Familiar

Familiar - cat

The ‘classical’ tag appears in these posts from time to time. Sometimes it refers to music from the years 1600 – 1900 but more often it indicates modern music in a style that owes a substantial debt to that period. Familiar is one of those more recent compositions. It is a single taken from Agnes Obel’s forthcoming album Citizen of Glass which is due to be released on 21st October 2016.

Old Man Crotchety had never heard of Agnes Obel until a few days ago when Familiar was played on the BBC’s 6 Music radio station. In my ignorance I was able to listen without any preconceptions, entirely free of expectations that might have coloured my judgement. If I had known that Agnes Obel is a Danish singer/songwriter/pianist known in Denmark and a few neighbouring countries for her ambient piano pieces I might have hit the mental mute button. If you had told me that her first album was entirely composed of pieces for voice and piano inspired by the likes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Eric Satie I might have stopped for a coffee break. It wasn’t that I dislike those composers (I don’t) it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for something in a late classical style.

Familiar - owl

The track was introduced simply as “This is Agnes Obel and Familiar“; there was no clue to what might be coming. A gentle, slightly echoey piano introduction leads into some ethereal singing. Agnes’ voice is firm and natural. It doesn’t have the power of Shirley Bassey but neither does it suffer the debilitating weakness of the vocals in the average girl band. The overall effect was rather pleasant and the first line was intriguing.

Can you walk on the water …?

Unfortunately, too many of the words are indistinct to extract much meaning on a first listen. Looking up the lyrics on the Internet afterwards I found two or three different versions, none of them terribly enlightening and some definitely wrong. It’s hard to tell whether Agnes’ command of English is imperfect or whether her poetic language has just been lost on me.

While trying to make some sense of the words Crotchety Man’s ears missed the strings in the background until the prominent rasp of a cello takes up the theme and the subtle sigh of a violin adds delicate harmonies. The song has developed a lovely soft, velvety underbelly. Then, out of the blue, airy male voices swoop down and blend with earthy plucked strings for the chorus.

And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see.
It’s a danger.

I was reminded of Mogwai and of Gotye at his most inventive. This is ambient alternative music that demands to be listened to. Agnes Obel is not just another girl singer. She is also a talented composer and pianist, as her two previous albums (Philharmonics, Aventine) have demonstrated. Judging by Familiar she is now becoming an accomplished arranger, too. If she can just find some English words that can be understood without a supplementary explanation she will have the full complement of song-writing skills. Crotchety Man will watch her future output with considerable interest.

Light Flight …

Light Flight - mosque

I have always felt that the five members of Pentangle were pulled together by a mysterious force. It must have been some kind of benign sorcery to be capable of making such a sublime creation. Perhaps somewhere in a small town in England a macabre ritual took place.

Welcome, sisters, to the White Witch (Tewkesbury) Temple of Apollo.
Light the scented candles.
Put on the ram’s horn masks.
Remove the cloak of Widdecombe and stand naked within the holy circle.
Bring in the virgin goat.

Hail, Apollo, God of Truth and Music.

We five call on you to smite those artists, managers and record companies that put commercial gain before artistic endeavour and bring forth a new era of wondrous sounds, both live and recorded.
For this we offer you this sacrifice …

Or am I letting my imagination run away with me? Did the God of Music forge folk and jazz into a whole new genre at the behest of a witches coven or was it just a happy coincidence that three musicians from the folk circuit and two from jazz circles came together in London in 1967?

Light Flight - on lawn

Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were both well-known folk guitarists having made several solo albums each and one as a duo. When Jansch moved from Edinburgh to London he and Renbourn shared a house there. They met singer, Jacqui McShee, when they performed at her folk club outside the capital city and all three performed at Les Cousins, a folk and blues club in the Soho district of London. As a trio they performed modern folk influenced by early music and the blues.

Bass player Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox came from a rather different background. Both had been members of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a blues and R&B band, and both had leanings towards jazz. Wikipedia notes that Thompson gigged at Les Cousins and worked with John Renbourn on a project for television, although it leaves further details unspecified.

