Wednesday, 25 June 2008

KING OF THE SLUMS: Bear With Me


Before Alex Turner, there was Charley Keigher, and there was King Of The Slums, the group Madchester forgot. Certainly the immediate impression on rehearing "Bear With Me" a soberer generation later is one of a sly Arctic Monkey's uncle as Keigher does his worst and sends up the Roses and the dying embers of Madchester (already!) with his "wiv a lot of material" and "la la la la la la got loads" refrain of stirred concrete (and it also serves to send up Oasis before they even existed) before going on to laugh down the labyrinths of 'avin' it ("Oh I've done nuffin wrong/Just ain't quite cum on," and he doesn't sing that "cum" as though it's a misprint). The music is slightly stiff and tense, Sarah Curtis' electric violin poised to pounce, Stuart Owen shuffling mock-timidly on his broken beat drums, as Keigher sneers "But I don't care...And I don't care..." before screaming "BUT YOU DO!," whereupon the music shifts up to a higher and more dangerous gear. Like the dying old lady at the climax of Johnson's House Mother Normal, Keigher is driven to late lucidity ("The impertinent swagger," "The Herculean stance of a self-made man"), before dipping back into moribund character ("Sounds like I might have to work/And that gets on me nerves") and so we get more "got loads" and "My best is yet to cum," and the music continues to shift upwards, pitch by pitch, Curtis grimly grinding away like a missed mixed doubles partnership of Scarlet Rivera and John Cale, even creating her own feedback, the band peaking greyly, and then scattering away, for one further, more expensive and less impressive album, and thence to the workaday dust of their Mancunian ways.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

SEBASTIEN TELLIER: Divine


Apparently the Chivers are a high school pop group in a film called Steak - I haven't seen it, nor do I feel any real urge to do so, but Sebastien Tellier is involved in its music somewhere along the way and hence "I love the Chivers anyway/'Cos Chivers look divine" in the song "Divine." How good does it sound outside the entrapment of Eurovision? Far more modest and it affects far more deeply; live performance does not suit its Daft Punk-assisted contours. Indeed, both song and performance committed the fatal Eurovision sin of subtlety; a broad audience requires broad strokes, the huge gesture, the instantly recognisable sub-Esperanto language of post-Cowell pop.

In Tellier's "reality" (and how did France get away with submitting an entry sung for the most part in English, but then Tellier, c'est Tellier...) Daft Punk's sureness transmogrifies magically into Air lightness, with a briskness which the latter duo have not seen for some age; post-Lynch girl group doowops, a vaguely disinterested lead voice ("I'm alone in life to say") which regularly bends the song's brightness to reveal a more dramatic, uncertain undertow with its out of tempo piano, its extended needles of pauses, before bouncing back into a 1962 which exists only in the far western corner of his mind ("They try to find the Milky Way/They love to drink it every day"); cool ice cubes of string synth - and then the balladic dropout where Tellier crouches towards us and supplicates his need for unrestrained wonder - does he want to be a Chiver on pain of instant death or eternal life? Well, he loves them, and thus the ELO as Mitch Murray might have known them backdrop returns, those bop shoo bops indestructible, impermeable; at his time of life, which is not that far away from mine, he refuses to put away childish thoughts in the sure knowledge that they can on occasion be the most profound of all thoughts.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

THOMAS FEINER AND ANYWHEN: Yonderhead


"...the point of life is now...the point of life, for now..."


It originally came out in 2001, The Opiates, and it seems that practically everyone missed it, but then it wasn't quite finished; a band which had been a band but had gradually, if amicably, trickled out of existence and Feiner had to sort the art out himself but then he did have the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra to hand, just in case he might get encased in unending nothingness. Much was lost or missing or missed in 2001.


But then it was found, and quietly marvelled at, and eventually he turned back, or sideways, or forward, and completed the necessary heartstrokes; and now it gets a proper (if still lateral) release and is conveyed to me. How to describe the thing that was Anywhen? From the available evidence (since I have yet to hear their previous duo of albums), let's conjure an a-ha who went a little deeper, grew a crucial bit older, who slowed down and let out what might once have been steam but was now melancholy streams of selected low-grade colours; the opening "The Sirens Song" petals forth a tremendous, steady crescendo of purpling power and purpose with both orchestra and group crashing through cosmos to find themselves in the rosier end of the opium pipe from which a Beaton-captured set of the original Cocteau twins are absorbing on the cover; the closing "All That Numbs You" bears the procedurals of U2 ceremony but is careful not to declaim its interior turbulence too brashly.


