Neon dreams on neon streets

imagesJust noticing something rather strange happening to…

Dirty Beaches

Dirty Beaches is the stage name of a Taiwanese/Canadian multi-instrumentalist called Alex Zhang Hungtai whose first widely-available LP, Badlands, was released in 2011 and was generally lauded by the people who know. I’m not sure I actually, er, lauded it, as such, on these pages but I did certainly buy it. A pretty enjoyable reverb-heavy, Suicide-obsessed record it was too.

The follow up, last year’s Drifters/Love Is The Devil, was a double album and a genuine one at that, the Drifters “side” being recorded in Montreal, and (after a relationship breakdown) the Love Is The Devil section in Berlin, with Hungtai having dismissed the rest of the musicians and recorded it during evenings alone. Two quite different projects.

The second of the two sets is almost completely instrumental, stripped back and beatless, and rather over-shadows the first, being very different to the Dirty Beaches “sound”. All in all I remember being left a little cold about the whole affair. Well, the “something strange” I alluded to is that Hungtai has recently announced the retirement of the Dirty Beaches name altogether, through Twitter and on his Blog:

“I know its not the smartest move…and a painful one as well.  But sometimes, you need to let go in order to grow and move on.  I wanna thank my family, my friends, all past DB contributors for their help and friendship.  It’s been a fun and crazy ride…RIP DIRTY BEACHES 2005-2014. Can’t wait for what the unknown holds ahead.”

To go with this announcement there’s a final 4-track EP which is again all instrumental, largely ambient and seems even more devoid of musical clutter than the (hardly muddled) Love Is The Devil record. The titles of the four tracks are disturbingly informative – “Displaced”, “Stateless”, “Pacific Ocean” and “Time Washes Away Everything” – and indicate something of a personal crisis going on. In the blurb for the new EP, Emusic suggest the image of a man gradually shedding himself of everything and wading out to sea, which I think is quite appropriate (although to anyone of a certain age, it’s hard to shake off the image of Leonard Rossiter on Chesil Beach…)

All this seems a shame, really, as I’ve recently started listening to Drifters/Love Is The Devil again and rather enjoying its dark, satanic twists and turns. It’s funny (although perhaps not surprising) how a different perspective allows you to enjoy a record in an entirely different way. If you’re looking for another rockabilly, Vega-style Badlands record, as I was, you’ll find some pretty exhilarating passages still, such as the confident strut of “I Dream in Neon” and the relentless Bo Diddley beat of Casino Lisboa, but in the end you might be disappointed…


But if, say, you’ve just spent the last couple of months reading about Krautrock, it’s easy to put on your Rother / Eno goggles, and suddenly it’s an entirely different affair…

(This, by the way, worries me. What about the other records I have dismissed in high-handed fashion, confidently predicting their demise? What about the records I’ve slagged off, completely out of hand? Worse, does these mean I need to go and give Boards of Canada another try?)

The more satisfying tracks of D/LITD (I don’t care, I’m doing it…) are, now I’m tuning in better, definitely on the second half of the record. Harsh and inarticulate they may be, but the more you listen to them the more compelling they become. Tracks like “Belgrade” with its jarring sheets of metallic sound encircling you; “Woman”, its automated squeaks and squawks overpowering a series of tentative piano pieces; and “Mirage Hall”, its thunderous tensions and stresses eventually erupting into a stream of unintelligible Spanish expletives (even after it had seemingly come to a halt once – “… and another thing!”). And there are many more moments of arcane trickery to keep a normally limited attention span intrigued and fascinated.

Here’s a rather fine 15 minute clip of Dirty Beaches in Paris last December which gives you a pretty good flavour of the record, in which he appears to be playing a piece of sheet metal. It eventually leads into Nightwalk from Drifters.


In all of this troubling abstractness, there are tantalising shreds of meaning and clues that cry out to be solved but, as with much of the Krautrock stuff, you can quickly start to look pretty silly assuming one thing implies another. It’s best to sit back, try not to grip the arms of the chair and let it all come on…

What is certainly undeniable, though, is that from the relative breathless (and breathy) calm of Drifters, many, many wheels are definitely starting to come off as the listener moves into Love Is The Devil. By the time you reach my favourite track, “Alone at the Danube River”, there is an unambiguous sorrow within the music. By now, the Hungtai yard sale has got rid of pretty much the lot – a plaintive guitar, drenched in clumsy feedback, is all that is left. There are no rhythms, no effects, and no warmth at all until around the 5:00 mark when an unexpected burst of Eno-esque sunshine floods over the guitar all but washing it away for good.

