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.

Bottle

bottle

Paul Weller will be a father again this summer. It will be his eighth child. The announcement came hard on the heels of the news that The Modfather’s 13th solo studio album, A Kind Revolution, will be released on 12th May. Shortly after that a film called Jawbone will reach the movie screens. The soundtrack to Jawbone was written by Weller and is available now as an album from all the usual places.

paul weller

Paul Weller

One of the tracks from Jawbone came up on my Release Radar playlist last week and it surprised old mister Crotchety. Bottle is a simple folk ballad – just two acoustic guitars and a male voice in reflective mood. I haven’t been keeping abreast of Paul Weller’s work but this was so very different from what he was doing with The Jam in the late seventies and The Style Council in the eighties that I felt I had to investigate further.

The first thing to say is that the Jawbone album is the soundtrack from the film, not separate recordings of the songs. The first track, Jimmy/Blackout, is over 20 minutes long and consists mostly of atmospheric sounds rather than conventional music. Several of the other tracks include dialogue from the film, which gets in the way of the songs. This is a collector’s album for those who loved the film, not a recording purely for listening pleasure. Having said that, though, Bottle does stand up in isolation.

Words are never enough to convey the effect of a piece of music on the listener and that’s particularly true for Bottle. The lyrics tell the thoughts of a man who has lost his way and must move on if he is to rescue himself from the wasteful life he has been leading. Here, ‘bottle’ seems to stand for both the ‘courage’ he has lost and the undefeated demon of ‘alcohol’. The singer regrets many things hidden in the dark of the time tunnel called the past but there is a glimmer of light up ahead, the promise of a better future if he can but face it. And all that comes across in the simple tune and folksy guitar accompaniment.

I haven’t been able to find any credits for the songs on the Jawbone album so I don’t know if Paul Weller is playing or singing on Bottle. I can say, though, that it has an insidious charm brought out beautifully by a stripped down production. If this is what Paul is doing these days he deserves to be taken as seriously now as he was in his days with The Jam. It’s completely different material but he still has the knack of making compelling music.

Notes

  1. There’s a quite different song called The Bottle on Paul Weller’s 2004 album, Studio 150. Videos of The Bottle exist on YouTube but there are none that I can find for Bottle from the new film.
  2. Jawbone is a film about a former youth boxing champion, Jimmy McCabe, who returns to his old haunts in the hope of picking himself up off the canvas after taking too many of life’s hard knocks. “In a battle between fear and faith, Jimmy risks his life, as he tries to stand tall and regain his place in the world”.

Wild Fire

jungle

What would you get if Lou Reed was to take a walk on the wild side with Joni Mitchell? Well, I’ll tell you. You’d get something that sounds a lot like Wild Fire, a track from Laura Marling’s sixth album Semper Femina, which is due to be released on 10th March.

Laura Marling has appeared in these pages once before. Soothing, another track from Semper Femina, was a Track of the Week back in December. That earlier post highlighted the unusual instrumentation on Soothing, which I described as a duet between acoustic and electric bass. Wild Fire is unusual, too, but for different reasons. It has the languid pace of Walk On The Wild Side and borrows a little of Lou Reed’s drawl in the vocals. The instruments are relatively conventional: guitars with a heavy tremolo effect and electric piano. And, while the bass lines in Soothing add a dash of jazz, the electronic effects on Wild Fire provide a pinch of rock. But, in spite of that, the later track falls squarely in the folk circle on the Venn diagram of musical styles.

To illustrate the folk roots here’s a live version with Laura on (unprocessed) acoustic guitar embellished only by a few licks from Chris Thile on the mandolin.

Wild Fire ambles along while the singer muses on some of the people in her life.

Your mama’s kinda sad; your papa’s kinda mean.
. . .
She keeps a pen behind her ear because she’s got something she really really needs to say.
. . .
Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?

