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Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Lake Swimmers Lost Channels

Let's Get Lost...
Lost Channels
Great Lake Swimmers

Recording tunes in grain silos, venerable acoustic sweet spots and the wonderfully named Singer Castle on the equally evocatively titled Dark Island beside the St. Lawrence River isn’t just a dippy gimmick with this Canadian outfit.

Part of the Great Lake Swimmer album's immediacy and impact comes from their ability to choose and inhabit a space with only the most minimal technological intervention.

Filled with a spellbinding mix of country-tinged melancholy and a poetic economy that resists saccharin statements, or maudlin indulgence, the ghostly voice of lead Swimmer, Tony Dekker crosses vast oceans of loneliness and undercurrents of heartache to impressive effect.

Lost Channels has a more robust feel to it than their last album, Ongaria. The heavy down-strum of Pulling On A Line or the driving pop of She Comes To Me In Dream has a quirky staying power that really gets under the skin. The more populist mandolin-heavy lilt of opener, Palmistry, is surely a contender for an anthemic-style Losing My Religion for a new generation.

Amidst such up-tempo sunshine there's moments of an altogether darker splendour. Stealing Tomorrow’s gossamer-thin wisps of pedal-steel guitar or the cello-burnished lines on New Light underscore Dekker's poignant, compelling insights.

It's to be hoped that with the current appetite for consuming folk rock as the new rock 'n' roll, that more people are going to start picking up on the quiet beauty contained in each and every one of the Great Lake Swimmers' albums.

This review first appeared here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dukes of Stratosphear 25 O' Clock

Mad Men, Man
Dukes of Stratosphear
25 O'Clock
Ape Records

Time flies when your having fun and in 1985 XTC were having plenty of it - recording this mini-album homage to pyschedelia in just two weeks flat.

Legend has it - and this being XTC there are plenty of legendary tales to take your pick from - that the origins behind the sessions came about when Andy Partridge's production job with Mary Margaret O'Hara fell through.

The resulting vacant fortnight gave the ever-hyperactive Partridge the opportunity to tick off a long held ambition to recreate the 1960s that he'd seen and heard in his head and get it all down on tape.

Adopting the collective personna of The Dukes of Stratosphear (a name that he'd considered for the band before finally settling for XTC) the band time-warped themselves across a series of brilliantly witty psych pastiches.

You'd need to trainspotter's notebook to chronicle all the musical references anthologised within, but a kaleidoscope of cameos would include The Beatles (What In The World and the exquisite Mole In The Ministry), The Electric Prunes (25 O'Clock), The Yardbirds (My Love Explodes), Pink Floyd and The Move (Bike Ride To The Moon).

Sometimes these kind of in-jokes are better on paper than they are in reality. Not in this case though. 25 O'Clock bristles with enthusiasm and energy, positively exuding good, and let's be honest here, wacky vibes.

Released on April Fool's Day 1985 under the Dukes' pseudonym, it actually outsold their last album proper, The Big Express. Indeed, its influence can clearly be heard on straighter albums such as Tears For Fears' 1989 work, The Seeds Of Love.

The band enjoyed their break from the day job of being XTC so much that they repeated the exercise successfully with Psonic Psunspot in 1987, which has also been just been reissued alongside this one, complete with a clutch of demo tracks which are just as entertaining as the final versions.

If, as they say, there's a thin line between being a genius and being mad. Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are clearly experts at walking that particular tightrope.

This review first appeared here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Words And Musc XI Great Lake Swimmers

Mucho toe-tapping in the yellow room thanks to the new album from the utterly fabbo-to-the-max, Great Lake Swimmers. I was totally entranced by their last album, Ongaria. This album has more of a pop feel to it but I love Tony Dekker's voice so much, that it matters not.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin Green and Blue

Dave & Barb phone home!
Green and Blue
Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin
Broken Records

Given that their last release, Spin, saw the light of day as long ago as 1991, it’s an understatement to say this new album has been keenly anticipated by Stewart and Gaskin's loyal and supremely patient followers.

Happily, Green and Blue has the duo sounding more confident and accomplished than ever before.

Vestigial traces of Stewart’s prog-centric past are scattered throughout the album. The soaring theme of the opener, Jupiter Rising, easily equals the anthemic bravado of National Health’s Tenemos Road. Similarly, the twinkling complexities of Jupiter's playout and other sections across Green and Blue, remind us that although Stewart largely abandoned long-form music in favour of shorter tracks, his love of detailed intricate composition remains intact.

