Shiloh

It’s a year now since Crotchety Man retired – a year plus a week since my last day at work and a year minus a week since I officially ceased to be employed. Over those last twelve months I have moved 100 miles south, swapping the busy tourist city of York for the relative quiet of a Leicestershire village, and happily adjusted to a slower pace of life. So it seems appropriate to have a restful song as my Track of the Week.

Coinciding with this anniversary (although a few months behind schedule) The Queen of Elfland dropped through the letter box yesterday. It wasn’t the red-haired faerie herself, of course, just the video from The Road to Elfland, Kray Van Kirk’s Kickstarter-funded CD + DVD package (as advertised here back in April). The CD contains new recordings of songs that had already been published on Kray’s website together with three new tracks.

One of those new tracks tells of a bespectacled old man with a friendly face and a long beard. He sits at an ancient typewriter writing fabulous stories and, for children too young to read, he re-tells his stories out loud. Once he was a sailor, or maybe a spy; he joined the French Foreign Legion and “solemnly swore he knew how to fly”. The children, especially, were enchanted. And there’s a lovely line in which he explains to one inquisitive boy: “Writers sometimes tell the truth in a lie”.

But all of his stories were haunted by Shiloh
and he promised we’d meet her one day.

The storyteller is waiting for Shiloh to return, waiting for her knock on his door. As months and years go by there are times when the old man’s composure crumbles and he takes comfort in beer and whisky. Then, when his friends tell him it’s time go home, he smiles, shakes his head and replies that it will be dawn before the drink has drowned his ghosts again.

Shiloh is more a story than a song. The words are what’s important; the music is just the vehicle that carries them to the ear. Shiloh would fit snugly into the repertoire of any modern day minstrel and Kray Van Kirk plays that role beautifully. His guitar work is crystal clear; his voice is warm and mellow, even when the song is sad. On the Road to Elfland CD guest musicians fill out the sound with bass and accordion, and add subtle splashes of colour with mandolin, Irish whistle or violin. It’s a beautifully balanced production, warm and relaxing, just right for a Crotchety Old Man in his retirement.

Does Shiloh return in the end? I won’t give the game away here but you can listen to the song, and download it if you like, from the Kray Van Kirk website.

The Remedy Of Abstraction

I’ve said it before, but I just love the Internet. Did you know there are websites dedicated to listing weird band names? And lists of funny names feature in quite a few music blogs, too. Most of the names in those lists are, not surprisingly, either mildly offensive or downright obscene. Some, though, are rather amusing or just plain weird – “Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar” to quote the title of a humorous book. (Actually, there seem to be two books with very similar names: Funny Ha-Ha, Funny Peculiar is a book of funny poems; Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar is a collection of funny headlines and stories from newspapers.)

Now, when I say weird band names I mean names like: !!!, the artist formerly known as Prince, Blodwyn PigThe Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Half Man Half Biscuit, Spooky Tooth, Them, and The The. Then there’s “Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.”. We might add The Band, The Who and The Jam to that list but we are so familiar with those names that the oddness has been washed away. And that’s just the ones I’ve heard of. There’s a much more comprehensive list here, if you have a few hours to spare.

Anyway, I chanced upon an outfit called A Triggering Myth on a prog rock blog site recently. Intrigued by the name, I Googled, Spotify’d and wandered down the hyperlink highways leading to the band’s website. It turns out that they’re not a band in the conventional sense; they are a couple of American keyboard players who draft in guest musicians to record their compositions. Between 1990 and 2006 A Triggering Myth released six albums, all but the last being out of print, which is probably why The Remedy of Abstraction is the only one listed on Spotify.

One of the reviews of the Myth’s self-titled first album ended like this: “… magnificent music, beyond genres and classifications, … a music of beauty, a hymn to liberty and to the harmony of sounds. A different and rare pleasure”. If the later reviews are right each of their albums has been better than the ones before so it was with high hopes that I donned the headphones and hit the Play button. And, even with that build-up, it didn’t disappoint.

Remedy of Abstraction - Mondrian

Trees by Mondrian

The Remedy of Abstraction sits squarely in Crotchety Man’s sweet spot, on the border of jazz and instrumental prog rock. At first it sounds like Brand X, Weather Report or one of Bill Bruford‘s bands. Then, as you listen, it sounds more and more like Brand X (plus a violin), Weather Report (minus the sax) and Bill Bruford‘s earlier bands (without the horns). And, you know, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

The Remedy of Abstraction isn’t music you can sing. Like Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) it has too many notes for that. Nor is it music you can dance to; no recognised dance would fit the complex rhythms. There are no words to tell a story or provide a deeper meaning, no clue to how we should be feeling as we listen. Sweet harmonies are altogether absent, too. And yet, with all that missing, there’s still a cornucopia of aural delights.

There are themes, melodies, rhythms everywhere. Each and every instrument contributes an important part of the whole. The keyboards ripple and swirl like eddies in a stream. A fretless bass anchors the sound firmly to the river bed. Intricate drumming sparkles like sunlight on running water. Guitar licks flutter overhead and a violin sings along with the songbirds. It’s the busy beauty of a babbling brook, buzzing bees, rustling leaves and chattering woodland birdlife.

