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?

Sailor’s Tale

dream

A desert is not just a place; it’s also a time. The summer time in the northern hemisphere is often a desert for music lovers. In the summer not much is released and anything that does see the light of day is mostly old and often bedraggled: covers, remasters, demos, out-takes. But there is a little life in the desert. A cactus blooms here, a lizard suns itself on a rock over there. You have to look hard for it, of course. But it is there.

While wandering in the wilderness last week, hidden among the sparse brown shoots of desiccated emails, something caught my eye. Was that a scorpion scuttling across the parched earth? No, it was a link to a recent performance of Sailor’s Tale from a King Crimson concert held way down south, down Mexico way. Fortunately for the sailor it wasn’t situated out in the arid wastelands where only ships of the desert can sail, it was in the Teatro Metropolitan, Mexico City.

And fortunately for Crotchety Man it turned out to be a rousing rendition, an excellent recording and, best of all, a free download. A 30 second snippet is available from this page on the DGM Live website and the free download can be found by following the Purchase Show link. (I suspect you have to register with DGM Live to get it.)

the band

King Crimson in Mexico City, July 2017

Sailor’s Tale was originally released as a track on the Islands album of 1971. It made an instant impact on me when I first heard it. Tang ti tang ti tang tang tang sang the cymbals, locking into a triple-time beat. Duum duum dum dum dum the bass responded, joining them in lockstep. Then came electronic sounds blurting out a slow melody with a buzzy organ pipe texture. The beat was irresistible, the tune urged us to hum along and the first minute promised something special, perhaps extraordinary, to come.

At around 1:30 the opening theme builds to a climax and a wild saxophone blares out like a half-strangled mother goose screaming at her goslings to stay away from the weir where the currents are strong and they have been forbidden to go. She scolds them for a full minute and, as she does so, we realise that some of that electronic buzz comes from Bob Fripp’s effect-laden guitar.

Once the goslings are safe the Sailor’s Tale settles back into an easy rhythm with the bass providing the sparse tune of deeper water. As we drift along another danger soon becomes apparent. A tone-deaf youth who has never touched a guitar is flailing at its loose strings. The water is getting faster. It rushes over the stones in the river bed. There are rapids ahead. Is this music or just the discordant noise of white water?

Soon we are spinning out of control, hurtling towards the waterfall. At 4:30 we plunge over the edge. We are falling. Falling. A mellotron sings as if to welcome us to heaven and, as we crash into the foaming surf at the bottom, the spotty youth jangles the guitar strings again as if to say, “I warned you”. It is the last thing we hear as the waters close over us and we lose consciousness.

The Sailor’s Tale must have been a tragedy.

Here’s a YouTube video of the track from the 1971 album. It has all the drama of my little story but it doesn’t quite have the sonic punch that modern recording techniques can achieve. If you can listen to the live version from the Mexico concert on 14th July 2017 it will reward your efforts.

Blowin’ Free

smoke ring

Crotchety Man was always small in stature. He came from small stock. Even his surname is thought to have come from the French for ‘low’. (The Norman Conqueror throws a long shadow in these parts.) Small he was, but not stunted – more pigmy than masai, more hobbit than dwarf, everything in proportion. Inside that small frame was a keen intellect and a determination not to be pushed around. There was just enough fire in his belly to avoid being picked on at school; there were softer targets for the bullies and practical jokers.

The little man could stand up for himself but he was socially inept. He was a nice kid who had no idea how to make friends. Did he feel inferior because he was physically small? That might have been part of it but there was a deeper flaw, too. To him people were a mystery. All around him boys and girls would chatter amongst themselves never saying anything important, never saying anything particularly interesting. Why would they do that? It made no sense. And yet, that’s what friends did.

The mystery was still unsolved by the time Crotchety Man, now officially an adult, went to university. For a guy who doesn’t know how to make friends being plunged into a whole new social environment is frightening. And Oxford colleges had their own peculiar slant on life. There was a new social etiquette to become familiar with. They called it ‘tradition’ but it was more a way of differentiating themselves from the less gifted, ordinary townsfolk going about their business in the city in which the college buildings were immersed like currants in a fruit cake. The distinction between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ was very real.

You will not be surprised to hear that the Crotchety student felt very much a cultural outsider for the four years he studied biochemistry at Keble College. When details of the 1972¹ College Ball were announced he was both excited and terrified. Oxford college balls were, and still are, grand affairs. Keble was founded in 1870 and, because college balls were not held every year, there had not yet been one to celebrate the centenary. The coming ball was going to put that right and it would be especially grand.

