (from her earlier years playing avant-garde pieces with the Meredith Monk Ensemble, and her current work with the Elysian Quartet); ancient, eerie folk airs; expressionist opera; P.J. Harvey’s cleaver intensity; the clever, idiosyncratic and individual art pop of a Kate Bush, a Tom Waits or a Bjork. Everything that she delivers sounds immediate, whether it’s the savagely equivocal hormonal take-down of an older man on Creeping Alopecia, the raindrop attenuations of Call This Time Love, or the stormy dissections of love-gone-wrong and betrayal on Turn Away and We Are Waiting.

The live gigs are enthralling wonders: supple switchings between Laura’s own welcoming personality and the performance persona which handles the songs, blurring the line of physicality which separates woman and cello. She’s out on a brief tour now, playing outside London for a few events. Go see for yourselves.

Laura Moody:

* * * * * * * *

For many female pop musicians, an increasingly outright or explicit public sexuality is both a marketing point and the prime hook. To an extent, this is also true of Jenny Hval. Many people will have initially heard about her thanks to what seemed to be a head-turningly saucy lyric:“I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.” Curious (and possibly a little numbed by Rihanna, plus memories of lubricious Prince party-funk), many of us will have followed this expecting a licentious slow jam, only to find something very different – the opening line of a mirror-calm songscape of hovering bells, limpid murmurs and breathed-on acoustic guitars which dealt with the secret worlds of strangers within cities and, in particular, their self-reliance.

A polymath whose methods blur as artfully as her perspectives, Jenny doesn’t write songs so much as drop carefully-charged texts and pointers, and then explore and adorn these recitatives with chantlike melodies and poised minimal instrumental textures, pulling them apart and working in and out of the word-rhythms. Her guitars, keyboards and samplers (as well as her heavy-lashed, light-tongued vocals) work like soft-edged sculpting tools. Her lyrics are the lines of resistance.

For both new listeners and previous converts, sexuality remains a prime Hval hook. It’s what we expect to hear from her, although we’ve quickly learnt to appreciate that she turns the expected approaches on their heads and back-to-front. She revels in the unfixed: in the course of a single song, lovers will pass fluidly from mysterious passion to friendship to absence, and between gender, ages, species or state. Even when singing of cupping her own cunt (while cupping the blunt, unadorned and troublesome word itself, delivered throughout her songbook without a hint of shame, taboo or aggression and with a succinct matter-of-fact poise) she’ll let the action lead her somewhere that doesn’t fit the usual expectations and commodities – appreciating its centrality at her body’s core; being inspired to cup in turn a lover’s “soft dick… accepting restlessness, accepting no direction, accepting this fearful wanting that isn’t desire… can we just lie here being?”; or imagining a world of peaceful masturbators (“a million bedrooms with hands softly lulling… without telling anyone, a million ships come alone out on the calmest seas”) while asking, with a sense of disquiet “are we loving ourselves now? Are we mothering ourselves?”

Also running through Jenny’s work (whether entwined with or separate from the sexual themes), are ambiguous accounts of bodily disintegration. Opening her second album ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ with an account of watching online porn, she moves from commodified enervation into an eerie and exultant dream of escape, relinquishing her own body and its passive needs, and finally symbolically destroying the eyes with which she consumes the images. Yet this song and its sisters aren’t quite nightmares. Sometimes they’re triumphs – disassociative fantasies of freedom in which the wrack and ruin seem to be the natural rites of passage of a cool mind walking free, unconcerned, its passions become processes.

Jenny’s writing casts a wide net – violent upsets echoing classic French surrealism; deep-running strands of myth both classical and original (from the “Oslo Oedipus” of Innocence Is Kinky to the dark, quasi-pagan tree-figure in Amphibious, Androgynous that stands as lover, doppelganger and the next phase of self); and musings on the ambiguous trap of language (“the tongue is upon for the restless /An indecipherable alphabet / Each word an island less… And we speak in tongues from part to parts, broke all to parts / From invisible state, to invisible state…”). Most recently, on her latest album ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ the political subtexts have broken cover to become direct challenges (“You say I’m free now, that battle is over, / and feminism is over and socialism’s over. / Yeah, I say, I can consume what I want now..”). So too have preoccupations with ageing and survival (in the breathless narrative of Heaven, surrounded by loops and fractures of cemeteries and childhood choirs, Jenny wrestles with the pull of memory and the drag of mortality) and a increasingly solid approach to identity. “What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realizing your potential? Being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself? Shaving in all the right places?”

