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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Houseguests Dude, Jim, Carly, and Amy arrived on Friday night to be billeted at our house in advance of pre-Xmas/Doris birthday celebrations scheduled for Saturday. On Saturday afternoon Tom occupied one side of the kitchen making a cinnamon loaf....
whilst Debbie was on the other side, tending to one of the bits of dead meat that was sure to be consumed.
Early in the evening the crowd assembled to eat the day's labours...

I prefer this scene without the unforgiving aid of the flash...

The next morning they were still at...

until it was time for the troops to leave...

The frost was thick on the ground and car windows parked in the cut...
...and though only a few yards separated them, this little fella had managed to escape the worst of it
After making a pot of tea, Debra headed for the Yellow Room and got down to school work such is her dedication.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Norman Lamont Roadblock

A sleeper awakes...

Norman Lamont

There are some albums which hit you straight between the eyes from the first note and others which slowly worm their way into your psyche. With its reserved and understated performances, Roadblock is definitely in the latter category. Sleeper or not, glorious moments creep up and dazzle you with their uncluttered brand of consummate balladry.

Not to be confused with the pugnacious Tory chancellor who famously sang in the bath whilst sterling collapsed about him, this Lamont is an Edinburgh-based songwriter.

A crisp production presents acoustic-based songs laced with some dreamy slide guitar, arctic Lanois-style trimmings and some gorgeous violin flourishes and arrangements. Fronting it all up, Lamont’s voice trembles within the skin of bittersweet melodies that is reminiscent of a nasal Ray Davies, and it’s this likeable fragility which delivers the chills on a run of three standout tracks – “Dorothy’s Book,” the epic ambitions of “The Spell” and the darkly sublime “Anywhere But Here.” These 16 minutes (plus the deliciously gloomy ruminations of the excellent title track) shows Lamont to be a songwriter of depth and imagination.

Only the frankly baffling inclusion of reggae-based clunker “I’ll Be Back” and the ill-fitting strut of “When I Came Home From Egypt” distort the otherwise brooding atmosphere which Lamont creates throughout the rest of the album with such care and attention.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The All New Electric Muse

Are Folks Electric?
The All New Electric Muse
Various Artists

In recent times boutique labels such as Harvest, Deram, Vertigo, and the more esoteric offerings from Island and Polydor have all enjoyed a revival of interest thanks to a series of well-produced 3 CD sets. Ideal for the newcomer, they all offer a cross-section of hits, misses, curiosities and forgotten treasure from a time when labels were as open-minded and adventurous as the music that was hitting the desk of the A&R department.

Such collections have focussed mainly upon the morphing of pop and psychedelia into underground and heavy rock, touching upon folk music only in passing. We now have an appreciation of a (roughly) similar period when folk and acoustic-based artists danced, dallied and quite possibly tarried a while with its electric cousins.

Along with the imprints previously mentioned, Transatlantic Records were just as eclectic in what they signed. Alongside comedy, jazz and rock they held a large portion of the folk boom of the early 60s on their books. By combining Transatlantic's roster with that of Island and Decca, many of the key names pushing boundaries and setting standards of exploration and discovery that makes Doctor Livingstone seem like an armchair traveller are ably represented.

Yet this is not only a collection of hot-shot guitarists (step forward Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and John Martyn – all present and correct), the usual suspects when it comes to the folk-rock frame-up (Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Traffic), or tragic troubadours such as Sandy Denny or Nick Drake.

There's a welcome straying off the well-worn paths to take in a range of acts whose diversity challenges any notion that folk or even folk-rock is just one standardized brand. Thus we get the unruffled purity of Shirley Collins' vocal coupled to the Albion Country Band's tricksy, uneven meters, Bryn Haworth's dazzling "Grappenhall Rag" (with King Crimson's Gordon Haskell on bass) and shining harmonies rising triumphantly from "It's Dark In Here" by Dransfield.

Also worthy of closer investigation is Shelagh McDonald whose "Dowie Dens Of Yarrow" is graced with undulating drums and radiant Hammond organ. McDonald's own story is worthy of a song itself. Recording only two albums in the 1970s, she walked out on a promising career after one bad acid trip too many. Unlike other more famous acid casualties of her generation, hers is a happy ending, turning up recently and writing material again.

