Take Five

Movie clapperboard

Never was a track less likely to trouble the pop charts. Take Five is a jazz piece; it’s an instrumental; it’s in 5/4 time; and it was supposed to be a drum solo. In spite of all that Take Five reached number 25 on the US Billboard charts and did even better in the UK, spending 14 weeks in the top 40 and peaking at number 6.

Take Five was recorded for the Time Out album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet in the summer of 1959. On the album it’s 5 minutes 24 seconds long with a substantial drum solo in the middle. The track was re-recorded and trimmed to under three minutes for the single, ironically, by cutting out most of the drum solo. The single was originally released in September 1959 but it wasn’t until it was re-released in May 1961 that it caught the imagination of the public and entered the charts.

In those days – before the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, and well before the psychedelic rock of the Flower Power years – Take Five dared to be different. Its unusual time signature gives it a lop-sided, lolloping beat, inviting us to move our feet but defying all efforts to fit the steps of a recognised dance to it. This is not the kind of jazz that sounds as if someone is strangling a goose; it is a song-without-words in which an alto sax takes the place of the singer and the melody sits easy on the ear. It is that combination of idiosyncratic beat and lilting tune that gives it such appeal.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica Take Five is the best selling jazz single of all time. That’s quite an accolade for a record that was never meant to be popular.

Take Five - brubeck

Personal Postscript

Somewhere, I think, I have the sheet music for Take Five. It’s written in the key of E-flat minor whose key signature has six flats, so it’s played almost exclusively on the black notes of the piano. In the past I have made half-hearted attempts to play it on my old electric piano but, as I never learned to play the piano, the result has always been predictably ghastly.

From the Underworld

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It had been miserable weather for several days when, on Wednesday, the skies cleared, the sun came out and the first warm day of Spring beckoned to us. Mrs Crotchety and I had a free afternoon so we drove the few miles from our house to Bradgate Park for a bit of fresh air. Bradgate is an old hunting park dating from some time before 1241. Lady Jane Grey, queen of England for nine days in 1553, was born in Bradgate House, whose ruins still stand in the park.

The area is now a public open space donated by its former owner, Charles Bennion, “for the quiet enjoyment of the people of Leicestershire”. It is a rugged landscape of grass, heather and trees with outcrops of some of the oldest rocks in England. Alongside the river Lin, which flows through the park and into the Cropston reservoir, the main path offers easy walking and cycling. Above the path to the north the ground rises steeply and on top of the ridge are two monuments: a war memorial and a folly known as Old John.

On the far side of the river, to the south, the grassy banks give way to scrub and clumps of hardy trees. This area is not open to the public; it is kept as a refuge for the red and fallow deer that live in the park. The boundary between the public and restricted parts of the park is marked only by fairly inconspicuous notices beside the paths, which the animals, of course, ignore. Although the deer are wild they are quite content to share their home with human visitors provided they don’t get too close.

As Mrs Crotchety and I strolled along the path a few of the deer came into view and I was about to point them out when I had what is euphemistically called a “senior moment”. I only just managed to stop myself from saying, “Look, a flock of deer”. ‘Flock’ was the wrong word, of course, but I had to think for a moment before remembering that the collective noun for deer is ‘herd’. And then my poor old ageing brain leapt like a startled fawn and scurried off into the backwoods of my memory. “There was a band called The Herd, you know”, I said. “They had a hit with From the Underworld“.

From the Underworld - the herd

The Herd, 1967

Mrs Crotchety murmured a disinterested acknowledgement and waited while the tune was retrieved from my internal juke box and spun in my head once again. Having satisfied myself that I had remembered it correctly I switched my attention back to threading my way through the river of men and women, children and dogs, bikes and buggies that were flowing along the path ahead of us. As we reached the café and settled down with a scone and a cup of English tea I pushed the tune in my head to the top of my Track of the Week list.

From the Underworld - this way

From the Underworld tells the story of Orpheus who goes down to Hades to bring back his beloved wife Eurydice. Now, Orpheus was a musician, a player so accomplished on the lyre that his divine music succeeded in persuading the gods to release Eurydice from the underworld. There was just one condition: Orpheus must precede his wife and not look back until they had both reached the upper world. Orpheus did as the gods had commanded and, as soon as he re-entered the world of the living, he turned to welcome his wife and rejoice with her. But Eurydice had not yet crossed over into the upper world. The gods’ condition had not been met and Eurydice vanished for ever.

