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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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.

Oczy Mlody

eyes

The title of this post is not quite gibberish. The words are Polish. Individually they mean ‘eyes’ and ‘young’. Unfortunately, ‘oczy’ is feminine plural and ‘mlody’ is masculine singular. And, to make matters worse, the words are in the wrong order for the phrase ‘young eyes’. Not that this bothers The Flaming Lips who chose this as the title of their latest album more for the sound of the words than their meaning. Whether they had an English or Polish pronunciation in mind, though, I cannot say.¹

The Crotchety brain cells contain very little information on The Flaming Lips; all factual statements here are taken from their Wikipedia page. (You have been warned.) The Old Man’s ears, though, have met one or two of The Flaming Lips‘ tracks on the BBC 6 Music radio station and the Music Appreciation Meter has swung over into the light green section: pleasing, interesting, different.

A quick exploration of the band’s recent body of work looked very promising and caused the oxytocin² level in old Crotchety’s blood to rise far enough to trigger the purchase of Oczy Mlody, my Album of the Month for June 2017.

band

So who, then, are The Flaming Lips? They were formed in Oklahoma in 1983. Wikipedia doesn’t say what kind of music they played in those days, just that they were Wayne Coyne (guitar), his brother Mark (lead vocals), Michael Ivins (bass) and Dave Kotska (drums). That seems all very ordinary but there was probably more to it than that. By the time of their fourth album, In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1989), Wikipedia notes that “their previous experiments in tape loops and effects were given a more prominent role”.

Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins have remained with the band since its inception but on Oczy Mlody keyboards and electronic effects dominate the sound. Coyne himself is credited with contributing vocals, keyboards, theremin and guitar; Ivins has added keyboards and vocals to his bass playing; Stephen Drozd, who joined in 1991, supplies guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. Recent albums also feature Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls and Matt Duckworth who all tickle the mock ivory keys from time to time. And Nick Ley provides percussion and samples. If you’ve been counting that means that six of the seven band members play keyboards and the seventh augments the mix with sampled sounds.

lips aflame

And that’s not all that’s weird about The Flaming Lips. You may have noticed already a certain tongue-tingling piquancy in the album titles. Of their fourteen main studio albums only Embryonic has a fairly predictable title. The others include things like Hit To Death In The Future Head and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Then there are collaborations that have produced The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, which is a cover of the famous Pink Floyd album.

But there’s yet more weirdness. In 2011 The Flaming Lips announced that they would be releasing a new song every month of the year. The first of these was released that February as 12 separate YouTube clips that had to be played simultaneously; it was called Two Blobs Fucking. In March they released the Gummy Song Skull EP, “a seven-pound skull made of gummy bear material with a gummy brain, which contained a flashdrive with 4 songs on them”. They went one better in June by releasing “a live-in-studio recording of the band’s 1999 album The Soft Bulletin which was on a flash drive embedded in a marijuana-flavored brain inside a strawberry flavored gummy skull”. Then, in September, they released a six-hour song in a special package and at midnight on the last day of October a 24-hour song, 7 Skies H3, was made available on a special website.

That’s enough weirdness to fry the internal organs of the more squeamish listeners out there. 7 Skies H3 exists as a standard-length album on Spotify but I haven’t listened to it and I have no intention of hunting down those flash-drive packages. So I can’t offer much comfort if you’ve been subjected to any of those and you’re feeling a little nauseous now. But there is comfort in the more conventional Oczy Mlody.

album banner

There are twelve tracks on the Oczy Mlody album:

  1. Oczy Mlody
  2. How??
  3. There Should Be Unicorns
  4. Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
  5. Nigdy Nie (Never No)
  6. Galaxy I Sink
  7. One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill
  8. Do Glowy
  9. Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes
  10. The Castle
  11. Almost Home (Blisko Domu)
  12. We A Family

Several of those titles were inspired by a Polish translation of Erskine Caldwell’s Close to Home, titled Blisko Domu. Track 4 suggests that the album title was intended to mean “Eyes of the Young” (which Wikipedia says would be “Oczy młodych” in grammatically correct Polish). For completeness, track 8’s title translates back to English as “To Head”.

