Tagged: pop music

Cats On Window Sills

a1914084265_10

The Original Beekeepers
How The River Runs Dry
UK LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR064 CD (2015)

If I was doorstepped by some earnest musicologist, I’d have said that listening to the London-based Bees showed a quintessentially English songwriting outfit that was possibly riding on the coattails of Martin Newell’s Cleaners from Venus and/or the rather plush garden shed demos found on XTC’s Homegrown c.d. However, it appears that the O.B.s (a.k.a. Tom, Steve and Ash) have been in existence (initially as The Shammy Leathers) since 1984 (!), having amassed nearly five hundred home recordings. So… they were closer to being near contemporaries to Andy Partridge’s combo and the Venusians than was previously thought!

Issued in a decidedly miniscule edition of fifty copies, …River… is a ten track conceptual work where the interrelated numbers tell a story of everyday folk down Suburbiton way. And cracks start to appear fairly early on in this diorama, the title track’s male/femme trade-offs coming to a head with vocalist Denise’s kitchen sink musings, “This life’s not mine” becoming the most telling line of all. Though having zilch to do with Scandinavian black metal, “A Church is Burning” is the punchiest number here and the one imbued with a crazy logic of its own, with an extended and frenetic sitar solo coming straight out of nowhere. “Breaking Down”, like the previous, assimilates certain eastern elements with the brassy blare of “The Hornsey Horns” evincing the woozy, loping gait of Soliman Gamil or indeed those of the Ethiopian school.

Unusual as it is to let the group review its own wares, their claim that …River… is “probably their best and most consistent work since 2002” seems pretty damn on the mark. Painfully obscurist fare admittedly, but this is my kind of pop.

No mystery but plenty of treasures on “Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed”

Various Artists, Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed, Analog Africa, AACD080 (2016)

At long last, the music scene that thrived in Cape Verde during the late 1970s / early 1980s gets a reissue on CD by Analog Africa as part of a series showcasing African pop music from the last quarter of the 20th century. This CD (number 20 in the Analog Africa series) is an excellent compilation of 15 songs composed and performed by various musicians, whose relations to one another I’m still not really sure of after reading the booklet that comes in the package. The songs are credited to individual composers and musicians but that can’t be completely right as all songs are performed by bands, some of whose members rate no mention in the booklet.

Generally the music has a light feel and a mostly sunny outlook, though given that Cape Verde’s culture was much influenced by its Portuguese colonisers, a bit of melancholy is bound to appear here and there. The surprising aspect of the music is the use of synthesiser, electric piano and other electronic instruments popular in the 70s and 80s through most tracks in composing and playing melodies and rhythms, and creating and sustaining moods and soundscape backgrounds. Even when the background music seems at its most electro-alien and cold, the charging percussion, rhythms and singing infuse the songs with lively energy and spirit.

Listeners expecting that the music will be similar to Brazilian and a lot of African pop of the same period might be in for a surprise: sure, there are African-influenced beats, rhythms and structures, and the musicians sing in Portuguese, but the music also sounds very European, much more than we might have assumed. There’s not much call-and-response music, where a lead vocalist calls out to a crowd and urges them along, and everyone responds singing the same lyrics or a chorus, and a dialogue that bounces back and forth continuously is set up, that appears here (or what does appear seems watered down into verse-chorus refrain songs); and there’s a lot of Euro-disco and Latino influence across the songs. In short, we have a true synthesis of African and European styles and elements overlaid and united by the Western music and cultural trends and advances in the music and recording technologies of the time and the opportunities these offered to musicians to explore, question and engage with their musical heritage, and to reach out to their people and the world beyond.

There are many good songs to be found here and anyone and everyone who listens to the album will soon have a favourite song or two. The one song that typifies this compilation and which I consider the best is one of the middle tracks, Quirino do Canto’s “Mino di Mama”, which is a wonderful liquid duet (or duel?) of a lone male vocal and a flippy silver synthesiser melody over a light galloping percussion beat. This song comes at the end of a run of great tracks starting with Fany Havest’s “That Day”, the sole English-language song, which initially start slowly, even a bit gloomily, and then suddenly go light and sparkly.