All of the above – the obliqueness and the rapier hits – makes listening to Jenny’s records akin to haunting her apartment at 2am (or some similar time  when manners and manneredness come unstuck and the shapes of other truths come walking). I’ve not been fortunate enough to see what her music is like live – though I know that past concert showings have seen her play bolstered with  guests or simply alone, surrounded by laptops, devices and ideas. On the five quick dates of her current UK tour, you’ll be able to see for yourselves.

Jenny Hval:

* * * * * * * * *

On the Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol dates, Jenny will be joined by her on-off tourmate Briana Marela, a singer-songwriter from the Pacific North-West who’s currently working a string of European tour dates in support of her second album ‘All Around Us’. As you might expect from something recorded in Iceland and co-produced with Sigur Rós associate Alex Somers, ‘All Around Us’ is ghosted and garnished with touches of Hopelandic enchantment (with beautiful smeared, paper-thin sounds intruding on the edge of the mix, like lost amnesiac ghosts or distant pipes), but it’s very much Briana’s inspiration – a luminous, thoughtful work blending layered melodic sample-patches and banking her petal-delicate vocals into choirs and a capella counterpoint.

Though Briana cites Björk, Laura Veirs, Vashti Bunyan and Meredith Monk as influences (she has something in common with Laura Moody, then), I can also hear the same kind of all-round sound-mastery that’s on display and working away in the songs of Imogen Heap; deep-level sonic exploration and sound curation tied to the urge to tell you a story and sing you a straight earworm. In the album’s lead single Surrender I can even hear something of the pure pop of ABBA, while the midnight lushness of the follow-up, Dani, recalls a Julee Cruise ‘Twin Peaks’ ballad.

Though Briana’s voice is soft, it’s never wispy – never insubstantial. If there’s a hint of girl-next-door to what she does, she’s the quiet, observant girl full of thoughts, going her own way but ready to let you walk alongside.  Like Jenny, though less explicitly, she explores possibilities of intimacy. Her songs hover carefully on the borderline between selfhood and loneliness, a delicate staking out of possible togetherness, subtly resisting the pressures to put out or submit, to be deformed by needs and expectations (“What does love mean in this day and age? /  To me it’s a moment where we resonate at two frequencies close in phase… /  It’s not a competition /  Everyone has music within them.” ). Meanwhile, the perfectly-pitched American-visionary tone of the album (its hallucinatory fairy-tale sonics, leaflike piano falls and misty country swells) suggests that there’s common ground between Briana’s dream pop and the ostensibly cleaner work of breakthrough CCM-pop singers like Lexi Elisha, which in turn suggests that there’ll be a lot of people who’ll end up liking this.

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In between dates with Jenny Hval, Briana Marela will also be joining the bill at another Illuminations concert in London, this one a stew of assorted flavours which also includes the battered Americana of Lift To Experience frontman Josh T. Pearson  and the skewed Tyneside noise-troubadour work of Richard Dawson.

Probably because of the female orientation of this particular post, I’ve got to admit that I’m more intrigued by the youngest act on the bill, and the only other female one. It’s difficult to work out just how tongue-in-cheek the psychedelic rag-doll sludge-pop” duo Let’s Eat Grandma are, assuming that they’re joking at all. Eyes down, singing from beneath and behind tumbling pre-Raphaelite locks, and tucked into stolen Stevie Nicks dresses, Rosa and Jenny rummage with various instruments like toybox-divers and play songs as if it’s only occurred to them to do so. Two Norwich teenagers who’ve known each other since childhood, they’ve sustained, into near adulthood, that mysterious blankness of two little girls who are ignoring your interruptions to their game. The songs themselves are tangled musical fairy stories, or (as with ‘Eat Shiitake Mushrooms Into Chocolate Sludge Cake’) extended wooden-legged instrumental mantras owing more to Faust or Beefheart: spontaneous-seeming, utterly absorbed in themselves. The band feels like a musical chrysalis twitching what might become an astounding breadth of wing. It’s all to discover.

Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma (Rockfeedback present Illuminations @ St. John Church at Hackney, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0PD, UK, Saturday 7th November 2015, 6.00pm) – £20.00 –  informationtickets

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More concert previews coming shortly for November…

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