We can see in those track titles a playfulness bordering on the psychotic but fear not – if there is a theme it is one of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Yes, there really should be unicorns, ones with purple eyes … if you’re a child. And who hasn’t been out hunting for faeries and witches and wizards to kill in the dark woods where you played as a small boy?³

unicorn

The title track is an instrumental that takes us into the play den with a simple melody and the deep rumbling sounds of quaking hills. A strange beast lets out a cry but it is far away and we are safe in here for now.

Then comes a remembered warning, a warning that came too late or wasn’t listened to. How could I make you see what was happening? How could I make you understand? I was just a kid with a toy gun.

Back when we were young,
we killed everyone
if they fucked with us.

We were young with a ray gun.

I tried to tell you but I don’t know how.

Look! There’s a unicorn. I told you they exist. It has purple eyes just like I said, not green eyes. Mama says they shit everywhere. And the moon. The moon is in a very red orange state. Let’s leave it like that for at least three hours hovering just above the horizon. Oh, but I’m so sleepy now …

Sunrise brings a light and joyful tune shot through with deep ripples of sadness. “The sun rises and sets on a world full of gladness, but how can I be glad when my father is dead?”, the singer asks. How? Just look at the sun on the water, look at the pretty flowers, look at all those people having fun. No matter how bad things get the sunshine will soon wash away your tears. That’s what the music says. And the singer wants to believe it.

It’s time for a break. Nigdy Nie is an 80’s-style synthesiser, fuzzy bass and drum machine instrumental with caramel vocals. It sounds a little dated but a change of atmosphere helps the lungs to breathe and refreshes us before a scheduled trip to a galaxy far far away.

The journey is accompanied by disembodied voices singing to a bolero beat. Some slack strings pling unmusically. An orchestral interlude brings relief from the tedium for a while before sinking away down a black hole, leaving us moving tunelessly onward again through the vastness of space. The galaxy called I Sink is a god-forsaken place.

The next stop is a dramatic world with the sound of erupting volcanoes and bubbling mud geysers. This is our hunting ground. Faeries and witches and wizards beware! You can’t hide in these forests. Orion is coming for you. Alien sounds are all around but the hunter whistles nonchalantly as he prowls through the starlit night.

In a clearing a native girl dances. The moon is up now, glowing bright. A spider drops from a silver willow tree and the girl, still prancing, shakes it off her hair. A dozen eyes watch from the shadows. Bells chime. The dance ends and ghostly voices announce the approach of a burning dawn sun.

As the orange sun pumps heat into the land the plants begin to sweat, warm steam rising from their pores. A chorus of demon frogs croak at each other in the half-light. Why do their eyes bulge so alarmingly? Have they seen the shadow of death in the eyes of the hunted? Or is it their own peril that they fear?

The morning mist clears slowly to reveal a fairy castle floating like a ship in the low cloud. And above it flies a dragon carrying a beautiful princess. But the castle is in ruins and the princess mourns her love who is buried beneath the fallen stones.

Her eyes were butterflies.
Her smile was a rainbow.
Her hair was sunbeam waves.
Her face was a fairy tale.

Now, our journey is nearly at an end. We are almost home. We sing as our horse gallops across familiar meadows. The song is ancient, the words are mysterious, but the tune spurs us on. “The word has become the deed. The insect crawls out on the leaf. The leaf falls into the fire.” Perhaps a student of myths and legends can interpret those lyrics but that will keep for another day.

