Corner Painter

in a corner

Q: What’s small, female, Australian and brilliant?

A: Tal Wilkenfeld.

No, it’s not a joke. It’s what I asked Mrs. Crotchety the other day after reading a blog post by CirdecSongs. The article was a personal appreciation of Jeff Beck and it just happened to mention Beck’s bass player on his Live At Ronnie Scott’s album. In Cedric’s words:

The tiny Australian bassist had jaws scraping the floor as she played with style and soul well beyond her years.

As a diminutive ex-bass player myself I’m well aware that small hands are a handicap you really don’t need for that instrument. Being small, young, female and still good enough to draw that sort of remark is, well, remarkable. Hell, touring with Jeff Beck would be the apex of most musicians’ careers and in 2007, aged 20, Tal was just starting out on hers. Crotchety Man instantly developed an itch he just had to scratch.

Who is this woman with a strange name? How did she come to be in Jeff Beck’s band? What else has she done? Tell me Wikipedia, please.

Tal

The cyberspace oracle does provide a few details about Tal Wilkenfeld’s life and career to date. I won’t try to summarise them here. What strikes you most is that Tal was playing bass with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Prince, The Who (as support act), Chick Corea and, of course, Jeff Beck at a relatively tender age. Her Wikipedia page lists collaborations with another couple of dozen big name artists, too. That’s a C.V. to be mighty proud of.

And that’s not all. In 2007, when she was still virtually unknown, Ms. Wilkenfeld formed her own band, recorded some of her own compositions and released the album, Transformation. The tunes on that record fall squarely into the jazz fusion category and Tal’s bass playing sounds a lot like Jeff Berlin on some of Bill Bruford’s albums. (That’s a Crotchety Man 5-star recommendation, by the way.)

More recently, Wilkenfeld has ventured into song writing. On what Wikipedia describes as her ‘upcoming’ second album she sings her own songs as well as playing guitar and bass. But that seems to be old news. Corner Painter, the album’s title track, was released as a single over a year ago, on 3rd March 2016. Tomorrow a live version of Corner Painter is due to be released on the Tal Wilkenfeld YouTube channel. But I can find no evidence that the album will be out any time soon.

I did, however, find this YouTube video that fits the description for tomorrow’s video release perfectly. Is it the same one? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

After the exciting sounds of Wilkenfeld’s bass playing I find this latest single rather less convincing. It’s a perfectly good song, Tal’s voice is pleasant enough and there’s nothing wrong with the performance. It just doesn’t rise far enough above the bar set by myriads of singer/songwriters out there to get the pulse racing. Tal Wilkenfeld is no competition for Taylor Swift. Then again, Taylor Swift doesn’t play bass guitars like Tal Wilkenfeld.

Postscript, 17 October 2017

The video that was released yesterday is different. It’s from her set opening for The Who and it’s rather good.

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Feathers

feathers

As promised in the previous post, here is my review of Feathers, the 2014 album by Poppy Ackroyd. It will be brief, not because the music is dull but because no dictionary in Crotchety Man’s extensive library has adequate words for the soothing, susurrating sounds that emanate from the hi-fi when it is commanded to play this album.

poppyPoppy Ackroyd is a classically trained pianist and violinist. She is also a composer and a permanent member of Hidden Orchestra. In her solo work she uses piano and violin instruments almost exclusively. But the piano might be her own Blüthner grand, a modern electronic piano or borrowed museum keyboard instruments – harmonium, clavichord, harpsichord and spinet can all be heard on Feathers. Her violin is a twenty-first century electric model whose body looks like the skeletal remains of an ancient sea-creature and whose sound would please the ear of Antonio Stradivari himself. Further sonic variety is provided by guest cellist Su-a Lee and percussive sounds obtained when Poppy tapped the frames of her instruments.

Feathers, though, is not an album of contrasting styles. It is 40 minutes of relaxing, ambient music. All eight tracks would be a perfect accompaniment to an idle browse through an incense and trinkets shop. I can just hear the assistant asking, “Scented candle, sir?”, or “Javan bead necklace, madam?”. (All the wood products are from  ‘sustainable’ sources, of course.) Poppy Ackroyd is completely at home with electronic gadgets but she uses them to add subtle tonal variations to the sound of her traditional instruments rather than to create outlandish effects. “Feathers Unplugged”, if it should ever be made, wouldn’t be very different from the album we can hear today.

piano

If piano and violin duets are not your thing you might want to skip the rest of this post. If ambient music, no matter how elegantly constructed, only sends you to sleep perhaps you should save Feathers for a restless night. But, if you like the occasional bit of Mogwai and you have a quiet evening ahead of you, put on the headphones and give this album a spin. It will while away the time most pleasantly, I assure you.

