Future Strings

harp + kora

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Crotchety Man has been bingeing on prog rock recently so I thought it was time for something rather different. As luck would have it my Release Radar this week included an enchanting track called Listen to the Grass Grow by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Now, I used a photo of Catrin Finch in an earlier post so I already knew she plays the Celtic harp. The tune on the Radar sounded like a harp duet but, after a little googling, I found that the second instrument is actually a kora.

What’s a kora? Wikipedia tells me that a kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp and goes on to explain that it doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments. Not being much wiser Crotchety Man went in search of photos. The instrument, he found, looks like a large lute with many strings. But it was still hard to see how it is played. What was needed was a video.

YouTube couldn’t oblige with a video for Listen to the Grass Grow but it does have a mesmerising clip of the Finch/Keita duo playing Future Strings live in 2013. If you want to know what a kora is, watch this video.

I’m not going to try to describe the music other than to point out that I’ve tagged it ‘classical’ and ‘world’. Just watch and listen. If you are open to that kind of music you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Further research turned up another excellent video and the news that Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita are currently touring the UK. Crotchety Man has booked to see them at the Derby Guildhall Theatre on Friday. It’s not often you get the chance to see a Senegalese musician playing a traditional African instrument here in the UK, although it probably helps that this particular artist now lives in a city quite close to Crotchety Mansions.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita fuse Welsh and Senegalese traditional music, adding African rhythms to Celtic melodies, in what just might become a new sub-genre of ‘world’ music. Perhaps we should call it ‘future strings’.

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The Road of Bones

Brrrr!

The lowest recorded temperature (-67.7 °C) in any permanently inhabited place on Earth was recorded at Oymyakon (Оймяко́н) in 1933 in eastern Siberia. In December and January the average daily temperature there is around -45 °C and the village lies deep within the permafrost region.

Building roads in this frozen and mountainous part of the world is difficult enough with modern machines; creating a 2000 km highway using picks and shovels would be unthinkable – unless you are living in Stalin’s USSR and you have a plentiful supply of inmates from the gulag labour camps to call upon. The R504 Kolyma Highway was built with a forced labour gang drawn from up to 200,000 camp internees between 1932 and 1953. At some point during that period it passed through Oymyakon, connecting it to Nizhny Bestyakh some 1000 km to the west and Magadan a similar distance to the east.

The new highway came to be called the road of bones because it was easier to incorporate the skeletons of those who perished during its construction within the road itself than to dig additional holes in which to bury them. Tens of thousands, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of men are buried within and beside that road.

I think we must assume that the progressive rock band, IQ, took the name of their 2014 album from that gruesome story. It’s hard to tell, though, from the lyrics of the title track.

Some lines resonate with the harrowing account of that road’s construction:

They survey the frozen scene, the cold countenance of hell

Shallow graves I mark with stones as I walk the road of bones

But overall the words fail to convey anything very much to a slightly peeved Crotchety Man; they seem neither profound nor poetic, to me. That’s a shame because Peter Nicholls’ vocals are a prominent part of the mix – warm, clear and perfectly suited to storytelling.

The instrumentation, though, is much more successful. Various keyboards roll over the senses in vintage prog rock style, bass lines skip and tumble, some understated guitar work adds an edge and the drum kit ticks along intelligently.

Wikipedia lists IQ as neo-progressive rock but to my ears the ‘neo’ is redundant. Their musical style owes so much to classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis that, if IQ had been around in the early seventies, the ‘neo’ sub-genre would never have been invented. And then there would be no temptation to make the futile distinction between neo-prog and new prog.

the band

Crotchety Man doesn’t like the cold. If he ever visits Oymyakon it will be in high summer when the maximum temperature can reach over 30 °C, making it one of only three places where the highest maximum is more than 100 °C above the lowest minimum. And that’s still not enough to thaw the bones in the only highway in town.

Proud Mary

riverboat

Yesterday the sun was out, the sky was clear and the birds were singing. Today, the forecasters assure us, will be just as nice. And tomorrow is likely to be the warmest Spring Bank Holiday there has ever been. Feeling unusually full of life the Crotchety Couple set about weeding the garden and cleaning the patio.

