How Many Ducks Are There?

Today seems a good time for a closer look at the works and times of Jude Cowan Montague…you may recall we heard her tape Hammond Hits (with Matt Armstrong) released in 2018 made with a rescued and repaired organ in a garden shed, which came over as both playful and wistful at the same time. Well, this was just the tip of the weeping willow, as she has an occasional discography of her music going back to 2000 released on Linear Obsessional, Folkwit, and her own imprint, and is also a talented visual artist, printmaker, and sculptor, besides appearing on Resonance FM Radio with her show The News Agents. Plus she’s a published poet and has worked as an archivist, the noblest profession known to mankind, and I ought to know.

Cowan Montague is here today as one half of Crumpsall Riddle, a duo with Steven Ball of Steven Ball fame, and Looking After The Duck (WORMHOLE WORLD) is an album of “improvised” songs. Joined by Matt Armstrong on bass guitar, also acting as engineer for the recordings, the duo turn in an array of quite minimal / sparse instrumentation including guitars, drum machine, and moog, but it’s the voices that are showcased. Singing voices, spoken word, and an odd form of song-speech…the distinctive taste of this Crumpsall Riddle is the combination of these vocal larynxes, a combination which is best displayed on the tune ‘Dear Marjorie’. But I’m getting ahead of things. The “improvisation” claim threw me off balance for 15 seconds, as I was half-expecting all the verbiage here to be stream-of-consciousness rambling or free-form jazz scatting, when in fact everything is drawn from pre-existing texts. Five of the 10 songs are taken from Jude’s recent-ish poems, while two have lyrics penned by Ball, written as far back as 1989. For two other songs, they use a sort of “found text” approach, except it’s not completely spontaneous. For instance, ‘The Old Man’ comes from a book written by Ivan Turgenev. Ball opened to a page at random, but it wasn’t just any book, as it had a particular family connection for him.

The same goes for ‘Dear Marjorie’, which is readings from an old postcard sent to Jude’s grandparents. ‘Dear Marjorie’ is not only an endearing glimpse into the past, but the duo’s vocals are just a sheer delight; Cowan Montague crooning in semi-operatic fashion as though she’s been transported back in time to an Edwardian drawing-room, and Ball putting forth a dramatic recit in his finest am-dram “old English gentleman” characterisation. The combination of all this with an old-fashioned pump organ tune is just priceless. We’ve also got the title track ‘Looking After The Duck’, where the musical arrangement is reminiscent of Young Marble Giants – it’s probably that combination of bass guitar, drum machine, and deceptively simple melody – and the duo sing an absurdist nonsense lyric with the utmost seriousness, a trick which they’ll use more than once across the album. To balance out any accusation that this is 90% a “whimsical” record, you could click on to the two songs by Ball, especially ‘Hiding From The Sun’; while not as washed-out as the material on his recent bleak solo song-based records, the starkness of his alienated images here is enough to strike a cold chill across the brow.

The Duck is something of an acquired taste overall, but even if you find the voices a bit mannered and deliberate, the texts ungainly in their metre, the musical arrangements and performances should help you find a way in; I’m persuaded there is much more lurking beneath the surface of these deceptively simple ditties, and intend to listen in deeper until more hidden figures are revealed. From 6th May 2020.