Wild Fire

jungle

What would you get if Lou Reed was to take a walk on the wild side with Joni Mitchell? Well, I’ll tell you. You’d get something that sounds a lot like Wild Fire, a track from Laura Marling’s sixth album Semper Femina, which is due to be released on 10th March.

Laura Marling has appeared in these pages once before. Soothing, another track from Semper Femina, was a Track of the Week back in December. That earlier post highlighted the unusual instrumentation on Soothing, which I described as a duet between acoustic and electric bass. Wild Fire is unusual, too, but for different reasons. It has the languid pace of Walk On The Wild Side and borrows a little of Lou Reed’s drawl in the vocals. The instruments are relatively conventional: guitars with a heavy tremolo effect and electric piano. And, while the bass lines in Soothing add a dash of jazz, the electronic effects on Wild Fire provide a pinch of rock. But, in spite of that, the later track falls squarely in the folk circle on the Venn diagram of musical styles.

To illustrate the folk roots here’s a live version with Laura on (unprocessed) acoustic guitar embellished only by a few licks from Chris Thile on the mandolin.

Wild Fire ambles along while the singer muses on some of the people in her life.

Your mama’s kinda sad; your papa’s kinda mean.
. . .
She keeps a pen behind her ear because she’s got something she really really needs to say.
. . .
Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?

There’s no overall message, no call to arms, just a few tart observations. The guitar chords delight the ears the way a lemon meringue pie delights the tongue – crisp and deliciously sweet but with a fresh sharp edge – and Laura’s vocals slice into it in big spoonfuls, savouring every mouthful. To the Crotchety ears there has never been a song more like Lou Reed’s wild side and no vocal more like Joni Mitchell on a big, lemon yellow taxi ride. And that all adds up to a song good enough to break the ‘variety’ rule on this blog. This is the first time Crotchety Man has published two Track of the Week articles by the same artist.

Three of Laura Marling’s previous five albums have been nominated for the Mercury Prize and Semper Femina is shaping up to rival them. Don’t let that pie go stale, listen to Wild Fire while it’s fresh out of the oven. If the other tracks are as good as this one the album will fly off the shelves like fluffy meringue on lemon custard and shortcrust pastry. Mmmm…

Sasse

title

A band called Antiloops appeared on the Crotchety Radar recently. I liked what I heard and added Luna from their 2014 Electroshock album to my list of tracks to feature in these pages. Then, two days ago, I played Luna again to refresh my memory of the music and to think what I might say about it. But I found it intensely irritating.

Puzzled and disappointed, I swung the radar dish around and probed the Electroshock album again. The first three tracks gave good strong blips so I replaced Luna with No Question About It and, reassured, went about my non-Crotchety business. Until yesterday, that is, when I listened to No Question About It once more and found … it, too, offended the ears.

Fearing for my sanity I set the radar for a wider sweep in the general direction of Antiloops. It picked up several bright spots a short distance from the Electroshock cluster, the brightest being Sasse, a track from their Lucid Dream album released on 3rd February this year. That one hasn’t faded away, at least not yet. (The curious among you, and I hope that’s everyone, should follow the link to Sasse on Spotify now and read the rest of this post as it plays.)

band members

Antiloops is a French band led by the jazz flautist, Ludivine Issambourg. That’s her in the picture here and looking sassy in the photo at the top. This ensemble, though, has done something I’ve never heard before – they have fused jazz with hip hop. The result is Quite Interesting (as Sandi Toksvig might say on the BBC TV programme, QI). Sometimes it works pretty well and sometimes it just grates on Crotchety Man’s increasingly sensitive ears. It even depends on Crotchety Man’s mood, which changes from day to day. That, presumably, is why I found it so hard to pick a Track of the Week this time.