A lonely, chilling, attractive record… What is to become of Alex Zhang Hungtai?


T-Shirts and Snow Globes…

TheDelinesMainThe keen-eyed readers of Partly Porpoise will no doubt have noticed a certain paucity of lyrical content in a lot of the music I’ve been banging on about this year. Fine as it (clearly) is, there’s not a lot to chew over or ponder in the Chicha and Cumbia tunes have I’ve been plugging obstinately. (Unless you speak Spanish of course, and in spite of any pretensions I may have suggested of recent, my Spanish is nowhere near good enough to glean anything but the most basic of information from the songs of Lucho Bermudez or Los Mirlos. But actually, thinking on this, I doubt I’m missing a whole lot…).

So anyway, I bought this a fortnight ago…


Bit slow on the uptake with the Delines – folk on my Twitter timeline have been all over this for a good while now – “record of the year” an oft-repeated phrase of late – but, you know, better late to the party than not at all, eh? (A PP motto, if ever there was one…).

The Delines are Willy Vlautin’s latest side-project (as far as I know, Richmond Fontaine are still a goer…), with RF drummer Sean Oldham amongst others, and chiefly including the steady-gaze Amy Boone at the mic. Boone takes on pretty much all the singing duties on Colfax, the new band’s first record, giving life to a series of sensitively written character sketches penned by Vlautin. There are some really strong new songs here, such as State Line, Colfax Avenue and The Oil Rigs at Night – all of them great stories told, as ever with Vluatin’s customary economy and leanness of tone.

It’s a lovely record (it really is) but somehow it just got me listening again to one of my favourite Richmond Fontaine records, Post to Wire, which has dominated the car-stereo for a whole week now. In classic RF style, it’s loose and tight at the same time, compact but full of space. Wonderful record.

Here’s the title track, performed at Rough Trade East, with Vlautin accompanied by Amy Boone:


It’s a classic, outlaw country duet, isn’t it? In the spirit of Johnny and June or Gram and Emmylou, with Vlautin’s limited, broken growl complemented here by Amy Boone but on the record by Boone’s sister, Deborah Kelly. As title track of the record, it is, of course, always going to be a significant song, but it’s still worth saying that it sets the tone for the whole record – second chances to be grabbed, tiny indulgences granted, old cares forgotten.

As an album, I love it for all the familiar Vlautin traits – brokenness, misery, story-telling, characterisation – but also for its themes of forgiveness and a measure of self-acceptance. Despite the loveliness of the title track, the sovereign tracks are Barely Losing, with its grudging acceptance that Life is occasionally almost worth living; Polaroid (“not everyone lives their life alone…”), an episode of material dependence on the kindness of strangers (with more than an echo of Colfax Avenue on the new record) and Through, which has one of my favourite opening lines – “You walked with a limp, and I worried about that”.

It wouldn’t be a Richmond Fontaine record without some really (really) dark moments, such as Hallway – “put down the gun, looks like you’ve been up for days…”, based on a real event, apparently – and the pitiful/less The Longer You Wait. Vlautin is nowadays an award-winning novelist that I’m hoping to become acquainted with very soon (Santa, take note…), but I’ll be surprised if he can come up with a picture as crushingly poignant as this, with its pair of worn out, defeated lovers holding each other up in mid-life, through force of will and habit. The economy with which he creates a pen portrait like this marks him, I reckon, as a song-writer right up there with the very best. Hardly ever repeats himself, doesn’t bother filling in any lines that don’t need joining, really trusts the listener (or, maybe, just doesn’t worry about him…)

Barely losing, indeed…

Sometimes in Autumn

tracksandtracesdon_1482986cI’ve finally finished wading through David Stubbs’ Future Days book on Krautrock, having bought it in September. It’s quite a good read, and I’m beginning to regret not making the time to see him talking about it at Psychfest. His profiles of Can and Neu! are particularly worth reading and the back stories behind each band are genuinely interesting. There are some great stories of the time (if you pick it up, and envisage not making it through to the end, do at least search out the chapter about the less-than-successful attempts by the head of Ohr records, Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, to get Timothy Leary to record an album, whilst on the run from the CIA). He also refers to a pretty remarkable YouTube clip, involving Kaiser and a particularly radical musician called, Nikel Pallat, who loses it spectacularly during a televised arts discussion about the overthrow of capitalism:


