albums - march 2016
“I dream of soul, country, cosmic … what I call Cosmic American Music'
Released just last year, German record label Bear Family's exhaustive 7-volume retrospective Kickers, Truckers and Cowboy Angels gives you some idea of the sheer scale of country rock (those crazy Germans, eh?!). Yet Gram Parsons' original vision was much humbler. He once described The Flying Burrito Brothers, formed with Chris Hillman after the 2 of them had left The Byrds in 1968, as “basically a Southern soul group playing country and gospel-oriented music with a steel guitar”. The Burritos' 1969 debut Gilded Palace Of Sin trod a different path to the bombast of groups like The Eagles and The Byrds, and sparked a scene which became known as Cosmic American Music. Ironically, Parsons was quick to distance himself, particularly when a lot of the obscure and aspiring “hippie-inspired” artists were camped outside his doorstep in the Southern Californian hills and canyons, but the latest in Numero's Wayfaring Strangers rarities series (“these records won’t be available in stores and they won’t be repressed”) presents some of those early bystanders attempting the same road as the cosmic cowboy.
Homespun curiosities include songs like Mistress Mary's 'And I Didn't Want You', all pedal steel and crying to go with the Nico-like sultry-songstress's folorn singing: “Never wanted your love, never wanted your kisses, never wanted your sympathy ...”. Surely plucked straight from the Parson songbook (think the classic 'I'm Your Toy', for example). Plain Jane (a group, not female singer, from Albuquerque, New Mexico) come across something like Glace Slick/Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' with their catchy folk rock 'You Can't Make It Alone', and Santa Barbara's F.J. Mahon's haunted troubadour on 'The Spirit Of The Golden Juice' is a decent ballad aided with some classic country guitar twang. Kenny Knight croons his way through 'Baby's Back' with countrified guitar also sounding soulful and psychedelic. The amateurish charm of these recordings also carries sufficient fidelity to appreciate what the artists were trying to do, and it's hard to see how Parsons could object, these tracks were almost certainly laid down even as the dust was settling on Gilded Palace Of Sin.
Arrogance's 'To See Her Smile' sticks out for being polished and moving along at a faster tempo, more like Poco and blues-country than anything particularly cosmic. Jeff Cowell's 'Not Down This Low' also keeps things sprightly and interesting with his Merle Haggard-like warble, but the song surely pastiches The Eagles 'Take It Easy' (and who knows where they lifted it from?). The Black Canyon Gang's 'Lonesome City' suffers the same fate, that unmistakable guitar riff from lightning rod of American blues 'Baby Please Don't Go', and the song's strong bandana-wearing chorus and fluid guitar ape classic Byrds or The Band.
Wayfaring Strangers Cosmic American Music certainly doesn't suffer for its overall tone or groove, but most of these recordings were destined be scooped up from the bargain bins. Dan Pavlides struggles to keep it together on 'Lily Of The Valley', quite the endearing country troubadour, but familiarity inevitably breeds a certain content. Deerfield fares little better with their obviously Byrds-like harmonies on 'Me Lovin', and the hookie chorus on Mike & Pam Martin's 'Lonely Entertainer' isn't enough to distinguish it from many other country duets. Bill Madison's 7 minute 'Buffalo Skinners' breaks the mould slightly, but still can only hint at Dylan's greatness. In other words, the collection becomes 'much of a muchness', suffering an identity crisis, and even when Doug Fairbaugh nicely folk-tinged 'Alabama Railroad Town' restores the faith at the end, it's rather too little too late.
Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music is more important for what it represents than what it accomplishes. Gram Parsons musical vision died along with the hippie dream, major record label interest returning country rock to the arenas and mega-bucks record deals. That side of the story is well documented in Peter Doggett's 2000 book 'Are You Ready For The Country?' and in Bear Record's exhaustive anthology. Fortunately, there was enough in the brevity of the original troubadour's life to inspire many to take up the mantle for a more soulful, sunkissed and psychedelic country born out of those hills and canyons of southern California, music as the space cowboy truly ordained it.
Goliath is eating his sandwiches while in swoop British indie rock band The Wave Pictures to present music with a more human face on their latest album A Season In Hull. Their prolific output since 2008 debut Instant Coffee Baby may have put them firmly in the so-called 'lo-fi' camp of artists (cutting records and sharing stages with like-minded Herman Dune, Jeffrey Lewis and Darren Hayman, to name but a few), but the three-piece consisting of David Tattersall (vocals and guitar, who also writes the songs), Franic Rozycki (bass guitar) and Jonny Helm (drums) hop genres freely and play music as technical as it needs to be to deliver Tattersall's Jonathan Richman-like lyrics. Leicestershire's finest are the complete jam band, ready for any occasion it seems. Having got all amped up for last year's Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon recorded with snarling Medway punk Wild Billy Childish, this acoustic collection of songs was recorded Tattersall's birthday last January in a room with friends and just a single microphone. The band's latest vinyl-only release comes out on their own label 'Wymeswold Records' named after the village where they're from.
A Season In Hull is full of the sort of joie de vie you associate with The Wave Pictures live performances, but the low-key approach highlights some of the delightful wordplay and richness of Tattersall's lyrics. The opening title sets up the musical template nicely, gently-strummed melodic guitar with tom-toms and vocal harmonies, the lyricist's stream of consciousness relating memories of a rainy day (in Hull, presumably) writing a letter to a loved one runs nicely with the bluesy feel of the song, actually making it sound quaintly African, a bit like Damon Albarn's experiments with Mali music on Blur's 2003 Think Tank album.
There's quite a smattering of styles throughout A Season In Hull, but folk-inspired ballads work particularly well with the acoustics of the recording. 'The Coaster In Santa Cruz' combines classic ragtime guitar-picking and Dylan-esque harmonica as Tattersall intriguingly describes a black & white photo of a Greek couple in somebody's locker, a story from the memory unfolding into fantasy. It's a common theme, like with the psychfolk of 'David In A Field Of Pumpkins' where one moment he's describing drinking water from the leaves of a pumpkin plant, the next he's airborne flying around the world in another stretch of the imagination.
