Tuesday, 29 April 2008

µ-ZIQ: Roy Castle

His 1995 album …In Pine Effect, complete with cover illustration of a woodcarved record player, did not remain on catalogue for long, and is generally regarded as a moderately mischievous postscript to 1994’s Bluff Limbo, though in view of its dedication to his then newborn son Damon, Mike Paradinas was in a noticeably more playful mood throughout.

Roy Castle was almost the last of that once widespread breed, the all-round entertainer; actor, comedian, singer, dancer, multi-instrumentalist (although the trumpet was his primary instrument), and for many years the intrepid, try anything star of the BBC children’s series Record Breakers; he never quite made it to superstardom – he once said that he felt he lacked some essential quality to become a megastar but didn’t particularly regret not having it. Decades of blowing his trumpet in smoky clubs, however, left him with lung cancer through extreme passive smoking, and he passed on in 1994, aged just 62 and not without a long and typically sporting fight.

Almost uniquely for its time, µ-ziq’s “Roy Castle” was a non-ironic tribute to the man and Paradinas’ own childhood memories; it steadily builds up through a sternly and rather solemnly descending three-chord line as the beats come in, element by element. At 2:10 a jaunty, massed synth trumpet melody enters and the rhythm becomes progressively more excitable until at 3:15 it explodes with Paradinas’ typical Scrapheap Challenge cut-and-paste corrugated sheets of beats.

The tribute is a highly danceable and graceful one; solos on synth trumpet and trombone follow, and the beat matrix really does feel like heavy duty, yet curiously light, tap dancing. Eventually all of the elements coalesce in a hazy kaleidoscope of recalled haze for a final climactic celebration before everything disappears into an extended echo of melancholy remembrance. The lad from Holmfirth would certainly have approved.

Monday, 28 April 2008


Not so much included here for its musical greatness - like much of Amnesiac, it's an interesting experiment which doesn't quite come off, largely because Thom Yorke didn't yet have the vocal fluidity to inherit the desired damn you England persona of masked politesse - but as a pointer towards the wonder of Humphrey Lyttelton and his band agreeing to appear, orchestrate and (Jonny Greenwood's deadpan piano chords notwithstanding) play on the piece to begin with. I cannot think of anyone else who managed to play with both Louis Armstrong and Radiohead, nor anyone else who would have had a mind sufficiently open to do so (though I note the presence in the contingent of his band which he brought to the sessions with him of reedman Jimmy Hastings, a man who once played on records by the Soft Machine).

As you know, Laura and I never made it to that Radiohead gig at South Park, but Lyttelton's band were as I understand it by far the most successful and popular of the support acts which appeared that Saturday (locals Supergrass included); assessing and understanding this audience perfectly, Lyttelton sauntered amiably onstage, asked whether anyone was up for a game of Mornington Crescent to a huge roar to approval and then dived enthusiastically into a set of Dixieland's Greatest Hits - "The Saints," "Tiger Rag," "Muskrat Ramble" and so on, all present and correct, and he and his players got the audience awake, vertical and dancing.

Lyttelton possessed a character strong yet humble enough to fit in with any environment, while always genially suggesting that he was never to be moved from what he thought right; almost uniquely among Old Etonians, he was a socialist all his life, and almost uniquely among his generation, he was forever open to new ideas. He was of the same generation as Larkin and Amis, yet his unquenchable desire to move forward (and sideways into cartooning and mock quiz show presenting, if so he wished) remained undimmed; reading Larkin's All What Jazz? now gives me the same queasiness of late period Ian MacDonald - the self-exhausted pining of a man who, having progressively shut every available door on himself and opted for slow self-obliteration, criticises the daylight for not being as bright as it had been in, say, 1936 (or 1966).

Lyttelton was happy and wise enough to avoid such traps; he pioneered the British trad revival immediately after the war, and over a decade before it went pop, only to move on to the then unheard-of realm of Afro-Cuban fusions inspired by saxophonist and arranger Kenny Graham (still a hugely underrated figure and the nearest thing Britain has ever produced to a Gil Evans equivalent); when he incorporated Bruce Turner, not only a saxophonist (the scandal!) but a decidedly post-bop one, into his band it was nearly the equivalent of Dylan going electric at Newport. Then he even had the temerity to have a hit single - 1957's "Badpenny Blues" with engineer Joe Meek seemingly submerging Johnny Parker's piano under several leagues of the River Thames (and which would directly inspire "Lady Madonna" over a decade later).

As a broadcaster - and I will leave assessment of his 36-year tenure as compere/unwitting (or was he?) double entendre specialist on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue to others - his Radio 2 show The Best Of Jazz was, along with parallel broadcasts by Charles Fox and Peter Clayton, a vital element towards my early understanding of jazz. While it is fair to say that the advent of Ornette was more or less where he got off the bus, he skilfully avoided the pitfall of criticising the New Thing and diplomatically continued to ensure a good proportion of contemporary input among his cherished favourites; everyone from the Brotherhood of Breath via Lester Bowie to Brad Mehldau received fair and usually favourable treatment, and in his late sixties band he even found room for the likes of John Surman and Chris Pyne.

His own playing was forthright and yet fundamentally melancholy on trumpet - he considered himself extremely fortunate for his long-term association with the veteran Buck Clayton as fellow musician and composer/arranger - and ruminative or rumbustious on his lesser-heard clarinet. Always restructuring his band to allow space for newcomers to thrive and learn alongside veterans, his music was never a period piece, always happily exploratory - and we owe it to Lyttelton for recognising and encouraging Helen Shapiro's talents as a great jazz and blues singer.

In my last years in Oxford, it was frequently the most cleansing of tonics after a muddy, insufferable Monday to return home, especially in summer, listening to The Best Of Jazz, marvelling at whatever gems he had unearthed that week. Now, like Peel, he is gone, and although 86 is a more than fair innings by anyone's standards, the fact remains that another subtle constant in my life has disappeared into history. A fine and unrepeatable man who never got bored with opening doors, ever eager to move on to the next chapter - standing gainly and gladly outside any restricting glasshouses, and never once wanting or needing to throw stones.

Friday, 25 April 2008


It's 1975, but Joe Gallivan starts a thousand years early, Aztec gold on Mars synth drums pinging around the blue aerosphere like a penguin locked out of the Pyramids, searing seagulls of monotonal high-pitch string synthesiser, growls of guitar feedback, tea being stirred in the cup, bells, bluer slowdives of slower glass, and then the bassline appears, being played on tuned tablas.