In the meantime, here’s a live performance of the title track and Rain from the Feathers album. Are you sitting comfortably? Then press Play and imagine yourself on Brighton’s stoney beach where seagull feathers huddle against the breakwaters and a light rain makes the streetlights shimmer and twinkle. The shore is deserted and the sound of the sea murmurs in a spiral shell that you hold against your ear. It is a time to savour the peace that comes from solitude.

Bolek i Lolek

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Nearly a year ago now Crotchety Man got very excited about a band/project called Hidden Orchestra. Regular readers will remember my review of the album Archipelago in which I introduced the term “orchestral beats” to describe the music of Joe Acheson and his collaborators. Since then there has been one other post in these pages tagged “orchestral beats” (Cantorum by Penguin Café) and the next Album of the Month will be on Feathers, a solo album with a similar feel by another member of Hidden Orchestra, the violinist and pianist, Poppy Ackroyd.

But, first, I want to bring your attention to the orchestral beat music from Clarinet Factory. Please don’t be put off when I tell you that Clarinet Factory is a clarinet quartet from the Czech Republic. All four players are classically trained and they draw on a wide range of influences from Bach through to jazz and other forms of modern music. They adapt and interpret other composers’ work; they also write their own pieces. And sometimes they add voice, percussion and electronics. (Now you’re taking notice, aren’t you?)

Where Hidden Orchestra‘s sound relies heavily on electronic instruments Clarinet Factory create very modern music almost entirely from traditional instruments. Just listen to what they can do with four clarinets and a few recorded natural sounds in this YouTube clip of a track from their latest album, Meadows, released in March of this year.

If you were paying attention you will have noticed a direct connection between Hidden Orchestra and Clarinet Factory – Joe Acheson is credited on the video. My guess is that Joe provided the recordings of the trains and the bees that he mentions on Facebook and he may well have had a hand in producing the record.

Judging by their concert schedule Clarinet Factory are reasonably well-known in the Czech Republic. They have also performed in a number of other European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel) and even in China and Japan. As far as I know, though, they have never visited the U.S. Perhaps that’s just as well because I have a feeling they may find it hard to find an audience over there.

on stage

Clarinet Factory – WOMEX 2015

Crotchety Man’s knowledge of the Czech language is non-existent so I don’t know what Bolek i Lolek means. Google translate tells me that the equivalent English is something like “Bolek i Lolek”, which I interpret as a polite way of saying that my request indicates a level of intelligence slightly below that of a snail. So what picture, I wondered, should head up this post? Well, that troublesome track title sounds like a double act to me: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That sort of thing.

So that, if you were wondering, explains the little slide show at the top of this post.

Raise High …

roof beam

I have a hard time finding a genre for Black Peaches, a band formed in 2014 by Rob Smoughton, the drummer with Hot Chip and Scritti Politti. On the band’s Facebook page they describe their music as Southern Boogie, Country-Soul, Disco-Rock and Jazz. That’s a combination the Crotchety Mind just can’t grok. To make things worse for the overheating grey cell circuits, in Black Peaches Smoughton doesn’t take the drummer’s seat at the back, he plays the role of guitarist and frontman.

On this occasion Wikipedia has been unable to supply the Medicinal Compound of moderately reliable information that the brain craves. There are no pages for Black Peaches, Rob Smoughton or Smoughton’s disco drummer alter ego, Grosvenor. Poor old Crotchety Man floundered around in cyberspace for a mind-numbingly long time until a  voice from a galaxy far, far away whispered in his ear, “use the source, Luke”.

She wasn’t speaking to me, of course, and I probably mis-heard the words but suddenly my course was clear. If Google can’t find it it’s not out there. I should stop hunting for verbal descriptions and go back to the primary source, the music. So, without further ado, here is the last track on their 2016 album, Get Down You Dirty Rascals. It’s called Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters¹. I’ll leave you to choose a genre.

“Raise high the roof beam, carpenters” is a quote from a fragment of verse by the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, and was used as the title of a J. D. Salinger novella. Whether the song was inspired by Sappho’s poetry or Salinger’s prose is unclear. Both the poet and the novelist write about a bridegroom, in Sappho’s account one who is “taller far than a tall man”. Presumably that is why the roof beams must be raised so high. But the song tells of a woman accused of witchcraft, bringing to mind the notorious Salem witch trials in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. I don’t remember a tall bridegroom in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the witch trials, but the songwriter may have had another connection in mind.

