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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Matmos Supreme Balloon

Gone with the wind…

Supreme Balloon

Having made a quirky name in electronica for their inventive and often intriguing soundworlds sampled from the most unlikliest musical sources – including body parts, fetish clothing and liposuction surgery - Matmos are back with an album this time created entirely by using synthesisers.

Not your sleek stealth-technology looking consoles mind you, but the big old analogue systems, brimming with patch-bays, ancient oscillators, and the kind of blipping oscilloscopes that set the hearts of all space cadets aflutter.

By running all kinds of splurts, squirts gurgles and gargling noises over filtered bangs and bongs, the emphasis here is on fun and novelty. But after four tracks made up from manically cheery toy-town beats and making Moogs sound like a distended sequence of particularly fruity farts, the fun begins to get a bit thin. Think "Popcorn" by 70s one-hit wonders, Hot Butter, but without the sure-fire real drum shuffle and you’re in the right territory.

The mood goes baroque with a rendition of Couperin’s "Les Follies Francaises." Traipsing after the coattails of Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach 40 years after the fact may well be fun to do if you’re the one fiddling with your calibrated knob but when its as limply obvious as this one wonders if MC Schmidt and Drew Daniel shouldn’t just stick to their samplers in future.

The centrepiece of the album is the 24 minute title track in which various trills and frills are sent hither and thither over an undulating landscape of sine waves and sharp-suited edits. It’s as though they’re trying to recreate one of those corny demo discs companies used to put out to showcase kind of far-out sounds these new-fangled synths can create.

Terry Riley, Tangerine Dream, and Tonto’s Expanding Headband are all reverently referenced but it doesn’t add up to much more than wallpaper. Of course, knowing the kind of clever, post-modern, ironic, wry funsters these boys are, the wallpaper in question will be the gaudy big-patterned 70s variety, but wallpaper nevertheless.

Reducing synthesisers to little more than electronic whoopee cushions may be a laugh but having to listen to it is another matter altogether.

Random Penguin 18

cover design by Derek Birdsall

Monday, April 28, 2008

Testing For Buzz XLII: 1968 And All That XVII

Yuri Gagarin. The first name any aspiring space cadet learned, the first man to slip from the albumen of atmosphere surrounding our blue white egg. His funeral on television, grainy black and white footage at the best of times, made more abrasive; broken lines of sound and vision relaying the texture of distance and myth.

Strange Pleasures - Further Sounds of the Decca Underground

Box of delights…
Strange Pleasures
Various Artists
As the beat and pop boom of the mid-60s morphed into something flamboyant, multi-coloured and faddishly esoteric, the Decca label was quick to jump on the bandwagon, hoovering up just about anyone sporting long hair, loon pants and a guitar. The first wave of this shift from blues-based rock to something more experimental was admirably documented on Legend Of A Mind (2003). Strange Pleasures continues to chronicle Decca’s almost heroic headlong plunge into the Underground scene.

No band it seemed was too obscure to escape the bleary eyes and ears of the A&R teams. Indeed both the Legend and Strange Pleasure sets provide an insight into the label’s scattergun psyche when it came to acquiring acts. Determined not to make the mistake of not signing up the next Beatles when you look at the roster of signings spread between the two box sets, it’s clear they decided they’d take a punt on just about anything.

Having got the group they very often didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Despite the creation of specific brand identities (Deram and Nova), promotion and consequent sales was very much a hit and miss affair. Thus, a band might get signed only to be unceremoniously dropped or even worse – in Egg’s case the ignominy of having a second album in the can but Decca initially refusing to release it.

With music arriving on the label in so many different and diverse formats The sheer breadth and range of their output in the late 60s and early 70s was bewildering both then and now. Frustratingly for some acts, the label did put out Wowie Zowie – The World Of Progressive Music – a sampler of new rock, jazz and blues which enjoyed respectable sales. Yet when it came to many of the individual acts getting punters to part with their cash it was more often than not an uphill task.

