Tagged: melodic

You Set The Scene

From OSR Tapes, we have a CD by Marlon Cherry (OSR73) which reissues two of his records – the 12-inch EP Life After Theatre from 1986 and Pete from 1990. This may be something of a rescue job by label boss Zach Phillips, who knows Marlon Cherry personally and is aware of Cherry’s presence in various New York City music scenes – playing at university dance classes, busking in the subway, and as a supporting member of various local bands. Originally from North Carolina, Cherry used to play bass in ANTiSEEN, Jeff Clayton’s punk band which formed in 1983, but he’s also played in Mecca Bodega, Afro-Jersey, Church Of Betty and The Roches. I never heard the music of any of these bands, although many of them are represented on Chris Rael’s label Fang Records in NYC, and their music may include elements of funk, soul, and experimental rock.

The same musical broad-mindedness shows up on all the songs on this CD comp, on which Marlon wrote everything, sings, and plays all the instruments…he’s turned in a hugely enjoyable set of melodic songs, with elements of funky rock, psychedelia and easy listening (he even pays tribute in song to Arthur Lee, an obvious precedent), and with his confident singing Marlon at a stroke reclaims the whole rock’n’soul thing from Hall And Oates, in the service of his highly original songs. Very impressed by Marlon’s facility with playing and singing music, and the unfussy production technique is also a winning plus on both records. Incidentally the 1986 12-incher was produced by Jeff Murdock, who played with Cherry in The Streets Living Theater on their sole record in 1983. The front cover painting to this one, depicting a mysterious urban tragedy, is by Alexander Clark. Delighted to hear this (to me) unknown gem, from 28th October 2016.

Saint Paul In The Yantra

Welcome return to these pages of Susan Matthews, the fey musician from South Wales from whom we haven’t heard since A Kiss For The Umbrella Man, her highly personal take on the music of Erik Satie, noted in 2012. Her record From Veliko (SIREN WIRE RECORDINGS SW108) is a shortish work, just three tracks in 14 minutes, but it’s a very heartfelt statement. Piano, keyboards, voice and field recordings are used to create a spell-binding mix of songs, tunes, mood pieces, and poetic observations, and the theme is highly emotionally charged. Part of it is derived from an actual trip to Veliko Tarnovo, and the artist’s take on wandering around this beautiful medieval city. She was particularly struck by the hanging houses, which are poised on the edge of a gorge above the Yantra river and in imminent danger of falling into the water, if they haven’t already done so. Crumbling foundations, ancient buildings, clinging onto a precipice – it doesn’t require much imagination to apply these elements to the human condition, and realise how close we all are to tipping over into melancholy, despair, or even madness. Matthews also alludes to “a metaphor for a psychological journey from the darkness of depression back towards the light”, a highly personal revelation, and one which takes some fortitude to admit to and deal with. If Susan Matthews is working out her personal problems through music, she has succeeded admirably with this understated yet highly cathartic music; I defy anyone to hear her fragile voicings and subdued but intense piano work on this record without being deeply moved. From 17th October 2016; was also released by Pilot Eleven.

A Raga Called Nick

New solo album by the Nottingham guitar player Nick Jonah Davis. House Of Dragons (THREAD RECORDINGS THR004) contains ten tracks of consummate acoustic guitar craft – melodic, rootsy, folky, performed with confidence and uncanny accuracy. All that I wrote about Split Electric – his fab teamup with C. Joynes from earlier in 2016 – continues to apply, except that this record is pretty much all-acoustic, so less of the spooky noise effects we heard on ‘Sigil Eyes’ this time, apart from the opening seconds of ‘Double Peace’, which uses a scrapey flourish to set the mood on this, one of the darker pieces on a mostly upbeat and sprightly record. Cam Deas, who sent us his amazing Quadtych album in 2011, did the production on House Of Dragons, and friends C. Joynes and Karl Townsend play on the last cut, ‘The Illumination of Nelson Fortune’. This piece has a rather Fahey-esque title and a Ry Cooder feel in the shimmering slide and drone effects, conjuring up a cinematic desert vista in short order. I might add that the press release points out he has kept the company of two other TSP heroes, i.e. folk iconoclast Richard Dawson and radical song interpreter Alasdair Roberts, which earns him automatic wine privileges in my house. He’s also managed to perform alongside Max Ochs at a New York guitar festival, which is a pretty big deal…there aren’t that many records by this Greenwich Village hero of the 1960s, although if you get a copy of that Takoma sampler Contemporary Guitar, you can hear a couple of ragas by him. I have enjoyed House Of Dragons enormously, although with its title and cover artworks, I was hoping for something slightly more sinister, perhaps with added fairytale or supernatural undertones and themes. Instead we have this, with its generally rather cheery and bouncy tunes and melodies. I would like to think Davis has it in him to turn in a downbeat, pessimistic set of Richard Thompson cover versions, all played as instrumentals on the blackest guitar in his collection. From 2nd August 2016.