This tragic tale is told beautifully in The Herd‘s song. The lyrics perfectly capture the terrifying darkness of the underworld, the hope in their hearts as Orpheus and Eurydice climb up towards the light, the anticipation of lasting joy and that final shattering moment when they realise that all is lost. And the music is the perfect complement to the words. From the first eerie tolling of a bell through to the keyboard and fuzzed guitar of the main theme and on to the brass instrument bridge it speaks of vast caverns, huge hopes and utter despair. There is only one word for this track: enchanting.

Into another world you have gone
and never again can I reclaim you.

Listen with us, but keep your hanky ready – you may need it.

An Awesome Wave

An Awesome Wave - delta

An Awesome Wave was the debut album by Alt-J (Crotchety Man’s band of the year 2014). It’s an astonishingly mature release for a first album but perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising given that the band was formed nearly five years before the album hit the shops in 2012. The title is a quote from the film American Psycho, which hints at an off-beat and potentially disturbing approach to art and life. Certainly, An Awesome Wave is one of the most original albums to come out of the contemporary music scene for a very long time.

I’m going to take you through the 14 tracks on the album and try to give a flavour of what it’s like to hear it for the first time. For any ordinary collection of musical pieces this would quickly become repetitive and boring but I think I can find something different and interesting about each track on An Awesome Wave. If I’m right and you’re still reading this post when I have described the ‘hidden’ track at the end I will have illustrated my point about its freshness and originality well enough.

An Awesome Wave - mt. fuji

Track 1 is just called Intro. It starts with some gentle piano – a chord and its echo swinging to and fro – rocking the baby’s cradle. Soon the piano is joined by crisp guitars, bass and drums emphasising the rhythm and gradually a simple tune emerges. There’s a pleasing subtlety in the sound that promises some relaxing late night listening. The rhythm section fades away leaving a short motif of low piano notes before the whole band bursts in abruptly again, picking up the beat and adding a strange, reedy vocal part to the mix. The words are indistinct, struggling to come through over a fuzzy guitar; my ears can only pick out something about a cannon. If you look them up you’ll find the lyrics don’t make much sense – and it’s ‘canon’, not ‘cannon’. The backing track fades out again; the vocalist whispers, “one, two, three”; a female voice sighs, “Yeah…”; and the band launches into the main theme once more before slowly fading out. If that’s just the intro there must be many treats to come.

The title of Track 2 is (Ripe and Ruin). The parentheses seem to indicate that, like tracks 5 and 11, this is a musical interlude. It is certainly short at 1 minute 12 seconds. It turns out to be a two-part a cappella piece with heavy echo. Unlike the first track, these lyrics are clearly important.

She only ever walks to count her steps,
Eighteen strides and she stops to abide
By the law that she herself has set.

The song has the feel of a madrigal, an ancient truth in the form of a poem set to music. The harmonies are delightful and the words are intriguingly poetic. What does it mean? I’m not sure but the message seems to lie in the last line:

Like all good fruit the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin.

In track 3, Tesselate, the tempo picks up a little. Like Intro it starts with slow piano chords but quickly acquires a syncopated drum beat followed by the reedy voice of the first two tracks over guitar and synthesiser parts. Musically, Tesselate is rather more conventional but it blends the different textures exceptionally well. Here is the first candidate for what might be a typical Alt-J composition. It has plenty of sonic light and shade, an infectious tune and lyrics that hang in the hinterland somewhere between sense and nonsense.

Triangles are my favorite shape
Three points where two lines meet
Toe to toe, back to back, let’s go, my love; it’s very late
‘Til morning comes, let’s tessellate.

Now, you’d have to be barmy to write a song about Breezeblocks, wouldn’t you? That didn’t put off Alt-J, though, as we can see and hear with track 4 of An Awesome Wave. Actually, it’s not about breezeblocks, it’s a love song. The passion is a bit one sided, though. The singer wants to hold on to his lover but feels he has to “hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks”. There are those quirky lyrics again, this time over up-tempo guitar and tinkly keyboard. Like Tesselate, it’s a catchy song that refuses to fit into a recognised genre.

