Tag Archives: songs that sound like summer

REVIEW – Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’ single, 2013 (“setting things right as well as respecting the source”)

11 Jun

Fletcher/Fletcher/Reuter: 'Islands'

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’

Ironically, we often record cover versions to find out – or to show – who we are.

Markus Reuter, for instance, would prefer it if other people could stop telling him who he is. Too many of them are telling him that he’s obliged to be the twenty-first century’s Robert Fripp. They can’t get past his Frippic virtuosity on touch guitar, his past as a Fripp student, or his work with the man’s former King Crimson colleagues (in Stick Men and Tuner). They can’t even get over the fact that these days he plays all of the Fripp parts in the Crimson ProjeKCt…

Ah. Well, all right, but Markus’ vivid success in the sprawling latterday Crimson family shouldn’t have to box in a musician as stubbornly wide-ranging as he is. Yet it does, even though you don’t have to scratch him too deeply to discover that he’s not as enFrippened as he seems. When it comes to willful and wayward yet methodical 1970s virtuosi, Mike Oldfield is kernelled deeper in Markus’ heart than Fripp is. Hence this unexpected and open-armed cover of a long-forgotten Oldfield song, recorded by Markus in cahoots with long-term collaborators Lee and Lisa Fletcher, and demonstrating that Markus deals with more musical colours than just ‘Red’ ones.

A few sketchy parallels can be drawn here. When Oldfield released the original Islands single (back in 1987, towards the uglier end of his Virgin Records contract), he wasn’t entirely sure who he was. Though he’d made his name via intricate, acclaimed confections of multi-instrumental experimental rock, spatial Celtic folk and classical minimalism, by the mid-’80s Virgin had talked him into writing hit-and-miss pop songs dressed up with fat blobs of Fairlight, gated reverb and arena grease. The ‘Islands’ album floundered to cover both poles – a side of lengthy neoclassical fare (heavily spiced with chants, electric flourishes and whirring jazz flute) counterweighted a side of echoing pomp-rock (with straining guest singers and drums like torpid cannons). Even back then, this didn’t age well, despite spawning a vapid video album in which Bonnie Tyler and Kevin Ayers (in ‘Miami Vice’ regalia and power-frosted hairdos) sang and jostled their way through pastel-misted virtual realities and through corny CGI blizzards of New Age totems, ducking flying Tutankhamuns as they went.

At that point Mike Oldfield was pretty lost. Though he’d only stick the situation out for one more album (before rebelling and revitalizing himself via the inspired slice-and-dice music of ‘Amarok’) in 1987 he seemed beached. Islands – the song – ended up a little lost as well. Uniting strands of John Donne, Celtic Big Music and Dream Academy oboe, it could have triumphed over the crash of reverb: with its lyric of loneliness unclenching it could have become one of the decade’s all-join-hands power ballads. It even had Bonnie Tyler singing it, all sandpaper and yodels. What actually happened is that it floated round the middle of various European charts for a while and then sank.

In contrast to the lacquered, divided and ultimately stranded figure that Oldfield cut in the late ’80s, Lee Fletcher comes to Islands knowing himself and knowing what he’s doing. After a decade of quiet self-apprenticeship and networking, the Fletcher sound has blossomed into a rich pool of talented instrumentalists and instrumentation – digital blips to rattling jazz, frosty-fanged art-rock guitars to keening folk and glowing chamber music, choreographed with a mixture of precise delicacy and expansive flair. His auteur-producer take on Islands doesn’t just restore the song’s appeal. As a string quartet jumps from scratchy shellac recording to full live presence alongside uillean pipes and whistle – and as Markus rides happily at the centre of the song, his touch guitar chords and slithers fanning out like a nerve map – it restores the song’s lost Oldfield-ness. This could be as much rebuke as tribute. Either way, there’s the feel of setting things right as well as respecting the source.

There’s a little of the undulant Saharan patter of a Peter Gabriel song (reinforced by Tony Levin’s prowling spring of a bass part). There’s the spirit of an Irish pub session, too (Alan Burton’s pipework recalls other Oldfield moments, such as the haunted morning chills of ‘Ommadawn’ or Paddy Moloney’s warmer dip-ins on ‘Five Miles Out’ and ‘Amarok’). Finally, there’s the third side of the Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter team – Lisa Fletcher. Compared to Lee or to Markus, it’s less clear whether she knows who she is, musically. More to the point, it’s not even clear whether she thinks its important. She’s the only member of the F|F|R trio who’s got form for actual impersonation (if you don’t believe me, check out her startling Sinead O’Connor impression from an old series of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’) and for now, she’s keeping up that sensuous and welcoming vocal persona with which she helmed Lee’s ‘Faith In Worthless Things‘ last year – a flushed, de-gushed and beautifully controlled Kate Bush mezzo which slips supple invisible fingers round the lyrics, caresses them, and passes on by.

It’s a low-key take compared to Bonnie’s hearts-and-guts original. What matters, though, is that it works: a vocal and a sentiment that’s a welling rather than a sobbing, and far better at catching the quickening thaw that’s being voiced in Oldfield’s lyrics. Beyond the beautiful sound, Lisa remains something of an enigma as a singer and as an adept interpreter – still playing a game of veils in which flashes of other singers, other sentiments distract our curiosity, and behind which she’s drawing out other people’s words and launching them with the subtlest of spins. It makes me wonder what she’ll sound like when she’s singing her own songs. For now, she’s transformed Islands into a shimmering welcome rather than an emotive wrack, and has kept her own mystery as she does it. No easy trick.

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th June 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter online:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Lisa Fletcher online:
Facebook

Markus Reuter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Robert White: ‘Everything Is Free’ video single, 2013 (“blown up with a wondrous inner light”)

12 Apr

“Everything is free now, / that’s what they say. / Everything I ever done, / gonna give it away.”

Innocence blisters. Sometimes you have to take it – and yourself – away for a while, to cradle it and let it heal.

In spite of over thirty years in the songwriting business (he started young, with anything that he could get his hands on), Robert White still has that quality of innocence. If he’s got scars, he bears them calmly and with acceptance, but he must have suffered some psychic sunburn along the way. There were those early ’80s swirls around no-budget London psychedelia, keeping up a fit of giggles and avoiding becoming a casualty. Then there was the bristling musical tensions of Levitation, continually blowing their own heat-shield and ending up as five men biting each others ankles. Finally, there was the pearly, patchy career of his own Milk & Honey Band.

It’s not as if the Milks were the only people in the last couple of decades who smoked and breathed that Beatles mix of singalong wit, music hall parp and peacock splendor (Karl Wallinger and Roland Orzabal, to name but two, made a decent fist of it). But for my money, if you want that luminous Lennon/McCartney glow picked up and rolled out like a quilt, then Bob’s yer avuncular. He and the Milks should have been treasured by everyone. You; your granny; ‘Mojo’ Man; that painfully hip little boy down the road who secretly yearns for pure pop and papers his bedroom wall with old Byrds and Teenage Fanclub sleeves. Instead, you probably never got to hear them. Shame. And for three years, Bob has been hiding up and keeping quiet: skulking in Fulking, on the South Downs chalkhills. Those gifts which he used to apply to music, he’s been spending on photography instead – pictures of local landscapes blown up with a wondrous inner light; an illumination rendering sweeping Sussex hillsides alive with warm energies.