The desk stands up remarkably well, no? (Some metaphors write themselves…)

Stubbs’ passages about specific songs and particularly about the kosmische bands all get a bit NME at times, but I can forgive him this – writing about actual music is a tricky business (the last seven years of PP have at least taught us this…) – dancing about architecture, for sure…

It’s got me going back through Can again and if anything enjoying the first two Neu! records even more than before. I’ve “discovered” the splendid, ragged sprawl that is the first Guru Guru LP, I’ve been giving some of the more “difficult” Faust tracks another go and I’ve even gained a grudging respect (if not affection) for Kraftwerk. But what’s taken me a little by surprise is the extent that I’m also starting to enjoy some of the more ambient elements of the period.

I’ve tended to associate “Krautrock” (a term with which Stubbs, and most of the musicians of the time are pretty unhappy btw) with the noisier, experimental guitar bands, and above all with the “Dingerbeat”, the relentless, locomotive rhythm patterns, propelled by Neu!’s Klaus Dinger. To be honest, I’ve always felt that ambient sounds are, well, a tiny bit dull and just a tad pretentious. I remember a friend of mine, “back in the day”, telling me, without a trace of irony, that Tangerine Dream would help him sleep at night… Hmmm…

Re-listening to this however, and I may be on the turn (so to speak).

Harmonia ‘76

Harmonia were the first supergroup of Krautrock, formed when Dieter Möbius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Kluster/Cluster started collaborating with the other half of Neu!, Michael Rother. They released three albums, which I’m yet to get to grips with, before drifting apart to work on solo projects. The moment Brian Eno rocked up at the band’s remote farmhouse was the moment when Harmonia turned into Harmonia ’76, and therefore, if I persevere with my glib supergroup metaphor, this would be the moment when der Kream turned into der Blind Faith. Except with better music (and cups of tea).

Eno had already pronounced Harmonia “the world’s most important rock band” so a collaboration was, I guess, always on the cards but I’m not sure the ensuing sessions were ever envisaged as an album in the making. Stubbs reckons it’s “music about making music” – buggered if I know what that means but there’s certainly a comfortableness and a relaxed quality about the tracks they recorded which suggests that the four men were just having a fine old time together. The picture later used as the album cover, depicts the four in their element, I think it’s fair to say, mugs of tea in hand, sitting around grinning amiably, surrounded by tapes, leads and guitars. In the event, the tapes were buried for many years and only released as “Tracks and Traces” in 1997 (indeed a reissue in 2009 unearthed a few extra tracks and there’s talk of still further material in Rother’s possession…).

Giving them a proper listen now, you can hear that there’s some motoric in there, some Kraftwerk plinking too, but to my mind the centre pieces of the session are a few tracks of ambient soundscapes that sound modern still, today, and in 1976 must’ve been really out there…

Now, this sort of ethereal, formless fare is not really my sort of thing at all but I can’t help but find myself returning again and again to it and , well, this track, really – “Sometimes in Autumn”


If you’ve persevered throughout the fifteen minutes (I know, but believe me, if this butterfly-brain can do it, you can – and you’ll be rewarded for it…), you’ll have heard a veritable (though fluffy) barrage of Eno-style effects and electronics, which come from a very different place than the jarring recklessness of Can or Faust. The track starts with something of a fanfare of not-really-going-anywhere noodling, but gradually settles down to the measured repetition of a two-note motif that seems to travel through reed beds of echoes and synthesised wails. A helicopter appears to pass over a couple of times, tides seem to come and go, winds envelope you periodically. It’s a funny, old, not entirely-satisfying journey across (I’m imagining) some sort of murky lake with no real destination or feeling that you’ve arrived.

That’s pretty much as far as I’m going to try and go describing it (architects, dancing, remember…) apart from to say that there’s something intriguing and remarkably compelling about it as a piece of music. It’s one of those “can you see what it is, yet?” pieces, except that I’d imagine that those in the know would probably  scoff at the notion of being able to hammer it into your own shape or metaphor. On the other hand, my narcoleptic Tangerine Dream fan of days yore would possibly stroke his beard and suggest that whatever interpretation you give it is … cool. Having given him the smack around the face he would so richly deserve, I’d probably have to concede (privately) that he might actually be right.