Track 5 is another interlude; it’s called (Guitar). At this point in the album we have learned to expect the unexpected, but Alt-J now give us a double-bluff. (Guitar) is a short, contemplative acoustic guitar solo. The only unusual element is faint sounds of traffic and background conversation heard as if through a half-open window a dozen storeys above a busy street. With this track it is clear that there is a high level of musicianship in the band.

The next track opens with a rat-a-tat-tat on a tuneless snare drum. Wake up, folks, ’cause this is Something Good. And, yes, it is good. Track 6 rattles along, melding guitars and rippling piano, handclaps and vocals, each part finding its own place in the colourful weave of the music. Unjustified optimism spills from every vocal beat because “something good tonight will make me forget about you for now”. Well, it’s nice to have a happy song for a change.

Track 7 is Dissolve Me. At its heart this is a jaunty song punctuated by episodes of heavily fuzzed electric bass. There’s an off-kilter rhythm that the words don’t quite fit and yet their sounds create a seaside soundscape: “She makes the sound, the sound the sea makes …”. As the last line repeats the mind’s eye sees a receding tide, each wave a little smaller and softer than the last.

An Awesome Wave - dolphin

Next comes the most instantly accessible song on the album, Matilda. An unaccompanied voice sings a few preliminary words, “This is from Matilda …”, before a picked guitar lays down a gentle groundwork for synth, bass and drums to fill in and ornament. There’s a simple melody inviting you to sing along – and you would if only you could make out Matilda’s message in the verse. (Something about a grenade and understanding who’s boss.) The backing instruments fade out and the guitar takes us into the chorus. “This is from Matilda. And she needs you. This is from Matilda.” Now, everything makes sense and you do find yourself singing along, lost in the sumptuous comfort of the tune. But it’s only a short period of sanity. The verse repeats (that grenade again) and, finally, the sanity of the chorus returns for a long, satisfying fade out.

As if to demonstrate that there is no end to their creativity Alt-J have given track 9 one of the shortest titles in the songbook: Ms. It opens with slow guitar chords, lead and backing vocals, and the tinkle of ceramic bells. Surprisingly, this introduction doesn’t lead into a passage for the full band, instead we get a sparse a cappella section – two echoing voices – and a few beats of silence. “The dark seeks dark … Ooh, darker.” This is followed by a characteristically cryptic chant: “The nights of all my youth pressed into one glass of water”. Only then do we get to the meat of the song, which turns out to be a fuller arrangement of the introduction. And Alt-J‘s disregard for conventional song structure doesn’t end there. After the intro/theme we get a lazy bridge section of fluttering guitar notes that doubles as the finale. It all ends much too soon. But, if you check the clock, you’ll find this track is a full 3 minutes 59 seconds long.

We’ve reached track 10, Fitzpleasure. By now we are beginning to know what to expect from Alt-J‘s music and this track has it all: a cappella singing, full and sparse arrangements, tinkly synth effects, impressive guitar licks and weird words chosen for their sound more than their meaning. But above all it urges us on with an insistent beat and heavy bass riffs. “Come on boys”, it seems to say. “In your snatch fits pleasure.”

(Piano) is musical interlude number three. It’s actually a little snippet for piano and voice just 54 seconds long. It’s hardly a track at all, just a pleasing phrase played twice, a breathing space between the real songs, a piece of tape rescued from the recording studio floor. And that, of course, is reason enough to mention it specifically here.

Track 12 is Bloodflood. It starts slowly and ambles peacefully along. Guitar and piano parts complement each other, each sparkling like the sun on the waves of a calm sea, while the drumsticks clatter a woodpecker’s rap. We are at one with nature. Even the words make some sort of sense.

… a wave, an awesome wave
That rushes skin and widens in flooded veins.

There’s an unquenchable heartbeat in the music. It’s a never ending song, an eternal ode to the universe. But, just as we are settling back into our favourite armchair to listen, the instruments gradually fall silent and the song ends as quietly as it began. Once again, Alt-J seem to have given us a lovely introduction and forgotten to give us the middle section. And yet, Bloodflood is the longest track on the album so far at 4 minutes 9 seconds.

