Sledgehammer

Sledgehammer - scrat

Now, where did I put that sledgehammer?

There are at least three well-known songs called Sledgehammer. Top of the Spotify list is one by Fifth Harmony, a five-piece all-female vocal group that came together when the girls entered the X Factor competition individually in 2012. As Fifth Harmony they came third and third is where Crotchety Man places their fairly ordinary pop/dance Sledgehammer. If you have seen Star Trek Beyond you will have heard a bigger and better Sledgehammer. That one is an epic ballad sung by Rihanna and she does a rather good job of it. But the best Sledgehammer, in my opinion, is the one by Peter Gabriel.

The Gabriel Sledgehammer is a pop/dance track the way old man Crotchety likes it. It’s one of those funky soulful songs that makes you want to stomp your feet to the beat, but unlike a lot of modern pop music it also has a catchy tune, some intriguing synthesised sounds and a great production. It’s an irresistible combination that took it to the number one slot in Canada and the U.S. and number 4 in the U.K. in 1986.

The single release was accompanied by a brilliant video featuring animation by Aardman Animations (Nick Park’s outfit that created the Wallace and Gromit animated films). It won  no less than nine of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, more than any other video, and may still be the most viewed MTV video of all time. Here’s the obligatory YouTube link:

There’s an even sharper, crisper version of this video on Peter Gabriel’s website here.

They say you shouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut but Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel, has tried everything else. Perhaps Peter Gabriel will take pity on the poor unfortunate creature and lend him his nut cracker extraordinaire.

Soft Machine – Gig

Soft Machine - after the break

Last night Soft Machine played a gig at The Flowerpot in Derby. The band has appeared in these pages twice before but, for anyone unfamiliar with them, there’s an excellent biography (if a band can have a biography) on Spotify. Suffice it to say that the current Soft Machine line-up includes three guys who joined the band in the early- and mid-1970s and contributed to some of their best albums. Although no members of “the classic quartet” from the very early seventies remain, John Marshall, Roy Babbington, John Etheridge and ‘new boy’ Theo Travis have every right to carry the Soft Machine name into the 2010s.

The Flowerpot is a very British real ale pub in the centre of the city of Derby. Tucked away at the back there’s a dark, windowless space with a bar, a small stage and a low ceiling. It’s the sort of place a hobbit raver might choose for one of his wilder parties. The pub itself and the band room behind it were bustling but not too overcrowded when my mate and I arrived. Neither of us had been to this venue before but the clientele seemed strangely familiar. Was that Frodo Baggins and his faithful friend Sam Gamgee over there? No, only a couple of ageing hippies there for a night of music and nostalgia, just like the rest of the audience – Crotchety Man and his appropriately bearded pal included.

There were no seats in the back room so we took up a position fairly near the stage and waited. Unusually, in fact uniquely in my gigging experience, the band came on a few minutes early. I’d like to say they were greeted enthusiastically but that would be a slight exaggeration; ‘warmly’ would be a better description. It was as if the audience could sense the potential for a great night but expected rather less. Perhaps the sight of Nic France instead of John Marshall on the drums had dampened their spirits. Or perhaps the fans just knew that we were about to hear four old men playing mostly old tunes for guys and gals old enough to have heard it all before.

John Etheridge introduced his fellow band members and explained that John Marshall couldn’t be there because he wasn’t well. Then, without further ado, they launched into Bundles and a palpable sense of pleasure and relief swept through the audience. They knew it might not turn out to be an extraordinary night but we wouldn’t be going home disappointed. And so it proved to be, the audience grooving to the rhythms and applauding each track with genuine appreciation of the music and musicianship.

The set included tracks from almost every studio album from 1970 onwards by Soft Machine and Soft Machine Legacy: Third (Facelift), Fourth (Kings and Queens), Six (Gesolreut, Chloe and the Pirates), Bundles (Bundles, Hazard Profile, The Man Who Waved at Trains), Softs (Aubade, The Tale of Taliesin, Song of Aeolus), Soft Machine Legacy (Grape Hound), Steam (In the Back Room), Burden of Proof (Voyage Beyond Seven) and one new song whose title I don’t remember. For the curious I’ve collected the album versions of those tracks on a public Spotify playlist: Softs @ The Flowerpot.

In the end, this was a satisfying but not particularly memorable occasion. It was like going to see a tribute band that plays all the old favourites but never quite manages to capture the fire and sparkle of the original. Or, to use another analogy, it was like two-day old bread – good for toast but not so good for sandwiches. But what’s wrong with that? I like a bit of toast from time to time. Especially with marmalade … Mind you, if it had turned out that Soft Machine were just the support for Marmalade I really would have been disappointed.

crotchetyman.blog

News - .blog domain

We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement …

The Crotchety Man blog now has its own Internet domain which you can find at crotchetyman.blog. The old address works, too, but it just redirects to the new one.