These intimate vignettes convey a dreamy sort of wanderlust from the writer's pen. Tattersall admits in interviews how he likes to pack information into his songs. The catchy busking blues of 'Tropical Fish' in which he digs out the bottleneck for his guitar is inspired by seeing a fountain of said fish while he's climbing out of a fire escape! Could all be confessions of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, but things get more and more surreal: “Let's not skin round my bones that's silk/That's not blood in my veins that's milk/That's not tears in my eyes that's gin/That's not hair on my head that's string“. Words resonate rather than actually rhyme, and blues seems like the perfect accompaniment. 'Memphis Slim In Paris' is embellished with “Turkey feathers floating on the breeze/Both circling in the peer like vultures”, and the even curiouser “White cloud drifting on a burning pink sky … You said paint me in peach, paint me in liquorice”. The languid chorus one-liner “See you later alligator, in a while crocodile “ is also deliciously hummable, the tenor of a drinking song, and surely intentional.
'Slick Black River From The Rain' with it's tapped-out samba rhythms, “staying in the shade of a avocado tree” and Velvets-like ('Venus In Furs') guitar makes the idea of crossing a flooded road (“from pavement to pavement, slick black river from the rain”) sound positively exotic. Equally mysterious is 'The Pharmacy Cross', with late night reflections that may or may not be about a trip to the chemist's? Tattersall keeps pulling memories out of his notebook, like the oddly-titled salute to love 'Thin Lizzy Live And Dangerous' (“Up in the loft Thin Lizzy Live And Dangerous busting on the stereo … I love you you know I love you idiot, and I don't want you to go again ...”), and the lovesick blues of 'Don't Worry My Friend, Don't Worry At All' with its nice couplets “The air was full of fireflies, the air smelled like vanilla” and “I love the feeling of the sheets in this hotel, I love the sound of the rain on the roof”. There's a spoken word interlude 'Flow My Tears, The Musician Said', and the songs do perhaps “flow like tears” with always a hint of air.
A Season In Hull doesn't have the sort of “heavy-hitters” you'd get from a Wave Pictures full-on rock album. As you'd expect, most of it's pretty down-tempo, but a nice chance to enjoy the relaxed 'in-house' setting in which the songwriter shares some of his personal recollections, all rather like the letter in the title song. Friend and fellow musician Darren Hayman suggested the concept for the album, and isn't that him singing on 'A Letter From Hull (Dom's Song)'? The increasing popularity of The Wave Pictures means they can play bigger and bigger venues, but the band's approach remains defiantly human-sized, both in the good-time nature of their music and Tattersall's lyrics which tend to pull the beautiful out of the seemingly mundane. Their latest album is a nice 'fit' for the birthday boy and his pals who sound very much at home on these recordings.
For many years one of our best-kept secrets, Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch's success in Britain and Europe never quite extended to the States, ironic in that the maestro's music and 'outsider' troubadour persona was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan. Jansch's brilliance hadn't escaped his fellow musicians. Neil Young once described him as the acoustic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, probably a reference to the guitarist's improvisation technique and powerfully 'emotional' style of playing (he gave the impression of almost 'attacking' the fretboard by yanking strings upwards, something which gave his guitar a powerful rhythmic twang to go with its melody lines). Jansch disputed the rights to Led Zeppelin's 'Black Mountain Side' (from their 1969 eponymous debut, the one with picture of the Hindenburg!) which wasn't credited to the Irish folk standard 'Down By Blackwaterside' he had himself recorded on an earlier album, but later guitarist Jimmy Page admitting privately he'd been obsessed with Jansch's playing after hearing his classic eponymous debut in 1965.
Jansch's went on to cement his reputation in the 60s with a string of well-received solo albums and the formation of the celebrated folk baroque supergroup Pentangle with fellow guitarist John Renbourn in 1967. However, he continued making recordings throughout his career, one of the reasons artists lined up to work with “the musicians' musician” until his untimely death in 2011. Avocet is a good example of Jansch's thirst for collaboration, instrumental and recorded in Denmark in 1978 with bassist Danny Thompson, ex- of Pentangle, and fiddle player Martin Jenkins. Jenkins had been been involved in an earlier project with Jansch, Conundrum, and the pair had also toured Scandinavia extensively around the same time. What you have here is a delightful crossing of musical paths, the trio playing quite intricate arrangements like a classical chamber orchestra or jazz ensemble, but drawing principally from the spirit of traditional folk music.
As particularly evidenced by the album''s 17-minute title opener.
Jansch considered Avocet to be one of his finest albums, and on this
track alone it would be hard to disagree. The guitarist and his bass
player concentrate on setting 'cyclical' rhythms for the song while
its melody is largely carried by Jenkins' fiddle. Named after the
bird which heads up the RSPB's logo, the so-called 'Pied Avocet',
the music is actually arranged around the folk classic 'The Cuckoo'.
While songs on the rest of the album follow a more conventional structure,
on the title the players unpick the original melody and improvise
their way through various influences from jazz to classical, and baroque
to folk (even a tiny bit of rock guitar probably just to bamboozle!).
In the original, the bird is the bearer of good tidings, nicely summing
up this free-flowing reverie which eventually returns the song to
its opening bringing it nicely full circle.
The rhythmic playing is slightly more restrained over next 3 songs which show off some of Jansch's more lyrical style. 'Kingfisher' still has a driving muscular sound, but 'coloured-in' with Jenkin's bright fiddle actually sounding more like a harmonica. The playing on 'Osprey' is brisk and light-headed with a strong sense of drama playing out, and the guitarist and fiddle player switch roles (if not instruments) for 'Kittywake' which showcases some of the special flourishes that made Jansch such a compelling guitarist to listen to.
