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.

SaveSaveSaveSave

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave

Love Rat

lovable rat

I first heard Sally Barker some time around 1990 when she was touring in support of her second album, This Rhythm Is Mine. Guest musicians on that album included Mary MacMaster¹ and Patsy Seddon, harpists from Scotland, who subsequently joined Sally and accordionist Karen Tweed to form the all-woman folk band The Poozies. If my memory serves me correctly the concert I attended at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester, UK was billed as Sally Barker but all four of The Poozies were on stage.

I particularly remember that evening for a story told by Karen Tweed. The band had arranged to rehearse at Sally’s house out in the Leicestershire countryside, a place that Karen had never visited before. When she arrived Karen found a rambling house at the end of a long drive and surrounded by a large garden with lots of trees and bushes. She knew from the directions she had been given that this was the right place but, at first, it seemed deserted. Karen had to ring three times before anyone came to the door.

When the door opened a stranger stood there with an expression on her face that seemed to say “whoever you are, don’t bother me now”. Karen hesitantly explained who she was and why she was there and the woman at the door ushered her inside saying curtly, “Go and wait in the kitchen, we’re a bit busy right now”. Karen followed the pointing finger down the corridor and as she did so she noticed a flustered figure scurrying through the house. Some furtive words were exchanged in the next room but all Karen could make out was “we may have to call the police”.

Karen found the kitchen and waited. From time to time far off voices could be heard from the garden. They were calling out to each other and sounded worried. They were looking for something, something important or precious. No-one came to the kitchen. Karen could sense that some emergency had happened and might take some time to resolve. In the meantime she thought it best to stay out of the way and decided to make herself a cup of tea.

As Karen started to search for mugs and tea she thought she heard a scratching noise from one of the floor-level cupboards. The building was probably an old farmhouse and she imagined the kitchen might be home to mice or even rats. Nervously, Karen opened the cupboard and a little girl’s face peered up at her. “Hello”, said Karen, “what are you doing in there?”. But the girl said nothing. Karen explained that she plays the accordion and she had come for a rehearsal. “Shhsh”, whispered the girl, “they’ll hear us”.

Puzzled, Karen asked the little girl why she was whispering and if she knew what was going on – what were they looking for out in the garden? “Shhsh”, said the little girl again, “They’re looking for me!”.

Sally

It was an enjoyable concert. Sally Barker writes unusually original songs and she has a warm, distinctive, soulful voice. The other musicians were faultless – I was particularly impressed with Karen Tweed’s accordion playing. So, yes, readers, I bought the CD. Although I didn’t know it at the time guests on This Rhythm Is Mine include some of the most respected musicians on the folk circuit: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Danny Thompson to name but three. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

From 1995 to 2006 Sally Barker put the music business on hold while she had two children and then cared for her husband who became ill with cancer and died in 2003. In 2007 Sally rejoined The Poozies and in 2013 she relaunched her solo career. The following year she became a contestant on the BBC talent show, The Voice, in which she finished in joint second place. As a result, according to her website, “Sally’s album ‘Another Train’ featured in the official indie charts and ‘ebayers’ were asking in excess of £100 for 2nd hand Barker LPs and CDs!”. That’s quite a comeback.

Sally Barker’s latest album, Ghost Girl, was released earlier this year but it’s not on Spotify² so I’ve chosen her Love Rat EP from 2015 as my Album of the Month. Here’s a live version of the title track. Listen to the words.

Did a chill run up your spine at the one minute mark? No? Then perhaps you’d prefer the studio version with drums, bass, organ and slide guitar supporting Sally’s vocals. (The link above is to the full band recording on Spotify.)

In addition to the title track the EP contains three original songs (Jealous Bones, Kissing a Stranger, Heart & the Shell) and two covers (Walk On By, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood). The covers are done in typical Sally Barker style; either you like them or you don’t. For me, nobody beats the original Dionne Warwick version of Walk On By, but Sally Barker’s take is pretty good, too. I do like Heart & the Shell, though. It’s one of those songs that has all the wrong characteristics for my taste: a folksy waltz, country-tinged slide guitar, not much of a tune. And yet, Sally Barker’s voice burrows under the skin and the poetry of the words sinks deep.

On the whole Sally Barker is an acquired taste. She’s no rocker and her mix of folk with a little bit of country and a soupçon of jazz will never appeal to everyone. She has a really good voice, though, and I’ll leave you with another live video that I think illustrates her talent. Anyone who can do justice to a song made famous by Sandy Denny must have something to blog about.

Notes

  1. Mary MacMaster was also mentioned in my earlier blog about the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra, a very different sort of music.
  2. There is a video of the title track on YouTube performed live as a solo piece but I don’t know if that’s representative of the album.