Là-Haut

what light?

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

When Crotchety Man was a student studying biochemistry in the early seventies the class turned up for a series of laboratory practicals to be told that we were getting a new supervisor. For the next few weeks, instead of the fully qualified doctor of philosophy we had expected, they had appointed a ‘demonstrator’ who was expected to be awarded her DPhil¹ later that year.

No reason for the switch was given but we were assured that the more junior member of staff was fully up to the job and no objections were raised. It probably helped that she was a pretty, soft-spoken young woman who seemed almost as nervous about running a few practicals as we were about doing them to the required standard. The young Crotchety Man certainly regarded her appointment as a bonus.

Our supervisor was introduced as Liz Press. That’s an unusual surname and it prompted one or two remarks. One of the other undergraduate students had come across Miss Press before and he was able to tell us a little more. Liz, of course, is short for Elizabeth and her middle initial was ‘M’; so our supervisor that term was E. M. Press.

There was some speculation about her parents’ motive for what we assumed was a deliberate choice of initials. Did they really hope she would one day rule an empire? Or did they, perhaps, think that saddling her with a funny name would, like the boy named Sue, help to build a strong character? In the end we concluded that they simply thought it amusing and it couldn’t do any harm.

I was reminded of the lovely Miss Press when I came across this tune from a band called L’Impératrice, which is French for ’empress’. The track is called Là-Haut, which I think means ‘yonder’, but it really doesn’t matter because this is a slowish dance/groove instrumental that gets the hips swaying and the mind carelessly wandering wherever it will go.

Là-Haut is one of those tracks that comes from a foreign country but strays far enough beyond the borders of the artist’s usual material that it infiltrates the Crotchety Kingdom. On the whole there’s too much disco over yonder in the realm of L’Impératrice to appeal this side of the Channel. But I very much like Là-Haut. And I do like that Parisian hat.

Dark Blue Note

  1. Oxford University uses the abbreviation DPhil instead of the more usual PhD for Doctor of Philosophy and it awarded Crotchety Man a Batchelor of Arts degree even though biochemistry is very much a science subject. It’s a peculiar institution.

Burning Shed Free EP

burning shed

Back in March 2017, in my Album of the Month post on Moroccan Roll by Brand X, I opined that the latest incarnation of the band had fully rekindled the energy and enthusiasm of their early albums. As evidence I cited a live version of Malaga Virgen recorded on their reunion tour just a few months previously. Then, towards the end of the year, Brand X released a full album of live material from that tour. It’s called But Wait … There’s More and it was ordered for the Crotchety collection over the Christmas/New Year period.

In the UK the new album is only available from Burning Shed, a company that describes itself as “an online label and store specialising in Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock music”. I had ordered CDs from Burning Shed before but this time their website said that customers who hadn’t bought items since May 2017 would need to re-register. Having re-entered the Crotchety Man details the website kindly offered me a free download EP. Never one to pass up a promising opportunity, as soon as the Brand X album was ordered I hit the free download button.

In no time at all over an hour’s worth of music flowed onto the hard drive. Here’s the track list:

  1. Passing Clouds by Colin Edwin
  2. Surprised by Jane Getter Premonition
  3. The Perfect Wife by Nosound
  4. Bloodchild by Old Fire
  5. Friends Make the Worst Enemies (Public Services Broadcasting remix) by Paul Draper
  6. Heavy Hearts [2016 version] by Rhys Marsh
  7. Aftaglid (Tambura Backing Track Mix) by Steve Hillage
  8. The Confined Escape by The Pineapple Thief
  9. The Warm-Up Man Forever by Tim Bowness
  10. Il Sogno di Devi by Alessandro Monti
  11. Slow (Final mix 1_1.1) by UXB

Most of those artists were unknown to me but the ones I did know were all ones I like. As soon as I had some time to spare the digital bits of the extended EP were sent coursing through the wires from computer disc to headphones. Here’s what I found …

earphone

Colin Edwin is best known as Porcupine Tree‘s bass player but he has also worked in collaboration with several other musicians and has released a couple of solo albums. Prompted by the free download the Crotchety elves were tasked with finding out more. They came back with a basketful of data that I won’t try to summarise here. Suffice it to say that Colin has had his fingers in a variety of pies centred on progressive rock but ranging from ambient to metal.