Avocet reveals three great musicians in their element, reveling in the beauty and joy of their music. Free-moving like a modern jazz recording, but grounded in music with deep roots and almost certainly inspired by nature. The album is now being re-issued by Fire Records as a fundraiser for the RSPB. The special artifact edition comes with a lithograph for each bird by the UK illustrator Hannah Alice and sleeve notes by Bert Jansch's biographer Colin Harper.
Something of an artful dabbler, musician/producer Andrew Weatherall has certainly shaped the leftfield of electronic music in the last 20 years. In the 80s and 90s, the self-confessed punk & soul boy joined the esteemed ranks of DJ's Danny Rampling at the coveted Shoom Club and Paul Oakenfold at Spectrum at the heart of London's rave/techno scene. Superstardom was something that didn't appeal to Weatherall, so he walked away to concentrate on remixing and production work. Blurring the lines between producer and artist to lend his 'ears for hire' to many kinds of music, the recordings he's still best known for are with electronic label Warp and the special remixes for Primal Scream, My Bloody Valentine and the Happy Mondays (with Oakenfold) in the 90s, illustrating a move away from acid house and techno in favour of trance and dub musics. In recent years he's become closely identified with the work of the legendary British producer Adrian Sherwood, something you can clearly hear on the chilled electronica and spaced-out riddims of The Woodleigh Research Facility project which he recorded last year with fellow producer and long-time collaborator Nina Walsh. There's more of this on Weatherall's latest solo album, also recorded with the Sabrette label boss, his first proper since 2009's scrappy but very danceable Pox On The Pioneers. Convenanza, named after the festival held in a castle in Carcassonne in the south-west of France which Weatherall curates each summer, is more mainstream dance, strangely digging up some of the 'ghosts' of his past with music resembling The Clash during their anarchic Sandinista period (or the sample-heavy material Mick Jones & Don Letts' of their alternative dance Big Audio Dynamite recordings of the 80s).
Not a natural vocalist, Weatherall works round this with poetic-referenced verse delivered in a deadpan voice like Ian Brown of The Stone Roses. The producer/mixer's skills work best in drawing together the various rhythm and instrumental tracks, riffs and samples, to create a feelgood mix ready for the dancefloor. Yes, you guessed it, Convenanza grooves! Instrumental opener 'Frankfurt Advice' rolls out its fat bass and bigbeat with guitars and synths gliding under the 'top end' of the rhythm. Next door's somehow trumpet crashes the party and spars with renegade guitar to produce a lively post-funk punk mix, something like The Clash meeting Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield.
'The Confidence Man' also does the business with its Metal Box era
PiL wobbly bass and relentless beat. Weatherall chants transcendentally:
“When lions drink the cities sink the damage come down on your head/Where
reptiles quake the earth will shake no refuge to bring us from dread/From
deep within the chants begin”. The spoken word quasi-esoteric messages
thread themselves neatly through Convenanza: “Drop Seditious messages
for me” (on the electrofunk of 'The Last Week' which could easily
have been an 80s remix for Human League or Heaven 17), or “We're just
kicking the river, trying to stop the flow/Starting to feel it will
never go where I want it to go” (the Madchester/Hacienda-sounding
'Kicking The River'). Trancy rhythms grooving along hypnotically at
6 minutes or more, the best of these being the melancholy closer 'Ghosts
Again' with its Burroughsian message from the dead: “Please forgive
this letter from a shipwrecked soul/A connoisseur in debris lost names
in broken stone”. The jazz-infused song which welcomes back a chilled
trumpet simmering away in the background (the instrument joins the
bass for a Miles-like psychedelic freakout on another highpoint 'We
Count The Stars' later on) is a good summation of the album with its
It's getting on for seventeen years ago, but when I began to write music reviews one of the first CDs I got was Einsturzende Neubaten's 'Total Eclipse Of The Sun', the band fronted by Blixa Bargeld and that were more usually associated with making instruments from scrap metal and creating a noise that didn't really belong in conventional music venues, in Germany, the UK or anywhere else. I listened to 'Total Eclipse' again while preparing this review, remembering the slight surprise of hearing a slow paced and mildly sinister ballad, with a spoken lyric and a string section providing an eerily gleeful backing to the nearly slurred and heavily accented vocal, instead of the apocalyptic metallic experimentalism that anything I'd previously heard by Neubaten had resembled. That was in 1999 and today, I'm still writing music reviews and in one form or another, Neubaten are continuing to record and release music. I will admit to a lack of much (if any) knowledge of the recorded output of Blixa Bargeld and cronies simce then, but that 1999 single, written and released to coincide with an actual solar eclipse, wouldn't seem out of place on 'Nerissimo', with its similarly paced and musically arranged tracks that utilise string quartets, electronica and Bargeld's memorably dramatic voice with which he pronounces every syllable of the lyrics with practised relish, speaking in English and singing in German.
'Nerissimo' is the third album Bargeld has made with Italian musician
Teho Teardo, and the title track appears twice, in both English and
Italian versions. 'Blue is not the colour of my voice' intones Bargeld,
and neither are green or red, in fact black is the colour Bargeld
feels best represents his vocal range. 'Nerissimo' is Italian for
something very, very black, and while Bargeld eventually decides that
his voice doesn't really need a colour with which to express his words,
it does seem as if the very experienced and adept performer is never
happier than when he's having a private joke at the expense of some
or all of his audience, and perhaps he is the nearest that the German
music world has to a Mark E.Smith, The music keeps pace with the voice,
and Teho Teardo brings a resonant and subtly played sound to the instrumentation,
to the mixture of synths and strings and other instruments, including
a slide guitar on third track 'Ich Bin Dabei'. Aside from that moment
of cross-cultural assimilation there's the really quite funny tale
of 'Ulgae', a fariytale of sorts that takes place in a petri dish
(needs to be heard) and the album's perhaps most effective track 'Nirgendheim'
which if you only hear one of the songs from 'Nerissimo' is my own
recommendation, a quite remarkable performance by Bargeld as he drops
the sly humour and makes a statement of great profundity, which my
own knowledge of German is not sufficient to completely appreciate.