Finally, we are reunited with our loved ones. We are a family again and we gather round the open fire to drink a toast or two, swap stories and sing old songs. This is a neat and fitting end to the Oczy Mlody album.

dark side

Overall The Flaming Lips have given us an album notable more for its tones and textures than its melodies, harmonies or rhythms. They make good use of the electric and electronic instruments at their disposal and, seen through the eyes of the young, it works well. This old gentleman, though, may be a little harder to please. I’ll give it a rating of 3.9  out of 5 (worth buying but doesn’t quite deliver all that it could).

Notes

  1. Google translate will speak the Polish for you. To me it sounds like someone saying “orcher morder” with a mouthful of gobstoppers.
  2. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone”.
  3. Girls can join in, too. Just don’t get all soppy and sentimental, that’s all!

Something Different

white apples

Crotchety Man lives in two parallel worlds. There’s the real world of solid objects like houses, apples and people. Then there’s the insubstantial world of the imagination. The other day, at the click of a mouse button, a bubble of the imagined world burst into the mundanity of real life.

My computer screen had given a link into a province of La La land known as Prog Rock and through that portal I glimpsed a new and intriguing vista. Here was a video showing a guy with a seven-string bass guitar, the bottom three strings unfretted. I’d never seen one of those before. Like a tractor beam the play button drew me in.

I have, of course, visited those regions many times before. Although I know the landscape pretty well I am always on the lookout for something different. And now I’ve found it. Something Different is the debut solo album by the Italian bass player and composer, Alberto Rigoni. He is currently crowd funding his next EP and you’ll find his biography here.

In some ways Something Different is much the same as any number of prog rock albums on the heavy side of the genre. It kicks off in typical prog fashion with a funky, rocky track called Factory with some fine guest musicians on guitar, keyboards and drums. Then we are treated to the “bass ballad”, Trying To Forget, a slow, melodic bass solo in which Alberto plays his instrument more like a Chapman Stick than a bass guitar. The contrast makes you sit up and promises good things to come.

Next up is Glory Of Life, another full band instrumental that swings easily along as it celebrates the joy of living. Track four, SMS, starts with an electronic buzz vaguely reminiscent of the original text message ringtone before slipping into a bass guitar duet backed by handclaps simulated on electronic drums.

It’s been a gentle perambulation down some pleasant prog paths so far, but just around the bend there’s a roadside bomb that will knock your socks off – along with a few toes if you’re not careful. Here’s the video for the X-rated BASSex. (The sexy vocals are by Irene Ermolli.)

Phew! After that we need a breather (or a cigarette, perhaps). And that’s just what we get for 1 minute 59 seconds with the ambient keyboard and bass piece, One Moment Before. Then it’s time to fasten your seatbelt for the Roller Coaster ride into prog metal territory complete with fast fuzzy guitars and snarling vocals.

The sleeve notes for Desert Break only list Alberto’s bass guitar but that’s misleading. There’s an intricate drum machine beat and recorded voices of children playing in the background that take it way off the main path and, presumably, into the desert. While we are there we are treated to some Jammin’ On Vocal Drums (whatever they are) with some superb jazzy guitar over a funky beat.

The album ends with the kind of ambient piano and bass track that plays behind the credits of a film in which the gutsy central character has seen unimaginable tragedy but has come through it and can now look forward to living out her days in comfort surrounded by those she loves. It’s called Sweet Tears.

Looking back, where have we been? We have encountered the heavy metal edge of hardened steel, we have celebrated the glory of life and even indulged in a little casual sex. There have been calmer moments, too. Times when we tried to forget and, finally, we have been able to rest easy bathed in our own sweet tears. A lot has happened on our short journey. And that’s the something that’s different about this album.

Moroccan Roll

khobz

Brand X are back. And how!

Here’s a splendid live version of Malaga Virgen from their 1977 album Moroccan Roll. This was recorded just a few months ago on the band’s reunion tour of the US.

If that performance doesn’t leave you panting with excitement and aghast with admiration I’ll … I’ll … errm … I’ll eat a Moroccan Roll and post the video on YouTube to prove it.

