Finale

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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Cave

panorama

Reed Flute Cave, China

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

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

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

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

the band

Future Islands – Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion, Sam Herring

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

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

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.

I Promise

hands

Radiohead have always had many influences. A band that tips its hat to Pink Floyd, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, krautrock bands and 20th century classical music (among others) is bound to have developed a somewhat idiosyncratic style. And they are always experimenting. That gives their album catalogue something of a patchy feel. It’s not that their style has been changing, it’s more that Radiohead is a chimeric beast with a coat of many colours, like a tortoiseshell cat.

The end result is always interesting and often surprising but sometimes it misses the bullseye of that direct connection to the soul that some more conventional bands seem to be able to hit unerringly time after time. Yes, sometimes they’re a little off-target. And then they give us I Promise.

My Track of the Week is a single taken from Radiohead‘s latest album, OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album OK Computer. The new release contains remastered versions of the tracks on the original album, some B-sides and three previously unreleased tracks: I Promise, Lift and Man of War. The 2017 album was released on digital channels just two days ago.

I Promise is the simplest of songs. A strummed acoustic guitar, a snare drum ticking out a 3-3-2 beat like a tipsy metronome and a sweet male voice singing a delicate tune. A bass guitar adds depth and a light veneer of strings provides the finishing touch. For almost four minutes there is no change of key or rhythm or tempo, just a subtle crescendo and an instrumental break that repeats the verse. And every line of the lyrics ends “I promise”. But so deliciously sweet is the song that those four minutes pass in an instant. There is no time to get bored. This time Radiohead have really hit the bullseye.

I won’t run away no more. I promise.

Even when you lock me out. I promise.

Even when the ship is wrecked. I promise.

Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

If you still haven’t heard this track, listen now. You will find it is absolutely lovely. I promise.

Doctor Who

12 Doctors

The First Doctor has been characterised as a crotchety old man but he was so much more, displaying childish delight, great charm, enormous warmth and a wonderful sense of mischief during his many adventures through time and space.

– A quote from the BBC website

It seems my secret identity has been revealed. Yes, Crotchety Man is The Doctor and he returned to his Earthly home, Cardiff (Caerdydd), last week for a few days. Well, when I say ‘returned’ it’s actually the first time I’ve been to Cardiff but, because time isn’t linear, I was able to see lots of artefacts from my future visits. It’s always nice to see a little of your own future – it’s one of the perks of being a Time Lord.

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Back home in the Tardis it struck me that the best TV programs always have good theme tunes and the time had come to feature the Doctor Who theme on my music blog. But that presented a dilemma. Many versions of the track have been recorded and used in the TV broadcasts – Spotify has at least 5. There’s the original 1963 version, composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire using analogue electronics and tape recorders. Then there are versions from 1967, 1980, 1986 and 1987 just from the album Doctor Who – The 50th Anniversary Collection (Original Television Soundtrack). The Internet also mentions later arrangements by Murray Gold from 2005, 2007 and 2010. Then there have been a number of cover versions, including one by Pink Floyd¹, apparently.

Do I need to say anything about the tune itself? Its first incarnation was, of course, one of the very first successful examples of electronic music. It pulses and whoops like a time machine spinning out of control, cascading through the universe as it heads for an unknown, but inevitably perilous, destination. In the eighties the tune was given a digital synthesiser makeover that to my (admittedly alien) mind sounds mechanical and colourless. Its regenerations in the 21st century introduced orchestral sounds, while keeping the electronic swoosh as the little blue police box rips through time and space.

The primordial life force of the original had returned but I was still unsure whether to select the analogue electronica of the first series or the orchestral grandeur of the post-millennium runs. The solution, when it came to me, was simple.

While swirling absentmindedly across the fabric of space/time the Tardis stalled on a video that stitches together some 16 different versions of the Doctor Who theme dating from 1963 to the present day. I don’t need to choose; you can have them all. Here they are – over 37 minutes of a short composition that originally ran for 2:21, with details of the composer/arranger and dates of the TV episodes that used it. A bit repetitive for the average music lover, perhaps, but a treasure for Whovians across the galaxies.

Notes

  1. I can only find a 33 second YouTube clip to verify that. It’s from a live show; as far as I know Pink Floyd never released it.
  2. There are some photos from the Cardiff trip here.

Men Singing

choir

Back in September 2015 the Crotchety Man blog carried a brief review of the Free Henry Fool EP. At the time I said I would be exploring more of their work “very soon”. Being an honest, upright citizen and a man of my word I did, indeed, do a little research and added their 2001 album, Henry Fool, to my collection soon after. The 16 tracks on that eponymous album didn’t disappoint and I put it down for an Album of the Month slot. Unfortunately, though, the Henry Fool album is not available on Spotify and YouTube was banished from these pages back then¹. Consequently, the Fool was unceremoniously kicked into the long grass bearing the label “requires further research”.

Talking of long grass… There’s a primitive tribe of pygmys living in deepest darkest Africa where the grass grows tall and strong. Anthropologists call them the Fukawi. Sightings of the Fukawi are extremely rare. They shun modern society and hide in the undergrowth when strangers approach. Occasionally, though, a small head has been glimpsed as one of the tribe’s lookouts jumps high in the air to see above the green fronds and tassel heads of the indigenous vegetation. All that is known about them is their tribal name which comes from their piercing cry of “We’re the Fukawi!”².