Perhaps 'Nerissimo' is only going to really find an audience amongst
those already familiar with Bargeld and Teardro, and by extension
Neubaten, but anyone else should prepare for a listening experience
that is by turns sombre, disturbing, evocative and strangely compelling
from these masters of the European avant garde.
Saddle of Southern Darkness rides the shadowy and dusty trails of bare-bones Americana and stark, backwoods country while the lyrics are deeply rooted in Southern U.S. sentiment. Brothers Trent Williams (vocals, guitar, mandolin) and Chase Williams (vocals, guitar, dobro), and Mark Rossi (upright bass) call their sinister, lo-fi mix of music ‘evil country’ and they released their self-titled debut album this past November.
The Kentucky-in-origin and now Denver, CO-based trio formed only last year, with the brothers recording their album in the Colorado mountain wilderness and Trent taking care of the mixing and mastering duties. They created the album in their camper that was run by a generator and the ensuing tunes have a natural vibe to them. The song lyrics, however, can rile and divide as the band dives into controversial subjects like America, guns, the government, and death. But everyone is entitled to their opinions and the Williams’ brothers and Rossi make theirs known quite plainly.
Right off the bat, the telling song titles point the way downward as the trio digs into rough and dire circumstances. “Compelled to Dig”, the album’s first cut, is also the lead single. The wiry and twanging strummed and picked guitars scramble quickly and adeptly around the slapped upright bass and vinegary vocals that speak of “bones”, “rotting skin”, and “maggots”. The lyrics are pretty off-putting, and a bit indiscernible, thankfully, but the vigorous pace of the stringed instruments is appealingly lively.
On “Bad Times” the same squeezed out, sing-talking vocals warn ominously about the government and that “…You know I’ll have my loaded gun.” Again, not everyone will agree with the inflammatory intent of the lyrics, but the slowly loping tempo and picked and strummed guitar lines hold interest. The compelling, desolate Western-steeped “Owl and Crow Sign” features a different male vocalist whose timbre and delivery is akin to Nick Cave. He bemoans “…shallow graves / left without a name.” while being shadowed by other exclaimed male vocals.
“Folk Singer” scratches away with multiple picked and reverb stringed instruments as the direct vocals intone “…times keep on a-changin’ / They are movin’ fast / but you and I don’t have any freedoms / that I think are gonna last.” Echoes of the SouthWest U.S. desert vibrate through the journey of “Runnin’ on Fumes” as the two vocalists twin at times on their vocal lines. The mellifluous acoustic guitar lines run in smooth flourishes while the main vocalist sings in a deep tone, questioning “Will I ever be free from this land? / …Will I ever be the same?”
Album-ender “Sounds of Darkness” is a soft reprieve of gently strummed
and picked guitars, the clop of knocked wood, and the steady slap
of the upright bass. Little plucks of mandolin lighten up the tone
as the vocalist plaintively strains “Makin’ my West on the lost highway
/ That’s where I found you / Compelled by sounds of darkness…” The
divisive darkness can definitely be found on the lyrics of the band,
while the instruments, vocals, and song structures are what lift up
Saddle of Southern Darkness somewhat from the uninviting shadows.
I was far from sure what to make of this one. With a lot of middling sort of Americana albums floating around, yet another guitar-by-numbers song collection wasn't really going to make an impression unless it was a really good one. But 'Palomino' isn't exactly that kind of album, country rock rather than alt.folk and it has some elements about it that if you listened to as many albums as I have recently, you might wish would catch on a bit, although there is something about Treetop Flyers that's entirely their own sound, partly based on their very finely honed musical skills and the production, which utilises electronica in very small and subtle amounts. Plus they've a keyboard player, which more bands seem to need nowadays if you ask me, but 'Palomino' is very much a guitar album, from a band that are practically designed to appear on Later With Jools Holland, and that should not be taken as a criticism. 'Palomino' is a brilliantly crafted and sometimes spectacularly well played album.
Yes, you can hear the influences, sometimes appearing simultaneously
on the same track, and the vocals do resemble those of Caleb Followill
rather a lot, but no one should underestimate exactly how popular
Kings Of Leon are, and those imitations of the musical styles of Ray
Manzarek, Steely Dan, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton are performed
with meticulous attention to detail. Producer Jonathan Wilson gives
the songs a resonant air, with even the woodblocks of the percussion
section sounding like they've been channelled through a stack of Mesa
Boogie speakers, and when their playing really takes off Treetop Flyers
make a formidable noise, such as on 'Dance Through The Night', with
its spiralling keyboard riffs and fretboard pyrotechnics, it's just
too obvious that Treetop Flyers are enjoying themselves greatly and
their enthusiasm carries over from beginning to end on 'Palomino',
which if you want to hear some very fine musicianship and some smartly
performed country rock numbers, is about as good an album as I can
recommend right now.
An unlikely source of inspiration for ambient music, Swedish electronic duo Ecovillage's Jesus Of Nazareth is actually a series of meditations on St Mark's Gospel! The religious tract is generally accepted by scholars to be the first written of the 4 gospels and by an unknown writer not one of disciple Peter's companions Mark The Evangelist as originally assumed. It follows Jesus' ministry chronologically from the moment he was baptized by John The Baptist until his crucifixion followed by the discovery of the empty tomb and presumed resurrection. The 16 tracks written by instrumentalists Emil Holmström and Peter Wikström each represent a chapter of the gospel, so the album hangs together like a travelogue. Apart from the actual titles, there's little to link the instrumental music with the actual events portrayed in the gospel, but the whole thing is a nice testament to the faith of its writers and a beautiful meditation, too, with legendary ambient and microsound artist Taylor Deupree weighing in on this production for the excellent Psychonavigation Records.