The Crucible was allegorical. It was intended as a warning about rampant McCarthyism in 1950s America. Perhaps the Black Peaches song is a comment on the modern world, too. The people of Salem were rent asunder by trumped up charges of devil worship and witchcraft. Is today’s world being torn apart by false accusations and religious fundamentalism? Do we believe the media are peddling “fake news” and the U.S. has been treated unfairly by the rest of the world or are these Trumped-up charges? Is this what Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters is trying to say?

the band

Black Peaches

Endnote

  1. YouTube carries a video of Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, but it’s blocked in the UK. Here’s the link if you want to try it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jza_ufKRJbQ&index=5&list=PL3bIl3kHP7C2EOXmBAxkfmtvMy0Nt_iag.

A Lady of a Certain Age

judy dench

Judy Dench, ageing gracefully

We are in classic Track of the Week territory today. A Lady of a Certain Age is a song by The Divine Comedy, a band that wouldn’t normally qualify for inclusion in these pages. But this track manages to avoid the flimsy fluff of the Comedy‘s pure pop songs and gives us what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “quietly devastating” comment on womanhood, class and growing old.

Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon

Musically, A Lady of a Certain Age, has a simple charm. It is a song for a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, embellished with gently pulsing accordion and urgent, rippling strings. But the brightest jewels this lady wears are in Neil Hannon’s sharp-edged lyrics.

Scaling the dizzy heights of high society,
Armed only with a cheque book and a family tree.

The story has only just begun but already we can see it will end in tragedy. Behind the lady’s back Peter Sarstedt is asking Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and Bob Dylan is composing Like A Rolling Stone.

You chased the sun around the Côte d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscure
And left you on your own and in the shade,
An English lady of a certain age.

That chorus leaves us with a feeling of sad inevitability but little sympathy for a woman who made the most of her beauty and wealth while she could, never thinking about what the future might bring. But the loss of her youthful looks was only the start of her misfortune.

Your husband’s heart gave out one Christmas Day,
He left the villa to his mistress in Marseilles

Life can be cruel, sometimes. To the ageing lady this must have felt as though her diamond necklace had tightened around her throat, the sparkling ice turning to sharp saw blade tips tearing at her skin and ripping her last vestiges of dignity to shreds. We can but pity her now.

Background Notes

  1. Outside music circles “The Divine Comedy” refers to a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri written between 1308 and 1320. It tells the story of Dante’s journey up through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, and is regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature.
  2. The band, The Divine Comedy, was formed in 1989 as a three-piece: Neil Hannon, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. A fourth member, John Allen, joined in 1991 but the band split in 1993. Hannon revived the name later that year using a fluid mix of permanent band members, collaborators and session musicians. In effect, The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon’s musical persona.
  3. Hannon writes the songs, sings and plays guitar, bass and keyboards. I read somewhere that, on one of his albums, he played all the instruments apart from the drums and the orchestral instruments. Unfortunately, I can’t find the reference now. 😦
  4. Hannon composed the theme tunes for the TV programmes Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He also sang on the soundtrack for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and on a Doctor Who CD.
  5. A Lady of a Certain Age is from The Divine Comedy‘s ninth studio album, Victory for the Comic Muse. The title is a quote from the book, A Room With A View, but it harks back to the band’s first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse.
  6. Victory for the Comic Muse was unusual in that it was recorded in just 2 weeks, using a minimum of overdubs. Hannon had a cold for some of this time, which perhaps accounts for him sounding uncannily like John Grant on A Lady of a Certain Age. (And all the better for it, I think.)

Living, Breathing

babe in arms

The winner of the Mercury Music Prize for 2017 was announced in a live BBC TV broadcast on Thursday evening. At Crotchety Mansions the TV was tuned in and the Crotchety Couple watched with a mixture of hope and trepidation. The shortlist was promising, with a high proportion of deserving acts, but last year the judges took the insane decision to award the prize to a wholly unmusical assault on the senses by a rapper called Skepta. Would they disappoint us again? Or would we enjoy the live performances and respect the opinion of the judging panel?

To give you some perspective, here are the shortlisted artists and their albums:

  • Alt J, Relaxer
  • Blossoms, Blossoms
  • Dinosaur, Together, As One
  • Ed Sheeran, Divide
  • Glass Animals, How to be a Human Being
  • J Hus, Common Sense
  • Kate Tempest, Let Them Eat Chaos
  • Loyle Carner, Yesterday’s Gone
  • Sampha, Process
  • Stormzy, Gang Signs and Prayer
  • The Big Moon, Love in the 4th Dimension
  • The XX, I See You

Everyone on the planet knows who Ed Sheeran is. I don’t need to say anything about him other than that Crotchety Man regards him as a genuinely great artist and his Divide album had to be a contender for the title of Best UK Album of 2017. Alt J and Kate Tempest have both featured in these pages before; I have a soft spot for both artists and was very happy to see them in the running. Tracks by Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX come up on the BBC 6 Music radio station from time to time and have earned a place in the Crotchety heart. If any of those artists’ albums should win that would be OK with me.