The permanent members of A Triggering Myth are Tim Drumheller (keyboards) and Rick Eddy (keyboards, acoustic guitar). Their guests on The Remedy of Abstraction are: Scott McGill (electric and nylon string guitars), Vic Stevens (drums, percussion), Michael Manring (bass) and Akihisa Tsuboy (violin). Those names are all unfamiliar to me, quite ordinary names that hide extraordinary musical talent.

I will let Rick Eddy have the final word with this quote from his poem that accompanies the Remedy of Abstraction CD:

It is however, 
about being
brokered deftly somewhere
between the dis-ease of existence
and the remedy of abstraction.

That’s probably as good a description of the album as words permit but it’s no substitute for listening. Never mind the poetic abstraction, let’s go down to the music stream and play…

A Triggering Myth - Logo

P.S.

Never heard of Them? They had a hit single in the sixties called Here Comes The Night (great track, by the way). And their lead singer went on to have a successful solo career; his name was Van Morrison.

P.P.S.

My thanks go to Good Music Speaks for reminding me of the “too many notes” story.

Black Horse & Cherry

Black Horse and the Cherry TreeIn 2005 (in the UK) a song called Black Horse and the Cherry Tree by KT Tunstall was getting a lot of play on the radio. It’s been variously described as pop, folk, blues and indie rock. Needless to say, none of those tags capture the essence of the song, not even taken together.

It’s short (under 3 minutes), simple and has an infectious chorus. So it’s a pop song, right? Apart from some light percussion and subtle backing vocals it’s just a girl singer and her acoustic guitar; so perhaps it’s a folk song. The lyrics are darkly strange and mysterious; there’s a hint of the blues there. But most of all it has a rocking rhythm that invites us to tap our feet in time to the music. It’s not rock and roll, and it’s not loud, so it must be indie rock. I guess.

What makes Black Horse different is its alternating passages of palpitating guitar chords and sparse unaccompanied singing. It’s as if the heart stutters for a moment and then recovers. As the song puts it:

My heart hit a problem in the early hours
So I stopped it dead for a beat or two

It’s a scary moment but it passes. A scary moment like the time in a dream in which a black stallion asks the singer to marry him. She has come to a fork in life’s road and must decide which path to take without knowing where either will lead. It is the middle of nowhere. There are no signposts here; just the big black horse and a cherry tree.

Following her pounding heart she rejects the marriage proposal, singing “you’re not the one for me”. And now, for the first time, we hear guitar, percussion, lead and backing vocals all together as the chorus rocks along, blood flooding through the veins again.

KT TunstallAs a child KT Tunstall, the Wide Web tells me, had a heart murmur. It doesn’t say whether the song draws on any specific incidents in KT’s life but it seems safe to assume that her childhood medical condition fed into the song. And she has been quoted as saying that Black Horse is about being lost and having to choose a way forward. She has found a compelling way to express herself and, in the process, has written a truly great song.

Here’s my advice: never mind the genre, just feel the beat.

Through Barricades

Barricades - FamilyIt’s hard to imagine now (even for me) but Crotchety Man was once a quavering choir boy. In fact, there was a time when my brother and I were joint head choristers at our local church. He had the better voice and greater confidence but I was older, which made it difficult to promote one of us above the other. Having two head choristers was a sensitive and diplomatic solution to the problem by our choirmaster.

I enjoyed singing in the choir, especially at weddings. They were joyous occasions and the organist had the opportunity to play some wonderful pieces that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the routine church services, such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. And, of course, it amused us when a nervous bride fluffed her lines or the best man couldn’t find the ring. But, best of all, we got paid.

In those days, as far as I could tell, every child could sing. It was as natural as breathing. You might not have a beautiful voice, you might not particularly enjoy it, but everyone was capable of singing in tune. And then, of course, at the age of 13 or so, my vocal chords began to disobey my brain’s instructions. Our choirmaster said that boys would still be able to sing after their voice broke if they kept at it through the cracking and croaking of their teenage years and I resolved to follow his advice.

But although singing was enjoyable it wasn’t important for my future in the way that my school work was. Soon, abandoning my resolution, I left the choir so that I could spend my evenings doing homework instead of going to choir practice. Without really noticing it the time I spent singing diminished as my thoughts focused more and more on exams: O levels and then A levels. By the time I left school I had forgotten how to sing.

All of that was a long time ago – over 40 years – but I still miss it. From time to time, when there’s no-one else around to hear, a favourite track will take me back and pop the cork that keeps my broken singing voice bottled up inside my chest. Air fills the lungs and surges through the throat creating a sound not unlike singing. It’s a curate’s egg of good bits and bad bits – some phrases spot on, others wildly off key – but there’s an irresistible pleasure in the music I am murdering.

Barricades - GirlSpandau Ballet’s Through the Barricades had that effect just last week. Mrs. Crotchety was out doing some shopping, I had the headphones on, playing my iTunes collection on shuffle in the study and suddenly I felt it.

