Corner Painter

in a corner

Q: What’s small, female, Australian and brilliant?

A: Tal Wilkenfeld.

No, it’s not a joke. It’s what I asked Mrs. Crotchety the other day after reading a blog post by CirdecSongs. The article was a personal appreciation of Jeff Beck and it just happened to mention Beck’s bass player on his Live At Ronnie Scott’s album. In Cedric’s words:

The tiny Australian bassist had jaws scraping the floor as she played with style and soul well beyond her years.

As a diminutive ex-bass player myself I’m well aware that small hands are a handicap you really don’t need for that instrument. Being small, young, female and still good enough to draw that sort of remark is, well, remarkable. Hell, touring with Jeff Beck would be the apex of most musicians’ careers and in 2007, aged 20, Tal was just starting out on hers. Crotchety Man instantly developed an itch he just had to scratch.

Who is this woman with a strange name? How did she come to be in Jeff Beck’s band? What else has she done? Tell me Wikipedia, please.

Tal

The cyberspace oracle does provide a few details about Tal Wilkenfeld’s life and career to date. I won’t try to summarise them here. What strikes you most is that Tal was playing bass with musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Prince, The Who (as support act), Chick Corea and, of course, Jeff Beck at a relatively tender age. Her Wikipedia page lists collaborations with another couple of dozen big name artists, too. That’s a C.V. to be mighty proud of.

And that’s not all. In 2007, when she was still virtually unknown, Ms. Wilkenfeld formed her own band, recorded some of her own compositions and released the album, Transformation. The tunes on that record fall squarely into the jazz fusion category and Tal’s bass playing sounds a lot like Jeff Berlin on some of Bill Bruford’s albums. (That’s a Crotchety Man 5-star recommendation, by the way.)

More recently, Wilkenfeld has ventured into song writing. On what Wikipedia describes as her ‘upcoming’ second album she sings her own songs as well as playing guitar and bass. But that seems to be old news. Corner Painter, the album’s title track, was released as a single over a year ago, on 3rd March 2016. Tomorrow a live version of Corner Painter is due to be released on the Tal Wilkenfeld YouTube channel. But I can find no evidence that the album will be out any time soon.

I did, however, find this YouTube video that fits the description for tomorrow’s video release perfectly. Is it the same one? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

After the exciting sounds of Wilkenfeld’s bass playing I find this latest single rather less convincing. It’s a perfectly good song, Tal’s voice is pleasant enough and there’s nothing wrong with the performance. It just doesn’t rise far enough above the bar set by myriads of singer/songwriters out there to get the pulse racing. Tal Wilkenfeld is no competition for Taylor Swift. Then again, Taylor Swift doesn’t play bass guitars like Tal Wilkenfeld.

Postscript, 17 October 2017

The video that was released yesterday is different. It’s from her set opening for The Who and it’s rather good.

SaveSave

Bolek i Lolek

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nearly a year ago now Crotchety Man got very excited about a band/project called Hidden Orchestra. Regular readers will remember my review of the album Archipelago in which I introduced the term “orchestral beats” to describe the music of Joe Acheson and his collaborators. Since then there has been one other post in these pages tagged “orchestral beats” (Cantorum by Penguin Café) and the next Album of the Month will be on Feathers, a solo album with a similar feel by another member of Hidden Orchestra, the violinist and pianist, Poppy Ackroyd.

But, first, I want to bring your attention to the orchestral beat music from Clarinet Factory. Please don’t be put off when I tell you that Clarinet Factory is a clarinet quartet from the Czech Republic. All four players are classically trained and they draw on a wide range of influences from Bach through to jazz and other forms of modern music. They adapt and interpret other composers’ work; they also write their own pieces. And sometimes they add voice, percussion and electronics. (Now you’re taking notice, aren’t you?)