In between there is - what? A voice which undoubtedly must have attracted, in its rich quiver and petrified reassurance, Mr Sylvian (since he was the original album's finder and retriever); the skidable depth of the longly smouldering "Dinah & The Beautiful Blue" recalls brilliant trees grown into a febrile forest of anti-motion. Even when Anywhen "rock" ("Mesmerene") it is rock of the strobe-lit Moby Dick Rehearsed staggering ship type; nothing is totally in focus, the beat's tension crumbles if you try to sit atop it; Feiner ends the song by thrashing himself with the "into my arms" refrain as though to drowse his burning building of a brain. "Toy," meanwhile, is deeply disturbing; a lucidly conversant debate between woodwinds underscored by distant electronic scrapes, squeaks and semi-refrains unspeakable - the woodwork squeaks, and out come...at other times it is the Blue Nile transposed to Feiner's hometown of Gothenburg; the extraordinary, deliriously delicate "Betty Caine" rallentandos almost to the point of there not being a point.


There are two more recent songs - which act as the belated finishing touches - one of which, "For Now," gathers up the scattered cartilages of life, resigns itself to their eventual fate and proceeds forth with rare nobility. The other, "Yonderhead," is the album's masterpiece, an intimately blossoming cry of reclaiming life, from its distorted (or bedroom) piano and introductory plucked strings, while two flanks of brushed percussion (and subtle string instrument bridges) scrape their footsteps like angels washing their feet in the attic. Gradually all rises into place; low strings, fuzzy synth, feedback. and the deep sea whale of his voice: "My spine and leverage were not mine" which soon rises to a mid-pitch prayer: "Pick me up - animate me - render me - take me back to the ghosts of the day" - which then turns more passionate a plea: "Lend me a life - put me in a loooooooooooop (he sings that loop as though balancing precariously on the topmost outside rim of the London Eye) again," a "define" which encompasses eight syllables just as the strings begin to widen out across the becalmed panorama, the 'celli becoming increasingly forceful as Feiner asks to be hooked up and ignited with a ghost.


Then two minutes or so of the crucial transition; piano which debates with strings, which in turn turn dense to the point of breakthrough atonality; a wordless voice, hanging on that extended "L" labial for the dearest of lives before swerving back into determined focus: "...llllllllllllLLLLEND me a life!" Finally, connected and transforming, he hums of liberties and hopes, but is he really free? "Bind me - and I'll walk the pretty path." In other words, leap off the tightrope and trust me, for I happen to be the leaper. Seven minutes and 52 seconds after it began, you have to unpack your soul, for fear of missing it.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

JOAN AS POLICE WOMAN: To Be Loved


Consolations and regenerations at times of underpredicted trauma. The second Joan Wasser album is a light of not quite serene guidance for the disturbed compulsive traveller through the increasingly serrated windows of life; alternately as angrily remorseful as Hugo and as comfortingly sensual as Sterne, To Survive comes in the wake of her mother’s wake; she died of cancer just before recording started and so most of this record concerns itself with the uncertainty of breaths, the grey bewilderment of non-existence and the shining yellow lights of bodily communion. “Holiday” is boldly perky but she has to be careful to breathe regularly amidst the sinkings of “at the sway of your diamond black ocean” but “To Be Lonely” could represent the last, sorely snatched breaths prior to expiration or the resigned, contented and regular heartbeats of aged compromise; her “protect me, night, I’ll make it through” comes out as the blackened other end of Kristofferson’s thirty-five year telescope. Sometimes she will glance down with imperious disgust at the world; the siren fire of the bobbing electric piano on “Furious” and the so subtle she could still join him in Paris denunciations of “To America,” Rufus present in a told-you-so sense.

This fury sometimes converts to pangs of fuckable sensuality – “I wanna throw you up against the hard white wall,” she quivers on “Hard White Wall,” “and make you mine” and her tremulousness makes it the most arresting swift come-on since Patti’s “Gloria”; or it can subdue itself to metronomic, atomised pondering, as on the title track, a lullaby from daughter to mother, and she “must find the spark to go on” trying to pierce her pitch above those of the patient, stranded strings even though the candles have long since run out in favour of desperation-inspired guesswork. And the span, and the threat, between spark, fire and storm (“Magpies,” with its itchy strings and hornet horns, alludes to her mother’s fear to end up as a previous Joan had done (“didn’t live too long/seventeen and gone/but what I learned from St Joan/is heed to the voice in your heart/in this life, this life”).

The purpose is this dread, this anti-fire, that Joan keeps trying to subdue in the full knowledge that she can, and then fulfilling blessed and hard-won sweetness. “Honor Wishes” are her dreams expressed as a prayer to the god which she hopes will lay next to her; forgive all sins (“Would you stay with me anyway?”), and the tremble, the divine equation, the Molly blossom sway of her “bloom” in “will it be my bloom that still excites you?,” her labials drawn out with finesse spiky enough to rival Bonnard, the distant drum rolls (which only become explicit at the album’s other end) and that depthless ocean of oscillating baritone voices which caresses her hair and allows her to float in the song’s second half and they are all mirrors of David Sylvian (for it is indeed he – hi David, if you’re reading this)…and “the SUEDE of your skin”? If only Troy had known.