The little Crotchety man read the details in horror. One night in June the college would be swarming with men in dinner jackets and black ties and women in ball gowns and jewellery, all drinking, joking and having fun right outside my room overlooking the quad. It would be impossible to ignore and hell to sit through. The solution, of course, was for Cinderella to go to the ball. But the tickets were priced far beyond the empty pockets of a lad subsisting on a student grant. Besides, big boisterous occasions like that were well beyond his meagre social skills, those in his small circle of acquaintances declined to go and, worst of all, he had no lady friend to take. How would you feel as a little man on his own in the midst of all that merriment? It was a recipe for complete humiliation.

argus

1972 was the year that Wishbone Ash released their most successful album, Argus, and were at the peak of their career. How the Keble Summer Ball organisers managed to book the Ash to headline the event I will never know, but they did. “Poor little Crotchety will go to the ball”, he thought to himself. But the problems seemed insurmountable and soon all the tickets were sold.

Those few students who had rooms in college but were not going to the ball presented an obvious problem for the authorities. To ensure there were no gatecrashers the students were required to remain in their rooms for the duration of the festivities. It felt like house arrest … with added mental torture in the form of distant loud rock music filtered through walls and doorways so that it boomed unmusically and fought with the dissonant sounds of the baying mob on the lawns below. This must have been how General Noriega felt when U.S. forces bombarded his last refuge with loud music in December 1989. Noriega surrendered after a few weeks; Crotchety Man only had to suffer for one night.

band, recent

Wishbone Ash, circa 2009

In spite of all this Crotchety Man bears no malice towards Wishbone Ash. The band has undergone many changes of personnel since 1972 but they are still going. I dare say the current line-up is effectively a tribute band for the heady days of the early seventies but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I shall probably go and see them when they come to The Flowerpot in Derby this November. In the meantime I shall remember fondly the twin lead guitars, vocal harmonies and fluid bass lines of one of the best rock bands around in my student days.

The Wishbone Ash brand of rock was both melodious and thoughtful, as if blending a little folk and a smidgen of progressive into good old fashioned guitar-based rock. For my Track of the Week I give you Blowin’ Free from the Argus album of 1972. Here’s a live version from, I think, 2009.

Notes

  1. I think it was 1972. It couldn’t have been earlier because I was at Keble from autumn 1971 to summer 1975. It might have been later but that seems unlikely.

Making Plans for Nigel

Picture of Redcar steel works. Looking along the coast from Redcar beach, towards the steelworks and South Gare at mouth of the River Tees.  The steelworks at Redcar has the largest blast furnace in Europe and dominates this stretch of coastline.

Looking along the coast from Redcar beach towards the steelworks at the mouth of the River Tees.

At the end of the seventies Crotchety Man was writing software for the new ironworks being built for British Steel at Redcar on the north east coast of England. The music charts were a strange mix of pop and punk, either anodyne mush or raw, abrasive sounds that grated like a pumice stone rubbed over tender skin. There was almost nothing of any interest to the Man in those pre-crotchety days. Occasionally, though, a ray of light would slice through the dark sound clouds bringing hope for a sonically brighter future. One of those bright flashes was XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel.

XTC were known as a punk band but their music was too melodic and too intelligent to sit comfortably with the snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans at the core of the punk community. When they came to my attention in the early eighties they seemed to be the harbingers of a new style of music, a style that was more mature and less angry than punk but whose final shape was still uncertain. They were an intermediate form in the evolutionary tree, neither ancestral punk nor one of the new wave species that were shortly to replace them. Taking my cue from Wikipedia I’ve tagged them ‘art punk’.

During my second stint on the Redcar site posters appeared around the town advertising an XTC concert at the Coatham Bowl, the only music venue east of the big industrial town of Middlesbrough. From there you could see the gasometers and blast furnace of the ironworks across the curve of a small bay, much as it looks in the photo above. We passed close by the Bowl every day on our daily drive from our digs to the site offices where we worked and frequented the pubs a stone’s throw away in the sleepy seaside town of Redcar. This small, out of the way venue didn’t usually attract big name bands and tickets were always very reasonably priced. As concert halls go it couldn’t have been more convenient or better value for money.

I considered getting a ticket for the XTC concert for several days. I’d only heard a couple of their songs, which I liked, but they were supposed to be a punk band, which wouldn’t have been to my taste. And they might attract those snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Then, one day, I stopped and read one of the posters properly. The concert had been ten days ago!

band

Ever since then I’ve wondered what I missed. Yesterday I finally decided to do something about it. Doing the usual superficial online research threw up some interesting connections, but let’s get the basics out of the way first. The original members of the band were Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals), Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), Terry Chambers (drums) and Barry Andrews (keyboards). Partridge wrote about two thirds of the songs and Moulding provided the rest.

