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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dungen Skit I Allt

Skit I Allt
Subliminal Sounds

Although clearly evoking 60s psychedelia and long-haired freak-outs, Sweden’s Dungen can’t simply be dismissed as a bunch Johnny-come-lately Hippie wannabes searching in vain for the joss-stick smoke that disappeared a long time before any of them were born.

Guided by multi-instrumentalist Gustav Ejstes, Dungen have displayed a dazzling musicality for much of their work since their 2001 debut. The basic plot on their seventh platter involves gathering up flowing strands of melodic pop which are then lacquered with an aleatoric experimentalism.

With Dungen the detail is everything. Overlaid multi-tracked flutes coil and curl around the core of the instrumental Blandband, creating a sublime out-of-body experience where time seemingly stands still.

However, Ejstes quickly counterblasts this with ear-splitting guitar that shakes the listener out of any reverie they’d fallen into. Dungen want to keep you on your toes rather than get you too laid back.

Högdalstoppen crosses early Can’s trance-rock, whilst there’s a breezy West Coast vibe rippling about the light and space comprising the worryingly catchy Barnen Undrar. A shivery gravitas comes with the album’s stately closer, Marken Låg Stilla, whose powerful Floydesque transcendency provides an utterly magnificent conclusion.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Another Parcel of Steeleye Span (Their Chrysalis Albums 1976 - 1989)

Steeleye Span
Another Parcel of Steeleye Span (Their Chrysalis Albums 1976 - 1989)

Ask your average person in the street to name a tune by Steeleye Span and the chances are they’ll reply “that funny one in Latin” (Gaudete) or mention the bouncy singalong cheer that is All Around My Hat. Produced by Womble supremo Mike Batt, it gave Steeleye their highest chart position and inevitably led to ruminations amongst older fans that the band had “sold out.”

So they must have been pleased as punch when its successor, Rocket Cottage barely came within wassailing distance of the top 40 in 1976. That it failed to live up to the commercial promise of All Around My Hat can be chalked up to the fickle nature of the music scene at the time. But it might also be something to do with the fact that Rocket Cottage is far from being a “sell out” album at all. Rather, it’s brimming with the imaginative sophistication that’s always been a hallmark of Steeleye Span’s pioneering folk-rock output.

Fighting For Strangers, with its spellbinding polyrhythms and spectral layering of vocals, shows their inventive flair remained intact at a time when they would’ve been under enormous pressure to turn out something more easy on the ear.

However 1977‘s Storm Force Ten (their last with Batt) really stands tall above the rest from their time on Chrysalis. It possesses a little extra gravitas thanks partly to the return of Martin Carthy, who had last been in the group back in 1971, and diversions into the Bertold Brecht songbook. Never afraid of bringing left-field ingredients to pot, the extra texture and expanded cultural textures add a real zest to the proceedings.

Some argue that the partnership with Batt had blown the band far from its traditional folk rock roots. However Batt’s high-end production values whilst having a bright, shiny quality shouldn’t be mistaken for being lightweight. The fierce musicality (not to mention muscularity) of Storm Force Ten still makes for potent listening.

The comings and goings of Steeleye personnel would fill their up their very own Domesday book but suffice to say a change is as good as a rest, and on 1980‘s Silver Sails the band sound reinvigorated after the slightly more introspective Live At Last from 1978.

Silver Sails has a refreshing aspect with veteran producer Gus Dudgeon guiding the proceedings with Maddy Prior turning in some superb performances - notably the gnawing lamentation of Gone To America. After a break of nearly ten years, their next record for Chrysalis is the ebullient Tried And Tested, here once again Prior dominates with the intensely dark and harrowing narrative of The Cruel Mother.

What lets this package down ultimately, as it did with the compilation of the ’72 - ’75 period, is the frankly shoddy packaging. Lack of contextual notes or decent reproduction of original artwork. Surely a band who’ve made such a decisive contribution to the folk rock scene deserve some contextual notes, or even decent reproductions of the original artwork at the very least.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen For The Ghosts Within

For The Ghosts Within

Having peppered his solo career with cover versions of material drawn from impressively diverse origins, Robert Wyatt, now in his mid-60‘s, turns his attention to some of the great tunes from the jazz standards songbook as well as revamping a couple from his own back catalogue.