Where Hidden Orchestra‘s sound relies heavily on electronic instruments Clarinet Factory create very modern music almost entirely from traditional instruments. Just listen to what they can do with four clarinets and a few recorded natural sounds in this YouTube clip of a track from their latest album, Meadows, released in March of this year.

If you were paying attention you will have noticed a direct connection between Hidden Orchestra and Clarinet Factory – Joe Acheson is credited on the video. My guess is that Joe provided the recordings of the trains and the bees that he mentions on Facebook and he may well have had a hand in producing the record.

Judging by their concert schedule Clarinet Factory are reasonably well-known in the Czech Republic. They have also performed in a number of other European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel) and even in China and Japan. As far as I know, though, they have never visited the U.S. Perhaps that’s just as well because I have a feeling they may find it hard to find an audience over there.

on stage

Clarinet Factory – WOMEX 2015

Crotchety Man’s knowledge of the Czech language is non-existent so I don’t know what Bolek i Lolek means. Google translate tells me that the equivalent English is something like “Bolek i Lolek”, which I interpret as a polite way of saying that my request indicates a level of intelligence slightly below that of a snail. So what picture, I wondered, should head up this post? Well, that troublesome track title sounds like a double act to me: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That sort of thing.

So that, if you were wondering, explains the little slide show at the top of this post.

Raise High …

roof beam

I have a hard time finding a genre for Black Peaches, a band formed in 2014 by Rob Smoughton, the drummer with Hot Chip and Scritti Politti. On the band’s Facebook page they describe their music as Southern Boogie, Country-Soul, Disco-Rock and Jazz. That’s a combination the Crotchety Mind just can’t grok. To make things worse for the overheating grey cell circuits, in Black Peaches Smoughton doesn’t take the drummer’s seat at the back, he plays the role of guitarist and frontman.

On this occasion Wikipedia has been unable to supply the Medicinal Compound of moderately reliable information that the brain craves. There are no pages for Black Peaches, Rob Smoughton or Smoughton’s disco drummer alter ego, Grosvenor. Poor old Crotchety Man floundered around in cyberspace for a mind-numbingly long time until a  voice from a galaxy far, far away whispered in his ear, “use the source, Luke”.

She wasn’t speaking to me, of course, and I probably mis-heard the words but suddenly my course was clear. If Google can’t find it it’s not out there. I should stop hunting for verbal descriptions and go back to the primary source, the music. So, without further ado, here is the last track on their 2016 album, Get Down You Dirty Rascals. It’s called Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters¹. I’ll leave you to choose a genre.

“Raise high the roof beam, carpenters” is a quote from a fragment of verse by the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, and was used as the title of a J. D. Salinger novella. Whether the song was inspired by Sappho’s poetry or Salinger’s prose is unclear. Both the poet and the novelist write about a bridegroom, in Sappho’s account one who is “taller far than a tall man”. Presumably that is why the roof beams must be raised so high. But the song tells of a woman accused of witchcraft, bringing to mind the notorious Salem witch trials in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. I don’t remember a tall bridegroom in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the witch trials, but the songwriter may have had another connection in mind.

The Crucible was allegorical. It was intended as a warning about rampant McCarthyism in 1950s America. Perhaps the Black Peaches song is a comment on the modern world, too. The people of Salem were rent asunder by trumped up charges of devil worship and witchcraft. Is today’s world being torn apart by false accusations and religious fundamentalism? Do we believe the media are peddling “fake news” and the U.S. has been treated unfairly by the rest of the world or are these Trumped-up charges? Is this what Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters is trying to say?

the band

Black Peaches

Endnote

  1. YouTube carries a video of Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, but it’s blocked in the UK. Here’s the link if you want to try it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jza_ufKRJbQ&index=5&list=PL3bIl3kHP7C2EOXmBAxkfmtvMy0Nt_iag.

