August & September

 

Donning his pith helmet and carrying his elephant gun Crotchety Man went out hunting for tracks on the theme of autumn. It proved to be a disappointing expedition. To my mind autumn is a gloriously uplifting time of year and yet all the songs relating to the third quarter of the calendar seem to be either quietly contemplative or downright gloomy. Autumn days are often wet and windy, and winter may be around the corner, but there’s nothing quite like the sun peeping through the trees when they are dressed in their soft leafy gowns of yellows, reds and browns.

band

So, yes, it was a disappointing trek through the sound jungle but I did bag one or two specimens for the trophy cabinet. Pride of place goes to August & September from the Mind Bomb album by The The. I thought I had three specimens of this particular song but the first turned out to be an imposter (and a rather drab one at that). Although it looks and sounds similar this is actually an entirely different species. It is, in fact a performance by Elbow – you can tell by the sparse production, muted colours and the distinctive Guy Garvey warbling.

I am rather more pleased with the two genuine The The individuals captured on this trip. The one below struts around in its cage bursting with energy, sending out booming calls and passionate songs. I think it is trying to attract a mate but in that it will be disappointed; both of my specimens are male.

The third of my August & September catches is, I think, the prettiest of the three. It was reared in a recording studio and it has all the signs of having been well looked after. It is rounded, but not obese; it’s plumage is bright and shiny. It has a calm and confident personality. This is the one I’d enter into the song equivalent of Crufts if such a competition were to take place. Just listen to Danny Thompson’s double bass and the dual clarinets complementing the piano and guitar work. Could a more delightful creature exist outside of heaven?

The Brief and Neverending Blur

One entry in my Release Radar this week stopped me in my woozle tracks. The ears pricked up automatically when I heard something very much like the soft call of a Hidden Orchestra. The eyes opened a little wider when I saw the contrary title, The Brief and Neverending Blur. When I saw Richard Reed Parry as the first of the two artists the memory hastened to look him up. While it was busy searching, the wonderbrain asked who the other artist, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, might be. And somewhere deep within the cerebral cortex another inner voice had spotted the album title, More Field Recordings, and was tentatively confirming the Hidden Orchestra connection. The Siren sisters, Pleasure and Curiosity, had seized the synapses again.

Turning the online oracle first to the Bang On A Can All-Stars a little knowledge was quickly absorbed. They are a group of six classically-trained musicians who use amplified traditional instruments to play compositions by some of today’s most respected composers of ‘classical’ music. They are the touring face of the Bang On A Can collective, which commissions, performs and records modern music in classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental genres. Clearly, the Sirens know the way to Crotchety Man’s heart.

Taking a diversion to the album from which The Brief … was taken the reason for two artist’s names on the Radar soon became clear. The tracks on More Field Recordings are pieces by thirteen different composers, all performed by the All-Stars; The Brief … is the one composed by Richard Reed Parry. Somewhat disappointingly, all the other tracks on the album fall into the filing bin that Crotchety Man labels “classical, experimental”. They are unusual and interesting in an intellectual way but liking them is rather a challenge, at least on first spin. Perhaps I will see them in a different light after another circuit of the spinney.

quote

Returning to find that the doddery old clerk in the memory halls had still not retrieved any information about Richard Reed Parry, Crotchety Man was forced to consult the electronic memory banks again. The silicon chips came back in a flash with this long lost fact: R. R. Parry is a core member of Arcade Fire. That’s where Old Man Crotchety had met him before. Furthermore, reported the semi-conductor lackey, he was a member of Bell Orchestre and has performed with several other artists, including The National and Sufjan Stevens. Parry has also written pieces for the Kronos Quartet and yMusic, ensembles quite similar to the Bang On A Can All-Stars.

So, the signs are auspicious, but what, you may ask, does The Brief … sound like? It’s a slow, quiet, contemplative work for clarinet, guitar, piano, cello, double bass and percussion. Once again, the Sirens have tuned in perfectly to Crotchety Man’s weaknesses. The instruments’ tones blend beautifully, the notes are both evocative and satisfyingly interesting, and the whole invites you into the arms of those lovely maidens.

The Brief and Neverending Blur is on YouTube as part of a 13 video mix but it is blocked here in the UK. Here’s a link for those elsewhere in the world but (disclaimer) it may not work for you, either.

Crotchety Man searched long in the swirling sea fog where the Sirens’ song called out to him but, when the mists cleared and the sun rose high in the sky, there was no island where a band of musicians could have been concealed. Sadly, the promise of nirvana remained unfulfilled and in the end the connection with Hidden Orchestra was, like the woozle, just an illusion.

Purinjiti

artwork

Today Crotchety Man is venturing off the beaten tracks, out into the trackless wastes of the Australian desert. He is the dark-skinned messenger carrying news of a recent performance of an atmospheric piece by the British composer David Warin Solomons. The message is both verbal and symbolic. As he walks barefoot over the sun-baked earth this antipodean Hermes recites the words he must deliver, using the carved and decorated stick in his hands like a rosary to put the words in order and commit them to memory.