A riff! Enter the worship! Forever descending or bowing down, and the tempo isn't quite clear; juddery rock or straight 4/4 cool bop? Clashing scarlet swords of cymbals, bassline now played on Fender bass, fuzzy synth bass, tuba, baritone sax, icicles of icerink string sounds, ramshackle but pinpointingly sharp brass and wind lines, the voice of Hannibal Marvin Peterson erupting from a citadel a thousand moth flights to the sun away - Hendrix, no one can get away from him, Ryo Kawasaki can't stop invoking him on his guitar, crackling, screeching, yelling, bowing - and the lyrics are par for the uh-oh Tony Williams as a lyricist he's a great drummer course but it fits; how could it not? "I love you more than what's happening - I. Love. You. More," he sings among other things as syndrums plummet down and blow up the landscape anew such that from Ellingtonian dignity we are thrust into the Ultravox alien (in 1975, remember) as cold, awesome headlands of lunar sea sweep into chillingly dark and silver view (on the personnel listing of There Comes A Time I count five synth players), cruising, speeding, out to reform all impatient infinities.

Then Billy Harper with his post-Dexter tenor, just about hanging on (not long afterwards he conceded defeat and seceded his place in Evans' reed section to Arthur Blythe) as the universe reshapes itself around his digging in, frequently (as on "General Assembly" from six years earlier) rendering him inaudible, but still he persists to the next thematic statement...then a lull turning into a lullaby, the galaxies transversed in turquoise, and the clouds part to reveal...

Miles 1957, Peterson now on trumpet, against the same silky block chords that Gil used with Thornhill, but there's that triangle on the far right which just won't stop tingling, the bass clarinet which takes up the bassline (how many mouths does Howard Johnson have?), but again the slow agitation of asteroids, clanking its belated milk but not getting in the way as the blast towards a dime of defence razes numbness, makes Hannibal work harder, blow fuller, and again the starsplitting crescendo, one final vocal verse from Peterson, and then everyone's on their united own; melted crunches of electrical interference, guitar as static dust, every so often the skies stretching into clearance so that we can briefly cut back to Evans' deadpan piano comping and Bruce Ditmas' simple swing on the drums - remember where we started - before again flinging out into detuned debris, the aural camera switching restlessly from plugs to plungers and then the final thrust into ninth space (complete with a 2001 fanfare from Lew Soloff just before the waves of gamma devours the orchestra altogether)...and then fading out, a patient, polite lounge bar band, Kawasaki dutifully doing the Joe Pass comping, the everyday lifted into the extraordinary, the Out Of The Cool to Agharta's Miles Ahead!, and who knows where its time is going?

Thursday, 24 April 2008


Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard has tended to exist in the immense shadow of its immediate predecessor Rock Bottom; a less linear album although this is clearly spelt out in the title - the original vinyl issue was divided into Side Richard and Side Ruth. Though it does not hang together as "coherently" as Rock Bottom, that wasn't really the point; it is more of an impromptu mixtape of the music which was inspiring the Wyatt of 1975 - much of it is instrumental and jazz-directed while the vocal pieces divide up evenly into the "Muddy Mouth/Mouse" triptych which runs like the clearest and dankest of streams intermittently through Side Ruth and two songs which respectively see Wyatt singing from the point of view of an ingredient in a bowl of soup and a football. Aside from that there is also an amiable run through Mongezi Feza's classic tune "Sonia" - recorded when Feza had less than a year to live, and his pocket trumpet sounds as heartbreakingly vibrant as ever - and the inevitable, if belated, pop song conversion of Charlie Haden's "Song For Che" elevated into the holy by Laurie Allen's raging free drums throughout. Nonetheless it is sad to see that many commenters still don't get the record - the irony of prog-rock websites criticising the record for insufficient prog content may well be a barometer of how low standards have sunk in recent times.

"Team Spirit," though, is the clear pick; Wyatt as football, cheerily/quietly but angrily debating the merits of being kicked about by his would-be kickers, with the obvious larger sociopolitical metaphors - "Beating shit out of me takes the hell out of you" - and the less obvious smaller interpersonal ones ("I'll be stuck here forever unless you come over and kick me, Hardy"), Wyatt brilliantly moving from downbeat braggard ("I'll beat the lot/I'll take the cake") to knowingly subversive suitor ("Be masterful, be my hero") to rhetorical challenger ("I mean, if this is only a question of toughness...").

The music is furiously phased post-jazz jazz, Bill MacCormick patiently flanging away on bass, Allen's drums maintaining near-Moholoesque intensity, the saxophones of Gary Windo and George Khan solemnly hissing in the background - and also one Brian Eno, credited with "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun" which in this instance seems to consist of delayed processing of individual phrases or beats combined with his characteristic post-Roxy pocket synth as about-to-be-stirred beehive.

Eno's presence (as wild card Premier League forward?) becomes snarlingly apparent in the long instrumental break; he is discreet behind Windo's fairly conventional tenor solo (including a brief medieval roundelay deviation) but filters and flutters into overt action as Khan's tenor growls and honks its way into the picture; as Khan hits the Pharaoh Sanders overblowing button, Eno unleashes a million queen bees from his briefcase and turns the solo into a neutron explosion, abruptly reducing the intensity again as Khan returns to the tune and Wyatt's voice (and deadpan piano) re-enter the frame. Finally Windo, Khan and Eno are left to trade Cool School phrases in asymmetrical Terry Riley tandems as Allen's kit is phased and flanged so heavily it practically turns into a drum machine. There remains little doubt that Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard aimed perfectly and scored its desired modest goals.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

THE CHRIS McGREGOR GROUP: Marie My Dear/Travelling Somewhere

I reached for my copy of Mingus At Monterey and reminded myself of Mingus' foreplay tactics in terms of starting his performance softly and gently with a medley of Ellington ballads, slowly and patiently building up to the eventual explosion of the climactic "Take The 'A' Train"; the importance of establishing real love rather than, as Mingus puts it in his sleevenote, "just jumping on the woman." And as soon as he started to strum, quietly, his audience immediately shut up, all the better to hear, and eventually to receive, him.

There is something of that subtle persuasion about the opening track on Very Urgent, the only album recorded by what in all other terms are the Blue Notes - but here credited as the Chris McGregor Group - with their full line-up outside of South Africa. Produced by Joe Boyd in 1968 in the same studio in which Nick Drake had recorded Five Leaves Left - Sound Techniques, halfway down Old Church Street in Chelsea - the album has now reappeared on CD after an absence of forty years from the rack.

Even those long familiar with the tectonic rough and tumble of later Blue Notes and the Brotherhood of Breath may find themselves astounded by Very Urgent - or, if they haven't heard it for decades, a new sensation of shock, although this shock, paradoxically, is preparedf for very methodically and meticulously. "Marie My Dear" has since become rather better known as "B My Dear" - it's a Dudu Pukwana tune, and the three horns play the unison line with great tenderness over slowly turning sands of rhythm; it does feel like the Mingus of "Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress" and is entirely gorgeous, performed with great grace and melodicism and only the hint of a storm to come. The horns briefly intertwine in conversation before, at 5:10, Pukwana takes an unaccompanied cadenza, and it is here that the temperature begins to heat up as we begin to hear the more familiar rapid-fire snarls and squawks from his alto.