At the other end of the spectrum, Stormzy was already sitting dejectedly in the rejected pile of rubbish rap and J Hus, a name I’ve never heard of before, had been tentatively assigned the same fate based on a description on the Mercury Prize website. That left Dinosaur, Loyle Carner, Sampha and The Big Moon as unknown quantities. So we watched their live performances with particular interest.

dinosaur

Dinosaur – Corrie Dick, Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Conor Chaplin

As I’ve said before, the nice thing about the Mercury Prize is that it has a habit of throwing up artists paddling their canoes a little way away from the mainstream but coming up fast. In this case, though, The Big Moon‘s performance of Cupid was disappointingly ordinary and we dismissed them as just another unexceptional all-girl guitar band.

Loyle Carner gave us a song called Isle of Arran. It was sung by a nice gospel choir but spoiled by his tuneless rapping and we reluctantly consigned him to the ‘mediocre’ bin. Sat at an upright piano, looking like Stevie Wonder (without the glasses), Sampha sang (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. That’s a good title and his piano playing showed a glimmer of promise but, in the end, neither the song nor the performance warranted more than a ‘not bad’ rating.

Dinosaur, though, did hold our attention. They are a modern jazz quartet led by Laura Jurd (trumpet, synthesiser, composition) with contributions from Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Corrie Dick (drums and percussion). They played Living, Breathing from their one and only album, Together, As One. The clip here is the official video; their live session for the Mercury Prize is also available on YouTube.

It was immediately obvious that these musicians could play. Whether you like their material, though, may well be a different matter. I chose Living, Breathing as a Track of the Week because I think it is the most accessible of their works. It is bright, bold, complex modern jazz and most people just won’t ‘get’ it. Sitting there in our living room Crotchety Man confidently predicted that Dinosaur would not be on the winner’s podium at the end of the programme. But they do have the mark of a Mercury Prize nominee: their canoe is well off the mainstream and they deserve greater recognition, especially outside jazz circles.

All in all the Crotchety Couple enjoyed the Mercury Prize award show. Unlike last year I didn’t spout invective when they announced Sampha‘s Process as the winner. The likes of Ed Sheeran, Alt J and Kate Tempest would have been better choices, but they don’t need the cash or the publicity. I would have put Blossoms, Glass Animals and The XX above Sampha, but at least the rappers lost out. Sampha wasn’t the best choice but I can live with the disappointment this year. Introducing me to a living, breathing Dinosaur is all the compensation I need.

Strange Angels

Crotchety Man has been on holiday – one week in Devon with the missus and a tottery old man I call Dad. The weekly blog for 3rd September was written in advance, the draft was called up on the phone as we sat in the holiday cottage watching the rain stream down the windows and the Publish button was clicked there. It must have worked because something on Hotel California appeared in these pages that very day.

Returning home, the usual schedule was resumed for a San Francisco Drive last Sunday. And then, as I welcomed the start of a new working week on Monday, my thoughts turned to the Album of the Month for September. It’s good to know there are people out there tapping frantically on computer keyboards, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting things from one side of the globe to the other, thus keeping the economy going so that I can spend my state-provided pension being frivolous and enjoying myself.

But, I digress. The self-appointed Crotchety Boss wanted an Album of the Month blog on his desk by close of business Thursday. What was I going to write? That stifling black cloud of blogger’s block descended ominously for a moment and then, suddenly, it evaporated. I had already decided on the album; I had made a note of it before going away. Sure enough, my list of candidate albums had an entry for this month, but reading it just filled me with dismay. “Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels”, it said. And a thoroughly confused inner voice replied, “Huh?, Who? What?”.

portrait

Laurie Anderson

The Crotchety mind felt as though it had fallen into a swollen, swirling river but, after a few seconds of intense effort, it found an overhead branch and grabbed it with both hands. Before going away I had been reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper entitled “50 amazing albums you’ve probably never heard“; the album on my list must have been one of those. Sure enough, album number 19 in that newspaper article was Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson.

So I had the album but I still had no idea who Laurie Anderson is/was or what Strange Angels sounds like. I had pulled myself out of the River of Confusion but I was not yet out of the Woods of Ignorance.