Antiloops has a website that gives a potted history of the band and describes the music they play. Unfortunately, it’s in French – a language I haven’t studied since my school days – so I turned to Google Translate for some assistance. The resulting translation is quite fun to read; here’s an extract:

Viscerally organic, the group chose Lucid Dream to explore the voices of the machines, absorb them and make them a new driving force. Creation of hybrid crosses between classical instruments and digital emulators, Nicolas Derand, Timothée Robert, Maxime Zampieri and Julien Sérié have rethought their way of sounding, keyboards, bass and drums to begin to reason like samplers, sampling their own riffs and beats To knead them, to triturate them, and to replay them in a loop on themselves. Agitated and illuminated by the scratchings of Dj Topic, colored by the realization and mix of Mr Gib. 

Infused in the compositions through plugs, cables and connections, the machines switched their switches in the groove position, letting the creative energy circulate, injecting deeply this electro fluid that would permanently jam the tracks between them and the men, Without denying the influences acid jazz, new jazz, trip hop and hip hop. 

. . .

Mistress of hostilities, the flute of Ludivine Issambourg has also infiltrated the heart of the circuit boards, winding between processors, dressed in effects and distortions until sometimes forget its natural sound. But still knowing how to extract sound cards and software to come out to twirl in freedom, in and above these grooves become mixed areas where analog and digital have merged their DNA. 

If the reference to the scratchings of Dj Topic leaves you scratching your head in bewilderment this YouTube video, recorded in 2015, contains sections of several of Antiloops tracks and provides a good overview of the band’s material. It doesn’t include Sasse, though – that was written later (I assume).

According to several dictionaries the French word ‘sasse’ means ‘sieve’. Knowing that, though, didn’t improve Crotchety Man’s appreciation of Sasse one iota. It starts unpromisingly with a deep house bass beat and gibbering vocals but it soon settles down to a comfortable groove and at around 24 seconds the flute comes in with a refreshing tune. It then ambles along contentedly for another three and a half minutes, the deep bass keeping it grounded while keyboards and electronics fill out the sound, a drum kit injects jazzy beats and the flute puffs out a balmy breeze that gently ruffles our hair. This is cool modern jazz with a subtle hip hop influence and the overall effect is really rather pleasant.

The Lucid Dream album ends with two more cooled-to-ambient jazz tracks, neither of them having discernible hip hop ancestry: Castor and Titan. If you really don’t like hip hop and you can’t get past the first 30 seconds of Sasse, try those instead. The remaining tracks on Lucid Dream borrow a lot more from the hip hop scene; they are not really Crotchety Man’s cup of tea but, if you like that sort of thing, by all means give them a whirl. The whole band are highly accomplished musicians and their individual skills are something to savour whether you like the style of music or not. (I don’t count the DJ as a ‘musician’.)

All of the Antiloops tracks I’ve mentioned here are listed in this YouTube playlist but none of them seem to be available here in the UK. So, Crotchety Man recommends listening on Spotify instead. Here’s the Sasse link again.

What do you think? Sassy or not?

Little Fictions

album artwork

There has been a lot of talk recently about “fake news” and its equally alarming cousin, “alternative facts”. Some say those alternative facts are nothing to worry about; they are just white lies, little fictions that reveal a deeper truth.

Pictures of the crowd at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration may have shown fewer people than at Barack Obama’s but the new president is (obviously) more popular than his predecessor. News stories that suggest otherwise must be politically motivated and, clearly, constitute an attempt to stand in the way of the yellow mop-top’s urgently needed program of reforms that will make America great again. And that’s sad.

the quartet

I don’t know if Elbow were thinking of those sorts of alternative facts when they chose to call their latest album Little Fictions. The lyrics of the title track suggest otherwise because they are about the prickly words exchanged across the kitchen table between the “pair of boozy bowerbirds” that live together in what we must assume is an ordinary suburban house somewhere in the North West of England.

We protect our little fictions like it’s all we are

Arguments, it seems to say, can only burn while we deceive ourselves.

