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.