The track starts with a few bars of acoustic guitar over synthesised strings, a gentle introduction setting the scene for a ballad. From the first words it’s clear that this is a song about troubled lives: a mother who doesn’t know where love has gone, a face sculpted by lines of sacrifice. It’s a modern folk song with a haunting tune and a simple, but evocative accompaniment. As the chorus rang out my inner cork popped, releasing the genie of song, and I sang:

We made our love on wasteland
And through the barricades

It seems to be saying that everything we have done has been futile; even our loving happened in the rubble and desolation left over from violent conflict, tarnished by the hatred and misery of an urban war. It’s a bleak, but moving message.

As the song moves on the musical texture ebbs and flows. A bass joins in, piano notes echo the guitar strings, a reedy soprano saxophone rasps in the background, a tenor sax break blows like papers down a deserted street, a snare drum rattles out a soldier’s march. There is much to savour here, much to sing about.

Through the Barricades was in full flow when I heard the front door clatter shut. Mrs. Crotchety had returned, carrying shopping bags past the open study door. She must have heard my caterwauling. I clamped my mouth shut and started to prepare an apology for shattering the peace of our normally quiet home but no complaint issued from Mrs. Crotchety’s lips. There was a mixture of puzzlement and annoyance on her face, but understanding and sympathy in her eyes. The embarrassment on my face was enough of an apology for her.

Spandau Ballet made some excellent records in the eighties (Gold, True, Highly Strung, I’ll Fly For You), all begging to be sung, but none more so than Through the Barricades. Play it, sing it, enjoy it. I promise I won’t laugh or grumble if you sing out of tune.

Nights In White Satin

Nights In White Satin (forest)

There was a special offer on the Web: all six of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2015 for just £30 (in hardback). Mrs. Crotchety and I agreed that this was too good to miss and soon a courier delivered them to our humble home.

Choosing the smallest and shortest of them, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, Crotchety Man sat on the sofa and started to read. By the end of the following day I had finished the book. I hadn’t done much else but that was OK; nothing particular needed to be done and reading good books is one of the things I’d always planned to do in my retirement.

It’s an unusual novel about a new kind of anthropologist employed to help corporations analyse their markets and governments understand their citizens so that they can do better what large organisations do. That sounds dry but the central character’s laissez-faire approach to life takes us on one long flight of fancy, always showing us a fresh and stimulating perspective on the minutiae of everyday life. If, like me, you’re an escapist at heart it’s an enjoyable read.

As perhaps you can tell, some of Tom McCarthy’s writing style has (temporarily, I’m sure) rubbed off on me. The title of his book also inspired me in my choice of Track of the Week. This time it’s Nights In White Satin by the Moody Blues.

Nights In White SatinAs far as I can tell from material easily accessible on the Web, Nights In White Satin was originally written as a simple song but was first recorded for the Moody Blues’ second album, Days Of Future Passed. The record company had asked the band to record a rock version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony but were persuaded to make an album of Moody Blues original material (in a classical style) instead. The result was an oil-and-water emulsion of corny sixties pop songs floating within a lush orchestral fluid.

On the album, Nights In White Satin is the last track and it includes a three minute orchestral epilogue during which a poem is recited. This makes for a pleasing and natural end to the album but wouldn’t make sense for a single. Wikipedia says the album track was first edited down from 7 minutes 26 seconds to a brutal 3:06 and then, more sensitively, to 4:26, which is by far the best known version.

Nights In White Satin starts with simple guitar chords, light drum strokes, a prominent bass line and lyrical vocals. “Nights in white satin, never reaching the end…”, sings the voice enigmatically. Satin dress? Satin sheets? Questions bubble up and reverberate through our heads. Never ending nights? Or is there something else that remains out of reach, beyond our grasp? The voice is passionate, lonely, aching. “Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send”. There’s a longing here, a longing for something impossible.

Electronic strings bring added pathos. “Beauty I’d always missed with these eyes before”, sings the voice, as if he is at fault. “Just what the truth is I can’t say any more”. The music swells to a crescendo. “‘Cause I love you…”. The drums pound and a choir of angels echoes the singers anguish. “Yes, I love you. Oh, how I love you!”, he cries. And the angels cry, too.

The drums crash to a cathartic climax and give way to a mellow, soothing flute over picked acoustic guitar. The haunting Mellotron strings return for another verse, another episode of exquisite pain; the angel choir sings again and the song comes to another thundering climax before fading to a peaceful, satisfying end.

The single was a top 20 hit when it was first released in 1967 and even more successful when it was re-released in 1972 (no. 9 in the UK and no. 2 on the US Billboard charts). Since then it has become an essential component of every pop music collection covering the period and has been recorded by numerous other artists: Elkie Brooks, Il Divo, Eric Burdon and Nancy Sinatra, for example.

Nights In White Satin sits comfortably on easy listening and pop/classical crossover compilations but the album it comes from is regarded as a precursor to progressive rock, with its mix of styles and use of a Mellotron to create a wide, orchestral soundscape. Days of Future Passed didn’t quite succeed in blending contrasting styles but it did lay the foundation for others to do so and it spawned one of the most enduring singles of the sixties: Nights In White Satin, a most worthy addition to the Crotchety Man Track of the Week collection.

[There’s a YouTube video of an excellent live performance here.]