She speaks a word and it gently turns to a perfect metaphor

Yesterday’s rather pathetic little note aside (I was worrying that I wasn’t going to get anything said at all…), I’m still processing the huge news of Mark E Smith’s passing, mostly unsuccessfully. But instead, here’s something completely different that’s been germinating for a couple of weeks…

I’ve felt for a while that I should, you know, concentrate harder on stuff. I spend far too much time flitting drunkenly from one sticky treat to another, like some sort of doe-eyed lush, lazy, ill-disciplined, and unwilling to apply myself. But I’m better than that, I tell myself, I’m a gentleman of a certain age, after all, it can’t be beyond me…

So, 2018, here we go. Load up with some Laura Marling, have a crack at something different, I’m up.

Laura Marling

(Just reading those lines back, I’m making a bit of a meal of it, aren’t I? It’s hardly Throbbing Gristle or Stockhausen – it’s light, it’s gentle. it’s acoustic, nothing to fret over. The problem as such is that she’s not Latin or African; she doesn’t use a wah-wah; she sings in English (for God’s sake) and at a mere 27 she’s still very much alive. She’s white, popular, well-heeled and articulate. Where’s the fun?)

Semper Femina is actually Marling’s seventh album, I believe, (so, once again, we’re arriving at the party fashionably late), and has garnered armfuls of sought-after awards and nominations for her previous six. I’m not yet up to speed about any of these other ones, but that’s something I’ll need to sort.

She’s apparently pretty sparing with her interviews, so I’d definitely recommend a read of this one from The Line of Best Fit, either to catch up like me, or to puzzle your way through some of her taut, complex ideas…

When you listen to a new artist, you tend to look for easily-drawn lines and boxes to put people in (to get a handle, as much as anything) but the thing that struck me as I went through the initial listen, is how different the first three tracks sound to each other. The clunky, catchy rhythms of opener “Soothing” sound as if they could’ve come from a Tom Waits record. Ah-ha, I think, until the more conventionally singer-songwriter feel of “The Valley” flitters into view. OK…, thinks I, and then we’re into the vaguely soulful trembling chords of “Wild Fire”. All three songs are really strong but slightly disorientating for a newbie trying to bed in.

There’s a similar range throughout the record, which may well be a Marling “thing”, but leaves you feeling a bit heavy-footed as you venture in deeper. I’ve now listened to the record a good few times and can honestly say I don’t feel much closer to knowing what Laura Marling sounds like. It’s all a little unsettling.

I’m guessing this is not an accident. You go through some of the reviews, and the first thing they mention is that this is an exploration of femaleness and the artist’s identity – and if that’s not intimidating enough for a clumsy middle-aged bloke, the songs are all frighteningly accomplished. She plays with poise and with purpose, the arrangements are confident, and although I’m labouring a point about the different vocal styles, they’re never less than spot-on. I’m impressed, (and intimidated).

The title of the record, addresses the issue of femininity directly (if indirectly – it’s part of a quote from Virgil about the fickleness of women – as any fule know), which is another dimly flashing light for this old git. It’s like a lighthouse that seems to say “Don’t go near these rocks, you won’t understand”. And, lo and behold, I don’t. This is a set of lyrics that certainly don’t over-explain themselves, the songs are personal and feel like they’ve been pared down to the bone at times. There’s no context and little time wasted on filling you in. Keep up, they say. Try harder!

All of this would suggest that Semper Femina is not for me, that it’s a land of prickly, unfriendly metaphors that I’ll not be comfortable with, that I should actually go back to my safe place of goofy psychedelia and fuzzy garage, but actually I can’t leave the damn thing alone. Each knotty line sticks wilfully in my mind from one song to the next. It’s the best sort of ear-worm and bizarrely enough, I think I’ve played it more than the Fall Peel Sessions box set I armed myself with Thursday morning.

I’m particularly fond of this ungainly thing with its dual bass-lines…

 

There are a number of songs here that I’m still not really clear about but this is OK, and the enchanting prospect of getting to know them better is running through my mind as I write. I know it’s a mistake to think the most recent record is the one all the others have been leading up to, (although, there’s also the thing about the title having been tattooed on her thigh for the last ten years) but… I can’t help thinking that the recording of Semper Femina is something significant for Laura Marling.

