Still listening to a lot of Sandy Denny. It’s the battle of the box sets really – A boxful of treasures versus The notes and the words. Difficult to call. Both include this unsurpassable demo of ‘Autopsy’, recorded on 30th December, 1968. She was just 20 at the time. Fairport Convention subsequently worked it up for Unhalfbricking, but that version doesn’t really come close to this solo one.
I like this demo by Palace (not to be confused with the monikers under which Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy recorded during the ’90s). I like the way it snakes and swings and spirals. It does something not dissimilar to what Cold Specks is doing, what Cold War Kids did at their best. I like it a lot.
That’s all I have to say at this present time.
Last week on the way in to work I listened to Runner, the new Sea And Cake album. (Well, it’s last year’s album now, but that definitely qualifies as new round these parts.) They’re one of the few remaining groups whose work I’ll buy without question, for old time’s sake; or rather, because it’s too much to relinquish such a link to what I might over-grandly call My Musical Past. They don’t vary much from release to release, but this new one is both a little lovelier and more optimistic sounding than the preceding few. Taking a wild stab I reckon it probably reflects songwriter Sam Prekop falling in love with something if not someone – ‘Harbor bridges’ certainly sounds as lovely as a love song ought. Unlike the last Sea And Cake, I’ve found myself wanting to listen to this one again, straight away; and that said, I want to go back too, and give Moonlight butterfly another chance. Runner has got that XTC-ish, Drums and wires-y feel which has gone and come at least since The biz, and has it in spades, with trilling guitars and rhythms hypnotically folding in on themselves and back out again, as kaleidoscopically, meditatively, propulsively as ever.
I was going to write more about the Sea And Cake, but I’m not sure I really need to, as Kevin has recently written a whole 21 pages on Chicago’s finest (finest, that is, alongside the Impressions / Curtis Mayfield and Terry Callier). They merit that kind of focus as much as Kevin’s thoughts merit reading. Interestingly he stops relating the story at 2003’s Glass EP, which I presume indicates his estimation of the relative worth of the albums that followed it. Diminishing returns? My own view is that Car alarm and Everybody have a lot going for them, as I discovered a while back when I jumbled up the Sea & Cake’s oeuvre and listened to it in random order over a series of days. And while for me Oui remains the peak of their endeavours, I think I’ll always be interested to hear how the Sea And Cake carry on refining their essential Sea And Cake-iness, and Sam Prekop his essential Sam Prekop-iness.
Dear reader, my Christmas gift to you is this – Hidden treasure: the National Library of Medicine – a fabulous, beautifully illustrated and freely available ebook detailing some of the riches in the collection of the National Library of Medicine in the US, and emanating from the point at which personal interests and my working life collide.
To give you a flavour, among my favourite of the revealed treasures are the Langenburg Manuscript (a 16th century compilation of texts about the health and maintenance of horses), nurse postcards and uniform photograph collections, White’s physiological manikin, Marvels of things created and miraculous aspects of existing things (a 13th century Islamic cosmography), examples of hirsutism from the 1876 edition of the Atlas of skin diseases, Theodosius Purland’s mesmerism scrapbooks, the Numskulls-like wonder of The wonder in us (popular science from 1920s Germany), Chinese public health slides, St. Elizabeths magic lantern slide collection, a 17th and 18th century book of receipts for remedies, and covers and pages from Scope magazine. Plus lots of other weird, wonderful and grotesque medical stuff, and accompanying each item, short essays by scholars, artists, collectors, journalists, or physicians. It’s not an entirely scientific trawl through the history of medicine, but it illuminates a creative energy from across the centuries in which medical science is married to art.
It’s an irony of course that this is an ebook celebrating hard copy words and pictures in all their varied and magnificent forms; books you’d really like to get your (white gloved) hands on. But it is also itself available in hard copy, if a preference for the heft of a book in your hand and the feel of pages as you turn them beats the cost involved. Or you are stuck for a last minute idea for a Christmas present. It’s the kind of book I’d like to receive myself, and I feel somewhat frustrated that among those to whom I routinely give presents, I can’t quite imagine who I’d aim it at. The same goes for the equally enticing Book of barely imagined beings: a 21st century bestiary. But at least I can draw both books to your attention.