Here, though, is Bob alone; drawn back to instruments, woodshedding again. Now he’s pulling the dustcloth off a beautiful brand new Gillian Welch cover for us to have a listen to. Welch seems to be something of a go-to girl for art-rockers; at least, for those of them who are thirsty for a wellspring of country without the taste of cattle and spurs (see also A Marble Calm’s glorious Frisell-meets-Eno roll through I Dream A Highway) and Bob’s version honours her original simplicity. He could have festooned it in harmonies and ringing guitars, but instead it’s mostly just him, a light-as-moonbeams piano, and the kind of reverb that turns slapback into caress. Everything else there has blossomed onto the song like dew. There are touches of synth cello, a glockenspiel or two; maybe a celesta towards the end. As things travel onwards, water-drop swells of backward sound are delicately varnished onto the keystrokes.

That’s the sound: now listen to the song, and the singer. Bob’s voice is lower than it was, perhaps tempered with a couple of hairline cracks of resignation, as he slips inside Welch’s words and makes them his own. The business bruises; the thoughts of escape, and of dignity – “I can get a tip jar, gas up the car, / try to make a little change down at the bar. / Or I can get a straight job – I’ve done it before. / Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for.” Disaffection, though, doesn’t entirely clog up the world. The compulsion of songs is sometimes sung about as if it were a curse: here, it’s more about music coming regardless. It’s hard not to feel that Bob’s singing for himself when he murmurs out lines of guarded, flowing creation (“every day I wake up humming a song / but I don’t need to run around, I just stay home,”) and, finally, resolution. (“I’m going to do it anyway / even if it doesn’t pay.”) I think he’s back. Please don’t miss him this time, will you?

Robert White: ‘Everything Is Free’
Robert White (no catalogue number or barcode)
Video-only single
Released: 13th February 2013

Get it from:
Currently only viewable as video – no wider release announced yet. Video by Nick Power @ iseetigers.

Robert White online:
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February 2013 – mini-album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

9 Feb
Lee Fletcher: 'The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes'

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’

‘Faith In Worthless Things’ was one of 2012’s surprise pleasures. Lee Fletcher’s debut album was the late-blossoming distillation of years of work as engineer and confidant to assorted art-rock musicians, and of even more years absorbing influences and refining them in a budding songwriter’s heart.

What emerged was a sleek, assured and finely-honed planned-patchwork of an album. It pulled in sounds from touch guitars, Uillean pipes, crunchy rhythm loops, ukeleles, powdered trumpets and silky synthesizers; it mused on betrayals, work, bewitchment and people in general; and it drew on a wide but surprising coherent blend of string-quartet chamber pop, soul and trip hop, 1970s Scott Walker, King Crimson-flavoured progressive rock, electronica and Anglo-folk.

While Lee’s firm and expansive vision gave the album both shape and finish, it was also very much a group effort, achieved hand in hand with his singer wife Lisa plus the chameleonic touch guitarist/soundscaper Markus Reuter and a small battalion of interested musicians from around the world. This short album of follow-up remixes keeps that spirit, with a couple of returning collaborators and new reinventors let loose on the tracks.

Only two songs from ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ make it to this particular phase. There’s the title track – originally a humble state-of-the-world address sung by Lisa but dispatched by Lee, people-watching at the railway station in his Devon hometown, and sampling a picture of humanity from its wandering fragments on an ordinary morning. There’s also The Inner Voice, in which Lisa soars on a rich carpet of soul-inspired smoothness; delicately and beadily picking apart matters of confidence and collaboration, while unhitching – scuffed, but quietly determined – from a dragging entanglement. The latter was the album’s obvious single, so it’s interesting to see three different remixers work three different shades of pop out of it.

Of these, Brazilian proggers-turned-clubbers Worldengine offer perhaps the most satisfying reinvention – a slink-and-roll electronica take full of whispering creep, voice fuzz and closed-eye pulse beats. The smooth soul of the original is pared back in favour of odd, gently challenging chording and textures: as if Lisa’s vocal line has been gently unwound from its original branch and wrapped carefully around a new one. Imagine what might happen if David Torn had as much pop clout as Madonna does, and you’ll have some idea of where Worldengine take this.

Two other remixers take The Inner Voice further out, but perhaps with less originality. The mix from German DJ Ingo Vogelmann battles and switches restlessly between its whispering electronic-ambient chamber intro, heavily synthesized cyberpop and a naked acoustic strum. The onetime 4hero cohort Branwen Somatik offers a similarly morphing dance switchback – initially a slightly dubby hip-hop take with an eerie twist, then a transformation to minimally-sheathed soul-pop, finally melting away in a dubby whisper of liquefying beats.

There are no fewer than six versions of Faith In Worthless Things, including a return for Ingo Vogelmann who offers a mix replete with Orb/Jean Michel Jarre-flavoured electronica (strong on the breezy minimalism, and dappled with bits of dub and techno). Adrian Benavides has honed himself an industrial pop version full of collapsing sheet metal and drill bits. Fabio Trentini provides an ambient pop take with an art-pop tweak – part Japan (if the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ era took precedence) and part Crafty Guitarist. Lee’s words and Lisa’s sweet-but-stately vocals sit, unfazed, in these new cradles.

Having said that, this particular song is less suited to being strapped into dance, and other approaches are preferable. Under his Hollowcreature alias, David Picking seems to realise this; he keeps and highlights the train-swish from the intro, brings Lee’s own warm and pleasant guide vocals to the forefront for half of the time, and comes up with a subtly dubby version of the song’s English pastoral feel. The latter quality is something which Tim Motzer appears to have picked up on too, as he moves Faith In Worthless Things into a more British progressive rock area. This he does via a number of changes – jazz vibraphone, the ghost of a hard-rock riff and eventually a build up into a Pink Floyd blaze replete with Gilmourian guitar. It seems obvious, but there’s some clever sleight-of-hand here: Lisa is metamorphosed cunningly by the new arrangement into a leathered-up rock goddess, all without a change to her vocal part.

Tobias Reber, on the other hand, manages to be both daring and successful in his own mix, taking an unexpected creative risk and pulling it off. He contributes the best of the remixes on offer, as well as the most original. His reconstructive take on the songs sees it unstitched and re-embroidered, re-folded. The song is re-imagined over an uneasy sea-roll of structure. New chording, constructed from the components of the original piece, produces a striking new perspective; a different place from which Lee, through Lisa, can watch the world and see its unsettling currents ripple past and under him.

Each remix, though, gently unbuttons ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ again and reminds us of that collaborative feeling which suffused it. The rolling and friction between Lee’s ideas and where his accomplished collaborators took them – a journey in motion.

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 5th February 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterBandcamp

REVIEW – Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’ single, 2013 (“a five-minute garland”)

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

Damn, but latter-day post-rock bands can be dour. Something renders so many of them dry, or scrunched up into a kind of passive-aggressive melodrama. Too many of them belong to the post-Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky faction – increasingly hackneyed building blocks of minimal, stilted guitar arpeggios, building to a fuzzed-up tumble of noise via a gradual crescendo. I’ve heard it too often now. It’s like watching the same slow-motion fireworks every night – every time, the same chilly histrionics.