Strangely, although Brand X has been mentioned a few times in these pages before, so far none of their music has been featured here. To right that unforgivable wrong I’m making Moroccan Roll my Album of the Month.

According to AllMusic and Spotify, which quote identical biographies, Brand X was formed in 1975 by Phil Collins (the drummer with Genesis) and John Goodsall (the guitarist with Atomic Rooster) as a side project. The other members of the original band were keyboard player Robin Lumley and bassist Percy Jones. That line-up released their debut album, Unorthodox Behaviour, in 1976 and, after adding Morris Pert on percussion, followed it with Moroccan Roll a year later. Those first two albums are still, arguably, their best.

Judging by the album and track titles those guys must have had a lot of fun. Here’s the track listing for Moroccan Roll:

  1. Sun In The Night
  2. Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already) …
  3. … Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine After All
  4. Hate Zone
  5. Collapsar
  6. Disco Suicide
  7. Orbits
  8. Malaga Virgen
  9. Macrocosm

Of course, you can’t judge a piece of music by its title any more than you can judge an album by its cover art. And that’s probably just as well because the cover for the CD re-issue of Moroccan Roll has the kind of glaring spelling error that once prompted journalists on other newspapers to re-title The Guardian “The Grauniad”. The most northwestern country of Africa is spelt with one ‘r’ and two ‘c’s, not as the CD artwork has it, “Morrocan Roll”. I suppose that might be deliberate, a way to emphasise the pun – “more rock and roll” does have two ‘r’s and one ‘c’ – but I’ve not seen that justification offered and the correct spelling has been used in everything else I have read.

Anyone at all familiar with Brand X will know that they are no rock ‘n roll band. They were among the pioneers of the jazz/rock fusion genre, the first blacksmiths heating jazz licks almost to melting point and hammering out a new type of horseshoe on an anvil of solid rock.

band in 1977

Brand X, 1977 – Pert, Collins, Goodsall, Lumley, Jones

Moroccan Roll is as good an example of that craft as any but it’s not all hammer and sweat. Sun In The Night, for example, is a laid back, world music song, the only one on the album that has words. Unfortunately for English speakers those words are in a language from the Indian sub-continent. Wikipedia says it’s Sanskrit; Google Translate thinks it’s Hindi and provides an English ‘translation’ identical to the incomprehensible original. This site is more informative but it still reads like a typical Eastern mantra, more mystical than enlightening. But no matter, it’s a good tune and John Goodsall’s sitar whisks us away to India, enveloping us in the spirits of Shiva and Vishnu.

The next two tracks are both credited to Phil Collins. Why Should I Lend You Mine picks up the beat for a while and we enter the heart of jazz fusion territory. The listener’s attention flicks between the instruments as they inject their individual contribution to the piece: five parts, each of them and none of them foremost. That is the hallmark of great bands. Then the beat dies away and we find ourselves cradled gently in the arms of the gods once again. This time, though, it is the gods of the Western traditions that comfort and protect us. Almost as soon as Why Should I Lend You Mine has faded away Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine After All filters through cotton wool earplugs to form a fitting coda to the previous track.

After that good deed of altruistic lending there’s a complete change of mood. A short drum solo takes us into John Goodsall’s Hate Zone. The synthesiser wails, the guitar rants, the bass grumbles irritably and the drums are definitely asking for trouble. Our gang of football hooligans has come face to face with the opposition. Both sides are throwing insults and violence is brewing. But soon the simmering hatred burns itself out, the crowds dissipate and everyone goes home fairly quietly. We should have thumped them (both on and off the pitch), but this blood-chilling music more than makes up for the disappointing draw.