Merry Christmas to all my regulars, and to anyone stumbling into the Pantry for the first time.
Hello, it’s been a while, I know. But I’m mostly over at A wild slim alien these days. You should visit, the diet there is maybe a little bit more varied and enriching than was once the case.
Music-wise I’ve been coexisting with the xx’s Coexist, cooling down with Cold Specks, and trying to spot Cat Powers’ Sun. With some Undertones thrown in, to lighten or at least vary the mood. Rozi Plain’s Joined sometimes unjoined too. Best of all this year, the Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, particularly the wonderful version of ‘The King of Rome’. But nothing much about which I think you need to know my thoughts.
A while back I wrote a B/w about the Hit Parade’s ‘Huevos Mexicana’, and Julian Henry of the group was kind enough to send me a vinyl copy of their last but one single, ‘I like bubblegum’. I’m afraid I like the notion of bubblegum pop that the title conjures rather less than Julian, and as a term I think it undersells the poignancy of much of the Hit Parade’s back catalogue. But now Julian has again been kind enough to send me Pick of the pops (vol. 1), together with a charming handwritten note rather than a press release; this is a man who knows how to do things. The CD is a retrospective spanning 1984 to date, and had he not sent it to me, I almost certainly would have clicked through to purchase it, in spite of to me the rather off-putting ‘File under’ categorisation on the cover: ‘C86 twee sarah sixties pop’. I’d not heard the duet with Harvey Williams which opens the set until now, and many of the later songs push the Hit Parade’s opening sequence of eighties singles close.
But Julian, why is the Cath Carroll-crooned electro power pop of ‘I get so sentimental’ missing from the pick? And no ‘The sun in my eyes’, with its gorgeous lovelorn melody? Guess they’re being kept back to lend lustre to vol. 2… Here is the latter song for you now, plus a link to where you can hear the whole of Pick of the pops (vol. 1) before deciding whether to make your purchase.
Even as the caretaker of a semi-dormant music blog, I still get a lot of email from groups looking for the kind of word of mouth buzz that they somewhat foolishly assume I have sufficient readership to help generate. I give them all a fair hearing, mindful of the pitches I myself have made to arbiters of taste in the past, and how I liked to be treated in those instances. 99% of the time I don’t respond with an actual email back, because there aren’t enough hours in the day, and unlike the publishers and agents I individually approached, this jumped-up pantry boy never set himself up to be contacted, or subject to marketing. Plus no matter how much effort went into making and marketing it, 98% of what I’m hearing is not what I need right now; not what my ears have needed for some time; and often, I’m afraid, not what they’ve ever needed.
Some of this marketing is well-pitched; occasionally the content is novel, even – like Drew Smith’s commissioning of videos for his songs ‘Smoke and mirrors’ and ‘Love teeth’ from directors in cultures which are not, I imagine, awash with North American singer-songwriters. But most of it makes me want to run screaming for a hill where there is no electricity, no connectivity, and no music. And so help me Bob if I have to read the word ‘sophomore’ one more time when used to describe the album an artist releases subsequent to the first, I shall impale the offender on Poseidon’s trident in the central square of the city in which I work (assuming they would be so obliging as to let me, which they might, for a review). American readers will have to forgive me if this seems an instance of irrational prejudice against their use of the English language – it’s your word and you are perfectly entitled to use it out of its high school or college context – but I cannot stand by any longer and watch as it creeps insistently into British use. Because there’s a perfectly good word in the British version of English already: second. ‘Sophomore’ drives me nuts, in a way that the French-sourced synonym for first – debut – for some reason does not. I suppose what I’m trying to say is: vive la différence.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Here to put us all in a better frame of mind is the first song on the second long player by Hugo Largo, and one from what might be said to be Clinic’s second album Internal wrangler, their debut having been a compilation of their first three singles. Ade Blackburn’s voice is one of those that you knew from the first had nowhere to go, and was always going to be best suited to a scuzzed-up ball of electrocardiographic propulsion such as ‘The second line’. No matter how Clinic manage to develop as a group, no matter how much more musically sophisticated they have become, they will always be constrained by the limitations of Ade’s singing. Whereas Mimi Goese’s seemed a voice going somewhere, although perversely I never followed it further than the two LPs she released as part of Hugo Largo. You have to give yourself over to ‘Turtle song’ and indeed the record whose highlight it was (Mettle). It’s high art in its intensity in a way that can easily be off-putting if you let it; but if you meet Mimi on her terms, then it’s just as rewarding a listen as it was in 1989.
