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Friday, January 30, 2009

Podcasts From The Yellow Room I

The music featured in this episode includes:

1. Lighthouse by Paintbox
Paintbox official site
Paintbox album, Bright Gold and Red reviewed here

2. Will I See Thee More by John McCusker
John McCusker official site here
John McCusker album, Under One Sky, reviewed here

3. Tha Cu Ban Againn by Ken Hyder's Talisker
Ken Hyder's official site
Talisker album, Dreaming of Glenisla, reviewed here

4. Anywhere But Here by Norman Lamont
Norman Lamont official site
Norman Lamont album, Roadblock, reviewed here

Thanks to
Barry Stock
Navigator Records
Reel Recordings

Recorded in the Yellow Room, Friday 30th January 2008.
Duration 21.26






Thursday, January 29, 2009

Goodbye John Martyn


John Martyn became part of the soundtrack to my life a little while after the release of Solid Air in 1973. The strange combination of softly slurred vocals against finely-honed and formidable guitar lines was an attractive and sometimes contradictory mix.

So too was his interest in experimenting with echoplex and primitive looping technology that put him well beyond the usual areas occupied by singer/ songwriters of the day. His legendary collaborations with bassist Danny Thompson and free-jazz drummer, John Stevens produced more than a few spine-tingling moments as can be heard on the seminal Live At Leeds release.

Martyn had it all. Good looks, a rakish good humour (that would sometimes wind up getting him a pair of black eyes), a dazzling instrumental technique and a gift for writing songs that really mattered, and connected. May You Never and Solid Air will all be getting significant plays as people put on his music by way of tribute.

However, for me it’s his 1978 release, One World, that connects me to a time when this man made a difference to my everyday life. When he sang Couldn’t Love You More he managed to give voice to my tongue-tied emotions.

Dancing captured the soaring elation of a love affair long after it had gone wrong, and the sparse meditation of Small Hours got me through some particularly bleak days with its balance of calmness and clarity.

I heard hope in that music when the world surrounding me had precious little of anything at all to offer, and for that, I'll always be grateful to John Martyn.



Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Confessions Of The Sputnik Kid IV

Part I
Escape Velocity



VII

The remaining night spent replaying the moment
in a cascade of repeats that eventually hurts my skull,
I try to melt down what I saw into something malleable,
a thing I can handle.
Consumed by that evasive red arc,
I burn in a furnace of ideas that dwindle until dawn



VIII

From black to bleak to blue.
One mystery lost as another begins anew.
Leaving my icy billet to hunch over a well-caught fire;
Hearth-huddled, my toasting fork already in place,
scanning the screwed-up newsprint in the ravenous flames,
catching words before they become kiss-curls of smoke.

Images by Martin Hoogeboom
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid I can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid II can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid III can be seen here

Monday, January 26, 2009

All I Want For Xmas I

One of the great things about getting American imported comics when I was a kid was all the adverts for really amazing things. You know the stuff, rockets, hypno-coins, nuclear submarines, X-ray glasses, and making oodles of money with something called Grit etc.

I saw this one a few times and it always looked out of place at the time. Of course, it was uncannily prescient of the advertisers to know that most of the readers would in time come around to wanting their product.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Graham Nash Reflections


















Nash For Beginners
Reflections
Graham Nash
Rhino

Perhaps the most underrated member of CSN&Y quartet, this 3-CD retrospective spanning 40 years reminds us that Graham Nash's importance and value to that alchemical blending was never so much his writing but his unrivalled ear for harmony.

Nash was able to sense out the silver-tinged vocal line that would transform a simple tune into a great song. In The Hollies it was his high-flying vocals which often added a turbo-charged lift to lead vocalist Alan Clarke's straighter pop delivery.

Always a little too hip for The Hollies (publicly citing his admiration for Zappa's Freak Out back in 1966), he was keen to break free of the pop merry-go-round that had nevertheless had found many him admirers in the States including The Byrds' David Crosby.