Consequently, there’s a palpable sense of introspective reflection about much of the record. The sad vulnerability of Wyatt’s paper-thin falsetto is accentuated to the max by the unrequited longing and regretful resignation which are bound into the lyrics of old chestnuts like Laura and Lush Life.

Ros Stephen's string arrangements decorously upholster many of the songs yet they also contain a certain stiffness that doesn’t always compliment Wyatt’s porous falsetto.

Wyatt is clearly not only In A Sentimental Mood (also covered here) but also up for having a laugh, as his lugubrious reading of What A Wonderful World perhaps demonstrates.
Whilst there’s no denying the frisson gained from hearing the improbable novelty of Wyatt covering Louis Armstrong’s saccharine swansong, it’s really just fluff and filler compared to some of the potency of the new, original material.

The most cohesive of these is The Ghosts Within. Ironically, Wyatt cedes the lead vocal to Gilad Atzmon’s wife Tali, on an evocative outing replete with atmospheric bandoneón, sizzling percussion mournful clarinet, and a truly chilling soprano sax coda.

When one hears a musical feast as good and as sultry as this it’s impossible not to conclude that for all their wistfulness, renditions of standards whilst entertaining enough seem half-baked by comparison.

Having moved from being something of an elliptical outsider to being incorporated into beloved national treasure status, Wyatt remains at his best when he’s facing forwards rather than looking back.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rob Young Electric Eden

Electric Eden - Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music
Rob Young
Faber & Faber

Clocking in at over 600 pages Rob Young presents a magisterial survey examining how Britain’s music, like its landscape, has been shaped by a constantly shifting process where weather, ideas and experience accrue into something of substance that can be handled and heard.

The scope and depth of Young’s study is quite remarkable, revealing fascinating insights about both well-known and obscure practitioners, often interconnecting within the spheres of folk, classical music, pop, psychedelia, post-rock, prog, folklore, occult, politics and other disciplines.

Young’s obvious passion for the subject is tempered with a cool eye for detail. In particular his pen portraits of characters such as diverse Peter Warlock, Bill Fay, Gustav Holst, Vashti Bunyan, Julian Cope, and David Sylvian (and many others) really come to life as the choices, paths and interests that have motivated such singular musicians begin to interconnect and resonate against each other.

Electric Eden traces the sometimes eerie connections and subtle influences which pass between apparently disparate communities of interest or outsiders with no allegiance to any particular scene or trend.

Landscape and a non-jingoistic sense of national identity are carefully explored. Most of the music referenced here to a lesser or greater degree taps into a heavily nostalgic, sun-dappled haze of a mythic golden age.

Yet, as Young persuasively argues, in the hands of visionaries this seemingly backward-looking desire is transformed into something that’s essentially progressive and radical. Inevitably perhaps, one person’s visionary is another person’s tone-deaf wing-nut, and sometimes the line between the two is perilously close.

But throughout, Electric Eden is brimming with artists you’ll want to get to know better, and music so transcendent that you’ll wonder how you managed to get this far without having heard it before!

You can listen to the Electric Eden special of Podcasts From The Yellow Room

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Prince Among Men

At the Lit & Phil today - a pleasure that has been all to rare of late. Of course there are good reasons for such tardiness; the pace of work has been relentless and getting away from the phone and the desk just hasn’t seemed a viable option.

Today however I’d given myself permission to have some thinking and reading time, and let’s face it, there can’t be many places better than the Lit & Phil to do just that.

Also on the agenda today was meeting up with Bill Prince. We used to go to school with each other and apart from a one-off meeting in the late ‘80s (or was it early ‘90s), we’ve not seen each other since.

My main memory of time spent with Bill was of laughing. A lot. And happily we pretty much picked up where we left off all those years ago.

It was absolutely fascinating hearing the paths his life had taken since our days together.

During these reminiscences, Bill said something that really hit home and resonated with my own thoughts and experience; he didn't connect his time at school as being anything to do with learning.

Although we agreed we were both shaped and formed through attending the institution, anything in the way of formal education we picked up was more a result of accident than by design.

In my case, I spent a lot of time in lessons writing out the names of various King Crimson personnel and song titles and lyrics into the back of my school books and jotters. Clearly this was something that would stand me in good stead in later life (though I didn’t know it at the time) but little to do with the business of why I was supposed to be there.

Neither of us are doing the things we “trained” to do after leaving school but after a couple of decades of going round the block a few times, we got where we wanted to be.

It was lovely seeing Bill after all this time!