Let me assure you that nothing else has changed. In particular, the Crotchety Man blog will still carry the musings of an aged man passionate about a broad range of music styles in a (probably futile) attempt to bring good sounds to the attention of discerning listeners around the world.

Here endeth the music news.

Elizabeth “Alcopops” Alker.

Boo Boo Bird

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“It is up to you 
whether you read this…
my advice is just 
to ignore it.”

    Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler was the Scottish equivalent of Spike Milligan. He was an eccentric poet, songwriter and humourist. His fans included The Beatles, John Peel, KT Tunstall, John Lydon, Neil Innes and Robert Wyatt. He was the driver of the Magical Mystery Tour bus. He doesn’t need a ticket to ride on the Crotchety Man blog.

Ivor Cutler’s life and work were distinctly (and quite deliberately) bonkers. Matthew Lenton, director of the play The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, put it like this: “he didn’t live by the same rules as everybody else”. As my tribute to Ivor Cutler I give you one of his longer and more tuneful songs, Boo Boo Bird. In the video the song is introduced by Ivor himself; no further commentary is required here.

While constructing this post it occurred to me that the Boo Boo bird is rather like the creature described in the half-nonsense poem, What a Queer Bird the Frog Are, and curiosity took me to this delightful round on YouTube.

I’m sure Ivor Cutler would have appreciated both the poem and the music there. Oh, and if you’re wondering, you can tell the difference between a Boo Boo bird and a frog by their calls. The Boo Boo bird goes “boo, boo”; the frog goes “ribba, ribba”.

Annie, Let’s Not Wait

Annie, Let's Not Wait - wet platform

There’s a big difference between ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’. And that’s strange. Both words derive from ‘awe’, which originally just meant ‘fear’. So ‘awesome’ should mean ‘instils a certain trepidation’ while ‘awful’ should have the more emphatic meaning, ‘terrifying’.

The use of ‘awe’ in the Bible to describe the mortal response to God’s presence is thought to have imbued the word with its modern sense of wonder and veneration, and in recent times the fear element has faded away so that ‘awesome’ is now synonymous with ‘wondrous’ or ‘amazing’. ‘Awful’ has also been losing the ‘fear’ factor but, in contrast, it has acquired wholly negative connotations so that it now just means ‘very unpleasant’ or ‘disgusting’.

There have been some awful things happening recently. There are dreadful wars in Syria and Iraq. There have been devastating earthquakes in Italy and New Zealand. The British people voted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the European Union. And, most disturbing of all, America has decided that their next president will be Donald Trump, a loathsome man whose policies will likely increase social division, worsen global warming and have who knows what effect on the economies of the U.S. and the wider world.

I needed something to counter the dispiriting effect of these awful things. The best antidote to depression and despair that I know is a favourite old song and the most rejuvenating and life-affirming one that I can think of is the awesome Annie, Let’s Not Wait by Guillemots.

Annie was a track from Guillemots‘ first album, Through the Windowpane, that was later re-recorded and released as a single. The single version has some nice backing vocals but, for me, the album track is the more invigorating pick-me-up. It limbers up with a few electric piano chords as if a sprinter is running on the spot to relieve the tension before a big race. As we watch from the stadium the athletes are called to the start line by what sounds like a giant pigeon coo-cooing “on your marks” over the tannoy.

And then they’re off. Lean muscular legs strain out of the blocks and go scuttling down the track. But we are watching in slow motion and with each thud of a shoe on the pink running surface a string bass thumps a characteristic rising Boom! The piano tinkles rhythmically, drums and percussion synchronise a swaying beat with the athletes’ feet, synthesiser tones warble in and out, and Fyfe Dangerfield’s voice provides a melodious commentary.

The words do not describe the race; they tell, I imagine, of the motivation of the winning athlete. His soul was crying until he met Annie. His friends told him not to rush into another relationship but he was impatient. There was a new life waiting for them on the other side of the river if he could just prove himself as a runner and she had the courage to go with him.

Annie, let’s not wait. Let’s cross the river now.
We could sit for years staring at our fears.

The sound subsides as the competitors go through the half-way point and then picks up again with female backing singers and tinkling guitar adding to the unquenchable exuberance of the keyboards and electronic effects. As the winner crosses the line there is a startling change of rhythm and in that moment of triumph all gloom and despondency is dispelled.

Yes, Annie, you are just awesome!

Archipelago

Archipelago - rocks

In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.

First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.

The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?

If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.

Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.

Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.

archipelago-collage

It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.

The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:

Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.

The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.

Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.

And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?

The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.

I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.

The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.

Archipelago - flight

I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days  of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.

And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.