Having scraped away the moss between the flagstones it was time to try out the power washer that had been sitting in the garage for many months. Following the instructions carefully Crotchety Man fitted the wheels and the handle, attached the outlet hose, assembled the gun and its jet nozzle, attached the inlet hose, turned on the water, plugged the washer into the power socket and switched it on. Releasing the safety catch nervous fingers pulled the trigger. Whoosh! A powerful stream of water surged from the nozzle tip and soon the whole of the patio was covered with water.

“Well, that works!”, proclaimed Mr. Crotchety, proudly. Mary, however, was less impressed. “It hasn’t cleaned off the grime”, she said, “and everything is wet, now”. The missus was right, of course. “Shouldn’t you have the nozzle much nearer the slabs?”, she added. So I lowered the gun and fired again. The stone under the water jet brightened in colour from a grubby grey to a light sandstone. I couldn’t believe our patio was really such a lovely colour but, as I swept the nozzle from side to side, that light sandy hue came peeping out from behind the accumulated dirt of the last three years like the sun emerging from behind a dark cloud.

Our shared sense of triumph didn’t last long, though. By the time I had cleaned one slab the whole patio was submerged in water; no longer terra firma it had taken the appearance of an ad hoc water feature. The Crotchety Couple found themselves paddling, which would have been fun in bare feet but not so comfortable in our soaking wet gardening shoes. Even more worrying was the realisation that there is nowhere for the water to go. There is no drain in the back garden; all the water was flowing down the slope to lap against the back wall of the house.

brolly boat

Either we would have to shut off the river at its source or we’d have to do the rest of the gardening from a boat. I wondered, briefly, if an upturned umbrella would do the job but that was just silly. What we really needed was a full-scale ark …

Releasing the pistol grip and stemming the tide that threatened to wash us away while leaving the patio black and grimy a rueful Crotchety Man packed up the washer and stowed it away in the garage. It will come in handy for washing the car one day. In the meantime we’ll get some patio cleaner and a scrubbing brush. At least now we know what colour the stones should be.

These thoughts of rivers and boats reminded me of that classic song, Proud Mary, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And on a hot and cloudless day like today it goes particularly well with an ice cream or a cold beer.

You all know this one. It was released in 1969 and reached no. 2 on the Billboard 100 chart in the U.S (no. 8 in the UK). The Crotchety ears heard it as a catchy pop song in those days but ‘country rock’ is a better description. Although ‘country’ is often a dirty word on this blog and Proud Mary sounds a little dated now this track is as warm as the summer sun and as refreshing as the clear waters of a mountain river.

Green and Orange Night Park

bridge

A post on my Facebook page this week linked to this page on the DGM Live website. It reports that Keith Tippett is recovering from a heart attack and pneumonia and will be unable to work for the foreseeable future. Some of Keith’s friends in the music business are doing what they can to help him and his family. They have set up a “rescue fund” and all proceeds from the sale of his latest CD release will go there.

This news brought back fond memories of Keith Tippett’s contributions to some of the early King Crimson albums. One track in particular stands out: Bolero – A Peacock’s Tale from the Lizard album that was a Crotchety Man album of the month in January 2016. In that post I said this about the Peacock’s Tale:

Then, in amongst the other instruments, the piano goes off on an astonishing flight of fancy – the ivories ripple and tinkle, ascending like a pair of squabbling birds, up and up, octave after octave as if each hand is racing to be the first to leap off the top of the keyboard.

It was that short passage that engraved the Keith Tippett name on the honours board in Crotchety Man’s personal hall of fame. Here’s a six minute video I created by extracting the peacock from the 23 minute long lizard that stretches across the whole of the second side of the album. The extraordinary piano section comes at about the 4 minute mark.

But dedicated readers of this blog already know that story. It’s old news. So the research elves formed a search party and ventured off into the uncharted corners of cyberspace for more of Mr. Tippett’s music.

