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.

Tea Time

mint tea

There are some funny names out there. In my Release Radar playlist this week there was a single called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 11.46.22 by a band called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.41.48. I did listen to it and it’s OK but not up to Crotchety blogging standard. (For the incurably curious it’s on Spotify here.)

Curiosity then seized the helm of the mental ship and took me on a quest for a translation of those names or some snippet of information about the track or the band. But the mission foundered. I haven’t even been able to identify the script. It resembles the cursive writings from the Indian subcontinent (the electronic oracle suggests Tamil) but some of those symbols look suspiciously like glyphs that only electronic brains would recognise. And it’s not Tamil – I checked.

Fearing that mistress Curiosity was taking us to the sea of Shameless Publicity Stunt I wrested the wheel from her and set a course back to our home port. I could see we had ventured far into strange waters and the long voyage had made many of the crew weary. Then, just a few nautical miles homeward, another place to delight the flighty fancy of Miss Curiosity showed up on the radar screen. A thin band of land the inhabitants called FORQ and a sheltered bay named Thrēq offered the prospect of rest, recuperation and fresh supplies.

I remembered that another crew had encountered the natives of FORQ on an earlier expedition and by all accounts they were a friendly people. As we dropped the anchor in the calm water of the bay the late afternoon sun warmed our backs and as we lowered the dinghies to go ashore we could see about a dozen natives moving leisurely to and fro along the beach.

When we pulled the boats onto the sand the FORQers greeted us with warm smiles and beckoned us to join them. “Come”, said the chief, “It’s Tea Time and we have enough scones, jam, cream and delicious China tea for everyone”. “Of course, if you prefer Indian tea”, said the native girl coyly smoothing her pretty white waitress’s apron, “we have that, too”.

As we chatted over our tea and scones Big Chief Boiling Water told me that the country they ruled had allowed its name to be used by a four-piece band from New York City. The band was formed by Henry Hey (keyboards) and Michael League (bass guitar), subsequently adding Chris McQueen (guitars) and Jason “JT” Thomas (drums). All four have played with some fairly big names in the past: Hey with David Bowie, League and McQueen with Snarky Puppy and JT with D’Angelo. That’s an unlikely mix of influences resulting in one of those fuzzy, hard-to-define areas in the patchwork quilt of musical styles somewhere to the east of jazz fusion but not that far from soul and R&B. FORQ themselves describe their music as jazz/groove.

Our waitress turned out to be the chief’s eldest daughter, Sweet Sugar Lump, and she informed us that FORQ‘s latest album takes its title from the bay where the ship’s crew were enjoying the hospitality provided by the local inhabitants. One of the tracks on that album even celebrates the traditional pastime of taking afternoon tea under the shade of the beach umbrellas. It’s a relaxing holiday groove that brings to mind the genteel gatherings in nineteenth century English country gardens when polite conversation rarely strayed beyond the topics of the weather, the roses or the antics of Mrs. Slocum’s pussycat. It was a time of tranquility and innocence, when an unintended double entendre might be erased with a hasty, “More tea, vicar?”.

Sitting there in the glow of the sun a cup of Jasmine tea had the invigorating effect of an exotic cocktail. Or perhaps it was the musical accompaniment that soothed the brow and restored our vigour. Or was there something in the water? Whatever it was the ship’s crew slept soundly on the soft sand that night.

the band

FORQ – June 2015

In the morning the beach was deserted. The tables and chairs, the umbrellas and all the paraphernalia of the previous day’s tea party were gone. There was not so much as a footprint in the sand to show that yesterday’s festivities had been more than mere illusion. But real it must have been. Because everything we had of value had also vanished. Our plundering hosts had even taken our boats. No wonder that accursed tribe are called the FORQers.

Footnotes

  1. FORQ‘s third album, Thrēq, was released on 4th August 2017.
  2. The band has just finished a tour of North America. A European tour is scheduled to start in the autumn; the only confirmed date so far is Dublin, 17th October 2017.

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.