I’ve just finished reading a collection of short stories by Eric Bosse called Magnificent mistakes. The stories are indeed magnificent in depicting how strange we all are, inside and out. Characters’ lives slip out of their control as they try and fail to communicate and come to terms with their significant others, but in the end no-one dies (or almost no-one). The stories are lean and funny and perfectly poised between tenderness and something much more steely-eyed. Some are short short fictions, but have in them as much detail as the best paintings by miniaturists. None of the stories tell you what to think, and many take you places you may not have been, even as they give accounts of the relationships we all have, with lovers and mothers and fathers and children. Oh, and rubber plants.
‘Invisible world’ and ‘The fractured museum of us’ are great examples of this, succinct and episodic scenes from life that convey in a few brief pages the stretches of landscape you’d expect from a novel. Turning on two strangers encountering each other in near Arctic wilderness, ‘The end of Norway’ is an unnerving read, as is ‘Our lady of the Rockies’. Like so many of the stories in the collection, they steer a fine line between treading where you expect them to and veering off in directions you don’t.
If you do make your way to this excellent collection, don’t be put off by the first story in it. ‘The dog-faced boy’ seemed to me too consciously fantastical, Dadaist even, and didn’t progress and conclude with quite the same feeling of satisfaction as the rest. But that’s one misfire or lapse of judgment out of nineteen, and when worlds other than your own are as finely rendered as these are, they’re worth going that extra mile for.
I’ll confess it, I’d been resisting the Unthanks. They seemed too tailor-made for me – folk songs given 21st century reinterpretations, bell-like voices airing beautiful melodies and harmonies, the nods to Robert Wyatt, a song about a blackbird, and a singer called Rachel. Well, now my resistance has well and truly crumbled. It was finally hearing their version of ‘Sea song’ that did it. But the song I keep coming back to is ‘The testimony of Patience Kershaw’. It crystallises all that’s great about the Unthanks. It’s beautifully arranged and sung, of course, but also dramatically and believably inhabited; it’s a folk song with folk roots but also the dynamics of a pop song (given the strings, I’m thinking of one very famous one in particular). Written by Frank Higgins, it’s loosely based on the spoken testimony of the 17 year old Patience Kershaw to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in 1842. And it comes from an album with a perfectly chosen title – Here’s the tender coming – whose meanings proliferate the more you think about it.
It’s 21 years since the last Wild Swans album, and 29 since their debut single, ‘Revolutionary spirit’. How great then that this year they should make their best record so far into their on/off existence. Released through the excellent Occultation label, the The coldest winter for a hundred years is a long way from that debut, though the vestiges of the young man who wrote it still course through Paul Simpson’s blood. It would be harsh to say he overeggs the mourning for time past, because, well, it’s his lyrical patch as much as Liverpool is and he delivers beautifully nostalgic songs which are never entirely lost in dreams. No longer needing or caring to situate themselves either as musically apart or in tune with musical fashions makes for songs whose chiming guitars – no less than 11 are amassed on ‘English electric lightning’ – have a timeless feel which suits the lyrical nostalgia perfectly and add bite to the plaints that things were both better and worse in Paul’s day. It’s a heady, poetic, elegiac mix. The accompanying EP Tracks in snow offers three additional songs which for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut; ‘Poison’ with its lovely heartbroken melody can consider itself particularly unlucky. Both LP and EP are among my favourite records released this year.