Sad Music for the End of the World

The fourth in a related series of releases from the UK small label A Year In The Country is The Quietened Bunker (Dawn Edition), which is labelled Audiological Transmission Artifact #4. As ever, it’s a showcase for contemporary electronic and ambient music. If you’ve followed the others in this AYITC series, you’ll understand these compilations are themed on notions about England and its forgotten, sometimes obscure, history; one previous release looked at the vanishing villages of the countryside, while another proposed a fanciful idea about schisms in the fabric of time, and suggested that 1973 was the year when everything went wrong in Albion. The Quietened Bunker is about military installations.

If pursuing this historical subject, it would be feasible to survey what’s left of coastal defence forts, pillboxes and other buildings from WWII, but our compilers are interested in the Cold War, and the existence of now-abandoned bunkers which were originally built in case of a nuclear attack. The compilers explain this in the insert, and they’ve also done their research into the network of underground monitoring posts, which were needed to report on such attacks; from here, they muse on the possibility of a populace living under the threat of “annihilation”, make a few mildly subversive remarks about the government and the power base that caused this catastrophe to happen, and conclude that “now it can all seem like a dream from another world”.

AYITC aren’t really troubled by hard factual data, and decline to cite dates, grid references, or even specific places in the countryside where we might find such bunkers (as Joe Banks / Disinformation might have done in the 1990s); the project is simply a cue for vague and rather banal sentiments, expressed in allusive texts and ambiguous music. I realise I make this same mean-minded quibble every time when I get these records. Even so, as a listen, The Quietened Bunker is strangely satisfying; each of the nine pieces creates a definite mood or atmosphere, and sustains it through subtle changes. Some are alarmist and paranoid in tone, some are wistful and melancholic, some are so wispy and washed-out you can barely discern their grey, fading tones. Only ‘Crush Depth’ by Unknown Heretic comes close to a watered-down form of industrial music that might seem appropriate for a record about concrete bunkers and atom bombs. The programming is very good, creating a sequence of music that “feels” right, suggesting some sort of narrative progress towards a dismal nuclear winter, and signposting several moving elegiac farewells along the way.

Featured on the comp. are such previous favourites as Polypores, Keith Seatman, Time Attendant and David Colohan, and others beside. Sad music for the end of the world, imaginary soundtracks – though probably more suitable for The Bed Sitting Room (1969) than for Threads by Barry Hines (1984). From 12 July 2016.

Monotroniks

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The album Rhthm (MONOTYPE RECORDS mono083) by Polish combo T’ien Lai is a highly diverse set of music, where the duo of Łukasz Jędrzejczak and Kuba Ziolek attempt many styles, many modes and many methods to realise their ambitions. They certainly aren’t short of ideas for what direction to take next, and there’s a large collection of tools in their box of instruments and synthesizers. There’s the systems-y pseudo-composed ‘W D’, a half-hearted attempt to “do” Terry Riley. There’s ‘Piknik Nad Rzeka Ma’, whose beats and sampled speaking voice derived from a French girl barking out an obscure text seems to have warped over here from around 1985. ‘SMZS II’ is pure Kraftwerk-influenced sequencer malarkey. But the evil robotic-march vibes of ‘Monotronik’ (where they are joined by the percussionist Rafal Kolacki from HATI and cymbal player Mikołaj Zieliński) are effective, and may reflect the fact that at time of writing T’ien Lai now consider themselves a quartet. I also enjoyed the short but chaotic ‘FX6’ which opens the album with a beautiful and illogical firework of noise.