It’s you who’s being intransigent, not me. But while I cling to that violet falsehood my every utterance is a muffled battle cry that ricochets back to condemn me, to flay me until all I can do is hold on tight, waiting for the original miracle – the blood red miracle of life, the rose red miracle of love – to heal the wounds and soothe away the pain.

There is an aching truth in those verses, but there is salvation, too.

Little Fictions, the album, was released on the 3rd February 2017 and one week later it stood at number 1 on the UK album chart. It opens with Magnificent (She Says), a wonderfully uplifting song destined to become an Elbow classic and the first single to be taken from the album. This one song tells you all you need to know about the whole album. Even after Richard Jupp’s departure last year Elbow remain at the peak of their astonishing creativity.

In Magnificent we have Guy Garvey’s evocative lyrics showing us how a piece of sea-worn glass can be a sapphire in a small girl’s eye and how immensely important that sense of wonder and excitement is to every one of us. The instruments dance with that little girl on the sand as she throws her arms wide to embrace the shore, the sea, the sky and the whole wide world. Yes, this song is magnificent in every way.

firebrand angel

The lyrics of Firebrand and Angel are more difficult to interpret. It seems to be one of Guy’s love poems in which he tells of the “terror sublime” that comes from being in love with an unpredictable, headstrong woman – both firebrand and angel. More than that I can not say. Musically, though, this is another one of those songs with Elbow‘s inventive mix of rhythm and instrumentation – clapping, percussion and a stroll over the lower register of the piano lead on to the vocals and a mellifluent electric guitar before an ending with soothing backing vocals. It all adds up to a tone poem to rival anything the pop/rock world has to offer.

I’ve mentioned three of the ten tracks on Little Fictions so far. All I’m going to say about the others is that every one of them effortlessly reaches the exceptional standards of Elbow‘s other recent recordings. Individually they are a joy, collected on the album they are a treasure chest of pleasures. And, for once, the record-buying public agrees with old Crotchety Man. I hope that’s because they know the difference between alternative facts (which are bad) and Little Fictions (which is very, very good).

Little Fictions (Full Album) on YouTube

Laiks

calendar clock

Here’s a song for all my Latvian readers. Laiks is a track from the Tavs Stāsts album by the Latvian pop-rock band Sound Poets. Judging by the pictures on the band’s Facebook page Sound Poets are huge in Latvia and are building a following elsewhere in Europe, too. Reliable information is hard to come by because almost everything about them is written in their native language and I’m afraid I don’t know a word of Latvian. As far as I can tell, though, they have released four albums and several singles. Their latest single, Joprojām, was released just last week.

Google Translate tells me that ‘laiks’ means ‘time’ although it has also been translated as ‘weather’, ‘duration’, ‘season’ and several other words. The track is a slowish ballad with male voice harmonies over mellow guitars, a wandering bass and a soupçon of lush strings. In the early ’60s it might have been a chart hit, appealing to seasoned fans of Nana Mouskouri or Julio Iglesias almost as much as the younger, hipper generation that was getting excited about Elvis Presley.

But Laiks is the slowest and most melodious of the tracks on the album and judging Sound Poets by this one song paints a misleading portrait of the band. It would be more accurate to think of them as the Latvian ABBA, a pop group with enormously wide appeal. Even that is a poor caricature of the band, imprisoning them in a time long past and tarring them with connotations of fluff and mediocrity that they do not deserve. Perhaps the nearest modern equivalent would be Elbow, a band whose songs have strong melodies and are always thoughtfully constructed.

Laiks is not a track to accompany your early morning run or to prance and whirl to on the dance floor. In these days of pop songs with heavy beats and rapping vocals it wouldn’t trouble the charts. Unsurprisingly, it has not been released as a single. The album track can, of course, be streamed from Spotify (link given above) and, I assume, other streaming services. It is also available on Youtube but only as the fifth video in the Mix for the whole of the Tavs Stāsts album.

