Not so starry-eyed anymore…

IMG_1079This is a week old now.

I’m a grumpy old git, no question; ever more curmudgeonly as the years accrue. Even more prone to shouting at the telly than before. But still…

I went to see the splendid Decemberists last week, giving a graceful run through of their What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World record. I did see them last time they came to the UK and I remember being pretty underwhelmed, although again they had a great record in The King is Dead to showcase. I’d obviously forgotten all this when I jumped at the offer of a ticket for the Birmingham leg of the tour.

I actually wrote a curmudgeonly post for the evening the next day, but in the grips of an oncoming flu I was a bit more negative than I’d want to be really, so I deleted it. The gist of it was:

  • Not a fan of audience participation
  • Upstairs at the Institute is not a great place to see a band
  • Some of the tracks on the new record sound like ABC
  • I don’t feel very well

Harsh, and a little unfair.

The Decemberists, the Institute

The Institute is a grand old theatre with many original features and a fine 3-sided balcony. It would no doubt be a lovely old place to see quiet, reflective music, in the style of St George’s in Bristol. Unfortunately, last week it was rammed with steely-eyed middle-aged punters, all of whom seemed to know that you need to get in early for a decent spot (rather than, say, getting stuck in traffic and then having a couple in the pub next door). It was particularly daft in the balcony, where people were stood five or six deep to peer over the balustrade (there’s a good Melloy word…)

I should say that I do like the new record a lot, Colin Melloy really is a great songsmith, but I’m not a fan of the way some of the songs are arranged. I reckon “Cavalry Captain” sounds like an ABC number (and btw don’t let anyone fool you into thinking this a good thing…); and the faux-doo wop sound grafted onto “Philomena” just irritates the hell out of me. (I found myself wondering if there’s a bit more democracy going on within the band – a bit more input from the other musicians, maybe. My money’s on that bloody drummer…)

I’m well aware that I’m coming on like one of the hipsters that Melloy is patiently addressing on the opener, but I guess I prefer the simpler accordion and harmonica and double bass sounds of Castaways and Cutouts. I wish you hadn’t changed…

(And don’t even get me started on audience participation, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and general on stage tomfoolery…)

Actually, “Cavalry Captain” was a one of the highlights of what was still a pretty good evening and the tinnier elements of the record seemed to vanish in the whole band experience. They played for a good hour and a half, maybe more, giving good account of the recent records and dipping confidently into their impressive back catalogue (although regrettably not Grace Cathedral Hill). They were jolly, passionate about their songs and there was not quite as much silliness as last time I saw them. I was moderately-whelmed, shall we say.

Considering the circumstances – too far up, too far back, too many people coming backwards and forwards (honestly, at times it was like sitting in the Buildbase at Kingsholm…), the recordings are much better than I had a right to expect, and certainly, as ever, worth a listen:

Make You Better

and, in the interests of fairness:

Cavalry Captain

(Now I must get onto those Ultimate Painting recordings, they’re really worth it…)

Clean and sharp and always laughing

IMG_1029Not long ago, I claimed, in slightly half-arsed fashion, that the Beck record was my favourite release of 2014. This was a mistake – it’s not; White Fence’s For the Recently Found Innocent is most certainly my favourite record of last year. I know this because this is what I plumped for in the @lpgrp poll (although I suspect Morning Phase may still take the spoils in the hipsters’ vote).

In my defence, this administrative oversight would indeed have been avoided if I’d actually bought the darn thing at the time of that post. I hadn’t, I only got round to buying it when the prospect of the mighty Tim Presley and band arriving in Bristol becoming imminent.

Since then, however, I’ve been overdosing stupidly on it.

White Fence

When I sounded out my Gloucester pals about this gig, I couldn’t really get anyone interested, but decided, somewhat awkwardly, that I’d go anyway. Everyone else’s loss and all that…

But anyway, I began the process of immersing myself lavishly in the shimmering, warped world of White Fence, my ticket winking cheekily at me from the noticeboard, and by the time I rolled up at the Fleece for an evening of fun, fellowship and fuzztone, I was really very excited. My first gig of the year. (In the end, I needn’t have been so self-conscious about flying solo, as there were people there that I knew and the scene was set.)