Passing Clouds, the track featured on the Burning Shed Free EP, sits comfortably within that space, slightly off-centre towards ambient, dominated by a bass riff and electronic effects. It’s more pleasant than exciting, but Crotchety Man isn’t grumbling – it was free after all. That particular tune doesn’t seem to be on YouTube or Spotify but Exit Strategy from Colin’s Third Vessel album will give you a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from.

According to Guitar Player Magazine Jane Getter is “The fieriest fretboarding female ever to strap on a Stratocaster”. In her Spotify biography she is described as a jazz guitarist but Surprised is more of a heavy prog rock/pop tune to the Crotchety ear. The elves report, though, that Ms. Getter’s early releases were definitely jazz albeit with strong leanings towards fusion. The evidence so far suggests the Jane Getter Premonition is just the prog side of Jane’s wider musical persona. And surprisingly enjoyable it is, too.

Things get a lot quieter when Nosound take over although, mercifully, this Italian alternative and post rock band does not take their name literally and leave us in complete silence. The Perfect Wife is taken from their latest album, Scintilla, which is aptly described as a collection of “sonically intimate” songs on the band’s website. It makes a refreshing contrast to the bold brash prog of the previous track.

Twenty minutes into the EP already, next we find the slow, sparse vocals and piano of Bloodchild. This is taken from Songs from the Haunted South by an outfit called Old Fire, an ad hoc collaboration of musicians brought together by U.S. instrumentalist and producer John Mark Lapham. The whole album has an air of melancholy, wistful nostalgia and in Bloodchild the emphasis is firmly on the melancholy. “At least he’s no longer in pain”, moans a sad female voice. Crotchety Man sighs and moves quickly on to the next track, feeling both disappointed and unfulfilled.

Friends Make the Worst Enemies takes us from Old Fire‘s unmitigated sadness to a slightly bitter paranoia. “Never trust your friends …”, warns Paul Draper, “‘Coz your friends can hurt you most”. But the backing track steps lightly and the vocals sail on a fair wind in this alt rock single. Both the original and the remix bring a much needed breath of cool fresh air to the EP. (Links to original and remix are given in the track listing above.)

Sadly, the elvish research team have been unable to find any mention of Heavy Hearts by Rhys Marsh anywhere other than the Burning Shed Free EP. A little background digging, though, suggests that Rhys, as a solo artist at least, is not likely to find a warm place in Crotchety Man’s old and flabby heart.

On his website Rhys is described as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. And that’s about it. There’s very little that might inspire a casual web surfer to investigate his work. The diligent elves, though, did turn up loose connections to King Crimson, Jaga Jazzist and Anekdoten, which is a lot more promising than the wishy-washy song on the free EP. And there’s an interesting album by Rhys Marsh and The Autumn Ghost called Blue Hour. If you’re curious, drop the heavy hearts and start with that.

Next up we have a classic Steve Hillage track from 1975. Steve is best known as the guitarist with the Canterbury scene band, Gong; he has also made a name for himself as a solo artist and as half of the duo System 7Aftaglid is a psychedelic instrumental from his first solo album, Fish Rising. The version on the Burning Shed EP is a remix featuring the tambura, an Indian instrument resembling a fretless lute, which is reputed to add a slightly more mystical feel to the composition. Frankly, though, the effect is too subtle for the Crotchety ears.

The version on the original album is some 14 minutes 44 seconds long, the tambura remix is shorter at 12:42 and the Steve Hillage website has this 3:36 extract, which provides a representative taster of the prog and psychedelic rock Steve was playing in the mid seventies.

After ‘Glid comes a track by one of my favourite bands, The Pineapple Thief. They have appeared in these pages twice before when I reviewed the album Magnolia and offered Fend for Yourself from Your Wilderness as a Track of the Week. The deluxe edition of Your Wilderness comes with a bonus disc containing seven further compositions welded together into one 40 minute track. The bonus disc has its own title, 8 Years Later, and it’s another absolute treat.

