Tag Archives: Tim Smith

April 2017 – upcoming gigs – performance of Tim Smith/Cardiacs pieces in Amsterdam by jazz ensemble, for free (6th)

31 Mar
Tim Smith (photo © Sarah Mather)

Tim Smith (photo © Sarah Mather)

Just heard this heartening news from INKT/Theater M-Lab/Palmen & Reijmerink bassist Rita Kárpáti, in Amsterdam:

Tim Smith‘s previously-unheard composition ‘Pod, my my look my Pod’ (1983) is going to be performed in the Amsterdam Conservatory during the Jazz Ensemble Festival in the Blue Note hall – alongside with two other classic songs by Cardiacs… The ensemble is going to be rather extended, I don’t even remember the exact number of members – around ten or eleven people on stage, so it’s going to be loud! So if you are around in the Netherlands and want to hear ‘Pod…’ for the first time, performed by the wonkiest of students and alumni of the CvA, conducted by prog-rock professor Jos Zwaanenburg – for free – you know where to find us.”

This is taking part as part of the Conservatorium Jazz Ensemble festival, which runs between 3rd and 6th April this year and features performances from many of the Conservatorium’s budding jazz and cross-disciplinary musicians, mostly for free. If you’re interested in the whole festival programme you can get it here, but if you’re specifically hoping to catch the set of Smith pieces then you need to look out for Alex Brajkovic‘s electric/acoustic ensemble performing on the evening of 6th April…

3rd Jazz Ensemble Festival @ Conservatorium von Amsterdam presents:
Alex Brajkovic (MA)’s Student Ensemble play Tim Smith
Blue Note Zaal @ Conservatorium van Amsterdam, Oosterdokseiland, 1011 DL Amsterdam, Netherlands
Thursday 6th April 2017, 6:30pm – free event

More from Rita regarding the background to this:

“I got Timfected by my teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory about two years ago. His name is Jos Zwaanenburg, a prog rock flautist who dedicates a whole class to teaching the music of Frank Zappa and related artists. The year I joined that class he decided to throw in a Cardiacs piece for us to learn (we can say he is a big Patient Zero). It was Jibber And Twitch. I still remember the childish joy of playing something so punky in a respected music institution and how impossible those fast quintuplets seemed to play. (I play the bass and I deeply adore Jim (Smith, Cardiacs bassist) for his elaborate basslines and his ability to endure fierce domestic brutality).

“A few years of vigorous Cardiacs listening passed and I graduated. Fast forward to this November, 2016. Jos writes us an e-mail that he finally got the chance to make his trip to England. A trip he had been organizing for years with the help of a mutual friend. He was about to visit Tim Smith and ask him geeky musical questions! He said that during their e-mailing he had been requested to show what he had been doing with his students, but since all the exam recordings sounded crappy we had to make a new, proper home recording of Jibber And Twitch. I couldn’t have been happier to play it again! We rehearsed and made the new version. (It still sounded very lo-fi, but our heart was in it I’d like to think.)

“So Jos went to England, and yes, he actually met Tim. (He is going to cover the details of that absolutely touching encounter in an article soon, so I’m not going into details about how they communicated or what else happened there. I don’t want to take Jos’ credits.) Only my side of the story. After some friendly drinking and whatnot Jos played our silly little recording to Tim. And the anecdote says he looked impressed and he gave it a thumbs up when the song arrived to a part with overdubbed vocals. Even though I wasn’t there (only in a form of an under-mixed bassline) I’m always going to remember this as the most epic ‘Like’ in my life.

“We also got permission to study and record any of his music, including the ones that have never been recorded. We got all the sheet music we need. That’s what kind of a guy Tim Smith is.”

I’m not sure about which three Cardiacs pieces will be played alongside ‘Pod…’ but from hints dropped in various discussions I wouldn’t be surprised if they included Jibber And Twitch and The Duck And Roger The Horse. Below are Cardiacs performances of each of these, plus the English Rose Orchestrations variant on ‘The Duck…’ showing how the original hectic art/prog/punk piece has yielded a set of contemporary classical variations.



 

 

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – Spratleys Japs recreated live in Brighton, co-starring Stephen Evens, Emily Jones and sundry Brighton psychedelic talent (19th November)

16 Nov

'Spratleys Japs Live', 19th November 2016Though it’s long sold out (Facebook and local word-of-mouth rendering any blog efforts unnecessary), I thought I’d tip the hat to Saturday’s Brighton revival-cum-recreation of the obscure and short-lived Spratleys Japs, the first full live outing that the project’s songs have ever had.