Perth sextet Apricot Rail, trailing this new single for their second album ‘Quarrels’, manage to avoid that disappointment. As ever, they bring some of the original post-rock enchantment back as well as plenty of enchantment of their own. Admittedly, on a first hearing Basket Press is more conventionally post-rocky than their previous outing (2011’s ‘Surry Hills’ EP, in which whirring warmth and a sun-dappled shuffling of approaches gave their music the vivid craft of a beautiful set of handmade holiday postcards). The band have even returned to those pluck/build/fuzz/hallucinate ingredients I’ve just been savaging, and there’s less of the generous instrument-swapping that’s freshened their approach in the past.

In spite of this, Apricot Rail manage to avoid drabness and predictability. Basket Press is a five-minute garland of distinct and graceful stages. Part summery harvest-time music, part rippling classical suite, part affectionate conversation, it’s bound together with a palpable friendliness. First there’s a lone guitar sketching out slow American-folk arpeggios with a touch of echo (the chords, save for one crucial falling note, reworking the floating Pink Floyd melancholia of Us And Them). Then, as woodwind player Mayuka airs a fuzzy flute trail of sustained notes, there are three. Guitarists Ambrose, Jack and Justin strum, curl and gently chisel out firmer chords over a cosy fuss of drums, as if they were rounding off a carved scroll. From this, a move to that on-the-one post-rock downstrum – then, as two guitars mix a light picking of melody with pinging counter harmonics, Mayuka’s flute wakes into a twining, rising counterpoint. Bass and drums move in via a low dotting – a patter, and a dialogue.

All along, the feeling is of a mutual binding, of teamwork, all six musicians facing inwards to share the exchange. The music slips through phases like breathing, like the momentum of thoughts; like assured working hands shifting their grip on a gardening hoe. A rare and understated joy wells through it, passing hints. In many respects, all of this is moving to a similar pulse as that mid-’70s sweep of world-folk and chamber-jazz melanged into being by Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner and their colleagues in Oregon. As the lowest-pitched guitar stirs a new folkier rhythm into the band circle, Mayuka responds with sweet McCandless-esque clarinet curves. Upping the ante, a detailed guitar study – a Mediterranean sparkle – works its way in over rising supportive drums. Another guitar, sitting in the mid-register, embroiders sweet minimal rosettes of lazy cycling notes.

Eventually the band builds through a mass of roaring pedalwork and noise into the kind of land-sliding, sleeting mass of guitar-descend which we’re used to as that conclusive Mogwai-tradition flourish. This time, though: it’s been prepared for. Rather than the expected ragged glory of a ruined Sysiphus-bound downwards into gravity’s clutches, it’s a payoff – a burst of energy from what the musicians have put into the song and stored there.

For the curious – a basket press is a wine-making device, one used for over a thousand years. I can see the connection. Harvest arrives.

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th January 2013

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

November 2012 – mini-album reviews – Sterbus’ ‘Smash the Sun Alight’ (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

20 Nov
Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

After six years of making off-kilter indie rock, Sterbus seems ready to make the jump from cult to cute. His previous albums and EPs have shuffled between serious tunes, determined explorations and playful jokes. ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ concentrates firmly on his most accessible side – fuzzy, funny-angled guitar pop launched into a chunky meander through the air, like a prog-dusted bumblebee.

If these seven songs and instrumentals had a colour, it would be orange-gold – blurry and amiable. Sterbus injects sunshine and smog from his native Rome straight into the heart of his rampant, time-travelling pop. One of his feet might be jammed happily into a big bucket of prog and psychedelia; the other’s rooted deeply in power pop and eclectic 1990s indie, with driving earworm-bursts of chorus. In his twists of tunefulness and humour and his love of scruffy noise, you can see traces of Blur, Small Faces and XTC (or, looking further west, Weezer, Steve Malkmus and Guided By Voices). Sterbus also has an ear for those drowsy, medicated-modal melodies that served Nirvana so well; and the dogged musical extravagance of Cardiacs infests his work like a glittering spiral, turning every tune into a hopeful steeplechase of extra chords and whole-tone hops.

It’s hardly straightforward; yet somehow Sterbus doesn’t overdo it and lose you along the way. It’s rare to hear so much bounding complexity tied up so neatly into buzzing firecrackers of song. The saturated bounce of Gay Cruise is typical of what’s on offer, kitting out a tuneful, sludgy Dinosaur Jr. fuzz-growl with some dissonant King Crimson pitches before hammering in a break of piled-up chords to grab us by the ear and take us mountaineering. The eccentric Welsh popster Curig Pongle is along for the ride, playing organ like a swerving Mini: the song also sideswipes a random Andy Partridge sample in which the great man is gurning on about Arthur Askey.

As for Sterbus’ lyrics, they’re a vegetable stew of soft little fragments. The occasional clear phrase bubbles up out of the gentle mumble and hum – uneasy (“troubles in the pool / making me cold”), tender (“My dear baby, what can I do? / You make me feel like I’ve been over-ruled,”) or whimsical (“Unboyfriendable girlies show no love”). Occasionally a skewed aphoristic image surfaces, like something cast up by a young Peter Blegvad (“Birds and second wives, / trying to be polite.”). Much of the time, though, the stew remains a stew, the language dissolved into flavours rather than shapes.

In some songs, such as the ukele-driven A Sigh of Relief, it’s not so much English as an impression of English; just as Sterbus’ breezy mouth-trombone solo and music-hall-McCartney bassline is a sepia impression of holidays in fading seaside resorts. Maybe he knows that songs of life, love and feeling can work just as well as gauzy murmurs. Perhaps it’s just a chewing-over of words to blend into an earnest, reassuring blur – a swirl of cream to smooth the mongrel clamberings of the music.

Oh well, perhaps innocence can be complicated too. That’s why those Irish fiddle parts are there to usher in Otorinolaringoiatria, unless they’re there to soothe us after the tongue-twister (and to stop us wondering why the only distinct word in the song is “sauerkraut”). That’s why You Can’t Be Sirius is tied up like a Sunday roast – its laddering chords held together by tight power-pop drumming, lashing those goosed leaps of organ into position, securing those shivering tremolo-blocks and speaker-fizzes of guitar.

That’s also why Wooden Spheres + Heartquakes plays its pass-the-parcel game. A pelting punk-pop three-chord wonder abruptly switches to Curtis Mayfield funk with sunny popcore punk choruses; then, after changing gear for the tiniest of organ solos, ends up jammed and droning like a stuck tide of Scandinavian prog. Similar in its out-and-out playfulness is The Amazing Frozen Yogurt: setting power chords against breezy mellowness, it sounds like a summery merge of Caravan and The Wildhearts. Lonnie Shetter’s sheets-of-sound sax scribble is flown in for a jolt, offsetting that mid-song switch into Zappa kitsch complete with vibraphone. Sterbus flutters around both parody and self-parody here, but his freshness steers him clear.