Having joined forces with Crosby and the phenomenally gifted Stephen Stills, Nash's ability to sift through the almost embarrassing wealth of melodic options generated when these guys opened their mouths often made the hairs stand on end.

As with, Voyage, the 2006 David Crosby anthology, there are alternate mixes, a few previously unreleased tunes, and Nash's own song by song guide in the 150 page booklet. And just like Voyage, there are both highs and regrettable lows.

The earnest balladeer featured on Nash's first solo album, Songs For Beginners (recently remastered and reissued) has many admirable qualities. Soaring guitar from The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and band-mate Phil Lesh's supple bass work add distinctive and enduring points of interest.

However, it's when Nash's stirring vocals are set next to David Crosby's wild talents that the fireworks begin. Musical soul-mates, their fluid approach to accompaniment is often jaw-dropping, and one can't help but be impressed by such technique or forgive them their 'stoney evening' indulgences.

Though some of the duo's later work, and that of the various reformations of CSNY, tend to be corseted in flabby 80s production, tracks such the tribute to guitarist Michael Hedges and those fallen in the Vietnam War resonate with pure feeling.

Sometimes criticised for the preachy aspects of his writing, at least Nash dares to speak his mind. Though some of it has dated badly, occasionally coming over as corny, he always shoots from the heart. It might be unfashionable these days but isn't this the kind of honesty we want from artists?


This review originally appeared here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gone Fishing

I was glad when I woke up this morning.

It meant I was free of the latest in a long run of persistent anxiety dreams. Although the scenario has been different over the last few nights, the outcome is usually the same. The common thread in all of the dreams is me trying to explain a principle or concept whilst using an item of technology which goes badly wrong.

Last night it was a multi-disc CD changer that quite literally fell apart when I touched it.

As I say, I was glad when I woke up this morning.

After checking to make sure my cheap-as-chips single disc CD player still worked, I headed out into the cold, bright morning air and walked up to the top of our street to meet my sister at the bus stop.








Lesley and I took the bus down to North Shields to visit the various fish merchants on the quayside. A quick exchange about how things were revealed that we both had things on our minds about the folks that we love.

Her issues are not the same as mine but there was enough commonality between them for us to spend a morning ambling about talking things through.

Sometimes you can see the wood for the trees where your child can’t or in some cases, won’t. To tell a person about a negative aspect of their behaviour is always difficult at the best of times. Children are always defensive and nearly always interpret your intervention as hurtful or hostile or both.

You know crossing that line will bring a degree of pain and turbulence, and in the process, stir up dust clouds of uncertainty that obscure and divert attention from the question that needs to be addressed.

But when sitting back is no longer an option what do you do?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cara Dillon Hill of Thieves



















A sense of wonder...
Hill of Thieves
Cara Dillon
Charcoal Records

There are some musicians who develop with every new release. With a brace of awards, praise from her peers and an ever-growing following, Cara Dillon certainly fits that particular bill. Her fourth album perfectly demonstrates how keeping things simple really pays off.

A beautifully balanced production, brimming with sparkling guitar, piano, wistful uilleann pipes and Dillon’s shimmering vocals, this first release for her own Charcoal Records delivers a smoldering collection of traditional tunes. With the beguiling title track as the only original composition, the join between between old and new is seamless.

Although She Moved Through The Fair may be something of a well-worn classic, when Dillon sings those words, it’s as though we’re hearing it for the first time. Similarly on Spencer The Rover, where she shares vocals with brother-in-law Seth Lakeman, somehow transcends its familiarity.

Perhaps the only faltering moment is her rendition of the ballad, False, False. Steeped in pain and betrayal, arguably the definitive version of this song was captured by June Tabor on her 1994 album, Against the Streams, where that mature voice added extra layers of depth and poignancy.

Although entirely admirable, Dillon’s vocal seems a touch too sweet, perhaps too innocent even, lacking the weathered regret which Tabor effortlessly conveys. That aside, there’s no denying that husband Sam Lakeman’s doleful piano and Ben Nicholls’ unfettered on acoustic bass underscore the tune’s air of loss and remorse to perfection.

