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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Digging in the dirt
American Central Dust
Son Volt

Having emerged from the wreckage of Uncle Tupelo in the mid-90s, with Jeff Tweedy and company splitting off to form Wilco, Jay Farrar's Son Volt persona has wandered a somewhat erratic and occasional wayward path through alt country's highways and byways.

Their last album, The Search (2007), had Farrar come back from a series of indifferent solo releases, adorning the material with a lustre that sometimes bordered on country-fied psychedelia.

If The Search was something of a multi-coloured journey with a widened spread of textural choices, the new album makes more of a mark with less tools, going all black and white with just a hint of sepia-tinged nostalgia creeping in around the edges.

American Central Dust swirls with dark roads, biker bars, broken dreams, heart-ache, brutal truths and other familiar archetypes. Yet despite such recourse to such well-worn touchstones this doesn't sound like a backwards step.

If anything, the stripped-back sound gets us closer to the bones of his chosen themes which alternate between the intimate micro-climates of the soul and the macro-consequences of when pride most assuredly comes before a fall.

The dark comedy of Keith Richards' alleged act of communion that saw him blend a Class A drug with his father's cremated remains becomes a poetic exploration of loss at close quarters on Cocaine And Ashes.

When The Wheels Don't Move is a concession to their occasionally rockist threads. Across ominous rolling thunder drums and lightning slashes of fuzz-charged guitar, Farrar checklists how the industrialised half of the world seems hell-bent on wrecking it all for everyone. Apocalypse now, indeed.

This review first appeared here.

On This Day In 2007

Monday, June 29, 2009

All The Fun Of Mel's Circus...

In the post this morning...

Circus was the band Mel Collins was in prior to him joining King Crimson in 1970. I interviewed Mel last month about his time in the band. As ever with these things we covered far more ground than would ever get into the sleeve notes.

During the interview Mel talked about the role of fashion and trends of the mid-to-late 60s and the amount of band-wagon jumping all the working bands indulged in to be able to keep working and be "with it".

I wanted to get this weaved into the sleevenotes but in the end there just wasn't enough space So, just for a bit of fun, here's a bit of the "lost" version of the story...

It’s quite possible that Mel Collins owes the kick start to his professional career thanks in part to his choice of trousers when he auditioned for Guildford band, The Stormsville Shakers in 1966. “I saw an advert in the Melody Maker for “TV & Radio - Second tenor needed” which is a bit of joke really. It doesn’t mean anything really other than you’re not the first tenor!” laughs Mel. “I went along and got the job largely because I had checked hipster pants on. I looked better than most of the other guys who’d applied for the job. They even told me!”

The Stormsville Shakers were formed in 1960 and led by songwriter Philip Goodhand-Tait. By the time Collins joined they’d made the transition from being a rock‘n’roll band into playing a mixture of Goodhand-Tait’s original numbers and soul covers, reflecting the rapid changes in musical fashions.

“In 1966 the Mod thing came in. Peter Stringfellow (now best known as the owner of London nightclub, Stringfellow’s) had a club in Sheffield then, and we were up there as the Stormsville Shakers. The scene had all suddenly gone Mod with the short hair, etc. I remember Stringfellow coming into the dressing room and because I had long hair he had a go at me, telling me I couldn’t be going on stage with my long hair and I should be putting it under a hat or something. He actually destroyed me completely that night. Peter Green (from Fleetwood Mac) was in the band room and he consoled me, telling me not to take any notice. Of course, about a year later in 1967, we returned and there Stringfellow was - all flower power and long hair!”

This return visit coincided with the name change from The Stormsville Shakers to Circus. “Well it was the time of flower power and a name like Philip Goodhand-Tait and the Stormsville Shakers was just too old fashioned. It was the flower power days and it was all charge again. Zoot Money’s Band became Dantalion’s Chariot with them wearing flowing robes on stage. A lot of band’s did that back then, changing their image to keep up with the trends.”

The band - consisting of Goodhand-Tait, Kirk Riddle on bass, Alan Bunn on drums, David Sherrington on tenor sax, Ian Jelfs on guitar and Collins - maintained a gruelling schedule of dates around the entire UK live circuit as well as jaunts to continental Europe. In September the group released their first single "Gone are the songs of yesterday" (which would later be covered as the B-side of Love Affair’s Everlasting Love) and Sink or Swim, produced by Manfred Mann vocalist, Mike D’Abo.