Still, it is with “To Be Loved” that the torch Joan’s too polite to light or blow out feathers most radiantly; horns at a discreet distance, the piano, the souled-in yearning – the beyond palpable satisfaction of “every breath that’s met us here” next to the sopranino wriggles of “the words, they escape me through my singing cage” but they have found each other through means inaccessible to behaviourists (“how on earth could you have found me/huddled under grapes of wrath”), the now buried ashes of that same wrath (“It’s safe to be alone and be lonely…/But…/I am going to shoot down my ghost town completely ‘CAUSE I KNOW THERE’S A PLACE FOR US – I MADE IT, I MADE IT”) – and I, WE, will make it again however many more times necessary. Outgrow the crowded house, and the now impassable universe between the no longer imaginable “I could not be loved” and the butter rainbows of “OH, I feel the sigh.” Breathe, then try it again, then learn to live. Again.

Monday, 16 June 2008

HOWLING BELLS: Setting Sun


Everything I need to hear gets heard by me in time, and when the time is right. And when the time is right, and you seize the moment, sometimes the immediate need will be so immense that you'll want to listen to it at least a couple of dozen consecutive times. The eponymous debut album by Sydney-transplanted-to-London quartet Howling Bells came out to fair acclaim a couple of years ago and I've only just listened to it but already I want to hear "Setting Sun" forever.

There's nothing "new" about either the song or what the group do with or to it, but it's an approach I've been missing for the last decade and a half; is this "shoegazing"? Well, the gaze of the group, and especially that of lead singer/guitarist Juanita Stein, seems more fixed on the stars, or more properly straight ahead at what's in front of them; Stein has a certain sardonic tone in the bright catherine wheel of her voice, learned in part from Lush, as though she would be quite keen for you to stamp out the last cigarette with your best and brownest brogues, but also a great, galactic faith which ascends over the mountain to the chorus - so dense and eager that the drums are still building up tension when the first line of the chorus is halfway through. Verses are dwelling, unresolved, Church guitars, Chills synth, and "nobody waits for this long, can't you see?," the harmonies distantly swooping in their harbour of drone, and this time will the frost melt to reveal geraniums? "One..." yes! "More..." YES! "Day...is not ENOUGH to change the world!" as buoys toll and the grey sky ventures into corridors of Klein blue, "but we'll rise and fall just like the setting sun!" as birthday presents of shaded harmonies and gilded guitars hymn out the sort of uplifting and soul-sundering chord changes you haven't heard since...well, some critics have said All About Eve, but Lena rightly reckons the Heart Throbs, the pop shoegazers virtually forgotten by everyone else (but not by us); the sublime control of brother Joel's seagull swoops of single notes in the middle eight, the slight pause before he repeats them, and the sustenance of the smiling major chords over the first half of the final verse before Mark Hart's keyboards - and Ken Nelson's luminescent production, fresh from working with and similarly elevating Coldplay - reintroduce the question mark; yet again and again they will rise and rule, above not-yet-loving haters, above the dreams sinners could never dream, those who hurt themselves knowing only of hurting themselves, to pull the sleeves of the universe up to their skyline level and watch the purples, the lilacs, the peach bursts of light and revelation such that we can fly with them and perhaps even outrise the sun; their bells now tolling a time I read with gladness and relief.

Friday, 13 June 2008

ROBERT PALMER: I Dream Of Wires


He was always more convincing when he was quiet. The role of the seventies seniors in the rise of New Pop should not be underestimated; Marianne Faithfull, Sparks, Grace Jones - those survivors from the old (i.e. pre-punk) ways who largely and wisely sat actual punk out, took stock, kept watching, dropped a line to Barry Reynolds, or Sly and Robbie, and then, when they knew the times were right, came back and suddenly found themselves at or near the front.

And Palmer was maybe the most obviously enthusiastic of them, and still, I think, the most underrated. The Vinegar Joe bluesy burp never really left him, of course - "Addicted To Love," his biggest and most overrated hit, is little more than pub rock with unsightly Fairlight and Linn daubs - but still I preferred the hunched whisperer in the corner of the hot garden of "Johnny And Mary," which always threatens to lurch into something shocking (the wavering bass volume) but never quite does; the jittery Docklands Light Railway (Neptune to Nassau line) of "Looking For Clues," the splendidly amber autumnal comforts of "She Makes My Day," the proudly cowering dread of his take on Jam and Lewis' "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On," the babbling nonsense and Russell Mael impersonations of "Some Guys Have All The Luck." And he was keen not to appear left behind or caught out; hence his fortissimo bellow finds its ideal home in his quickfire cover of the System's "You Are In My System," the version which hit in the UK at the expense of the original (but since David Frank was producing and playing keyboards on Palmer's version, I expect he didn't mind too much - those "hyuk hyuks" and atonal tolls of indrawing DX7s!).