And is it me, or is there a deliberate echo of George Martin’s speeded-up electric piano from ‘In my life’ threaded through ‘My town’? ‘Like music hall, variety, the Psychic Truth Society / Like Beatle wigs and Deaf School gigs / It’s over now, it’s over now’.
Talking of the Fabs, what’s the most fun I’ve had musically this year? Watching the Upbeat Beatles, that’s what. Primal Scream pretending to be the Rolling Stones apart, I’ve never knowingly been to see a tribute band, but when allegedly the best Fab fabricators are playing for free on your doorstep, it would have been rude not to. I wanted to go because I had always wondered what those songs would sound like live, and now I have some idea, because these pretend Beatles played both best and lesser known numbers just about perfectly. Of course it was moptop wigs and Beatle suits to hide the ageing impersonators underneath. John was a scream, and George might have made you cry with laughter or tears for the inadvertent mockery made of that beautiful man. Paul was probably the best fit, while at least Ringo looked sufficiently like he was on loan from another group. Of course the deep-seated connection between writing and delivery is broken by a tribute group, and it’s never going to have the same emotional heft as seeing the songs performed by their original writers (in a context magically devoid of screaming, death and ageing) but this was as close as anyone who couldn’t quite stomach an entire thumbs aloft Macca concert is ever going to get. I left the village green with the undeniably uplifting and celebratory sound of everyone singing ‘Hey Jude’ ringing in my ears.
Can’t help feeling disappointed by Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness blues, but then they were always going to struggle to top the melodic and harmonic beauty of their debut and the Sun giant EP, because those were perfect and they arrived as if out of nowhere. What’s hard to take is the regression: the lead vocal and the songs sound if anything less mature. Robin Pecknold has somehow contrived to become a younger man with a thinner voice and in narrowing his lyrics to the personal, they have inevitably lost the timeless feel that the first set of songs possessed. In fact these new ones sound whiney and off-putting. You can’t help but want him to get over himself, a feeling not diminished by reading interviews around the time of release. Still, I can’t claim to have been any less earnest, any less of a monomaniac when I was his age. If I’d tried to write lyrics then they’d have been whinier still.
Fair play to Robin though in acknowledging his debts and influences when compiling an Uncut cover mount CD earlier this year, for as well as picking the Clientele’s ‘Since K got over me’, he has led me to discover Nic Jones and specifically his Penguin eggs LP. Is it overstating the case to imagine that Nic might have been one of those who kept English folk alive through the musical revolutions of the late seventies and early eighties? His voice is sturdy if unspectacular, but his guitar-playing is rhythmically intricate and gave him the ability to freshen up any song that he might find up Cecil Sharp’s sleeve. On Penguin eggs I particularly like the song Robin Pecknold chose, ‘Courting is a pleasure’, ‘Canadee-i-o’, which Bob Dylan subsequently performed in his own inimitable style on Good as I been to you, and ‘The humpback whale’, which marries idiomatic folk song to timelessly expressive acoustic guitar.
Thanks to his tendency to write songs featuring birds, I’ve finally got my head round Bill Callahan. His voice is even sturdier than Nic Jones’, but it has in it qualities of the artist as opposed to the interpreter – experience, weariness and an almost newborn vulnerability all mixed up. You could take Sometimes I wish we were an eagle and Apocalypse as a pair; and it’s tempting to think of the former as a break-up record and the latter – despite its title – as something of a return to life. On ‘Riding for the feeling’ and ‘One fine morning’, Bill seems to be talking about his personal apocalypse in the past tense, viewed in retrospect; which perhaps makes the earlier album the epicentre of the destructive event. That’s idle speculation though (a blogger’s stock in trade). Bill’s themes are often simple – freedom, America, loss, settling down – but he tackles them with a complexity and an ambivalence which lets the listener see things afresh:
To belong to being derided for things I don’t believe in / And lauded for things I did not do / If this is what it means to be free / Then I’m free / And I belong to the free / And the free / They belong to me – ‘Free’s’
And the music, often sparse and understated, always suits the themes. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for Sometimes I wish we were an eagle, because it has so much in it, lyrically, musically, and that quality of his voice is at its best.