I think I’m going to have another listen…

And the movement in your brain sends you out into the rain

I probably should be making a list right now (and presumably, checking it twice), although as tends to happen every year, suddenly I find there’s other things I want to write about. So, ground-breaking fresh music that surfs the cusp of the newest of new waves, or some old toot from days of yore…

Anyone who’s ever had even the most fleeting acquaintance with this Blog will probably have a fair idea which way this is going to go…

Nick Drake

Last Christmas, a friend gave me Patrick Humphries’ book about Nick Drake which it’s taken me almost a full year to pick up. Shame, it’s a pretty good read, and it gave me a much fuller picture of the man. We’re all well accustomed to the general picture of the shy, pained genius who gradually disappeared from view and eventually succumbed to his depression way back in the years of Rock History.

I wasn’t aware, though, of the recollections of his school friends who had clear pictures of Nick Drake playing rugby at Marlborough school and breaking sprint records; drinking and chatting in Cambridge pubs; careening drunkenly through France and Spain; driving obsessively around country lanes for the pleasure of time behind the wheel; his friendship with, love of and latter dependence on Joe Boyd.

The comments from family and friends are also pretty illuminating. Boyd and Island Records seem to have been pretty decent in their attempts to support him; John Martyn seems to the end to have been somewhat haunted by his own sporadic, fruitless attempts to draw Drake out of himself; Linda Thompson a wretched spectator at the gradual unwinding she witnessed; Danny Thompson an exasperated cajoler of the super sensitive songwriter (“and I thought all he needs is a bloody good bacon and chip butty, a kick up the arse and a couple of shags”); Drake’s own parents overwhelmingly generous, sympathetic but heart-breakingly powerless.

For me, I was first introduced to the gossamer-thin Drake catalogue by a girlfriend back in mid-eighties and I’ll confess to having listened to Five Leaves Left a lot in my teens but precious little since. And I’ve not really gone very deep into his other two records. Barely scratched the surface to be honest…

There’s of course nothing new to be added to the Drake story, least of all by this hapless blogger, but I’ve recently picked up Pink Moon again, and it’s still pretty powerful. Considering the circumstances it was recorded under – Drake was reportedly at his darkest, refusing to work unless behind a screen or facing the wall, and at times unable to play and sing at the same time – there’s some real drive behind it. The book makes a lot of the dynamic and innovative guitar stylings and obscure tunings. This mostly falls on deaf ears to klutz like myself but I actually was struck by the playing. There’s a punchy rhythm behind it which drives the songs along to a rapid, often hurried conclusion (it’s a very short album, almost treasonously so for 1974). The song that really stands out for me is “Things Behind the Sun”, which hurtles along lickety-spit, delivering its (not entirely) nihilistic burden with a deep determination in four minutes of dazzling, busy confusion which compel you to pick the needle up and take it back for another go (I’m using a pre-digital metaphor here, kids – ask your Dad).

There is literally no known footage of Drake playing and I think just one John Peel session, so precious little YouTube stuff to refer to, but these couple of clips are quite informative…

The first is from the Boyd-compiled tribute record Way to Blue – The Songs of Nick Drake which gives us a band I don’t know (and have no beef with, I should add) covering “Things Behind the Sun” (give it a minute or so, it’s OK, but a bit soulless)

 

And now listen to this, the furiously knotty original version from Pink Moon.

 

It’s not a comparison particularly flattering to Luluc, but it serves its purpose. You’ll have gathered I’m struggling to put into words what is essentially so rare and precious about the man (dancing about architecture, and all that). But if you give the two a listen, you’d have to have the fleeciest of cloth ears not to hear the difference between the commonplace and the exceptional – albeit flawed, battered and at times scarcely breathing.

Ça, c’est un théière volant, originale!

In truth, I’m feeling a bit under the weather at the moment – I feel like that cartoon of a stoned guy with his face melting – alas nothing as exotic as that, just a dose of man-flu and generally feeling a bit sorry for myself.

It’s half term, so I’ve not got any demands on my time for the moment – I can afford the luxury of moping around at home, watching Hammer films and generally loafing. Can’t complain…

Gong, Rockenstock, 1973

Disappearing down a YouTube wormhole is one of life’s pleasures, I reckon, and today I’ve just spent a happy hour and a half wandering through a series of hopelessly silly prog videos, inspired by a chance mention of the Matching Mole video that I’ve talked about before. That was a clip from a French TV program, called Rockenstock, presented by Pierre Lattès and released in January 1971. It’s great and worth another look, not only for the home-knitted gimp mask that Wyatt wears, without comment, but also for the great chunk that’s missing from the man’s high hat by the end of the show.