Following on from 2006‘s, After the Morning, simplicity really is the essence of her craft. The emotive unaccompanied vocal of the Gaelic tune Fil,Fil A Run O provides the most eloquent explanation as to why Dillon’s singing is so rightly valued. It’s impossible not be held spellbound.

Released at a time of year when the evenings are cold and dark, Hill of Thieves is a kind of rich comfort food for the soul, bringing some much-needed light and warmth. Artists this good deserved to be savoured.


This review originally appeared here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Confessions Of The Sputnik Kid III

Part I
Escape Velocity


V

Fallen back to Earth, cloaked in quilt and cold sweat,
my panting breath beating the retreat,
I gaze up and glimpse a red ember slowly cutting open the sky;
this stately smudge of moving light,
brighter than all of the other ancient heaven-strewn riddles and enigma,
flaunts its mystery

VI

I watch it crawl against black tracks of space.
Nothing I've seen in many nights of furtive observation has ever looked like this.
Not the febrile sputter of a meteor
nor yet the chilled blink from a lonely cargo plane.
A wide-eyed minute later it slips into
memory and imagination.

Images by Martin Hoogeboom
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid I can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid II can be seen here

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Paintbox Bright Gold And Red


















Painting with purity and passion...
Bright Gold And Red
Paintbox
Wild Chance Music

A world away from the clashing dynamics and contrapuntal mayhem they’re used to as members of Sweden’s premier electric chamber-rock ensemble, Isildurs Bane, cellist and singer Linnea Olsson and multi-instrumentalist Fredrik “Gicken” Johansson produce an appealing pop music under the name of Paintbox.

With drummer Magnus Helgesson joining in the fun, their debut album flirts between bright-eyed and bushy tailed tunes, intimate confessions and affirming bursts of joy and wonder.

Wrapped in a sparkling production that positively hugs Linnea’s agreeably husky voice, the tunes are smartly coloured with thoughtfully applied arrangements and understated performances. Though formidable instrumentalists capable of hair-raising displays of virtuosity in Isildurs Bane, as members of Painbox Linnea and Gicken prefer to keep their powder dry, putting everything into delivering perfect pop and post-rock vignettes.

The feelgood factor is pumped to the max on tracks like “Wild Chance” and the celebratory rush of “45 On” grabs at the excitement to be had from playing your favourite single as loud as the neighbours will allow.

Of course what goes up must come down and at least half of the record is bedecked with a sumptuous melancholy. Molten bitter-sweet moments abound:the pibroch-like drone of Heaven, the half-hoping urging of Walls Come Down, and Chameleon, in which Olsson really opens up her heart and soul as pours out the devastating recrimination “you took my eyes out.”

Best of all in this introspective vein is the gorgeous Winter. Reminiscent of the languorous contemplation of Eno’s Julie With, it both the chills and warms the soul. Linnea’s singing on this song in particular has a stately poignancy. Only on stadium-pomp romp of Air does she really rev things up, and shows something else of her impressive vocal range.

Released at the end of 2008, Bright Gold and Red, is a joyful, affirming start to the new year.

You can hear tracks from this album over on their myspace site.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Odessa Deluxe Edition



















Egos Having Blown...
Odessa Deluxe Version
Bee Gees
Rhino

When Barry Gibb sings “How can you tell that humans are real?” you know that we’re not in Kansas anymore. We are in Odessa, the lavish 1969 double album that prompted Robin Gibb’s temporary departure, and the one which pundits are often keen to promote as their baroque masterpiece.

Like many of their contemporaries in 1968, the Bee Gees felt the need to experiment as befitted serious songwriters of the day. In this they were encouraged by manager Robert Stigwood to indulge their creative instincts to the max with a collection running to over an hour.

A single, First of May, with Barry’s achingly forlorn lead vocals, hit the Top Ten, as did the parent album, just like Bee Gees records were supposed to do. However, once the public opened up the expensively packaged velvet gatefold sleeve, the contents failed to find favour.