With "I Dream Of Wires," though, he took on Numan (with the help of Numan as producer and keyboardist and most of Numan's band as back-up) and played the part of this particular "Electrician" to cold perfection. With its peopleless ticks and non-resonating drones, Palmer is walking in the world after the revolution, when steel has melted into fire and finally emptiness - "I am the final silence/The last electrician alive," he sings to the skeletal forest (Vera Lynn singing Tom Paxton again?) the morning after the future has ended. He reminisces with all the desuetude of a 25th century Max Bygraves singing "Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be" about opening doors by thinking, sleeping by pressing "go" and driving to work "by backseat" - Palmer's voice is still stalwart and proud but the stable rim is already beginning to splinter: "So I press C for Comfort/I dream of wires - the old days" as the music filters those familiar Numan underpasses of Hammersmith, or is it East Berlin, echoes (come out of Hammersmith tube station via the Fulham Palace Road exit, glance back behind you and tell me that's not East Berlin), its "new days" now past their explode-by date. He didn't mean to turn it on.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

TRAVIS: Flowers In The Window


My friend terms it "ambushed by unexpected emotion" and it happened the other night, while listening to the radio. I've never been crazy about Travis - despite the comedy Radiohead of "All I Wanna Do Is Rock," they have never been the sort of band that one is supposed to go crazy about - but apart from "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" being played 600 times an hour on national radio I've never hated them either; a good and (oh, dear) solid Glasgow band into whom I bumped every now and then with a hurried hello.

But I did recall "Flowers In The Window" as being a special song, to do with the life I used to live, even if I couldn't quite place the reason or the timescale - was it eight? nine? TEN years ago? Then I checked to remind myself when The Invisible Band was released and I froze - April 2001. Near the end.

"When I first held you I was cold.

A melting snowman, I was told.


But there was no one there to hold


Before I swore that I would be alone forevermore"

I didn't bother too much with that part; it was the slowly joyful clang of the chorus which got me, the "wow, look at you now" part, the idyllic Junior Campbell chord changes (since at their best Travis do remind me of "Reflections"-period Marmalade). The song seemed to echo more than agreeably a newly found peace and happiness; we were happy all right, the happiest we had been for a long time, we had plans, and if it wasn't for that annoying bloody cough we could get on with them.

You can imagine how, in the ensuing few years, I dared not go near the song, as with so much other 2001 music, but especially not that song. Eventually happiness returned, renewed, but still I was not much inclined to revisit Travis; there were too many other exciting things going on. So hearing it on the radio the other night was the first time I'd found myself listening to it for some seven years (and, as ever, sometimes it seems like seven minutes, at other times like seven centuries) - and it hit me anew, and renewed.

Beginning with a foursquare foot stamp, the gentle petals of the song fall into place, Fran Healy maybe amazed by discovering what he never knew, or refused to acknowledge, he had in him; thus the cruciality of the "wow" and the courtliness of "such a lovely day" with its indications towards surviving into old age. Healy can sing lines like "I'm here to help you with the load" and make you believe him - that plaintively awkward Glaswegian counter-tenor - and furthermore, the lines "You are one in a million/And I love you so" sound as newly sprung a language as Esperanto.

"So now we're here and now it's fine,
So far away from there...
And there is
time, time, TIME!"

That triple time is the heart of the song, as quietly embracing as the three "times" sung in successive verses of "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?," every one from a different perspective - Fran STILL can't believe he can help another human being and make her happy - but it's happening and all they have do now is plant the seeds and "watch the flowers grow" with a final, graceful thanks to the sky before bowing out with the most plaintive of "Bohemian Rhapsody" gongs (producer Nigel Godrich just KNOWS). And so I looked out of my - sorry, OUR - new front room window, and saw the pink flowers growing in the windowbox and...well, some emotions are too private even for here, but I don't think I need to spell it out. The past righted yet again, in the finest of detail. The tears were those of joy. Joy, joy, JOY.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

TOM RUSH: Sunshine, Sunshine


He's there on the cover, a typical young face of '68; tall, swarthy, secretly smiling, but underneath the jacket and pullover lurks a darkness. Behind him a girl clings to him, but does he even know she's there?

