Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness

Nearly October, and doesn’t Summer seem a long time ago?

(After some thought, I’ve decided to break with tradition completely – in fact I’m establishing a whole new tradition. No more starting posts with abject apologies about how long it’s been since I last posted. It’s dull, right? And I was always taught not to apologise if you don’t mean it. So from now on, I’m going to start each post with some sort of trite platitude, quite possibly about the weather, or with a commonplace but penetrating observation about the absurdity of modern life. It’ll be fine…)

So, doesn’t Summer seem a while ago?

Last time I posted, I was licking my metaphorical lips about the prospect of the first festival for a while. Well, Sea Change came and went and was rather jolly. Saw some bands, enjoyed some good company, drunk some beer and made some recordings. Pretty much what the doctor ordered and all very nice.

Drinking and chatting aside, the main draw for the weekend was the chance to see a genuine legend.

Damo Suzuki, Sea Change

You’ll of course know that Damo Suzuki was the exceptional and idiosyncratic vocalist of great (and getting greater) German band, Can, singing in English, German, Japanese and at times an indeterminate other tongue. Leaving the band after Future Days, he spent ten years doing, erm, other stuff before returning to music ten years later. Similar to the (scarcely believable) time Arthur Lee turned up at Gloucester Guild Hall, another fairy-tale figure gracing a West Country stage was something I wouldn’t want to have missed.

Sea Change was rather fine – a couple of lovely little venues and one larger one, a crowded but friendly Totnes and a series of charming sets that made for a lovely warm and companionable weekend.

Actually, the whole “gracing a West Country stage” thing started somewhat less than auspiciously. This apparently was the first year that Sea Change had brought in an out-of-town stage, “a short bus ride” away in Dartmouth, I would imagine in order to put on one or two slightly larger acts. In the event, the large marquee tent that was promised failed to materialise (burnt down, I was told) and the stage stood shivering and alone in a field as the predictable festival rain set in. To a soft-as-shite middle aged chump, it felt like all the Green Mans I’d ever been to.

Fortunately, a large wine tent was available for shelter, and by the time Damo came on, I felt sufficiently fortified to venture out and see what the old eccentric had to offer. And it was quite eccentric…

Coming on stage without addressing a fair crowd of robust, wine-soaked punters, he started less than promisingly with a series of gruff inarticulate noises that sounded a bit like Louis Armstrong doing that Tibetan throat singing.

Looks were exchanged…

Fortunately, his band, redoubtable Japanese noise artists Bo Ningen, started to come in at about the 3 or 4 minute mark and as a discernible jig began to unfold, the whole performance began to take shape and make a little more sense. I frankly didn’t know what to make of Damo but as Bo Ningen started to strike up the whole thing began to sparkle. By the end, the whole spectacle had become thrillingly hypnotic.

If Damo Suzuki is a bit of a one, Bo Ningen were also a pretty thorny bunch. They provided Damo with sheets and pulses of impermeable sound, behind and beneath him, but at the same time brought enough of a Can-ish groove to the performance for one or two adventurous souls to start moving at the front of the stage. They were an enthralling and shaggy bunch to watch as well, with bassist Taigen Kawabe particularly hard to tear your eyes from, both spidery and weirdly erotic at the same time.

(It wasn’t until I was back in the winey fug of the beer tent that another punter referred to these weird, genderless creatures in the masculine. I’d kind of thought they were all women. To be fair, this… This is certainly the Twenty First Century…)

After one forty minute song, an exhausted Damo brought the performance to an end, saying that there’d be an intermission but they they’d be back soon. The second number was pretty much the same as the first and, the spell having been broken, we wondered happily back off to the car. Damo had been fun, but Bo Ningen had been astonishing and as I clambered back into a friend’s Beetle, I left feeling more than a little Bo-curious… (I thang you…)

This is a family Blog, so I’ll spare you the whole performance, but I think you might manage 13 minutes or so, no?