If your interest has been piqued by previous box sets such as Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal and A Breath Of Fresh Air, this will reward your attention. On a cautionary note though, contractual difficulties prevent the inclusion of Roy Harper's early 70s visionary synthesis of the genre (a vital part of the folk-rock journey) or the groundbreaking work of Lal and Mike Waterson, June Tabor et al. Nor can it be as comprehensive as Castle Communication's 6 CD New Electric Muse (issued in 1996 and itself based upon 1976’s four-album Electric Muse). Such unavoidable omissions aside though, this is still a must-have collection.

This review originally appeared here.

Desk Duties IV

Currently having lots of fun in the Yellow Room. Some, or indeed all of these album might well be featured in Podcasts From The Yellow Room if only I could find time to record the damn thing!

Monday, November 24, 2008

A New Arrival In The Yellow Room

No, not Bernard but the Power Mac G4. I came by this bit of kit thanks to John Sargent who called round yesterday with it. Knowing I was looking to enter the world of Macs, he very kindly retrieved this one from a long-forgotten cupboard. Sadly it's now minus keyboard, mouse and monitor and power cable.

Thankfully Bernard was able to supply the last item in that the list. He was also able to discern with the aid of reading glasses that this unit hailed from 1999 and consisted of 128mb sd-ram and 20gb hard drive.

I'm going to investigate whether or not keyboards / mouse / monitor / wi-fi / memory upgrades make this baby worth investing in or whether I'd be better advised to save my cash toward something sleeker and up-to-the minute. If any UK visitors to the blog can offer suggestions / advice get in touch by the usual means.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Michah Blue Smaldone The Red River

Music for the best of times and the worst of times...
The Red River
Micah Blue Smaldone
Immune Records

It’s been something of a purple patch when it comes to singer songwriters coming up with the goods. In a year that ushered in the transcendent meditation on loss and hope that was For Emma, Forever Ago by Justin Vernon aka Bon Hiver, we now have Micah Blue Smaldone – not a pseudonym but the real life moniker belonging to American ex-punk rocker turned philosophical troubadour.

Like Bon Hiver’s album, this too contains a sparse production, and tremulous introspective vocals. However, Justin Vernon’s record was a response to self-imposed back-to-nature isolation. Smalldone’s work springs from his travels and encounters around Eastern Europe.

At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking that this is an agreeably sedate album, essentially acoustic in nature, adorned with an occasionally jazzy inflection or a jangling folk-rock style that is sometimes reminiscent of the quaint fragility of P.G. Six’s 2007 record, Slightly Sorry.

But beneath the veneer of dusty Americana there’s a song-cycle carrying a heart-of-darkness travelogue filled with terse observations about the malevolent force within us all that slips off the leash with a depressing regularity.

Smaldone’s words craft vivid images without any unnecessary histrionics or invective; paradoxically they’re delivered with a deceptively restive grace that belies the undercurrent of lurking violence. The opening track, "A Guest" pulses with an ominous dread as he painstakingly describes a nightmare meal with an unwanted guest, covered with the gore of something freshly slaughtered.

Similarly, the title song (imbued with a finger-picked motif suggestive of Planxty’s elegiac West "Coast Of Clare") resonates with an evocative symbolism. Detailing the corruption, excesses and guilt that scar both civilians and soldiers in times of conflict; the river is not red with something benign as the rays of a rising sun but with blood. Upon seeing a woman bathing in the maw, he asks why she chooses to swim in such a foul place “I cannot bathe in waters clear, until such is my conscience.”

Avoiding any crass preaching, Smaldone sings quietly of terrible things. Yet his absence of cynicism suggests these are ultimately songs about, and of, hope.

This review originally appeared here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mellotron Nick Awde

Keyboard to ascension...
Mellotron: The Machine and Musicians that Revolutionised Rock
Nick Awde
Desert Hearts

OK let’s start with the facts. Nick Awde’s extensive love song to the Mellotron weighs in with a thumping 590 pages, contains interviews with 21 musicians who’ve either played one of the beasts (or stood next to someone who has), engrossing background interviews with the instruments creators, a series of appendices which include (amongst other things) the dates and places of birth of those interviewed or mentioned in the book along with their star signs (no, really), along with a clutch of period adverts and of course, the all-important Mellotron-related discography and “Top 25 songs and albums” list. Words such as “comprehensive”, “exhaustive” and “obsessive,” whilst certainly applying to the book, don’t really do justice to Awde’s achievement here. Though there's been previous books about the Mellotron, its sound and its influence, none of them come close to this one.