The band then segues into McGregor's "Travelling Somewhere" but although they are clearly kicking at the boundaries, they keep their improvising within a more or less solid post-bop framework; everyone except Louis Moholo (caught in a rare between-beards shot in one of the inner sleeve photos) solos - Feza skitters, McGregor begins to poke out of tonality, Pukwana wails characeristically, tenorman Ronnie Beer, slightly off-mike, keeps his reserve, Dyani's solo suggests a strangely bouncing inner darkness. All in all it is a good and cunning introduction - this is where we're coming from, want to know where we're going?

And it's then that the fire really starts. Both of the following two tracks - "Heart's Vibrations" and a medley of "The Sounds Begin Again" and the tellingly-titled "White Lies" (all McGregor tunes) - explode with an incendiary and incisive blast which blows the petrified politesse of most 21st-century jazz clean out of the water. The roar of untrammelled freedom, the bombs of revolt; even those seeking sanctuary in the hope of danceable Brotherhood-style tunes will be slightly wrongfooted since this is the 1968 of Brotzmann's Machine Gun, of Mantler's Communications, of blood mixed with freeform fire; Mongs and Dudu coruscatingly swift and bold, Chris rattling Cecil Taylor's unused pots and pans on his piano, Moholo thrashing out 97 different rhythms with his right arm alone, Dyani, always sombre, mooring the tumult in its still unspeakable roots.

The real revelation, though, is Ronnie Beer, and it's a startling pleasure to hear him again in full cry; he was never one of the more forward voices of the Brotherhood and didn't solo on their first album (though you can hear him tootling on his Indian flute all the way through "Night Poem"), nor is his voice generally definable amidst the massed reed howls of Alan Silva's Celestial Communications Orchestra. While his solo on "Travelling Somewhere" suggested a slightly more open Wayne Shorter, Beer's tenor rumbles and gurgles through the subsequent tracks like a surer-footed Willem Brueker.

The recital ends with McGregor's arrangement of the old Transkei funeral march "Don't Stir The Beehive" (how threatening were those titles alone in 1968, and not just to the overly cosy British jazz establishment who, Ronnie Scott aside, opted to turn their heads and pretend that the Blue Notes didn't exist?), beginning in a suitably mournful tone before again taking off for an ecstatically and curiously danceable riot of sound; Mongs and Dudu's blowing here makes explicit their debt to the Ayler brothers - the same mixture of simple, neo-holy tunes and ultra-complex hyperspeed free blowing - and the general air is not dissimilar to Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner"; the same repeated attempts to play the tune as nobly as possible which are repeatedly subverted and drowned out by the howls of repression, the baton charges of cymbals and snare drum, the ominously booming police boots of the bass. The best moment, however, is left until the end, as the three horns stutter out a quavery rendition of the tune, like three especially ragged old soldiers of Samuel Beckett, before orbiting into a damn you scream of a sign-off. Not at all what the Blue Notes/Brotherhood neophyte will be expecting, but all the better for it; a reminder of just how high music was capable of going in 1968, and how slowly it took for it to help change everything.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

ALTERN-8: E-Vapor-8

Another record which Pick Of The Pops likes to pretend never happened, or play under extreme duress, as witness Dale Winton's catty remarks on "On A Ragga Tip" as he did his worst two days ago to repaint 1992 as a vapid luxury suite of AoR blandness. Even given the programme's innate straitjacket, in view of the immovable Radio 2 Sunday audience accustomed to things (especially Radio 2) as they were, I would note that many at the lower end of the station's intended 35-54 demographic would still just about have been teenagers and lived through the rave boom; are their memories (and in "their" I include "mine") to be trampled on permanently in favour of the obstructive "truth" of the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers?

"E-Vapor-8" was the sixth most popular single in Britain this week sixteen years ago and deserves to be celebrated (a triptych of CeCe Peniston's "Finally" at 8, "On A Ragga Tip" at 7 and this at 6 would have been true retro-heaven indeed). They were from Stafford, they wore Vick's Vapour Rub masks (hence the triple internal pun of the record's title) and neither Mark Archer nor Chris Peat seems to have made much money out of the venture despite their numerous hits; seekers of their one album, the immaculate Full-On Mask Hysteria (a greatest hits compilation, effectively, but most of the greatest albums are), will have to trawl the second-hand shops or ebay for a hard to find and (even if you do find it) prohibitively priced copy.

But they were shiny pop brilliance writ in tablets of a dusty yellow; pulling out "E-Vapor-8" again revealed an unfaded, unfazed explosion of wit, colour and ideas - and this may have been "our" true punk rock, the one "we" were lucky to live through, at (just about) the right age. The football commentary pastiche of the intro - those klaxons linking right back into Northern Soul - sets the scene brilliantly, and thereafter we get explosions, grinding, fuzzed out basslines (alternating subtly with subterranean LFO basses) with a clamorous, yearning female vocal atop, urgently donating the bitonal punctum which so many of the classic rave tracks boasted (no overt theorising; shove the best sounding vocal against the best sounding breakbeat/sample and see what magic transpires) before floating elegantly into the Kevin Saunderson poignancies of the "don't make me wait" section (since she doesn't want this feeling to evaporate - they also did some remixing work for Inner City around this time, most notably the astonishing reshaping of "Let It Reign," and became close friends with Saunderson). Then an 808 State-style overlapping keyboard main theme, minimalist yet expansive, and repeat/blend/shift to end, complete with occasional exclamations from the sidelines ("The crowd's going MAD!"). It's everything that the Sunday Radio 2 listeners long since gave up being, it's as cheerily offensive as Little Richard or John Lydon, it's all over the bleeding place, it's the M6 on a windy but happy Friday midnight, it's a pop Alton Towers, it's the Seeds to the Prodigy's Elevators, and it needs rescue and joyful reminder of what the "real" British pop of 1992 was all about. Nestle it alongside Right Said Fred and Shakespeare's Sister - and with L7 and the Blur of "Popscene" - with pride.

Monday, 21 April 2008

THE B-52s: Funplex

There remains something of a snobbery about elder pop statesmen/women; when Neil or Joni get to a certain age and offer imperious observations on this declining world, they are hailed, or at the very least nodded at. But when a group like the B-52s - who were always about now as tomorrow, or vice versa - reach that same stage most remain baffled. Weren't they supposed to self-destruct in 1981, or 1991, or whenever? Thus something like "Keep This Party Going," the defiantly celebratory throwdown which closes their new album Funplex wafts like a cloud over heads looking the other way when in fact it's a "Dancing In The Street" for the Obama age; ringmaster Fred Schneider - now silver of hair but undiminished of spirit, imagination or righteous mischief - calls out the entire world to "take this party to the White House lawn/Things are down in dirty in Washington."