Damo Suzuki & Bo Ningen, Sea Change

Corre el río al mar

Ah.

That thing’s happened again.

That thing where I scuttle around, earn a few pennies and generally take care of business and, bugger me, after a bit I find that the thing I like doing most, and do actually take some pride in, I’ve not actually been doing. The annoying thing is, I’ve genuinely got some good things to write about. Saw some fine stuff at Sea Change and had a generally swell time, brought a load of great records recently and overall have listened to a lot of top music (Oh, and rediscovered a shoe-in for my still nebulous All-Time Top Ten… Rock Bottom, as you’re asking… what a gorgeously unconventional and languid affair it is…)

So anyway, something else.

Tsunamis

Tsunamis are a band from Santiago, Chile that I’d not heard of until very recently, who’ve just released their fifth record, Trans Express Sudamericane, the first coming out in the early 2000s. By your fifth record, universally established conventions require you to have mellowed a little and found your groove somewhat. This appears not to have been accepted in the more psyche-y barrios of Santiago (or maybe they were positively feral back in the day…) as this is a pretty noisy affair, all trashy guitars, X-Ray-Spex saxophones and over-eager tub-thumping.

Actually, I know they were pretty out-there, back in the day… (I think this is the same band, although, I gather there have been some changes – I can’t see the blond-haired guy in the second clip…)

 

And all in Spanish too! I’m totally there…

Well, sort of…

I’ve stumbled through this review of TES in Sonidos Ocultos, over-reaching my uncomplicated Spanish somewhat, and to be honest I’m not a whole lot wiser – feels a bit like picking your way through a Paul Morley NME piece circa 1980 in moon language (or indeed English) – but I have gleaned a couple of things from it.

  1. Goli Gaete, singer and guitarist, reckons Chile has taken over from Argentina as the vanguard of popular and underground music (cue a Scooby Doo-style “uh?” at this point)
  2. Sonidos Ocultos reckon Tsunamis are “Nuevo-nuevo-nuevo canción” – for those of us with only the passing-est of acquaintances with the original Nueva Canción, I’m guessing this is the equivalent of post-postpunk (or maybe they’re just really, really, really new songs…)
  3. And this might do it for you, Tsunamis are on BYM records, the home of the only other Chilean band you’ve heard of – the colossal Follakzoid. It’s a stand-up reference.

Best songs on the record are the loopy “Patina en Agua” and the sweaty garage punk of “Corre El Río”, a performance of which I’ll finish off with here…

More importantly, do people like you?

You’ll have gathered I’m on a bit of a roll at the moment.

A combination of being out in the wilds and not having any marking/planning/other nonsense to attend to has meant that I’ve been able to loll about and roll around in all manner of vices and playful indulgences – I’ve read, eaten, drunk and walked to a degree that frankly no sane doctor would advise.  It has also meant that I’ve got both the time and the disposition to behave like a proper Blogger (although I suspect this may just be encouraging me to go further and sillier than has previously been the case. So, anyway…

Krar Music

Having plugged the Likembe Blog a couple of days ago, I felt like I wanted to talk about a record I downloaded there which is something of a burner. It’s by an Eritrean musician called Bereket Mengisteab, released in the 1980s, of whom I know nothing. The version made available on Likembe is from a cassette copy which is a bit ropey in places (including a charming Mark E Smith- style two second interlude, where some clumsy ninny has pressed the Record button by mistake) but which I’m certain has long since disappeared from shelves.

Bereket Mengisteab apparently has a long and respected career behind him and is I believe still with us. There is a decent interview / life story of him available here which forms the basis of everything I know about the man (the part about him putting his recording career to one side and fighting for the Eritrean Liberation Front in the war of independence was an eyebrow raiser…).

I wanted to write about the record itself, Lebey, but aside from enjoying his exotic runs up and down the …er… fretboard (almost certainly not right) I realised I simply don’t have the vocabulary or the understanding of the music to make a decent stab at describing it.

