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…

Delines

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 of 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 Vlautin’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

 

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…