The rest of the set shows them veering around – beats, ambient, melodic tunes…anything they can do to “experiment” with instruments, computers, and the studio, yet there’s always this lazy back-pedalling into conventional sounds and arrangements which blunts the “alternative” edge they wish to project. No denying the instrumental skills of this pair, nor the impressive assurance with which they set about their tasks, and the textural density of these outputs is evidence of much hard labour by Kuba Ziolek at the mixing and production end. Rhthm just feels like they’re trying to say too much in a short space.

This is their second album for the label; their more intriguing and esoteric Da’at was noted by Pescott, and the pair have a declared interest in Jewish mysticism. The release is packaged in a triple-gatefold digipak with a restrained geometric device on the front, and a garish psychedelic collage visual horror on the inside. Plus there’s a Herbert Marcuse quotation printed on the inside. From 21 June 2016.

Everything’s Going Jackanory

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English pastoral moods, themes, and whimsy on The Quietened Village: Dawn Edition (AUDIOLOGICAL TRANSMISSIONS ARTIFACT #2), an 11-track compilation of contemporary artistes from the micro-label A Year In The Country. They present the work in two different editions, a Night edition and a Dawn edition, but the audio content is the same, just the packaging varies (the Night edition arrives in a box). Everything is hand-made, textured papers are favoured, and little chunks of ephemera including a small badge and a stringed tag are attached. I like the care and attention in the packaging, which is described in extensive detail on the label website, but I find the actual imagery is severely impoverished; the cover, which looks like it might have started life as a nice bit of photo-collage work, is printed in such a light grey that it seems to be fading away before our eyes.

This is probably the whole point, however. The project is setting out to produce a “reflection” on lost villages of England. We are invited to muse upon matters of coastal erosion (village has fallen into the sea), villages no longer featured on maps, or cases where populations are evicted and when they come back it’s all changed. As to that last one, the paragraph that describes it is clearly referring to Imber, yet doesn’t name it explicitly, resorting instead to flowery phrases like “great conflicts between nations”. Imber was indeed evacuated during the second World War and never recovered from its careless treatment at the hands of the MOD; another record, oddly enough made by the Norwegian guitar duo kÖök, covered similar ground, and is noted here. They drew very pessimistic conclusions.

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This vagueness (I suppose they would prefer to call it “allusiveness”) on the part of A Year In The Country is evidenced throughout the album. Only two tracks here actually dare to name an abandoned village; there’s ‘The Drowning Of Mardale Green’, referring to a place in the Lake District that was submerged underwater due to a reservoir blunder by Manchester Corporation; and ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, referring to parts of the East Riding in Yorkshire that were lost to erosion. I discount David Colohan’s reference to the Mitta Mitta, as this is a small town in Australia, and doesn’t seem to fit the overall theme of Englishness. Evidently, the music on The Quietened Village prefers to evoke, rather than to deal with specifics of geography or history; and likes to mix reality with imagination, fictions and myths, as demonstrated by the press release with its reference to The Midwich Cuckoos, and “dystopic tales told and transmitted in times gone by” – a sentence which, while lyrical, would not have earned its author a pass mark in CSE History.

The music itself, mostly instrumental, is pleasant enough. If the musicians share any common ground, I’d say it’s that they are trying to trigger memories and associations in the listener, and doing so mostly by pastiche and quotation. In this, they are not far apart from their nearest rival, the well-established Ghost Box label with its loving recreations of a fictional England refracted through memories of incidental music on BBC television emerging in some undefined period between the Suez crisis and the joining of the European common market. Two cuts which to my ears most closely resemble the Ghost Box “style” (admittedly a very broad church) are ‘Playground Ritual’ by Polypores, and ‘47 Days And Fathoms Deep’ by A Year In The Country. The latter is a pleasant folk-y tune presented with slightly treated sounds, and it fades away sadly into the sound effect of the blowing winds. to illustrate the passing of a lost village. The former has a clunky synth tune acting in quite an agitated manner, with richly evocative sounds; I like its slightly dark undercurrent, the vague creeping noise approaching, which may be taken to stand for encroaching modernity threatening the old ways.