Nominally a band, one which first wormed its way out into the light back in 1999, Spratleys Japs were one of the more enigmatic branches of the Cardiacs family. Head Cardiac Tim Smith composed the cryptic bulk of it, played bass guitar and organ, and added scratchy vocals; his then-girlfriend Jo Spratley sang bright and artless (like an urchin sparrow) and dabbled in theremin and flugelhorn. Tone and shape was inspired by a gloriously malfunctioning Mellotron keyboard on loan from ‘Tron historian Andy Thompson – its antique tape-replay system disrupted; its brass and string sounds invaded and polluted by grand staggers, stammers and dark blarts.

The rest of the instrumental roles were filled by the Rev-Ups, a Mexican desert band transplanted across the Atlantic and camping out in the New Forest. Dibbling around in Spratleys history brings you more information, albeit in baffling crepuscular fashion. There are stories of cutlery-hoarding obsessives hunched over humming home-made electronics; of a dilapidated old valve-tech recording studio buried deep in the Hampshire woods (“a bit rotten and a bit covered in leaves and rats, and rats spiders… ‘Doctor Who’ stylee control room… wiring swung between olden telegraph poles…”); and of vocals recorded “at dusk, in the drizzle”, bounced off the surface of a stagnant pond.


 
All very interesting, but probably spurious. It’s true about the ailing ‘Tron (and some elements of the dank forest sessions story might even be based on reality) but Spratleys were, in all likelihood, a Jo and Tim duo project: something cooked up through Smith production wizardry and swathed with the usual Cardiacs thicket of playful disinformation and purposefully eccentric mythology. In the decade following the album release, there was occasional talk about taking Spratleys to the stage, none of which came to anything: Tim’s near-fatal stroke and heart attack in 2008 finally put paid even to the talk.

What was left was the music – one album, one single with extra scraps – and very interesting it was too, be it the twinkling, seething, termite’s-nets funk of Fanny, the nursery piano and Wagnerian choir of Sparrows or Tim whispering an endless meandering verse over a strummed bass in Oh. Half of Cardiacs’ songbook had always been weirdly Arcadian, yearning out and away from regimented urban suburbia into a half-imagined clotted English greenwood full of growing things. Spratleys suggests what might have happened if Cardiacs had escaped there only to find out that it was a swamp, vegetation, trash and identity alike inexorably decaying into fertile sludge.


 
The grand, precarious staircases of extended harmony are pure Smith: parkour chord progressions racing on to destination unknown, delighting in the unpredictable terrain underfoot. The glue and ingredients which surround them are different, or at the very least repurpose and re-examine previous Smithian influences. Looking back at it now, it resembles nothing so much as various Cardiacs urges bumping up against the make-do, repurpose-and-discover influence of Faust, recoiling a little dazed and reconsidering. Creatures rustle; flashes of crude bayou guitar and ’50s rock’n’roll lick set up home with spluttering electronics. Vinyl pops; lyrics torn from malfunctioning phrasebooks float and spin in the eddies; all of the vocals sound as if they’ve been transposed from worn vellum. Jo, too, leaves her mark on proceedings – tugging Tim’s obsessive tendencies into more abstract, wandering territories, her childlike voice and delivery a perfect foil for his.

Regards this weekend’s recreation, Jo is the only original Spratley left standing. Though he’s recovered sufficiently to recently disinter and prepare a long-shelved Sea Nymphs album for release, Tim is still a long, long, unlikely way from playing live again. The Rev-Ups have long since dispersed and disappeared (probably back into the realms of Tim’s imagination); and as for the crumbling Mellotron, Andy Thompson (the entirely entitled bastard) has long since callously repaired it without a thought to history. There have been efforts to keep the project in the family, one way or another: Jo’s son Jesse Cutts (of Heavy Lamb) is backing her on guitar, and remaining roles are filled by sundry Brighton multi-instrumentalists and Cardiacs sympathisers. In the bag for the band are Étienne Rodes of Clowwns, his brother Adrien Rodes (once of Rect.angle, now playing with Étienne in Brother Twain) and the frighteningly busy Damo Waters (drummer for Clowwns, ZOFFF, Brother Twain and Slug; organist for Crayola Lectern; sessioneer for Field Music, British Sea Power, Chris T-T and plenty of others; everything-ist for his own project Muddy Suzuki when he has a spare moment).

