Tea Time

mint tea

There are some funny names out there. In my Release Radar playlist this week there was a single called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 11.46.22 by a band called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.41.48. I did listen to it and it’s OK but not up to Crotchety blogging standard. (For the incurably curious it’s on Spotify here.)

Curiosity then seized the helm of the mental ship and took me on a quest for a translation of those names or some snippet of information about the track or the band. But the mission foundered. I haven’t even been able to identify the script. It resembles the cursive writings from the Indian subcontinent (the electronic oracle suggests Tamil) but some of those symbols look suspiciously like glyphs that only electronic brains would recognise. And it’s not Tamil – I checked.

Fearing that mistress Curiosity was taking us to the sea of Shameless Publicity Stunt I wrested the wheel from her and set a course back to our home port. I could see we had ventured far into strange waters and the long voyage had made many of the crew weary. Then, just a few nautical miles homeward, another place to delight the flighty fancy of Miss Curiosity showed up on the radar screen. A thin band of land the inhabitants called FORQ and a sheltered bay named Thrēq offered the prospect of rest, recuperation and fresh supplies.

I remembered that another crew had encountered the natives of FORQ on an earlier expedition and by all accounts they were a friendly people. As we dropped the anchor in the calm water of the bay the late afternoon sun warmed our backs and as we lowered the dinghies to go ashore we could see about a dozen natives moving leisurely to and fro along the beach.

When we pulled the boats onto the sand the FORQers greeted us with warm smiles and beckoned us to join them. “Come”, said the chief, “It’s Tea Time and we have enough scones, jam, cream and delicious China tea for everyone”. “Of course, if you prefer Indian tea”, said the native girl coyly smoothing her pretty white waitress’s apron, “we have that, too”.

As we chatted over our tea and scones Big Chief Boiling Water told me that the country they ruled had allowed its name to be used by a four-piece band from New York City. The band was formed by Henry Hey (keyboards) and Michael League (bass guitar), subsequently adding Chris McQueen (guitars) and Jason “JT” Thomas (drums). All four have played with some fairly big names in the past: Hey with David Bowie, League and McQueen with Snarky Puppy and JT with D’Angelo. That’s an unlikely mix of influences resulting in one of those fuzzy, hard-to-define areas in the patchwork quilt of musical styles somewhere to the east of jazz fusion but not that far from soul and R&B. FORQ themselves describe their music as jazz/groove.

Our waitress turned out to be the chief’s eldest daughter, Sweet Sugar Lump, and she informed us that FORQ‘s latest album takes its title from the bay where the ship’s crew were enjoying the hospitality provided by the local inhabitants. One of the tracks on that album even celebrates the traditional pastime of taking afternoon tea under the shade of the beach umbrellas. It’s a relaxing holiday groove that brings to mind the genteel gatherings in nineteenth century English country gardens when polite conversation rarely strayed beyond the topics of the weather, the roses or the antics of Mrs. Slocum’s pussycat. It was a time of tranquility and innocence, when an unintended double entendre might be erased with a hasty, “More tea, vicar?”.

Sitting there in the glow of the sun a cup of Jasmine tea had the invigorating effect of an exotic cocktail. Or perhaps it was the musical accompaniment that soothed the brow and restored our vigour. Or was there something in the water? Whatever it was the ship’s crew slept soundly on the soft sand that night.

the band

FORQ – June 2015

In the morning the beach was deserted. The tables and chairs, the umbrellas and all the paraphernalia of the previous day’s tea party were gone. There was not so much as a footprint in the sand to show that yesterday’s festivities had been more than mere illusion. But real it must have been. Because everything we had of value had also vanished. Our plundering hosts had even taken our boats. No wonder that accursed tribe are called the FORQers.

Footnotes

  1. FORQ‘s third album, Thrēq, was released on 4th August 2017.
  2. The band has just finished a tour of North America. A European tour is scheduled to start in the autumn; the only confirmed date so far is Dublin, 17th October 2017.

Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, the original tambourine man

When he was about seven Little Boy Crotchety had a part in the school play. Sitting cross-legged on the floor he used an enormous silver cardboard needle to stitch some invisible cloth, while the narrator introduced him as the tailor. I don’t remember what the plot was or even why it required a tailor. I might have had a couple of lines, then again I might not. It certainly wasn’t a taxing part and I wasn’t the least bit nervous in that scene. The butterflies in the tummy had come earlier when, along with one of the girls, I had to open the play with a tambourine flourish. Yes, folks, on that occasion I was the very embodiment of Bob Dylan’s tambourine man.

Not that I’d heard of Bob Dylan then, no-one had in 1959. And, anyway, like most radio listeners I fell in love with The Byrds‘ version in 1965 long before I knew who wrote the song and many years before I heard it sung by Dylan himself.

Roger McGuinn’s jangly guitar arpeggios announce Mr. Tambourine Man like a solo glockenspiel in an approaching marching band. “They’re coming, Ma, I can hear them!”, cries an excited voice from behind us in the waiting crowd. And, sure enough, here they come. Three guitarists, one with a twelve-string, all of them singing, then a bass player striding along and a drummer keeping time at the back. “Hey, mister tambourine man”, they plead, “play a song for me”.

This is strange. Why would they call for the runt of the instrument litter? A tambourine doesn’t ring like a guitar string or bellow like an organ. It doesn’t croon like a clarinet or trill like a flute. It can’t blare like a trumpet and harmonies are out of the question. Surely a tambourine is not a proper instrument, it’s just a device to get bored and tone-deaf students involved in a music lesson. Isn’t it? Or is the tambourine man such a brilliant musician that he can make his humble wooden hoop with its goatskin membrane and bright brass jingly zils sing with the wind and crash with the thunder?

The Byrds don’t explain, they just keep singing, their harmonious voices asking for another encore from their idol entertainer.

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship.
All my senses have been stripped
And my hands can’t feel to grip
And my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.

They must have been up all night. Their biological batteries are completely drained. They no longer have the energy to stumble forward but the Duracell Bunny is still going strong, hitting and shaking that tambourine as if he has an inexhaustible source of power.

the byrds

The Byrds‘ version of Mr. Tambourine Man was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It is regarded as the song that got the folk-rock genre started and it has been covered many times. Notable covers include those by: the late Glen Campbell (guitar instrumental), William Shatner (in one of his silly moods), Martin Simpson (a superb example of the folk guitarist’s art), Stevie Wonder, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Crowded House.

But to my mind the best of the rest is this pure folk one by Judy Collins. Her clear voice gives full expression to the words, the 12-string acoustic guitar harks back to the jingle-jangle of Roger McGuinn’s electric Rickenbacker and a double bass adds depth and warmth. (OK, the YouTube poster can’t spell ‘tambourine’ but let’s not get picky.)

Are any of the covers better than the Dylan original? Popular opinion puts The Byrds‘ version above that of the songwriter’s but in the end it’s all a matter of taste. In the sixties a one verse, 2 minute 29 second single got airplay, a five and a half minute album track did not. Nowadays we’d rather hear all four verses. Then again the electric guitars and the Bach-inspired arpeggios gave that first cover a new and exciting sound. It’s a close call, but the Crotchety vote goes with the majority on this one.

My final word on the tambourine man goes to a YouTube video with over 12 million views. At first glance it’s a 2013 recording of Mr. Tambourine Man by Dylan himself and it’s very good. Irritatingly, though, it’s another cover credited to Helio Sequence, “an American indie rock duo from Oregon”, but that information is hidden away in the fine print. Still, it sounds very much like the single Bob Dylan might have produced back in 1965. And 12 million hits ain’t bad!

Footnote

Bruce Langhorne, pictured at the top of this post, was a folk and session guitarist as well as a tambourine player. It is his electric guitar that we hear on Bob Dylan’s recording of Tambourine Man from the album Bringing It All Back Home. He died in April 2017.