Ecovillage's earlier material like 2009's Phoenix Asteroid and 2014's One Step Above demonstrate the duo are comfortable with a range of styles and sounds, from electronic, ambient and lounge music, through to shoegaze and psychedelic elements. Jesus Of Nazareth follows this trend of 'mixing it up', although most of the early tracks are short 2-4 minute contemplations set in nicely layered drones. The album then moves through different 'phases' with medleys of songs neatly segued together before culminating in the final tracks 'The Crucifixion' and 'The Resurrection', which take pride of place, possibly to reflect their religious significance.
Deupree's presence is felt strongly throughout Jesus Of Nazareth, particularly at the beginning. There's the bright brassy symphonic introduction 'Voice Of One Calling In The Wilderness', the more gaseous atmosphere on 'The Son Of Man' with its prettifying pastoral and choral effects, the grand and ceremonial 'The Twelve Are Chosen' with a voice reading in the background (the album's only concession to actual words!), and the more abstract 'Mystery Of The Kingdom' with its lovely “tiny” bubbling sounds beneath the surface. Each drone adds a slightly different 'colour' to the sound, and this continues on the “miracle” tracks, too, titles in Aramaic which Mark used for dramatic effect: 'Talitha Kum' (“Little girl, I say to you arise”), 'Walking On The Sea' with its distant rumbles eventually silenced, and 'Ephphatha' (“Be Opened”) in which Jesus restores hearing to a deaf and dumb man.
The album would work well as a whole series of beatless ambient drone pieces, but the parables in which Jesus makes veiled references to his omnipotency mark a change in direction. 'You Are The Christ' is more like the roomy fishbowl atmospherics of the Boards Of Canada, particularly with its treated piano, but segues nicely into a medley of deep house and dub techno for the next few tracks. It's a neat upping of the tempo, with 'Transfiguration', 'Receive The Kingdom Like A Child' and 'Hosiana' exploring dubbed-out riddims, echo and strange “hallucinatory” effects.
Leaving some of the weirdness behind, the duo apply a modern sheen to the album with some regular chillout. 'I Am', 'The Sun Will Be Darkened' with siren-like female vocal, and finally 'Gethsemane', the garden where Jesus spent time with his disciples the day before he was crucified. As you'd expect, the mood changes on the latter, drummed loops giving way to a dramatic sinister-sounding drone, abstract and ringing, which turns the whole album on its head again. It was, after all, the night of his betrayal!
The more structured beats and gentle Moog keyboard create a marching effect on 'The Crucifixion', finally serenaded by the acoustic guitar of guest musician Gayle Ellett, the mood of melancholy presumably indicating the final deed is done. 'The Resurrection' is the album's 10-minute opus, starting out with beautifully mournful trumpet, something like Chet Baker, before drifting in and out of a glacial drone and finally dark-hewn stormlike beats and mild rave music. Part-eulogy, part-celebration, then, and a climax befitting the momentous occasion, the foundation of the Christian faith.
It makes sense when you think about it. St Mark's Gospel is a collection of stories, parables, historical and supernatural events which date back to a period when story-telling was a way to keep all those memories alive. The facts are disputable, of course, but the events momentous and important for discussion. Composers have been inspired to make sacred music for centuries. Ecovillage quote one of the masters in their press release: "Like Arvo Pärt said about music, its not something we create in its original sense of the word, we just took off the shell of the egg and found whats always been there". Jesus Of Nazareth is a beautiful musical groundswell to enjoy in contemplation, with or without religious doctrine.
Meilyor Jones was one part of Race Horses, a band whom I saw rattle the rafters of a not-quite-large-enough venue some four or so years back. That was quite a memorable gig and '2013' is the debut album from the former frontman of the Loudest Band I Remember Seeing In 2011, although the artpunk sound has been put aside as Jones reinvents himself as the Welsh Neil Hannon, bringing a combination of acerbity and pathos to the songwriting which anyone familiar with Divine Comedy songs like 'National Express' and 'Something For The Weekend' will recognise instantly, and is assisted by a large orchestra at varying moments throughout the twelve tracks that make up the album. Of course, there is a lot more to Meilyor Jones and his songs than just sounding something like Neil Hannon, although at a first hearing, the influence seemed a very noticeable one, what with the wry humours of Jones's lyricism and the amount of musicians providing the backing for his voice, such as with opening track 'How To Recognise A Work Of Art' with its brassy horns and sixties style band arrangement, and 'Don Juan' continues the sixties feel with its mixture of harpsichord and sparingly played rhythm, while Jones reflects on his life and relationships, with an audible vocal nod towards Morrissey.
It's third track 'Passionate Friend' that puts '2013' into a more
rarified setting though, with the orchestra turning up in an inspired
mood and it's a clicking, pulsing performance with some intricate
woodwind and pizzicato strings, while Jones sings about, well, any
song that begins 'sometimes I am with the witches' probably doesn't
require very much lyrical interpretation, and it seems it's mostly
a tale of the day he went for a walk in the woods and nearly got lost
and as the album continues it begins to appear as if it's a lot about
the orchestra while Meilyor Jones and his observations of everyday
life start to slip into the background until lastly, 'Featured Artist'
is an obvious satire on fame and all its trappings. 'My last performance
was a smash / there were tears and there were laughs' and while the
orchestra turn in a sparkling performance I'm getting a bit tired
of the not actually famous yet Meilyor, who isn't quite the lyrical
and vocal presence the orchestra actually need although they do seem
to have had a lot of fun making the album. Perhaps the vocal witticism
of Meilyor Jones will make more of an actual impression on his next
full length release.