A friend had previously tipped me off about support band, Ultimate Painting, so I knew they’d be good. And indeed they really were. I won’t write anything about them here because I’ll do a separate post about them later (no really. I will…).

At about 9:15, White Fence trooped on, their numbers augmented by the welcome figure of psyche/goth minstrel Cate le Bon, playing second guitar and adding a few vocals. In truth, I didn’t think she added all that much to the proceedings, and looked a little ill at ease for much of the evening, her own brand of cagey melancholy not really suited to the raucous psychedelia of Tim Presley. There didn’t seem to be much room for her amidst the ensuing mayhem…

The rest of the band were well up for it, though, and streamed aggressively through an hour and a half set which just shot by. They tossed off more than twenty numbers in that time with a dynamism and general oomph that was thrilling to watch. I really like the way Presley wears his guitar high-slung and the easy way he skids through his guitar breaks, with all the writhing energy of Paul Weller in a hurry. I’m also pretty fond of Presley’s voice, although I’ve heard people say they think it’s pretty so-so. He ranges from a vintage garage punk whine to a cool Ray Davies-style detachment, with one or two other stops in between.

And while we’re at it, I also love the sharp, freakbeat riffs he gets from those strings – again and again I found myself reminded of the Who or the Pretty Things as he slashed his way into another song. Wonderful stuff altogether.

Here’s a clip on YouTube of the set opener, Chairs in the Dark, taken by a feller (?), called Knapperstino who must’ve been stood just to my right and whose videos I seem to have linked to before.

 

As I said the set included 20 songs, 19 of which were around the 3-4 minute mark, but a monstrous version of Baxter Corner weighed in at around 11 minutes and showed that Presley’s time served in the Mark E Smith bootcamp was time well-spent (I can almost hear MES snarling “It’s not repetition, it’s discipline!” as I type…)

The recordings have come out quite well (the Fleece is always good for this…) and give quite a decent flavour of what was a boisterous, cracking night altogether.

Baxter Corner

Arrow Man

Like That

By the time I’ve got this post up, White Fence have already disappeared from these shores and are no doubt thrilling crowds of Dutch or Belgian punters.

You’re coming back, though, aren’t you, chaps?

The swagger vets they come…

I am unfeasibly excited about seeing White Fence tomorrow night and have spent the weekend immersing myself in For The Recently Found Innocent and the Live in San Francisco records that came out last year.

Can you blame me?

 

(No apologies for the awful sound quality…))

The sun shines here all summer, it’s nice ’cause you can get quite brown

THIRDGATEF(I feel another Robert Wyatt post coming on…)

A chance glimpse of a friend’s CD collection after a night’s Christmas drinking brought forth a Robert Wyatt collection that got me thinking about the wonderful and awkward sounds of the Soft Machine once more. We put it on and “Moon in June” gambolled out of the speakers, its ungainly sprawl as enjoyable as ever, and it’s been floating about my head ever since. As luck would have it, my friends at eMusic were able to supply a copy of “ ’68”, with a new (to me) version of “Moon in June” and now it’s all kicked off…

Soft Machine

As a teenager, I was a regular visitor to Gloucester Record Library (a fabulous institution that, amazingly in these days of vulturous austerity and the dubious “Big Society”, still exists, sort of…). In those pre-income days, I spent quite a lot of spare time there, exploring racks of disks, with grimy plastic covers, more often than not coming away with something that looked like it might be worth a listen. I remember the time I came away with Soft Machine’s “Third” record, its mock brown paper cover and sparse track listing, giving away precious little. To find out at home that it was a double album and that each of the four tracks (none of them shorter than 18 minutes) took up a full side was, in those post-punk days, unpromising to say the least. On top of this, there were no guitars… Lawks!