There’s no overall message, no call to arms, just a few tart observations. The guitar chords delight the ears the way a lemon meringue pie delights the tongue – crisp and deliciously sweet but with a fresh sharp edge – and Laura’s vocals slice into it in big spoonfuls, savouring every mouthful. To the Crotchety ears there has never been a song more like Lou Reed’s wild side and no vocal more like Joni Mitchell on a big, lemon yellow taxi ride. And that all adds up to a song good enough to break the ‘variety’ rule on this blog. This is the first time Crotchety Man has published two Track of the Week articles by the same artist.

Three of Laura Marling’s previous five albums have been nominated for the Mercury Prize and Semper Femina is shaping up to rival them. Don’t let that pie go stale, listen to Wild Fire while it’s fresh out of the oven. If the other tracks are as good as this one the album will fly off the shelves like fluffy meringue on lemon custard and shortcrust pastry. Mmmm…

Anthology – June Tabor

Anthology - close up

Some time in the early 90s I went to see a band called Perfect Houseplants. They were a four-piece modern jazz band: saxophones, keyboards, bass and drums. As often happens with jazz bands each musician had a solo slot early in the performance and another member of the band would announce the soloist to the audience. After Martin France on the drums and Dudley Phillips on bass came the keyboard player. As the piano notes faded away the saxophonist, Mark Lockheart, came to the microphone and, clearly at a loss for words, said simply, “The amazing Huw Warren”.

Huw’s excursion on the keyboard had, indeed, been amazing. In the space of just two or three minutes he had given us an improvisation that had wandered from modern jazz through classical to up-tempo folk and back again. But what struck me most was that a fellow musician who knew him well was so blown away by this performance that he couldn’t find adequate words to express his admiration. At that moment, in the Crotchety Hall of Memory, a shiny brass plaque bearing the name Huw Warren was screwed to the  wall and the curator still polishes it lovingly from time to time in recognition of that day.

The following year the same venue put on a concert by the English folk singer June Tabor¹. I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket for several reasons. First, I have always loved June Tabor’s deep, dark chocolate voice and her repertoire of English folk music. I feel some empathy with June, too, because we both went to the same university. When I was there my college won the University Challenge TV competition and June had captained her college team in that competition a few years earlier. It’s a tenuous connection but Oxford alumni do tend to stick together. The most compelling reason, though, for going to this particular June Tabor concert was that her accompanist was to be the pianist I still think of as “the amazing” Huw Warren.

I had hoped that the June Tabor/Huw Warren collaboration would create a folk/jazz fusion to rival the fabulous Pentangle. In that I was disappointed. Where Pentangle created music with elements of both folk and jazz, at first, June Tabor’s songs seemed to lie outside both those styles. Soon, though, I realised that it was just the unusual arrangements, the distinctive voice and my unwarranted expectations that had fooled me into thinking we had left the standard orbit of folk music. With my expectations re-adjusted I was able to sit back and enjoy the evening. I enjoyed it enough to feel the musophile’s irresistible itch for a permanent record of the songs I had heard and came away with June Tabor’s Anthology CD.

Anthology - CD

Anthology is not available on Spotify as an album, presumably because it’s a compilation  and all the tracks can be found on earlier albums released between 1976 and 1992. The link given above is to a playlist that reconstructs the album from the individual songs.

There are 16 songs on Anthology, all of them folk songs, most of them dark and sombre. There are songs about the tragedy of war that leave a lasting bitter taste in the mouth (The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, No Man’s Land). There are songs about life and love and death that bring a salty dampness to the eyes (She Moves Among MenStrange Affair, Hard Love). And June Tabor’s deep passionate voice makes those songs sound all the bleaker. But it’s not entirely dark and gloomy. There are up-tempo, almost jolly tunes (Dark Eyed Sailor, Heather Down the Moor) and then there’s a wonderfully uplifting story about a pigeon that’s more recited than sung (The King of Rome).