If we ignore the ‘bonus’ track for now the last song on An Awesome Wave is Taro. This one seems to be a protest song lamenting the death and destruction wrought by war. It is the only track on the album that uses synthesised strings to add a little melancholy to the music. And yet, Alt-J still give it enough of a beat to avoid the dirge and enough light and shade to avoid despair. It is, in fact, yet another very enjoyable song.

On the CD (according to Wikipedia) the 13th track contains two songs: the aforementioned Taro and a ‘bonus track’ called Hand-made, separated by 5 minutes of silence. The download version has sensibly separated the two tracks and eliminated the gap. So, what of Hand-made? Well, it reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on. There are rippling guitar chords sounding much like a harp and a vocal refrain reminiscent of novelty records. It’s an Alt-J song all right but somehow it doesn’t work quite as well as the other 13 tracks on the album.

The 25th Annual KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas - Day 2

Alt-J with Miley Cyrus, December 2014

So, dear reader, are you still with me? Have I convinced you that An Awesome Wave is fresh, original and worth listening to? I hope so because there’s a lot to savour on this album and I’d hate you to miss it.

To Rule The World

EWtRtW - risk

The marigolds were blooming in Southwold. Half a dozen friends had gone to the coast for a weekend break and four of us were staying in the aptly named Marigold Cottage where the bright orange flowers had bid us a cheery welcome the day before.

This morning we had decided to walk along the shoreline, cross over the river Blyth and have a leisurely lunch at a pub/restaurant in Walberswick, the next village a few miles to the south. It was a pleasant summer day – sunny, warm and with fluffy white clouds in the sky, but with a cool on-shore breeze. A few showers were forecast for the afternoon but most of us went without a coat trusting in lady luck. If we got miserably wet at least we’d be able to joke about it afterwards over a pint in a pub or a steaming mug of tea back at the cottage.

We met up on the dunes. The sea was a blueish grey in the morning sun, which is as pretty a dress as the dour North Sea has ever been known to wear. Waves lapped gently on the beach and one or two dark shapes on the horizon spoke of fishing boats, ferries, oil tankers and pleasure boats shuffling along the shipping lanes between England and the continent. After the obligatory preliminaries – “Good morning”, “Nice weather”, “Did you sleep well?” – our party began to pick its way along the beach, up onto the dunes, past the beach huts and onto a raised sandy path. From here we could look back to the town of Southwold with its distinctive lighthouse and forward to tall grass and open fields.

For a mile or two there was not much to see. Flat fields of scrub to the right, a flatter sea to the left and the footpath meandering ahead. An artist might have taken inspiration from the scene but our little band of walkers soon lost interest. A man walking his dog enlivened the flagging conversation briefly and then we all fell into our own private thoughts, ambling along the narrow path like a column of ants prospecting for something sweet. Sometimes the sun would go behind a cloud and in this exposed place the wind, though gentle, felt a little chilly. Then the cloud would move away, the sun’s rays would warm our faces and a feeling of quiet contentment would descend upon us again.

The path began to bend, taking us inland, away from the sea and alongside the wide mouth of the river. In the distance we could just make out Walberswick, our destination, on the far riverbank. There were fewer clouds now, the sun was high and it was getting quite warm. It wasn’t long before Walberswick church steeple and the rest of the village came clearly into view. We could see tables in the garden of a pub tantalisingly close by, but separated from us by the deep water of the river Blyth. We would have to walk another mile or so to the bridge, cross over and walk back down into the village before we could slake our thirst and quench our growing hunger.

EWtRtW - tears for fears

Just then a few notes of music drifted in the wind. At first the sound was indistinct and seemed to come from far away but then either the wind shifted or somebody turned up the volume. I recognised the tune immediately; it was Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears and it was (for me, at least) the anthem of the summer. You heard it everywhere you went. Every pop radio station in the country had been playing it. I paused there by the river to listen to it again and, suddenly, our little ramble was lifted from the mundane to the unforgettable.

