I’ve enjoyed the amped-up rock guitar complexity of Ben Chasny on the fairly recent Hexadic album, and within the trio Rangda where he manages to emerge unscathed from stringed duetting with the formidable Rick Bishop…in guitar terms, the musical equivalent of slugging it out with Hemmingway. Burning The Threshold (DRAG CITY DC 664), Chasny’s latest release as Six Organs Of Admittance sees him going back to acoustic guitars, melodies, songs, and regular rhythms, a direction which could be regarded as a return to his “roots” ever since he released those early mystical-exotic acoustic guitar drone albums. He’s joined by a number of skilled cohorts, namely keyboardist Cooper Crain, the drummer Chris Corsano (also from Rangda), Damon & Naomi, Ryley Walker, Haley Fohr, and others. There is much to admire in the assured finger-picking intricacies of Chasny, and he plays with conviction throughout; for those, myself included, who enjoy his dabblements with esoterica and mystery, the opaque lyrics will do much to satisfy your leanings – especially on the title track, which could be read as a compacted lecture on the practice of alchemy, delivered in under five minutes. Now that I listen harder, it’s his eerie disembodied singing voice that conveys much of that sense of ancient mystery and wonder, especially when overdubbed with unexpected harmonies. On the other hand, if you want Leo Kottke-flavoured American folk tunes taken at a brisk tilt, then tunes such as ‘St Eustace’ and ‘Around The Axis’ (where he duets with Ryley Walker and the sparks fly like June bugs) will be your bag of herbal tea. A refreshing set of impeccable, crystal-clear performances and sparkling up-front recordings. From 11 January 2017.
Everything Gives To Something Else
UK CARO C SOUND CS356 CD (2016)
Caroline Churchill is a Manchester-based educator and audio engineer by profession, manager of Delia Derbyshire Day, and self-styled “sonic adventurer”. Here, she presents seven studio recordings and one live track under her new pseudonym of Caro C which apparently replaces her previous alias, Caro Snatch.
The vocal on opening track, “Heartmind Preylude” consists simply of “da da dum” and “whoa-oa”. Her press release describes a “…transparent emotion in the human voice”, which is a puzzlingly incongruous statement as that surely could apply to anything. Personally, pleasant though this piece certainly is, without a clear subject and narrative, it could be seen as a missed opportunity to make something truly awe-inspiring. Interestingly, the third track, “Trust”, has a late 1990s / early 2000s glitchtronica feel about it. This gives Churchill a chance to showcase her impressive studio production skills. Although, I’d have perhaps preferred less vocal activity because her instrumental components are lovely. I feel sometimes the vocals complicate matters. This material is of course presented as “songs” but I feel they might be more compelling as instrumentals, but to Churchill, that is probably not the point of the work. Rather more wearisome is “Kindness”, which features a wordless vocal repeated in combination with piano. Somewhere within the mix I think I can hear someone’s phone ringing. The inclusion of one live performance; “Mammoth Mountain Live 2016” is intriguing. I don’t have a problem with the insertion of a live track within a studio album per se, but in this case it feels like a little bit of a jolt. Along with the stripped down instrumentation of piano and violin, Churchill employs a deadpan style of vocal delivery. The final track “A Plenitude Of Gratitude” eventually loses its sheen along with most of my enthusiasm with its over-use of vocal platitudes and Churchill blithely resorting to the rather unimaginative technique of creating a rhythm by tapping a pencil on a glass through a delay pedal.
At its most effective, her work could be compared favourably with some of the output of Gudrun Gut’s Monika Enterprise label. Possibly, Caro C intends this album to be seen as an edgy, experimental pop album. To me it is more successful when considered as a kind of abstract radio programme of the kind Resonance FM sometimes transmits. Its appeal for me is more as a subtle delineation of what popular music can be in this day and age. Eclectic potential, you could say. BBC Radio 3’s Max Reinhart has described her as a “spoken word sonic enchantress”. The reality of Everything gives to something else is, to me at least, perhaps more prosaic. Far more interesting, I think, is her work inspired by Delia Derbyshire which she uses to promote the annual Delia Derbyshire Day. Check out the excellent “Audient, My Dear” here where she skilfully melds the sound of vintage production techniques with up-to-the-minute modern ones to great effect.