As a result, though some names are familiar, many – such as World of Oz, Touch, Ashkan, Zakarrias, Galliard, Satisfaction and many more – are not. As with any movement, the underground scene was anything but homogeneous. However, the range, pace of change, and vaulting ambition that’s spread across each of the three CDs makes for fascinating and very often surprisingly exciting listening.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jack Kerouac Blues And Haikus

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing…

Blues And Haikus
Jack Kerouac
EMI Zonophone

I discovered jazz and Jack Kerouac at roughly the same time in my teens back in the early 1970s, when his seminal novel, On The Road, hooked me into the bohemian world of jazz clubs, intense friendships and the never ending highway under wide open skies described in its pages.

It spoke directly to that nagging sense that there had to be more to life than what was currently on offer, the need to take off and see what was out beyond the horizon of the everyday.

It barely mattered that the quick fluid prose in which this hedonistic manifesto was rolled up in didn't always make sense—it was all about feeling something rather than necessarily understanding it. “You dig?” wasn't a question as much as a state of mind and the same principles appeared to apply to jazz. The attraction in the voracious energetic bebop of Charlie Parker or the splintered harmonics of Thelonius Monk lay in their very exoticism, their innate difference and abrasion to the mainstream.

Thus, Kerouac, the Beats and jazz were inseparable, one egging the other on to greater acts of cultural exploration. Therefore when it came to Jack reading and / or improvising his words with jazz musicians it would obviously be a match made in heaven. Well, as this release demonstrates, there’s often quite a gulf between theory and practice.

He’d already begun his somewhat unsteady collision course with celebrity when Jack wound up in a recording studio in 1958 with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. With producer Bob Theile staring out through the glass, the trio laid down American Haikus.

Originally released in 1959, it followed on from his previous collaboration with Theile and pianist and TV presenter, Steve Allen on Poetry of the Beat Generation. Whereas that largely consisted of Kerouac reading novel extracts over a polite jazz backing, this attempted to connect the words directly with his music of choice. What this amounted to was Jack reading or riffing quick bursts of bop-prose followed by some skirmishing from the boys behind him.

As might be expected, Cohn and Sims offer up some rousing, often piquant responses to his words and Kerouac can often be heard giggling off-mic like a fan boy in response, as though he can hardly believe his luck at being in studio with them. It’s all amiable enough though the playing has the air of waiting to be ignited rather than actually being on fire.

“Hard Hearted Old Farmer” has Al Cohn switch to piano to back Kerouac’s liquor-lubed sprechtgersang with a tentative blues. The hesitant delivery from both and doesn’t improve until Sims eventually pitches in with a few well chosen licks.

Ironically when Kerouac does find his rhythm much later, midway through “Poems from the Unpublished Book of Blues,” spitting out a slew of percussive vowels, the saxes are reduced to meandering ineffectually in the background.

“On Old Western Movies” (one of the two bonus outtakes from the original sessions), as Kerouac is browsing through his poems trying to figure out what to do next, Bob Theile is heard in the room commenting “It’s one of the best jazz dates I’ve heard in years,” the howl of incredulous laughter from the guys in the next room can be clearly heard.

Although the words themselves explode and fly with his trademark wildcat imagery, Kerouac's delivery is leaden and flat. Rather than dance with music, more often than not he stands squarely on its toes. Sad but true.

Reliquaries III

The original manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On The Road
written in 1951 and sold for $2.43m in 2001.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Julie's Jubileusz!

Big excitement here in the Orange Room. Debra's sister, Dude, is with her family to celebrate her 50th birthday.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lunch With Lesley

Sometimes things come easily to you and on other occasions they don’t and you have to work for every inch. This morning I found getting into this particular piece was like trying to find a meagre foothold on the north face of the Eiger: bloody hard work.

Too hard as it turned out, so I gave up and directed my attention to Howlin Rain’s wonderful Magnificent Fiend (which is starting to get the good press it deserves) and No-Man’s Schoolyard Ghost’s which continues to work its magic upon me. Two records that will almost certainly be in my top ten at the end of the year.

Then it was for a lunchtime date with my sister, Lesley. We headed out towards Heaton. This is not exactly local or on the doorstep but I wanted to visit a cafe called Heaton Perk after reading about it on this blog.