The near-seven minutes of Flatworms (Eggs Of Joy) tie together not just Sterbus’ musical agility and bevy of influences, but also his sense of connection. Away from the sung sections, it owes something to the severe angles of King Crimson’s Red; yet it’s also the most Cardiacs-styled piece on offer: a self-confessed attempt to write a sequel to that band’s Dirty Boy (which Sterbus has already covered) and its massive parade of chords. Sterbus’ drowsy vocals soften the cavalcade; the brief flashes of conga draw a little nourishing groove into it. While the lyrics are as obscure as anything else in this clutch of songs, they get the message of impermanence and humbling across. “Running away – far from heaven, / diggin’ the grave, the sun. / Crying away – all your glory; / useless and vain, in time.” It might be an oblique gesture of fellow feeling towards Tim Smith, Cardiacs stricken leader. Certainly, the song’s payoff line casts aside any artifice in favour of the purest sympathy ( “I see you, / I feel you. /You heal me. / Uncomplicated ways.”) and brings the inclusive generosity at the heart of Sterbus’ music to a natural home.

Nothing to be afraid of. Sun’s out. Come and warm yourself.

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’
Sterbus (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 16th November 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Sterbus online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

REVIEW – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

Dutch Uncles online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from B. J. Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”) while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

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Lee Fletcher online:
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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Golden’ single, 2012 (“playing in the sunshine”)

8 Sep
Elephant: 'Golden'

Elephant: ‘Golden’

Hmm. It’s only taken Elephant a year and a half to journey from being walkers in the gloaming (singing out their queasy, dissolved surrealism) to playing in the sunshine. There were some clues on their previous EP, ‘Assembly‘, which embraced mainstream pop while twirling mournfully like a mascara-ed panda; yet this is a firm step outwards from the obsessive feel of their early singles. Or is it?

Whether it’s Amelia Rivas’ French ancestry coming through, or just a shared and surfacing taste for classy Europop, Golden sees Elephant strip away their cavernous post-punk layers of dream-pop guitars and blood-throb synths in favour of gently bobbing acoustic strums, shimmering organ string pads, a touch of swing and bell-like keyboard smears. Actually, come to think of it, they’ve been here before on Actors, the surprising B-side to their second single Allured. This is altogether more sedate, though – a leisurely boat trip as compared to Actors’ chic bike ride, or perhaps a gentle merry-go-round bump’n’whirl. Compared to the hallucinatory greyness of their earlier work, it’s full-colour. French-tinged pop, for certain: an antique kind, filtered through Goffin and King and through Elephant’s subtle and invisible technical skills.

The link to what’s come before remains Amelia’s voice (still mournful and carrying a dry-eyed narcotic timbre, whatever she’s singing about) and her baffling way with a lyric, in which she dabs loosely associated words and phrases into a line like painted highlights and hopes that you’ll focus on her own scattered picture. With this kind of tune – this lightness, this air of sated contentment – I’m assuming that Golden is a love song. It certainly starts as intimate (“speaking in codes to you / in a drowned-out room. / Chandelier shelters us – / only space for two,”) but a chorus that gives equal weight to the words “escapade” and “hate” suggests something a little more complex.

Certainly by the second verse – “gazing from this altitude, / trapeze transforms to new. / The old was there all along. / Telescope straight to you,” – we’re in lyrical warpspace. Though Elephant have never sounded so cosy, so lovewrapped on the outside, the usual hallucinations are bleeding up from the inside. By the third verse, the summertime and the sunlight are taking on a shadow-etched ‘Twin Peaks’ hue – “The trees they whisper too, / as I glare from a bird’s eye view. / The grass entwines my feet and hands – / they hold me like you do.”

If you look at something too closely, cracks appear, and that’s true both when looking at songs and looking at love. Love and rage: the cuddle that ebbs away into a stifle… I’m backing off. Today I was promised sunshine, and a dank draught from the basement wasn’t part of the plan.

Perhaps if I don’t look too hard, I’ll be able to glide along on the surface, hold hands and enjoy the golden light. Perhaps it will all be OK. Will it?

Elephant: ‘Golden’
Elephant (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 6th June 2012

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REVIEW – Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’ single, 2000 (“lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing”)

29 Jul

Delicate AWOL: 'Hurray For Sugar'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’

The effect is similar to one of those pocket mandalas you pick up at weekend markets. Do you know the ones I mean? Those little spheres of interwoven articulated wires which, under simple pressure, reform to flat discs; or extrude themselves out and around to form new, near-identical spheres with tiny spatial differences.

In such a way, Delicate AWOL have turned themselves inside out – the old shape inverting and realigning within itself. The blunt, metallic math-rock dots and points remain, as do the little axe-blows of guitar and the keen, floating intelligence. But the hard-bitten, streetwise urban perspectives they displayed on ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ have been flexed away, replaced by a blunted pastel sleepiness. Their music used to fit the sullen sludge of London’s clogged traffic arteries. Now it sounds as if it’s drifting through an endlessly attenuated suburban daybreak: through sleeping ranks of tidy little white subdivision houses, stretched out along the fringes of some anonymous American town.

None of the above is a slag-off. Yes, Delicate AWOL have retired their striking Throwing Muses-versus-Laika qualities of nerve, and have replaced them with the oddly narcotic soulfulness and dusty whispering you’d expect from Low or Cowboy Junkies. No, this is not a bad move. It’s allowed their minds to work in a different way, letting their thoughts seep out instead of being propelled out onto tape.

Warm, intimate, laden with clinging morning torpor, Hurray For Sugar lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing; Caroline’s voice stroking your floppy ears, a lone glockenspiel tingling out a little scatter of light. “Arise, you’re waking – hurray for sugar. / Aware, a little – hurray for coffee… / beside your body, catherine wheels spin.” And even if the guitars have a clotted sleep-dirt feel to them, this is still a song about vision; or about the moments of utterly unguarded perception which adhere to the sticky margin between sleeping and fully waking. “I breathe in, I open the curtains. / I look outside at my neighbours, / behind their fences… such radiant faces.” A lovely piece of work, shambling like a sated and drowsy lover.

Having reabsorbed their 40 Shades Of Black instrumental alter-ego, Delicate AWOL express it again in Camford Heights: which sounds like a sort of Sonic Youth picnic for the close of a West English summer, the sun slanting away down the back of a sky like a rumpled sofa. Blunted, slurred jazz chords and round, resounding Manchester bass carry the tune, completed with casual drop-in visits from all kinds of other fellow travellers: Mogwai all stoned and finger-mumbling a cryptic chant off their massed steel strings, a young Adrian Belew in noise-haze mode, Frank Zappa adding a dirty air-sculpture like a colophon of smog. Before it’s over, Delicate AWOL have passed through a bewitching slew of guitar sounds: passing train bells, crashing wires, the music of pylons in the wind. From wan, sweet daybreak to dusty, sun-stupored dusk, they’ve got it all covered.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’
day Release Records Ltd., DR106 (no barcode)
Vinyl-only single
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
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Delicate AWOL online:
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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’ single, 2011 (“a slow jam that’s strayed”)

6 Jun
Elephant: 'Allured/Actors'

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’

“Oh, hello, / I’m a never-ever-let-it-show – / But I know that you know. / Maybe I should let it, let it show…”

On past evidence Elephant have a knack for drawing us in while admitting to little. Their debut single mingled dream-pop with reggae and industrial chill, and cold electronics with fairy-tale flashes. They ride on a solid understanding of black pop, yet constantly swerve away from it into Euro-cool whiteness. They readily confuse, and they excel in oblique feelings – perhaps they can’t help it. Amelia’s blank singing, their aloof and obscure post-punk textures, their taste for quick-cut lyrics and surreal, visual word-imagery… while their work so far is memorable, all of it’s a conundrum. Yet for a moment, on this second single, everything is clearer.