I’ve only this afternoon realised there’s a few other Rockenstock programs available, including this gem of a film made about Gong.

I’ve always had a lot of time for people who are utterly sure of themselves and are absolutely committed to do what they do regardless of whether the rest of the world thinks they’re a bit of a dick. And just as I have a huge regard for Wyatt’s psychedelic gimp mask, I can only grin foolishly and applaud Daevid Allen with his ridiculous knitted (again) pixie hat, third-eye headband and orange tunic.

The show is recorded in the band’s French house in the countryside outside Paris, where they all lived as a community. It’s terrifically barmy and features electric performances of “I never glid before” and “Witches Song / I am your pussy” (complete with ‘Whispering’ Gilli Smyth in all her feline splendour), all interspersed with chatty interviews in the band’s kitchen, surrounded by bowls of salad, teapots (flying of course) and an alarming number of bees.

There’s a delightful piece at the end when Lattès interviews a number of the older local people, including the Master of the local Hunt, who are all charmed by the hippies (“Everywhere they go they pay their bills”) and are disappointed at their decision to move back to England.

I originally watched this version which has no subtitles, picking up what I could from my schoolboy French, but just enjoying the whole thing, erm… pataphysically but if you don’t fancy that there is a longer video which adds various other Gong clips and crucially, does include subtitles.

Close the curtains, pour yourself a beer and settle in… Gong, in all their charming silliness:

You’ve been living in a world forgotten!

Turns out the odd dose of indolence and slovenliness can save you more than a little embarrassment. Who knew?

I thought about posting this a good fortnight ago, but the iron had begun to cool and I’d still not struck – as is my wont I allowed the moment to pass… But actually the fates gave me a second chance when I noticed by purest chance that the record I’d been loonishly head-bobbing along to in the car was not actually the one I imagined it was. I’d been thinking it was the latest by rangy cowpokes, Omni, but whadya know? I’m an idiot. Turns out, when I eventually prized it from the stereo, I’d actually been listening to the band’s 2016 debut, Deluxe, rather than their 2017 sophomore Multi-Task.

In my defence, I’d just stuck the thing in the car stereo without looking overmuch at the track listing and ran with it heartily. Actually, this has turned out rather well, as it’s meant that I get to start all over again with the new one, having loved the previous one. It’s also meant that I’ve managed to avoid looking like a bit of a burke (go on, I’m just going to let you have that one…).

Omni

Omni are a trio from Athens, Georgia, led by sinewy guitarist Frankie Broyles, specialising in twitchy, funky post-punk and signed to one of my regular favourite labels, Trouble in Mind. (I think I did a post about how you can pretty much pick any of TiM’s bands and blow your paper-round money on them. And, that’s clearly still the case…)

I’ll stick to thinking about this year’s record today, but I genuinely can’t decide which of the two I prefer – they’re both wondrous, boisterous things that I’d wholeheartedly recommend you get hold of.

Here’s the first track on Multi-Task, “Southbound Station”:

 

You’ll have been struck by the very first bars, I’ll warrant:

“You said to meet at the centre of Lennox Square / I’m drenched in sweat / And you can bet I’m already there,”

and in best Pitchfork-style, I’m going to take that as some sort of mission statement for the band, although I’d better qualify it by saying I don’t think this is really middle ground stuff, I think they’re throwing you off the scent a little. It’s all a clever left-field ruse…

There’s heaps of feverish running around and general rootlessness all through the record – trains, hotel lobbies, RSVPs, mints on pillows – and even as this the first song moves into its next verse (“You said to meet at the corner of Boulevard”) you’re getting used to the fact that there’s more than a little misdirection throughout.

As well as this, I reckon I can also hear a fair amount of “found”, overheard snippets of rush-hour conversations, studiously collected and languidly delivered by bassist Phillip Frobos (and feverishly embellished by Broyles’ dot-to-dot guitar work). It makes the lyrics sound as disjointed and fragmented as the tunes themselves.

Musically, the songs are pretty chaotic too. Tight, zany, Devo-ish chords collide with each other like so many cartoonish cars concertinaed together after an unlikely traffic incident. Actually, I’ve said “Devo” (I’ve read XTC a couple of times too), but over the week I’ve thought again and again about Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton’s Through-the-Looking-Glass guitar pieces from Trout Mask Replica. It’s all a bit breathless and hysterical.

Have a listen to “Tuxedo Blues” and tell me it ain’t so…

 

Cracking stuff and not for the first time, I’m left thinking “Where would we be without the good Captain?”