I believe the 15 songs that appear come from a collection of 1,000 songs found by the compiler over a year or so of research and travelling around Cape Verde, only to discover most of the musicians who composed and played these songs are actually living and working in Europe. As mentioned before, on the whole these tracks are upbeat and sunny, and most listeners will be satisfied with that, but I’m hoping future follow-up compilations will include music of a wider range of moods and subject matter. Still, this collection is a great introduction to the music and culture of Cape Verde.

As for the “mystery” about the supposed lost ship whose cargo mysteriously appeared abandoned on the shores of Cape Verde … the mundane reality is that the music scene celebrated on this CD exploded after the islands gained their independence in 1975, and that event must surely have been the watershed that allowed Cape Verdean culture to flourish.

Demonic Frequencies

Midnight Doctors

Midnight Doctors
Through A Screen And Into A Hole
UK OURODISC ouro05 CD (2015)

Phil Begg, the head of Ourodisc – formerly Ouroboros Recordings – coerces some like-minded friends into Newcastle’s Icmus Studios to help him assemble a superb album of jazz-tinged, soundtrack-influenced experimentalism and fast-moving craziness. A previous self-titled album was released by alt.vinyl and Ourodisc simultaneously in 2013. Midnight Doctors swung a bit harder and had a massive list of contributors, some of whom were also involved in the creation of Through A Screen And Into A Hole. But Through A Screen… is much less a joyous celebration of off-kilter, although essentially accessible, musicality and more eerie and dark-sounding endeavour.

Begg himself is the axis around which the satellite musicians revolve. He brings piano, guitar, harmonium, modular synth, radio, percussion, tubular bells and “electroacoustics” to the table while being augmented by drummer Christian Alderson and double bassist John Pope. The filigree is provided by the violins of Sean Cotterill, Niles Krieger and Rachael Hales, brass players Faye MacClaman and Laura Davison, the clarinettist Jamie Stockbridge, while Richard Dawson contributes a ferocious wordless vocal on “Climactic Loss” and Joe Possett provides “tape jams” which, where it surfaces, effectively turns the music on its head. The sleevenotes refer to the personnel in the past tense which suggests that Begg prefers to use specific groupings taken from a pool of musicians available to him for each of the sessions that result in a piece of music. The group is described as having a “rotating membership” on Discogs. A pretty effective use of resources, I’d say. Begg’s approach is refreshingly libertarian; his direction produces great performances and superb material.

The first half of the album, roughly, is made up of five short, jazz ensemble pieces. “Life and Light Apart” is beautiful and mournful in equal measure. A theme is presented carefully, only to be replaced with fragile held notes for the final 40 seconds while “Chump Change” is jazz Darwinism divided by a great concrète section. “Long Sands Black Labrador”, where Begg breaks out his tubular bells, features another mournful melody underpinned by strings droning away on single notes.
Begg’s percussion solo, “Death Of Similaun Man”, bleeds and spreads like an inkblot over aural cartridge paper. Getting a better grip back on the reins, “Rust Coloured Smoke” is the first track to feature Joe Possett’s “tape jams” and manages an eastern flavour, from the guitar sound possibly or maybe Possett’s pre-recorded material? Sounds like drone strings on indian sitar or sarod or perhaps a sample from Begg’s “electrocacoustic” armoury?

Of particular interest to me is “My Forsyth (Demonic Frequency)”, an electronic exploration duet of Begg’s various keyboard instruments and Joe Possett’s tape-based constructions. A concrète edifice to the mildewing legacy of Henri Chopin or Pierre Schaefer filtered through everyone’s current obsession / fascination with the idea of Brian Eno’s invention of Ambient Music. None of which terms would apply in this case, to be strictly accurate. But my point is: why isn’t more music like this? Why don’t more people listen to “sounds” rather than “music”?

“Climactic Loss” acts as a counterpoint to the order and stability of the previous pieces. Here, the group demonstrates a level of intensity, power and integrity over a fifteen minute duration that Guy Garvey could only dream of. The musicians ramp up the tension wave after wave, with Richard Dawson’s ecstatic vocal doing nothing to alleviate the anxiety.

On the closing track, “The Slow Way Home”, it is as if Begg has taken a nursery rhyme melody and slowed it down to a glacial tempo; heightening feelings of bewilderment and hopelessness through implosive gaps in the sound, before dropping high-mass blocks of ensemble playing on the unsuspecting listener’s toes.