Pretty quickly, though, I was hooked on Mike Ratledge’s spindly organ sound and the slowly unfurling horns of Elton Dean and colleagues. Less immediately enticing was the acquired taste that is Robert Wyatt’s fragile, unskilled vocals, but gradually, gently I became a fan of this too.

I’ve listened to “Third” fairly regularly ever since, rarely feeling that I’ve completely “got it” (still don’t, for that matter…) and, my interest re-triggered by “ ’68”, I fetched it off the shelf again last week. Still feels like a woozy, challenging listen that forces you to be flexible, patient, forgiving, even. It’s an ambitious and strange record, for sure.

My favourite track was always Hugh Hopper’s “Facelift” with its barnstorming combination of furious organ and saxophones, which was apparently basically a live recording with some tampering afterwards. It drones at times, swoops at others and swings pretty generously the rest of the time, till by the end, as the opening riff repeats forward and backwards, you feel like you’ve been on quite a journey. You can hear a pretty good version of it as the first part of this live concert from Paris (if you can ignore the occasional intrusion of fake applause crudely dubbed over it). Wyatt’s drumming, here, is magnificent – wristy, loose but disciplined – and worth wading through the rest of the concert for alone…

I’ve always been pretty uncomfortable with the idea of jazz-rock, and there’s a fair bit of That Sort of Thing in the rest of “Third”. The further the Softs went down that road the less exciting they became. I think this period catches them dabbling heavily in jazz for sure (Just say no, kids…) but still on the cusp of the psychedelic wave, with all the weirdness that went with that. In fact, there’s all sorts of other clever buggery going on here, even (and this may be because David Stubbs’ book is still fresh in my memory), to the point that I reckon I can hear traces of the metallic sounds of Neu and the art-chaos of Faust and Amon Düül…

Increasingly, though, it’s the meandering loveliness of “Moon in June”, that cuts through the fuzz for me. There are, of course, loads of different versions of the song out – the Softs have the largest back catalogue of live and archive recordings I think I’ve ever seen – three or four times the size of their official output.  Although it’s tempting to think that the “Third” version of “Moon” is the definitive one, the fact that there are so many versions (and they’re all pretty different) reflects the way Wyatt liked to cut and paste the song and take it in different directions.

Here’s a great improvised version for a John Peel session:

I think I read “Moon in June” was Wyatt’s last major contribution to Soft Machine and apparently the last song the band ever recorded with vocals. It’s essentially Wyatt’s letter from America and was largely recorded by himself because the rest of the band were apparently not very interested in it. Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s insane solo were added later. Wyatt left in 1972, as Ratledge led the band off into the realms of the polo sweater, and that’ unwittingly is pretty much where I got off too.

His new band was Matching Mole, which I’m not really familiar with but I did come across this on YouTube from French TV also. It’s another great clip and it demonstrates more trademark eccentricity from the man (for it is he, ‘neath the knitted gimp mask) – both vocally as well as sartorially. It’s pretty good, but mostly notable for a demonstration of what an absolutely belting drummer the man was. I’m no sort of an expert on drumming but it seems to me his technique whilst being tight and incredibly muscular is also light, varied and always fascinating. Hard to take your eyes off him.

Here, watch:

What a guy…

Fall off the avalanche…

Never got round to writing about my favourite records of 2014 – partly because of the reasons I mentioned in the last post (not really being “out there” at the moment, not feeling the year was a particularly good one for new music) and partly for the age old PP reasons of getting distracted by other things, not being arsed. You know how it is…

But for what it’s worth, my favourite record of the year was this one…

 

I’ll confess I’ve drifted away from Beck over the years, losing track of his myriad releases and Bowie-esque shapeshifting, to the extent that although I own copies of most of his records, I’m not really sure I could put them in order or track some sort of progress or evolution to them. I bought Morning Phase pretty much when it came out, though, and since then I’ve been through a number of distinct phases of listening which I feel may not yet be complete.