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From here it’s a stone-throw to some good old Radiophonic Workshop quotes; our good friends Howlround have made a career from quoting BBC music in clever and well-informed ways, and their ‘Flying Over a Glassed Wedge’ does not disappoint, reminding us of incidental music for Dr Who episodes that never existed. ‘Day Blink’ by Time Attendant, is likewise of a sci-fi bent, using distortion and unusual synth sounds punctuated by random beats. Time Attendant is a great name, but sadly time-keeping is not in their skill-set. Like much of the work on this compilation, it’s an attractive but poorly-composed piece, lacking form or direction or a satisfactory conclusion. Cosmic Neighbourhood’s ‘Bunk Beds’ is likewise littered with quirky electronic sounds, in a nonsensical confection that ends the comp on a note of whimsical fun.

The Rowan Amber Mill have made more of an effort to compose and arrange music; their ‘Separations’ reminds me of a Dolly Collins arrangement from Love Death and The Lady, lean and spare, and given the context that’s not a bad association to have. 1 The Soulless Party have their ‘Damnatorum’, a pleasing tune rendered in a sort of minimal romantic classical style. Only the synthetic string keyboards let this one down slightly. ‘Damnatorum’ is a strong title too, and let’s not forget the film made of The Midwich Cuckoos was called Village of the Damned. Another track with classical leanings is Richard Moult’s ‘Quopeveil’, where the piano and oboe produce a very tasty and unusual combination, even if the melody is very uncertain and comes out haltingly. It feels a bit precious, strained; as if striving to be mistaken for a British Light Music classic.

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David Colohan’s ‘At the Confluence of the Mitta Mitta & Murray’ relies almost entirely on a “nostalgic” ambient drone to achieve its effects; it’s in the same general area as Sproatly Smith and their ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, a piece which makes extensive use of sound effects such as ocean waves, seagulls, wind, etc. It feels a bit glib, but the juxtaposition of these recordings with the nostalgic music works well. The second half of the piece shifts dramatically to a “modern” folk song, sung in a charmless style.

For other musicians who have tried to capture the charms of the United Kingdom’s imaginary past, see Hidden Rivers (i.e. Huw Roberts) who idealised the Welsh countryside on Where Moss Grows; Nigel Samways, at a stretch, with his Nuclear Beach and Temple of the Swine; and Jon Brooks, with his 52 for the label Clay Pipe Music. From 6th April 2016.

  1. Somehow I expected a few more explicit references to English folk music. Maybe it’s because the title reminded me of The Imagined Village, which is a hyper-critical book by Georgina Boyes, amounting to a direct attack on the person and work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp. Boyes wanted to disabuse us of any notion we might harbour that folk music is “ancient” or produced by unlearned rustics; she aimed to debunk myths. The phrase “The Imagined Village” was then lifted by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System and applied to his multi-cultural music project. Allez savoir pourquoi.

Long Overdue Part 1

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Welcome return for some music by The Vitamin B12, in a double-cassette set we’ve had here in the racks since 2014. The Vitamin B12 is sometimes just a solo project by Alasdair Willis, but has also been an improvising collective involving any number of people in and around the Brighton UK area. We used to enjoy the solo records enormously back in the day, such as the vinyl-only releases 2LP Gatefold Set from 2000, or the double LP Badges from 2003, and for a time I was amazed we managed to persuade this rather reclusive fellow to contribute some record reviews to the magazine and provide some of his sumptuous drawings as well. Solo Vitamin is always hard to pin down to a genre, but it’s usually a form of very melodic music, full of inventive and eccentric electronic tunes and ditties, informed by everything from Radiophonic Workshop, easy listening, and classical avant-garde composition. The improvising version of The Vitamin B12 didn’t appeal to me half as much, but the manic skittering clattersome noise they made was well represented on a series of 10-inch LPs called Heads, all issued together in 2006. When spun, you had the impression with these players that they just didn’t know when to stop.

