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albums - November 2014


   
 

Mark Fry - South Wind Clear Sky

Mark Fry's resurgence as a musician follows a similar path to artists like Vashti Bunyan, Shelagh McDonald and Bonnie Dobson, all vanished during the flower-power era of the late 60s/early 70s only to re-emerge with fresh and interesting work after their long absences. Fry is best known for his psych-folk classic Dreaming With Alice released back in 1972. Inspired by Lewis Carol's fairy story but also exploring the ancient myths and legends of what it meant to be 'English', much in vogue at the time, the album sank without trace at the time but it's place as a cult classic was assured. In any case, the 19-year old Warrington Art School student who'd made good in Florence, Italy, went on to establish himself as a painter and followed his natural wanderlust to the far corners of the globe, before eventually settling in Normandy where he lives today.

People went searching for Fry when original vinyl pressings of Dreaming With Alice started changing hands on eBay for enormous sums of money. Surprised to find so much interest in his early work, the musician-turned painter officially broke his 36-year recording silence with the release of Shooting The Moon in 2008. A tour followed which took in Scandinavia and Japan, Fry fronting something of a folk 'supergroup' which included members of Mercury Rev, Tunng, Super Furry Animals and Lemon Jelly. 2011 saw the release of I Lived In Trees (with a sound recorded in the open air by his new group the A. Lords) and his own legend caught up with him on BBC's Today programme when they ran a story to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Dreaming With Alice.

And now comes possibly Mark Fry's most accomplished release to date, South Wind, Clear Sky. The fuller and more immersive sound shows off the songwriter's steady transition since his return. Very little remains of the acid-folk of his debut, but the characteristic elements of magic and wonder are still there, this time songs which explore the themes of flying and outer space. There are nice dreamy atmospherics provided by a stellar set of musicians (including John Parker on double bass, Angele David-Guillou on piano and Katie Lang on French Horn) and producer Guy Fixsen, all of whom accompanied the songwriter recently on a special promotional concert in St Marys Church in Rotherhithe, London.

The real appeal is the mood it creates. In his mind's eye I'm sure Mark Fry still thinks of himself as a painter, images now emerging from an 'aural' canvas. Work with other musicians may have factored into the new sound, but it's obviously his own musical inheritance, the folk of English pastoralism, which is most most at the fore on South Wind, Clear Sky. Many of the songs were inspired by the aviator and novelist Antoine de St Exupery, a hero of Fry's, famed for the philosophical children's story 'The Little Prince'. The album's opener 'Aeroplanes\ sets the musical template for the album:

“Sometimes I dream I'm flying aeroplanes across the big blue sky/The sun is shining on my sliver wings that cut the clouds in half/Sometimes I dream I'm flying aeroplanes across a deep blue sea/I'm … out to meet you, but there's nothing but the sky and me”
The magic of Alice In Wonderland is replaced with “A hole in the sky for the dreamers on the ground/Higher than the birds can fly”, as the song turns on a beautiful hook with its rich strings and acoustic guitars conveying that windswept feeling early aviators must have felt flying off into the clouds. It's a momentary 'high', difficult to repeat, although 'Along The Way' also heads off into the wide open spaces, Fry's gently-strummed guitar punctuated with Lang's beautiful French Horn as the singer laments losing radio contact. This is Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here sort of territory, ironic when you consider the songwriter was generally compared with artists like Donovan and Syd Barrett. And there's more of the slightly worldweary Gilmour-like voice on 'Leave Me Where I Am' charting Saint-Exupery's mysterious disappearance shot down over North Africa during WWII. Twinkling guitars on ballads like 'Little Flashing Light', 'River Kings' (a song inspired by the writings of Scottish 18th century explorer Mungo Park and Fry's own experience of living in the Inner Niger Delta in Mali in the early 1980s) and 'Fall Like A Stone' sound like they belong on a dreamed-out Mark Knopfler soundtrack or somesuch. 'Dials For Home' raises the tempo slightly, but not before piano-driven closer 'Long Way Down' gently returns us to earth.