Sitting on the river bank the ignoramus made a plan: step 1, listen again to the music, for it must have had some remarkable quality to be on the list; step 2, search for Laurie Anderson online and see what comes up; step 3, write down a few pertinent facts and try to describe what it is that makes Strange Angels worthy of the Crotchety Readers’ time. It was a good plan. Following it my Mind and I would force a path through the Woods to the scrubland of Superficial Knowledge and there the travellers would erect a marker, a post that will show others the way.

album cover

So I listened. At first there seemed to be nothing at all remarkable about the music. The album opens with the title track, which is a fairly ordinary pop song – pleasant enough but certainly not something that warrants The Telegraph‘s ‘amazing’ tag. Then again, there’s an unusual selection of instruments – you don’t hear castanets very often in pop songs – and there’s an intriguing quality to Laurie Anderson’s voice that makes you wonder what the rest of the album has in store.

Track 2 is anything but ordinary. Called Monkey’s Paw it sounds as though it has been excised from Paul Simon’s Graceland and given a growling, half-spoken commentary warning that no good will come from our attempts to bend Mother Nature to our will.

Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw.

The instruments swing like a monkey in the trees; the words carry a profound and disturbing message. There is a depth to this album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

As each song passes you become aware of ever more variety. Sometimes the singer’s voice swoops and trills, sometimes it grumbles. One song has Andean pipes, another features a harmonium; there are bongos, horns, drum machines and synthesisers. And the songs grow on you. By track 6, the funky Beautiful Red Dress, Crotchety Man’s ignorance was flowing away faster than the River of Confusion. There really is something precious glinting just beyond the thinning Wood.

As I listened I kept hearing echoes of other musicians: Liz Fraser’s passionate voice, the ominous atmosphere of a Nick Cave composition, words from a Sally Barker song. It struck me that Strange Angels is a collage of musical fragments, fragments assembled so artfully that they create a wholly different work in which the individual pieces lose their identity. It is, I think, as much a tribute to the session musicians and producers as it is to the songwriting and the headline artist.

The album ends with the hypnotic Hiawatha which ambles through the Old West, accompanied by Native Americans and the occasional howling wolf, for nearly seven minutes. It is a timeless, wandering piece that fades into the sunset much too soon leaving this old timer hankering for more. Here it is on YouTube where an early fade reduces it to 5:24:

The enlightened Crotchety Mind had left behind the Woods of Ignorance and it was time to take step 2, an expedition into the scrub of Superficial Knowledge.

Upon opening Laurie Anderson’s Wikipedia page it is immediately obvious that she is a complex and interesting character. She is described there as “an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects”. The key word, here, is ‘artist’. Strange Angels is a work of art; that it is delivered through the medium of music is incidental. And music is only one string to Anderson’s bow¹. She has also worked as an illustrator, art critic, film maker and performance artist.

Our increasingly confident explorer made two surprising discoveries on this particular expedition. The first was that Laurie Anderson had a number two hit in the UK charts in 1981. Was the Crotchety Mind asleep that year? Or had it just forgotten the name of a one-hit wonder? Listening to O Superman, the track in question, quickly eliminated the latter possibility. It is one of the most distinctive, surprising and unforgettable songs ever to have graced the charts. Borrowing words from Le Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet, it is over eight minutes of multi-tracked, half-spoken, heavily processed chanting and electronic organ, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler’s idiosyncratic warblings. Here’s the official video:

The popularity of that single is inexplicable. I have seen reports that it was used as the introductory music for a program on Capital Radio and that many listeners contacted the radio station to ask what it was. I have also heard that John Peel promoted it on his radio show. That may all be true but the support of a local radio station and an off-piste show on national radio isn’t enough to explain its success to my satisfaction. Still, it provides a welcome stimulation for the ears and the intellect and it brought Laurie Anderson to the attention of those of us well outside the orbit of performance art.

The second surprise my exploring Mind discovered was that Laurie Anderson hooked up with Lou Reed in 1992 and they were married from 2008 until his death in 2013. Now that makes sense. Those two strong, creative characters would either clash violently or build an unbreakable bond. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, when the interviewer asked what it was like to be a widow, Anderson replied that she thought of Lou Reed as more of a partner than a husband (although he was that, too) and that he is always with her.

We paused then as we contemplated step 3 of the plan. Slowly we began to gather stones from the River of Confusion, building a cairn to mark the path. A fallen tree was dragged from the Woods of Ignorance and from it we fashioned a sturdy post, painted with arrows pointing to Laurie Anderson and her Strange Angels. And we have now committed these words to the blogosphere, providing another pointer to a road less travelled and music heard unjustifiably rarely.

Note

  1. Laurie Anderson was, initially, trained in violin and sculpture. She invented the tape-bow violin in which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair of a violin bow and sound is produced as the bow is drawn across a tape head in the bridge.