Next up it’s Robin Lumley’s turn in the composer’s chair. Collapsar is an ethereal keyboard and electronics interlude that neatly rounds off side 1 of the vinyl release. When we flip the disc we are greeted with rippling piano sounds underpinning a soft fusion track that shows Brand X at their very best. This one even has some vocals picking out a simple tune with La La syllables. (Actually, it sounds more like Na Na, but La La reads better. :-)) Why it’s called Disco Suicide I can’t imagine; it’s no dance track and it has a joie de vivre that is the complete opposite of suicidal despair. Perhaps that’s the point – to play it in a disco might well lead to the DJ’s predictable murder on the dance floor.

Deep into side 2 we come to Percy Jones’ personal contribution. In Orbits Percy flies us around the fingerboard of his fretless bass in a solo demonstration of his unparalleled flair and technique. And as an encore he uses all his talents in his own composition, the Malaga Virgen that we met in the video at the start of this post. (“Malaga Virgen”, by the way, is a Spanish dessert wine.)

The album finishes with the third of John Goodsall’s pieces. Called Macrocosm, it’s another whole band celebration of the fusion genre – intricate, uplifting, a showcase for the individual skills of the musicians and a fine example of an ensemble that is more than the sum of its parts.

I should mention the part that Morris Pert plays on Moroccan Roll and I can do no better than to quote Wikipedia, which says:

percussion and a vast number of bits and things that he hit while the tape was running, including: The QE2, Idi Amin, and undiscovered parts of Scotland

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And, finally, here are a couple of quotes from the two founding members of Brand X that are currently on their Reunion Tour:

John Goodsall: “It’s a better version now. We’re all a lot more experienced – a lot more skilled… And that goes for every one of us.”

Percy Jones: “This music takes us back to a certain space – which was really cool. I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel that feeling again – and yet here it is!”

They really are back. And better than ever.

Acknowledgements

The photos in the slideshow are taken from an excellent review of the show at the Iridium in New York City on 3rd January 2017.

Little Fictions

album artwork

There has been a lot of talk recently about “fake news” and its equally alarming cousin, “alternative facts”. Some say those alternative facts are nothing to worry about; they are just white lies, little fictions that reveal a deeper truth.

Pictures of the crowd at Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration may have shown fewer people than at Barack Obama’s but the new president is (obviously) more popular than his predecessor. News stories that suggest otherwise must be politically motivated and, clearly, constitute an attempt to stand in the way of the yellow mop-top’s urgently needed program of reforms that will make America great again. And that’s sad.

the quartet

I don’t know if Elbow were thinking of those sorts of alternative facts when they chose to call their latest album Little Fictions. The lyrics of the title track suggest otherwise because they are about the prickly words exchanged across the kitchen table between the “pair of boozy bowerbirds” that live together in what we must assume is an ordinary suburban house somewhere in the North West of England.

We protect our little fictions like it’s all we are

Arguments, it seems to say, can only burn while we deceive ourselves.

It’s you who’s being intransigent, not me. But while I cling to that violet falsehood my every utterance is a muffled battle cry that ricochets back to condemn me, to flay me until all I can do is hold on tight, waiting for the original miracle – the blood red miracle of life, the rose red miracle of love – to heal the wounds and soothe away the pain.

There is an aching truth in those verses, but there is salvation, too.

Little Fictions, the album, was released on the 3rd February 2017 and one week later it stood at number 1 on the UK album chart. It opens with Magnificent (She Says), a wonderfully uplifting song destined to become an Elbow classic and the first single to be taken from the album. This one song tells you all you need to know about the whole album. Even after Richard Jupp’s departure last year Elbow remain at the peak of their astonishing creativity.