Do with it what you will… but do enjoy it.

Lately things don’t seem the same…

1135287621-_DSC0243-(1)-copyI can’t remember whether I’ve blogged about these before. I suspect not, I really should’ve, they are bonkers…

Meridian Brothers

Actually, I’m saying “they”, but the Meridian Brothers is actually the nom-de-guerre of an irrefutably odd Columbian known to his mother as Eblis Alvarez, who’s just had a third European album released by the modish, with-it folk of Soundway – Salvadora Robot.

Alvarez is based in Bogota and although he clearly has a big US record collection, his Meridian Brothers sound is pretty firmly rooted in Columbia and more particularly in the goofy but glorious Amazonian psychedelia that is Chicha. Giant snare drums, over-active cowbells, electric guitars, shakers and graters all build up what is an unmistakeably Latin sound.

Proceedings are dominated, however, by the telepathic interplay between a spectacularly off-kilter organ sound and Alvarez’ wonky guitar work which threads and weaves through each song. It’s a weird, unnatural sound which in other circumstances, you’d be thinking was maybe spooky and other-worldly but, given the Technicolor chaos going on around it, the “other worlds” would be more like Wizard of Oz than Outer Limits.

Witness the eccentricity of the Meridian Brothers (and, while you’re at it, enjoy the shirts…):


To be fair, giddy and slightly daft they may at times sound, I’m pretty sure there’s something jolly clever going on here. I’m no musician, and have no understanding whatsoever of how music actually works so the best I can suggest is that it’s as if each note or chord has slid along a couple of notches on the musical stave. The result is that, although it sounds all wrong, once you’re up to speed with it, everything’s still in place, relative to each other, and still “works” in this parallel, Munchkin world.

As if this wasn’t disconcerting enough, instruments and especially vocals are routinely dragged through various Joe Meek-style phasers, whoozers and all manner of other Seussical devices that tweak, distort and generally bewilder the ear.

It’s all pretty demented stuff and Salvadora Robot is certainly a whole lot of fun, but in the absence of anything good on YouTube from it, finish off by taking a look at last year’s champeta slant on Purple Haze:


Help me, help me…

Over an ocean away, like salmon…

Alfreda BengeI can occasionally be happily meandering along my own merry way. up, down and along whatever musical corridors I choose, be it 50s Cumbia, 70’s motoric or aggressively hip sounds from the pages of Pitchfork, when a song will stop me dead in my wanderings, courtesy of its beauty, cleverness or just plain majesty.

The fact that Robert Wyatt is often involved may not be a coincidence…



Maryan is the third track from Wyatt’s 1997 “Shleep” album, a truly wonderful record that includes contributions from Paul Weller, Brian Eno (of course), Phil Manzanera and Wyatt’s soul mate Alfreda Benge (whose beautiful illustrations adorn the covers of this and all his records).

The whole album is reportedly the result of a successful recovery from a debilitating period of insomnia, and whether or not this is true, the prevailing mood of Maryan and many of the other tracks is of soothing release, the welcome arrival of a sense of peace and satisfaction.

The song itself  is seductive, idyllic and simple, taking you on something of a journey, through which you are paddled along by the delicate, insistent guitar work of Belgian guitarist, Philip Catherine. The melody is Catherine’s own, “Nairan”, and features on his 1974 album “September Man”.


The lyrics are all Robert Wyatt, however, and typically so, blending elegant images with awkward ugly humour. It’s tempting to think that Maryan might be a real person, awaiting his arrival, but I suspect not, “Maryan” being just one letter away from making the reverse of Nairam. It could, of course, be simultaneously person, place and concept or even, as one earnest blogger would have it “simply a kind of atonal note set off in a harmonic context “. Wyatt is a famously (intimidatingly) intelligent man and I for one am not about to make (even more of) a fool of myself, attempting to pin down a beautiful lyric such as this.

The shining heart of the song, however, is Wyatt’s trembling, frail vocals. The song begins prettily enough with rolling acoustic bass and his own gorgeous, slightly clumsy trumpet, over which Philip Catherine’s guitar babbles sweetly. The thrill I get (“I get” – it can’t just be me, can it?) when I hear the opening lyrics, double-tracked and surprisingly assertive, is right up there with any other musical highpoint I can right now think of.

