15 best albums Q3, 2019

Led Bib

Another quarter and as always I am trying desperately to catch my breath. 

The idea this time was to go for some safe cards, such as ‘Anima’ by Thom Yorke, the new Metronomy record, or even the bilingual outing by Opeth. But although those albums might be good, I have to admit that I have basically ignored them and sneaked off to secretly listen to a lot of other sounds instead. So much in fact that I gave up on the idea to limit myself to a top 10. 

Hence, my best albums of this dramatic third quarter of the year 2019 are again selfishly personal, totally disorganised and not at all reflecting a responsible person’s selection of music.

But hey, the whole point with writing this is that I decide what stays and what goes!

Charlie Cawood – Blurring Into Motion

Melodically complex, lush and progressive neo-classical head spin. Makes me realise why Genesis liked Benjamin Britten.

The Cold Spells – Interstitial

Forlorn and experimentally pastoral post-punk pop. Not only is this album wonderfully restrained and autumnal, but it also gives me yet another opportunity to mention a clear influence from Robert Wyatt.

Diagonal – Arc

Van der Graaf Generator makes love to Talk Talk and gives birth to ambient prog. This is where post-rock should have gone in the first place.

Emmett Elvin – The End of Music

21st century King Crimson meets schizoid electronica. A difficult listen at first, but then you discover the beauty of this beast.

Föhn – Ballpark Music

Joss Cope teams up with Napo Camassa III and Ian Button, and invents a new genre, improvised pop. A strange trip, but one you need to take!

Led Bib – It’s Morning

A free-jazzier take on the North Sea Radio Orchestra. “Spine tingling” wrote NSRO collaborator James Larcombe and I can only agree! One of my top picks this year.

Francis Lung – A Dream Is U

Solipsistic pop of the highest order. A bedroom recording done in a big studio and nothing new under the sun – but somehow that sun is in a different galaxy.

Magma – Zëss (Le Jour Du Néant)

Orchestral rendition of the literally final piece of celestial music originally conceived in the 70s but not recorded in a studio until now. Not as unrelentingly mind-blowing as Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh but still a masterpiece.

The Melamine Division Plates – Novosibirsk

I am too young for the Spotnicks, but I bet they never sounded this good. Retro-futuristic imaginary soundtrack rubber band surf music from Alan Jenkins, of Deep Freeze Mice fame.

Modern Nature – How To Live

Modern Nature seem intent on updating 70s jam rock band Mighty Baby. The babies were in fact mighty far ahead of anyone else, and hence the updated result is nothing less than rootsy futurism. Amazing.

The Monochrome Set – Fabula Mendax

The progression here since The Jet Set Junta from 1982 may be difficult to pinpoint. But what does it matter when it is as great as this? As silly as it is sincere, and pure genius if you ask me!

Gruff Rhys – Pang!

Mixed by the South African electronic artist Muzi and with some verses in Zulu, this is nevertheless very much a Welsh pop album. Never been to Wales, but it seems that the pop Einstein per capita ratio must be highest in the world there. And Gruff is one of them, of course.

School of Language – 45

A concept album about the ruler of the Untidy State of America. Must have. Next quarter sees the release of a new Field Music album. Will it be as bold as this? One can only hope!

Alexander Tucker – Guild of the Asbestos Weaver

Electronica a la Brian Eno meets pop music a la Brian Eno in a modern studio playground. It may all have been precogged before, but Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 which is the thematic reference here is of relevance again.

Utopia Strong – Utopia Strong

Suggestive improvised electronica with a “non-musician” snooker champion Steve Davis and musical voyager Kavus Torabi. Haven’t wrapped my brain all around this one yet but you don’t need to with tracks like Brainsurgeons 3.

EP

The Martial Arts – I Used To Be

Master popsmith Paul Kelly combine Abba and Elton John on smashing new EP. Timeless!

Single

Officer! – Brexit means Toxic

Finally somebody says it like it is. And with a wyattesque pop-feel to boot!

Reissue

The Beatles – Abbey Road [50th Anniversary Edition]

Who else but the Beatles could agree to do a final masterpiece before splitting up, and then go ahead and do that. After half a century, no other band even comes close. And this one is worth the price of admission already for the studio demo of Macca ditty Come And Get It. But you also get the best sounding Beatles album ever as a bonus!

Archival release

The Regime – The End of Something

Home made album that sums up the dreams and the themes of the tail-end 60s gets posthumous release. Warts and all pop with some great moments.

Coincidentally, not only the end of something like an era – but also the end of this post.

Gerry Rafferty’s pop extravaganza – now without accordion overdubs

Gerry Rafferty

How many releases promising to give the complete recordings of a certain artist start off with two half albums (in other words ditching the other two halves of those albums)? Not many, I suppose. But the new Grapefruit double-CD set ‘Who Knows What The Day Will Bring? – The Complete Transatlantic Recordings 1969-1971’ does, for a good reason. 

Gerry Rafferty started his album career as one-half of a folk songwriting partnership with Billy Connolly of the Humblebums, turning that band into a New Humblebums in the process. So this album ditches the halves of two albums written by Connolly. Now that leaves some good songs where Rafferty is contributing as a musician out of the package, but on the other hand sets a very clear spotlight on Rafferty’s songwriting abilities. And that is a good thing to do, since they are simply amazing.