Fire/Earth Recordings have just dusted off another example of lost Antipodean folk to go with their re-release last year of Howard Eynon's celebrated 1974 cult classic So What If I'm Standing In Apricot Jam. Australian singer-songwriter Steve Warner's eponymous debut was also recorded at the legendary Spectangle Studios in Tasmania around the same time, with sound engineer Nick Armstrong at the helm. Eynon and Warner may have rubbed shoulders and played in the celebrated Melbourne folk scene of that era, but similarities between the artists seem to end there. While Eynon's acid folk is full of novelty quirks and odd repartee from the former-actor, coming off like an early Donovan or Syd Barrett even, and the singer enlisted the help of many other musicians and technicians, Warner patiently recorded most of his album on his own over a 3-year period, and the style is closer to the wistful and melancholic British folk pop of Nick Drake and the finger-picking of guitar troubadours Bert Jansch and Davey Graham. There's also quite a lot of piano, which puts one in mind of last year's albums by songwriters Ralegh Long and Tobias Jesso Jr.
Warner probably took his lead from musicians he played alongside with in Melbourne during the 70s, but the ideas for his album date back to his teenage years when he admits to having peculiar dreams about music in a very abstract form, angles, shapes, tension etc., and his fascination with the “grey” zone between sleeping and waking.
The sense of yearning in Warner's lyrics is again rather like Nick Drake, and his delivery isn't dissimilar either. 'Poems In Your Eyes' intros long before bursting into life with brisk acoustic guitar like an the early Crosby Stills and Nash composition as he sings: “Seems that very shortly I'll be leaving/I've turned my face from poems in your eyes/Turned my back on lines that I have written/Just seems that I must realize”. Piano ballad 'We'll Go On' is beautifully windswept and subdued, its nice floral touches and orchestrations giving off a deliberate melancholy, the sort of touch you'd find on albums like Pet Sounds. Steve's vocals are generally understated and clouded, which all adds to the allure. 'Lightning Over The Meadow' takes a jolly canter, and sounds more like the folk of a bygone era, shades of Donovan or Pentangle with its guitar strumming, pipes and xylophone. Vocals are starstruck and pure as he describes romantic entanglements caught up in a storm: “Lightning over the meadow, lightning over the sea/You seem like sunlight standing next to me in silhouette/Thunder clouds are rolling rain is tumbling down/If we stay here much longer we'll drown in each other”.
There's even a Tolkien-esque rustic quality about 'Fireflies', where
he recounts: “Middle of the forest, go to sleep/Dream the roots wrapped
round your feet/What's that over there, seven red dots in the air?/What's
going on, it must be fireflies?” On soft rock album standout 'Summer'
he laments the season's passing, while achingly beautiful 'Cement
River' recollects a moment or two out enjoying the fading sun walking
under the gum trees.
Instrumental musical interludes in a variety of styles give the album a rather disparate unfinished quality, and some of its impact is lost Perhaps they were meant as a preview of what might be next. Warner funded the project himself, and was presumably constantly limited for time and money. Steve Warner finally came out on Tasmanian label Candle in 1979, a little later than Eynon's Jam. My personal favourite from this collection 'Hey, Hosanna' is quite different from the rest of the album, ironically probably closer in style to Eynon's psychfolk, a whole mash-up of instrumentation, guitars, mandolins, pipes, wind chimes, chants … possibly even a cowbell in there somewhere? The wailed vocals sound a bit like Andy Partridge of XTC from the Skylarking era (circa 1986), so you wonder who was actually listening to who …?
So it's 1979 and hard to know where exactly this curiously-flawed folk classic actually came from? Quite eclectic in style, and very listenable, Steve Warner is a beautiful album full of summer-drenched 'moments' to savour. Indeed, Steve's whispered reflections that breeze through the piano flourishes on album standout 'Summer' suggest he doesn't want to give up some of these wonderful secrets.
Well I must say I like Hello Dollface's website a lot. Behind the assortment of band info, photos, videos and assorted ephemera is the photographic image of a spiralling galaxy, millions if not billions of stars spinning in orbit of each other, against the backdrop of the even larger depths of the universe. I spent a few minutes just looking at that before actually watching any of Hello Dollface's videos, recalling that star screensaver that was what computers had on them before anyone had the internet. A band with an actual Mission Statement, the Colorado based quartet seem prepared to take their audience to infinity and beyond, perhaps even literally. With such a determinedly cosmic vibe around their publicity, I found myself anticipating all manner of spaced out weirdness, twelve minute prog rock epics about interstellar overdrivers, sci fi themed synth freakouts, a lysergic fuelled and conspiracy crazed amalgam of the Flaming Lips, Hawkwind and the Jefferson Airplane at their most wigged out. Not completely, as it turns out, in fact very far from any of that.
Remember Shakatak? You probably don't if you're under about forty,
although Hello Dollface begin their album with a sequence of tracks
- 'Movinme' and 'Intuition' - that very definitely hark back to the
smoothly played lounge bar jazz funk sound of the early 80s, the kind
of stuff that turns up at rare groove club sessions, and while Hello
Dollface play their instruments with finely honed skill and Ashley
Edward's vocal takes on a convincingly soulful vibe, I'm not really
getting the idea just yet, with the images and the music jarring against
each other, music that has more in common with Sade and Lauryn Hill
than with Pink Floyd and Gong. That doesn't mean that 'Warrior Of
Light' isn't a very good album, or that Hello Dollface are deliberately
misleading their audience, just that they at least managed to confuse
me as to what they're about, a band that you may need to know are
more likely to play 'Smooth Operator' than 'Have You Seen The Saucers'
as an encore at one of their live shows.