Wikipedia has a selected discography that lists around 100 albums, the great majority of which feature Keith Tippett as a collaborator rather than the headline artist. His own website, has a catalogue of 24 Keith Tippett CDs, again mostly collaborations and all but six out of stock. On Spotify there are three albums under Keith Tippett (all collaborations), two more by the Keith Tippett Group and one by the Keith Tippett Tapestry Orchestra. For a musician held in such high regard KT seems to be surprisingly under-promoted. Perhaps that’s why the rescue fund is needed.

A full search of the Tippett canon would stretch the Crotchety elves resources well beyond their Track of the Week budget so I have chosen a piece called Green and Orange Night Park from the Keith Tippett Group‘s 1971 album, Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening. The album title was, of course, stolen from a track on Soft Machine‘s Volume Two and Night Park does sound a lot like 1971 vintage Soft Machine. But, where the Soft Machine track uses just a guitar and Robert Wyatt’s idiosyncratic vocals Night Park is a full jazz band composition taking nothing (as far as I know) from the earlier cut.

Listen carefully to the first 1 minute 50 seconds. That’s where Tippett’s fingers pummel the piano in a glorious celebration of sound, pounding along somewhere between tuneful and tuneless, setting the scene for the horns. After that we barely hear the piano at all but its spirit lingers on like the homeopathic signature of a poisonous substance in ultra-high dilution.

keith

If you enjoyed this night time stroll in the park perhaps you’ll join with me in wishing Keith a speedy recovery.

Manic Moonlight

sea moon

On Friday Crotchety Man took his camera to the Crich Tramway Village in picturesque Derbyshire. He spent several hours the following day sifting through the photos, cropping them, straightening them and adjusting them for exposure and contrast. A selection was then published as an album on the photo hosting website, flickr. In doing so the photographer noticed a curious little icon next to the flickr logo that hadn’t been there before. It looked like two iced doughnuts, one with blue icing, the other one pink. The Crotchety eyes immediately became quantum entangled with that icon, instantaneously taking on its curious state.

There was no tooltip annotation on the doughnut image to give a clue to its purpose but the mouse pointer’s shape indicated a link to another location somewhere else in cyberspace. Could this be a wormhole to a new and fascinating digital world? Or had the page been hacked and the dual doughnuts were the button that opens a Pandora’s box of viruses and trojans? With fingers crossed Crotchety Man clicked.

With considerable relief the cyberspace adventurer found himself transported to a stunningly attractive page labelled SmugMug + flickr. It seems that flickr is now part of SmugMug, a photo hosting site that also provides a platform for photographers to publicise and sell their photos. The contrast between the two sites is startling. Where flickr looks tired and boring SmugMug sparkles with a freshness and vitality rarely seen on the Web. Where flickr is functional and business-like SmugMug is casual and engaging. But, above all, the promotional images on SmugMug knock the flickr ones into a cocked hat.

Needless to say, SmugMug proper requires a subscription (starting at $3.99 per month) but flickr does not. Even so, that trip into a nearby cyberworld reminded me that there is a whole new generation of websites that are making the most of modern computer technology to create immensely exciting places for casual web browsers to visit. Take musicglue, for example. Like bandcamp it provides a place for musicians to publicise and sell their work, taking a cut of the proceeds. But musicglue makes better use of the latest Web technologies to create a site with exceptional visual appeal.

“What has all this got to do with the Track of the Week?”, I hear you ask. Well, this time I’ve chosen Manic Moonlight by the Norwegian post-rock band, SKAAR, who have a presence on both bandcamp and musicglue.

I heard this track the other day when playing my latest Release Radar. My first thought was that Kate Bush had a new song out. A female voice was wailing and swooping like Catherine pleading at the window to be let in to Wuthering Heights. But this voice was less ghoulish than that first single by Kate Bush and the backing band was more jagged rock than heather-soft pop.

On investigation the Crotchety databanks soon added a few sparse details about the band. They are Karla Lesley Jaeger (vocals), Andreas Melve (guitar), Petter Soltvedt (guitar), Ulf Jonsson Legernes (drums), David Magyel (piano) and Thor Saunes-Skarsgaard (bass and synth). They are based in Bergen, Norway and the band’s Facebook page describes their music as “Progressive Eclectic Rock”. This latest single fits that label rather well and it pleases old Crotchety Man greatly.