It is to the B-52s' credit, of course, that the times have now found it in themselves to catch up with them; Funplex starts off sounding, of all logical things, like Stereolab; the smoothly sharp autorail pop of "Pump," the creamy electro-waddle of "Ultraviolet." Later the day will darken and there will be adventures in nocturnal ambience; even here, the very palpable worries of "Eyes Wide Open" ("so good it's bad") and the anxious vocals of the terrified "Dancing Now" blend securely into the Human League-esque flotations of "Love In The Year 3000" ("Robots-Bootybots-Erotobots," Fred says right) and the gorgeously popist sunsets of "Deviant Ingredient" ("Strip naked soul soup!" with several "Shang-A-Lang"s thrown in for optimal measure).

But the title track is also the lead single and the album's best and angriest song; the shopping mall as consumerist prison is hardly the most startling of tropes but both Kate and Cindy work hard to convey their breezily suffocating displeasure, and once again Fred is there calling out for shots ("I'm at the mall on a diet pill!"). It's a Shangri-Las break-up song, only it's not girl and boy who are breaking up but the world; Eden culminating or ending in the Taco Tiki Hut ("IS IT ALL ABOUT MONEY?!") where daytime waitresses stop even pretending to be corporately happy ("Here's your stupid 7-Up!") and the underbelly is casually revealed ("Private property - hippie be quiet!" yells Fred in an admirably succinct summation of the last forty years of Western human history, a few seconds before he rages at himself, "What the hell will I do with this stuff?").

The music is "Love Shack" shiny but this story isn't going to be one with a happy, collective ending ("No willpower and my wallet's on fire!"); still the message is confrontational, the urge for a riot scarcely suppressed. As the music intensifies to an explosive boil Fred howls "The world is going to hell!" as though the ship is already three-quarters sunk before concluding, bemusedly, "And what is that horrible smell?" The smell, readers, of studied indifference. The B-52s still want to party - but this time the options really are life or the other thing. Planet Chomsky - this way.

Thursday, 17 April 2008


It starts like country blues, but it's not staying there for long; Nancy Jeffries' vocal is approximately a trillion times purer than her city deserves, even if it's New York. "Sun shines in the country," she intones at a clear and prominent volume, "and it lights up the sky" as lonesome horns lend a couple of sympathetic taxis to the quiet(ish) protest. "Sun comes to the city and it goes right on by." She decorates every syllable of "ev-err-y-thing" in "everything is tall here - nothing is high" with relishable saliva.

She is finding the warmth oppressive rather than liberating: "You know I love you/But I just can't love you IN/Summer's over, sweetie, and the heat's on inside." She is suffocating and yearns to breathe properly, free of material or other unnecessary worries. Buy it all on credit, then someone picks her pocket. "Peel another lighter" goes the perhaps Velvets-referring refrain, "find out what's inside."

Then the song gets derailed, just as noble folkies The Insect Trust got detoured by a couple of saxophonists with other ideas, one of whom (Robert Palmer) went on to become a critic of critical importance; and everything dissolves into harassed free play, Palmer and Trevor Koehler overblowing like refloated tickertape, guitarist Bill Barth seemingly throttling his bottleneck, crashing and chaosing before Nancy and the original song return; but do we risk catching fire if we're too curious about lighters? It was 1968, and fires were blazing up above as well as down below.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

JAMES: Upside

I've no idea whether "Upside" is specifically about the loneliness of touring - the line "My work's about words and sounds you can taste" seems to point to that - but typically the song becomes considerably more than that. Although James would perhaps bristle at any suggestion of the general downward spiral that I detect in Hey Mama, their new album after far too many years away, the smiling conflict continues between the handy-sized anthemic nature of their songs - anthems you can touch and feel, which don't always quite pull together, and few bands are better equipped to realise the unrealisable than James, especially as they have now returned to their full seven-strong strength, Larry Gott included - and the gloomy nature of most of what they're singing about; despite the excitable yells of "I'm alive!" throughout "Bubbles" and the nearly final breathless triumph of "We'll survive" at the climax of "Of Monsters And Heroes And Men," the introspection becomes darker and more pronounced as the album wears on; the endless torture of the spinning world in "Boom Boom," the allusions to domestic violence in the eerily circumspect "Semaphore." And of course there are the boys coming home in body bags throughout the purply march of the title track, while single "Whiteboy" is a superb, Anthony Blanche too close to the microphone damn them all tirade against constant drones, bling and tat, rebirths of frustration. But then the whole show ends with the ironic anti-U2 anthemism of "I Wanna Go Home" which finds Booth in a bar, dying in both heart and body.

"Upside," however, seems to depict a scenario which many of us had hoped would die swiftly after the time of, say, the second official Wah! album; the tale of migrant workers, either away from or coming to Britain, but certainly away from those they love...slowly falling apart but manfully trying to hold themselves together for the supposed greater good ("Lucky to work when work is scarce/Father must feed/Must provide"). Over a rolling 6/8 balladic gait Booth exclaims in the chorus: "Upside: love you! Downside: miss you. I'm here, you are there." He seems especially to hurt on the phrase "dancing bear" - the exploited slave, regardless of distance, robbed of choice and closeness ("Send seasonal greetings from nowhere," "Connected to you by a mobile").

Booth's performance is magnificent; there is more than a nod to Suede (or more probably Suede should be nodding to James) in both vocal and arrangement but he seems to uncover crevices of crack-up which Anderson has always been slightly too polite to visualise and touch; thus the bisyllabic weep which he deploys on the second "yesterday" of the phrase "Yesterday, yesterday," on the "there"s and "bear"s of the choruses - and then, most crucially, on the middle eight where he crumbles like a stamped-upon Flake chocolate bar on the "taste" of "sounds you can taste" but still manages to bend down for a childlike "violins and trumpets," a heartbreakingly tactile "Chocolate cakes" and the final intimacy-verging-on-numbness of "Here are some words...kissing your face." He returns to the blustery chorus in order to keep from further crying; then there is one final climactic key change - and poignantly Andy Diagram's trumpet can't quite get to those ultra-high notes, but he tries, for the sake of goodness and preserved nobility he tries. And then it ends on the unmissable premise that something has to change.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

E-ZEE POSSEE: Everything Starts With An "E"