The Burning Shed EP contains track 6 from 8 Years Later, the instrumental The Confined Escape. It sounds a lot like some of Pink Floyd’s more meandering, ambient works and it’s the highlight of the EP so far. Unfortunately, that track doesn’t seem to be on my chosen streaming service but the full 8 Years Later album is on YouTube and it’s well worth listening to. (The Confined Escape starts around 22 minutes in.)

It’s no surprise to find a Tim Bowness song on the free EP. He founded the Burning Shed operation along with Peter Chilvers and Pete Morgan in 2001 and still has a central role in running the company. In addition to his solo work Tim is a member of the bands No-man (with Steven Wilson), Henry Fool, Memories of Machines and Slow Electric. He has also collaborated with Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord (of The Pineapple Tree), Judy Dyble (ex Fairport Convention) and many others.

The Warm-Up Man Forever has the characteristic wispy, almost whispering vocals of Tim Bowness over a pulsing drum beat and synthesiser wash. The words sing a sympathetic lament for an artist who will always be second best, but those restless drums speak of an irritable angst that the warm-up man will never quite shake off. Tim may be (metaphorically) blowing his own trumpet here but this song stands up really well in the context of the whole EP.

According to Google Translate, “il sogno di Devi” means “the dream of Devi”. It’s a track from the Unfolk album by Alessandro Monti. The Crotchety research department has discovered only that Alessandro is an artist and self-taught musician from Venice. He seems to use the ‘unfolk’ tag for his music project(s), directly contradicting Wikipedia’s classification.

So, is this folk music or not? The elves are equivocal. Il Sogno di Devi starts fairly quietly with a folkish mix of mandolin and violin but half way through strident electric guitar notes cut in, transforming it into a kind of prog/rock/folk instrumental. It pleases Crotchety man immensely. And the Unfolk album has plenty more of his highly original folk-based material, too. Alessandro Monti is the most exciting discovery to come from the Burning Shed EP.

The final track on the EP is a dance/trance piece by UXB, an outfit led by the other proprietor of Burning Shed, Pete Morgan. It’s not the sort of thing that usually appeals to Crotchety Man’s inner critic but Slow rolls and rumbles along most agreeably. Once again, the elves have failed to come up with any further information beyond the fact that Morgan plays bass and keyboards. The Burning Shed website does, however, have a free download of an excerpt from a remix of one of UXB‘s tracks if anyone wants to explore it.

logo wall

So, what have we got in return for registering with the Burning Shed website? Eleven tracks, only two duds (those by Old Fire and Rhys Marsh) and still over an hour’s worth of music worthy of joining the ever growing Crotchety collection. Plus, an introduction to several interesting artists. A bargain says old Crotchety Man.

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Message In A Bottle

Or, Tales of the River Bank¹.

bottle on beachOne morning in the summer of 1979 Crotchety Young Man was on his way to work. At that time he was based in the Berkshire town of Reading and his route took him over the river Thames at Caversham Bridge. There were rather more people than usual in the streets heading towards the bridge that sunny day, many of them young, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and, seemingly, in high spirits. Where were they going, young Crotchety wondered? Were they students going to college? And why were they so enjoying their march through the wholly unexceptional streets of Reading at this early hour?

I began to wonder if I was witnessing an alien invasion. These creatures looked like humans but they seemed all too perfect. Then I began to notice that, as well as beads and bracelets, some of the invaders were decorated in badges. Actually, by and large, the girls wore the jewellery and the boys wore the badges. But the puzzling thing was that the badges were unappealing dark grey discs with white lettering spelling out ‘The Police’.

Crotchety was confused. Had the British police force updated their uniform? No, that couldn’t be right. Then the sleeping voice of reason woke up and yelled a silent, “Don’t be ridiculous!” in my inner ear. “The kids must be going to the rock festival”, it continued, “and ‘The Police’ must be the name of a band”. It was the only explanation that made any sense. But I’d never heard of that band. A sudden chill descended as I realised that I couldn’t have been more out of touch with current music trends if I had lived for many years on a desert island.