Despite having no impact on the charts, D’Abo reconvened Circus in October 1967 to record another Goodhand-Tait tune, Do You Dream and its B-side House of Wood.
Released in March 1968, it sank without trace just ahead of an appearance on BBC Radio 1’s Night Ride programme. The group failed to impress the audition panel who described Circus as “Outdated, square, rubbish, badly played, out of tune.”

Goodhand-Tait’s success as writer for Love Affair probably spared the group from making any further attempts to get past the BBC’s radio audition panel as he began contemplating a solo career. Collins suggests that musical differences might also have had a hand in a parting of the ways.

“I think the band was changing and to some extent it was leaving Philip behind. Guitarist Ian Jelfs and I were stretching out as players and he saw that happening. Of course, Philip suddenly had a lot of success with the Love Affair covering his songs and he didn’t need a band anymore.” When Goodhand-Tait launched his solo career in January 1969 did Circus have any doubts about their ability to carry on without their front man and main song writer?

“No, not at all. We were pretty confident then and we knew what we wanted to do, and it was as far away from the pop singles and stuff as we could get. I’d started writing, Ian was taking over the vocals, we were into jazz and experimenting. It was an exciting, liberating time.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Places To Go...

for Doreen

We fold our loss
deep into the pit
of our pocket
until it is time

to keep a meeting
with a stranger
who makes
himself known

a reminder then
that this stranger
is someone
we each own

and who alone has
come to whisper
our nights and
mornings away

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nominations For God LXXXV

Edgar Allan Poe

Troyka Troyka

Three's company
Edition Records

Taking inspiration from a diverse range of sources, Troyka are not your usual jazz trio combo. With a distinct lack of extended soloing or self-aggrandising displays of virtuosity, the eleven tunes on their debut album positively delight in a series of short, sharp, shocks.

Formed in 2007 they’ve evolved a style whereby their compositions have a habit of not so much starting as almost tumbling into being. This looseness is both disarming and deceptive given their unnerving habit of abruptly snapping together and heading straight for the jugular.

A fussy tangle of bright colours and abrasive textures, their brevity and puckishness jolts and pounces in unexpected places to ensures attention is maintained throughout.

Kit Downes’ Hammond organ maintains an understated burr through most of the album with occasional high-tension flourishes, with Joshua Blackmore's keen drumming pushing and prodding the music with a surgical precision.

At the forefront of Troyka though is guitarist and principal writer, Chris Montague. His jagged mix of chords, bone-rattling slide and ingenious guitar loops invokes the kind of freewheeling scatter-gun approach of Pete Cosey or David Torn. On the track Twelve, allusions to Robert Fripp’s ProjeKct series of the late-90s also materialise.

For once the advice offered on the PR sheet happens to be right on the money: “Play Troyka loud, they won’t let you down.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

No Longer Reading Between The Lines

On the desk today was a proof copy of Andrew Keeling's forthcoming musical analysis of King Crimson's debut. A cursory look-through is enough to confirm it's as comprehensive and authoratative as Andrew's other guides to King Crimson's music - In The Wake of Poseidon and Larks' Tongues In Aspic.

You'll notice also above the book my very first pair of reading spectacles. After having my eyes tested months ago (see here for the full "hilarious" tale), I finally got around to buying an off-the-shelf pair as opposed to an off-the-richter-scale-in-terms-of-price pair on a recent sortie to a garden centre of all places.

Yes, they’re the correct prescription (+1.50) but, as Alys helpfully noted the other day, “they don’t fit your fat head.” She’s right of course.

But what do you want for £4.99?

I splay the legs open, shove them onto the bridge of my nose and bingo - the print comes magnificently into sharp focus and the printed page no longer resembles a set of precariously magnetised iron fillings.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

A chance of pace and scene today.

Having completed the sleevenotes for the Hatfield and the North reissues, and prepared for some other archive-related notes, I went into Newcastle to meet up with me old mucker, John Sargent. We were due to meet up at the newly opened library now renamed the Charles Avison Building.

One way to get to the library is via Northumberland Place...

and here is (almost the same scene taken in the mid-60s)....

You can't help but notice the "beauty and beast" contrast between the Amos Atkinson building on the left (with plaster work applied by way of celebrating the Queen's coronation in 1953) and the thrusting modernity of the Pearl Assurance building which was, ahem, erected in the late 60s...