I could really go off on one about “Maryan”, as I think I have done in the past about “Sea Song” and “Free Will and Testament” (another Shleep track) but let’s just leave it at that. Even in my  fractured world of Psychedelia and Freakbeat, Cumbia and Chicha, Krautrock and Psychfest occasionally moments of quiet loveliness do occasionally intrude…

I want what’s behind the moon…

DSC_0409My Psychfest adventure now a flickering tea-light in the distance, I thought I’d pretty much had my fill of bands linked with the omnipresent “psychedelia” tag in whatever questionable fashion. Truth be told I’ve bought a few “homework” records on this basis that I’m not really enjoying. Seemed to spend a fair bit of time at Psychfest listening to po-faced bands, bass cranked up to eleven, plodding through turgid sets, surrounded by earnest punters, heads bobbing grimly, and I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t be doing with that. All a bit dull, if you ask me. Can’t even say I’m much of a fan of the ubiquitous Ty Segall – I can do small doses, but then I feel like a bit of a lie down, to be honest.

This feller is venturing out West in the New Year, though…

White Fence

White Fence, as you’ll probably all know, are the vehicle of Tim Presley, who’s been around for a good while now, releasing a whole bunch of records, including last year’s Cyclops Reap which I’ve been listening to a lot this week, believing it to be his most recent, until I discovered this year’s Drag City release For The Recently Found Innocent. This is not just me being slow (although clearly…) Presley is genuinely hard to keep up with – I gather he released three records in 2012 alone (including Hair with Ty Segall). What can you do?

(While I think of it, I can’t believe that rock musicians are genuinely born with a name like “Presley”, so I’m guessing he’s changed his name at some point – I really hope it was the Troggs he had in mind…)

White Fence records are trebly, twangy affairs, dominated by meandering guitar lines and generic psyche tics – managing to sound like the Pretty Things and Love at one and the same time. Anyone who’s ever spent more than fifteen minutes in my company will know that I’m a simple fellow and that this will pretty much do it for me.

One of the things I really like about a White Fence record, I think, is that Presley isn’t afraid to turn the bass down. I know I sound like my Dad at this point, but I’m a bit fed up of not being able to hear anything but bass and drums at gigs. Truth be told, it’s becoming a bit of a thing… Cyclops Reap, by contrast is full of shrill delights, punctuated throughout by loose-stringed, winding guitar breaks, venturing only occasionally into the realms of fuzz and wah-wah. It’s a record that apparently signals Presley’s emergence from lo-fi productions into more professional productions but really these things are all relative. You’d not really say it’s a polished record…

There’s not too much proper video of White Fence, not even any “official” stuff, but I like this footage of a set at something called Phuzz Phest, the first track, Anger! Who Keeps You Under? featuring the man himself bowing his guitar Eddie Phillips-style. Perfect!

A German Soft Machine


Ah um.

While we’re at it, following on from the previous posts, I have some Swiss-German krautrock tracks to share too.

Klaus Johann Grobe

Having done a quick post on these two chaps before Psychfest, I bought the new album – Im Sinne Der Zeit – and did some proper homework on them. It’s a pretty good record, full of clumpy beats and melodramatic organ swirls – a German Soft Machine if you will…

Last set on the oddly shaped Blade corner-stage, with Besnard Lakes on the one main stage and the dazzling, wonderful Suuns on another, I’d imagined there’d not be so many around for this one, but I was of course wrong. The small area filled up quickly and soon get very warm indeed. In truth, what seemed like a very long wait while the three members fiddled around with leads and sounds, made more than a few punters a little irritable (by the end of the weekend, I was heartily fed up of the sight of earnest young musos pointing to the ceiling and mouthing “more, more, turn it up!” to the sound desk).

Anyway, eventually they got it sorted and kicked off into a marvellously gloopy, occasionally menacing, occasionally funky set, dominated by the syrupy electric organ of Sevi Landolt. The extra third member of the group was a bassist and he managed to drive the proceedings along with pace and purpose.

The two strongest tracks from the record – “Kothek” and “Between the Buttons” – made early appearances which launched a sweaty bunch of punters off straight away but did mean the set tailed off a little.

Again, quite a lot of “atmosphere” in the recordings but well worth a little listen:


Between the Buttons


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