The album was The Circle Game, it was 1968, and Rush was one of many Elektrafied balladeers; the photograph was taken by the young Linda Eastman, and does he really know where he's going? Ten tracks, all lushly arranged by Paul "Touch Me" Harris and produced by one Arthur Gordon. Eight of these songs are interpretations of other, then unknown writers; Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and also including a curious stab at a pre-rock standard ("Glory Of Love"). Just two of the songs were his, but one of them was "No Regrets" with its anti-ripple guitar motif, an extended exercise in self-annihilating denial - and Scott knew well enough not to make his torch burn too brightly with his cover.

It's all very characteristic '68 hazed comedown but strides above "typical" by Rush's vibrato-free voice with its fatalistic end of line dives and its slight, pleading baritone hoarseness which puts me immediately in mind of Bill Fay; more minute portraits of small movements liable to cause giant earthquakes.

"Sunshine, Sunshine," a James Taylor composition, is the best of entry points; a carousing caress of light strings, a clinging-onto-noble Last Post trumpet, delicately heartbreaking chord changes, Rush singing as though he's in no kind of mood at all, other than perhaps a quizzical one, for "sounds of laughter" or "smiling faces," instead choosing to muse on what happens to sunshine when there are no longer people to help define it ("Is that a cloud across your smile?"). As with the Supremes' "The Happening" there are deep currents of emotional discordancy underneath the placid surface ("Pain and rain and misery/Illness in the family") but not a uniformly dark picture ("and sunshine means a lot to me"). But then sunshine (it could be capitalised; it may be a girl's name) grows darker with the day ("...and bleak all quiet and grey by dawn," "trading her mood of yellow gold for frostbitten shades of silver...blue") even though the music's tortured beauty doesn't diminish. Eventually - all right, let's give her an S - the singer is "running out of things to be" and "Sunshine means a lot to me"; he beckons her closer, for comfort and release, as the strings close in on a reluctant major key ending.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

LADYTRON: I'm Not Scared


Congratulations are surely due to Ladytron for finally breaching the album chart at their fourth attempt - true, the album has debuted at #75 in the Top 75, and I wouldn't place a bet on it racking up a second week on the list, but it does represent an important breakthrough, as does Velocifero as a record. The quartet's musical world is now securely insecure; never have they sounded bolder or louder; never have they sounded so scared or quiet. There is a tremendous, poignant twinge to their not-as-hard-as-it-sounds post-electro/post-shoegazing/post-Goth (only just) intimately epic pop which hasn't been heard for some while; I think back to the very early British indie nineties, and certainly to Lush (with naturally sad meditations on where they could have gone if only *...*), but also to less immediately celebrated operatives of the time; my wife has already suggested the Heart Throbs, former Mark Radcliffe Show favourites who haven't been heard from for a decade and a half but briefly threatened to impose with superbly dense songs like "Dreamtime" (the answer to the under-asked question: the public opted for the more easily digestible cod-indie of the Cranberries).

Velocifero is similarly intense but light; the thunderous organ chords which prevail throughout "They Gave You A Heart, They Gave You A Name" provide an unlikely but logical reminder of Aaliyah's "We Have A Resolution" (but I see that many record shops have now opted to file Ladytron under "Dance"). They've gone electro, yet the closing "Versus" which affords the chance to hear both girls and boys singing, is more tender than gravity has a logical right to allow.

But "I'm Not Scared" is the one to which I've gone back approximately three dozen times to date - it isn't the Pet Shop Boys/Patsy K number, but its booming imperiousness is certainly influenced by the PSBs as much as whatever New Order or Miss Kittin or Blonde Redhead or Slowdive contributed to the fabric; throne-like double-patterning drums, fencing with themselves, a 1965 echo of what a synthesiser might produce, the very Lush-like vocal sadly shaking its mind over the over-rolling stone which it is trying to charm back to serenity: "January clipped your wires/The summer went straight through your tyres/Every faded sign that passed you/Used to point the way towards you."

And then the chorus manifests and it is glorious; successive trapdoors of dreamlike chord changes, a post-"Atomic" grandeur of the boldest bronze, high vocal dabs alternating with Fairlight phantoms before the storm continues to gather dust (even though there's a divine one-beat pause at 1:49 to allow everyone to catch their breath before resuming their charge), warning of the over-reliance on "the generosity of strangers" and the vital need to return again: "And you've gone - you know that I'm not scared to go home." Give up, climb out of that empty ring, wave the generous flag of white, come back, stop being a fool and the tank of the music rolls on, indestructible yet ineffably fragile.