Sarah Lipstate's guitar-induced electro-ambient-drone-noise sonic super-structures prove that rock is undeniably mineral! The Brooklyn-based guitarist, avant-composer and film-maker styles herself very much on the artist these days with an emphasis on pure composition. Gone are the days of guitar 'gun for hire' as she hones her craft in a number of guises, most notably under the solo moniker Noveller. Although perhaps better known in the past for collaborative projects, particularly where combinations of music and film were involved, Noveller (Lipstate pronounces it 'Nu-veller'!) has brought a singularity of purpose to the artist's songwriting skills, culminating in last year's well-received Fantastic Planet. That album's immersive and radiant atmospheres are created largely by guitar and effects pedals, although it can actually sound like the banks of keyboards, and all by one person! Touring her one-woman show extensively in recent years (supporting artists like Saint Vincent, Julia Kent and Xiu Xiu), Fire Records are now releasing the album's two predecessors, 2011's Glacial Glow and No Dreams from 2013. Mainstream release should enable people to familiarize and catch the breeze ...
The earlier use of foot pedals to create a muggy dense sound gives way to a much “cleaner” delivery on these albums. Notes and chords are played mostly without distortion, something which allows sounds to emerge more fully. With the subtleties and attention to detail in her compositional approach, Lipstate creates worlds of cinematic 'miniatures', each with their own individual narrative.
The inspiration of the arctic is very much at the heart of Glacial Glow, sounds reverberating with an icy physical presence. Melodic finger-picking on 'Glacial Wave' is met with sustained treble noise, choral-like with bells ringing in the background. Coincidence or not, the drawn-out sonic loveliness is finally serenaded with a solo guitar very much in the style of Eno & Fripp's “Frippertronics” on the classic 1975 album Evening Star. 'Tuesday Before Po' is a strange glide between pace and gentle drones, all immersed in distant “noise”. The serenity of the open-tuned humming and electronic effects of 'Blue' is a little unkindly disturbed with a drone-like electronic buzzing, the unusual shattering of the peace perhaps based on a true sonic experience?. 'Alone Star's organ-like guitar sound is a reminder of the heady psychedelic drones of Six Organs Of Admittance, with the notes played deliberately for sustain and the creation of sonic space, and there's some delightful celestial interplay on 'Resolutions', the bowed guitar and electronics capturing a sound like a ship out at sea responding to radio signals.
The album has many great moments, one of them being the curiously textural 'Waxwing' where you're left wondering how she actually managed to get the sounds out of a stringed instrument? Blanket distortion is interrupted by a spree of little electronic 'stars' creating a lovely flickering effect. The guitar hankers in the background before being joined by the bowed harp-like sound Lipstate uses from time to time. Like a lot of the material on Glacial Glow, this standout wouldn't sound out of place in a gallery, but is no less enjoyable for that. The “liquid” intro 'Entering' spiked with sharp trebly screeching effects and the more laid-back guitar sounds of 'Ends' bookend the whole piece. The wave-lapping effects and gently-strummed chords of the latter are something like the ghost of Fleetwood Mac's beloved 'Albatross'!
2013's No Dreams sees further refinements, long sustained high notes and noisy drones now used to recreate the eery “twilight” state between sleeping and waking. The wall of guitar distortion on noisy opener 'Fighting Sleep' and soaring effects on the more ambient 'Purchase' are definite precursors to Fantastic Planet. A noticeably precise 3-tiered sonic approach creates layers that somehow overlap and interact with each other. In 'Mannahatta' the haunting high notes are bled into fluttering textural effects (embellished with other instruments like synths) with dark rumblings going on in the background. The pause in the middle allows the sound to touch down before it resumes it's birdlike flight. The now familiar bowed effects on the title are combined with delicate treble overlaying a bell-like drone.
'The Fright' is another curious standout, its experimental approach broken down into 'movements', each its own circadian rhythm in which sounds freely come and go. Listen carefully and you might hear “tiny” melodies contained inside each sustained guitar note. Wind chimes add to the already narcotic-like effect as the drawn-out ending indicates something darker and unsettling, like the emergence from a bad dream perhaps?
A lot of things are left to the imagination, of course, but one thing that isn't in doubt is that Fantastic Planet's earlier siblings chart Sarah Lipstate aka Noveller's development as a composer and artist. These musical pieces each contain their own narrative, but are set within an overarching theme. For Glacial Glow, she just laid on the bed with an acoustic guitar and let the sounds come to her instinctively. You can hear that in the dreamlike quality of the music, freely-formed but easy on the ear with its fluidity and crystalline beauty … I said it was all about minerals, didn't I?
Now here's a name from the mid 80s heyday of indie. A band that appeared to revel in their entirely deliberate pursuit of obscurity, The Jazz Butcher released some very memorable songs, signed to Creation, made about a dozen albums in total and today, theirs is reputation that could use a bit of sprucing up, which is what the reissuing of this 2012 album appears to signify. I always thought that the name Jazz Butcher was a musical pseudonym and persona created by songwriter and mainman Pat Fish, although refreshing my memory of a band whose songs would occasionally get into the top 50 of the indie charts and that were probably best known actually for their name reveals that the 'Jazz Butcher' could in fact refer to everyone onstage at one of their gigs. Pat Fish took a literature degree at Oxford before deciding he'd rather play guitar than write novels, and the Jazz Butcher(s) existed on the very fringes of the indie scene, defying anyone to actually buy their records, brilliant as some of them were.