In Magnificent we have Guy Garvey’s evocative lyrics showing us how a piece of sea-worn glass can be a sapphire in a small girl’s eye and how immensely important that sense of wonder and excitement is to every one of us. The instruments dance with that little girl on the sand as she throws her arms wide to embrace the shore, the sea, the sky and the whole wide world. Yes, this song is magnificent in every way.

firebrand angel

The lyrics of Firebrand and Angel are more difficult to interpret. It seems to be one of Guy’s love poems in which he tells of the “terror sublime” that comes from being in love with an unpredictable, headstrong woman – both firebrand and angel. More than that I can not say. Musically, though, this is another one of those songs with Elbow‘s inventive mix of rhythm and instrumentation – clapping, percussion and a stroll over the lower register of the piano lead on to the vocals and a mellifluent electric guitar before an ending with soothing backing vocals. It all adds up to a tone poem to rival anything the pop/rock world has to offer.

I’ve mentioned three of the ten tracks on Little Fictions so far. All I’m going to say about the others is that every one of them effortlessly reaches the exceptional standards of Elbow‘s other recent recordings. Individually they are a joy, collected on the album they are a treasure chest of pleasures. And, for once, the record-buying public agrees with old Crotchety Man. I hope that’s because they know the difference between alternative facts (which are bad) and Little Fictions (which is very, very good).

Little Fictions (Full Album) on YouTube

The Curse of Blondie

I think I’m slowly getting the hang of this Internet thing. It seems to have all the information you could ever want (and a lot more besides) but to find what you’re looking for you have to know where to look. I’ve searched for Blondie’s eighth album, The Curse of Blondie, on streaming sites in the past and drawn a blank but my more advanced search technique has finally come up trumps. Here it is on YouTube.

Well, actually, this compilation has the right tracks, in the right order, but track 2, Good Boys, is blocked in the UK and track 8 is a live version of End to End. Why most of Blondie’s recordings are available on Spotify (and elsewhere, I assume) but not this particular album is a mystery to me. I guess it’s cursed.

Let’s see if we can lift the spell.

The Curse of Blondie got mixed reviews when it came out in 2003 and on first listen that’s understandable. There are two tracks on The Curse that would work really well on any of Blondie‘s early albums; they are: Good Boys (the only single), and End To End, which has already featured on the Crotchety Man blog. Some of the other songs are also in the  typical Blondie pop/rock style (Undone, Golden Rod, for example) and those, too, are likely to go down well with Blondie album collectors. Then there are several tracks that explore rather different territory: rap-style vocals in Shakedown, a reggae Background Melody, the electronica/dance tracks Hello Joe and The Tingler. Although Blondie had used these styles before some of their fans didn’t appreciate it.

And then The Curse has some real surprises. Songs of Love is a romantic ballad embellished with some saxophone licks. Magic (Asadoya Yunta) is a traditional Japanese folk song. And most unsettling of all, Desire Brings Me Back mainly consists of honking saxophones over thudding tribal drums. None of those is exactly guaranteed to appeal to the average pop/rock enthusiast and even dyed-in-the-wool Blondie devotees might struggle with them.

Blondie, 1977

Blondie, 1977

The Curse is an album on which the band deliberately ventures off the charts, to places where mythical creatures live and the maps say only, “here be dragons”. But baby dragons are such cute animals and, trained right, they can make wonderful pets. You just need to get to know them.

So, lets spin the album again.

It’s true that Shakedown has rap-style vocals but the basic track has all the hallmarks of classic Blondie singles. It may not be a top ten song but it’s eminently listenable and I’m sure it would go down well in the clubs. The reggae beat of Background Melody actually lifts the song from mediocre to pretty good; well worth its place on the album. Even the two tracks I labelled electronica/dance sound more like classic Blondie tracks given a DJ mix than something spawned in the dark shadows of gangland America.

Blondie 2011

Blondie, 2011

The Curse is a Blondie album with rather more variety than fans and critics were used to and Crotchety Man applauds them for that. There is one dud track – the honking saxes on Desire Brings Me Back are just an awful noise – but everything else works extremely well. Of course, the album doesn’t have as many chart hits as Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat but it’s a very worthy addition to the Blondie canon which seems to have been forgotten by record stores and streaming sites. Or does the Crotchety Man’s online search technique still need to be improved?