From unadulterated free jazz through unsettling electronic experimentation to noir primal screaming, Through A Screen And Into A Hole is a very cool item which I urge you to acquire and investigate thoroughly. I’d put this album up there with the recent release from Martin Archer’s Inclusion Principle project in its intent, poise and execution. It makes me wish more contemporary jazz groupings were willing to work in this stylistically freer (rather than simply free, or not free at all), way. At other times, unexpectedly, it simultaneously reeks of the daemon swamp air of the dark side of English folk-rock in feel if not in style. Either way, I’m all for it.

Cosmic Machine, The Sequel: a reminder that cosmic space psychedelia wasn’t always so great

zzcosmicmachinetheseq_101b

Various Artists, Cosmic Machine, The Sequel: A Voyage across French Cosmic & Electronic Avantgarde (70s-80s), Because Music, CD BEC5156322 (2016)

As if you couldn’t already tell from the title, this album is the follow-up to the earlier Cosmic Machine compilation of French cosmic space and electronic disco from the 1970s to the 1980s. While a fair few styles of music from that period are represented here – we’ve got space funk, floaty mood music, soul, early techno, musique concrete and a couple of all-electronic experimental improv pieces among others – much of the music on display is frankly relentless and repetitive trash Euro-disco thunk-a-lunk that probably still gets played at veterans’ clubs, casinos, over-50s wedding parties and Saturday midnight television advertisements for last year’s models of white-goods at giveaway prices. The presence of two tracks cashing in on a couple of more famous songs imported from Britain and the United States should be a warning that there’s a lot of commercial disco music here that probably should have remained obscure.

The best tracks on the CD turn out to be the ones that bookend it: Pascal Comelade’s “Mouvement Decompose d’un Coup de Marteau” is an all-too-brief exercise in needle-sharp drone that laser-like drills holes in your head and ears, all the better to drown you in what comes in the next 21 tracks; and Pierre Schaeffer’s “Moins Banal (Interlude, ou Impromptu)” is a whimsical busy-bee piece that shyly flits in and out of dark space and leaves bleeps and bloops of quivering ectoplasm in its wake for intrigued listeners to follow.

This leaves the huge bulk of 20 instrumental tracks to thump out in more or less tedious repetition whatever limited charm they can offer. Try as I could, and I did listen to this album quite a few times, I couldn’t find many looping pieces that stuck out heads and shoulders above the others. Nicolas Peyrac’s delicate “Rite” is a rare cosmic space gem that sparkles briefly. Arpadys’ “Monkey Star” has a strong bass groove and a slightly shaky, near-hysterical wobble feel. Video Liszt’s “Fade in Hong Kong” is an 80s-sounding synthpop ditty with a slight melancholy feel that sits a bit oddly with the cheery tune and synthesised voice. Elsewhere on the album is a cover version of Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” (that used to drive audiences around the planet nuts with its boppy-poppy staccato notes) by Anarchic System and a trippy space disco version of a Pink Floyd song by Rosebud.

I guess I’m just not cut out to review old 70s space disco music and 80s synthpop as so much of this music unfortunately leaves me cold. Those of you unfamiliar with the Euro disco space scene may find this CD a good enough introduction to the music and its inspirations. A lot of the music here is happy breezy stuff without a care in the world and that attitude may well be the one positive legacy that remains with listeners after Schaeffer’s little flotsam space piece has tidied up everything and put it all away in its genie bottle.

Sometimes I wonder whether knowing that such music used to exist is better and of more value to us than the music itself, for what it says about French pop music culture of the period.

 

Two For Tea

conga

Low-key DIY Japanese charm on Conga (NOBLE LABEL NBL-217), a short album of minimal songs by Sonotanotanpenz – a duo of two young Japanese women. They do it all with acoustic guitars playing simple circular figures, and an electronic box which plays basic rhythms and supplies even more basic keyboard riffs. On top of this barely-there structure, the pair chant, whisper and sing their delicate vocal raps, often breathlessly packing in as many syllables per square inch as the current exchange rate allows.