At the moment, it’s not yet clear whether all of this is going to be a one-off amplified and extended celebration; or whether it’s going to become part of that eagerly growing body of post-Cardiacs musical life, joining the massing bands and solo artists which throng the increasingly regular Tim Smith fundraisers. Meanwhile, some indication as to what’s coming on the night could be found here – a kind of dry run, as Jo and Heavy Lamb take a rockier, punkified crack at the Spratleys song Vine at last year’s Alphabet Business Convention.


 

‘Spratleys Japs Performed Live’ (featuring members of Spratleys Japs, Crayola Lectern, Clowwns, Brother Twain, Muddy Suzuki) + Stephen Evens + Emily Jones
The Green Door Store, 2-4 Trafalgar Arches, Lower Goods Yard, Brighton Train Station, Brighton BN1 4FQ, England
Saturday 19th November 2016, 7.30pm
– information here and here

In support are Stephen EvEns (the current solo project by thoughtfully-hangdog drummer and multi-instrumental songwriter Steve Gilchrist – that’s Jo playing the therapist in his video below) and Cornish psychedelic folkie Emily Jones, whose own work shows a (possibly accidental) affinity with the softer end of Smithiana both in its occasional odd-corner harmonies and changeability, and in its occasional fascination with small, obscurely significant things.



 
If you’re not discouraged by that “sold-old” sign, see links above for the tickets that might become available… or just show up on the door with some cash on the night and hope for the best. If the Green Door Store has windows, crane up against them; fog them with sorry breath; make the kind of forest-creature creeling noises which you’d suspect might be just out of earshot on the Spratleys Japs album. They might take pity on you, and let you in.


 

Through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)


‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
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Cardiacs online:
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Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

Through the feed – Lucy Claire ‘Collaborations No 1’ EP and London launch gig, plus ‘Tim Smith’s Extra-Special OceanLand World’ reissue

3 Jun

Lucy Claire, dishing it out (photo courtesy of This Is It Forever Records)

Lucy Claire, dishing it out
(photo courtesy of This Is It Forever Records)

Lucy Claire Thornton – currently better known as “Lucy Claire” – is a contemporary classical/ambient electronic crossover composer who counts Erik Satie, Peter Broderick and Bjork as influences, and whose work has been hailed as “brilliant, delicately-wrought sketches” by ‘The Quietus‘ and as “immersive and slightly disorienting” by New Music webcast station ‘Amazing Radio‘. She’s releasing her newest release ‘Collaborations EP No 1’ on This Is It Forever Records on June 15th: the same week features a launch concert in London promoted by Chaos Theory (the inspired crew who put on that Sweet Niche/Macchiana del Tiempo/What?! triple bill of fusion jazz which I reviewed last summer). Here’s what they have to say about this gig:

“(We are) excited to host this launch party for the first in a series of collaborations EPs from Lucy Claire, along with many guest performers. ‘Collaborations EP No 1’ will be available with unique handmade packaging at a reduced price at this event only, along with two download codes for remixes by worriedaboutsatan and Message To Bears…. This evening we will see Lucy perform works from ‘Collaborations No 1’, featuring (contributions from German singer/songwriter/producer) Alev Lenz and producer Bruised Skies.

Support will come from electronic classical composers Leah Kardos and Jim Perkins. Almost three years after we worked with Leah on the launch of her debut album ‘Feather Hammer’, we’re delighted to be back together. Tonight we will see bigo & twigetti label-mates Leah and Jim performing new collaborative material… as well as selected works from Leah’s second album ‘Machines’, a concept album with lyrics made up from cut up spam emails, which will feature singer Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz. We will also hear them perform new material by Jim (which will be released later in the year on bigo & twigetti) and re-workings of material from ‘Feather Hammer’.”

All three acts will be basing their performance around piano, electronics, and string quartet. The concert takes place on Thursday 19th June at 7.30pm, at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, and advance tickets can be bought here for under a tenner. For various frustrating reasons, I suspect that I won’t be able to attend this gig myself. Perhaps someone who’s reading this could go, and then tell me what it was like? (Not that I want to make you feel like interns…)

* * *

Considering that he’s still cruelly immobilised by the after-effects of the strokes that felled him six years ago (see ‘Misfit City’ posts passim, here and here), the voice of Tim Smith has rarely been heard in the land so loudly. The profile of his band Cardiacs has been stealthily growing (albeit through YouTube and nostalgic webchat rather than their much-missed live shows) and we’ve recently had or will have new or imminent releases from self-confessed Smith acolytes Arch Garrison, Knifeworld and Stars In Battledress.