We’ve arranged to meet up again before Christmas for some more hi-jinks Madeleine Moments.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cover Story

The new edition of Classic Rock Presents Prog arrived today. I was rather chuffed to see the piece I'd written about Jon Anderson was mentioned on the cover!

The painting on the front of the magazine by Roger Dean was originally intended for Going For The One by Yes. I have to say I think this one is much better than the eventual Hipgnosis by numbers which eventually graced the album. Elsewhere in the mag, much hilarity ensues when my profile piece of Robert Fripp is credited to Sid Wilson instead of yours truly - the product of a sub-editor too long without sleep.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Watching The Well

Watching The Well
Jon Thorne / Danny Thompson
Naim Edge

There are few working musicians around these days who’ve had a career as eclectic as bassist, Danny Thompson. Hearing the exquisite blend of lyricism and rhythmic invention that constitutes his playing, it isn’t hard to understand why the man has been in such demand across a professional career spanning over five decades.

Still primarily known for his work with Pentangle, his distinctive approach has benefited artists as diverse and as different as Everything But The Girl, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Talk Talk, Kate Bush and so many others.

No slouch himself when it comes to playing bass and mixing it up genre-wise, Jon Thorne (who has worked with the likes of guitarist James Yorkston, Drum ‘n’ bass outfit Lamb and master percussionist, Trilok Gurtu) has composed a suite of instrumental settings that provide Thompson with a gracious and supportive environment.

There’s no unnecessary showboating here. Often it’s a brief run at a note; an unexpected harmonic emphasis and push; low-down slides that reach deep into the soul of the music. All provide evidence of Thompson’s ability to get inside a piece and get to the heart of the matter.

Thorne’s stated desire was to emulate the glacial sonic space typical of the ECM label’s jazz catalogue, and whilst Watching The Well isn’t a jazz record per se, Thorne’s writing is infused with the same questing, open-ended sensibility found on albums by Jan Garbarek or Eberhard Weber.

The inclusion of muted electronica, ice-cold guitar, and sympathetic strings lends the album a cinematic feel, creating a ruminative soundtrack for an imaginary film involving slightly forlorn wide-open landscapes, questioning moments of melancholia as well as rushes of clarity and rapture.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Great North Run

Houseguest Simon had come all the way up from Bridgend in Wales to take part in the Great North Run. The plan was as soon as he finished he'd be heading back to the train and from there all the way back down to Wales in order to be back in time for work on Monday! Bearing in mind the train up from Bridgend to Newcastle takes about seven hours.

I was utterly exhausted just at the prospect of such exertion! So much so that I was unable to take part in the race myself and had to content myself to waving Debbie and Simon off on what was a rainy Sunday morning.

They were later joined by Alys, who took the rest of these photographs whilst I slobbed about at home hitting a deadline of another kind.

They snapped the eventual winner of the Men's Elite race, Haile Gebrsellassie, as he bounded past.

And the rest...

And a cameo from the Red Arrows...

Our team hopped over to South Shields in the hope of seeing Simon at the finishing line but to no avail. There were quite a lot of other people who had the same idea...

Then it was back home. The queues up to the Metro at South Shields. For non-natives reading this blog, the station is at that bridge you can see way off in the distance...

Given the crowds Debbie, Lil and Alys never did see Simon, who miraculously finished the race and made it back to Newcastle in time for his train home. Simon's running time was a brilliant 1.57 minutes which compared to Haile's time of 0.59 minutes isn't too bad at all!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Camel Rainbow's End - An Anthology 1973 - 1985

Rainbow's End - An Anthology 1973 - 1985

Arriving on the scene in 1973 Camel played it relatively safe by sticking to a kind of progged-up West Coast style of rock; breezy guitar and keyboard solos over relatively untroubled, backing. As with many acts of the day when it came to treading the boards they were up for showboating on an epic scale. Recorded at The Marquee in 1974, over the course of 19 minutes, Homage To The God of Light, traverses Doors-like keyboard extrapolation and the more accessible parts of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma.

Their real breakthrough is The Snow Goose concept album from 1975. The truly cohesive nature of the work is slightly undermined as a result of being sliced and diced in a compilation.

Though containing a brace of decent melodies 1976’s Moonmadness doesn’t quite build on The Snow Goose’s inherent ambition, and occasionally treads water. It also typifies a recurring problem that gnaws at their output up to Moonmadness: they lack a convincing vocalist to match up with their flowing instrumental technique.