Although at least two of the songs resemble the kind of wispy introspective pseudo-emotional music that passes for singer-songwriter craft these days (and has often blighted my cup of tasteless overpriced coffee when waiting for a plane in Heathrow), I like about 5 of these 7 tracks…which strike me as ingenious, inconsequential pop with a vaguely futuristic, woman’s take on what the genre of hip hop might evolve into one day, if said genre were left to breed for a few weeks in a flower garden full of moss and frogs. There’s something so wonderfully unassuming about the vocals of Hitomi Itamura and Hitomi Moriwaki; it’s as though they’re got something important to tell you, but they’re also afraid of bothering you, so they stand in the doorway bowing while they bring you a cup of tea, and can’t wait to make their excuses and leave.

The track titles are a simple list that reads Cave, Tea, Map, Bagpipe (or Bug Pipe, which is a much better title), King, Conga, and A Farm And The Universe; they are exactly like titles for images in a children’s book, one which starts off with simple shape recognition and which ends with a deep meditation considering on our place in the world. Maybe this album follows a similar path, but that’s probably wishful thinking. The duo have made one album in 2014 for Kirgirisu Recordings (a tiny CDR label in Tokyo), and also appeared on a comp for that label. This, from 26 February 2016.

Upheaval

Kammerflimmer Kollektief

Kammerflimmer Kollektief
Désarroi
GERMANY STAUBGOLD 136 CD (2015)

“The Kammerflimmer Kollektief plays music, which should not be written down, for it would scorch the paper” so says the band’s website. Kammerflimmer Kollektief are Heike Aumüller, Johannes Frisch and founder Thomas Weber. The project has been active since 1996, having apparently produced ten albums including this one.

This album makes me think about the popularity and influence of dub music/studio dub technique and the exploitation/appropriation of same by many musicians outside of Jamaica, for this is to my ears, despite the presence of (probably) middle class Caucasian western european musicians, a dub album. The second track ‘Désarroi #2: grundstürzend’ (or “radical”) in particular feels especially dubby with its tape delay effects and laid back bassline. Dub production is a lot of fun to do, and of course you can say that since Pole, the style, or “genre”, has developed in many new and interesting ways. Like any music, its OK for anyone to join in or use it as an influence and why not – Diatribes recently deconstructed two 1970s dubs by King Tubby very successfully by taking the music as a starting point and making the result undeniably their own. That’s just one example.

The word “désarroi” could be translated as “disarray”, “disorder”, or “upheaval” and that’s a very apt description. The component content of Désarroi is piled up on top of itself, strange turns surprise the listener and old ground is covered in interesting ways. For me with the possible exclusion of track three – ‘Free Form Freak Out’ is just that; where the first two pieces are an attempt at jazz-tinged transcendent post-rock, ‘Free Form Freak Out’ gives up any attempt at rigour halfway through in order to make random noises for the remainder of the allotted time.

Fourth track ‘Evol Jam (Edit)’ is a song, despite its Miles Davis/Sonic Youth-referencing title; or should I say it’s at least a repeated melodic sequence. A female voice intones the phrase “the more you love, the more you can love” over and over. Sudden, pure pop dissolving into distressed tabla loops. And very pleasant this sort of thing is too, not least for the musicians involved. I’m all for variation over the course of an album, but I wonder is this too disparate? Is it evidence of a group who can’t actually make up their minds as to what they want to be? For all the scratching noises (a device also showcased at the end of a couple of tracks later on), out-of-control electronics and sonic detritus, this track still hangs around the traditional and familiar device of a chiming electric guitar riff. After a few plays for me, perhaps due to the collision of two very different sonic worlds, ‘Evol Jam (Edit)’ starts to grate. And while we’re on the subject, so does the tinny slide guitar on track five.

Overall this is a deconstructed pop album, to my mind, with the benefit of high-end production and great mastering; it sounds great. The sounds sound great. The noises sound great. The vocals (where there are vocals) sound great. The dub effects sound great. Everything sounds great. I’m personally not a huge fan of pop/experimental hybrids, but if that sort of thing floats your boat, you’re probably going to dig this album massively. Two things I don’t like – the first piece of music features a mindlessly random, nay clueless, accordion intro which, try as I might, I just cannot understand why it needs to be there. And the unnecessary legend “PLAY IT LOUD” written on the sleeve. And the gratuitous female nude on the cover. Sorry, that’s three isn’t it.