The songs on Anthology are best appreciated from your most comfortable easy chair, free from the distractions of modern living. Shut the door on the kids, turn off the phone, let your eyelids close and allow Ms Tabor’s singing to conjure up mental images of scenes your eyes could never see. But, if you must have something to watch while you listen, here’s a YouTube video of my favourite song from AnthologyHard Love². Note, however, that the visuals are entirely static. (I guess the video maker agrees with me that the imagination makes more vibrant pictures than any movie camera.)

Over the sixteen year period covered by this compilation June Tabor worked with a number of accomplished musicians from both folk and jazz fraternities. Special mention must go to the folk guitarist, Martin Simpson, and (of course) that immensely versatile pianist, Huw Warren. Together with a few guest musicians they created highly distinctive arrangements to complement June’s voice. And the effect can be stunning.

“She can stop time and draw tears from the stoniest heart. She sings with compassion, honesty, stoicism and a painfully acute sense of life’s transitory hold”. (Sam Saunders)

There is one more aspect of June Tabor’s material in general and of Anthology in particular that I’d like to mention. The song selection seems to have been guided as much by the words as the music. Even in the light-hearted songs the lyrics are never trite and the words of the sad songs have the pathos and profundity of some of the finest modern day poets. As her appearance on University Challenge attests, June is a highly intelligent woman and her choice of material reflects that. Chris Jones, writing on the BBC’s music website, put it like this:

“… the sense of scholarship that she brings to her work never lets you forget that you are listening to, perhaps, the greatest interpreter and curator of indigenous British music”.

Anthology - warren, tabor, ballamy

Quercus – Huw Warren, June Tabor, Iain Ballamy

Since around 2005 June has been working with Huw Warren and the jazz saxophonist, Iain Ballamy. The trio is known as Quercus and they released an album (also called Quercus) in 2013. I’ve only heard a snippet from that album but, from what I’ve read, it follows the general theme of Anthology in that it presents folk songs, ancient and modern, arranged for a jazz group. Like Anthology, Quercus is not available on Spotify although June Tabor’s artist page there shows a picture of the Quercus trio. (Spotify does list a different artist called Quercus, though. As far as I can see the two are unrelated.)

The June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren incarnation of Quercus has a short tour in the UK next year (2017). Dates and venues can be found here. Crotchety Man would love to go but the logistics are problematic. The album is on my birthday wish list, though. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

Notes

  1. June Tabor won the BBC Folk Singer of the Year Award in 2004 and 2012.
  2. Hard Love was written by the American folk singer/songwriter, Bob Franke (rhymes with ‘Yankee’).

crotchetyman.blog

News - .blog domain

We interrupt this broadcast for a special announcement …

The Crotchety Man blog now has its own Internet domain which you can find at crotchetyman.blog. The old address works, too, but it just redirects to the new one.

Let me assure you that nothing else has changed. In particular, the Crotchety Man blog will still carry the musings of an aged man passionate about a broad range of music styles in a (probably futile) attempt to bring good sounds to the attention of discerning listeners around the world.

Here endeth the music news.

Elizabeth “Alcopops” Alker.

Lord Franklin

Lord Franklin - painting

At the end of the 15th century the colonial powers of Europe started to search for the Northwest Passage, a hypothetical sea route across North America that they hoped would be a profitable corridor between east and west to rival the mediaeval ‘silk road’ trade routes that connected the Mediterranean region with India and China. Many expeditions were mounted over the next two hundred years during which the majority of the Canadian arctic was explored and mapped, but the Northwest Passage remained elusive.

In 1845, with only some 500 km of the Canadian coastal region still uncharted, the British sent two ships under the overall command of Captain Sir John Franklin on a new expedition, confident that the Northwest Passage would be found. Together the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, carried 129 men and three years worth of provisions. Both ships had reinforced bows and were equipped with engines that drove a single propellor, enabling them to steam at 4 knots. They also had a primitive form of steam-powered central heating for the comfort of the crew. Franklin and his senior crew members were experienced polar explorers. No-one could say that the men were ill-equipped or ill-prepared.