Like those Fukawi lookouts Henry Fool pops up into view once in a while. I spotted his proud head again recently and it reminded me that a full album review is long overdue. So, here are a few words about the band’s second album, Men Singing, which (as you will have gathered from the active link) is on Spotify.

cover

Artwork from the Men Singing album cover

Let’s start with the track listing, which is:

  1. Everyone in Sweden
  2. Man Singing
  3. My Favourite Zombie Dream
  4. Chic Hippo

That looks awfully short. A mere pygmy of an album. But the first and last tracks are over 13 minutes long and the two 6 minute tracks in the middle take the total time up to just over 40 minutes. Not the most generous of offerings by today’s standards but enough to stop the buyer from feeling short changed.

Everyone in Sweden is a longer version of the first track on the free EP. It rocks along contentedly, harking back to the carefree Canterbury scene of the seventies: early Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North. If you believe the stereotypes everyone in Sweden is supposed to be this laid back except, perhaps, for the odd angst-ridden detective in a thick knitted sweater. It’s a track for chilling out but it rewards more focused listening, too.

Next up is the not-quite-title-track, Man Singing. This is ambient flute and synthesiser music embellished with crisp percussion, solid bass and gritty guitar. We may still be in Sweden but there’s a deeper, more serious side to the detective story now. Perhaps there is more to the plot than we imagined but there are no words to unravel the mystery – in spite of the title, this is another instrumental.

At this point a dark figure comes shambling over the horizon. He shuffles uncertainly towards us under a lowering sky. Brief flashes of light illuminate his face against the distant hills. His eyes and mouth are moving but his features are horrifyingly devoid of life. Our canine companions shrink away and cower in the shadows. Behind him more half-dead bodies lurch along as if towed in his wake. The air is full of eerie sounds. Is this zombie music? It does wander rather aimlessly and seems to have been drained of the melody of life. No, I have to confess, this is not my favourite zombie soundtrack.

When we finally wake from the nightmare we are treated to a violin serenade over a characteristically gentle Henry Fool backing track. It is morning but we are still sleepy and not yet ready to face the day. The violin poses an idle question and it is answered by a saxophone. An organ joins in the conversation and then a guitar. One by one the instruments murmur disconnected thoughts as our mind drifts somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. This close to slumber even the lumbering of a hippo seems chic. And we wish we could stay like this forever.

henry fool

Henry Fool

So that’s Men Singing. Four tracks, ironically none of them with vocals. Ambient, Canterbury scene, progressive rock and jazz blended into a smooth and satisfying package. The zombies may lack a little vitality but overall this is a fine album that fully deserves to be the current Album of the Month.

Notes

  1. It looks as though all the tracks on the Henry Fool album are in the YouTube topic here.
  2. There is some dispute among the experts about the language being used here.

Oh Woman, Oh Man

tryptich

Dan Rothman, Hannah Reid, Dominic Major

Inspiration comes from many places, some familiar, others less so. It lurks in bushes where it can’t be seen and it hides in plain sight among the ordinary, every day objects of our humdrum lives. We may have passed this way many times before but our blinkered eyes missed the beauty of the city park and gazed past the crowd of jostling commuters never seeing the grace in their movements or the kindness in their faces. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, we see it and it brings joy to our hearts.

So it was on Tuesday, 2nd May as the Crotchety Couple sat watching the TV show Later… With Jools Holland. We had watched his live show many times before. It is the very definition of eclectic, featuring bands and solo artists from right across the modern music spectrum. Indeed, its span is so broad that you’d think no viewer could possibly like more than one or two of the songs in any given episode. And yet almost every performance has something to offer: a beautiful voice, perhaps, or stunning instrumental skills. That, of course, is why we and many other music fans watch it.

The set list for that early May broadcast went like this: Blondie (still making good pop/rock songs), Future Islands (distinctive indie pop from Baltimore), Mabel (Londoner singing RnB-tinged pop), Orchestra Baobab (Afro-Cuban band from Senegal), London Grammar (indie pop trio), Binker and Moses (sax and drums jazz duo). As usual every one of those acts was worth listening to but the one that crept out from behind the bushes to surprise us and, ultimately, inspired this post was London Grammar‘s. Here is their live rendition of Big Picture from their new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing which is due for release on 9th June.

London Grammar may be new to Crotchety Man readers. They are Hannah Reid (vocals), Dan Rothman (guitar) and Dominic “Dot” Major (keyboards, drums).

Hannah and Dan met at Nottingham university in 2009; the following year Dot joined them and the band was christened “London Grammar”. After completing their university courses in 2011 the trio moved to London and started playing in local bars. It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of the record companies and by the end of 2012 they were ready to launch their careers as professional musicians. They posted their song Hey Now on YouTube in December 2012, released the EP Metal & Dust in February 2013 and followed it with their first full album, If You Wait, in September that same year. The album reached no. 2 on both the UK and Aussie album charts.

London Grammar‘s music is ethereal, melancholy, beguiling indie pop. Hannah’s voice has been accurately described as ‘brooding’, ’emotive’ and ‘folky’. Or, as one reviewer put it, “as if she honed her craft singing amidst the gardens of Lothlorien”. Dan’s guitar and Dot’s keyboards & drums build a foundation of understated electronic sounds that both complement Hannah’s voice and add subtle decorative features in a way that only modern electronic instruments can. To see what I mean listen to my Track of the Week, Oh Woman, Oh Man, another song from Truth Is A Beautiful Thing.

For those of you in the UK the episode of Jools’ TV programme featuring London Grammar is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service for another 18 days. You might like to root around in it for your own inspiration. And if your good lady steals the remote and switches over to the Eurovision Song Contest I’ll forgive you for an exasperated, “Oh Woman! Oh, Man!”.