The poor showing for its 1970 follow-up, Cucumber Castle, suggests that punters were truly scared off by the cracked and kooky eclecticism which Odessa represents.

The presence of over-inflated, psuedo-cinematic arrangements, instrumental tracks, the opening narration of the title track, and ambiguous lyrics throughout (“You said Goodbye/I declared war on Spain” from Never Say Never Again), all suggests a wavering, self-conscious grasp at some kind of proto-concept album.

Now reissued and given the Deluxe treatment, disc one has a breezy stereo mix in which Bill Sheperd’s opulent orchestrations dominate. What Disc Two’s mono version lacks in supposed hi-fidelity, it compensates by pulling everything into a more readily digestible foreground.

However, the most fascinating aspect of the reissue is disc three, Sketches for Odessa. Lasting over 70 minutes we hear demo tracks from the very first sessions cut in New York in between live dates in the USA, alternate mixes and two complete tracks that never made the final cut.

Absorbing the orchestral strains of Scott Walker’s increasingly remote output, co-opting The Band’s Music From Big Pink, or The Beatles’ White Album, Odessa was a clearly a product of its times, whose sense of sprawling ambition was matched only by its failure to recognise its limitations.

Whilst there’s some good writing on it it’s also true that this is spread perilously thinly. Falling somewhat short of the hyperbole that heralds any present-day discussion of the record, like nearly every double album ever released, there’s probably a great single album lurking between the filler.

This review originally appeared here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Out And About

Bernard and Lesley took Debra and I up to Newburn yesterday. A gorgeous wintry afternoon. My back was a bit dodgy so I struggled a bit as we took what would normally be a gentle stroll along a well-used path.





When Bernard and Lesley were considering their relocation from Milton Keynes back to the north, Newburn was one of the places where they looked at buying a house. As nice as it is around these parts, I'm glad they opted for Whitley Bay.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Helping Terrorists With Their Enquiries

The proposed closure of Marks & Spencer's food outlet in Whitley Bay's Park View shopping centre (or "the mall", as we like to call it) is yet another blow to the already struggling retail sector.

When the mall opened a couple of years ago, it seemed as though the future, - a future which everyone else had been enjoying to the hilt - had finally alighted from its super-duper hi-tech flying car to distribute beads to the natives.

It was quite a heady feeling visiting a leading high street name on your doorstep without the inconvenience of having to get on a bus to Newcastle. Now it looks as though the future is about to bugger off somewhere else.

Given that this is no doubt happening across the nation, I'm still reeling from hearing a Government minister, in what must be the most remarkable case of political amnesia ever, speak about the "green shoots of recovery."

Viewed one way, this shopping centre can be seen as a "green shoot of recovery" from the last recession, although in truth, the local economy never really recovered from the recession before that.

Thinking to illustrate these thoughts with a picture or two I took my camera along for the ride. After popping into M&S, I stood in the middle of the mall and snapped these two views.


A moment later a security guard informed me that I wasn't allowed to take photographs.

SS: "why's that then?"
SG: "It's against company policy."
SS: "yes but why?"
SG: "in case of terrorism."
SS: "are there many cases where deserted shopping malls are targeted by terrorists then?"
SG: "It's company policy. You'll have to put the camera away."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The State We're In...

The downturn / slump/ recession / credit crunch /setback or whatever euphemism they’ve come up with this week for the impeding collapse of capitalism, continues to impact upon Whitley Bay. The empty shell that is now Woolworths will soon be joined by the quickly emptying shell of T&G Allans.


When my kids were of the age where you could give them a pound to spend in T&G Allans’ basement toyshop, and they’d think that Dad was a devil-may-care millionaire, Allan’s was a regular stopping off point for a shot of feel-good factor.

Unlike Woolies, where I was akin to a consumerist version of Halley’s comet, T&G Allans kept me in its orbit by supplying me with labels, birthday cards, ballpoint pens, paintbrushes, pencils, folders and reams of over-priced paper.