Monday, 9 June 2008

PAUL WELLER: Why Walk When You Can Run


Paul Weller and I haven't been in touch for a long time. Of course I don't mean personally - even if he did buy a copy of Laura's fanzine way back in the Michael Sobell Centre day - but as artist and listener at one remove. It used to be that we were as close as closeness could be; and after all Laura and I came into contact largely because of the Jam. Every record (even the dodgy Bruce-dominant ones) was like a new and more urgent communique but we still thought the Jam finished at the right time. Then the Style Council, and we followed eagerly at first before steadily drifting away towards other concerns, and they ended up merging with a lot of other "reasonable" artists of the mid-late eighties, not quite fulfilling the Mod ZTT hairline they might originally have promised.

And then Weller with his Movement, who moved out, and finally just Paul, and Britpop got into tune with him and he appreciated it and so Wild Wood and Stanley Road, even if they weren't profound records, worked in a very elemental way. But again we sensed that he was systematically moving to a place barred from our scope of interest, although he never quite shifted out of focus; when he was good and even a little mischievous, as on 2000's Heliocentric, we bucked up our ears and hearts again.

But after Heliocentric two declined into one, and I couldn't listen to Weller's stuff for years; too, too close to my bones. I sensed him in the far distance but couldn't really connect; I was sniffily dismissive of his cover of "Wishing On A Star" in Time Out in 2004 and suspect he still loathes me for that.

Whatever. Because 22 Dreams is where we violently and vibrantly lock back into contact again. My initial view was kneejerk sceptical; 22 tracks (or, as it has turned out, 21), double vinyl, tribute to Alice Coltrane, flowery pastoral 1968 Photoshop cover design, Noel, Ocean Colour Scene and all the usual lads, limited edition booklet, trying too hard. But once actually listened to, it is a startling affair indeed and I'd be inclined to say that it's Weller's most shamelessly adventurous album in any format since Sound Affects.

There is the curiously three-legged chair thumping rock patent of latterday Weller still very much in presence, but he's no longer content to let the chair lie; thus songs like "All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)" starts out like a standard Weller rocker but then drifts into strange tunings, notes and gestures which don't quite fit, tonalities totally unexpected. The title track is slowly undermined by a distaff of discordant horns. "Echoes Round The Sun," the Noel collaboration, plays like the Leslie cabinet-modified Donovan of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" slowly being drowned in Blue Cheer's tarmac with querulous strings to help wield the shovel.

Despite its 21 tracks (the "missing dream" comes in the form of a semi-abstract short story by poet Simon Armitage which is to be found in the CD booklet) the record's dreams are frequently dark, and increasingly as the listener proceeds the skies cloud over ominously; "Invisible" is a quietly tortured and powerful soulboy variant on Costello's "I Want To Vanish"; "Empty Ring," with its portrait of a defeated ego, still throwing punches at invisible enemies, bangs around in empty echoes like a vacated pair of crutches. "Cold Moments" sees Weller barely able to raise his voice above acoustic guitar level, being dragged away from the world he knows, staggering onto the first Green Line coach to emerge from Victoria Coach Station, looking for somewhere brighter. "Black River," featuring the flat footed thwack of guest drummer Graham Coxon, is a loose-knit ballad which periodically explodes into Temperance Seven vaudeville frolics.

Hope does eventually dawn, as it must; "One Bright Star" is one of Weller's more startling vocal performances on the album, drawing a cosmos of meaning and significance out of what is little more than minute variations on "you're the one bright star in my life," and eventually he floats out of the harsh world and into the gentler one which the strings promised on the opening "Light Nights"; the folk ballad "Where'er Ye Go" is very touching, both because of John McCusker's violin and the push-and-pull of being apart from the spirit or person who sustains you - taking most of the hope and light, but coming back with such stories. Even God makes a cameo appearance, on "God," booming at the recidivist security blanket clutcher to get the Hell out of him - and then, after a semi-abstract Moog/mellotron interlude ("111"), the lights of home in "Sea Spray" (which makes me think of a happier "happy ending" to Johnson's Trawl) gratefully merging into the lengthy ambient dissolution of the closing "Night Lights."

For indeed much of 22 Dreams draws a touchable line between 1967 adventurism and 2008 vanguard, even if the free-ish adventures of "A Dream Reprise" and the aforementioned "111" will shock only those unfamiliar with or forgetful of things like "Music For The Last Couple" almost three decades ago. For the story and emotion to work, the record has to be listened to from start to finish, uninterrupted - and even then, the outtakes collected on the bonus second CD sound indispensable, although they don't quite fit into the overall concept; "Love's Got Me Crazy," for instance, pitches a terrified Weller vocal against a modified "I'm Not In Love" background of synthesised chorales.