There’s an English translation of the lyrics here. I find the words quite poetic and they fit the sombre mood of the music rather well although it’s hard to know how much the sense of helplessness comes from the original text rather than the (possibly imperfect) translation.

Time is like an incomplete story which is eternally misunderstood

That first line carries echoes of the album title: Tavs Stāsts means Your Story and I guess ‘time’ is just one incomplete part of it. So, if you’re in a contemplative mood, take some time to listen to the aptly named Sound Poets as they muse on past, present and future. I think you’ll like it.

on stage

Oh, and if anyone is wondering how many Crotchety Man readers are located in Latvia, it’s that famously fat round number, zero. Come on Latvia, there’s a blog site here that welcomes readers from all over the world. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today!

The Fool On The Hill

painting

“We’re going away for a few days”, said Mrs Crotchety, “for your birthday”. The look of anticipation on my face prompted her to continue. “I’m not telling you where we’re going, just that we’ll be going on the train”, she said, enigmatically. So, for several weeks, I wondered where we would go and what we might do when we got there. As we were only going to be away for three days I could safely eliminate the trans-Siberian railway and the Canadian Rockies. The Orient Express was unlikely, too. EuroTunnel to Paris, perhaps? More likely, somewhere within the UK, but where? For the time being it was to remain the travel agent’s favourite ruse, the mystery tour.

A few days before departure I was told we were going to Liverpool, a city I had never visited before. Liverpool, of course, is famous as the place where the Fab Four grew up, formed the Beatles and began to make a name for themselves. It was where John, Paul, George and Ringo went to school, where they performed at The Cavern Club and where Brian Epstein gave them their first steps on the road to stardom. Mrs. Crotchety had booked us on the Magical Mystery Tour bus whose guide would tell us about those early days and show us all those places.

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It was an overcast day with a chilly wind but the tour guide was friendly and every bit as bright and cheerful as his bus. We drove past some of the landmarks: Ringo’s old house is down there on the right, George lived here, this is Penny Lane (you can still see the barber’s shop, the building where the banker worked, the shelter behind the roundabout where a pretty nurse was selling poppies). We stopped a few times for photographs: Strawberry Field (where trespassing was “nothing to get hung about”), the house where John lived after his mother was killed in a traffic accident, the McCartney family home (now owned by the National Trust). And all the time we were on the bus the guide gave us a potted history of the Beatles between the years 1940, when John was born, through to 1963 when they left Liverpool to find commercial success in London.

As the bus toured around the streets of Liverpool the guide’s commentary was interspersed with unforgettable Beatles songs. There’s nothing like a bit of unashamed nostalgia to take you back to the swinging sixties – those days of social change, sexual liberation and unfettered optimism – and Crotchety Man allowed himself to wallow in it. By the time the tour ended at The Cavern Club he was a well-softened sucker for the souvenir trade, play dough in the hands of the trinket pedlars.

The Crotchety Couple descended into the dark cellar of The Cavern Club, ordered a beer and a fruit juice and listened to a guitarist singing Beatles songs. I took a few photos before buying a harmonica and climbing the steps back up to the real world of brightly lit shops and the present time. It may be 2017 but my new harmonica will always remind me of the time the Beatles were growing up and honing their craft. Perhaps I’ll even learn to play it one day.

cover

To mark a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon I’ve chosen a track from the Magical Mystery Tour EP/album, The Fool On The Hill. Although The Fool was recorded in 1967, several years after the Beatles left Liverpool, I can’t think of a more appropriate song for my Track of the Week. It has the characteristic appeal of a good Beatles song and the flutes provide a hint of magic in the arrangement (Mozart would be pleased, I’m sure). The link in the text is to the original version on Spotify (remastered in 2009). The YouTube clip below is a live version by Annie Lennox with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart, providing guitar accompaniment. Annie does a great job on the vocals but I miss the pied piper flutes on the original.