Yesterday when I called in, the place was packed with disappointed-looking punters picking over a carcass whose innards were apparently full of what trade catalogues would optimistically term “fancy goods,” but which all right thinking people would surely regard as over-priced tat.

It was also full of lots of staff talking loudly about who was to blame for their fate. Perhaps, I thought to myself, it might have been the buyer of the mountains of as yet unsold fancy goods that clogged the aisles?

Not at all.

It was, they informed the world around them, whether the world wanted to hear it or not, all the fault of the local council.

As an ex-agent of the local state, a description all bureaucrats use when they want to make their jobs sound interesting and almost exciting, I know from personal experience that the local council is generally held accountable for just about every ill to befall society.

If someone drops litter then it’s the council’s fault. If tourists now prefer to holiday in sunnier climes rather than spend a fortnight by the North Sea, as legions of folks did in the 1950s, why it’s the council’s fault.

If young people swarm to the place at weekends, wanting to fill the coffers of the local pubs and clubs, and afterwards pile into the numerous restaurants and take-away shops, well, you know who is to blame.

I’m not so defensive of my ex-employers as to be unable to recognise their many failings and often profound shortcomings, but taking the rap for the current economic blight seems a touch unfair.

Perhaps the council could organise a bail-out package designed to buy up all the toxic fancy goods that have irresponsibly been allowed to poison the market?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Confessions Of The Sputnik Kid II

Part I
Escape Velocity


III
With only the thinnest sliver of light tethering me to home,
I crawled toward the incalculable.
Shivering against stratospheres,
swimming through air, I was sailing into a star-blessed black
that would soon coalesce into dark obsession.
Newsreel voices silently spilt from my lips
but they boomed in my brain


IV
If you go high enough you'll black out from lack of oxygen.
Every night I held my breath for as long as I could,
not wanting to cloud those constellations
with the milky skim of my breath against glass.
Experiencing that one last ecstatic gasp
before the addictive
headlong plunge.

Images: Martin Hoogeboom
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid I can be seen here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Picture This

My pal Chris T called over yesterday. We sat about in front of the Imac talking about Soft Machine. Chris saw the band play twice in 1971 - once with Robert Wyatt and then with his successor, Phil Howard later in the year.

Using the Imac's onboard mic and Garageband, we recorded the pair of us nattering on, and assuming I can find the time this week, the results are to edited into the very first episode of Podcasts From The Yellow Room. A quick playback reveals it sounds fairly lo-fi but it'll have to do for now.

We then found the photobooth application and so risked a snap or two of us in action. As you can see, Chris is a shameless lens hugger.

Drop Soft Machine

















Howard's Way...
Drop
Soft Machine
MoonJune Records

In 1971 Soft Machine entered a period of transition that saw them make a decisive break with its past as well as founder member, drummer Robert Wyatt, and delve, albeit briefly. into a stridently experimental, atonal phase.

Their slow drift towards such uncompromising free-form clashes was unexpectedly accelerated by the arrival of Australian drummer, Phil Howard, whom sax player Elton Dean recruited from his side outfit, Just Us.

Whilst this decision may have been born out of necessity, Howard's arrival was also rooted in Dean’s desire to move to a looser mode of expression, something he'd been doing since Fletcher’s Blemish (from SM’s Fourth) and their live blow-out, Neo Caliban Grides, which had been opening live shows of the day to startling effect.

When we talk of drummers “whipping up a storm” this is certainly true in Howard’s case. His playing often sounds more like a force of nature than anything remotely to do with keeping time or adding rhythmic emphasis.

Though Drop contains several regular titles from the Soft Machine set list, you’re unlikely to have heard them played quite like this.

As fast and loose as Robert Wyatt could be with tight arrangements such as Slightly All The Time and Out-Bloody-Rageous, Howard doesn’t so much play around with them as burst through them in a squall of ride cymbal.