The ships left England in May 1845 and were seen anchored in Baffin Bay in late July waiting for good conditions to continue their journey westward. Two years later, when no word had been heard from the explorers, Franklin’s wife, members of parliament and the British press urged the Admiralty to send out a search party. In the Spring of 1848 they sent three: one going north overland along the Mackenzie river to the coast, one by sea travelling west from the Atlantic and another sailing east from the Pacific. None of the search teams found any sign of Franklin, his crew or his ships.

The failure of the rescue missions only served to increase public interest in the fate of Franklin and his men. Ballads, including one called Lady Franklin’s Lament, became popular and many further privately-funded searches were made. In 1850 the remnants of a winter camp from 1845/6 were found on Beechey Island along with the graves of three of Franklin’s crew. Four years later John Rae, while surveying for the Hudson’s Bay Company, heard about a group of 35 – 40 white men who starved to death near the mouth of the Back River. Rae was able to buy from the local Inuit people artefacts later identified as belonging to members of Franklin’s expedition. Franklin and his men were officially declared ‘deceased in service’ on 31st March 1854.

Lady Franklin personally commissioned a further expedition. The schooner Fox, bought by public subscription and commanded by Francis McClintock, set sail from Aberdeen in August 1857. In May 1859 a sledge party sent out from the Fox found a cairn containing a piece of paper bearing two messages from the Franklin mission. The first was dated 28th May 1847. It noted that Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror had been stuck in ice off Beechey Island in the winter of 1845/6 and icebound again the following winter off King William Island. That first note ended “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.“. The second note, written in the margins of the first had an altogether more chilling message. Dated 25th April 1848 it reported that the two ships had been stuck in the ice for a year and a half. Twenty four of the officers and crew had died, including Franklin himself on 11th June 1847, and the ships had been abandoned three days earlier. The survivors planned to set out on foot the following day heading south towards the Back River.

Lord Franklin - renbourn

Pentangle’s version of Lady Franklin’s Lament is called simply Lord Franklin. At first it seems to tell of a sailor who dreams about the Franklin expedition and its hardships. The last verse, though, is told from the perspective of the grieving Lady Franklin.

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I’d cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live

Lord Franklin was recorded for Pentangle’s 1970 album Cruel Sister. To a casual listener it sounds like a solo performance by John Renbourn – just a folk guitarist singing a sad song. But, in the background, Bert Jansch’s concertina wheezes ruefully, bringing to mind the chill winds and icy wastes of the artic. And, after a couple of verses, Jacqui McShee’s voice rises in the distance like the keening of herring gulls. There’s no bass and there are no drums. The landscape has no pulse; only the wind moves in this desolate place.

Lord Franklin - sonar

Sonar image of HMS Terror

A number of scientific excavations took place in the twentieth century. These concluded that Franklin’s men died of hypothermia, malnutrition, lead poisoning and disease. In 2014 a sonar sweep discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus and just a few days ago, on 12th September 2016, another sonar research team announced the discovery of HMS Terror. The story of Lord Franklin’s ill-fated expedition has, finally, come to an end.

Bundles

Bundles - yarn

Bundles of
Unpredictable
Notes
Define the
Lasting
Essence of
Soft Machine

For my money Soft Machine were at their best around 1975/6. It was a time when founding member Mike Ratledge was fading out¹ and Karl Jenkins was taking over the reins as band leader and main composer. They released two studio albums in this period, Bundles and Softs. These were the first Soft Machine albums to feature guitars, provided by Alan Holdsworth on Bundles and John Etheridge on Softs. Mike Ratledge contributed his jazz fusion keyboards, Karl Jenkins added saxophone, oboe and further keyboards, Roy Babbington was on electric bass and John Marshall wielded the drum sticks.