A band that were an often quoted influence on other indie bands and
that shared tours and personnel with the likes of the House Of Love
and the Woodentops, their 2012 album contains much of what gave the
Jazz Butcher their particular niche within the indie world of ages
past, although it wouldn't be completely fair to expect the nervy
energies of their recordings of some three decades ago. 'We were the
hard water kids of the asbestos age' runs the chorus of the album
title track, over the sort of reflective and self referential backing
which is nowadays usual whenever new wave survivors make 'late period'
albums, although the mood is a far from entirely nostalgic one. Following
this up with the entirely sung in French 'Tombé Dans Les Pommes'
and its deliberately cliché ridden arrangement, including an
accordion, is proof if it were required that the years haven't dimmed
the Jazz Butcher's noted propensity for surreal humours, and other
tracks such as 'All The Saints' and 'Solar Core' are every bit as
purposed and furiously paced as anything from their Creation (or earlier)
days, and Pat Fish's songwriting has only mellowed slightly since
then. Completely ignored at the time of its original release, 'Last
Of The Gentleman Adventurers' is unlikely to be the actual last of
the Jazz Butcher.
There's a lot to enjoy about Shearwater's Jet Plane And Oxbow. With its sonically rich 80s-inspired electronica, high-end production values and driving motorik beat, the percussive elements of the album really come to the fore. I sat on this review for several weeks though, finding it difficult join all the dots from the band that I thought I knew.
What a long way from humble beginnings. Will Sheff and Jonathan Meiburg's deliberately low-key side project from their time at Okkervil River started 15 years ago with 2001's The Dissolving Room, but time marches on! For me, the band's high watermark was possibly their so-called Arc Island Trilogy of releases between 2006 and 2010, particularly the first two, Palo Santo and Rook. The music in those days was firmly-rooted in brooding prog-folk, very much centred around Meiburg's explosive voice (Sheff had left to resume other projects after 2004's Winged Life). The keen naturalist and campaigner's songs would rain down blows on our collective conscience, almost impossible not to be moved by their intensity and unfolding drama.
The more rock-oriented and production-heavy Animal Joy in 2012 marked a change in direction, and Shearwater have no doubt built on those influences over the last few years with a touring band and host of regulars for recording which include artists like Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Jesca Hoop. So Jet Plane And Oxbow is another audacious leap for the band. Engineer and producer Danny Reisch who got on board for the last album is assisted this time by film music composer Brian Reitzell. Anybody familiar with Reitzell's soundtrack for the TV series 'Hannibal' will be all-too-familiar with the intense percussive qualities of his music and vast battery of instruments. Dulcimers are very evident on this album.
Meiburg likens the early 80s digital music pioneers to a new “species” colonizing the “frontiers of music”, and the singer makes no secret in interviews of some of the classic albums of that period which informed Shearwater's latest album. It's possibly all a childhood flashback of how life and the world were so very different then. In the 70s, didn't we all think we'd be flying around in spaceships? And in the 80s, we had 'ET', Voyager's pictures of Jupiter and Saturn and 'The Empire Strikes Back', of course! It's 2016, and Meiburg vents his anger on the current scary state of the world seen through the eyes of the 80s when perhaps we still believed in the intrinsic goodness of technology. His “voice” has lost none of its poetry and dreamlike quality, but lyrics also contain a creeping sense of paranoia, alienation and anger. On the album's catchy featured track 'Quiet Americans', for example, the singer hits out at his country:
“Done with silence, we're disconnecting lives/Pull out the lightning
dust/At the mention of his name/Wither the Americans!/Take the memories
out, hide the evidence under/Piss on the world below/Like a dog, that
knows its name/Where are the Americans?”
Meiburg doesn't sugarcoat the complex themes on Jet Plane And Oxbow, but they're sufficiently oblique to prevent the album from falling into a preachy morose affair. The singer actually got the idea for the title from a symbolic moment in which he watched a plane below the one he was flying in bisect a loop of the Mississippi. The irony wasn't lost on him, and this album certainly wrestles with “personal” and “political” themes of what it means to be an American in today's world. 'Pale Kings' is the bitter-sweet confessional of running off to the country to do your loving and grieving simultaneously.
So it's all well-intentioned, and he's done the conceptual and structural thing quite nicely, too, very Bowie-esque. The album starts “personally” with 'Prime' awash with colourful synths and a dream (“You were lying on your back in the grass/counting backward from a thousand”) before the powerful percussive elements kick in to signal something more unsettling (“I get lost in the dark with such a violence in me, come on come on”). 50 minutes later we're at the opposite end of the scale, with 'Stray Lights At Clouds Hill' drifting off into dark space with its sparse guitar twang, wailing vocals and haunting atmospherics. Major Tom would surely approve.
Unfortunately, they got carried away with the 80s influences. Some
of the drama of the production gets lost in all the homage. It's tempting
to name names but you'll know when you hear. Accepting pop music is
mostly derivative, Jet Plane And Oxbow is still mired in its musical
choices, almost unnervingly so at times. 'Quiet Americans' (aside
from its obvious catchiness!) sounds like many-a-synthpop-classic,
but I'm saddled with Blancmange's 'Blind Vision' and a chorus of Red
Box's 1985 'For America' particularly with its catch “oh-ley-oh-ley”
chorus. 'Pale Kings', too, is a standout pop tune, but has U2's 'When
The Streets Have No Name' stamped all over it. Piano-driven 'Wildlife
In America' takes the kind of loss of innocence route familiar to
a lot of Americans (Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA etc.), fair
enough, but the soundtrack is too similar in sound Bryan Eno's 'Another
Green World' (better known as the theme music to the BBC 'Arena' program
of the 70s, yes, that one!).
If you're going to copy, copy the best I suppose. The singer has admitted in interviews to over-complicating the sound, probably difficult to resist when you've got somebody of the caliber of Reitzell firing you up. But I'm afraid Jet Plane And Oxbow sounds like a slightly over-egged vanity project to me, and I can't get on board. It should expand the Shearwater's fanbase and enable them reach a wider audience (particularly among people who are too young to remember the 80s!). The band's commitment to making great music isn't in question, but musical riches and studio technique only seem to cramp their style. The crucial thing is that Jonathan Meiburg really doesn't need a big cinematic sound for his voice … he IS the big sound! Miss that simple fact, and, in my view, you miss the whole essence of Shearwater.