The issue is that non-Western music uses a whole different bunch of fundamentals that non-musicians and general record-buying saps simply don’t understand. Much too difficult for the likes of me… But what I can say is that it’s a weird, colourful sound that has me snared and which you’d be well advised to go and download yourself (here, as you’re asking, it’s an old post but the links are still active).

The crux of the sound is that he uses an Ethiopian (or Eritrean, I’m not 100% clear of the nuances) instrument called a Krar, which is a bit like a lyre but more adaptable and has a crisp clear sound that just about survives being electrified. It sounds psychedelic.

Did a bit more googling and came across this wonderful bunch of London exiles, calling themselves the Krar Collective and doing a session for KEXP. Not only does it involve a krar being played lustily through speakers, but also (rather wonderfully) through a wah-wah pedal. Watch all of this but especially the first two songs:

 

(The costumes and in particular the truly cosmic capes deserve a mention. I’m also rather taken by stand-in singer Beli Nigussie, partly by her bird-like vocals but also by her mysterious, exuberantly erotic dancing…)

Now, go pay a visit to Likembe…

Over an ocean away…

My pal, Coleser, has recently hatched a plan for myself and a couple of other like-minded souls to go to the Sea Change festival in Totnes. He’s chosen well as he knows that of recent I’ve come to the conclusion that my days accompanying him to Green Man and End of the Road may well be over. Much too old and too soft these days. The lure of the damp sod, the open air stage and the beer tent no longer sufficient recompense for the dubious pleasures of uncomfortable nights, listening to the rain lashing the canvas and the sound of drunken oafs stumbling over guy ropes. Sea Change is a town festival, however, and as such provides simple luxuries like beds, roofs and comfy pubs. This pleases me immensely and I’m beginning to look forward to the weekend.

Headliners for Sea Change include Jane Weaver, Hookworms and the mythical Damo Suzuki. I’m also becoming quite keen to see this pair:

Group Listening

Paul Jones I do not know but he is apparently a long term, college friend of Stephen Black, whom as Sweet Baboo, I’ve followed for a while and indeed written about him, (here in fact). Over the course of a few years, I’ve seen Black playing bass behind Gruff Rhys, Euros Childs, Cate le Bon and H Hawkline more times than I care to remember (including a good few at Green Man) and also doing his own Sweet Baboo set at the Prince Albert in Stroud.

This Group Listening record that came out earlier this year is different again, though. Clarinet and Piano: Selected Works, Vol 1 sounds like the discouraging title of a John Cage or Brian Eno record, doesn’t it? Not that far off, to be honest. It is indeed a collection of ambient pieces, mostly covers, played in bewitchingly straight fashion on said clarinet and piano.

Something about this title and description made every fibre of my body scream Can’t Be Arsed when I came across it, but a little common sense and open-mindedness has yielded to me a light and beautiful treat that I could easily have missed. I am not clear how many of the tracks are originals and how many are covers, but a brief scan yields songs by Eno, Euros Childs, Dieter Roedelius and a gorgeous cover of Maryan which I really think you should hear

 

I’ve spoken before (at length) about my love of Robert Wyatt and I’m not generally keen on people piggy-backing on the great man’s genius, but here I’m willing to give them a pass. The pair manage to take a meandering, joy-filled, free-spirited original and give me something new. They constrain it a little, painting it in bluer, more directionless tones. Black talks in this interview about “a deep yearning… a positive sadness” about the interpretations and you can hear it here. Childs’ “The Dog” is another uneven triumph.