For many, the Tron is as much a part of the 60s and 70s as day-glo Hendrix posters, preposterous platform boots, joss sticks and Lobsang Rampa books. The eerie worlds created by its string and brass settings injected something strangely transgressive wherever it materialised; it could be foreboding, instilling an autumnal woebegone nostalgia for times never had, and a yearning for things that might yet happen. That this mercurial and transformative quality should issue forth from an instrument that in its original housing looked more like a Victorian sideboard than an augury of things to come typifies the contradictions that came with the ‘Tron.

Notoriously temperamental, it nevertheless attracted legions of forward-thinking rock musicians who liberated it from the light entertainment, band-in-a-box circuit to which the Mellotron had been initially marketed. Moreover, this prototype sampler, for all its foibles and irritations (and actually probably because of them) was a catalyst to pushing back the neat boundaries of pop music toward something that was epic, experimental and ambitious.

With heroic conviction, Awde celebrates all of the major players and performers and the records from that era, although perhaps the only significant omission in this magisterial survey of the Mellotron’s reign appears to be Tangerine Dream. Although the Teutonic knob-twiddlers are mentioned in passing, albums such as Atem or their commercial break-through, Phaedra and Rubycon almost collapse under the weight of depressed Mellotron keys.

There’s plenty of interest for King Crimson fans here via interviews with Greg Lake, David Cross, Bill Bruford, John Wetton and Ian McDonald – to whom the book is dedicated. Significant others include Yes, Strawbs, and of course The Moody Blues. If you’ve ever felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention when the sound of a Mellotron enters the music you were listening to, then you must own this book.

Get the book here

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's About That Time Of Year...

Inside these respectable looking buildings in a conservative market town somewhere in Northumberland, strange things are taking place...

The Doors Live At The Matrix 1967

The end of the beginning...
Live At The Matrix 1967
The Doors

So long after their explosive heyday The Doors and Jim Morrison retain their gold-standard of cool. Like all major acts they’ve been incorporated, corporatized and accessorised to the nth degree – a pair of Doors-branded Coverse All-Stars anyone? Of course not everyone however buys into the myth of Morrison as the epitome of rock n' roll shaman dispensing visionary wisdom. As David Crosby caustically wrote about such myth-making in his 1998 CPR song, Morrison, "I've seen the movie and it wasn't like that."

Strip away the fables surrounding Morrison and The Doors and what are we left with? The answer, or at least something approaching part of it, tantalisingly hovers in and out of view on this 2 CD live bootleg.

Although these tapes will be well known by hardcore Doors fans, this is the first time they’ve seen the official light of day. Massaged into life by Bruce Botnik (engineer on those original Paul Rothschild produced albums), they offer a glimpse, as Ray Manzarek observes, of the band having fun. Playing a sizable chunk of their first album and half of their follow up record (yet to be laid down in a studio), the rest of the set is upholstered with a few greasy-spoon standards.
Just a few weeks on from the release of their debut, word about the band’s impending canonisation does not appear to have reached the handful of punters who turned up to Marty Balin’s nightclub in San Francisco, and who can be heard offering only the politest of applause between numbers.

Without the catalyst of audience reaction and in the face of such indifference, the sparks rarely fly and despite Manzarek's assertion about the extent to which this meant the band could stretch out and experiment, we have a performance that only occasionally smoulders, never quite ever catching fire. In truth, ther'’s little evidence here of a group that matches essayist Joan Didion’s description of The Doors as "the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex." Morrison’s celebrated "wardrobe malfunction" was still a couple of years off.

Though he would become the patron saint of the rock-star-in-leather-trousers look, here Morrison stands awkwardly at the microphone oozing something between lounge-singer schmaltz and half-hearted karaoke chutzpah that’s a few shot-glasses short on Dutch courage.

Die-hard Morrisonologists will however be cheered by the inclusion of alternate words grasped from his poetic writings and scattered about in songs such as a pulsing cover of the old Them stomper, "Gloria" and their sinuous classic, "The End."

With Kreiger's blazing guitar solo on "When The Music's Over", and Manzarek's faux-classical noodling, there's a lot of potential waiting to be called upon. However, at The Matrix we’re in the company of a somewhat quaint and reserved bar band, prone to stretches of timorous research, rather than anyone dropping their trousers in the face of the establishment. That would all come later and with it, quite literally in the case of The Doors, the stuff of legend.