Further evidence of this is found in the undulating exploration of London’s psycho-geography of Walnut Tree Walk. Complete with Stewart’s trademark fuzz organ sound and skipping solo, this wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hatfield’s record.

Gaskin’s warm voice is set off to perfection in the heavenly ballad, Let Me Sleep Tonight. Across decorous chords she sounds like she was born to bring this paean to love and insomnia into life.

Stewart’s brilliance as an arranger is showcased at every turn and non more so than on the 10 minute title track, or the two-part album closer, The Sweetwater Sea; a nine minute white-water musical excursion with Peter Blegvad as a surreal, declaiming tour guide.

The addition of Gavin Harrison’s drumming throughout the record brings an authoritative, dynamic emphasis and in this he’s helped by Andy Reynolds’ guitar work on rockers such as Rat Circus.

If there is a jarring moment on the album it’s the inclusion of a Beatles cover, Good Morning, Good Morning.

Given the top-notch material surrounding it, there’s a rowdy element that disrupts the prevailing mood of a calm and measured reflection which these sophisticated songs create.

Of course, Stewart has form when it comes to geeing up his audience - remember all those rousing in-concert renditions of I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside? So, wrong-footing the punter in this way may be exactly what Stewart and Gaskin had in mind!

You can buy this album directly from Dave Stewart at Burning Shed.

Released alongside the new album is Hour Moon, a half hour CDR collection of out-takes and Stewart & Gaskin rarities. In for a penny...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Want It All And I Want It Now And I Want It For Free

How come my corner shop won't give me a free can of beans?

I mean surely they could put adverts on the tins that would pay for it? Haven’t they heard of the new business models that are all the rage in the music and entertainment business - especially via the internet?

I mean, I’ll tell all my pals about how great his shop is, and how great the beans are. They’ll tell all their friends and very soon, my local corner shop will have lots of fans.

With every can of beans that gets distributed for free, the reputation of the shop will just grow and grow.

“But, how will the shopkeeper continue to feed his family and pay his bills and generally meet his commitments?” ask the unhip and terminally old-fashioned critics of this ‘new thinking.’

Well, that’s easy.

The great thing about this new business model is that after having the free beans, and being filled with a munificent sense of well-being at having been nourished for free, later on people will want to try the other beans that are on the shelf - the kind that you have to pay for.

You think?

And how about a variation on the theme? The ease with which new media enables folks to give music away. This is a true story and one which you'll be all to familiar with.

There’s a band I know who’ve just released a new album.

The music isn’t commercially mainstream. They aren’t particularly well known beyond a fairly small community of listeners. The album will hopefully break even and maybe turn a modest profit.

Except it won't because a fan of the band has uploaded the album onto his blog and is giving it away for free. It doesn't matter that the blogger didn't ask or get permission to do this.

The blogger, who loves the band so much he wants all the world to know how good the band is, has it online and “ripped @320. cover and booklet scans included.”

The band in question, who won’t see a cent from the couple of hundred downloads so far, aren’t fat cats with yachts, fancy cars, big houses and the like.

They aren't 'the man,' or part of some multi-national corporation, which may be some kind of ass-backwards 'robbing the rich to give to the poor' justification (although it isn't actually) to be ripping their material like this.

They're just working guys trying to make a living by composing and playing music who released an album they hope people will buy.

When challenged about this upload, the tart response goes along the lines of "fuck you and fuck them. I'm helping promote the band - you and they should be thanking me for everything I do! I bought this album fair and square. I can do what I like with it. Anyway, this one is shit. Their last one was much better."

And so on.

Music is reduced to an accessory or a commodity and the human beings who make it are just stacked up like so many cans of beans.

If this new business model is so cool and generally advantageous to one and all in the music business how come other professions and services aren’t queuing up to take part?

How come my dentist won’t do my dental work for free or next to nothing?

Why won’t my mate’s plumber come and sort out his central heating for free?

How come my corner shop won't give me a free can of beans?

The Confessions Of The Sputnik Kid XII

Part 2
Upon Entering Arblus
In which Chime's tune is about to be played...