A Lady of a Certain Age

judy dench

Judy Dench, ageing gracefully

We are in classic Track of the Week territory today. A Lady of a Certain Age is a song by The Divine Comedy, a band that wouldn’t normally qualify for inclusion in these pages. But this track manages to avoid the flimsy fluff of the Comedy‘s pure pop songs and gives us what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “quietly devastating” comment on womanhood, class and growing old.

Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon

Musically, A Lady of a Certain Age, has a simple charm. It is a song for a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, embellished with gently pulsing accordion and urgent, rippling strings. But the brightest jewels this lady wears are in Neil Hannon’s sharp-edged lyrics.

Scaling the dizzy heights of high society,
Armed only with a cheque book and a family tree.

The story has only just begun but already we can see it will end in tragedy. Behind the lady’s back Peter Sarstedt is asking Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and Bob Dylan is composing Like A Rolling Stone.

You chased the sun around the Côte d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscure
And left you on your own and in the shade,
An English lady of a certain age.

That chorus leaves us with a feeling of sad inevitability but little sympathy for a woman who made the most of her beauty and wealth while she could, never thinking about what the future might bring. But the loss of her youthful looks was only the start of her misfortune.

Your husband’s heart gave out one Christmas Day,
He left the villa to his mistress in Marseilles

Life can be cruel, sometimes. To the ageing lady this must have felt as though her diamond necklace had tightened around her throat, the sparkling ice turning to sharp saw blade tips tearing at her skin and ripping her last vestiges of dignity to shreds. We can but pity her now.

Background Notes

  1. Outside music circles “The Divine Comedy” refers to a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri written between 1308 and 1320. It tells the story of Dante’s journey up through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, and is regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature.
  2. The band, The Divine Comedy, was formed in 1989 as a three-piece: Neil Hannon, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. A fourth member, John Allen, joined in 1991 but the band split in 1993. Hannon revived the name later that year using a fluid mix of permanent band members, collaborators and session musicians. In effect, The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon’s musical persona.
  3. Hannon writes the songs, sings and plays guitar, bass and keyboards. I read somewhere that, on one of his albums, he played all the instruments apart from the drums and the orchestral instruments. Unfortunately, I can’t find the reference now. 😦
  4. Hannon composed the theme tunes for the TV programmes Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He also sang on the soundtrack for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and on a Doctor Who CD.
  5. A Lady of a Certain Age is from The Divine Comedy‘s ninth studio album, Victory for the Comic Muse. The title is a quote from the book, A Room With A View, but it harks back to the band’s first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse.
  6. Victory for the Comic Muse was unusual in that it was recorded in just 2 weeks, using a minimum of overdubs. Hannon had a cold for some of this time, which perhaps accounts for him sounding uncannily like John Grant on A Lady of a Certain Age. (And all the better for it, I think.)

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.

San Francisco Drive

skyline

Now that we have escaped from Hotel California let’s go on a San Francisco drive with Petteri Sariola. “Who’s that?”, you ask. Well I’d never heard of him either until Spotify dropped a track called The Clockwork into my Release Radar last week.

That track turned out to be an unbelievable guitar performance by Sariola from his fourth and latest album, Resolution. There’s too much going on for it to be a solo performance – low notes, fast licks, ringing harmonics and percussive beats – but it’s much too tight to be a band. In tone, the sound is neither nylon string acoustic nor solid body electric. Intrigued, Crotchety Man googled (small ‘g’ because the word is now an accepted part of the English language).

Petteri Sariola

Petteri Sariola, it turns out, is a Finnish guitarist, arranger and singer/songwriter. He plays an acoustic, steel-strung guitar fitted with a pickup. This allows him to play mainly by tapping the fretboard while his right hand taps the body of the instrument to provide his characteristic percussive style. This is up-beat classical guitar with funky overtones. And there’s not a lot of that about.

There are several tracks on the Resolution album worthy of a Track of the Week slot, including The Clockwork and Good Friend, but I’ve chosen San Francisco Drive because that is also a great track and there’s a YouTube video that shows off Sariola’s technique pretty well.