Cryptical Pop

apr2016248

I find myself completely non-plussed by Lisa Busby’s unusual album, Fingers In The Gloss, and my puzzlement may well be an indicator of its success. Some years ago (2012) I was similarly bewildered by the album Don’t Drum For Other Girls, which was a multi-media collaborative and conceptual art statement, using songs by the group Sleeps In Oysters as its basis; Lisa Busby used to be a member of Sleeps In Oysters, described here as an “experimental pop outfit”, which is why I mention it. Fingers In The Gloss is also somewhat conceptual in nature; the full package includes a CD of songs, plus a video single made by Ash Reid, and a booklet of art prints.

apr2016249

If I understand the intention of this visual artist / musician / DJ (who also does installations, performance art, and text based pieces), she’s attempting a radical deconstruction of conventional song form; all of the eight tracks here were improvised using “playback media and outer sound-making devices”, which she has used to generate extremely minimal and barely musical patterns or loops of noise. On top of these, she sings her isolated fragments of hooks from songs. I’m intrigued to know what the devices actually were, but that isn’t explained in print, nor by the pictures on the art prints which purport to document the equipment and the locales where she realised the work (various arts labs, old bakeries, what have you). The set-up is extremely lo-fi, pared down, and raggedy, presumably deliberately; about as far removed from a lush pop record production as one could get. In like manner, she refuses any studio enhancement such as echo or reverb on her voice, which comes across as wispy and thin, almost as though she were singing to herself in the open air and facing away from the microphone.

apr2016247

In many respects, all of these feel like very deliberate anti-pleasure strategies, designed to call our expectations into question. “Song fragments float in larger structures”, would be her own description of the work. I’m all in favour of this type of radical deconstructive approach, even if she has taken it so far that the finished work barely coheres at all; with its long silences, low-key and fragile sounds, its lack of shape, and above all Lisa’s deliberately out-of-tune singing, Fingers In The Gloss can be a very frustrating listen. It would be nice to learn more about what her underlying message is to the world, what it is that she’s deconstructing, and for what reasons; as things stand, the finished product is cryptic in the extreme. From 24 November 2015.

Mode Bionics: blank-faced cyber-industrial pop minimalism a lot more intriguing than at first appears

Ariisk Mode Bionics

Ariisk, Mode Bionics, US, Nostilevo, cassette # 79(2015)

LA-based Nostilevo is making a name for itself in experimental electronic / noise / industrial with recordings like Ariisk’s “Mode Bionics”. This is very intriguing blank-faced and emotionless rhythm-based cyber-industrial pop minimalism of a sort that years ago Kraftwerk and its followers might have trailed in an alternative universe in which they meet Raymond Scott and his self-made music machines churning out supposedly soothing electronic music for babies. Some sounds can be very hard and rubbery and others suggest flimsy pieces of metal twisting in space while disembodied half-alien / half-metal voices whisper and chant through a thick layer of echo and distortion.

The cassette is not very long but there’s an astonishing variety and depth in the music, even though it’s all robot pop melody and nothing else: all the atmosphere and emotion that might exist come from the analog synthesiser-generated tunes and tones. Robot voices turn out to contain quite a lot of feeling and inhuman malevolence. The second side of the cassette is much more repetitive and inhuman than the first but I actually like the second side more. Probably the sound quality would be better if the album had been issued on CD but sometimes the cassette format has its charms: “Mode Bionics” can be quite shrill in a metallic way and the music often has a brittle, lo-fi quality.

The recording straddles a very fine line between rhythmic minimalist pop and full-on experimental industrial. Shame that there’s not more of this music about.

Kofuku: don’t resist the clutch of this depressive sludge doom psychedelia fusion pop / rock debut

Low Flying Hawks, Kofuku, Magnetic Eye Records, CD MER040 (2016)

An interesting new presence coming over the horizon of sludge doom metal is this predatory bunch who call themselves Low Flying Hawks, dropping by to drop off their debut album “Kofuku” into my quivering paws. (Well actually the CD was dropped off via plane and post all the way from Aquarius Records in San Francisco but that’s probably not such an intriguing little tale.) The band is led by two mysterious guitarists who rejoice in the initials AAL and EHA, and who have enlisted the services of Melvins members Dale Crover and Trevor Dunn on percussion and bass respectively, and producer Toshi Kasai who also helps out on guitars, vocals and effects. So what we have here is a veritable super-group guitar army skimming through the skies like a portent of aerial bombardment destruction with their particular brand of sludge doom …