After this, I took a look in Heaton Grove where I used to live in early 80s.

I've not been here since that time and I swear the paint on the windows hasn't been touched since then. I used to share the middle floor and then the penthouse suite. A great place for sure if you liked cockroaches, damp and well-dodgy landlords.

Nominations For God XXXVII

Hugh Hopper

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Desk Duties I

Sometimes you get a run of really poor albums crossing the desk and sometimes the wind changes, and what arrives is engaging, engrossing and excellent. Whether good or poor, there are times when it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to take it all in, never mind actually write about any of it.

On the blower in the morning: Dave Stewart – catching up on a couple of in-the-pipeline items. Neither of us has heard of Julian Jay Savarin or Julian’s Treatment, who I’m currently writing about. I speculate he may be one of the great lost keyboard greats such as Eric McWhirter.

At lunchtime Bernard popped around to try and advance our graphic novel project. A combination of work and my chronic indecision about approaches to storyline have prevented me feeding scripts to Bernard for him to work on. Whilst he is of course busy with lots of other things, without my pages on his desk there’s no way of him moving things onwards. Today, Bernard left with three separate storylines that had been languishing as a fretted and worried about them.

On the blower in the afternoon: Jakko and a truncated catch-up.

Monday, April 21, 2008

This Was Jethro Tull

The pace at which the music scene was changing in 1968 was, even when viewed from the luxurious hindsight of 40 years, a breath-taking explosion of creative intent that was as unpredictable as it was exciting. As the Summer of Love’s psychedelic foppery gave way to something altogether harder and darker in both style and content, out of the ashes of the John Evan band, Jethro Tull emerged with their dead men’s coats to heavy-up their act with a bite of blues rock and a precocious twist of jazz.

In this respect they were like many of the bands with whom they shared the bill all over the UK and abroad. However, what made Tull stand out from the great-coated crowd was the high-visibility of frontman Ian Anderson’s on-stage Tourette’s-inspired hyper-gurning and Mick Abraham’s ferocious fretwork.

It’s easy to forget that in its earliest incarnation Tull was not yet then Anderson’s personal fiefdom, with Abrahams exercising just as much influence as his flute-playing pal. This is especially apparent on Disc One’s BBC radio sessions where his blues roots are at their most pronounced. His playing throughout the record is superb though is heard to best effect on the rocking “Dharma For One”, and the Clapton-influenced “Cat’s Squirrel.” It’s no surprise that when the split with Anderson forced him into a solo career with Blodwyn Pig that their debut (Ahead Rings Out) rivalled the top ten sales of Tull’s 1969 follow-up, Stand Up.

Anderson’s presence though is of course undeniable and extensive. Though his vocals are often delivered in an idiosyncratic pastiche of a grizzled blues veteran (especially on “A Song For Jeffrey”), the phrasing of his nimble flute adds a busy, waspish internal commentary within the songs. Sometimes however their reach exceeds their grasp. The cover of Roland Kirk’s “Serenade To A Cuckoo” is a kind of bluffer’s jazz that would give them a momentary exotic shift of gear in a live set dominated by their tumbling rock. It’s a rather stilted execution here although one can’t help but admire their chutzpah in attempting it.

As well the original mono version and some radio sessions, this anniversary edition is expanded to take a new stereo mix, and contemporary single A-sides (including their first single “Sunshine Day” for the MGM label where they were erroneously called Jethro Toe) and B-sides on Disc Two. Having already been given a remastering back in 2003, the new mix yields little surprises although a bit of 21st Century digital space allows a wider aural view of tracks such as “Beggar’s Farm,” “You’re Breaking Me Up,” and Mick Abraham’s wistful “Move On Alone.”

Embracing the broader vocabularies of progressive and folk styles was a brave move considering the Top Ten success of this debut release. By the time it came out they’d already moved on. “This is how we played then – but things change” Anderson wrote on the original liner notes in ‘68. Far-sighted words as it turned out.

An overlooked but essential piece of Tull.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


I spent a good portion of the day at Tynemouth Station for two reasons.

Firstly, a rather large book fare.