There’s also something very refreshing about dense, industrial, abstract krautrock compositions transcribed into lighter, more human tones by Jones and Black. You hear this very clearly in the Eno track, “Julie With”, not a song I knew previously. There’s a beautiful video released to go with it too, all bridges and channels, mundane blues and greys:

 

The richness of a slow summer…

I want you to know, we just had to grow

We’re currently tightly clasped to the fleshy bosom of the Welsh countryside, taking a summer sabbatical – walking, chatting, quaffing cider (and a liberal selection from the Roger Stirling book of ill-advised cocktails) and generally getting our shit together in the country. I’m reminded of last summer when we did pretty much the same thing (without the Gibsons) and I spent the week listening to Dr Strangely Strange (you can recap here). Well this year, here we are again, same remote cottage, same liberal intentions, but now I find myself a year on and venturing still further afield on the CD player – pretty much cutting myself adrift to be honest.

As I become more and more of a middle-aged eccentric I find myself listening to the Byrds and the Kinks less, and embracing stranger and more colourful things. If, as Mark Twain once said, a gentleman is someone who can play the Incredible String Band (but doesn’t) I’m finding myself less and less inclined to describe myself as such.

In short, I’m listening to the String Band again and, fuck it, I think I’m a fan.

The Incredible String Band

In the Strangely Strange post, I talked about shelling out a whole £4.99 (outrageous!) on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and the ensuing hysterical drive to convince myself that it wasn’t the stupidest record I’d ever heard. (Not entirely successful, it bears repeating…).

Having seen Joe Boyd talking about ISB at Green Man one year, though, and his going on to say that of all the artists he was involved with at the time (google the list, it’s impressive), the String Band were the ones he felt were the most talented and were going to make it biggest, well… it went some way towards rehabilitating Mike Heron and Robin Williamson.

(Robin Hitchcock’s accompanying version of “Chinese White” was also instrumental).

I’ve revisited them a whole bunch more in recent years, in particular the two records they released before HBD, the second of which (5000 Spirits or the Layers of an Onion – I know…) I’ve spent much of this last week imbibing, before being whisked away to the Welsh hills. A brief look through various reviews of all of their albums reveals that the String Band reputation still rests upon the third and fourth records, so I’ve obviously got some work to do. For the moment, however, I’ll stick with 5000 Spirits, (maybe next year’s getting-it-together-in-the-country post…)

Originally an Edinburgh threesome with Clive Palmer departing for Afghanistan after the eponymous first record, the remaining duo went on something of a hiatus as Williamson too took off for North Africa (Heron was apparently unaware of his plans until they walked out of the final recording sessions). Fortunately for fans of daft, fey folk, he returned a year later, arms laden with exotic stringed devices and a head full of Arabic chord changes, and reconnected with Heron.

Most of this I’m relaying from the first half of a book I’ve just finished called “You Know What You Could Be” jointly written by Mike Heron and a bloke called Andrew Greig, which is a lovely book. (The second half, written by Greig, tells of a young devotee of the String Band whose own band didn’t quite make it, although along the way they met Williamson and Heron; were bought breakfast by Joe Boyd and drank with Dr Strangely Strange. It’s a great read…)

The new duo’s second record is a more ambitious affair than the first. To be honest, “ambitious” is something of an understatement – “eccentric”, “weird” or even (a personal favourite) “bat-shit crazy” would be better. Williamson was keen to dip into his satchel of stringed things, incorporating Moroccan gimbris, Indian sitars, Arabic ouds and adapted mandolins into a bag of already idiosyncratic songs. The distinctive drone that opens first track “Chinese White”, for instance, is a bowed gimbri – a sound most record-buying Brits of the time would have been unfamiliar with and must have given it a genuinely strange timbre which endures even in these days of post-modern deviation. Heron had not been idle in the months that passed either, contributing some of the stronger, more focused efforts on the record – “Chinese White”, “Hedgehog Song” and “Painting Box” are all his.

I’m a great one for exotica, as you’ll have guessed by now, but I gather one of the String Band’s genuine achievements was to have gained something of a mastery over these odd things and used them to convey a woody legitimacy to their weirdness. In an age of hippies shamelessly dressing up their pop songs with sitars and Indian sounds, the String Band could actually play and when in doubt brought in others who could. (The “Soma” credited on the liner notes of 5000 Spirits was actually professor of South Asian music, Nazir Jairazbhoy. The ubiquitous Danny Thompson was another contributor.)