They were all brilliant musicians then and, as far as I know, they are all still making music. Certainly, Etheridge, Babbington and Marshall are still performing. Along with Theo Travis on saxophone, flute and keyboards they are the current line-up of Soft Machine and that band has a short tour in the UK this autumn. Crotchety Man has booked for their gig in Derby on 25th November and I’m making Bundles my Album of the Month for September 2016.

Bundles - band 2016

Soft Machine, 2016

One of the distinctive features of Soft Machine‘s recordings in the Ratledge era was the fusion of separate themes into longer pieces somewhat akin to movements in classical symphonies. Bundles holds to that tradition with a 5-part, 19 minute opening salvo called Hazard Profile. In a live show each section would run into the next, the transition marked only by a change of tempo, a change of key or the introduction of a new melody. On the album each section is a separate track but there are no gaps between them.

So, is Hazard Profile one piece or five? Well, Part 1 is a romping rock track, Part 2 (Toccatina) is a piece for romantic piano and classical guitar, Part 3 is a 30 second electric guitar bridge to the slow, genre-defying bass and guitar riff of Part 4, and Part 5 features the frantic, pulsing guitar and synthesised horns of mainstream jazz/rock fusion. The parts could hardly be more different. And yet each has been seamlessly sewn onto the next and at the end of Part 5 we come full circle to reprise the theme of Part 1. Let’s call it a suite. And sweet it is to my ears.

Side one of the album ends with Gone Sailing, a short guitar étude reminiscent of Steve Howe of Yes or Steve Hackett from Genesis. Just under one minute of delightful picking and ringing harmonics.

The title track kicks off side two with jazz/rock Bruford style. Alan Holdsworth’s guitar frolics over undulating bass, the percussion skips over solid organ chords and the various parts are neatly tied together to form a pretty little bundle. But a plaything only holds a child’s interest for a short time and, soon, Bundles morphs into Land of the Bag Snake, another jazz/rock fusion track, this time one with an easy groove.

Next comes a pair of Mike Ratledge compositions, The Man Who Waved At Trains and Peff. These both have a vintage Soft Machine feel. Lots of piano/organ and Karl Jenkins’ oboe filling the slot formerly occupied by Elton Dean’s saxophones, while the bass riffs and rumbles and the drums clatter away busily. Peff, in particular, has some quacking oboe. (Sorry about that, but it really does sound like a duck in a karaoke booth at times.)

The album then gives us Four Gongs Two Drums, which delivers exactly what it says on the tin. It’s fairly short as album tracks go, 2 minutes 31 seconds, but in the wrong hands that could easily be too long for a drum solo. John Marshall, though, is one of only a handful of percussionists who can pull it off. He uses tunable drums to vary the pitch almost like a wah-wah pedal and never settles into a predictable beat. This track raises the role of the drum kit way beyond that of a metronome. As percussion pieces go this is the pinnacle.

The last track on Bundles is the ethereal The Floating World. It ambles along contentedly as if we are following a great airship that hovers just above our heads, guided gently downwind by brightly coloured birds tugging on flimsy guy ropes. There is the sound of flutes and recorders on the breeze as the ship, its feathered crew and our party of charmed children are led off into the land of the elves and the fairies.

Bundles - animusic

Animusic – Fiber Bundles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6r4pAqOBDY)

Soft Machine is one of the very few well-known bands that Crotchety Man has seen live more than once. (The others are King Crimson, twice, and Pink Floyd one-and-a-bit times².) They are also the only band in Crotchety Man’s unreservedly recommended list to be playing essentially the same material now as they were when I first saw them 45 years ago. (Gulp! That’s a frighteningly long time ago.) Perhaps it’s true what they say: good musicians never die, they just decompose.

Notes

  1. That’s no reflection on Mike Ratledge he was and is a very fine keyboards player.
  2. It was the end of an open-air concert, we were cold, wet and miserable, and not even the headline act had the power to keep us there a while longer. Of course, I wish we had stayed now.