The lovely American singer Ruth Garbus has impressed us in recent years with her Rendezvous with Rama LP and the more recent Joule EP of songs for OSR Tapes. Here she is again on the same label as Ruth Garbus And Friends with Hello Everybody (OSR#75), with another bright set of her melodic pop/folk songs, where she sings and plays electric guitar supported by Zach Phillips, Larry McDonald, and guest singer Julia Tadlock. As ever, her hallmark is a gift for sincerity and directness, which is reflected in her crystal-clear singing voice. There’s nothing to hide and her intentions are plain. There’s also the deceptively simple construction of the melodies, which mostly stay close to the root chord but then occasionally lift off into an unexpected flight of genius for ten glorious seconds. Against all this clarity must be set the relatively opacity of her lyrics, which (on this release at least) are dense, numerous and allusive, apparently telling stories in a diary-like fashion but, I sense, concealing stronger unseen forces beneath the surface. On these four brief songs, I’m often left with an impression of having read 15 pages of a book; where’s all this extra content coming from? A very nice record indeed. From 21st December 2016.
Herewith three cassettes from Eric Kinny’s label Santé Loisirs in Belgium, all boasting the attractive woodblock printing covers which Eric makes himself. We last noted the label in January. Package arrived 7th December 2016.
Pont à Mousson sings 13 wistful songs of love, loss and self-doubt on Rock With Pont à Mousson (SL07). His forte is introverted, self-regarding songs, tinged with longing and regret; when he attempts more upbeat rock or pop songs, the results are rather weedy. There’s a certain charm in his relaxed, conversational style of singing which does connect with the listener, but he’s not a particularly strong vocalist. I like the brevity of the songs though, and the spare arrangements – guitar, piano, drum machine – do smack of honesty and economy. The cover art is drawn by Nicolas Guine, showing Pont à Mousson surrounded by flying devils who are not especially threatening.
Hablemos del Alma has just four songs on his self-titled cassette (SL06). This is the solo turn of Angelo Santa Cruz from Chile, and it’s performed with synths, twangy guitars, drum machines, and low-key vocals, adding up to a personal take on the synth-pop genre (though not quite unsettling enough to be labelled Cold-Wave or Dark-Wave or whatever the term is). Weirdly, he describes his creations as “New Age” music, a connection which I don’t get at all. At least there’s a smidgen more tension in his songs than the wispy Pont à Mousson, and there’s a certain opacity about his motives I like. Only once or twice does he lapse into rather tasteful chords that transform him into a DIY cabaret singer. He does it with old-school synths, ARPs, organs, and Diana Menino, Micaela Skoknic and Manu Guevara assisted with the vocals.
Final item is a real oddity by McCloud Zicmuse, a vagabond musician who we encountered a couple years ago with his Version D’un Ouvrage Traduit album on a record credited to Le Ton Mite. Today’s cassette, Het Slechtgetemperde Klavier en Zwakke Blokfluiten (SL08), is performed using harpsichords, flutes and recorders, striving hard to project a medieval, renaissance or Baroque period feel. In the end it delivers the sensations of a lost European movie soundtrack, with its very short cues (most of the tracks are under a minute in length) and vaguely “historical” atmosphere; you can practically see the wenches, knights and jesters cavorting in front of an old castle photographed in Eastmancolour. This might not quite be the whimsical pastiche I’m making it out to be, and there’s a certain strange mystique lurking behind these elliptical, half-finished musical statements; and Zicmuse performs everything with strength and conviction. At 23 tracks it may seem to be stretching a single idea a little too far, but the album is brief overall. Recorded in London and Belgium.