I guess the thing you have to get over to really enjoy this record is the inherent silliness of much of it – the lyrics are sometimes ridiculous, the vocals often innovative (alright, stupid), and let’s be honest their look has not aged that well, has it?

Here’s a clip of Williamson and Heron pretty much nailing all of the above on the Julie Felix show in 1968, playing “The Half-Remarkable Question” (no sniggering at the back) and “Painting Box”

 

If you managed all ten minutes of the video, you’ll have seen both the “stoned” and the “immaculate” of the String Band, by turns faintly ridiculous then elegantly brilliant, the daftness and the deftness of it all.

I’m a bit of a fool for the compulsive eclecticism and oddness of the String Band, but I also love the way the pair of them simply cannot help themselves, decorating their songs with more and more elaborate musical swirls, even to the point of an ill-advised obscuring of their original (often very simple) idea.

At my most florid, I like to think of the Incredible String Band as having something of the medieval acolyte about them – countless hours spent illuminating holy texts with impressive and at times reckless embellishments that few will ever see or appreciate. (But if Williamson and Heron have taught me anything, it’s that some ideas are best not actually expressed, or at least privately, after a couple of drinks…)

I do have a Lucky Seven collection of must have ISB recordings to enjoy, but being out in the wilds, this will have to wait… Enjoy the YouTube clips in the meantime…

Try it, play it secretly, pour yourself a drink (or whatever) and embrace a little daft/deft eccentricity. God knows we deserve it at times.

Summer’s here and oh, the time is right…

The summer hols are with us! It’s that time where habitually-beleaguered teachers can be seen strolling ostentatiously through town, whistling jaunty tunes and looking indecently chipper; appearing in bars, dusting off their cycling shorts and baking their own bread. In short, catching up on “life”…

And so it is over at PP Penthouse Suite too.

Although… you’d think there might be a little more activity over here – a web-based spring-clean, perhaps; a few more gig reviews; an in-depth Incredible String Band retrospective – but, well, no. What there is is a substantial stepping up of music consumption, but sadly possibly even less dodgy writing about it.

To be honest, my over-stretched car stereo has struggled to keep up with the pace this week, as I flutter from one thing to another. In the last few days, I reckon we’ve had a dose of each of the following:

  • some goofy seventies funk from Somalia
  • a fair bit of the Barr Brothers (after Thekla)
  • further Somali incursions
  • a Josephine Foster record sung in Spanish (mostly too hard for me)
  • the first Incredible String Band album (because I’m reading a Mike Heron book)
  • some disappointingly leaden psychedelia
  • Dragnet (because… well… c’mon I don’t have to do this, do I…?)

I’ll tell you, I’m struggling to keep up with myself. But anyway, here we go…

And now, I’m back on to this irresistible Somali collection obtained from the kind folk at eMusic and courtesy of New York label Ostinato Records:

 

The basic premise of the whole record is that during the seventies and eighties, there was a brief period of enormous musical fun (as testified above) which was eventually silenced as the regime became more and more repressive, and the artists were driven into exile (or far worse). This is, of course, a horribly familiar tale that I’ve made reference to before in posts about Ethiopia and Cambodia, and I’m sure there are more.

I’ve got nothing factual of my own to add about the record but there’s a pretty good article about the Sweet as Broken Dates collection from the BBC, here.

It’s a gorgeous record though, full of exotic r’n’b, led by squiggly organ lines, over-confident brass sections and unlikely bluebeat rhythm sections, that I really can’t recommend highly enough. Lyrics are of course completely unintelligible to most, but I read somewhere that a lot of songs of the time were necessarily sycophantic odes towards the Barre regime, and as such best swiftly passed over. I’d love to find out more about the Waaberi band, but I’m given to understand that it was something of an all-star collective of session players formed on the spot with the main purpose of performing current hits and singing the praises of President Barre.