With only the subtlest indie-pop bleachings and dream-pop shadings, Allured is an R’n’B piano ballad: plain and simple. There’s the deep, minimal support of bass. There’s the gaps, space and swat of a heavy-lidded slow sex-beat; the sparse flick of tambourine like a shimmying skirt-fringe. Essentially it’s a slow jam that’s strayed out of the dance club in its heels and skintights, taken a wrong turning past the taxi rank, and been painlessly swallowed by Elephant’s dreamy way of doing things. In the video we watch as voyeurs as Amelia and Christian languidly nuzzle and smooch each other – lengthily, and uninterruptedly. Either they’re answering that “are-they-aren’t-they?” question that’s hung around Elephant since the beginning, or they’re very committed to the world of this particular song.

Whether Elephant have simply been infected by R’n’B’s outright and intoxicated sexuality, or whether they’ve swallowed it deliberately, is open to question. I suspect the latter. Few areas of twenty-first century pop haven’t rolled over and submitted to R’n’B’s sweaty vigour and its gobby, blinged-up sex’n’suss’n’opportunity confidence. While some diehard indie-poppers might still scream and scrub it off; or cling to older schools of soul, Elephant see a good thing and slurp it up, embracing and engulfing it in their turn. So here they are, reaching out greedily into the wide-open mainstream while happily sunk in obsession, drunk with sensuality.

Only the lyrics retain that peculiar Elephantine distortion. Amelia rolls the words around on her tongue, dabbing them with glottal stops and her own strange short-circuiting shifts of accent or syntax, whether wriggling into a tangled lick of coyness, circling orgasm (“our own anatomy, so I find the path – my brain / it carousels instantly, drives me to insane,”) or swimming in a stupor of surrendered identity (“I dreamt he’d written me… He took me away, crossed me away from the crowd…”) By rights, this clotted wordplay should cripple the song. Instead it lolls sexily across the beat, as if on the brink of falling out of bed.

Then the B-side – Actors – throws us right off the scent. Same old Elephant; entirely different set of clothes. Rather than the wallow of bass and beats, here are acoustic guitars on the strum, a skinny ice-rink organ, and a dose of fast-paced pop soufflé which chuffs around its drum track like a toy steam train. It’s a tune for people in mini-dresses to run around Paris to, or chase summer bicycles through Spanish Harlem. Once again, Amelia’s dazed delivery and tangled string of lyrics ensure that it keeps the Elephant stamp.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what she’s singing about this time – “hop around aimlessly, simply surrender to time. /Animations out past under the feet, imitating a shadow spine.” Somehow the words fall into place as she sings of paying the rent “with a monogram eye” or murmurs about “the highest apple in the tree.” Perhaps, like many of the best and sexiest club hook-ups, it’s just a happy accident.

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’
Memphis Industries, MI0193S/D
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 18th July 2011

Buy it from:
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Elephant online:
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Race Horses: ‘Mates’ single (“self-deprecating boysprawl, all big feet and perky singalong tune”)

12 May
Race Horses: 'Mates'

Race Horses: ‘Mates’

Your past is a different country. Wander into the wrong part of it and you might get socked on the back of the head: yes, you may have been there before, but you can’t do things in the same way now. At the same time, you’ll find that you’re already changed by having been there in the first place, so you can’t do those things in the same way anyway. Meilyr Jones knows about all this – now – and he’s keen to tell you about it.

Compared to some of the music Meilyr and his band have put out previously – exciting indie pop with an experimental edge rumpling up the sound – Mates is fairly straightforward. In common with many other Welsh pop bands, Race Horses have that Cymric reputation for lateral thinking squatting on their shoulders; but they wear it lightly. Instead of opening up a window through which you can peer into their world, they come lolloping over to meet yours, trailing the odd strange decoration or kooky wristband to colour things up a little.

Mates does start off as exotic process. The title, chanted, is an offbeat factory loop over which the song is assembled: a marimba plinks throughout, stolen from the school music room in order to scatter musical cherries on top. The muscle of the song itself is something of a hiccupping cha-cha-cha, led by the bass. The melody and words, though, make up a cheerful self-deprecating Britpop boysprawl, all big feet and perky singalong tune. It’s a song about being dumped – knocked sideways and woebegone – but it refuses to just lie down and die. The same clever boyishness has kept classic Madness songs fresh since the ’80s (though Race Horses sound as much like a decade-stretching handshake between the Bowies of ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Hunky Dory’, even down to the music-hall quirks).

As for where Race Horses find themselves at the moment, it’s in that freefalling zone between “us” and “you and me”, where laws of belief are tumbled over and even geography gets overwritten with new, painful memories. “All the times I used to doubt it / but now I find I’m lost without it” complains Meilyr, groping after a love that’s evaporated and left him staggering. This could be chapter one of a Casanova’s progress, as he seems to have found the first sniff of something he’s suddenly found himself hooked on. For now, he’s still fumbling in disbelief around the ache. “Your words, cold and heavy, / echo down the walls of the place we used to go, / when we were mates.” I know what he means – for me, a particular park in Crouch End is haunted even in bright sunshine, and I still can’t see a shooting star without feeling a twinge.

Still, despite the complaints, Meilyr seems to have already wrapped up the experience into a little eight-syllable summary which he can hold up like a snowglobe – “It cuts, it soothes. / It comes, it’s you,” – and the bouncing plink of the tune sounds more happy than despondent. Perhaps it’s the indomitable bungee-rope of young testosterone. Perhaps Meilyr’s just singing in the sure knowledge that Mates could be one of those songs which make a lot of capering indie pop kids happy during the summer of 2012. Hey ho, the twisted power of love gone splat. Ouch.

Race Horses: ‘Mates’
Stolen Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 9th May 2012

Buy it from:
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January 2011 – EP reviews – Bears in America’s ‘Bear Tracks’ (“the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle”)

29 Jan
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be getting some straightforward nature music, or an EP celebrating stocky gay men in the Appalachians. A part of me is a little disappointed that it wasn’t the latter.

Bears In America are elusive and oblique enough to be called just about anything – but the name fits. They sound like large, vague furry things; as if they’re moving past in secret, just out of eyeshot, grazing on the debris left behind towns and people. You hear their rustles and mumbles; you turn around; but they’re too difficult to spot clearly unless they want to be seen. They make small, gentle noises; generally much smaller and gentler than they are.

Matt Gasda (previously of Electioneers) and Daniel Emmett Creahan (instigator of various quixotic tape-music labels such as Prison Art and O, Morning) make up the band. They’re based in Syracuse, New York: a university town which, once upon a time, was a swamp. It sounds as if Matt and Daniel spend quite a lot of time dreaming about what it was like back in the Syracuse swamp days, and whether some of that time still soaks into today. The three tracks on here (allegedly recorded in basements and closets, and possibly while half-asleep) even feel waterlogged. While the songs themselves are light – barely sticking to the eardrum – the instruments are heavy; from the rumbling, staggering piano to the guitar which sounds like the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle, half-buried in the mud.