March burning into April 1990, and this was climbing our Top 20 while the poll tax riots glowed; banned by Radio 1 at the time (and possibly still to this day), but the spirit of 1982 intact. Conceived by Jeremy Healy and Boy George, who in 1982 as respective frontmen of Haysi Fantayzee and Culture Club were at each other's throats so often you could have called either Boy Gillette, "Everything" takes the unlikely Benny Hill/Bow Wow Wow gallop of "John Wayne Is Big Leggy" and thrusts it unexpected into a luminous nineties now; stretching from the opening sample of Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner" into a furious hammer of a merry-go-round beat into which MC Kinky streaks as though revolution were rugby with her subversive acronyms ("Coming in like Love, Sex and Danger!" "E is for Elysian Fields!"), alternating with Boy George's calm varispeeded choruses: "What planet are you on? Planet Ecstasy! Who do you know? No one! Take a trip with me!" which nailed the times so securely seventeen Catherine wheels couldn't have exploded within them. 1967 heads into 1982 culminates in 1990 ("Kiss me posse and hope to die OWWW!"), and while, as with Queen's television-revived "Don't Stop Me Now," we can't look at hedonism retrospectively without considering the consequences, and while neither this blog nor its author condones wanton drug use (one has to point such things out from time to time, you understand) this "E" felt electric, disobedient, out of keeping, rude and utterly in keeping with what something called "rock and roll" was supposed to be about and as much a part of its time as "Love Shack" or "Dub Be Good To Me" or "The Power." Torches UP!

Monday, 14 April 2008

CAMILLE: Gospel With No Lord

The kneejerk comparison - if we exclude Bobby McFerrin, as we must - has thus far been with Bjork's Medulla, but Camille's largely voice and body percussion-driven Music Hole is far less self-conscious than the latter; less anxious to impress, more anxious to tell a story and observe how and why people use music, how it lives both within and without them - the spontaneity of inspiration, the move from thigh slap to throat shout, how it arises from the rhythms of life and how we manage to plant new roots as a result. Thirty years after Toop, Burwell and Figueroa first proposed how this paradigm might function in music, Music Hole works with and because of voices and bodies, their influxes, crisscrosses and purposive or accidental interactions; only the piano is used as a sort of chordal continuo; even Jamie Cullum, in the least likely of cameos, has to make do with hammering the piano lid rather than playing it as such.

From these seemingly slender resources arises a remarkable resourcefulness with a huge emotional and stylistic palette; no sooner have we passed the hilarious menage of parlour room courtesies and dungeon howls (with namechecks for Liptons and Twinings as we go along) that is "Katie's Tea," which may or may not be a friendly send-up of Kate Bush, than we encounter the sweetly gruelling passages of adagio mourning which constitute the startling "Winter's Child" and "Waves"; by the time of the redeeming gospel of "Sanges Sweet" one feels that the rope of life has been passed to one's fingers to clutch.

"Money Note" deserves special mention too for its brilliant demolition of the melismatics/vocal calisthenics-as-emotional-cash-registers sales line which has become all too familiar from certain recividist practitioners in recent years; nailing the original 18th century purpose of rootless demonstrations of vocal technique as a sweetener, a circus act to pull in more punters, Camille fearlessly goes higher and higher in the hope of earning more money; by the time the song staggers to its end, she has left Mariah far behind and ventured well into dog whistle territory.

But the variance of moods and angles, sometimes within the spans of individual songs, is remarkable too; "The Monk" begins as a dimly intoned incantation before building up to punctulating gasps of orgasm. There is tenderness to balance any insanity; yes, there is the massed farmyard riot of "Cats And Dogs" but also the serene strokes of "Kfir" with its resonating chant of "but the sun" remaining firmly implanted in the listener's soul. And the splish splash sensualities of "Canard Sauvages" might be the aqueous missing link between Bobby Darin and Neneh Cherry.

However, "Gospel With No Lord," the album's introductory track, is also the most upbeat and outstanding; once again, "soul" to shame all rote learners as the body beats can barely keep up with Camille's air vent rushes of excitement and delirium; no she didn't get it from the Lord, from her father or her mother - enter a Mike Love burp loop of "father in law" - or from her hamster in law for that matter, though she's clearly deriving and consuming the spring from somewhere. The song stops dead two thirds of the way through just so that Camille can sing sweetly and slowly over some gorgeous ripples of piano about her branch of the family tree and her roots of music prior to immediately breaking back into the accumulating choirs of chants, finally squealing: "It comes from within me!" before aiming for another high Mariah C, deliberately failing to get it, and giggling into the next room for some more coffee.

Thursday, 10 April 2008


What the music of the Backyardigans is not is Mutant Disco reincarnated or cryogenically preserved, fortune forbid. Yes, Evan Lurie is responsible for the music, in the sense that everyone has to make a living, but also in the sense that he brings to the gleeful table invention, modesty and aptness. Had a concrete effort been made to reproduce some forlorn spirit of 1981 the Backyardigans' music would have been lyrically over-qualified, structurally clumsy and the very opposite of attractive. This is by no means a slight on those who helped make 1981 possible, merely a warning against those who would seek to recreate it by second hand means only, and thankfully the surviving driving spirits of that year have by and large been wise enough to avoid the trap.

Of the three available soundtrack albums available I have only heard the most recent, Born To Play, and of the series itself I have seen nothing; indeed the 22 songs are so good that I almost don't want to watch it and leave it to the kids for whom it is intended without my view spoiling its presumed splendour. Nor is there any overt Lounge Lizards influence except in the marvellous "Lady In Pink" featuring a near-unrecognisable Cyndi Lauper, and maybe in the atonal accordion/clarinet dialogue two thirds of the way through "Tuba Polka."

Everywhere, however, there is invention and admirable concision, Morgan Fisher's Miniatures reworked by the Mike Sammes Singers - if only more contemporary pop would be honest enough to let songs lie at one or two minutes! Stylistically the word is "gamut" but the performances and songs are so good that any suggestion of artificial eclecticism is swiftly dismissed; the superb Motown pastiche of "W-I-O-Wa" ("The corniest station in the nation"), the improbable snowbound C&W of "I'm A Mountie," the lovely, squelching electropop of "Nobody's Bigger Than A Giant," the pleasantly surprising hardcore Cajun romps of "Go, Go, Go!" and "Racing Day."

For useful comparison purposes one would have to look to the classic School House Rock songs, or a younger Brian Wilson before family and the world did things to him; the latter's transistor radio saga on Holland is indeed paralleled here by the closing suite Tale Of The Mighty Knights. The characters' backyards are apparently a green tabula rasa from which any adventure can be launched - it sounds somewhere between Mr Benn and the Teletubbies - and this fantastic sextet of linked songs should be used as a model example to all modern ramblers and unfocused Xeroxists of would-be pop. "Dragon Mountain" for instance is arguably a better rock song than anything that the White Stripes have ever done, and the Fiery Furnaces could learn a trick or two from the sly wit of "Goblin."