I have had enough of the incompetent, half-hearted singing I spent so much of my early listening life tolerating. I still head for the fringes but finding myself underwhelmed, I drift back to where the song can be found. It matters more to me these days than the noise, though if I can have my cake and eat it…
So not having got my hands on the latest, much more expansive and expensive box set dedicated to Sandy Denny, I am listening to the five disc A boxful of treasures. I’m also listening to Rufus Wainwright’s Want one. Sandy is the better singer – at her peak, one of the very best ever – but Rufus has the voice he needs and writes a great song, so that I believe him just as I believe in the worlds that Sandy’s songs portray; the old folk song world of broken hearts and tragic tales, and the world of broken but resolute hearts of her own experience. The introduction to a live version of ‘Who knows where the time goes?’ reveals that it was the second song she ever wrote. She ran before she could walk.
Of course it’s yesterday’s news – hell, all of this post is – but Arcade Fire’s The suburbs grew and continues to grow on me with every listen. That The neon bible was muddy, heavy, overblown, and drenched in the internal and semi-solipsistic consciousness of Win Butler made it doubly inaccessible but I’m glad I gave them one more chance. While The suburbs doesn’t have quite the quotient of excitement that Funeral or The Arcade Fire did, it does have something, an air of mystery, an indefinable thread holding it together. It’s nostalgic yet detached, subjective and universal. But I’m afraid I still can’t help thinking of Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins when I hear Régine Chassagne sing.
I like the Decemberists tipping their hat to the Smiths and trying to be R.E.M. more than I like them progging out and about (though since Shara Worden was singing with them, I could overlook that). But while it’s affecting to hear Colin Meloy singing songs from his own heart, now I miss his yarn-spinning. Is there no pleasing me?
I am underwhelmed by PJ Harvey’s Let England shake. It’s the first of hers that I’ve bought, though I have always had a sneaking admiration for her. I thought this might be the one, from the noise accompanying release, reading between the lines. But her voice isn’t quite what I was hoping, and nor is the recording. It sounds tinny where it should ring in peals like the bells in old flintstone churches. Still, I’m glad she’s there, doing her thing.
I love Warpaint though, particularly when they get their shit together on songs like ‘Beetles’, and drift from groove to yearning melody. It’s then that I think they belong in the lineage that includes the Slits, ESG and Luscious Jackson. But if like those groups they can be idiosyncratic, lock down a groove, and find a beautiful melody, they can also be not only motorik, but plaintive and dreamy. They repay a lot of listening.
The Clientele may be on hold, but together with Lupe Núñez-Fernández, Alasdair MacLean is back as one half of Amor de Días. Any music that Alasdair makes other than as a strictly guest picker is of course going to be imbued with his sensibility, so there are many moments when Street of the love of days might be a Clientele album, but there are just as many when it could not, thanks to the blending of his songwriting with Lupe’s. It’s generally lighter than the often sombre and haunted tones of the Clientele, and more consistently acoustic, but then perhaps it’s also poppier than the Clientele have been at any time since their early singles were collected together as Suburban light. Vocal duties are alternated and you get the sense that the duo are having a conversation, a dialogue; not an inward-looking one, but one where both writers are looking out into the world from slightly different vantage points, a world of urban and pastoral light, deriving from both sources something of the same feeling.
Bracketed by the opening and closing ‘Foxes’ song’ , the track list reads like the contents of a volume of bucolic nineteenth century poetry, from ‘House of flint’ to ‘Wild winter trees’, taking in ‘Bunhill Fields’ and ‘Touchstone’. But although the setting is quintessentially English, the music is flecked with Iberian and (less obviously) Brazilian influences; that track listing disguises a number of songs sung in Spanish. You could triangulate three other duos to end up with Alasdair and Lupe – the Catalanonian blending of Guillermo Scott Herren and Eva Puyuelo Muns as Savath and Savalas, whose Apropa’t in particular has the same feel of magic and light; John and Yoko, as late as Double fantasy; and, given the harmonies of ‘Dream (dead hands)’, the Everly Brothers. But that probably demonstrates my listening more than theirs.