So it seems that Jansch, Renbourn, McShee, Thompson and Cox were a folk band woven together by a secondary interest in the blues and its more flamboyant offshoot, jazz. Was this a prosaic serendipity or the mystical power of a five-pointed star? No mortal man can ever be sure. But Pentangle’s compilation album, Light Flight – Anthology, is an excellent place to start if you want to engage in a personal search for the truth.

Light Flight - in colour

Light Flight is a double album containing 31 tracks from the period 1968 – 1971 when Pentangle were at their scintillating best. It is the top-rated Pentangle compilation album on AllMusic and, appropriately perhaps, the only one with a full five-star rating. On the first disc the emphasis is on mainstream folk songs with characteristically intricate arrangements; disc 2 has rather more of a jazzy feel. Both discs also have two or three instrumentals.

There are traditional folk songs arranged by Pentangle (Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, The Trees They Do Grow High², Cruel Sister), more modern folk songs (Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Sally Go Round The Roses), original songs in the folk tradition (Light FlightWay Behind The Sun, Sweet Child), instrumentals (Waltz, Three Part Thing, Pentangling) and a cover of a jazz standard (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat). This is an album of folk songs shot through with veins of sparkling jazzy licks, musical nuggets that no other band has ever been able to match.

My Mum told me long, long ago that folk music has lovely melodies and jazz requires a high standard of musicianship. I believed her then and on Light Flight you will find proof of mother’s wise words. It has some of the most beautiful songs played by some of the most accomplished musicians of their time, all making full use of their talents. It is a five-star album if ever there was one.

Notes

  1. The text for the witches’ ritual was inspired by a radio advertisement for the Toyota Avensis that aired in the UK a few years ago. In the original a woman with a Brummy accent half whispers, “Welcome, sisters, to the Dudley Devil Worshippers …”. Now, Dudley is a nondescript town in the West Midlands region of England with a castle, a zoo and nothing else of note. The idea that it could be the headquarters of an occultist coven is laughable enough but the reference to the “cloak of Widdecombe” is a stroke of comic genius. It may refer to Widdecombe Fair but radio listeners would immediately think of Anne Widdecombe, a former politician and an unlikely media personality. Anne’s most endearing characteristic is her ability to laugh at herself and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me saying that her appearance could, with some justification, be described as ‘scary’. In the advertisement the divination ceremony is interrupted by the sound of a door slamming and a cheerful male voice calling out, “Hi, honey. I’m home”. The stunned voice of the high priestess replies, “Brian! I thought you was in Norwich!!”. And the smooth voice of a Toyota salesman warns us to be careful because, with the Avensis’ electronic traffic avoidance system, you might get there too early.
  2. The Trees They Do Grow High was a Track of the Week in January 2015.

China In Your Hand

China In Your Hand - cup

Back in 1987 I was a freelance software developer. In the autumn of that year I was working on a contract at offices some 15 miles from Leicester where I lived then, driving north up the A46 in the mornings. It was an easy journey. The road was fairly straight and not too busy. And it wound through some pleasant countryside. As commutes go it was about as good as it gets.

One bright and unseasonably warm October morning, with my mind on autopilot, the car radio began to play pizzicato strings, spitting out the notes like orange pips, as if to say, “Wake up, this is interesting”. As I retuned my ears the violins were joined by grand piano chords and then a woman’s voice began to sing a gentle accompaniment to my rural journey. Soon the sound swelled in a dramatic crescendo as if the low autumn sun had peeped out from a cloud and spread a golden glow across the hills.

Don’t push too hard,
Your dreams are china in your hand.

Suddenly, my routine journey had been transformed into a relaxing road trip and that ordinary working day now felt like a holiday.

Over the next few weeks China In Your Hand was played a lot on the radio. It spent five weeks at number one on the UK singles chart and was almost guaranteed to grace the airwaves during my 35 minute drive to work. I got to know that song very well, singing along to it in the car. It became my anthem of the road.