As we approached the bridge the music-loving aliens peeled off to the left heading down Richfield Avenue². Young Crotchety continued on over the bridge to the office, which was on the opposite side of the river, a few hundred yards downstream from the Festival site and just out of earshot of the bands. For the rest of that day ‘The Police’ kept cropping up – in conversation, on the news and on posters – the words mocking a Crotchety Man who, although still in his twenties, was no longer entitled to consider himself young.

the band

After that chastening experience Crotchety Man’s aural antennae became acutely sensitive to any mention of The Police. It turned out that things weren’t quite as bad as I had imagined. The Police had released a single, Roxanne, and the album, Outlandos d’Amour, the previous year but neither had made much of an impact on the charts until Roxanne was re-released in April 1979. It wasn’t until their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, was released a couple of months after that year’s Reading Festival that The Police became a household name.

Two of the singles taken from Reggatta de Blanc soon washed up on the shore of Crotchety’s Desert Island and have been carefully stored in the disc archive. I have chosen one of those, Message In A Bottle, for my Track of the Week³. That link is to the original version on the album. For those who like YouTube and/or live versions here’s Sting and his current band performing the song in 2017.

Notes

  1. Tales of the Riverbank was a British children’s T.V. programme originally broadcast in 1960. The first series used footage of live animals dubbed with human voices.
  2. The Reading Festival has been held at Little John’s Farm, Richfield Avenue since 1971.
  3. The other one is Walking On The Moon.

Whistle Down the Wind

girl + jesus

Hayley Mills and Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind

This week it was announced that Joan Baez is releasing a new album on 2nd March. Whistle Down the Wind will be her first new recording for a decade and its promotion marks the end of more than 50 years of touring for Baez.

The phrase, “whistle down the wind”, evokes a forlorn sense of helplessness as if the sound of your nervous whistling is being carried away on the breeze, betraying your presence to the spirits of the forest, both good and evil. But whistle you must because otherwise your feeble courage will melt away and your fate will be cast to the cold capricious wind.

Whistle Down the Wind was the title of a novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was published in 1959 and made into a film in 1961. The film starred the author’s daughter, Hayley Mills, and the British actor Alan Bates. In the story some children discover a bearded man hiding in their family’s barn. When the man exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”, the youngsters think he is telling them his name and that they are witnessing the Second Coming. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs and the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

Tom Waits later used Whistle Down the Wind as the title for one of the tracks on his 1992 album Bone Machine. It is that song that Joan Baez has chosen as the title track of her forthcoming album. It is a simple folk song in a waltz time featuring folk guitars and a backing track with accordion, bass and drums. On this song Joan’s voice is sweet and satisfying but it has lost some of the characteristic lustre of her earlier work. As if to make up for that missing sparkle the Baez version of Whistle Down the Wind adds short strains of theremin notes, taking us into a mysterious world where gods and goblins determine our future, unswayed by any wishes of our own.

joan baez

The other important event in Crotchety Man’s week was the Third Age Orchestra’s Christmas/New Year ‘fuddle’, a social gathering in which we played a few songs before delving into a buffet to which we all contributed. In the rehearsal room everyone drifted around like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, balancing paper plates and chatting amongst ourselves, until our leader called for our attention. “Pull a cracker”, she said, “and keep what you find inside”.

Bang, crack, snap went the party crackers. And soon we were all holding plastic whistles marked with a number between 1 and 8. Lining us up in whistle number order our maestro then called out numbers: 3, 2, 1, pause, 3, 2 … As each number was called the musician(s) with that number on their whistle blew hard and the air was filled with a laughable rendition of Three Blind Mice or Good King Wenceslas. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than you think to puff into a plastic tube in time with the conductor when you don’t know which tune has been chosen. Especially when you’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts! And, as most of us found out, it’s harder still to conduct such a performance. You may as well try and catch the whistling wind.

Raven

Aurora 1 - Hi Res.jpg

The rain clouds have blown over and the rainbows have faded away. Neil Ardley’s bright kaleidoscopic colours have dissipated leaving only black, white and 50/50 shades of grey. These are the colours of penguin suits and polar landscapes but for this Track of the Week we are in temperate regions much closer to Crotchety Man’s green and pleasant homeland. Today we are going to focus on the black feathers of a Manchester Raven.