It’s as instrumentally rich as we have become accustomed to the Clientele being, with a variety of guests adding to the pot – Damon & Naomi, Louis Philippe, Gary Olson of Ladybug Transistor. Produced by Ken Brake, it sounds gorgeous, quite apart from making any judgment of the songs themselves.
Stand-out moments are ‘House of flint’, a song which deserves to have been made to sound as lovely as it does. ‘Harvest time’ is here in its original form, softer and dreamier and a little more nineteenth century than the sharply psychedelic version recorded for Bonfires on the heath. And just like the album as a whole, the title song winds its ivy melodies around you.
Twenty years ago I was in France, and so were the Field Mice. During their September tour they (or rather two-fifths of them) stopped off to record a live acoustic ‘Black’ session for France Inter’s Bernard Lenoir, a.k.a. ‘the French John Peel’.
I was in the studio while the show was live on air, and during ‘Between hello and goodbye’, Bernard – mistaking me for someone who knew anything about sound engineering – passed me his headphones so I could hear what France was hearing over the airwaves. Sounded pretty damn impressive to me, so I grinned inanely at him and put my thumbs up in the direction of the rest of the group. But I also remember how dangerously, intoxicatingly fragile Bobby and Annemari’s performance was, as if it could fall apart at any moment, despite Bobby’s underlying assurance as both a guitarist and a prodigious songwriter. And sadly fall apart is what the Field Mice did not long after the end of a tour that had been troubled by Annemari’s stage fright.
Of the other songs they played, there is a version of ‘Sundial’ which was otherwise only recorded for John Peel, ‘Willow’ from For keeps, and a lovely cover of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’ – a song made to measure for the Field Mice, really – which I’ve posted over at Nightingales, not being one to miss a trick.
And because 16th September was Monsieur Lenoir’s anniversaire, I also got to (help) sing ‘Happy birthday’ live on French national radio. Fortunately audio evidence of this has disappeared.
Thanks must go to my friend whose finger was poised over the pause button that night – merci Jean-Philippe!
It took a little time for me to get my ears around it, but it was well worth the wait. I doubt few if any sets of music in 2010 will have bettered This Is The Kit’s Wriggle out the restless for managing that rare trick of being both exact and loose at the same time. It’s – dare I say it – perfect, but organic. Immaculately produced by Jesse Vernon, it has the same space and natural richness as the records presided over by Joe Boyd, with nothing unnecessary added. Kate Stables’ words too are precisely pruned, until all that remains is what needs to be there, so that these vignettes of nature, love and birth somehow manage to be both impressionistic and pin-sharp.
None of which would be worth saying if between being exacting and limber, her music and melodies were not as fluid and beautiful as they are. I’ve already raved about ‘Moon’ but every song here has either a lilt and a calming air, or a swell and a rush of wind to it. ‘See here’ is of the latter kind, rising up on rough and sinewy guitar, and falling back to Kate’s default softness. ‘Spinney’ also rises up, this time on a wider, orchestral bed of sound, and takes the same kind of undulating melodic path as ‘Moon’; neither outstay their welcome, both demand endless repeat plays.
It’s not really folk, though there are songs idiomatic of folk, and it’s not really pop, though there are pop songs. And when ‘Earthquake’ rumbles in with its groove and riff, you might even call it rock. Of course it’s not really rock either. But everything is on a surer footing than Kate’s first LP, Krülle bol, which in the light of Wriggle out the restless plays like a development on the road to what’s coming next, though in itself it’s a sparse and melancholy joy.
The songs come so naturally from her lungs that it’s tempting to think they must have been written in five minute flashes. But perhaps it’s craft that makes it look that way, given the time between the recording of this long player and the last. Here’s hoping the next one comes that much quicker.
You get an excellent sense of that perfect fit between songwriter and song – and what a great performer Kate is – from the videos below of two songs shot in Paris by La Blogothèque. She’s playing live in February; if you’re lucky, somewhere near you.