Today’s item is not like either of the above “modes”. Winter City Patterns 1-4 is two cassettes with zero artwork or information printed anywhere, and they’re sealed inside a plastic box which you have to open by loosening four screws. Luckily, I have a head start in that department. Listeners without a Philips screwdriver will find themselves at a loss. I was afraid it might turn out to be a memory stick inside the box, containing some 400 unreleased albums. I wouldn’t even have known the title had it not been for the helpful letter from Nick Langley of Third Kind Records, who issued it and sent me a copy. It’s a solo set by Alasdair Willis; “the music…will definitely not be described as impenetrable”, writes Langley.

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Winter City Patterns is all keyboard music, mostly piano (or digital piano) with some other keyboards including a tasty organ preset, with one long piece per side of a tape. It is indeed very accessible music and in places quite beautiful. The earlier electronic music from 2000 onwards was often characterised by its brevity and compactness, but here Willis has opted for the long form to allow his discursive ideas to develop. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s easy enough to find comparisons with the music of Terry Riley or Philip Glass in these repeated arpeggios and restated patterns with their slight variations, but Willis is clearly not aiming for anything as solemn or monumental as an American Minimalist, and is still happy to construct model villages and Lego toytowns in sound. His music here may mesmerise and enchant, but he doesn’t promise mystical Sufi fulfilment or Eastern knowledge at the end of it, maybe rather a trip to the toyshop and a bag of boiled sweets. All of the pieces are pretty much in a major key setting, contributing to the sense of uplift and well-being; and the music flows as naturally as a mountain spring.

Besides the American minimalism parallels, there’s something of more substance and complexity going on with sides three and four (at any rate, the third and fourth sides of these unmarked tapes which I spun) with moves and structures which I would like to classify as more European, but I lack the musical knowledge to affirm this claim. One might hear traces of Satie in these inventions and caprices, including phrases which sound as though they ought to be quotes from well-known classical works, woven seamlessly into the flow of the music. For one thing I had no idea Willis was so fluent and capable behind the piano, but with such a self-effacing personality it’s perhaps in keeping that he remains modest about these achievements.

If one could find fault with Winter City Patterns, it would be with the small problem that Willis solo, like the Vitamin B12 collectives, doesn’t know when to stop. The duration here is important to the meaning and realisation of each piece, but they also seem to go on for far too long, without really progressing much in the process. There’s also this slightly cloying taste to the work, to the point where the major key and user-friendly melodies start to become irritating. It’s almost like a very contemporary form of cocktail lounge music. These observations though should not detract from your listening pleasure as you allow these lengthy and pleasing extemporisations to wash over you like a warm bubble bath. From 1st December 2014.

Funny Aminals

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Here’s the latest release from Tetrix, the oddball Canadian pop-experimenters from Calgary. Recent releases have been vehicles for radio plays, where the band would splice their warpoid pop songs into a sustained narrative complete with sound effects, characters, and unexpected payoffs, almost creating a mini-movie for the ears. With this new Cat-Headed item, which may be called Tetrix 14, the band write to say “we’ve returned to the basics…just music, no radio play”. Accordingly here are 18 songs segued together in a loose suite, and it’s a very satisfying listen. No annoying “wacky” cartoon voices getting in the way and it’s possible to concentrate more on the music.

Tetrix can’t help parodying and pastiching, and on this occasion we hear quasi-psychedelic songs, electropop, acoustic ballads just dripping with too much fake echo, cod-reggae, rap, and their white-bread idea of how to do R&B / soul songs…it can come across as contrived and synthetic, and this is no doubt why Tetrix are perceived to be insincere pranksters, but if you draw this conclusion too hastily you will miss out on some finely crafted pieces of work. They are skilled musicians, and know how to construct a song using old-fashioned craft; under the plastic surface of the over-cooked studio effects, there is real passion and emotion in the singing, and many of these pieces are genuinely affecting.

Tetrix have a facility which many would envy; perhaps it goes too far, and they find it so easy to construct a song that they have to set themselves the additional challenge of doing it in a different style every time, just to keep themselves fresh. I know that Frank Zappa would discipline (some would call it “bullying”) his touring bands to the point that they had not only learned all the material by heart, they could play the same tunes in a half-dozen different tempos and styles, all based on the finger-pointings of the musical director. Natch, this being Zappa, said musical styles were often heavily parodic and full of audible sneers, especially when he and the band attempted to play in a “reggae” style. Without knowing the musicians in Tetrix personally, I would like to think they’re not pursuing the same agenda as that Grand Cynic.