Impressive, isn’t it? More like a Chapman Stick than a guitar. As one reviewer remarked,

”There are many ways to play guitar nowadays, still you will be amazed by the way Petteri Sariola plays his instruments.” – Latina Magazine / Japan

Take a bow Petteri, you have earned it.

Hotel California

hotel

I love a good story. It might be an adventure story, a whodunnit or a sci-fi epic. Whatever the format there’s always the urge to read on because you never know what will happen next. It might be in a novel or on a movie screen or, sometimes, in a song. That’s what we have with Hotel California, the Eagles best known and most popular single from their 1976 album of the same name.

Eagles

After a gentle guitar introduction this tale starts, like all good stories do, with a wholly unremarkable scene. The narrator is driving down a road in the Californian desert. The light is fading and he is getting weary when he sees the welcoming lights of a hotel up ahead. We, the listeners, know he is going to stop at that hotel. We know something is going to happen there, something that will delight or horrify us, but we don’t know which.

The band slips into an easy groove as the driver pulls into the parking lot and walks a little stiffly into the lobby. There is no clue yet to what will befall him.

He is welcomed by a woman with an air of mystery about her. She has a lovely face but there is something in her eyes that sounds a warning bell, a reverberation from deep within our hero’s ancestral memory. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, he thinks as he fills in the check-in form. But that would be an old and hackneyed story either way. As listeners, we expect something more subtle, more surprising, more thrilling.

The creature with an angel’s face and a devil’s eyes lights a candle and shows him to his room. A candle? Surely they must have electric lights in this modern, up-market hotel. Is the candle just to provide soft lighting for the guests or is the story teller hinting at occult ceremonies behind closed doors? The traveller is too tired to notice this anomaly but in the corridor ahead he hears voices that seem to say, “Welcome to the Hotel California”. “Such a lovely place”, murmur the odd numbered rooms on his left. “Such a lovely face”, whisper the even ones on the right.

The picture fades into another scene. It is a hot and sticky evening. The hotel lights are low, shadows flit across the courtyard where some of the guests are dancing languidly. It could be the next day or it could be that same night. The dancers look strangely insubstantial in the half-light. Perhaps they are ghosts, perhaps it’s all a dream. As the camera zooms in it becomes clear that the figures on the dance floor are all carrying old psychological burdens. Some dance to remember; some dance to forget.

Our lonesome traveller tosses and turns in the night. Above the backbeat groove the electric guitars are now crying with emotional pain. And there are those voices again. “Welcome to the Hotel California”, they sing. “Such a lovely place. Such a lovely face.”

Suddenly the focus sharpens and the surroundings become frighteningly real. There are mirrors on the ceiling, the glass bright and smooth. There’s pink champagne on ice in a shiny metal bucket on a side table. The trappings of luxury and wealth are everywhere. And the devil lady is explaining why everyone is here. “We are all prisoners”, she says, “of our own device”.

Just then the traveller catches a glimpse of a table set for a feast. A dozen stainless steel knives stab the meat but the diners just can’t kill the beast. How long has the once weary motorist been here? A day? A lifetime? He finds himself running for the door, desperate to escape from this life of excess and debauchery and get back to the world he came from. In the lobby the night man tells him to relax. “You can check out any time you like”, he says, “but you can never leave”.

And with that chilling message the guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh provide a two-part eulogy for lost innocence that doubles as a warning to those who believe that wealth is the only measure of success. That, they seem to say, is how you become trapped in an ever-tightening spiral of greed from which there is no escape.

Hotel California is a great story. It is also a great record. The single topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977 and has gone on to notch up sales in the U.S. earning it Gold certification for the 45 rpm single and Platinum for downloads. More significantly, I think, Hotel California makes it onto a number of Greatest Songs lists: it’s number 49 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, for example, and listed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Even that undersells the song  in my opinion and that’s a rather sad story.