My software contract ended after a few months and my work took me elsewhere. Then, another ten years on, the Crotchety Couple moved 100 miles away to York and we rarely used the A46 until we moved back to Leicestershire in 2015. In the meantime the stretch of the A46 that took me to work in 1987 has been completely rebuilt. What was a single-carriageway road following the course of the Roman Fosse Way is now a “high quality grade-separated dual-carriageway” making it a fast and effective route between Leicester and Lincoln.

Last week the Crochetys took a day trip to Doddington Hall to see the gardens and sculpture exhibition. The Hall is just outside the city of Lincoln and the A46 takes us almost door to door. Although the road looks completely different now, driving north along it that morning still reminded me of the day in 1987 when I heard China In Your Hand for the first time. A song that stays with you that long is surely worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

China In Your Hand - frankenstein

As is often the case Crotchety Man was never able to make out all of the words and it was only when researching the song for this post that I finally discovered what it’s about. The phrase “china in your hand” suggests a precious fragility and “don’t push too hard” is clearly a plea to be careful. But what is it that we hold? What will shatter like a porcelain teacup if we drop it?

In fact, the song refers to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in which the brilliant science student Victor Frankenstein succeeds in creating a living being from non-living material. But the beautiful creature that Victor had envisaged turns out to be a hideous  monster who is repulsed by his own appearance and rejected by all those who meet him. In his anguish the monster kills Victor’s brother and his bride-to-be. It is a classic story of a man blind to the consequences of his dreams. As the song puts it:

Your dreams are china in your hand.
Don’t wish too hard
Because they may come true

I have no qualms adding China In Your Hand to the track-of-the-week list but I’m afraid I am unable to recommend anything else by T’Pau. I have listened to the first six tracks from their Heart and Soul – The Very Best of T’Pau album and that was as much anodyne pop as I could stomach in one helping. If that is the very best they can do Crotchety Man will be looking elsewhere for fulfilment of his dreams. You never know, though, if I wish hard enough my dreams just might come true one day.

River Song

UK - London - Busker 'Flame Proof Moth' performs on the edge of the River Thames on the Southbank

The times seem to be changing at Crotchety Mansions. Recently, I added another couple of blogs to my list of followed sites. As if to balance those beginnings the first music blog I followed since starting this one, Vinyl Connection, has just ceased publication and this week The Maccabees announced they are disbanding. It’s sad when good things come to an end but if there were no endings it would be impossible for new beginnings to germinate, grow and bear fruit.

The Maccabees featured on the Crotchety Man blog in September of last year when I chose the title track from their latest and (presumably) last album, Marks To Prove It, as my track of the week. Now, to commemorate their music, I’ve chosen another track from that album, River Song.

As I said last September, most of the songs on Marks To Prove It are “quieter, slower, more nuanced and more ‘alternative’” than the title track. River Song is one of those hard to define works that I lumped under the heading of ‘alternative’ because it doesn’t fit any other category – and filing it under ‘miscellaneous’ would be unforgivably insulting. It starts with the soulful wailing of a saxophone blended with echoing wordless voices. The Maccabees may have been an indie rock band but that’s not indie rock; in fact, it’s not rock at all. Nor is it jazz or soul. It’s … something else.

A disconsolate trudging beat plods along under the sax and when the vocals come in the waltz-time rhythm threatens to wash us away. This river is deep and wide, its muddy waters flowing relentlessly toward the sea. The lyrics tell of a man who regrets mistreating his girl and the river’s lugubrious song reflects his sorrow and sadness. He wishes he could change but knows that, like the river, he will continue passing under life’s bridges the same as always.

Like the river waters the song rolls ever on, never deviating from its course, with the sad, soulful theme repeating in the reeds of the sax, the banks of the keyboards and the mouth of the singer. No islands interrupt the current, no rapids disturb the smooth surface, no variation brings relief as the same mournful message echoes across the instruments. And yet, River Song is a captivating refrain that infects the mind and blithely haunts the spirit.