But pride of place, for now, has to go to this collaboration with Alicia Keys, who very noticeably has rarely sounded so happy or fresh on her own records. A fulsome Afrobeat is backed up by lugubrious trombone and shiny yellow trumpets and drums as the various characters discuss the language of Keys, who plays a Martian Mother and comes from a land or a planet so contented with itself that it only needs the word "Boinga!" to sum up everything ("Do you use pots and pans?/Yup, we call them Boinga!" "Do your flowers smell Boinga?/No, they just smell sweet!"). It's a lovely little lecture in mutual linguistic learning - the show is aimed at 2-6 year olds - set to a song and performance so catchy that it would indeed be a worthy number one in the eminently noble "Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh!" and "Can We Fix It?" tradition. A splendid record...and I'm sure that the show itself more than lives up to the music.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

ESTELLE: Magnificent

To be straight, Shine, the second and better Estelle album, is everything those Brit School painting-soul-by-numbers recidivists pray nightly that they could equal, if never surpass, and given the disproportionate attention paid (not least by this blog, on a strawman basis) to the nice white graduates to whom the industry apparently now owes its entire living it is difficult to dispute Estelle's claim of endemic racism, even if "American Boy" has become the latest reason why it's worth continuing to bother with the singles chart.

But then, also note that she had to go to America, and to John Legend as avatar, to get her music down as she heard it, with the producers and musicians best equipped to realise it; The 18th Day has so much promise and yet it still sounds like an agreeably upgraded demo. Sometimes one wonders how far British soul has travelled from the days of Loose Ends (since so much of it seemingly strives to be Five Star instead).

However, she went to the States, sought out Will.i.am and Wyclef and Swizz Beatz and has magically made them matter again, too; "American Boy" is now a richly deserved number one and thus must be written about at length elsewhere - still, feel those rhythmic, regular whoops with which the singer audibly applauds Kanye's bespoke cameo and sense a new, more colourful world opening up, just as the song intended. Even when relatively down - "No Substitute Love" - she conjures up the song George Michael should now be making (it borrows heavily from "Faith" but makes it startlingly new, and harmonically and emotionally). She persuades and charms a lover into discovering each other - the silky lovers rock of "Come Over" - rather than hammering them over the head with a process server's list of demands. When the storm becomes quiet, she remains perky and pointed; there is real carnality of the mutual dialogue between Estelle and Legend on "You Are."

"So Much Out The Way" might be one of the best things in which Wyclef has ever been involved; its serene stasis rudely blown apart by Tackhead beats and lowering barks of conflict. And note how Screaming Jay Hawkins and Edwin Starr get chopped into deceptive cutlets to form an unlikely but logical mid-bridge to recent Britney with "Wait A Minute (Just A Touch)." But mostly this is potentially the shiniest of summer party albums; "In The Rain" samples Love Unlimited at 78 rpm but knows that the rainbow has already been formed. "Pretty Please (Love Me)" is a duet with Cee-Lo Green and sounds like the joyous, missing exit route from The Odd Couple. And the closing title track comes on like "1980" with its pregnant promise made manifest; now full-scale and panoramic, the confident declaration of a woman who knows she has reached the summit and wonders why so many others are content to settle in midway.

In general Shine plays like a dream Norman Jay mixtape just made for driving down the A40 on an idle July Wednesday mid-morning. But today, my favourite track, of all tracks, is (gasp!) the token Mark Ronson production, "Magnificent" - and we can't get away from her London music roots since she keeps us acutely aware of it throughout the album with that beautifully cracked voice of hers; sometimes yearning, at others diving with snarling confidence, and firmly rooted in her origins. It's a trick that very few others - least of all singer/songwriters - have pulled off.

However, "Magnificent" - which immediately rises to the top of today's list since it is based on a sample of Dave and Ansil Collins' immortal "Double Barrel," one of the greatest of all number ones, and a beginning of time for many. Without once aping or reflecting the original, Estelle devises an entirely new and extremely sunny pop skank from its stout girders, bouncing like the bluest of trampolines, wanting interaction so much, oh so much, and Kardinal's agreeable toast butters the glory to the yellowest sun you ever saw in pop. And Shine pops more than any other pop album I've heard so far this year. Flee the gloomy, Cameronite black and WHITE mourning for a 1964 which can never happen again and realise that, just as Dusty had to go to Memphis and Lulu to Atco, so Estelle has gone to Atlantic - and this may yet turn out to be a remarkable triumph, even in that distinguished company.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

THE MIKE OSBORNE TRIO: Now And Then, Here And Now

The second artist to earn a second BiA appearance, since All Night Long, the second and last album by Mike, Harry and Louis, has just reappeared refurbished on CD; recorded in Willisau in Switzerland in 1975, released on vinyl in 1976, and was this jazz-punk or punk-jazz since its scimitars cut far more harshly than the dry reverb of the Peanuts Club but even if it wasn't it came at the right time for me; a starting pistol fanfare on alto and there is no retreat, a vicious tricompartmental thrusting of hiss, slash, smoulder and squeal and don't even think of sleeping with or without the bean bag, and once again one realises that as far as sax, bass and drums in Britain were concerned in the seventies, well Back Door were nice enough fellows but really this is the other side of the unshatterable glass and only John, Barry and Trevor were as forcefully intimate - and to think this was only an overture to what the Jo'burgians would get up to with Brotzmann just as you thought the decade was through and all had been said, but already that's not too fair to Mike, who is audibly reaching the line of non-return but (still) (just about) in total, confident control.

They touch down for an alternately sizzling and reflectively swinging "'Round Midnight" and then off again with tunes called or felt as they emotionally come to mutual mind; "Scotch Pearl" like Tubby Hayes stowing away on the fast train to Wuppertal, "Ken's Tune," so simple and delightful, launching some of their most ball-enlarging interactions; Harry crucial, and the imperfect Willisau feedback aids him since he can be variously thrash guitar, constant drone, second horn and unbeatable rhythm player, but Louis' cymbals crack whip like burnished bomb ends and the sustenato of his chiming feedback are like clouds of impalpable but gut-containing swing. Notice how, about 12 minutes into the long track five medley, Osborne threatens to start playing "When I Fall In Love" before thinking better of it...melodies, inventions, cascading like the best Christmases.

On the CD version there is an extra four-minute coda where they return to "Scotch Pearl" and set themselves up for a final raid on expectations...will they stop? No, Louis slips neatly through the hole in the fabric and they resume playing again, perhaps forever. But here there is also a 23-minute extra track, not recorded at Willisau ("recorded in Europe," the sleeve says enigmatically) though sounding slightly earlier, more tuned to the Border Crossing age, with that same dry directness of sound. But again they prove that it's impossible to relax or assume; what starts out as a straitened bebop chart gradually dissolves into 500 mph howls, bending back down to allow the vital space, and then echoes of other tunes - a rephrasing of the "Stop And Start" melody, a lovely sway of a calypso tune (like Ayler, Osborne's lines sound so simple, though according to everyone who had to play them they were a bugger to read) and then back up to the heights and settling into a groove etching into the inaudible; a concluding and thoroughly satisfied cymbal calls time. It still sounds of the here and now.