XTC was formed in 1976, signed to Virgin in 1977 and put out two albums (White Music, Go 2) before Barry Andrews left to join Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in 1979¹. Andrews was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory and the band’s material moved from punk-influenced glam rock towards a more traditional rock format. XTC’s third album, Drums and Wires, was recorded in 1979 using the services of Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham, the producer and engineer for Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work². It was this album that spawned the single, Making Plans for Nigel, which reached number 17 on the UK pop chart.

The song grabs your attention immediately with phased drums, a pulsing bass riff and guitar chords that seem to poke a punkish sneer at conventional society. When the vocals come in there is heavy irony in the words.

We’re only making plans for Nigel.
We only want what’s best for him.

That first line says it all. Nigel’s parents have his life mapped out: a steady job, marriage to a nice girl, a house in the suburbs not far from them, two lovely children for their grandparents to dote on. And when anyone asks whether their boy might have other ideas they dismiss the question with “we’re only making plans”. Nigel doesn’t have to take his parents’ advice but, of course, they know best and they would be so upset if he didn’t want their help.

He has a future in British Steel.

If young Nigel says he’s happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy in his work.

The Redcar software project was huge. It must have run for 5 or 6 years; I personally spent a total of three years there in two stints. At its peak there were nearly thirty programmers on site, mostly young, all male and all a long way from home. During that period four of our team married local girls and there were two near misses³. One of my friends left the software company to join British Steel, get married and settle in Middlesbrough.

As it turned out, a career in British Steel wouldn’t have been the well-paid comfortable job that Nigel’s parents had in mind. In the seventies the British Steel Corporation was state owned and running at a loss to provide employment in depressed areas of Britain. In 1988 the corporation was privatised and underwent radical restructuring resulting in the loss of many thousands of jobs. Although the steel industry became much more efficient market forces continued to exert severe pressure on the company and that led to a long series of site closures. The Redcar site was shut down in 2015.

Don’t tell Nigel, but a declining industry is not a happy place to be.

Notes and Miscellanies

  1. That’s interesting connection number 1.
  2. And that’s number 2.
  3. I was myself one of those near misses.
  4. For another anecdote from my Redcar days see this post.
  5. There’s an amusing piece about the name Nigel in this Guardian article.

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Weeping Willow

winter tree

A few days ago the Crotchety ears were tuned to their favourite radio station. The brain between the ears was only half listening when an unfamiliar but rather pleasant song came on. It turned out to be something called Weeping Willow by The Verve. That reminded me that I’d heard a few Verve songs in the past and liked them but I knew nothing about the band and had never explored their work. Vowing to put that right Weeping Willow was entered into the increasingly heavy ledger listing future Track of the Week blog posts.

There were a few surprises for Old Man Crotchety as he delved into The Verve. If you want to follow his journey of discovery he suggests you listen to the track that piqued his interest before reading what he has to say. As there doesn’t seem to be a decent YouTube video of this song as performed by The Verve here’s the Spotify link (again).

Looking up Weeping Willow on Spotify Crotchety Man found himself in an album called Urban Hymns and was startled to find two exceptional songs sitting there cheek by jowl with the target track. Until then if you had asked this old gentleman “who recorded Bitter Sweet Symphony?” he would have been at a loss. It’s such a well-known song that the artist should have been instantaneously brought to mind and yet it’s so unusual that the Crotchety Filing System had classified it as by “some one-hit wonder”. A similar failure of the mental archival process had left The Drugs Don’t Work as “artist unknown”.

“So they were by The Verve“, the Old Man thought, “I’m impressed”. This revelation clearly warranted listening to the whole album. An hour and nine minutes later (can you fit that much on a vinyl record?)¹ Crotchety Man was a little older and marginally wiser. His verdict: Bitter Sweet Symphony and The Drugs Don’t Work are the stand-out tracks; overall rating for the album around 4 out of 5 (good but not that special). Weeping Willow and This Time are certainly worth listening to but that might not be enough to justify a Track of the Week rosette.

Continuing with his research Crotchety Man called up The Verve‘s Wikipedia page. Surprise number two was that the band’s singer and main songwriter was Richard Ashcroft. Richard also features quite often on the radio as a solo artist and scores well on the Crotchety song-o-meter. Like a jigsaw puzzle a picture of The Verve was beginning to fall into place.

the verve press shoot for big life /emi nov 07 tour

 

The wonderful Wikipedia went on to explain that The Verve‘s music has been described as alternative rock, psychedelic rock and (most appropriately, I think) Britpop. The Old Man can certainly hear Oasis and Coldplay in Weeping Willow. And, like those bands, The Verve achieved stardom status. In 1997, according to critic Mike Gee of iZINE, “The Verve … had become the greatest band in the world.”² Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration that threatened to blow the Crotchety mind. Surely they were never that big. Were they? No, Crotchety Man couldn’t have been so out of touch, not even in those days of largely unexciting music.