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Finale

A new album by Pentangle was released last year. Given that the band had split up shortly after I saw them in Oxford back in 1973¹ and, more pertinently, that two of them have died, it couldn’t be a new recording. But it’s not just another compilation, either. The original line-up reformed in 2008 and did a 12-date UK tour that year. Finale: An Evening with Pentangle,  released on 7th October 2016, is a two-CD album² of recordings from the 2008 tour. Why it took so long to get it onto the shelves of the brick-and-mortar shops and into the catalogues of the online retailers is a mystery that my Google Fu has been unable to solve.

The latest album has several things going for it. For a start it’s a relatively recent recording that captures the sound of a live performance extremely well. Just listening to the deep, round, plummy tones of Danny Thompson’s double bass (he calls it ‘Victoria’) is enough to bring a joyful tear to the eye. The guitars of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn ring out as if all the paraphernalia of the recording process has dissolved. There are no pickups, microphones, mixers, equalisers, recorders or speakers between the instruments and our ears, nothing to distort or subtract from the musicians’ art. OK, so Terry Cox’s drums sound a little muffled and Jacqui McShee’s voice is a little indistinct at times but as live recordings go this is a good one, a really good one.

Then there’s the performance, fresh and vibrant as the day the band was born. If you’ve never heard Pentangle live, take this album for a spin. It has songs that will caress and delight you. It has folk tales that will enchant you, too, transporting you to another place, another time; and it will welcome you and your friends to the telling.

Finale has nearly all the fans’ favourite Pentangle songs on it: Light Flight, Hunting Song, House Carpenter, Cruel Sister, Bruton Town and more. In the past I recommended Light Flight – The Anthology as the one essential Pentangle album but with Finale it has a rival. The Anthology compilation has my own all-time favourite song, The Trees They Do Grow High, but Finale has the better sound and the immediacy of a live show. Sadly, neither include the heart-warming story of Willy of Winsbury (from Solomon’s Seal) but no album is perfect.

There are no bad Pentangle albums (as far as I know) but Anthology and Finale provide a magnificent summary of the band’s work. So, ignore my previous advice. Both albums are, I think, essential for any Pentangle fan. Get them both and when you fancy a little folk with a light frosting of jazz pick one or the other according to your mood.

Notes

  1. I had nothing to do with the band’s demise, I assure you!
  2. Finale was also released as a 3-disc vinyl LP in 2017.

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Cave

panorama

Reed Flute Cave, China

Here’s a Track of the Week by Future Islands, a band whose music I’ve been meaning to explore for a while. It’s called Cave and it comes from their latest album, The Far Field, which was released in April.

The official YouTube clip for Cave shows a nearly monochrome video of a bearded, jacketed man signing the lyrics for deaf people, which for those of us who can’t read sign language is neither thrilling nor informative. And the sound is strangely distant, too. So, instead, I’m giving you this video of a live performance on the BBC TV show Later … with Jools Holland broadcast in May.

Future Islands is a curious band. The three permanent members met at art college and in 2003, together with Adam Beeby (a “local record shop personality”) and fellow art student Kymia Nawabi, formed a band called Art Lord and the Self Portraits. As far as I can tell that band was only intended to be a vehicle for a piece of performance art, a temporary connivance for a college project. Sam Herring, as vocalist and front man, took on the persona of an arrogant, narcissistic artist called Locke Ernst-Frost, while Gerrit Welmers provided Kraftwerk-style keyboards and William Cashion played bass. Nawabi left after a few months to complete her studies, Beeby departed in 2005 and at that point the band was unceremoniously dissolved.