In the language of his tribe the message stick is called a purinjiti; it serves as both the mailman’s badge of office and the letter he is to deliver. On this one there are marks and notches for musical instruments: flute, euphonium, didgeridoo, clap sticks and bowed string instruments. There is also a crude map indicating the place in central Europe where the work was performed and an approximate date of two moon-cycles ago. In this medium it is impossible to spell out ‘Budapest’, the city in which the music was recorded, or the name of the conductor, Zoltán Pad.

The message is simple enough. Our tribal chief was so amused by the choice of instruments and pleased by the mellifluous tones he heard that he wants to share it on all the social media platforms available to him. And in these parts the purinjiti has a far greater reach than Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. I will, of course, transmit his message faithfully, conveying our head man’s excitement as accurately as I am able but, to be honest, I found those clap sticks rather irritating. See what you think of this world-spanning music. And, if you like it, spread the word.

Hot Footnote

I met David W. Solomons briefly when he popped his head around the door of one of our music group rehearsals about three months ago. He introduced himself, gave me his business card and was gone. You can find his website here. Note, however, that he comes from a classical and choral background and his work is not likely to appeal to Crotchety Man’s regular followers.

Weeping Willow

winter tree

A few days ago the Crotchety ears were tuned to their favourite radio station. The brain between the ears was only half listening when an unfamiliar but rather pleasant song came on. It turned out to be something called Weeping Willow by The Verve. That reminded me that I’d heard a few Verve songs in the past and liked them but I knew nothing about the band and had never explored their work. Vowing to put that right Weeping Willow was entered into the increasingly heavy ledger listing future Track of the Week blog posts.

There were a few surprises for Old Man Crotchety as he delved into The Verve. If you want to follow his journey of discovery he suggests you listen to the track that piqued his interest before reading what he has to say. As there doesn’t seem to be a decent YouTube video of this song as performed by The Verve here’s the Spotify link (again).

Looking up Weeping Willow on Spotify Crotchety Man found himself in an album called Urban Hymns and was startled to find two exceptional songs sitting there cheek by jowl with the target track. Until then if you had asked this old gentleman “who recorded Bitter Sweet Symphony?” he would have been at a loss. It’s such a well-known song that the artist should have been instantaneously brought to mind and yet it’s so unusual that the Crotchety Filing System had classified it as by “some one-hit wonder”. A similar failure of the mental archival process had left The Drugs Don’t Work as “artist unknown”.

“So they were by The Verve“, the Old Man thought, “I’m impressed”. This revelation clearly warranted listening to the whole album. An hour and nine minutes later (can you fit that much on a vinyl record?)¹ Crotchety Man was a little older and marginally wiser. His verdict: Bitter Sweet Symphony and The Drugs Don’t Work are the stand-out tracks; overall rating for the album around 4 out of 5 (good but not that special). Weeping Willow and This Time are certainly worth listening to but that might not be enough to justify a Track of the Week rosette.

Continuing with his research Crotchety Man called up The Verve‘s Wikipedia page. Surprise number two was that the band’s singer and main songwriter was Richard Ashcroft. Richard also features quite often on the radio as a solo artist and scores well on the Crotchety song-o-meter. Like a jigsaw puzzle a picture of The Verve was beginning to fall into place.

the verve press shoot for big life /emi nov 07 tour

 

The wonderful Wikipedia went on to explain that The Verve‘s music has been described as alternative rock, psychedelic rock and (most appropriately, I think) Britpop. The Old Man can certainly hear Oasis and Coldplay in Weeping Willow. And, like those bands, The Verve achieved stardom status. In 1997, according to critic Mike Gee of iZINE, “The Verve … had become the greatest band in the world.”² Even allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration that threatened to blow the Crotchety mind. Surely they were never that big. Were they? No, Crotchety Man couldn’t have been so out of touch, not even in those days of largely unexciting music.

At this point The Verve had done more than enough to book a place in these pages but should it be Weeping Willow or another of their songs? Bitter Sweet Symphony is too well-known and a little too long. The Drugs Don’t Work is well-known, too, and a headline picture would be a bit grim. This Time doesn’t suggest a picture at all. And there’s no time left to explore their other albums. So, Weeping Willow it had to be.

The best way to understand Weeping Willow is to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s solo performance. Here’s an “audio only” YouTube video:

The solo version is a simple three-chord song with a lilting Coldplay-style melody. It’s a staple of the singer/songwriter genre and, as such, relies heavily on the words to evoke feelings in the listener. Unfortunately, the message in the lyrics isn’t very clear. It could be a love song or a warning about drug addiction. Or a bit of both.

For me the song only really comes to life in the band version with its atmospheric electric guitar, doleful bass, spritely drum beat and multi-tracked vocals. But then it fully deserves its Track of the Week spot.

Footnotes

  1. I doubt it. The vinyl version was released as a double album and is actually longer than the digital version because the vinyl ends with a ‘hidden track’ separated by several minutes of silence making it almost 1 hour and 16 minutes long in total.
  2. The Verve won two Brit Awards in 1998. The Drugs Don’t Work reached number one on the UK singles chart in 1997 and the Urban Hymns album was number one on the UK album chart for 12 weeks, knocking OasisBe Here Now off the top spot.

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.

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!

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