At this point The Verve had done more than enough to book a place in these pages but should it be Weeping Willow or another of their songs? Bitter Sweet Symphony is too well-known and a little too long. The Drugs Don’t Work is well-known, too, and a headline picture would be a bit grim. This Time doesn’t suggest a picture at all. And there’s no time left to explore their other albums. So, Weeping Willow it had to be.

The best way to understand Weeping Willow is to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s solo performance. Here’s an “audio only” YouTube video:

The solo version is a simple three-chord song with a lilting Coldplay-style melody. It’s a staple of the singer/songwriter genre and, as such, relies heavily on the words to evoke feelings in the listener. Unfortunately, the message in the lyrics isn’t very clear. It could be a love song or a warning about drug addiction. Or a bit of both.

For me the song only really comes to life in the band version with its atmospheric electric guitar, doleful bass, spritely drum beat and multi-tracked vocals. But then it fully deserves its Track of the Week spot.

Footnotes

  1. I doubt it. The vinyl version was released as a double album and is actually longer than the digital version because the vinyl ends with a ‘hidden track’ separated by several minutes of silence making it almost 1 hour and 16 minutes long in total.
  2. The Verve won two Brit Awards in 1998. The Drugs Don’t Work reached number one on the UK singles chart in 1997 and the Urban Hymns album was number one on the UK album chart for 12 weeks, knocking OasisBe Here Now off the top spot.

Zamzama

cannon

Kim’s Gun – outside Lahore Museum

The third track on my Release Radar playlist this week was called Zamzama, which is obviously a made-up word and gives no clue to its musical style. It’s by Avi Avital, Omer Avital, Yonathan Avishai and Itamar Doari, names which suggest foreign influences but which throw no further light on what might be in store for the curious listener. The album title doesn’t help either: Avital Meets Avital seems deliberately designed to mystify rather than inform.

What does it sound like? Surprisingly, I can give a very accurate description. It sounds very much like an instrumental cover of Pink Floyd‘s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun performed by a Jewish popular folk band. There are just four instruments: mandolin, piano, double bass and hand drums. The piano carries the tune and adds some faintly jazzy chords. The bass tumbles along echoing the gentle jazzy feel. The drums inject the rhythm of a joyous dance. And a light smattering of mandolin notes flash like the white hem of a wedding dress as the bride dances with her new husband.

Here’s a live version with some wonderful improvised solos:

Curiosity prompted the Crotchety fingers to search for further information. First stop, the album, which offers various blends of klezmer, jazz and classical styles, including slow ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. One track, Ana Maghrebi, sounded too much like a piece for a bar mitzvah ritual to tingle the Crotchety senses much but everything else has plenty to offer, not least some very impressive musicianship from all the players. Listening to the album convinced me that Zamzama was worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

But there was an obvious problem. This blog puts an appropriate image at the top of every post, a picture that illustrates the subject and helps this old man (and, hopefully, my readers) remember the music and my response to it. How could I choose a picture for a nonsense word? The task seemed impossible, so I decided to pick another track from the Avital Meets Avital album instead. Perhaps I should choose one of the ballads – Lonely Girl or The Source and the Sea would be worthy of a mention – and pictures for those shouldn’t be hard to find. Or should I choose something more representative of the album as a whole? Avi’s Song, Maroc and Hijazain would fit the bill but an appropriate image for those would be just as hard to find.

Avi & Omer

Avi Avital (mandolin) and Omer Avital (double bass)

And then the Crotchety brain cells sparked into life and commanded my flesh and bone digits to consult with the virtually infinite store of electronic digits that is Google. To my complete surprise the cyberspace oracle informed me that Zamzama is not a nonsense word at all. It is, in fact, the name of a very large cannon. Also known as Kim’s Gun, it was cast in 1762 in Lahore and is now on show outside the Lahore Museum. That, of course, made the choice of headline image a no-brainer.

Apparently, Zamzama is also the name of a shopping mall in Karachi and seems to have some connection with a film star famous in at least some parts of the Indian subcontinent (judging by the images Google serves up). More pertinently, though, zamzama is a Persian word meaning “murmur, whisper or pealing thunder”.

So here we have a British blogger listening through a Swedish streaming service to Israeli musicians playing a track with a Persian title used to name a gun made and fired in what was then India but is now Pakistan. Come, let’s murmur its name among our friends, whisper it to strangers and send it like pealing thunder across the rest of the globe. Let’s make it earn the tag of ‘world’ music.

Additional Note

  • There’s a rather lovely video here of Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey playing a Bach piece arranged for mandolin and harp.