Each homecoming step brings her closer to
the cloying scent of blood that at first flecks the air
now slaps down slab hard.

There, in the spattered cockpit clearing, the flute player works.
Cursed and sacred, summoning ancient charnel house energies,
a sacrifice required to ready the point of departure,

His presence is an assault on her senses.
Guttural uttering folds air into a terrible pressure.
Dread occult harmonics cram her ears with movement.

Vibration thunders across unmeasured distances as
the gossamer gauze between two worlds manifests.
Pushing her face against it, she slowly slips though and is gone.

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
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid IV can here seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid V can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid VI can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid VII can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid VIII can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid IX can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid X can be seen here
The Confessions of the Sputnik Kid XI can be seen here

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Rift In Space & Time

What with one thing and another recently, I forgot to mention that the other day a letterbox-shaped rift in space and time opened up here in the yellow room.

I looked up from my desk, momentarily startled by the shimmering light and all the patented Jack Kirby energy-crackles surrounding it.

From out of that void and without any sound whatsoever, a magazine from the mid-70s dropped onto the floor of my office.

At least that what it looked like.

Closer inspection revealed it to be a supremely duff bit of design done a couple of months ago and without any trace of irony as far as can be gleaned.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nik Bartsch's Ronin At The Sage, Gateshead

I arrived in Newcastle just a little bit before 10.00 a.m. The town was quiet with a nice after-the-rain atmosphere.

I was due to meet up with David Symes who was up from Tring visiting pals in Sunderland and scheduled to see Fascinating Aida. Waiting for David to hove into view gave me an opportunity to take a look at Emerson Chambers, one of my favourite buildings in Newcastle.

When I was a kid I used to wonder if Dr. Stephen Strange lived up in those spooky-looking Ditko-esque attics.

David and I enjoyed breakfast and several pots of tea in Blake's as we caught up on personal news, gossip and the state of nations. We headed down Dean Street on our way to the quayside, pausing at my favourite railway viaduct.

Closely followed by my favourite bridge-building interface...

My favourite sequence of steps...

and my favourite 8 windows....

OK, I lied about the last one.

On the way to the Sage there was a jazz group playing by the Millennium bridge . I recognised the flautist as Bob Giddings. I can't remember the last time I saw Bob. He and I used to do improvised music back in 1970s and if memory serves me right, Bob kipped on my bedsit floor in Kimberley Gardens, Jesmond, when he was studying architecture. We managed to say hello whilst the sax player took a chorus but then he had to go back to playing the flute.

Onward and upward to The Sage...

We were here to see a matinee concert by two ECM recording artists.

First up in the splendid Hall 2 were the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. Although concert companion David had their latest album, I'd not heard the group before. They performed a decent set of flowing music but ultimately it was a little too swet for my tastes, and somehow never quite caught fire.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin on the other positively smoked from the first note to the last. Their brand of deep grooves worked in a similar way to the interlocking guitar parts created by Fripp and Belew on Discipline. The momentum and constant forward movement in the repetitive lines give the music an overwhelming tension.

With tension of course, comes the release. In this context, the smallest gesture becomes transformed into something almost earth-shattering: the single strike of a drum, a suddenly sustained note on the contra-bass clarinet or a clarion-call piano chord.

This album...

was one of my top albums of 2008

After the gig had finished, David went off to his third gig of the day (Fascinating Aida at the Theatre Royal) and I bumped into Avram Taylor.

Avram and I first met sometime back in the 80s when we briefly played a bit of guitar and bass together. Avram wisely decided that his guitar playing needed a surer hand on the bass guitar than I was able to provide, and since then we have established a highly random means of keeping in touch with each other aka bumping into each other at unexpected yet curiously regular intervals.

Having established that Avram was going to be around for a little while, I arranged to see him after the interview with Nik. Little did we realise that even this seemingly perfect plan was going to be subjected the Gods of Chance who govern the times and tides of our fleeting and essentially ephemeral relationship.

I headed downstairs where Nik and the boys were signing albums.

From there, we went backstage for a meal and a chat.

Thinking we might only grab ten or fifteen minutes (hence my arrangement with Avram), we ended up chatting for over an hour. Needless to say by the time I emerged into the main hall, Avram had quite rightly moved off. A wonderful concert gave way to a wonderful evening view of the Tyne Bridge and the city.


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