The Slate Pipe Banjo Draggers is one of the UK’s best kept secrets…one-man band Andy Rowe has been turning in these slightly deranged and consistently witty productions for a few years now, occasionally sending us such home-released gems as Prime Bolus Music and Peeled Up For The Sake Of Fruit Music. With his latest cassette Sedimenters, he may have surpassed himself…it’s a surreal and queasy series of klonking rhythms, in places achieving the divine trancey dementia of those early records by the original Amon Düül (my usual touchstone for primitive beat and chanting music). As is customary, each muddy production is enriched with layers of samples, including voices taken out of context to create bizarre juxtapositions, creating unusual dialogues or solo recits that are both hilarious and unsettling. He somehow manages to combine elements of krautrock, trip-hop, dub reggae, sampling and noise music into his own sludgy mix-fests, and never once stumbles over his own feet. Only the most ungenerous listener could ever accuse him of going too far or going on too long; I think the lengthier sprawls here into 8-minute territory are just what he needs to unleash the full power of his imagination. At one time these flights of fancy would have been pressed into a four-track EP on 12-inch vinyl, and John Peel would have played it every weeknight. Superb stuff…I see from the press release Rowe’s been busy in 2016, with a number of live performances and collaborative projects, including working with Lord Mongo in Manchester. Limited edition cassette, 50 copies, from 1st December 2016.
Highly unusual release is Spam Me (CUCHABATA RECORDS CUCH-095), sent to us by the Quebec composer CE François Couture, and first spin reveals a dazzling, dense and engaging array of lyrics, sounds, complex arrangements, weird noises, and hyper-intelligent art rock settings. He’s doing all this in the service of the concept, which is to call attention to the “spam” problem – those irritating emails we all get, and in some cases (mine at any rate) coded messages invading our very websites, through exploiting weaknesses in WordPress and other blogging platforms. One of these is the common CSS hack, which finds a way to use the cascading stylesheet as a mule to smuggle in its verbal contraband. Couture is clearly exasperated by this modern phenomenon, calling the spam messages “pests” and “flagrant failures at communicating”, but also observing that spam is so commonplace it has become almost invisible to us now. His plan is to set the spam texts to music on this album, almost in spite of his own frustration, or perhaps to exorcise himself of certain demons…he admits the texts, which are often scrambled and meaningless and badly written, “hold a poetic charge” for him. All of this feeds into what he calls “Simulacra of Songs”, the sub-title for Spam Me.
Apparently this is Couture’s 1 first solo record as a composer, a fact which I mention because it’s such an impressive and convincing set of songs, but he’s been active in music since 2010 working in free improvisation, and performing with groups La Forêt Rouge and RBC. There’s no musical style he won’t parody or plunder for this Spam Me project, a strategy which feels somewhat in keeping with the subject matter (getting revenge by poking fun at your enemy), and you can hear him try out everything from hip-hop (‘Magie Rouge’) to art-prog (the title track); some of his post-modern ballads, with their imaginative intervals and dissonances, reminded me of Slapp Happy and Peter Blegvad, with all the awkwardness and mannered style that implies. He’s also prone to high drama, such as on ‘Parajumper Kodiak’, where he delivers the nonsensical spam text in an actorly, declamatory style over a klunky musical backdrop worthy of Magazine or A Sudden Sway. What I appreciate about the vocal delivery is there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek, no matter how ludicrous and absurd the text may be (and they get pretty cracked, lemme tell ya); he takes it all seriously, and lets the spam subvert itself.
An enclosed leaflet tells us a little more about the process of creation and composition – all the spam texts were left on his own music blog – and reproduces the texts in full, so you can double your twisted pleasure by reading as you listen. Just watch your face in a mirror as you do so…your eyebrows will soon reach the top of your head. Parts of this record reminded me of recent work by Alessandro Bosetti, particularly the Stille Post record set; but where Bosetti has some residual faith in our ability to communicate effectively using technology, CE François Couture evidently thinks the human race has completely lost the plot, and all we can do is propagate incoherent gibberish on a global scale. Hard to argue with that…one of the more unusual items we have received lately, and a real winner. From 1st December 2016.