"Song For Alice" itself is a nice salute to the late Mrs Coltrane, made agreeably spikey by the unmistakeable baritone piano and melancholy trumpet of Robert Wyatt, switching from channel to style at unexpected junctions but still holding together (by the explicit piano-as-harp cascades). But the deepest work, and perhaps the most stunning vocal performance of Weller's career, comes, not quite with the nearly deranged rock of "Push It Along" (in which Weller sounds a dead ringer for, of all tortured souls, Barry Ryan), but absolutely with the song for his son, "Why Walk When You Can Run." One of his truest ballads - perhaps the truest since "English Rose" - Weller's voice reaches a pitch of passion and fear which we have never previously heard from him; he knows that his son's running off, running like the wind, even (and Weller manages to make that particular lyrical cliche sound as new as tomorrow); he knows he has to, and that he can never stop him or even reach him now, but still there's that scarcely suppressed heartbreak in his voice - "no turning back, no giving in" - he's growing and he's not going to listen and Weller is struck temporarily immobile by the dread of repeated futures, or no future, and where does that leave him, except to carry on as he and only he can carry on or be carried. A performance which the Weller of 30 or 20 or even eight years ago couldn't have envisaged - finally, his own "Wishing On A Star" - and one which, like most of the other tracks on 22 Dreams, can perhaps only make sense to those of us who have lived as long as he has, who have reached, or are reaching, that stage. Yes - he's in touch again, all right.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

PIETRA MONTECORVINO: O Sole Mio


What has to be remembered is that the comparatively recent tradition of the Neapolitan popular song was born out of economic necessity. After the unification of Italy in the 1860s, when Naples was stripped of its capital city status and most of its assets, it became a desperate place; many thousands emigrated. So jolly songs like "O Sole Mio" with its simple sun-as-lover analogy were an attempted magnet to draw back tourists, visitors and maybe some of the emigres; the vibrant sun and sea imagery were as much of a construct as Coca-Cola or the ploughman's lunch.


As things turned out, the Naples influx into the States in particular proved crucial, and not just for the long-term benefit of popular music. "O Sole Mio" ended up as "It's Now Or Never" as though using Presley to illustrate just how far the world had travelled, from impersonations of innocent celebrations of carefree joy to patently truthful, albeit suppressed, lust, and Pavarotti subsequently had no choice but to try to reclaim it.


But I think Pietra Montecorvino made a better job of reclamation. Napoli Mediterranea was her album of 2003, reshaping some of those youngish songs, utilising musicians from the trading African countries (Morocco, Tunisia) as well as some from Greece, France and elsewhere, feeding the pulse back into the bustling port that the city once was. Vocally she sounds like a female Paolo Conte; hoarse, 40 a day habit, raspy, confidential but pitch perfect. She transforms "Guaglione" (more famous in the Guinness-revived Perez Prado version) as a dark throb of sensual starvation. With "O Sole Mio" she preserves the central melody but the harmonies are quarter-tone askew and percussion echoes from all quarters like refloated buoys; you have to work to establish a stable listener's base, but it's more than worth it - she sings it with some sense of mourning, of chances lost and opportunities not to be regained - but finds hope towards the end, and her electrifying "SO-le mio" at 2:06 is as justified and ancient a cry of redemption as the "Jerusalem" which eventually swallows up "It's Grim Up North."

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

BARRY ADAMSON: Civilization


It's rather hard to equate the deceptively charming fellow that is Barry Adamson with the psychosexual omnivore who consumes his trail in the course of Back To The Cat, his newest album. Like all of his previous ones, this story seems to unfold - and then fold back into itself, and not always in the expected order - in a darkness which might be physical night or the end of the rope of his soul. But here, Adamson - mainly featured as a subtly extrovert, skilfully breathing, manically curling vocalist - ups the rhythmic and emotional ante. As ever, there is a circularity to the story; the record begins and ends in the "Beaten Side Of Town"; he has woken up from a "crazy" but clearly bloody dream (as evidenced by the red print in the CD case), but has he? That blood and death are involved is beyond question, but whose blood, and what sort of death?

As the title of an earlier Adamson album had it, this is in part about "soul murder" and in other part an extended exercise in seeing just how far Adamson can get away with exploting and mutating standard memes of song; "Straight 'Til Sunrise" sees him fleeing the end of an affair, but what were those words he put in her head, and why does he feel like the slain one? Despite the cheerful Talk of the Town horn-driven thrust of the song and Adamson's merry delivery, the scene is not free of threat - "If I get high, all your assets are mine"...

The memories and present all seem jumbled up; the split occurs on track five, "I Could Love You," a staggering post-"Faithless" (the Scritti one) deconstruction of the torch ballad which methodically works its way up to a terrifying and piercing extended scream of "CRY" (the most frightening "Cry" in pop since Godley and Creme's), but track three, "Spend A Little Time," finds him digging up the garden and quoting Schopenhauer, Freud and Jung. Similarly, "People" is a leisurely gospel tract which finds Adamson, possibly already engulfed in an apocalyptic fire of his own making, concluding that "people are dumb" and preparing to jump into the ocean - only to find, in the concluding "Psycho Sexual" (pounded along by Tobias Mudlow's extraordinary free guitar commentary), that he might have woken up, but the dream is a loop and he ends up running into himself again.