Secondly to meet up for a natter with Rik Walton.

We’d hooked up via the blog a few weeks ago and so when the opportunity arose to meet up in person, with a bit of diary tweaking, we managed it today. As we browsed around the fare exchanging notes about our addictive personalities when it came to collecting things, I bumped into Pete Swann who I’d not seen since the early 80s.

I had a lovely day; book buying/browsing, cuppa, chinwagging, nostalgia - what's not to like?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

So, farewell then Miss Joan Hunter Dunn

John Betjeman’s poetry is like a big cosy old armchair that you used to crawl into when you were a child. It’s safe, traditional proportions cradle you in a world that has long since gone, and keeps you safe and warm from the winds of modernity. There’s a slightly fusty smell in the chintzy upholstery that makes your nose wrinkle though it’s not entirely unpleasant.

When I was on the train today going into town to meet Debbie returning from Birmingham, I picked up a copy of The Times and saw splashed across its front page the news that Joan Hunter Dunn had died. The subject of one of my favourite Betjemen poems, A Subaltern’s Love Song, I’d always assumed she was a fictional representation of the genteel middle class existence which Betjemen documented so well. So, to find out she was a real person after all these years came as quite a shock.

Listen to Betjemen reading the poem

Progressing The Tome

Today I was off to meet up with Chris Wilson in his penthouse suite of offices overlooking Whitley Bay’s Station Road.

We were there to begin the process of mapping out some design ideas for the revised, revamped and revisited Toxic Tome II or to give it its current working title King Crimson: 40 years Frame By Frame. The bulk of our deliberations centred on the size and format of the book. There’s an extra timeline dimension to each page in order to provide contextual information about King Crimson’s contemporaries without breaking the flow of the KC-centric narrative.

The timeline will enable me to explore the development of the prog rock genre (and beyond) as well as address the work of ex-Crim's in a way that connects them to the main action. Of course, it'll be tricky to pull off but as ever Chris had a couple of ideas about how this might be done and we’ll meet up again soon to thrash it out. Chris will also be coming up with a few ideas for the book’s supporting website.

We noted the passing of drummer Brian Davidson. I had seen him when he played with Gong and in more recent years with the reformed Nice when they played Newcastle a few years ago. Davidson looked pretty ill even back then and there were times when I thought he was struggling in the rhythm department. Nevertheless, his contribution to those albums by The Nice was vital and often exhilarating stuff.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mike Osborne Trio All Night Long

Cookin’ With Mike…
All Night Long
Mike Osborne Trio

First issued in 1976 and now making its CD debut with a sumptuous 26 extra minutes, what hits you from the opening moments of this live album is the full-blooded passion and commitment to every single note.

That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, given that Mike Osborne was undoubtedly one of the most formidable sax players to emerge from the fertile grounds of British jazz in the late 1950s and 1960s.

A glance at many of the key groupings of those periods shows just how close he was to the pulse, appearing in musically diverse settings such as Mike Westbrook's bands in the fifties and beyond, Humphrey Littleton, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Kenny Wheeler, John Warren, and bassist Harry Miller's Isipingo.

As distinctive as he was in the multitudinous troupes on the scene, it was in the smaller settings such as the glittering duets with pianist Stan Tracey, SOS (the inspired venture with John Surman and Alan Skidmore), and in his own trio, formed in 1969 with Harry Miller and drummer Louis Moholo, where the sheer mobility and restlessness of his playing really took off.

Freed of the discipline of ensemble horn charts Osborne roamed wherever the inclination took him, and in Miller and Moholo he had the perfect accomplices who not only followed, but also pushed and pointed to pastures new at every other beat of the bar.

All three blaze their individual trails around the mixture of original compositions, improvisations and standards with the acceleration and exhilaration that makes the car chase sequence from The French Connection look like a drive out on a sunny Sunday.

Osborne's reputation as a soloist has occasionally jousted with that of Ornette Coleman's, an understandable comparison given the unswerving intensity and close-knit group work that characterizes their respective approaches. However, the rasping fluidity showcased in traditional folk-influenced tracks such as “Scotch Pearl” is every bit his own, scorching the audience in Switzerland's Willisau with an all-out assault of dazzling boldness and quirky adventurousness.