This review originally appeared here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Enemy Of Productivity IV

You know you're in trouble when you start shouting at the radio or TV as often as I seem to do these days. Over the last couple of months it seems to be the BBC news that sets me off (not to mention that whole business with Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand). However, for all its faults the BBC is a marvellous institution and here's why...

The new archive facility is wonderful - just take a look at all the old radio and TV spots they've assembled on Francis Bacon.

As well as lots of different strands such as this one about working class life...
or this page about pop culture in Liverpool...There's lots of other topics over on the collections homepage.

Off To Newcastle...

Leaving the comfort of the Yellow Room, I took a walk up to the Metro station...

As you can see it was late into the afternoon - a magical hour at this time of year when the sky eagerly grasps onto the very last scraping of sunlight.

I was in Newcastle to buy some speaker cables. Following my recent internal reorganisation I decided I want to move my CD player and amplifier from their current location to somewhere a touch closer ie my desk.

After checking out a couple of retailers, I plumped to get a slightly more expensive bit of bell wire from Richer Sounds. The staff were incredibly helpful and incredibly rushed. In the time I was there (about five minutes or so) there were dozens of people buying hugely costly home cinema systems and the like. It's as though word about the credit crunch and the collapse of capitalism hasn't yet reached these parts.

From there I went to meet Johnny Sargeant, my old mucker from days in local government. We were meeting in somewhere called the Salsa Cafe, which I believe my have been Oz Records in another lifetime.

That reference will be lost on anyone unfamiliar with Newcastle in the early 1970s. On another trivia point, we were sitting over the road from where Change Is nightclub used to be, and that was where King Crimson made their debut live performances in 1969.

Since John and I last met the world is a different place. Some banks have been partially nationalised, uncertainty in the market place is rife, and Gordon Brown is looking happy again. Oh and there's been that minor business about the election of Obama.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Remember Remember

This Charming Band…
Remember Remember
Rock Action

Offering up a post-rock pastoralism, this Glasgow-based operation draw heavily upon the worlds already sketched out by the Penguin CafĂ© Orchestra or The Durutti Column school of reflective, introspective melodies. Signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label, there’s evidence that they’ve been listening to some of the more mellifluous passages of Steve Reich’s work as well.

Fostering an air of unfettered, simpler times, much of this music seems ready-made for use in an artfully-lit TV plays and indie cinema hits where the colourists have gone a bit over the top emulating the atmos-of-Amelie vibe.

What that gets you is ten pieces which share a lightness of touch, glittering cyclical textures and uncluttered to-the-point arrangements whose chief characteristics seems to be a faux naivetĂ© and a sense of not quite getting anywhere. Such dithering is all part of the charm here, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, in such dark and uncertain times, a bit of light relief never did anyone any harm.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Valgeir Sigurdsson Ekvilibrium

A question of balance...
Valgeir Sigurdsson
Bedroom Community

Having worked with Bjork, the Kronos Quartet and Howie B (to name drop a few), in 2007 Icelandic producer and composer Valgeir Sigurdsson stepped out with a debut album that walks the tightrope between those sometimes conflicting worlds of acoustic and electronic music. Essentially a seamless integration of the two spheres, the success of the album isn’t measured so much by the painstakingly intricate production techniques but in his ability to not only produce pieces that radiate poise and elegance, but have the element of surprise.

Throughout the album glorious melodies shine through the gathering clouds of studio atmospherics, or in the case of “Focal Point”, erupt into flight like startled birds. “A Symmetry” pulses with beats from Kimmo Pohjonen collaborator, Samuli Kosminen (who also adds a laid back kick and shuffle to stately procession of chiming Fender Rhodes chords that dominate “After Four”), whilst “Equilibrium Is Restored” – with rustic harmonium, glowering cello, and heat-haze processing - hovers in an amorphous state that brings to mind the evocative and haunting cadences of Gavin Bryars’ “The Sinking Of The Titanic” or “Thursday Afternoon” by Brian Eno.

There are vocals on four of the ten tracks, and with the meticulous ear of a seasoned producer, Sigurdsson knows exactly how to dress these performances to best effect. The icy fragility of Dawn McCarthy’s singing on “Winter Sleep” is a perfect sky-born antidote to the sombre, drifting layers of brass and terse orchestral swathes , whilst Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s soulful vocals (sounding not unlike Robert Palmer at times) sway against folds of smouldering strings on “Evolution Of Waters” and the heart-stirring “Kin” to produce a high-tension finish.


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