Songs tinged with this romantic view of aviation and outer space combine the painter's eye for detail with the songwriter's ear for a good melody, and perhaps like Major Tom in David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', on Mark Fry's South Wind Clear Sky it's time to leave the capsule if you dare …

Matthew Haddrill

 

Barbarisms - Barbarisms

Nicholas Faraone's slightly off-centred folk is the ruminations of an American eyeing things this side of the pond! The singer-songwriter spent time in Paris absorbing the anti-folk influences of artists like Jeffrey Lewis and David Dondero, before winding up in Stockholm where this album was assembled with the help of musicians Tom Skantze (bass) and Robin Af Ekenstam (drums). The 11 songs on Barbarisms are classically lo-fi, but an impressive collection nonetheless.

Slacker rock makes everything sound half-arsed and unintentional, but there's no real kidding around on Barbarisms. Opener 'Easier All The Time' fades in with the ubiquitous cranked-up Neil Young-like guitars and Faraone sings rather despairingly: “I wanna hear it in my outside voice again/Isn't that inside feeling drained?”. The thing is you can't really disguise solid hooks and intelligent inner-workings, so the song clearly has more in common with the craft of Bill Callahan (Smog) and Dan Bejar (Destroyer), obvious idols, than anything lazy or accidental.

It's a pattern often repeated on the songwriter's debut, at heart confessional like a lot of great folk music. So Faraone sings “I have yet to have wanted to be a poet/In the way I have wanted fifty dollars or to leave America” on the all-too-brief-but-catchy 'A Wash Of Teeth', and on 'Explorer' he gets lost in the adventures of his forefathers before admitting “I'm an explorer from the ground and I walk on up into the clouds that fill my mind/And for all my searching, I still can't find a bug in the web”.

The charm of Barbarisms is it's all so deceptively simple. ‘Backward Falconer #2’ is sparse to begin with, but the troubadour spills his heart in the spaces with odd tangential references (there's finger nails in bubblegum, tough love, dicks to suck and snakes that lick your ears, for example, and he's just getting started!) before surrendering to a riff that could be from the early Kinks canon. Then there's Eels-like ‘Katherine Anne Porter’, a simple metronomic beat and some kitsch-sounding keyboard eventually giving way to something more substantial, neat instrumental overlays, almost minimalist, but at heart another great song. Life's small victories (“I could have been priced out of the raffle, but I won, I forgot … now it's like I got time for everything”) are exchanged for the banalities of existence, a house, a lawn, a wife … the throwaway American dream perhaps? 'I Won Nothing', on the other hand builds powerfully like Nico/Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs' and sounds like it might have been recorded outdoors. Singles like the album's opener and 'Macaulay Culkin Eating Pizza' wax lyrical about American tack with its teen idols and faded heroes, but suggest a guarded optimism about his native land. I'm not saying he's Dylan or anything, but ...

So perhaps the inside feeling is draining away, but Nicholas Faraone's cup still runneth over. Save the best to last, with more rolled-out Americana in the shape of 'Figures Of Men'. His powerful swansong burns like a like a modern-day fevered sort of 'Tangled Up In Blue', memories of a trip to Berlin that went horribly wrong, love triangles, flaming rows and odd hotel room scenarios. Anger rises from within, possibly the 'Barbarian' inside he wants to “civilize” so much. The poetry ends abruptly in a spirit of fatalistic abandon: “I fell in love with the devil and it hurts/But I always knew she was the package deal/I won't try to civilize her, this is the life I chose.” An odd way to go, but on Barbarisms Nicholas Faraone's has re-discovered America very much on his own terms and left this refreshing collection of songs.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Billy Idol - 'Kings And Queens Of The Underground'

His first album in eight years and, now pushing 60, is this the last we'll hear from 77 punk survivor, 80s MTV superstar, tax dodging LA resident and all round contender for the official Leather Clad Sneer Award? Somehow, Billy Idol is the actual biggest 'star' to emerge from all that punk rock stuff of 35 years previously and he hasn't, I can confirm, any plans to fade away gracefully. The best Generation X tracks still resonate today, 'White Wedding' and 'Rebel Yell' can still provoke nostalgic grins at Skool Disco nights and while I haven't exactly kept up with much of his recent career, 'Kings And Queens ...' is more than a reminder that Billy Idol IS Billy Idol.

