Tag Archives: Peter Gabriel

May 2013 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Sly Guitar’ (“a playful magpie interest”)

8 May

John Ellis: 'Sly Guitar'

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’

A skilled and flexible working guitarist since the early 1970s (travelling through punk, post-punk, pub rock, rhythm-and-blues and progressive rock in no particular order), John Ellis has never curdled as a musician. What he’s avoided doing up to now is making a player’s album. Generally he’s been content to tweak a song’s architecture as a team member (in The Vibrators and the mark two Stranglers) or as a flexible, innovative sideman (delivering fanged electric churn for Peters Hammill and Gabriel, or airship noises and roaring-Twenties fanfares for Judge Smith). Even when left to his own devices, he’s stayed away from guitar heroics – often, away from the guitar itself. He’s fermented semi-ambient hubbub for art galleries, filtered Victorian Japonisms through electronica, and taken strides into multimedia, but left the protracted strutting and soloing alone.

On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.

I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.

These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.

Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.

Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.

The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.

Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.

These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.

The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.

Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.

It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
CD/download album
Released: 6th May 2013

Get it from:
Chanoyu Records.

John Ellis online:
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October 1997 – album reviews – Saro Cosentino’s ‘Ones and Zeros’ (“a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop”)

15 Oct

Saro Cosentino: 'Ones and Zeros'

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’

Saro Cosentino – an art-rocker with a knack for cinematic arrangement – sees himself as the musical equivalent of a film director. This seems to be more humble than it’d suggest: it means that he masterminds the writing and production for his songs but stays in the background, passing the final responsibility for voices and lyrics to selected singers and instrumentalists.

As he puts it, “a director coordinates and selects the roles for the actors… I chose the singers and musicians for the pieces”. Perhaps a rather precious way of saying “I wrote outlines of songs for various kinds of singers, then went looking for them”, but it does give us the opportunity to play around with his metaphor.

OK. Let’s do that.

Saro, if viewed as The Great Director, reminds me of one of those European cinema auteurs – one of those talents whose childhood was inspired by Hollywood, whose initial own-language triumphs were led by a highly personal vision; but who’s now working uneasily between Hollywood and home. His true drive seems to be towards smoky, luxurious romance. Long pans across emotive vistas filled with meticulous detail, where the very light that flickers off the faces and corners of the camera’s subjects has a tangible element; the creation of bank-busting sets and tableaux to call new environments into existence, against which romantic protagonists play out their personal dramas as the world smoulders behind them.

However, at the same time he’s tempted and pressured (by studio heads? by test groups?) to go for something brasher, more obvious. Hence the same album that can boast 9:47 PM Eastern Time (twelve minutes of trading ambient loops with the Chapman Stick of King Crimson‘s Trey Gunn) can also boast the FM blare of Bite the Bullet, in which Karen Eden power-bleats the sort of hand-wringing, state-of-the-world pop hogwash that Tears for Fears cornered when they went shit in the late ’80s. Harrumph.


 
Well, whatever else one might find fault with, it can’t be disputed that Saro has assembled a high-powered instrumental cast to flesh out his own detailed wash of synths and guitars. Cellos and Anglo-Indian percussion (from Dizrhythmia’s Pandit Dinesh and Gavin Harrison) join with the works a whole crowd of Peter Gabriel regulars. There’s David Rhodes’ unorthodox, chameleonic art-guitar; the eerie wails Shankar gets from both his double electric violin and his voice; there’s the watery keen of Kudsi Erguner’s Turkish ney flute, and John Giblin’s extraordinarily vocal fretless bass – as well as the presence of regular Gabriel engineer Richard Blair to help with programming and holding it all together.

Perhaps inevitably, ‘Ones and Zeros’ emerges as a less wracked, less personal, poppier echo of Gabriel’s ‘Us’, or of Kate Bush’s ‘Sensual World’. It’s a swirl of poly-cultural textures and emotive adult pop, with a profound love of instrumental colorations and orchestrated with sounds of the human condition taken from all over the globe. And it does sound lovely, meticulously embroidered in luminescent glittering threads of melody.


 
Enter the Saro Multiplex, then. Pay the elegantly cropped man on the door, who’s thumbing through the Italian Art Rock Quarterly. Pick up your packet of art-popcorn from Mozo ‘n’ Rael’s Snack Shack, and take your look at the choices on offer on the different screen. I think you can assume that Bite the Bullet is the second-string drama: the one with the C-list hairdo-actress in peril, the sort that’s been sold as nail-biting but is actually more nail-varnishing. (Hear Karen Eden twitter about TV and dreamlife, wince at her gooey harmonies, dodge the pretty bomb: note the fleeting brilliance of the arrangement, and stroll out halfway through.) Go on to calculate that 9:47 PM Eastern Time is the slow-moving ‘Koyaanisquatsi’-type visual study – it’ll be playing in the room with the art students, shots tracking up skyscrapers and speculating upon the bright streak of dawn. Set aside some time to see that one right the way through. And look at the posters again.