It was kinda stormy with an RnB beat

I’ve just downloaded an intriguing new record from eMusic (and when I say “new”, you’ve probably guessed I mean “really old and a little odd”…)

Graham Bond

It’s “Love is the Law” by gravelly-voiced sixties growler Graham Bond, a man who played a star role in bringing the mighty Hammond organ to the sixties public (and at least one suggestible West Country lad, twenty years later). Bond was also responsible for giving breaks to Jack Bruce, John MacLaughlin, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Ginger Baker and probably a few others in his Graham Bond Organisation. As well as being a band leader and organist, he was also an accomplished alto sax player and apparently played both on stage (at the same time).

Image result for graham bond love is the law

“Love is the Law” came out in 1969 and even by then, it was beginning to look like the ship might well have sailed for the GBO – his various alumni had graduated to high-profile posts in the Rock Cabinet, and Bond was increasingly looking like a latter-day Boris Johnson, his Bullingdon pals having timed their runs a little better than he had. With the exception of the drum parts, he played all the other instruments himself (he was also one of those organists who would play basslines on his pedals…)

By this point, he’d become somewhat erratic and unreliable, (there was a disturbing reliance on kaftans). On top of this, he was obsessed with Aleister Crowley and occultism (the record actually credits Bond with a kind of magickal extra “e”), and had spent time in hospitals fighting depression and addiction. The poor feller died under a tube train in 1974.

I’m still exploring the record – it’s a little patchy to be fair – but there are some strong moments, and the ubiquitous ringing organ and spiteful vocals are certainly worth a go, if anyone fancies a slightly different seventies blues, sans guitar.

On a whim, I thought I’d see if there were any live performances on YouTube (there are, go look…) but as I was looking I came across this glorious piece of raybanned silliness from some sort of cult film called “Gonks Go Beat”:

Go! Go! GO!

 

(definitely Ginger Baker on drums, Heckstall-Smith on sax and I think it’s Bruce on harmonica too…)

The distance between love and your heart is too far beyond my imagination…

A beautiful sunny bank holiday morning, how often does that happen. eh? What better way to take advantage of it than sitting in your attic room, headphones on, surfing the Internet?

When I first started this Blog, way back when Gloucester and Arsenal weren’t the butt of jokes; when Trump was just a racist property-developer and before hucksters ruled the world (simpler times…), I used to spend quite a lot of time reading other better-informed, more dynamic Blogs. And occasionally I return to these sites just to see what’s happening, (and to scav a few tips, of course).

I went back to one of them last week, the always interesting, always revelatory Aquarium Drunkard and came across this fabulous mixtape compiled by a musician called Ahmed Gallab, known as Sinkane, and hosted by AD. It’s a wonderful selection of tracks back from Gallab’s childhood memories growing up in Sudan, which he prefaces with “Every Sudanese family has a drawer full of cassettes in their home”. All rather wonderful…

I know next to nothing about Sudan but the first few bars of the first track, by Abdelkarim Al-Kabli got me checking where exactly Sudan is, and sure enough, it borders with the capital of seventies swing and sway, Ethiopia. I’m unaware of there being an actual “Swinging Khartoum” scene but the crossovers between these tracks and all that Ethiopiques madness are obvious to hear, and I’m sure are literal as well as figurative.

Here is Mr Al Kabli, performing “Hani Ardon” (semi-) live, backed by a full string section, languid, tumbling hand percussion and his own work on the oud:

 

I know, it’s video footage with an audio soundtrack over the top, which is certainly a massive shame. Still, a treat, no? (By the way, if you go to YouTube to watch the video, the comments underneath are informative too).

My favourite track from the AD/Sinkane collection is this belter from Al Balabil, three sisters from the Wadi-Half region of the country, who became known as the Sudanese Supremes (watch it, before you scoff).

 

You see! It’s great isn’t it? I love the unhinged rhythm and the monomaniac bassline. The vocals really rock, too, stomping a careful, deliberate path between traditional ways and a raucous fifties-style rhythm and blues.

“Al Balabil” (or “Al Bilibal” as Sinkane would have it – vowel sounds are tricky when you have to move between scripts) translates as “The Nightingales”, a real Motown name, if ever I heard one. The sisters were encouraged in their career by their father and as you can imagine caused quite a stir, singing, dancing and travelling unaccompanied around the country but were apparently massively popular in Seventies Sudan before narrowing attitudes and the inevitable military coup caused the clouds to close back in and the sisters to retire. I’ve done this whole lost-in-the-midst-of-horror thing before and there’s not a whole lot more to say about it.