Moholo's quicksilver reflexes (particularly on “Round Midnight”) are a constant delight, and for every swirling chorus or break of fiendish intricacy Osborne dispatches, Miller's muscular runs meet them head-on, offering harmonic and rhythmic contrast.

Alternating between a focused and precise articulation on the one hand and a furious abandon on the other, Osborne's outpouring is truly astonishing in its fervour and melodic reach. Constantly on the boil, All Night Long is a high point in a career that was sadly only occasionally captured for posterity.

The mental illness that prematurely silenced Osborne's uniquely savage delivery in the 1980s, and his eventual death from lung cancer in 2007, makes this set especially poignant and wholly compelling.

Buy this album here

Monday, April 14, 2008

Testing For Buzz XLI: 1968 And All That XVI

It's always struck me as odd that Nick Fury, agent of SHIELD, has never been transferred to film like many of the other Marvel heroes. As a kid I was buying up everything that had Nick Fury on the cover that I could get my hands on. Initially a wise crackin', cigar-chompin' commando from WW2, Marvel rebranded him as a hi-tech super agent tackling the hordes of HYDRA (amongst others ). These comics never used to appear in order and so one month Nick was battling the Third Reich and the next he was all Pop Art and espionage. And I lapped it up without batting an eyelid.

This isn't the first time I've featured on the powerful, psychedelic-tinged artwork of Jim Steranko that graced these little hummers. A great sense of style that plugged in the wider culture of the times. Mary Quant, poetry, Beatles albums, Bridget Riley, Nick Fury. It all seemed to fit together easily.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Words And Music VI

I don't think there was a day last month when I didn't play this stunning track. I love the dissonances and tensions created by David Rawling's guitar in this beautiful song from Gillian Welch's 2003 album, The Revelator. Simple but highly effective in pushing the song into "out there" territory. It sure gives me the shivers.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mockingbird Alison Moorer

Taking It Easy…

Alison Moorer
New Line

The revelatory heights of homage or the predictable pitfalls of parody are just two possible outcomes awaiting the artist undertaking a cover version. For every transcendent Hendrix-channelled “All Along The Watchtower” success there are the frankly execrable failures: Michael Bolton nose-diving into “Dock Of The Bay” anyone? A whole album can therefore be a fraught affair where judgement against the high-watermark of the original is inevitable.

New-country star (and wife of Steve Earle), Moorer, has declared this album a celebration of the strength of female songwriters and performers who've exerted a benign influence upon her career. Without wanting to appear churlish, that claim might come as something of a surprise to the likes of Ivan Kraal, Bill Botrell, and Merle Kilgore and David Rawlings – each having had a hand in “Dancing Barefoot,” “She Knows Where She Goes,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Time – The Revelator,” respectively.

The safe pair of hands of veteran Buddy Miller works the controls over a cautious choice that fleetingly touches blues, soft rock harmonising and a liberal sprinkling of the new country slow-burning balladeering on which Moorer's reputation has been built. The psych-tinged mellotron flutes, trip-hop affectations, and cold-water nu-folk austerity all show an admirable commitment to putting old wine into new bottles but the mixture is often fussy and lugubrious.

Although the old-time sonics of a vintage blues recording are wryly recreated for Ma Rainey's foot-stomping “Daddy, Goodbye,” Moorer's disciplined reading rarely goes beyond the obvious, and the lack of libidinous innuendo normally found in “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” is simply found wanting.

Joni Mitchell's “Both Side Now” has been parcelled up so many times into anodyne MOR-friendly chunks, the old-before-her-time pathos of the original is often lost. Whilst Moorer's attempt doesn’t quite fall into that category, her vocal here is curiously anonymous in its delivery, robbing any personal insight gained from her own personal journey through loss and redemption.

This is not a bad album by any means – her cover of sister Shelby Lynne's “She Knows Where She Goes” demonstrates Moorer's emotive appeal. Yet one can't help feeling that this is a stop-gap affair on her way to somewhere else.


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