LikembeBest thing of all, is that as a result of all this, I’ve come across a cracking Blog called Likembe that I heartily recommend you all visit. I’ve recently hooked a bunch of beautiful, energetic Somali and Ethiopian records that the good gentlefolk there have made available in the best spirit of the Blogosphere. God bless them!

Fill your boots and tell ‘em I sent you…

I was already claimed by the song that I heard…

There are few things better (and here I’m including fine wine, suitcases of cash and the love and respect of your fellow man) than a chum unexpectedly telling you he has a ticket for a gig with your name on it.

Yee-haw!

And thus was a humdrum Thursday transformed into something just a little bit special when my mate Adam texted me the news that a ticket for previously unknown-to-me act the Barr Brothers did indeed literally have my name written on it (in a metaphorical sense).

At Thekla too… a blessed and fortunate man, for sure.

The Barr Brothers, Thekla

I’d heard of the Barr Brothers without actually being moved to search them out at any point. And I probably did have time to do a bit of pre-gig research but, in the spirit of the day, I spurned the opportunity and took the DExEu line, breezing into the hall without notes, grinning stupidly at other punters as they struggled beneath the weight of their prep. This approach continues to work well for many but has also served me well in the past – the Lemon Twigs and Meilyr Jones spring to mind. Expectation levels were moving towards unrealistically high levels.

Thekla has apparently had something of a refurb recently, and the old tub was indeed looking grand, resplendent in a fresh coat of black paint, pipework looking ever more random, the floor triumphantly unstickied. I love Thekla, unfeasibly and with some heart (the head says “Fleece” but the heart, well, it wants what it wants); and it’s always gratifying when a band (usually American) is also a little bit giddy at the prospect of playing on a… you know … boat.

The little thinking I had done about the evening had me envisioning the Barr Brothers as some sort of goodtime bluegrass boys – beards, booze and banjos – but now I’ve done a little googling, I see little could be further from the truth. Brad and Andrew Barr are proper brothers and are in fact Montreal-based. No banjos, no beards, a mug of coffee, as it turned out. Brad writes and leads the songs, Andrew provides light and wristy accompaniment on drums. A bassist and a deliciously skilful pedal steel guitarist join them on stage, plus today a two-man brass section, but the third member of the band is actually harpist Sarah Pagé who apparently no longer tours (which was a shame) but is still active in the songwriting and recording.

Opening songs were strong and a little rough around the edges with some wonderful keening touches from that pedal steel player (Brett Lanier, as you’re asking – he was great, although on a tight leash most of the time – once or twice I thought he was on the point of going off all Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but regrettably kept his discipline). A good few of the songs featured some tough old Jason Molina-style break-outs on guitar from Brad Barr which became full-on howling feature points (all of it accompanied by furious eyebrow work). He also did this weird thing with loose strings on his guitar, conjuring them high and coaxing odd layers of sound from them like a Theremin – I’d not seen anything like it before – and by the end there was some backward guitar looping too (go figure…).

Barring a lengthy blues work out that overstayed its welcome at the two-minute mark, the rest of the set was by turns tight and sloppy, blunt and incisive, and buzzed with a zesty melancholy. It was really very good and I felt moved in a feckless act of heady flamboyance to buy both the CDs available at the merch stall (their 2nd and 3rd records, Sleeping Operator and Queens of the Breakers). I may still grow to love them but right now they sound a little over-produced and currently have been tossed carelessly on the back seat of the car, some Somali goofiness having usurped their place in the stereo (I probably need to sort this).

The live recordings, though, are much harsher and all the better for it, I reckon.

These were my favourites:

Look Before It Changes (some gorgeous Midlake-style electronics from Lanier here)

Come in the Water (apologies for the yelping ninny in the audience who “joins in” whilst Barr does his own nifty wah-wah pedal work)

Song That I Heard

A lovely night, all the better for its unexpectedness…

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