 
At times, it’s like listening to an ancient, rural version of No Wave or a Steve Reich process chant – its back turned, its hat pulled down over its eyes, caught up by the waterline and engrossed in an endless pulse which it’s found and has tuned into. Wrapped in repetition, Rain King rumbles like a prayer, Matt singing “Put your trust in the rain king, / who’s going to move the mountain?” in a piping murmur while dark thunderheads of piano notes build up in the background. The Beta Band used to tap into sketched sounds and feelings like these back at the beginning, when they were still a well-kept secret. Bears in America sing and play as if they always want to remain that kind of secret, piping in music from a ghostly, gentler country.


 
Ratsbones spreads out the minimalism over six minutes. There’s a limping, leaning piano fragment; a drape of organ texture; a set of delicate vocal canons. Later on, there’s the sound of oyster-shells crunching. Melting together reticence, frail reedy singing and hypnotic structure, this is part Robert Wyatt reverie, part mournful Gavin Bryars ritual. The incantations themselves begin as no more than shack-mutterings (“Rat bone, the windows of the night”) but build to soft earnest cries (“The soul is leading me out, bleeding me out… / to the lamp-light, to the lamp-light and the soul…”) All feeling, no clarity. Clearer that way.


 
For Slipstream, Bears In America get up out of their huddle and turn around. You can almost hear them crack a gentle smile as they deliver a shimmering fragment of folk song based around a hushed and ebbing guitar figure, a jingle of ornament, a blanket of blurred marimbas bobbing like light-flecks on the skin of a river. It’s also a love-song of sorts, Matt singing “You are the lovely oak tree’s daughter / I’m just the lonely secret water” while immensely quiet passing sounds ruffle the air around him. At at one point the guitar starts to toy with a harder Velvet Underground pulse but the song is too liquid, too giving, to retain that kind of edge. It reaches one reedy arm back towards Nick Drake and River Man. The other stretches forwards towards something more forthrightly psychedelic, wrapped in echoes and various backwardnesses.

The song ends with a hooded country-folk flourish. So too does the EP, amid a soft cloud of hoots and murmurs as the band amble away. They vanish into the wilderness again in a rustle of battered hats and lowered eyes, as if they’d never been here. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever see them again. More than a little magical.

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP
Bears In America, no catalogue number
download-only EP
Released: 20th January 2011

Get it from:
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Bears in America online:
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August 2001 – EP reviews – Delicate AWOL’s ‘Driesh’ (“a majestic, footsore sway of poignant, lead-heavy guitars”)

7 Aug
Delicate AWOL: 'Driesh'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Driesh’

“Driesh” sounds like one of those arcane words which early-Noughties art-rockers festoon their work with. It’s actually the name of one of Delicate AWOL’s favourite mountains. When not hiding out in Stockwell recording increasingly soulful post-rock melodies, they’ve got a taste for scrambling cheerfully up the heights of the Scottish highlands, all fleeces and crampons.

On the subject of mountain climbing (sort of), Delicate AWOL are still ascending. ‘Driesh’ is their finest EP to date. It’s not a question of ambition, more one of balance. Delicate AWOL have never sounded more balanced, more aware of music as an expression of what is instead of what you force it to be.

The magnificent Dust – a majestic, footsore sway of poignant, lead-heavy guitars – demonstrates this principle. The first time you hear it you have no idea what it is: you’re just caught up in Caroline Ross’ powerful and moving, yet surrendering, vocal. The second time, you realize where the surrender comes from. This is a paean to pollutants, no less: small things which change our immediate world with neither our volition nor our involvement. And this is a song that finds, without a hint of irony, beauty in these changes; honing that balance with acceptance and a fine-art vision. “Dust from satellites fills the skies, / lends an orange hue to buildings they designed in grey /… Dirt from satellites coats the meteorites, / shares its redder touch with rocks that are mostly dust. / And I give thanks for dust.”

Off to one side, Evergreen China Prairie Tribunal is one of the band’s affectionate amblings into mutant country/Hawaiian instrumentals. Short guitar notes are stretched lazily and luxuriantly during their brief lifespans; slide guitar, flown behind like a kite, does some happy yawning. The drums and bass patter on, chattering like a pair of old mule drivers on a slow road.

On the other side, the quietly swarming clang of Moggie is one of Delicate AWOL’s periodic nods to Mogwai’s crowded fuzz-riffing. However, it’s more homespun, imbued with a positive energy rather than Mogwai’s rampant insecurity. Where Mogwai are tight and tense, Delicate AWOL are endearingly woolly: they’re unconcerned with occasional sloppy accents, and lessen the weight on the guitars to let light sliding curls of notes unravel from the ends of the song. Caroline’s soft, half-buried wail drifts in like a cat singing in the hallway.

Only one song on the EP goes against this serene and meditative stasis. In the languid, perturbed awakening of What In The World To Do Ingrid, Caroline serenades a woman whose stasis is a matter of routine, and an unwelcome routine at that. “Had enough of breaking bread, / had enough of freaking out. / What in the world to do, Ingrid? / Summer will be here sooner now.” As faintly ominous guitars stir against Caroline’s questioning, they hint that Ingrid’s own nature, under stress, is beginning to crack both her routine and her normality. “Rising inside her – / another, more beautiful woman. / Caught another glimpse of her, hiding in the mirror frame. / What in the world to do, Ingrid? / she’ll be taking over sooner than…”

Just when you think this is going to turn into another tale of a woman slipping into madness, there’s a happier transformation. A joyous hand-clapping lift and gurgles of Hammond organ (the latter straight out of old Memphis R’n’B), and the song becomes a story about stripping off the safety of a firm uniform in favour of striding off naked but unburdened. Caroline sings out another question – “Could it be worse?” – but with the brightening quizzical tones of someone who knows that it won’t be.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Driesh’
day Release Records Ltd., DR401 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 6th August 2001

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

September 1999 – album reviews – Edwige’s ‘Keep the Change’ (“nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness”)

30 Sep

Edwige: 'Keep The Change'

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’

Edwige is a true original and determined with it, outspoken in her contemplative pantheism and in reaching towards the divine spirit that binds her universe together. It’s difficult to pin her down to any songwriter school – even within the eccentric fringes of spiritual folk, French chamber-chanson and psychedelic New Age she seems to incline to, she’s an odd customer and obviously wants it no other way.

You’ll either love or hate her unorthodox and uneasily captivating voice as it zooms and dodges (like a brilliantly coloured, elusive dragonfly) over her baroque and mystical songs. It’s more unpredictable now than ever – zigzagging through melodies, it’s never quite where you expect it to be. She’ll carol, coo, stick you with a sharp note. She’ll shiver herself into blocks of eerie harmonies flickering between celestial and dischordant. She’ll double back on herself, frustrate you, salve you; and finally dissolve into a lovely swarm of voice-clouds.

The voice remains the same, but the music has moved on since her jaunty, budget-recorded debut album. Faithful keyboardist Joe Evans is still on board, but admitting Alexander Zuchrow (guitarist, engineer and, most crucially, arranger) to the heart of the music means that Edwige’s songs have been framed and fleshed out in richer textures. Harpsichord and dream-pad sounds replace the previous tinny synth presets. Gentle bluesy guitars add new body; cellos, Appalachian fiddles and soft saxophones peep out of the corners. ‘Keep The Change’ possesses the nebulous, pine-forest cleanliness of Narada Records, or of Windham Hill folk.