River Song - in suit

There’s another River Song that I’m fond of, too. She is a character from the British TV science-fiction series, Doctor Who. I watched Doctor Who as a kid and the Crotchety Couple still watch every episode. The Doctor travels through time and space in the TARDIS, a box the size of a 1960s telephone booth that is bigger – much, much bigger – on the inside than it is on the outside. Isn’t that wonderful? The Doctor always travels with a companion or two. Most of his companions are female, many are quite attractive to the Crotchety Male and a few are downright sexy. But even the beautiful, sexy ones play an essential part in the stories; they are not just eye candy.

In the TV series, River Song is played by the English actress Alex Kingston. She is neither the most beautiful nor the sexiest of women but River is probably the strongest character of all the Doctor’s companions – stronger even than the Doctor at times. For much of their several regenerations River and the Doctor travel independently, their timelines crossing at storyline junctures. But, because time travel isn’t linear, the Doctor and River experience each meeting at a different point in their lives. Their first encounter for the Doctor is their last for River and, roughly speaking, as the Doctor gets to know River so she knows him less and less. It’s a fascinating twist to an enduring story.

River Song - maccabees

The Maccabees (2004 – 2016)

Like The Maccabees, River Song‘s timeline has ended and, here at Crotchety Mansions, it seems the times they are a-changing.

Diamonds and Rust

Diamonds and Rust - collage

Nimble fingers pick gently at the strings of an acoustic guitar. Dark hair tumbles around her face. Her features and her music speak of Spanish ancestors as she gazes into the pale yellow light of a rising moon.

A little while ago the phone had rung and the voice on the line stirred memories from years ago. Precious memories of happy days. And, here, sitting in quiet contemplation, she reflects on the times that have gone by and the simple joys that are now irretrievably lost.

She begins to sing. Her voice is rich, smooth and intoxicating, like the very finest of burgundy wines.

Well I’ll be damned,
Here comes your ghost again …

That first half-sentence plunges us into the aching heart of the singer, a heart still hung over from drinking too deeply of a delicious youthful love. An almost imperceptible backing track fills out the sound of the guitar, but the voice is so mesmerising that we hardly notice.

As I remember your eyes
Were bluer than robin’s eggs …

Between the verses there is a woodwind refrain, far off, almost subliminal, weaving forward through time to remind us of those long past rapturous moments. Then the singer recalls something she said today on the phone.

We both know what memories can bring,
They bring diamonds and rust.

With her fingers still plucking notes from the air, she remembers a winter’s day, snow in her lover’s hair, and the euphoric feeling of a perfect moment.

Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there.

Although the old love has rusted and crumbled away the memory remains a jewel stowed away in an old treasure chest. She brings it out once in a while for old times sake, for it’s far too precious to throw away.

Diamonds and Rust - baez and dylan

Diamonds and Rust is one of the best loved songs by Joan Baez. It was recorded in 1975 and it tells of the relationship she had with Bob Dylan some ten years earlier. Dylan is not mentioned by name but the song says of him, “… you burst on the scene, already a legend. The unwashed phenomenon, the original vagabond”. Who else could it be?

In her autobiographical memoir, And a Voice to Sing With, Joan Baez writes, “I was born gifted”. She is referring to her extraordinarily beautiful singing voice with which she was giving public performances from the age of 13. It is that voice that makes Diamonds and Rust such an exceptionally haunting song. But there’s much more to it than that. It is a poetic and highly personal memorial to a cherished period in Joan Baez’ life and a composition of great elegance and charm. As a piece for a folk singer and a guitar it works beautifully but the production on the album version is superb. Subtle strings and woodwind, mellow electric guitars and bubbling synthesiser sounds all sneak into the mix so imperceptibly that they could easily go unnoticed. And yet each additional instrument adds a little more sparkle, another facet to the cut and polished diamond that is this jewel of a song. This one will never rust away.