But there were still some loose ends to tie up. Art Lord had agreed to tour with an alt-country band, The Texas Governor, so Herring, Welmers and Cashion got back together to fulfil that commitment. By this time the novelty aspect of the college band was wearing thin so the trio decided to cultivate a more serious image and, to reflect that, they also changed the band’s name, settling on Future Islands as a mash-up of two other names on their shortlist: Already Islands and Future Shoes. That was in 2006.

the band

Future Islands – Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion, Sam Herring

Since then Future Islands have toured extensively and produced five studio albums. Their songs are usually labelled as synthpop but the guys dislike that term – they prefer to be called post-wave, emphasising their post-punk and new wave influences. I like that – it describes their material very well. The songs roll along, Herring’s distinctive, almost growling voice making them instantly recognisable. And, as you can see in the video, the performance element of the band’s work is still there in the theatrical antics of the man with the mic.

Although all their songs are very welcome in my ear, I do have one criticism: they all sound much the same. Originally, the track on my shortlist for this week’s post was Shadows, also from the Far Field album. That one features Debbie Harry, which is just about the only distinguishing feature among all the Future Island songs I’ve heard. But, listening again before writing this post, it struck me as perhaps the weakest track on the album. So, in the end I chose the title that suggested a nice photo for the header. That cave in China is quite spectacular, isn’t it? And how could I resist a picture with the caption “Reed Flute Cave”?

Pain Killer (Summer Rain)

umbrella

It’s been a typical British summer this year. Anchored in the Atlantic Ocean just off the western edge of mainland Europe these islands get weather that is politely called ‘changeable’. In Ireland they have a saying: if you can see the hills, rain is coming; if not … it’s raining already.

A little farther east, in England, we tend to be plagued with showers. No matter how bright and sunny it is when you wake up in the morning by the time you’ve got dressed, had breakfast and stepped outside your front door the clouds are gathering. And if you are fool enough to pack a picnic and drive out into the countryside you can be sure the heavens will open just as you take the first bite of Mama’s delicious home-baked pork pie. Nothing dampens the spirits quite like eating soggy pastry and limp lettuce in the back seat of the car while peering through rain-spattered, steamed up windows, believe me.

Of course, to experience the full horror of the British weather you need to go camping. Just booking for a three-day music festival puts cloudy skies in the calendar and packing the tent guarantees a downpour on day one. The Glastonbury festival is renowned for muddy fields, but the show does (usually) go on¹. The recent Y Not festival, however, was curtailed for safety reasons because of what the organisers termed “exceptionally bad weather” – as if heavy rain is unusual in that part of the country².

While Crotchety Man waits for the increasingly rare warm, dry summer day he is reminded that Turin Brakes found the answer to inclement weather back in 2003.

Take the pain killer, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind.

Quite how they thought getting on a bike would let you outrun the storm clouds I’m not sure but at least a large dose of analgesic pills would counteract the ache in the legs as you struggle up those endless English hills.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain) was a single from Turin Brakes‘ 2003 album Ether Song. The single reached number 5 on the UK chart and the album was certified gold four days after its release.

band

Turin Brakes – Olly, Gale, Rob, Eddie

Turin Brakes was founded in 1999 by two guitarists whose names have quintessential English connotations. Oliver (Olly) Knights’ name takes us into the world of Arthur King of Camelot, Merlin the wizard, and a band of noble swordsmen pledged to fight for the king³. His partner in song has Iranian/Armenian ancestry, which accounts for the very un-English surname of Paridjanian, but his first name is perfect for a music festival in the green and pleasant lands of England: it is (hang on to your hats) Gale.

These days Turin Brakes has four members: in addition to Olly and Gale there’s Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). They play a kind of folk/rock/indie blend that falls easy on the ear. It’s not the most exciting of sounds but it’s pleasant enough to engage casual listeners right across the popular music spectrum. Try it. Take the pain killer they offer and enjoy the summer. And, remember, you can go dri-cycling even in the rain.

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Notes

  1. As far as I know Glastonbury has never been cancelled because of rain. It does have fallow years, though, when no festival is organised.
  2. It isn’t.
  3. What’s the collective noun for a group of knights? A round? A table? A Keira?