Bassist Hugh Hopper, normally so integral to the early make-up of the band sounds almost sidelined here, threading isolated, almost lonely-sounding riffs whilst Howard embarks on some rhythmic excursions that appear to have little to do with his surroundings.

Such an approach sounds like the polar opposite of Soft Machine’s complex structures, and ultimately Hopper and keyboard player Mike Ratledge thought so too, replacing Howard with John Marshall half way through the recording the stark darkness of Fifth.

Before that though, for a brief period, in concert Soft Machine unleashed a chaotic, thrashing jazz with Phil Howard at its tempestuous centre.

It shouldn’t work but it does. Howard’s explosive style, reminiscent at times of Stu Martin's oblique playing, pushes the group to the edge, and in the process, makes this one of the most exciting Soft Machine recordings to date.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Future Back Then...

Musician and composer Michael Peters got in touch with me today to tell me that he has started blogging. His blog also points to the work of German artist Klaus Burgle who was active in the 50s / 60s with a very nice line in that whole retro-future vibe.

Michael is partly responsible for setting up this website dedicated to Burgle's visions of the future and he tells a nice tale of how it came to be in this latest blog entry.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Command All Stars Curiosities 1972














A Blast From The Past...
Curiosities 1972
Command All Stars
Reel Recordings

Just a few days before embarking on an American tour with King Crimson in February 1972, Robert Fripp, in his role as record producer, sat in the control booth of London’s Command Studios listening to some of the very best players of the UK jazz scene at work.

Bassist Harry Miller, trombonist Nick Evans, cornet player Mark Charig and pianist Keith Tippett (all contributors to King Crimson albums) were joined by Blue Note bassist Johnny Dyani, drummer Keith Bailey and trombonist Paul Nieman.

At the behest of Ronnie Scott Productions, this double quartet (as Fripp might have dubbed them years later) worked both as a large ensemble and in smaller combinations with Miller and Dyani as the only constants in each whatever permutation they came up with. With Fripp acting in his capacity as a “safe pair of ears” (to borrow Keith Tippett's description), the intention was to release a double album led by Nick Evans and Mark Charig, entitled Guilty But Insane. However, once Ronnie Scott declined on the finished project the master tapes were set aside, and over the passage of time, forgotten and ultimately lost forever.

Yet 36 years later Nick Evans eventually found a rough stereo mix of what would have constituted sides 2 and 4 of Guilty But Insane, although the tape with sides 1 and 3 (and sadly all of Paul Nieman’s contributions) remains missing in action. Reflecting that this is only a partial account of those days in Command Studios, the set has now been retitled Curiosities 1972. Contains a fragmentary set of five pieces there are plenty thrills and spills.

The epic Roots and Wings flashes and thrashes with a collective brilliance that would expect from players of this calibre. Here, Elton Dean on sopranino sax sounds uncannily like some of Evan Parker’s shriller excursions as Charig’s muted cornet buzzes and darts around Miller’s flailing bass work.

It’s Tippett, Miller and Dyani who drive the piece towards it’s abrupt climax and it’s that trio who combine on African Sunrise. Here, Tippett plays electric piano - something of a curiosity itself - moving from FX-pedaled abstractions into Zawinulesque pools of light. The bassists work between Tippett’s clusters to provide a heady race of ideas and rhythmic exchanges that swerve on the head of a pin.

Inevitably, there are points where these spontaneous collective improvisations fail to connect but there are more hits than misses. Particularly impressive throughout is Keith Bailey’s boisterous drumming, often catapulting the mood into different directions and generally egging his colleagues on from unproductive musing into fiery invention.

In addition to the five tracks from the original session, Reel Recordings have added VEHIM, a track by Elton Dean’s Just Us Plus. Here Dean, Charig and Evans are joined by guitarist Jeff Green, bassist Neville Whitehead and the ever-dazzling Louis Moholo on drums. Recorded eleven months after the sessions for Guilty But Insane at the back end of 1972, the mournful, bluesy march provides a stirring send-off for these much-missed players.

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