First listens were dominated by the lush double-tracked vocals and the “new” CSN sound that featured very little in the way of beats. Really enjoyed the humid, stifling feel of songs like “Morning” and the beautiful “Turn Away”, loved the rich strings and the soft focus arrangements, sang along gently and foolishly. All very listenable.

But then, songs like “Blackbird Chain” and “Unforgiven” seemed to rise to the fore, and a narrative (there’s a 2014 word for you) emerged – aided by a few choice interviews and reviews – the man’s been through an emotional trauma of some sort. These are songs whose lyrics have managed to penetrate my feckless consciousness, wretched words of regret and a dogged unwillingness to let go, songs that suggest a vulnerability I hadn’t noticed before. I really liked the words that come in and out of the gorgeous mists of “Wave”, chillingly depersonalised as they are. (I also really like the long fade out…)
Beck PortraitsAnd later still, after a while I found myself becoming not a little disturbed by those lush arrangements and in particular the same double-tracked vocals that first grasped my attention as I got to know the record. I’m actually quite bothered by the tension between what we are led to believe is a new emotional candidness and the painstakingly crafted productions. On the one hand, we’re encouraged to believe we’re being allowed a rare peek behind the mask, a once impenetrable soul laid bare for those who care to see. But then, there are those (beautiful) country-tinged arrangements that are anything but naked or unguarded – they’re carefully, elegantly fashioned. Again, my thoughts return to Bowie – I’m not really a fan – and the “artifice” of it all. (I know, by the way, how quaint and old fashioned I sound, and the self-conscious speech marks are an attempt to make it seem less so).

Yeah, I know, if I demand some sort of faux realism from everything I listen to, I’ll become a very dull boy indeed. But at this stage in my Morning Phase listening, it’s something I’ve not quite been able to straighten out.

Yet.

But… fact remains that having been left a little unsettled by the thing a couple of weeks ago, I get it out again for the purposes of this post, and begin to find myself drawn back in by those saccharine strings and queasy arrangements. What can I say? I think I may be going down again…

It’s my favourite record of the year.

Many strangers have arrived, wearing immense black boots, selling buttons at my door, I don’t feel well

f23ee6be4059db716502c71ea3433326Once again the earnest souls of @lpgrp have organised a Secret Santa exchange of Best of ’14 tracks to share with each other. I enjoy this and it’s always interesting to hear new endorsements but I have to admit that this year I threw mine together in a bit of a hurry, having not got myself organised earlier and for a number of reasons I’m not entirely happy with it.

Probably the biggest gripe I have with myself is that although the brief was to compile it from “new to you” tracks rather than bona fide released-in-the-last-12-months stuff, there really isn’t much new stuff here. I can’t decide whether this is because 2014’s not been a great year for new releases or whether this year I’ve been more easily distracted than usual. I suspect it’s a large slice of both.

This is one of the reasons I’ve not clambered into the whole seasonal gongs business this year – I haven’t really bought a lot of new stuff (neither have I seen a lot of live music, for that matter…) – and so I feel a little out of touch. All in all, I reckon the tracks by Mogran Delt, Doug Tuttle, the Delines, Siesta! and Tigres Leones are about the only brand new stuff on the collection. The tracks by White Fence, Courtney Barnett and Speedy Ortiz are new-ish but the rest is, I’m afraid, all old. Some of it really old (the Trio Matamoros song is from the forties, I think).

But anyway, here, in all its glory:

Secret Santa ’14 – @Sweeny99

  1. Pink Gorilla – White Fence
  2. Make My Grey Brain Green – Morgan Delt
  3. Save My Soul – Wimple Winch
  4. 1906 – The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
  5. Millionspiel – Can
  6. Bat Macumba – Os Mutantes
  7. Muevéla – Abelardo Carbonó
  8. Jam 5 Kai Thiet – Ros Serey Sothea
  9. Lam Tung Wai – Chaweewan Dumnem
  10. Buenos Hermanos – Trio Matamoros
  11. Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
  12. Colfax Avenue – the Delines
  13. Erusu Nganga – The Sweet Talks
  14. Ya Mom Samaray – Guelewar
  15. Bocata de Sangre – Siesta!
  16. Pájaros – Tigres Leones
  17. With Us Soon – Doug Tuttle
  18. No below – Speedy Ortiz

Having said all this, you’ll love it – some psych, some afrobeat, some garage punk, some Spanish new wave – but particularly worth noting are tracks 8 and 9 which I’ve taken from a couple of fabulous Cambodian and Siamese compilations by Parallel World and by the consistently brilliant Soundway Records.