- His name is spelled this way to denote THIS François Couture, which would be the French translation of CE. This is because the name is apparently quite common in Quebec. ↩
Last heard from Frank Hurricane when he appeared as Hurricanes Of Love on the Quintorian Blues double LP, a solo effort which impressed us with its zeal for life, but underwhelmed us with its acoustic guitar wizardry. Today’s record Mountain Brew Light (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR256) contains ten short songs from the mouth and brain of this bearded American, everything sung in a bucolic woozy style, and he’s joined by Tha Spiritual Band who contribute vocal additions and freakoid musical backdrops, sometimes played on odd instruments such as the shofar, hunting horn, and tuba. I can dig the stoned vibes, the freedom-embracing mountain-loving lifestyle that emanates from this benevolent fellow…but on this outing the actual songs are still quite pedestrian and ordinary. If it weren’t for Frank’s cracked and tuneless wailing, this wouldn’t be much more than a late Jerry Garcia solo album. Themes of spirits, spirituality and ghosts crop up a lot in the lyrics (see the printed insert) along with much colourful imagery; and then there’s the completely addled cover painting by Turner Williams, which promises a lot more in the way of frazzled rural thrills than the LP actually delivers. Not a massively unpleasant listen, and the record generates a highly positive upbeat mood; but the psychedelic details are used far too sparingly, and I wish Frank would learn to write a decent original tune instead of plodding his way around these over-familiar chord changes. From 15 November 2016.
You may recall us raving about this Hen Ogledd LP in 2016, a great LP resulting from the team-up of avant-harpist Rhodri Davies and Richard Dawson, the English folk singer and scholar who created the remarkable record The Glass Trunk in 2013 (on which Rhodri played, come to think of it). Well, these two have now turned Hen Ogledd into a band or project of some sort, and here’s their LP Bronze (ALT-VINYL AV069), an astonishing six tracks of musical noise realised with the help of Dawn Bothwell, plus guest players Laura Cannell and Jeff Henderson.
That’s Richard’s artwork on the front cover, a collage called ‘Golden Person’, and with its near-anonymous implacable stare and inscrutable alien visage, this face immediately clues you in that you’re about to spin a very special record. From the opening track I thought we might be embarking on some pagan-mystery theme, rich in dark magick and old straight tracks and stone monuments…it’s called ‘Ancient Data’, an evocative title if ever there was…and on one level may summon up visions of early astronaut visitors and dreams inspired by Erich Von Daniken, or more simply may be a fancy way of referring to archaeology. However, musically it’s an uncategorisable sound, and only the voice work of Dawn Bothwell and the haunting recorders of Cannell might substantiate my theory, adding a mystical folk-flavour to the strange electronic and plucked jumble of inventiveness.
As to that, I suppose a cursory read of the credit notes may give some small indication of what Davies and Dawson were doing at Blank Studios under the watchful ear of Sam Grant (who recorded it), and once again Rhodri is amplifying and electrifying his harps to produce intense, astringent noise and bone-shattering drones, even surpassing his incredible work on Wound Response (amplification and distortion used for devastating results). But he also plays the loudhailer, nails, and marble. Richard Dawson’s credit list is even more arcane, including a number of things which might seem more at home inside a witch’s cupboard than in a recording studio; I could read these two lines of text over and over, until they resemble a form of poetry.
I say this in some attempt to account for the uncanny force and deliberation behind these eerie sounds, at times crude and brutal as the best post-punk band that ever existed, at times ringing together with a spiritual harmony and peacefulness that puts the listener at one with the universe, such as on ‘Beyond Belief’, a superb English update on the music of Popl Vuh. Perhaps Dawn Bothwell, with her synths, effects, and mostly her singing voice, is doing something to temper the alien-inspired antics of the two male players, and her sweetening influence is most evident on the short but gorgeous ‘Gwawr in Reverse’. But she also ends the album with her spunky lyrics to ‘Get My Name Right Or Get Out!’, a title which needs no explanation, and a song which comes over as feisty as a combination of Poly Styrene and Honey Bane.
There’s also the uncanny epic sprawl of ‘Gondoliers’ (the A side of this LP is so right-on it just destroys) and a real misfit on the B-side called ‘Amputated Video’. The broken electronic yawp of this gem has to be heard to be believed; so many English players aspire to capture the truth of the Radiophonic Workshop in their synth-led tributes, but this is the real goods, something which has crawled out of a demented dream-version of 1970s BBC daytime television like a manifestation of all your worst Dr Who fears. I think this record wipes the floor with a lot of contemporary pretenders who dabble in “ceremonial” or “pagan” music without any real understanding of what they mean, and the breadth of its sonic ambition is enormous. Truly astounding, and highest recommendation for this incredible piece of work. From 15th November 2016.