If you like melody, songcraft, songs and tunes – all given a strange twist by a very curious and unusual approach to studio production – then permit me to recommend this album. As usual with this band, they have opted for a zany shaped cover for a limited edition CD. “The cover is a three colour silkscreen (yours glows in the dark),” states the accompanying letter. “It comes in 35 colour combos!” From 26 April 2016.

100 Bird Stories

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Solo keyboard record by the Japanese performer Ytamo is called Mi Wo (SOMEONE GOOD RMSG014). She exhibits a real charm and allure in these unassuming and seemingly effortless concoctions, where the apparent simplicity and spontaneity conceals, I suspect, a tremendous amount of craft.

To begin with it’s clear that several layers and ideas have been compressed into each four-minute tune, and there’s an intricacy and density that makes for a satisfying listen; I think it would require a few spins before the listener can begin to grasp the slippery language and mildly perplexing logic by which they’re assembled. She appears to be whirling 3 or 4 ideas around in her head at once, without any foregone conclusions as to where her chain of thought will end up. Yet on the surface, the sounds and the melodies are saccharine and attractive, brightly coloured and delicate, like little plastic toys; a post-modernist update on Japanese pop-oriented elevator music, sequenced by experts for playback in some anonymous, high-rise shopping mall where the listener is surrounded by bright neon lights and all-artificial fixtures.

Besides being a trained pianist, Ytamo studied painting and ceramics, which doubtless accounts for her innate sense of tone colour and the very tactile nature of each piece here. She’s been releasing material since 2002, some of it as low-run CDRs on the Osaka label Okimi Records, home to many “eclectic breakbeats”. Australian label owner and musician Lawrence English saw her perform around 2005 when he was on tour in Japan, and responded favourably to the “songs that felt as if they were on the edge of consciousness”; he uses various water metaphors to capture the special qualities of Mi Wo, delighting in its “aquatic space” and “oceanic gravity”. On the other hand, he may simply be taking his cue from Ytamo herself, with her track titles such as ‘Human Ocean’ and ‘Colourful Waves’. From 11th February 2016.

Test Particle

Dolls In Color

Dolls In Color (INTERNATIONAL CORPORATION) is the latest release from The Lickets, the San Francisco duo Mitch Greer and Rachel Smith who unfailingly create well-produced and enjoyable instrumental melodic music with guitars, cellos, synths, flute, and wordless vocalising. We’ve been following this group for some time (at any rate, they keep submitting releases to us), and noted their gradual shift from acting as playful anonymous pranksters in 2005, to growing increasingly pastoral and painterly in tone, providers of sophisticated background / TV soundtrack music, as represented by records like Eidolons and Song of The Clouds.

Their vinyl LP Here (On Earth) saw them apparently making a bid to say something about man’s place in the cosmos through over-produced ambient drone music; now, with Dolls In Color, there’s a vague underlying theme to do with magic and enchantment, but it’s a gentle pixie-dust and friendly Elvish brand of magic which they deal in, not the evil Crowley-inspired incantations of Simon Balestrazzi and his ilk. Their plan is reflected in titles such as ‘Birds of Enchantment’ and ‘The Magic Yard’, and the gloriously evocative ‘St Paul and the Peacocks’, which promise a fragile vision of impossible beauty, a promise which the music tries hard to live up to. While many of these tracks are short and pleasant instrumentals with near-melodies on offer, the duo sometimes attempt something a bit more ambitious, such as the textured ambiguities of ‘Human Lanterns’, which has a mystery and coldness not otherwise present on this largely sunlit and bright album.

I do want to like The Lickets more, but I sense they have a tad too much facility in playing and recording together, are perhaps too familiar with each others’ playing techniques and styles, and a certain glibness results in spite of their best efforts. I think they could compose a memorable tune if they put their minds to it, but they often settle for something that’s only halfway there in terms of structure, and use their considerable studio skills to prop it up. However, we mustn’t knock that facility too harshly, as many players would give their right arm for such gifts. Aided by two guest players on this occasion: AnnaMarie Hoos on vocals and Hanako Hjersman on violin. From 5th November 2015.