Tim Smith: 'Tim Smith's Extra Special OceanLandWorld'

Tim Smith: ‘Tim Smith’s Extra Special OceanLandWorld’

Meanwhile, the core Smith-eries just keep on coming – this year’s already seen reissues of relatively rare Smithwork (Mr & Mrs Smith & Mr Drake or Spratleys Japs) and a deluxe double vinyl reissue of key Cardiacs album ‘Sing To God’ is due for July). At the end of last month, Tim’s mysterious label The Alphabet Business Concern also sneaked out a CD re-release of his obscure 1995 solo album ‘Tim Smith’s Extra-Special OceanLand World’. A typically arch and sinister ABC press release reveals all (well, not really… and all capitals are deliberate, or at least deliberately annoying):

“AN ANNOUNCEMENT! PLUCKY? PERHAPS. GIFTED? PERHAPS NOT. Nonetheless Tim Smith, in an unforeseen spat of hubris, took it upon himself to exclude his so-called friends (acquaintances at best) to perform a collection of songs in isolation. Foolhardily believeing it may raise enough capital to barter his way from the labyrinthine clutches of obligation to which HE had previously agreed and to which, thankfully, he is bound to this day, in 1995 this solo album was release. Circumstance , of both design and fate have since rendered this ‘offering’ unavailable. UNTIL NOW. As if to mock his feeble attempt at emancipation THE ALPHABET BUSINESS CONCERN once again make available ‘OceanLandWorld’ with the proviso that the covenant can never be broken.”

Ducking under Alphabet’s theatre-of-cruelty bombast, the following actual facts can be dug up. The OceanLandWorld album was recorded by Tim on his own between 1989 and 1990, during a time of upheaval in the entangled world of Cardiacs. Three of the band’s key instrumentalists – Sarah Smith, William D. Drake and Tim Quy – had all either left or were about to leave, and at the same time Tim’s marriage to Sarah had ended. Next to nothing’s been said about this last event, and the other departures have always been described in a matter-of-fact way. In the long term, it seems that the baggy, unlikely, familial mass of Cardiacs-people (with their collective love of music and their sense of common adversity and purpose) managed to accommodate and contain the various splits and departures without lasting bitterness.

Still, although the suggestion in the sleeve-notes that Tim recorded and performed the ‘OceanLandWorld’ songs alone “by way of a penance” is a typically Alphabettian joke, there’s a certain rue to the tone of the album (not least when, behind a bouncy pop march, Tim sings cryptically about tears and about worms chewing on wooden people). Previously wrung happily through the efforts of other people, Tim’s songs are now being filtered through machines: check out those cascading sequencers and springy synth-bass whacks behind his reedy squawk and bustling guitars. Hardly surprisingly, there’s a slight pre-fab feel to the album. If previous Cardiacs albums sometimes felt like the scruffy, well-lived-in old houses in the band’s south-west London suburbs, then ‘OceanLandWorld’ feels like a race around a new satellite town: thin slivers of post-war history, new bricks and formica, a Toytown street plan.

That sense of uneasy rootlessness plays a part in this picture. Tim stutters out an album of faux-jaunty pop songs, without his musical family to push against and to be held by (even if Sarah does briefly return on one song for a gracing of saxophone). The familiar staggering, stumbling embrace of Cardiacs songs is replaced by a Scalextric skid. It’s to Tim’s credit that he somehow turns this into an asset: to these ears, ‘OceanlandWorld’ captures the giddy weightless of post-traumatic sensation, the impression that everything you are has been tossed up into the air like streamers and comes down spread-out and thinned-out, but still recognisably you. In the same way, familiar Cardiacs tics and inspirations work their way through the fabric of the album, with epic punky chorales and proggy vistas opening up like a junkyard requiem.

The album also features one of Tim’s most breathtakingly beautiful songs, Swimming With The Snake. The man rarely, if ever, even starts to explain what his songs are about, but this particular song communicates mysterious undercurrents of pain, loss and love with a rare and stunning magic.

If what you’ve seen, heard, and read here intrigues you, you can order the reissued ‘OceanLandWorld’ from here.

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REVIEW – Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’ EP, 2001 (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Apr
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

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

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

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

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

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

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

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

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

And now, all silenced?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

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

Buy it from:
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Tim Smith online:
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‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ online:
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The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December 1998 (“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.

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