Entering Northumberland Place, the site now occupied by the amusement arcade/coffee shop on the left here, used to house the palatial Queen's Theatre where I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in Cinemascope circa 1969.

In October 1972 I saw ELP at the Queens cinema.

Or rather I didn't. The augeries for this gig were not good.

After queuing out overnight to buy tickets the moment they went on sale, I promptly lost mine on the bus coming home. After pleading to the cinema manager I was issued with a pass for the gig but should someone come to claim the seat I would have to leave.

I needn't have worried.

The gig was cancelled after two hours of a packed house waiting for the band to come on. They couldn't get the rig to work. A sheepish Keith Emerson made the announcement to a hugely disappointed crowd, who had to wait for a couple of weeks for a rescheduled appearance at the Odeon cinema just around the corner on Pilgrim Street.

The brutality of the Pearl building was astonishing when it went up. The intervening 40 years has done little to diminsh that impact.

And so to the new library...

It would be heard to imagine a public square more depressing than this one...

Inside however, it's all rather light and airy...

with some fine views of the city available...

"Heeerrrreees Johneeeee!"

We tried out the cafe in the library. John was on the ginger beer and I opted for dandelion and burdock.

Hey, that's the way we guys roll.

And so to the bottom of Westgate Road and Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society...

I was here a while ago with Debra to listen to a talk by Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. Tonight John had tempted me to hear a talk given by Gail-Nina Anderson talk about depictions of music and musical instruments, including their symbolic and iconographical significance, in 18th century art and painting.

But before that, I joined up and became a member of the Lit & Phil - something I wanted to do when I first entered this fabulous building back in the early 1980s.

Lack of cash had always prevented me from doing this. However, after chatting with John last week and discovering he'd recently joined himself at a special rate to be deducted quarterly it seemed like a good idea to join in the fun at last!

Up the stairs...

and into the main library itself...

After completing the form-filling it was back downstairs...

and into a rather functional room to listen to Gail-Nina Anderson

During her engaging talk she showed a slide of this painting by Vermeer called A Young Woman standing at a Virginal
I'd not seen this before but my breath was taken away by it. Whatever the symbolism in it may be, you can almost hear the bright acoustics of that room.

The evening was organised by the Avison Ensemble as part of their Tercentenary Events programme celebrating the 300th anniversary of Avison's birth.

Up until today I had absolutely no idea who Charles Avison was. So at the end of the talk I picked up this book about Avison and music-making in 18th Century Newcastle.

As John put it..."a splendid evening!"

Homeward bound!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Calyx And Co.

Given that most of yesterday was taken up with prepping and researching for the impending Hatfield and the North sleevenotes, it was no surprise that I woke up this morning with the tune Calyx on the brain.

Up at 5.30 a.m. with plenty of work ahead, I took a quick look out to sea.

Impressive grey skies for the third day in a row.

Walking back to the house there's a cool breeze and carried upon it, the sweet scent of flowers. It is momentarily overwhelming, almost sickly in its intensity.

At our gate an iris is making a bid for freedom...

Others are content to lurk in the background...

Back indoors, I feed the cats, make a pot of tea and proceed to rouse Debra and Alys from their respective slumbers.

After revving up the iMac and checking email, I post this via Twitter. "It's 5.59 a.m. and after half an hour's preparation the day shift begins."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Nominations For God LXXXIV

Iain Sinclair

The Pre-Birthday Feed

With Friday morning spent hovering between preparing for a couple of new commissions and attempting to sort of payments of previous forays into the world of the freelance writer, it was something of a relief to have the entire afternoon off.

I went down to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal. No ordinary nosh either - it was Tom's pre-birthday meal. Because of a variety of work/family schedules, the bulk of the clan will not be able to be around on the day of his actual birthday which is Sunday - hence the pre-birthday celebration.

I asked Tom if he'd like to go out to one the many restaurants which Whitley Bay has to offer. His response was interesting: he'd rather stay home where it's more comfortable and the food is better. Given the choice of food he wanted home-made pizza.

So, I spent Friday afternoon preparing veggie, fishy, meaty pizza to cover all tastes and eventualities, plus salad, homemade ciabatta and a tasty olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip. It took this lot of locusts about twenty minutes to demolish the lot!


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