Girma Yifrashewa, Love & Peace, Unseen Worlds, CD UW13 (2014)
Lovers of highly expressive solo piano performances and fans of Ethiopian traditional / folk music genres are in for an unexpected treat in this album of five short piano-only pieces by Girma Yifrashewa. Throughout this recording Yifrashewa expresses his hopes for love, understanding and harmony among all the peoples of the world; and celebrates aspects of Ethiopian culture, Christian Orthodox spirituality and the majesty of Ethiopia’s physical geography. The album’s pared-down style – this is all just Yifrashewa and his piano, no more and no less – demonstrates the man’s skill in coaxing an astonishing array of emotions and moods, often in the space of just a few minutes.
Each track is distinctive in its own way and has very individual melodies and motifs, some of which however can be familiar to armchair students of Ethiopian music – this is especially so of the sombre track “Semenen” which uses a key or mode of traditional Ethiopian music that shows up on some of my copies of various of Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques releases. While each song can express a variety of feelings, overall one or two emotions are dominant, from the mostly wistful and plaintive “The Shepherd With The Flute” to the celebratory “Chewata” and the dark and intense “Semenen”, a piece that refers to a transitory state between being dead and being alive. The album starts on a fairly hopeful and upbeat note and from the fourth track on develops a more ambivalent and complex landscape of feelings and moods. But whatever the mood is on a particular song, it’s sure to capture the listener’s attention and hold it spellbound.
Beautiful in its apparent simplicity yet turning out to be more complicated than it appears, and giving the impression that it has much more to say than it’s already doing, this album has a very strong hypnotic quality. It can be surprisingly soothing as well even as it acknowledges the darker, sadder moments of life. You won’t believe that solo piano compositions can be so succinct in pinning down the complexity of human feeling and desire.
Repetitions Of The Old City – I (NO LABEL) is the fifth album from Jack O’ The Clock, the unique American band led by Daimon Waitkus. We previously heard All My Friends followed by Night Loops, both of which prompted rapturous prose from this listener and a tendency to liken Waitkus to many American mavericks in the fields of pop music, poetry, and classical composition. Based on today’s spin I see no need to rescind any previous observations.
Other hallmarks of excellence stand out in this selection of nine highly unusual songs. There’s the contributions of the other players, especially the violin and viola of Emily Packard, and the woodwinds of Kate McLoughlin, which do much to add to the exotic old-time flavour of these highly contrived rustic gems (Waitkus assembles his songs as if following a blueprint for making Shaker furniture). Packard’s violin has no trouble following the impossible time signatures of these elaborate compositions; her instrument simply dances, floats in the sky. Waitkus’s songs are ingenious with their unexpected chord sequences and clashing tonalities, and the very inventive melodies whose intervals shouldn’t really work at all, yet they work perfectly. To say nothing of the abstruse and erudite lyrics, with their multi-syllabic thoughts packed into singable melodies. I also see Waitkus is quite the octopus when it comes to playing several instruments – guitar, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, pianet, guzheng and flute are all in his credit roster, making him a match for Alan Sondheim (who made Ritual-All-7-70 for ESP-Disk in 1967). I think Waitkus and Sondheim should get into a gun-fighting showdown someday over instrumental prowess, but Waitkus would probably win on points with his song-writing gifts.
The other observation that occurs to me today is that Jack O’ The Clock (although they are as American as 100 Apple Pies) are not that far apart from classic English prog rock of the 1970s which I love so much, especially Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, a band whose eccentricity, mannered vocals and skilful arrangements feel very much of apiece with the music of Damon Waitkus. The acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Mike Rutherford and his 12-string, and there are even flute solos, like on ‘Firth Of Fifth’…I rest my case. High recommendation for this peculiar strain of art rock. As far as I know Jack O’ The Clock are still not signed to a label and do self-releases of everything. This one is so wilfully obscure they don’t even put their name on the front or back cover. From 11 November 2016.