If the first album was postcards from Edwige’s imagination, ‘Keep The Change’ brings you a breath of countryside as well as further maps of her spiritual landscape. Edwige’s themes of continuance and connection, of inner illumination and the dispelling of fear, sit in leaf-green settings. A puff of baby-Clannad folk in Water; tinkling Vivaldi pop for Reflection. The lyrics (and the rootsier atmospheres) are permeated by rain-mists and mermaids, wind and light. Via perky fiddles and banjo, the gracious Joy Song (both a letdown and a thank-you to a luckless admirer) threads country and Irish airs around Edwige’s serenity. The bizarre falsetto-waltz melody of No Two Ways bobs balloon-like over strings and harpsichord (which could’ve come from ‘Five Leaves Left’) and a clink of lounge vibraphone (which definitely didn’t).

Sometimes Edwige brushes up against the exquisite. On the contemplative ethereal anthem, Something Deep she mixes her “everywhere god” faith with a touch of Duke Ellington gospel shapes plus lemon-flavoured jazz cello. On He Only Knows (over yielding beds of keyboards, clarinets, luscious classical guitar ripples and soprano sax) she sings of journeying – “an arm coming from nowhere / far away has taken him. / Now he changes his road again,” – and then sets the seal on it with her own signature swim of voices. On I’m Out she sings of passing through peril to attain faith. A tapestry of Enya-esque chanting and the urgent wire-tang of a Jantsch-y folk guitar finally dissolves down into another magnificently luscious voicescape, though it basks a little too contentedly in the warmth of fuzzy piano and sax along the way.

Equally, sometimes she misses the mark. Her tendency to overbalance into tweeness is one thing (the popcorn cafe-jazz of Leave Your Mind At The Gate being the worst offender). It’s worse when the same determination that stretches Edwige’s songs towards dizzy heights sometimes leads her to stretch them out of shape. Eager to illustrate, she pushes too hard, letting her lyrics crowd out the melody and garble the song. At such times, she bustles against the delicate arrangements instead of nestling in them. For example, amongst the chirruping violins and Spanish guitars of So They Say, her message of opting for instinct (over demands for hard facts, or superstitions) is smothered by the tangled, forced and fussy words.

It’s all far better when Edwige relinquishes the strict and portentous hippy lectures and just lets her songs breathe; when she stops banging against aspirational truths and taps into the grace she sings about. This happens on Wherever It Is (a sparkling ballad of devotion) and on Light Energy Love, where a sweet, open melody (reminiscent of Bryan Maclean’s gossamer hums on Love’s ‘Forever Changes’) merges with a champagne tingle of fiddles, guitars and harmoniums and with Zuchrow’s gently gurgling psychedelic streams. It’s in songs like this that her determination pays off and her quest progresses.

On the final song, Something Deep, she sings with an equal measure of frustration, patience and commitment. “You keep plugging your ears so you won’t hear my song… / Something deep inside of me knows / I still sing for you.” Going down fighting, or transcending closed minds? The little soul warrior with the effervescing voice isn’t going to give up.

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’
Quasar Music, EDW2CD (634479464935)
CD/download/cassette album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Quasar Music or CD Baby.

Edwige online:
Homepage YouTube

December 1998 – live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
Homepage MySpace

The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

October 1997 – live reviews – Django Bates’ Human Chain @ The Vortex Jazz Bar, Stoke Newington, London, sometime in 1997 (“joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia”)

13 Oct

Next time I’ll bring my platforms. As per usual with Django Bates gigs, the Vortex is packed out and it’s standing room only. To enable the bar staff to make the perilous weaving journey between the crowded tables, the only place I can park myself and my aching feet is up against a wall, craning my neck to peer over the obligatory taller person in front. Plenty of other people are in the same boat. No one complains.

Well… apart from the couple I speak to afterwards, with their heads full of Parisian Latin Quarter memories and a taste for acid-jazz, looking in to see what a Jazzpar Prize winner plays like. They’ve decided that they hate Django Bates. Can’t stand him, can’t see what the fuss is about, can’t see the point. In their eyes, something’s wrong with the whole thing.

While I completely disagree with them, I can see their point. If you’re coming from an established jazz perspective (certain moves, a certain closet full of set patterns, a certain desire to be pleased in a traditional way), then what do you make of Django Bates? A man of many hats, most of them odd-shaped (tonight’s being a reasonably modest ski-hat which doesn’t even get to make it onstage). A man who’s wearing a faded T-shirt marked “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”. Someone who reinvents the sacred New York, New York as a volley of bloody-minded bop, assault and battery (via vicious drums and sound effects – fire-engines, road drills and machine guns). Who then insults the memory of Sinatra by singing as if he’s in the shower; and finally throws in a rapturous applause sample during which the entire band punch the air like Motley Crue?

Or how about Hyphen’s forthright Coltrane-isms scratched into a hypermanic bass walk? Django yelps a string of “yeah!”s in parodic hammy Americanese; yet he later delivers a sprightly piano solo as the piece’s main moment of reflection. It’s peculiar but assured – like Victor Borges hosting the Jazz Club on ‘The Fast Show’. It’s not so much Duke Ellington as Frank Zappa hitting the lounge wall. Hard.

“N.Y., N.Y. – nice, yet nihilistic, yobs. That’s us,” says Django, faux-innocently. “Respect.”

It’s this sort of English ridiculousness that puts the originality and oomph into Bates’ muse, yet simultaneously blights his career. However much people are drawn to the joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia of his music, many of them still struggle to accept the humour.  In another life, Django would have been an eccentric Oxford don setting his callow students another brainteaser. But jazz aristocrats are supposed to be enigmatic, not possessed of an absurdist schoolboy imagination. For all of his enthusiastic following, Bates’ refusal to wear a legend’s weighty clothes (or to deny his own genuinely playful nature), has tended to place him out in the cold within the jazz world, as opposed to in at the heart of the cool.

For this reason alone, it’s good to see that he finally seems to be growing up a bit. There’s a feeling of “less is more” tonight. The once-astronomical note count is down, and some of the exuberance has been pared off to let the expression come through more easily. The Human Chain four-piece has always been the purest conduit for Bates music, anyway. Django’s three lieutenants spar dextrously with his carnival of keyboards and the loopy bonhomie of his peck horn. Michael Mondesir expands his crabbed, funk-impossible groove approach on bass guitar, in partnership with Martin France’s ever-fresh polylingual drumming. Iain Ballamy serves as the moral centre and hidden authority for the group, his frowning bulldog visage set firm as he navigates his saxophones through the convoluted maps of Batesworld.

There’s a lot to find along the way, here in Human Chain’s haphazardly hilly country between Weather Report, Mingus, Naked City and Ivor Cutler. For instance,  the intriguingly sprained prog-rock samba of Three Architects Called Gabrielle; or And A Golden Pear’s long mixture of rhetorical questioning and querulous demand (this time given a Carlos Jobim calypso lilt). On Powder Room Collapse, France and Mondesir smack and swat away at the hidden angles of the rhythm. Bates expounds on his wah-wah’ed horn or squeezes electrified duck calls out of the keyboards. Underfelt slips from mode to mode, like a trapeze artiste on an endless series of loop stunts.