Although the colours have gone and the ad hoc collection of musicians has been replaced by a piano-led trio the overall feel of the music on all of GoGo Penguin‘s albums is quite similar to Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. It’s a kind of jazz that sits outside the primary sub-genres of mainstream, trad and bebop. Chamber jazz is the best description I can find. It has more in common with modern classical music than the blues or the shock and awe of experimental and free jazz. In short, it is some of the most listenable jazz you could ever hope to hear.

Raven is a track from GoGo Penguin‘s fourth album, A Humdrum Star, which is due to be released on 9th February. While googling for headline images I came across this link to a YouTube video of the track, but it’s not available here. I suspect it’s just a placeholder for when the album is released but the video may not exist at all so I’m embedding a Spotify player link instead.

GoGo Penguin is new to Crotchety Man; the three-headed beast waddled over the cyberspace horizon here just two weeks ago. They are Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums). The band is based in Manchester, a UK city with two famous football clubs and a thriving modern music scene, but there is also a French connection. They are signed to Blue Note Records (France) and that publishing company seems to provide the official GoGo Penguin website. That, presumably, explains why the legal notices on the home page of this British band are in French.

GGP have released three albums to date: Fanfares (2012), V2.0 (2014) and Man Made Object (2016). All three are excellent. (V2.0 was one of four Mercury Prize albums of the year in 2014.) There is little to choose between the compositions on those albums but the maturity and confidence of the performances has improved steadily with each release. If A Humdrum Star continues this progression it will be a very fine album indeed.

GoGo Penguin start a world tour in February taking in the UK, mainland Europe, Japan and the U.S. Of the four UK dates two are already sold out but you can still catch them in Brighton on 7th February or at the Roundhouse, London the day after.

the band

GoGo Penguin – Nick Blacka, Rob Turner, Chris Illingworth

Raven is the first single to be released from the forthcoming album and it provides as good an introduction to GGP‘s music as any. The rhythm section scuds along like fluffy white clouds blown on the wind while the piano swoops and soars with the irrepressible joie de vivre of a bird on the wing in the early Spring. If, like me, you found 2017 endlessly depressing, Raven is the perfect way to dispel the black clouds and get the new year off to a flying start.

Come, fly with me and the Raven.

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.

dots

The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.

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Now We Are Three

sophisticated boy

– – – – – – – –

A prisoner breaks out of jail. He runs down the street shouting “I’m free! I’m free!”. A small boy is unimpressed. “So what?” he calls, “I’m four”.

– – – – – – – –

The Crotchety Man blog is (very nearly) three years old now and, like the boy in the photo, I like to think it has developed a charming veneer of sophistication. Underneath, of course, there is still an immature personality, nicely exemplified here by a three-year-old’s sense of humour.

In 2017 this blog has taken second fiddle to the guitar. The gnarled fingers of old Crotchety Man have been contorted into strange shapes, stretched over the fretboard and pressed onto hard metal strings for up to an hour at a time most days in a partially successful attempt to create pleasing sounds. I have also spent many long hours playing with a musical score editor called MuseScore, creating and editing scores for the local U3A orchestra.

Those times have been ‘borrowed’ from the research budget for Band/Artist of the Year blog posts, which have been notable these last twelve months for their complete absence. I know I should be managing my time more effectively but there are so many other distractions these days.

The Track of the Week and Album of the Month counts were also slightly below target in 2017 but the blame for that rests squarely with a (probably viral) infection that struck poor old Crotchety Man shortly before Christmas. It didn’t help that the central heating boiler chose that very moment to give up the ghost. The maintenance company made us wait a week before fixing the boiler and two days later, like a crotchety 3-year old, it threw another tantrum leaving us with cold radiators over the two days of Christmas itself. For too long it seemed that bad luck and trouble were my only friend.

On a more positive note the site’s follower count has risen to 56, although some of those were fleeting visitors and others were disguised attempts to sell pills and other medications.

Some highlights of 2017 were given in the recent New Year Honours post and the annual summary tables can be found here as a PDF document (with all the links).

Finally, let me wish all my readers a Happy New Year. May your vinyl, CD and digital music collections grow fat, may your hi-fi systems continue to faithfully reproduce those recorded sounds and may your ears be sharp, free of wax and undamaged by live bands who turn the volume knobs way too high.

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