What's kept him going all this time is a defined lack of seriousness, cleverly sending himself up in a way that he probably learned at the Roxy Club four decades ago while maintaining the lip curling poise that can suddenly make him look like a very serious rock personality indeed, grasping the mike while biting the cap from an already opened bottle of Coors Light and launching into yet another blistering synth and Les Paul generated stadium anthem. About two thirds of 'Kings And Queens ...' appears to have landed, fully cellophane wrapped, from some unreleased late 80s sessions while the album title track is merely a flutey folksy sop to the very notion of ever getting older, of not being quite so lithe in the leather strides nowadays, of not being Billy Idol anymore. Last track 'Pills And Whiskey' just puts the seal on it, there's no such thing as a quiet Tuesday evening round at Idol mansions although he will, in all probability, slide off into a Palm Beach rest home for elderly Harley riders whenever the voice finally goes and the strides are finally ironed once too often. Rock on, Billy.
www.billyidol.net

JG

 

Glass Caves - 'Alive'

Starting with first track 'Go' (nothing like giving your album a running start of a song title) Glass Caves turn in a tightly performed dozen tracks of generic rock that while it falls halfway between Arctic Monkeys and The Enemy in the influence department is saved from predictable Kings Of Leon inflected dullness by its sharply tuned production and some committed performances from the Caves themselves. Thing is, I've heard a few albums of a similar quality (remember Buffalo 77?) and it can take more than smart mixing board touches and bleeding fingertips to really give things the added impetus they need, to raise an album above the ordinary. It's a nebulous thing, inspiration, and not everyone always finds it exactly when it's needed (the Black Velvets, that was another one). 'Alive' is a more than competent turn from a new band (well, new to me) and their first album, and it certainly kept me listening, while reminding me of a lot of other bands up to and including Kings Of Leon that can play no frills chunking great rock mainstream sort of stuff (Dave Grohl about it) and make it seem like something new and, that word again, inspired.

Where there's a lot going on is in the instrumentation, Glass Caves and their guitars and drumkit possess the necessary levels of invention that can make an ordinary song sound a bit less ordinary, in the fretboard histrionics and relentless pace of the tracks which, if it's what you want to hear, Glass Caves are doing very well. They aren't making any pretension about being anything other than a heads down and boogie outfit and if that's a bit too gritty for some listeners, then so be it. Matter of fact, the more I listened to 'Alive' the more I decided I was hearing in it, glossy powerchord overdrive music that isn't played with one eye on what reviewers sometimes more at home with obscure electronica and reissued 80s indie band compilations are going to think about it although it would help if the reviewers sort of liked Kings Of Leon a bit. I won't take it away from them, Glass Caves and their album are very likely worth 35 or so minutes of your listening time, if your mood has turned to that of full blown rockist for the duration.
www.glasscaves.co.uk

JG

 

Samaris - Silkidrangar

I remember reading that Samaris saw themselves as a bit of a joke when they started out. They initially sounded like a giddy, prepubescent version of that other startlingly clever firm of Northern electricians The Knife, especially on the brilliant 'Viltu vitrast'. They were moody occasionally, out of the blue, ecstatic. Their self-titled debut remains the perfect thing to listen to when feeling sick and sad on a long European bus journey. This, however, is more brooding, less quietly uplifting, not half full of remixes. 'Hrafnar' - or 'Ravens' - is especially frantic and uneasy, like mid-2000s dubstep. If the self-titled record was just the antidote for 1-3pm, this slots in immediately before dawn, in the 'I don't think they're joking anymore' / 'I'm a bit haunted' hole. Which is a fitting progression of sounds for a young and talented trio who live on an island where the nights last for a very long time.

Phil Coales