I think we can safely file Tears for Fears early material under ‘New Wave’ although EWtRtW would fit comfortably in mainstream pop and rock collections, too. Bass and drums give it a beat guaranteed to get a pop festival crowd swaying like ripe heads of wheat in a cornfield. Synthesisers wash lazily on a shingle beach; rhythmic guitar chords pound like surf on the rocks. And over this murmuring sea of sound a voice serenades us with a simple tune – inviting us, urging us, compelling us all to sing along. The singers words are obtuse but no-one cares. The song is one of the sweetest earworms known to man.

After pausing there by the river I quickened my steps. The others were already pressing on, eager for refreshments, and I joined them in buoyant mood. My memory of the rest of that day has faded but it was a good day.

EWtRtW - stubs

On that first visit to Southwold back in 1985 I was unattached but I went back in 2007 with Mrs. Crotchety to celebrate paying off the mortgage. We went to Southwold partly because I had fond memories of the town and partly because the Flying Egg festival, with its theme of alternative umbrellas, sounded fun. Sadly, the Flying Egg festival hasn’t been held since but there has been a family-friendly music and arts festival near Southwold every year since 2006. It’s called the Latitude festival and among the artists scheduled for July 2016 are: Maccabees, John Grant, Half Moon Run and Cloves, all of which have featured in the Crotchety Man blog.

I’m tempted to get tickets for Latitude. If I go it will be my first music festival for over 40 years and my third visit to the small Suffolk town of Southwold. Marigold Cottage seems to be available so the omens are good. But, I don’t know. I’m too old to stay up late and too Crotchety to put up with pesky little kids. Perhaps I’ll just let the Internet be my eyes and ears. As usual.

Hole in the Ground

Hole in the Ground - cribbins

You know what’s missing from this blog? A touch of humour. Now, I’m no comedian but I can find some funny songs for you to listen to. I’m not talking about laughable novelty songs like I Taut I Taw a PuddycatItsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini or Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer, which I’m sure you all love as much as the sloppy wet kiss your aunt used to give you as a kid. No, I mean songs that are genuinely funny – songs that wouldn’t leave you feeling acutely embarrassed if you were caught guffawing at them. Well, not so much that you’d have to take up holy orders and hide in a monastery for the rest of your days, anyway.

The foremost exponents of the humorous song must be Flanders and Swann and I very nearly chose The Gas Man Cometh as my Track of the Week as it’s the funniest one I know. There were two other tracks on my initial shortlist: Flanders and Swann’s Ill Wind (a classical horn concerto with added words) and Bernard Cribbins’ The Hole in the Ground. In the end I plumped for The Hole because it’s not just the words that tell the joke – if you were to turn it into an instrumental it would still tickle Queen Victoria (and she wasn’t easily amused).

The Hole in the Ground announces its intentions right from the start. There’s the noise of a diesel compressor quietly chugging away, resting after the pneumatic drills have broken up the tarmac. And there’s the steady chuff and splodge as a spade slices into the earth and plonks sods of wet clay onto an ever growing pile. Accompanying these natural sounds we hear a trad jazz quartet of clarinet, acoustic guitar, string bass and triangle imitating an old fashioned typewriter: clickety clack ting, clickety clack ting ting. Four men in striped blazers and straw hats are about to provide the backing for a light-hearted song and it’s no surprise when Bernard Cribbins’ soft cockney voice begins to sing.

There I was, a-digging this hole,
A hole in the ground…

He drops his aitches, as all cockneys do, but his story is told with the clarity and weary conviction of a working class man who is all too used to being looked down upon by pen-pushers and jobsworths. Bernard knows how to dig holes. He knows it’s a job anyone could do but he is making his contribution to society as best he can and he’s not going to stand for criticism from someone who has probably never wielded a spade in his life. So, when a bloke in a bowler hat looks down into the hole and offers unwelcome advice, Bernard is not amused.

The rhythmic clatter of the typewriter rattles on as a pointed discussion ensues. The bowler hat complains that the hole is the wrong size, the wrong shape and in the wrong place. But the digger just shrugs his shoulders.

If you disagree it don’t bother me,
That’s the place where the hole’s gonna be.

The song doesn’t tell us how the argument develops, it just describes the scene when it is all over. The hole has been filled in again and the ground is all flat. And if you haven’t heard the punchline, well, you’ll have to listen to the song. I’m not going to spill the beans here. Actually, listen anyway, it’ll brighten your day. A little bit of humour is good for the soul.