SKAAR

Also on the Radar

In fact, my Radar playlist this week contained an embarrassment of riches. I think Spotify has located Crotchety Man’s idiosyncratic sweet spot and locked on with unerring accuracy. So here, once again, is another smorgasbord of tracks that are new and carry the Crotchety stamp of approval. If the Radar continues to be so fecund I may make this a regular feature.

A Thousand Shards of Heaven

milky way

The English word ‘lunatic’ comes from the Latin ‘lunaticus’, which means someone who is afflicted by one of the diseases of the mind caused by the moon. These days it is generally taken to mean a person who is endearingly foolish and unpredictable rather than actually mad and can be a term of affection.

Perhaps you have a friend like that – someone who goes through life with gay abandon never seeing the dangers that their frivolous actions might entail. Someone, perhaps, who ties helium-filled balloons to his chair until he floats up into the sky, drifts away on the wind and is never seen again. That, I think, is the kind of madness that Mariusz Duda had in mind when he chose ‘Lunatic Soul’ as the name of his solo project.

Duda is, apparently, better known as the vocalist and bass player with the Polish prog/metal band Riverside. Not being a fan of metal, Crotchety Man is totally ignorant of Riverside‘s slant on music but Lunatic Soul‘s latest album, Fractured, definitely doesn’t fit in the metal category. All but one of the tracks on that album sit at the soft end of progressive rock and my Track of the Week, A Thousand Shards of Heaven, almost qualifies as ambient for the first four minutes or so.

But before we get to Heaven, for those of you who don’t have time for the full 12 minute journey, here’s a five minute executive summary of the Fractured album. It’s a track called Red Light Escape and it illustrates Mariusz Duda’s song writing style rather more succinctly.

In Red Light the vocals are prominent and the words are important but the instruments provide much more than a backing track. Guitars, keyboards, bass and drums all support the voice and each other, forming a structure of separate but interlocking parts. And towards the end the warm buzz of a saxophone provides a refreshing change of texture. The drums may be a little fidgety but this is a thoughtful, gentle kind of rock music, red light years from the frantic thrashing of a mainstream metal band.

Now let’s turn on the boosters and build up to escape velocity. We left Earth orbit long ago but now we need to leave the material world all together and smash through the crystal barrier dividing us from the spiritual world above. Brace yourselves …

Our ship shudders with the sound of shattering glass.

We’re through! A thousand shards of heaven’s pearly gate are spinning silently away into the infinity of God’s realm and a deep, deep peace pervades the air.

A guitar begins to play. It could be a John Williams piece from one of the Sky albums – a classical composition with an electric edge. An angel’s string ensemble contrasts with the plucked guitar notes and softens the overall tone. A tenor voice, close by, sings a simple melody. His words tell of a man who, in the wake of tragedy, is yearning for release from his suffering.

I want to feel what it’s like
When sorrow turns into strength.

Slow bass notes add depth. Backing vocals mix in harmonies. An unaccompanied guitar break provides a pause for contemplation. The angel strings sing their own melody. The song continues for another verse.

You can say that I’m surrounded
By the ruins of my previous life
But I am not a prisoner.

At four and a half minutes in you might expect the scattered shards to be dissipating, the song coming to an end. But time has no meaning in heaven. One by one different instruments make their own contribution. The bass begins to pulse more strongly, electronic sounds enter the mix. A drum kit clacks and rattles, another male voice fades in. A funky guitar chatters quietly, a smooth sax croons a mellow commentary.

A thousand shards of heaven
Drinking coldness from the night.

The track has morphed imperceptibly into a slow prog rock anthem picking up impetus without changing tempo, adding several new parts without becoming audibly more complex, reaching a climax without turning up the volume. This is a trick Crotchety Man imagined only the Lord of Heaven could accomplish and he marvels at it.

Finally, one by one, the instruments begin to fall silent again leaving just John Williams’ immortal fingers to remind us of the opening strains before they, too, fade into the distance.

mariusz duda

Mariusz Duda, aka Lunatic Soul

A Thousand Shards of Heaven is both a lovely song and a sliver of haunting, unpretentious prog rock. You’d be a lunatic to knock it. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.