… or doom sludge rather, since the music is as deeply lugubrious as any could be if stuck in a pit 25 kilometres deep down in the earth with no hope of escape or of ever seeing the sunlight again. “Now, Apocalypse” leads off with a pained and lumbering groaner of a track in which drums mooch along in a brain fug and guitars blare and complain. The vocals are smothered in wash-out reverb and astonishingly combine shoegazer croon and a deeper, slightly more sinister rumble. The next track “Seafloor Fathoms” is not that much faster or more energetic; it is crankier in parts but there are also moments where calm reigns and something of the inner pain of the protagonist singer becomes plain.

For most of the album the pace rarely rises from knuckle-dragging slow and the mood is depressed throughout but the music’s meandering through wailing doom bass drone, hippie psychedelia, hard-edged concrete-slab sludge and stoner attitude, all shot through with a pop sensibility and an atmosphere that’s half-hell, half-trance washout, and all enveloping to boot, is what makes this album distinctive. Music and sounds from the last 50 years, starting with psychedelic pop and rock in the late 1960s, parade through “Kofuku” in various combinations that bleed into one another and form a solid wall of sound for over 50 minutes.

The songs aren’t greatly different from one another in pace and mood and the singing probably could do more than flail about in a soup of blurry echo. I can make out groans and cries of pain but not much else. The lyrics are difficult to make out unless you turn the sound knob up high enough that distortion occurs. Unexpected humour is present in little interlude tracks like “Ruins” or the introductory title track where there is spoken-word found sound that, in the context of the album and its cover art, might be poking fun at the music’s intent. The cover and inner sleeve art itself is a thing of sinister and dark beauty though it could lead some listeners to expect a lot more of the recording than it actually delivers.

This is a well-made album generally with varied music and a distinct stoned-out trance ambience. “Kofuku” might grow on me with a few more spins, and may well do the same for you if you’re inclined towards fusion depressive doom psychedelia. When these raptors come for you, don’t resist the clutch of their talons!

Show us to the Sky

Balustrade Ensemble

Grant Miller is the American guitarist who used to be in Mandible Chatter, Freaks Amour, and Mellow Drunk. He’s more recently teamed up with his old buddy Scott Solter, the recording engineer and musician from San Francisco, to form the studio-based combo The Balustrade Ensemble. After 2007’s Capsules, we now have Renewed Brilliance (SEREIN SERE009), a suite of tunes composed, played and recorded by the pair, with the help of Liam Singer’s keyboards, Wendy Allen’s voice, plus guest players such as cellist Erik Friedlander and harpist Zeena Parkins.

Once you get past the very artificial surface sound here, it’s very hard to pin down the nebulous tunes on Renewed Brilliance; generally, they seem to teeter between the sort of rich, melodic near-orchestral framework I would associated with lush “sunshine pop” records of 1966, such as those produced by Gary Usher; and a more recent form of ambient sound-scaping, with lots of droney elements, foreign sounds, and even the occasional dissonant note layered in. It’s easy on the ear, perhaps deceptively so; all the instruments appear blended together like soft pastel crayons. Miller’s compositions often threaten to tilt over into sentimental mush or even kitsch, but somehow they manage to avoid these pitfalls.

Intriguingly, each tune passes on a vague sense of being much longer in duration than they actually are, even when they only run into the three or four-minute mark; I don’t say that they’re boring, but they have an unhurried pace and concentration of ideas that betokens a certain density and depth. Expect plenty of tinkling bell-like effects from Miller’s chiming guitar (hopefully fed through about 15 studio effects and processors) and an overall comforting warm-soup effect that envelops the listener, which I suppose might be one of Solter’s production hallmarks. Phrases such as “dreamy amniotic quality” crop up in the press notes for this one, and these words do indeed seem apposite to these strangely compelling yet soft-centred avant-pop symphonies.

I think what would be interesting, unless they’ve already done it, is to pitch a set of backdrops like this to a contemporary pop singer like Adele or Lady Gaga for their next album project, and see how far they get. From 15th October 2015.