Well, with cellos at the ready, you’ve got the choice of a slightly superior mainstream drama (maybe a maverick cop film, maybe a Joe-Bloke-in-peril job) with Defying Gravity. The one forged from the stuff of determination (“Just for an instant / of our forever, / this beggar would be King…”) and the refusal to give up, the one where you can share, for a moment, the pain of the trouper. Art-rock journeyman Jakko Jakszyk delivers one of his trademark tight, passionate vocals – the most immediate performance on the album, full of regret and a simmering outrage, the last flare of anger before resignation sets in.


 
Give Karen Eden a chance to wipe out many of the feeble memories of Bite the Bullet with Behind the Glass, on which she sounds more like Briana Corrigan than Stevie Nicks, and feels more like Juliette Binoche in ‘Three Colours: Blue’ than Sandra Bullock in a straight-to-video. Here she’s a lone, withdrawn observer, near-impassive, watching the injustices the world deals out but this time refraining from protesting. Merely letting the reaction flow out silent and free from the core of her, like a long stream of cigarette smoke. Strings poise; Giblin’s bass growls, a peril held in check and lurking. The moment passes by. Beat; cut; quick fade into black.


 
As accomplished as they are, those are the studio money-spinners, the comparative rush jobs. If you want to go for something a little more rhapsodic, you’ll have to move up a level; up to what’s showing in the smaller cinemas, where the eyes fixed on the screens are more intent.


 
When, as in these, ‘Ones and Zeros’ is good, it’s seriously good. Peter Hammill (playing against a reputation as abrasive art-rock bruiser via one of two appearances as romantic lead) offers an extraordinarily moving performance on From Far Away. You can even picture the close-up – eyes wide and bright, awestruck with the force of his own passion, breathing sheer faith into the well-worn love words; an English Sinatra without the arrogance. On Days of Flaming Youth, Shankar’s spooky keen and bright Japan-styled flecks of guitar and electronics gust in slo-mo circles while Tim Bowness takes time out from No-Man to sigh tenderness all over a song of the betrayals of younger days. It prowls and flickers, disturbing piles of trash in the corners of your memory as his voice rises to a throaty howl and gasp: “It feels so real, it feels so true, / the theft of the world that you knew / by slaves of flaming youth…”


 
Or you can enter Saro’s cinematic visions by the most inspirational way. You can just walk in off the street, numbed by loss and cradling a broken heart in hands gone suddenly cold (as I’ve just done) and find the core of your predicament captured and held, mirrored, onscreen. This is Phosphorescence – a ‘Brief Encounter’ for the art-rock set, and the album’s crowning glory. Hammill again, under a black velvet dome of sky, afloat on a sea of reflected starlight and rippling fluorescent eel-trails with reed-flutes undulating past, a thrill and a breeze on the cheek. And a lyric of something almost unbearably affecting. A love that hits in one slow flash (“this moment lasts a thousand years, this look is longer than our lives…”), changes you irrevocably then passes on, never to be caught or held again. “We will never pass this way again / But we’ll always feel each other’s presence… Ships pass in the night, / and in their wake they leave just phosphorescence…”


 
And you’re left stunned in the dark as the credits roll, unable to move from your seat for the things that are crowding up in you. Hit to the heart. Light-struck.

Saro Cosentino: ‘Ones and Zeros’
Resurgence, RES 129CD (604388203222)
CD-only album
Released:
13th October 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Original album best obtained second-hand. ‘Ones and Zeros’ was reissued in 2015 in remixed and remastered form as ‘Ones and Zeros Reloaded’: all videos included in this review are from the ‘Reloaded’ version.
Saro Cosentino online:
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June 1996 – live reviews – Francis Dunnery @ The Borderline, Soho, London, 1st June (“bursting at the seams with music”)

4 Jun

From the moment he first strides gawkily on stage, grinning from ear to ear, Francis Dunnery radiates joyful energy. On last year’s low-profile British acoustic tours he was cautiously sticking his head up over the parapet to find out, to his surprise and delight, that he hadn’t been forgotten. This year it’s different. Perhaps it’s the success he’s finally been garnering in other corners of the world, or perhaps the reasons are closer to the heart, but Frank’s gotten a second wind and new fire. With a vengeance.