Keeping a single mood – other than an amused giddy elation – is next to impossible, especially while Django is continuing to toy with traditions. “We’d like to change the mood now,” he muses, and pauses a second. “And now we’d like to change it back again.” This continual deflation of expectations has got to be deliberate, a way of disarming and confounding our prejudices, freeing us up so that we can react naturally to the great and mischievous “perhaps” of jazz that Bates spends so much of his life illustrating. Thus, Food For Plankton – always an especially joyful party hop, working around a melody of delirious happiness and zipping soprano sax. Tonight it clicks its shoes to exceptionally pointed accents. It gives way,  during Potato Pickers, to a long and glorious slow flood of horn over wintery electronics.

The same players that sing, straight-faced, a frivolous primer for tea-making called The Importance of Boiling Water will also melt into the detached loneliness of Is There Anyone Up There?, Bates chiming the hours beneath Ballamy’s frayed alto saxophone thread. With incredible delicacy, his piano spills into the solo, becoming tiny notes afloat on a cymbal’s breath, so quiet that you can hear the measured hum of the fridge behind the bar as easily as you can Martin France’s brushes. Backed by the comforting yawn of Ballamy’s alto, Bates croons and mumbles bits of melody into the mike, narrates a story of a young man starved to death by TV, before France breaks it up with a colossal bang on the drums, triggering the final electronic runaway.

Best of all, the band can handle the frail beauty of Further Away with a compressed excitement. While focussing on Ballamy’s powdery-soft, open-hearted melody (echoing over itself), you only just notice how the band have sustained the spartan expectant atmosphere while simultaneously playing the hell out of it; whispering and yelling, dogs on the leash around Ballamy’s delicately determined oasis.

But perhaps, in the end, you genuinely just don’t get it. What the hell… your loss. No pork pie hats; showbiz that’s more ‘Call My Bluff’ than ‘The Cotton Club’. Respect, but not submission, to the black saints; a tendency to move the ground instead of the hips. Perhaps none of the above is your idea of jazz. But whatever you think, Django Bates is continuing to blow the dust off jazz’s spirit of adventure and letting it out to run. Whatever the humour here, there’s absolutely no joke in that.

Django Bates online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

The Vortex Jazz Bar online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

September 1994 – album reviews – The Milk & Honey Band’s ‘Round the Sun’ (“pollen-soaked brightness”)

30 Sep
The Milk & Honey Band: 'Round The Sun'

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round The Sun’

Life in Levitation appears to have been pretty intense. It wasn’t just the careening violence of that band’s supercharged stew of indie-metal and psychedelia (which usually brought to mind eerie and sickly dawn comedowns, or bloated nebulae savaging each other in a chilly night-sky) but the personal cost as well. Five equally creative underground rock musicians – each with hungry histories behind them – yoked together into a single band and choosing an open-ended approach, then unexpectedly exploding into semi-celebrity across the British indie-rock circuit.

Excesses of talent and volatility (and too much “too much” in general) inspired Levitation, but also wore it down. In particular, the sudden and very public departure of the band’s doggedly wayward frontman Terry Bickers in summer ’93 seemed acrimonious enough to raise blisters. Perhaps this is why whenever Levitation’s keyboard player Bob White stepped away from the band for a breather of his own, the music that he produced had such pollen-soaked brightness to it. Compared to Levitation’s soaring, guttering galactic frenzies, The Milk & Honey Band feels more like waking up in a warm barn in the woozy heat of an August afternoon, knowing that there’s just enough of the summer left for you to relax into.

Collected together as a full album, these songs float together gracefully and lazily. Despite the communal, homespun suggestions of the name, Bob is on his own here – producing and playing absolutely everything from the shakers to the luscious layered guitars. He seems more than happy to be carrying all the weight. Of course, he’s made it easier for himself by making Milk & Honey Band music so softly buoyant: an easygoing psychedelia with a nostalgic undertow. ‘Round The Sun’ is pervaded by a sunny West Coast feel, with banks of multi-tracked Bobs murmuring in cloudy harmonies.

There’s an illuminated sting to Not Heaven’s punchy rhythm, but listen to that glorious coda as the guitars slide deliciously over each other – a sensual Moebius strip of sound. A trio of pastoral guitars in Raining, set against a gentle downpour, recall Peter Green. Mandolins ring tenderly on Out Of Nowhere. The slow, sleepy, rumple of the title track builds on rich and majestic layers of spliffed-up guitars and harmonium; Bob lovingly croons “feels like life has put the world in your arms” amidst touches of melodica and tingling vibraphone. Even a digression into pelting distorted rock-out for Another Perfect Day (which sounds like an agreeably tranquillized Bob Mould) is haloed with positivity.

West Coast syrup and sunshine aside, the Milk & Honey Band is also as English as chips in newspaper. Often it could be a never-was memory of imaginary childhood holidays. Something remembered by a happier Syd Barrett, perhaps – saved from drowning, and lost in a contented swirl of dope smoke as he hangs out with an equally relaxed Andy Partridge.

Two rogue Milk & Honey Band instrumentals also anchor themselves to an endearing shabby gentility, like fading Edwardian seaside pavilions going quietly to seed in the dying sunlight. The first of these, Tea (sweetened with organ, glockenspiel and fake clarinet), summons up sepia memories of elderly swinging dance-bands. The snatch of elegant minimalism on Pier View (shifting interlocking waltzes of piano and synth oboe) isn’t a million miles away from the  more mannered moments of  Penguin Café Orchestra’s chamber-music joys.

Still… beyond the simple humming pleasures, there’s a subtle tinge of melancholy. It’s intangible, like a barely-there sense of the mistakes you’ve not yet realised that you’ve made. On Puerto, hazy recollections from family holidays – train journeys, shapes made by a father’s hands – are just flakes of memory, snapshots of times that are gone. Only the cavernous darkness of Light – slow drums booming, guitars like giant creaking girders; a smudgy, apprehensive fog of vocals – points back towards Levitation’s broiling stress.

Yet there are hints that the warmth in which The Milk & Honey Band sits is a resting place which must be eventually left behind; or a long-ago photograph in which the colours will eventually turn wan and wear away. Listening past the folky, bluesy cats-cradle of clean-picked guitars (recalling the Stones in wasted lament on Wild Horses) you’ll hear Bob singing softly about blood on his hands that won’t wash away. Elsewhere, he gently pleads “Take a lot of stupid noise / and try to understand the words that I say.”

It’s as if he’s aware that the time available for understanding is short: circumscribed by circumstance, and with far too much human frailty getting in its way. Presumably, fraught energies will be beckoning again sometime soon. In the meantime this album is here, as floaty and comforting as a hammock-ride – and as vulnerable.

The Milk & Honey Band: ‘Round the Sun’
Rough Trade Records, R3572 (5022781203574)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released:
29th September 1994
Get it from: (2012 update) Download from Burning Shed; CD is long-deleted and best looked for second-hand.
The Milk & Honey Band online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube Vimeo Pandora Spotify Amazon Music
 

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