Nothing here quite ends as it starts; pieces like "Shadow Of Death Hotel" and "Flight" create their own traffic jams, much aided by the excellent playing of the horn section, including long-term Westbrook associate Peter Whyman on alto, begin comfortingly but end up asp-needled. The key track, though, is the seemingly joyous "Civilization," which starts in apt hallelujah style as Adamson gleefully sings of his wish to bring light to the world if only he can get home to "meet my baby's needs." But nothing goes as it plans; he strolls into town and is immediately arrested and beaten by the police (shots ring out, but their purpose or shooters are not identified); he ends up bitter, in prison, with a pack of cigarettes to keep breathing, having killed someone else in apparent self defence...and thus the mechanism of creating a terrorist: now he wants to darken the world for rejecting and subjecting him to this uncalled for (from his perspective) state of affairs, when all he was simply trying to do was meet his baby's needs rather than wanting to be this "hybrid of the beautiful and damned." Unsettling, quixotic and aleatoric - business as (un)usual, then.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

THE RESIDENTS: The Festival Of Death


After nearly thirty years I think I have discovered the ideal listening environment for Eskimo. The accompanying booklet recommends hearing it on headphones while reading the descriptive text that comes with it, and while I have succumbed to doing that from time to time, I usually treat it as a “Do Not Throw Stones At This Notice” notice would expect to be treated. Then again Eskimo is not the sort of record one is inclined to play regularly – perhaps, in my instance, once every four or five years, as a pleasing reminder that it’s there.

But a new remastered edition has lately appeared on CD, and I listened to it at the beginning of last week, on an especially grey and showery Bank Holiday Monday morning which resembled November rather than May, in the kitchen while cooking a leisurely breakfast. It was not a warm day – I had to switch the central heating back on – and my general feeling was therefore indrawn, introverted, introspective. I kept the CD on at moderate volume; at times its synthesised Arctic winds vanished beneath waves of sizzling, at others the urgent voices and pulverising beats suddenly leapt out like a crocodile wouldn’t.

Still the music wove its way into my fabric; and I would heartily recommend not reading the text while listening to, or experiencing, the record, although the text’s extended irony – at least, for the Residents’ sake, I hope it’s irony – is an integral part of the F For Fake adventure that is taking place. Concentrating on the music (although, as I say, this music gets deeper into you the less you “listen” to it), from its forlorn hunting horn at the beginning to its curiously uplifting end 39 or so minutes later (for such an elaborate concept, the Residents were still smart enough to keep it concise), it’s easy to extemporise on the enormous influence this record wielded well beyond its time; in particular I cannot imagine half of Selected Ambient Works Volume 2 happening without it - all those not quite tuned melodies, those not quite syncopated beats, those unidentifiable instrumental flourishes and hums, the general air of Not Here, or even in any polar Eskimo community one might recognise. Then I subsequently return to the booklet and its detailed descriptions of the polar Eskimo way of living, including the ritual slaughtering of female infants if there are no male infants to balance the numbers, the forced bathing in children’s urine of menstruating women and other such Dark Ages delights; there is a sardonic aside about this way of life having disappeared thanks to Government welfare programmes such that Eskimos now sit in council houses watching TV reruns.

So the music is necessarily coloured by this knowledge, and is hence not quite the elegy for a lost civilisation one might assume it to be. Nevertheless it does an acute and meticulous job of recreating the mood and environment of the six months of eternal night – the walrus hunting, the sensory deprivation and temporary madness, the warding off or summoning of magic spirits – and musically was another crucial building block in its year, 1979, a year I now see is rivalled only by 1967 in terms of seemingly unending reams of creativity and adventure.

“The Festival Of Death” is the concluding track, lasting just over ten minutes; it begins with the familiar whirligig of wind, followed by a steady encroachment of voices and underspecified instruments (although Henry Cow’s Chris Cutler appears on drums, and there is a direct Escalator link with the presence of Don Preston on synthesisers – more Phantom Music?), solemn chants suddenly intercepted by furious beating of skins and ululatory incantations (the women seeing off the mask of death, chanting and arguing for life) before, eventually and finally, the dawn comes, the dead lose their control over the community (marimbas maintaining a constant heartbeat), and an initially vague but increasingly prominent synthesiser motif becomes apparent; this proceeds to resolve into an alienatingly beautiful melody which after nearly forty minutes of darkness comes as a true liberator, and all ends peacefully, now just the wind, blowing and howling for as long as, or longer than, the world is prepared to turn.