And I’m not going to pretend know much about them myself. But fortunately, as ever, there are people who do. There’s a great biog of the Nightingales here, which I heartily recommend (although the link to a collection is, alas, dead).

Go on, here’s some more… (This one might be even better)

Apparently, two of the sisters having moved to the USA, there are occasional trips back to Khartoum for reunions and actual dates played. Wouldn’t that be something?

Two guitars and a whistle, basically…

 

Just come back from a very agreeable week of getting-it-together-in-the-country, ensconced in a converted barn near Abergavenny. A lovely few days of doing very little, apart from indulging ourselves to a ridiculous degree. We ate like fish, drank like students, read like kings and walked like things that walk a lot. All very restorative, I can tell you. No wifi of course, so I stocked up on podcasts and spunked away my eMusic allowance on all sorts of feckless exotica, including one particular whimsical Celtic delight.

As a callow trippy youth, I remember reading about Edinburgh’s archetypal acid-folksters the Incredible String Band and their “masterpiece” The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Amazingly, (and presumably in error), Gloucester HMV actually stocked it – as the years have gone by and HMV has become ever more dull-witted, this has seemed more and more unlikely, but it really happened – and I spent an astronomical £4.99 on it.

I think it’d be safe to say that a naïve Doors/Hendrix/Soft Machine fan was in no way prepared for the degree of strangeness and fantastical silliness that I was to encounter from note one. It took a whole lot of frantic listening (and more than a little desperate determination) to convince myself that I’d not wasted my money and to become reconciled to the highly idiosyncratic Heron/Williamson style.

These days, I’m kind of OK with a bit of Incredible String Band, but if I could go back in time I’d probably spring in front of the aforementioned callow youth, and suggest that he might like to try a bit of Dr Strangely Strange first before going straight on to the String stuff.

Dr Strangely Strange

This over-extended and fairly tortuous analogy is my way of saying that Dublin’s Dr Strangely Strange were a bit like the Incredible String Band, less “Incredible” but still quite “Stringy”.

Formed in 1967 by guitarists Tim Booth and Ivan Pawle, and then joined by multi-instrumentalist Tim Goulding on harmonium and ping pong bats, Dr Strangely Strange became favourites of John Peel and managed to get the String Band’s producer, the great Joe Boyd, to work on their second record 1970’s Heavy Petting.

It’s a pretty varied, mainly acoustic affair with all manner of exotic instrument being trundled out – harmoniums, mandolins, dulcimers, ocarinas, banjos, a whole range of flutes and whistles, and some “distinctive” vocal stylings. The songs are charming time-pieces of gossamer-thin folksiness, touching lightly on pastoral life, requited love, church organs and wasps.

On the whole, however, the odd dash of blues (and a few bursts of electric guitar from a teenage Gary Moore) keeps the record safely on this side of the bank, and would have ensured that my younger self felt a little less adrift than the poor feller was with Hangman’s.

My favourite track is the lugubrious “Sign on my Mind” with its two distinctive extended instrumental breaks, one more pastoral with some exquisite acoustic guitar and mandolin meanderings, the other more bluesy (I think this may be where Gary Moore gets his chance…)

 

The lyrics, without scaling the fey heights of silliness that Heron and Williamson managed, are playful and mainly pretty daft – but again the use of a fair smattering of Christian images and the odd earthy metaphor ensure that the first time listener has a helpful line of breadcrumbs to follow out of the woods.

As we drove home from our brief sojourn, we came past Glanusk, the home of the ever-wonderful Green Man festival, and it struck me that obscure and largely forgotten as the Strangelies are, their legacy and that of the String Band is writ large upon the hillsides of today’s folk scene. Gorky’s fans, for example, will be familiar with many of the sounds and stylings of Booth and Pawle, and I’d be very surprised if there’s not a copy of Heavy Petting nestling coyly in Euros Childs’ record collection.

Even in the heady days of the late sixties, (and even with the patronage of Joe Boyd) success eluded the slender fingers of the band and Goulding left to enter a Buddhist monastery (as one did in those days), with Booth and Pawle struggling on for a few months before separating by 1973.

There is, however, a rather fine documentary about Dr Strangely Strange, called Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal, which is available in three parts on YouTube. Here’s the first part as a taster (although sadly it cuts out in the last couple of minutes):

 

The sound track to a wander in the Welsh hillsides…

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