If you don’t fancy any of it, I understand, it’s OK – we can still be friends. Although, I would urge you to listen at least to the Trio Matamoros track which features Cuba’s greatest singer Beny Moré and is just magnificent. It also includes a really wild piano break which sounds like it finishes in some sort of plane crash (around the 2:30 mark).

 

I was going to leave it there, but I think it’s worth mentioning that while I may not have spent much time on new releases, 2014 has not been a waste of time entirely. It is after all the year when I finally discovered the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, surely the weirdest of a weird crop.

“1906” is certainly as odd a song as anything I heard this year and I can’t help thinking 2015 will have to be a very strange one indeed to throw up anything like this…

 

Here’s to more strangeness!

And I was hooked by a “come-hither” look and a gaze that was, well, beyond correction.

the_Wreckless_Eric_400x400An early Christmas present from eMusic.

Occasionally, I forget what a sterling service the good folk at eMusic provide. Despite the regular infuriating crashes on their site, I’ve been a subscriber for more years than I care to remember but, as with so many things in life, your eye does get turned every now again, grass is greener, younger model who really understands you, it’s not you, it’s me… You can imagine, I’m sure.

But then, if you’re lucky, your one true love reveals that something really special, something that reminds you why you hooked up in the first place. And if you’re really, really lucky that special something involves Wreckless Eric.

So, I’m idly clicking through the myriad, scattered pages of eMusic, and I come across an album I’ve been looking for periodically for a good fifteen or twenty years.

The Hitsville Houseband

Back in the nineties, before music was widely available online, you were, of course, limited to whatever offerings your local store was adventurous enough / could be arsed to stock. Clearly if that local store was HMV, you were well and truly buggered (but I won’t start on that particular rant… No, really, I’ll never get to the end of it…) The Dark Ages indeed.

As an avid Mark and Lard listener at the time, I remember really treasuring a number of their sessions of the time. I particularly loved a session that I recorded with Wreckless Eric and his Hitsville Houseband, who were at the time plugging their 12 O’clock Stereo album. A terrific session that I listened to for ages, I eventually lost the cassette (and/or a cassette player) and with no prospect of ever finding the record (which, it turns out, was deleted pretty quickly anyway) the songs eventually faded from my memory. I’ve always liked the man and continued buying his records as they were available (the record with his partner Amy Rigby is particularly good) but never seen sight nor sound of 12 O’clock Stereo.

And here it is again, re-released and, Lord bless them, available on eMusic. Turns out the new release date was only a fortnight again, so for once if not actually “ahead of the curve”, I’m pretty damn close to it. Whoop!

Here’s my favourite track off the record – “The Girl with the Wandering Eye” – not a proper video, I’m afraid, but the song makes me smile every time…

The re-released version has actually been beefed up with some ‘bonus’ tracks and even some of the original radio session versions (a second whoop!). I’ve always loved Wreckless Eric’s reedy, nerdy voice and his beat up, defeated personality – if he’d been around in the sixties he would’ve been a member of the Standells or more likely fronting his own obscure band managing one single, later to turn up on Pebbles vol 15 or some such… To be fair, though, he can be pretty clever with his lyrics and will occasionally produce some real gems. “Ugly & Old”, a ‘bonus’ track that apparently never made the cut for the original record, is one such nugget.

It’s a kind of country ballad dedicated to the disappointments and insecurities of going to seed and has some great couplets:

“When time takes its toll and we’re ugly and old, will you still be happy with me? Faithful to the end, much more than just best friends? Tell me when we’re ugly and old”

Merry Christmas all…

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