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Days of Pearly Spencer

 

sinking fast

Sometimes I feel I’m losing the will to live. It’s usually when I’m ironing – shirts are so darn fiddly, aren’t they? So I do my ironing weekday afternoons between 1 and 4 pm so that I can listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the radio. They play some good music and they have a lot of laughs; it’s the most effective antidote for boredom that I know.

So there I was, ironing another shirt, when a jaunty disco tune came on. I barely noticed it at first. Then, over the funky bass and perky drum machine, a familiar jingle wormed its way into the Crotchety ears. I know that song, I thought, and its title flashed up on the mental display screen: The Days of Pearly Spencer.

But Pearly Spencer, as I remembered it, wasn’t a disco record. And yet there was that distinctive motif that pervaded the airwaves of every decent radio station back in the late sixties. If it wasn’t the song I knew it had to be a later cover. For the next 3 or 4 minutes ironing shirts was no longer a chore. Wrinkles in the cloth magically disappeared amidst little puffs of steam, while the Crotchety mind wandered elsewhere and the hands moved on autopilot.

The Pearly Spencer theme ran for another minute or so before the vocals came in with a dire warning for humanity. We are poisoning the planet with pesticides and, sooner or later, nature will have her revenge. That’s not the Pearly Spencer story; some reprobate must have stolen his theme for a completely different song. It was, in fact, a song called Supernature by Marc Cerrone, who (I discovered later) was a disco producer in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Supernature is quite listenable at its 4:22 radio edit length. The full version on the Cerrone I,II,III album is much too long at 9:45 and the YouTube video below runs three tracks together for an interminable 18 minutes plus. It’s visually rather good, though, so watch it until you get bored and then read on.

OK, so you’ve heard the rip-off, now hear the David McWilliams original. There are two versions: the single and a longer one from the album, Working for the Government. Here’s the single on YouTube:

On the Crotchety patented pop-meter that scores an almost perfect 10. The lyrics paint a picture of an old man, battered, bowed and finally defeated by life’s endless battles. And yet, it rocks along irrepressibly. The megaphone sound of the vocals in the chorus gives it an air of the supernatural. And there’s that unforgettable haunting riff in the strings, a phrase that can be plagiarised but never merely quoted, even in homage.

The album was recorded some 20 years after the single release and that version has a completely different arrangement. It dispenses with the rocking beat, the fuzzy chorus vocals and the characteristic haunting riff. It throws away nearly everything that makes the single so memorable and appealing. It slows the pace and nearly doubles the playing time, too. It’s almost a different song. And Crotchety Man says it’s amazing.

I can’t find this version on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify.

David McWilliams was a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ireland. The Crotchety memory banks have him down as a one-hit wonder but the usual online sources say he released some 14 albums and was, for a time, very popular in continental Europe.

Surprisingly, although The Days of Pearly Spencer topped the charts in “numerous countries” and sold over a million copies, it was never a hit in the UK. Wikipedia puts this down to the record being banned by the BBC because of somewhat indirect links to the ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline. I find that explanation hard to swallow because Pearly Spencer had no trouble reaching my ears – and the only pirate station I listened to had been shut down before the record was released. Perhaps my memory is at fault.

David McWilliams died in 2002 but the Pearly Spencer story lives on. McWilliams had a daughter, Mandy Bingham, and she released a version of The Days of Pearly Spencer just last year, 50 years to the day after her father’s single. The Mandy Bingham version brings back the distinctive riff as a viola’s lament in a lovely folk song arrangement where it complements Mandy’s lead vocal beautifully. This release also features Mandy’s daughter, Lola, on backing vocals.

The Crotchety pop-meter gets horribly confused by the Mandy Bingham recording but the prototype folk-meter goes right off the scale. It’s subjective, I know, but to the Crotchety ears this is the best rendition yet of a timeless song in the pop/folk tradition.

The  ironing pile of life will never be too big if Pearly Spencer is there to relieve the tedium.


Headline Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/pauper-the-homeless-man-dog-street/id/346396/