Monday, 7 April 2008

GNARLS BARKLEY: Who's Gonna Save My Soul Now?

They still haven't found what they're looking for, Gnarls Barkley; The Odd Couple is a slightly more coherent pile of rags than St Elsewhere was, but still they search, scuffling through the debris of Sam the Sham and the Archies and Francoise Hardy looking for...well, a "purity" isn't really the word or the aim here. "Whatever" is a hilarious globule of mock-British garage rock (what garage rock worth its purple socks wasn't?), "Open Book" and "No Time Soon" play havoc with time signatures like no one since the second Definition of Sound album.

Yet both know that this is a darkening world, and should they colour it in luminescent lime green or just scribble everything out to the dust of undiggable coal? Danger Mouse keeps his deal to himself for now, cautiously fearful that things are coming to some kind of an end - why else colour the cover in that seldom-deployed union of puce and turquoise? - and this seeps out into his other work; The Blue God, the fine forthcoming Martina Topley-Bird album, is all saddened murmurs under blankets of blessed modulation - he hasn't been able to make the Black Keys any less dull where it matters, but the second Shortwave Set album may yet furnish the light of whitened redemption.

Here, though, is where the oddly normal heart tries hardest to beat. It has been said that this was written after the passing of James Brown, and Cee-Lo is both in proper mourning and secretly dubious about whether he should be glad - has he been released from the direct burden of inspiration ("I got some bad news this morning/Which in turn made my day) more stifling than inspiring? How can his voice be re-covered ("All this time I've lived vicariously") - even if it is far closer to that of Al Green? Like the real or inherent monster (his "beast at bay") which inspires his fear in the single "Run"; Keith Mansfield's "Junior Jet Set" reset for a 90 mph switchback ride about to be destroyed and erased (Cameron's coming, kids?); he is somewhat more in mourning for himself, as evidenced by the final "hmmmm" and "OHHHHH"-precipitated cry of "Still my hunger turns to GREED/'Cause what about what I NEED?" - the samples, the skeleton on which artfully to build? "Ohhhhhhhh," he concludes, "I know I'm out of control now," nearly disappearing into the fading, overstretched fabric, "Oooooooohhhh, tired enough to set my soul down." An elegy of suppressed hysteria - all the time mourning himself above all others - which the Marvin Gaye of 1979 would have understood. Chords descending to his own ruination? What's pulling them at the other end?

Friday, 4 April 2008

THE GOONS: Bluebottle Blues

1956, and a number four hit (kept off the top by, in descending order, Pat Boone's ten-years-too-late-for-the-war weepie "I'll Be Home," an eight-track various British Decca artists EP entitled All-Star Hit Parade and something called "Heartbreak Hotel") which is already paving the way for intertextuality. Indeed, explicit two-part singles (e.g. Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well Parts I & II") instrumental versions, remixes and suchlike aside, I can't think of another hit single so inter-referential 'twixt A and B sides (although "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane" represents two sides of the same dream, there is no direct musical or lyrical correspondence between the two songs). "Bluebottle Blues" ends with Sellers' overgrown Boy Scout vanishing through the hole in the middle of the record, to be succeeded by Milligan sombrely stepping up to the microphone to begin "I'm Walking Backwards For Christmas" before realising he's on the wrong side; similarly, the recording of the latter ends with Bluebottle returning to make dubious comments ("'Ere, I thought my side was better") and immediately being chased out of the studio by Milligan.

The Goons' fifties records generally remain undervalued, even if reunion-fuelled nostalgia ensured a second visit to the top ten for "The Ying Tong Song" in the late summer of 1973, bang in the middle of the glam boom; they are of historical importance in view of the tricks producer George Martin learned and redeployed for the benefit of the kite-like imaginations of the Beatles in the sixties, and also for their complete debunking of the concept of the pop record and indeed the pop song (whereas Stan Freberg's contemporaneous satires, say, always come across as straight sketch routines, albeit brilliant ones). There are always rogue or straight elements seeking to undermine their romps: the cod-opera on "The Ying Tong Song" itself, or the inexplicable blasts of the Ted Heath Orchestra cut and paste into the fabric of "I'm Walking Backwards." 1957's "A Russian Love Song" finally collapses into itself with a startling and prophetic passage of free improvisation, particularly audible from the direction of the session's guitarist, one Derek Bailey.

"Bluebottle Blues" likewise begins with some Straussian orchestral waltz flourishes which abruptly give way to Sellers and Secombe walking into the studio to set up a nihilistic scenario where Secombe's beaming protagonist encourages Bluebottle to drown or blow himself up. "There's no way of manifesting/How much I'd prefer you dead...Fred," chirps Secombe eagerly, answered by a flatulent tuba, before he proceeds to call him "Jim" and "Pet" all the better to rhyme with whatever psychopathic scheme he has in mind. Bluebottle, thick but obliging and enthusiastic, goes along with Secombe's demented scenarios and manages to die twice within the record's span, breaking off midway to deliver the only passage in the record which has any palpable relevance to the notion of a song; though this too is quickly derailed after the line "I do not want to be nutted by Eiffel or Blackpool Towers" as Sellers breaks the boundaries of scansion into indistinct murmurs (a quieter forerunner of the second half of the Pistols' "Holidays In The Sun"). Secombe returns, quizzical - "Still alive?"

Finally, after the cigarette ("pet") has blown Bluebottle to pieces, he howls "YouuuuuUUUUUU rotten swine you! You've deaded me again" before giving up on the record altogether ("Picks up fractured kneecap, replaces lug in lughole..."). A war, of course, where nobody is really killed, but still an extraordinary record in the homely context of 1956 Britain; other explosions were forthcoming, but along with the aforementioned "Heartbreak Hotel," we could pick out a clear map through the next fifty years of pop with both records.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

BON IVER: The Wolves (Act I And II)

These days, of course, the kneejerk reaction is to look for the join. The notion of Justin Vernon - who is effectively Bon Iver - holing himself up in a remote Wisconsin cabin to record the not quite quiescent reflections on love lost and not yet regained which make up the nine (or eight, or one?) songs on the album For Emma, Forever Ago is attractive to a degree but still we are so debased by unentertaining fakery that we instinctively fold our arms and wait for our dour doubts to be validated. The creak of loose floorboard, the shuffle of plain chair - it seems pat to a degree which invites suspicion.