Whilst guitarist Andy Latimer’s vocals have an agreeable wistfulness, keyboard player Pete Bardens handles task with all the grace of a bloke who’s been pushed in front of a microphone because nobody else wanted the job.

From Rain Dances (1977) through to Breathless (1978), the problem is solved to some extent with the recruitment of ex-Caravan/Hatfield and The North bassist and singer, Richard Sinclair. Even Brian Eno gets in on the act with a small but atmospheric cameo on Rain Dances - a very rare excursion into the realms of old-school prog for the good Captain Eno.

With ex-King Crimson sax player, Mel Collins having also been signed up there’s a noticeable shift in gear and sharper writing. This is especially evident on tracks culled from the expanded reissue of A Live Record. With a bit more muscle and firepower, Latimer is really able to let his inner jazz-rock guitarist step into the limelight which is no bad thing. Lunar Sea featuring some smoking trade-offs between Collins and Latimer really set the sparks flying as the band move into an area that wouldn’t sound out of place were it played by the Bundles-era Soft Machine.

Personnel difficulties and record company demands for commercial product eventually hobbled a group whose principal strengths lay in melodic anthems, romantic flourishes and good old-fashioned musicianship. Aside from a few previously unreleased tracks from BBC sessions, long-term fans will know all this anyway. Those new to Camel will find Rainbow’s End to be a good primer.

Friday, September 17, 2010

John Martyn Live At Leeds Deluxe Edition

Live At Leeds Deluxe Edition
John Martyn

Martyn fans have always had an abiding affection for this particular in-concert memento. Owners of the original vinyl release in 1975 always knew they were getting something rather special coming as it did from the man himself rather than his regular record label, Island. Inexplicably, the company felt a live album at that point in his career (circa Sunday’s Child), and so left it to Martyn himself to mail it out to punters directly from his kitchen table.

Though its been issued a couple of times since then this latest expanded release is the first time we’ve got the unexpurgated concert plus tracks from the afternoon’s rehearsals. This is a magical period in Martyn’s career and indeed a magical concert where he’s joined Martyn was joined by free-jazz drummer John Stevens, a recuperating ex-Free guitarist for Paul Kossoff for a few numbers, and Martyn’s old mucker, ex-Pentangle bassist, Danny Thompson.

Martyn and Thompson were always formidable team and their astounding interplay makes an album like this very much a joint venture rather than a solo gig with hired hands in tow.

Amidst the between-song cockney geezer banter there are some genuinely affecting moments where you glimpse the true bond that existed between the two men. The music oozes with a camaraderie born from shared experience, and a deep respect that comes from understanding that they not only gave gave each other permission to fly but that one of them would always be there to help the other land.

On Rather Be The Devil you can hear Martyn yell with something that sounds like approval, but which might equally be surprise at how well they’re doing at this point. It follows an extensive echo-drenched free passage that traverses exotic soundworlds which might’ve been produced had Tangerine Dream hooked up with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, illustrating the eclectic ambitions hurtling though Martyn’s music.

Bonus tracks can sometimes leave you shrugging your shoulders - nice but hardly essential. However the rehearsal of May You Never not only knocks the socks off the live version, but gives the original studio rendition a run for its money as well. Astonishing.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Desk Duties XVII

In the post today...

It's always nice to see the finished item after several months of discussion and decision-making. This edition of Islands will do much to rehabilitate that era of King Crimson you mark my words! A fantastic package.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday Joe!

Joe turned 17 today! Blimey, how did that happen. Tragically for him the day was marred by an amazingly heavy cold which a round of rugby practice in the pouring rain can't really have improved - or perhaps I'm just old-fashioned! By time we had the birthday meal - sometime around 9.00 p.m. Joe was totally puggled but made a valiant effort nevertheless...

Water Tower Wednesday XX

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Digging The Strawbs

Chris T called round today for a general chinwag and to record a podcast. Under discussion today were all things Strawbs. Two old duffers sat at the desk for an hour so without a script but the semblance of a tracklist to guide them on their way. For me these sessions are often a revelation as Chris remembers so much more detail about our youth. Fortunately you can't see my red face on the podcasts!

To prompt our feeble memories, Chris brought along a couple of his tour brochures collected across the years.

And there was this old blackmail shot taken of us backstage with the boys on the Hero & Heroine Tour in 1974...

I know. Chris & I haven't changed a bit!


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