There’s less of the jokes this time around. Now, he’s bursting at the seams with music, so much that there’s less time for chat. As before, he’s armed with just an acoustic guitar (plus a cheap fuzzbox for those moments when only a dirty burst of distortion will do) but he makes both of them deliver as much as any full band would as he blasts straight into the positivity avalanche of I Believe I Can Change My World to kick off an evening drawing mostly from the new ‘Tall Blonde Helicopter’ album, his simplest and most joyous work to date.

Although he’s started playing fluent solos again – with a newly haphazard glee – the irrepressible energy with which he once drove It Bites is now harnessed to less cosmic, more essential ends and powered by faith rather than amplifier wattage. So are the songs. The raucous, overdriven joy-and-salvation of The Way Things Are; Grateful and Thankful’s humble confessional folk; the breezy Latin-flavoured pop of Rain or Shine; and the brand new Crazy Little Heart of Mine which has everyone yelping along to the scatting chorus like a pack of blissed-out Muppets.

True, there’s one moment of comparative darkness: Frank’s raw, stormy lament for his father, Feel Like Kissing You Again. As he dives into a wrenching, angry acoustic solo, shredding savagely at his own technique, he parades through trademark Dunnery riffs and those infamous looping fretboard licks, but now with a scalding discontent. It’s as if he’s saying “all of this skill… but still I couldn’t do anything to save him.” For a moment, some of the old pain comes through, and I find myself holding my breath…

For the most part, though, the concert is given over to the positivity spilling from Frank’s mouth in the “universal laws” which he’s declaiming from the stage – part Californian New Age-ery, but several more parts blunt northern-English honesty. Somehow he manages to restore faith in those old positive-thinking clichés; perhaps this is because, in this little subterranean music club, they don’t come across as corny arena-rock “put-cha-hands-tu-getha” sentiment, but as the testament of a man who’s won the war against his own dark side, making the pinwheeling, euphoric In My Dreams and the fragile unconditional devotion of Sunshine ring all the truer.

But it’s not just the smaller venues that are making Dunnery shows more intimate. It’s three-hundred-odd people packing the floor and clogging the stairs, still singing along to the anthemic moments like Everyone’s a Star and Still Too Young to Remember… but as if they were at a front-room party rather than a football stadium. It’s smaller things, like people filling in missing vocal harmonies. Or Frank extending his guitar audience-ward to let a fan strum a final chord; asking our opinion on a new riff; or bringing a child onstage (his nephew Charlie) to help out with singing Little Snake. It’s the wistful generosity of Good Life. It’s the people who, to Frank’s astonishment, already know the brand-new single B-side Just a Man and can sing along with its family-of-man message, joining him in flicking the finger at the bigots.

Most of all, though, it’s the new feeling that Francis Dunnery exudes: the feeling that he and all of us no longer have to be imprisoned in guilt and sin, that we can all be forgiven. Homegrown has somehow lost its sourness and emphasises freedom. He delivers the sly have-your-cake-and-eat-it self-portrait of The Johnny Podell Song with such a disarming mix of laddish swagger and rueful self-awareness that its roguishness is more irresistible, more forgivable then before. Conversely, its savagely witty and acerbic flipside Too Much Saturn is played much more gently than expected.

Perhaps it’s this same sense of redemption which induces Frank to perform a sparkling, beautifully appropriate cover of Peter Gabriel‘s Solsbury Hill – one of the several moments tonight that suggests a rapprochement with his proggie days. More It Bites material is being woven back into his setlist, too. Here’s a snatch of the old Tapboard extravaganza Reprise popping up in American Life in the Summertime; there’s a brief snippet of I’ll Meet You in the Spring sneaking into Still Too Young to Remember. More obvious and touching is a complete version of the acoustic version of Yellow Christian, which surfaced on a couple of dates last year; although the biggest surprise of the evening is Frank’s brief resurrection, out of the blue, of Once Around the World. Even if, in the end, he goes no further than the pastoral intro… to gleeful yells of “chicken!” from an audience that still remembers all the words. He grins. No problem – it’s all his music now, and if it feels right, why not play it?

And it does feel right. Francis Dunnery’s stubborn sticking to his guns, through right and wrong, is finally beginning to pay off both inside and out. He’s practically glowing up there. “Absolutely fuckin’ refuse to go under,” he exhorts from the stage, “and you can do absolutely anything you want to.” Another simple message. And – tonight at least – worth much more than a fifteen-minute suite.

Francis Dunnery online:
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