Or at least it does for the second or two before the music itself begins, whereupon one realises that the circumstances of either artist or recording do not come into workable consideration, for I can see and smell that cabin, identify the emotions being dealt like cards of liquid stone, visualise and warily imbibe his offered darkness. The first song, "Flume," post-cabin sound effects, begins with some hohum standard folky acoustic picking - but then this voice enters (sometimes in multiple forms); if anything I am reminded of Nelly, with his high-pitched sprechtesang rap - Vernon sings in a high but hushed tone which he only brings down when the song's emotions require it, as he does startlingly on the acrid, acid break-up song "Skinny Love," upon which he hangs himself on a forsaken clothes line of "told"s ("And I TOLD you to be patient/And I TOLD you to be fine," etc.) with a lowering tone dripping with more hurt than hate, like the Plastic Ono Band Lennon but far more remorseful.

Then the placid electronic interference begins; disused power station drones, caverns of dark, static fluid. There's a wonderful moment at 1:45-1:46 where Vernon turns the "more" in the phrase "Nothing's more" into something not quite human, while behind him guitars collapse into shards of shattered crystal. Then at 2:30 the song gently comes apart for 20 seconds of indeterminate flotation before pulling itself together again. Every song seems to depend for its rhythm and pace on the breath which the wind chooses to take at any particular second.

The OMD "Souvenir" choir which heralds "Lump Sum" over a discreet but insistent heartbeat continues to unravel the impression of damaged folk balladry gone 4AD; not quite Gram but not far away from This Mortal Coil at certain angles (though the jagged is not excepted from duty, as demonstrated by the cry of "So-THE-sto-RY GOES" and subsequent crack in the throat at 1:42). There are major nods towards Sufjan, too - the patented Boy Scout brass of "For Emma," the nearest thing this record has to a title track, together with the distended he and she quotes which make up the lyric, the inverted vacuum blast of guitars which flood out after the "running home" quattrain, the subverted electronic crackle, the dialogue between guitar and brass. But in other places - most markedly the six-minute closer "re:stacks" - there is a sense of the blues transposed; lyrics which you would imagine Robert Johnson growling ("When your money's gone and you're drunk as hell," "This is pouring rain...this is paralysed") are hummed beningly with a back/racks/stacks chorus sung in Brasil '66 echoed staccato and entwined with the quaintly courteous hurt of "Whatever could it be that has brought me to this loss?" Regardless, he still hasn't learned his lesson ("This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realisation" - chew on that "crispy" for a moment, if you will) and if nothing else leaves the door open for a sequel, although "your love will be safe with me," he tries to reassure himself.

"Creature Fear"'s chorality turns into the ghosts of the Sons of the Pioneers ("So many foreign worlds - so relatively fucked," "So many Torahs") before an insistent snare drum doubles up, moves to the foreground and instigates an extraordinary two-minute instrumental coda ("Team") which rears up using all of Vernon's resources before settling in a puddle of untidy whistling. "Blindminded" could almost be a cousin to Hercules & Love Affair's "Blind" in its crackling solitariness (midsong he cries, tired and defeated, "Would you really rush out for me now?"); note the lyrical emphasis on the sharply guttural ("I crunch like a crow," "I cup the window"), the non-throwaway remark "I'm not really like this..." and the abrupt high-speed backwards rush of gabble two-thirds of the way through the song.

But the bipartite "Wolves" is minimally stunning; an acoustic guitar which, like Beckett's Bim, can't make up its mind whether to proceed through the mud or pause and die, backed up with distant unspecified tinkles (life as it was or could be?). "Someday my pain," chants Vernon, deadpan, before urging his departed lover (or himself) to "walk through with the wild wolves around you.../Send it further on."

His requests steadily grow in size and impact - "Solace my game," "Swing wide your crane - and run me through/And the story's all over you." But these high bandwidths of choral voices suddenly sound a lot closer to Paisley Park than they do to any notion of folk or cabins; the Prince-ness becomes even more apparent with the tremulous "ING" of each "in the morn-ING." With "eyes painted Sinatra blue" (hers, not his - or are they his?) Vernon turns the song into a slow 6/8 mantra: "What might have been lost...don't bother me," and as you might have guessed he does not convince us for a second (and note the two very subtle intrusions of AutoTune here; did you catch that? Need to be quicker!). The lines are repeated with gradually increasing harmonies to a point of such subtle intensity that we are entirely taken aback by the sudden entry of vigorous free jazz drumming - backwards on the left channel, forward on the right - as though pulling the rest of the world down with it. This resolves into small, whimpering post-Bailey acoustic plucks and then the song (in its second, brief part) returns to the quiet Purple beginning; a few more chants of "Someday my pain" ("will mark you"), an apologetic clearing of throat, footsteps into the wilderness of the cabin's opposite end, ten feet away. Suddenly prosaic, pedantic pretenders like the Felice Brothers or well-meaning but woefully studiumised worthies like the Fleet Foxes sound as though they are...in the way, whereas Bon Iver sets about constructing a new (millionth?) way. Breathe the studio, but watch out for the hidden glass - there is no join deserving of belittlement.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

GRAND NATIONAL: By The Time I Get Home There Won't Be Much Of A Place For Me

There's nothing that makes me want to go out into the world more than big hunkin' chunks of piano, especially when said big hunkin' chunks are the song's hook, since it makes me think of prime Associates, not to mention peak ABC and Dollar (look out for imminent extraordinary comeback by ABC, by the way). Add a tunnel of slowly but determinedly rotating synth bass and there's the Be Music 1983 sound again; but the song's central angst is slightly Tiga and expressly 2008.

Much of Grand National's second album A Drink And A Quick Decision (subtitled "She's Gone"?) is undulating, meditative post-electro pop, recalling a disillusioned Duffy (the one who went on to form the Lilac Time; let us be absolutely clear on this unambiguous point) or shadowy never-quite-made-it names like M Craft, but this is the single; the gist of systematic exclusion is just about tangible but the words and sentiments are never quite demisted, even if the early plaintive cry of "No one is alive" could act as a very belated sequel to Thomas Dolby's "Windpower" (which latter concludes with Radio 2 newsreader Jon Marsh reading out the shipping forecast against swirling post-nuclear winds). But in the chorus there's a polite suggestion of gladness that the singer has to move on, or elsewhere, since whatever world this happens to be is clearly squeezing out his options, his difference ("When I go to see them/We talk about nothing"); stray telephone bells or cries or constant radio keeps reminding him of this nothingness. "There ain't gonna be enough space for me," he surmises, and eventually disappears to admit fuzzed snarls of synth-bass and a final foray of rattling echoes. But that huge, emotionally rich piano keeps all possible doors open. The parties, however, fear these two.