Over the course of these two jam-packed CDs there is in fact not a single dud among the tracks, and even the cutting room floor is littered with jewels. I was trying to refer to the out-takes here, making sure that even if you think you heard it all, you really need this package, in order to hear the demo of religiously tinted ode ‘Who Cares’, wordless homage to a daughter on ‘Martha’ and the rather lovely ‘Bernard’, that was used as raw material for ‘Mr. Universe’ (here complete with Rafferty’s instruction to other players: “OK, slow part”), apart from instrumentals and alternative versions.

If there ever was an album deserving to be called a forgotten masterpiece, I think Gerry Rafferty’s 1971 beatlesque pop extravaganza “Can I Have My Money Back?” would fit the bill. It is up there with “Would You Believe” by Billy Nicholls as far as I am concerned, although it has never had that same revered status among pop lovers. Well, it should.

Some records just get better the older they get, and this edition of “Can I Have My Money Back?” is literally one of them as it reinstates the original version of ‘Mary Skeffington’, without the overdubbed electronic accordion. 

I had no idea about this mistake, and have to admit to being one of the perpetrators because we released the album on my Strange Days label back in 2006 with the overdubbed version of the track. However, I checked the previous releases and they all have the same mistake, so for some reason the masters previously used for reissues were all at fault.

In a way, it is ironic that Grapefruit is now correcting this. Grapefruit may be the most conscientious and factually correct CD reissue label around, but that is only because label head David Wells’ other CD reissue label, Wooden Hill is now dormant. The irony is that the original CD reissue of this album back in 1996 where this whole overdubbed track replacement issue started was on Wooden Hill Recordings. So a lot of people may think that the guy who caused the problem is now fixing it. Well, not true. Wooden Hill Recordings was a label run by Cliff Dane and it had nothing to do with David Wells’ Wooden Hill label. Cliff Dane even renamed his label Wooded Hill Recordings in order to avoid confusion – as if that would actually do the trick!

Similarly to Paul McCartney, there is a strong folk undercurrent to Gerry Rafferty’s pop whimsy, and this sense of sure footing gives his music a timeless feeling. Although that continued to be a hallmark of Rafferty’s music, “Can I Have My Money Back?” is where everything really clicks perfectly, despite the fact that it is a contractual obligation album as you may divine from its title.

If you like what makes British pop unique while not taking itself too seriously, this is for you.

Wally play with their hands tied

WALLY

I remember hearing the first track of Wally’s eponymous debut album from 1974 in the downstairs DiskUnion prog store in Tokyo and thinking it sounded surprisingly soft and a bit poppy, not totally unlike Fruupp. So of course I had to have it.

I also remember my disappointment when playing the whole thing back home and discovering the American country twang on some of the tracks. I suppose that both progressive rock and country have its fair share of detractors; given that I count myself in the second group, this is the point where I wished I had put the album back in the (bargain) bin. But at some later point in time, I started thinking that the damage done by that twang thang wasn’t as great as I had initially thought.

Although second track ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’ is obviously set in rural America, sound-wise it doesn’t really go down those muddy trails. Lyrically, it also conveys much more of a West Coast hippie dream about the cowboy lifestyle than anything realistically Wild West. Whatever that may be…

However, once you think the danger has passed and you are enjoying the third track, sounding much more like a bitter British ballad for another rainy day on the dole, suddenly a slide guitar raises its ugly head; not only that, it does so with the ridiculous vocal line “All I need’s a steel guitar / to keep me company”. And that unbearable combo is repeated not once, but twice. It really does ruin a perfectly good song.

There are also a couple of fiddly jig breaks in the next song ‘’Sunday Walking Lady’, but they are in fact quite nice, and could just as well be Irish as far as I am concerned. And hey – that’s it.

To be fair, there is steel guitar all over both of these albums – but apart from the above episode and one of the hitherto un-compiled B-sides, it is all commendably un-twangy and not Americana cheesy. Heck, as far as I know, steel guitars come from Hawaii and shouldn’t be confused with cow herders anyway!  And while there is an obvious influence from West Coast music and American FM rock of the day, all of that is wrapped in Yorkshire understatement and as an effect become something rather different. Quite interesting, to be honest.

You obviously still have to stomach the band name, which of course has nothing to do with that 2008 Pixar/Disney film. That one’s spelled Wall-E. Instead, the name is allegedly related to the band’s original guitarist being really fond of gherkins (or wallies in cockney dialect).

What stands out on both ‘Wally’ and the 1975 follow-up ‘Valley Gardens’ is that there is lots of space in the music. The playing is is strictly restrained and there is a glossy sheen to the production. While that has led many to compare to Pink Floyd, I disagree. Instead, one of the defining instruments here is an electronically treated violin that sounds a bit like Eddie Jobson even before he had fully adopted that style. Vocals are also much more high pitched and there are often soft background choruses.

The focus on giving the sounds space and letting them breathe is partcularly pronounced on 1975 follow-up ‘Valley Gardens’. That is particularly the case on side-long opus ‘The Reason Why’ where it feels like Wally towards the latter half are playing with their hands tied to their chairs. Now that’s restraint for you. Constraint, even. And it does sound like little else from 1975.

If you like me love not only Fruupp but also underdog 70s prog bands like Druid, Cressida, Kestrel, Beckett and so on, then you need to know that Esoteric Recordings are now releasing both these albums newly remastered with single B-sides that until now have been unavailable on CD as “Martyrs and Cowboys – The Atlantic Recordings 1974-1975”.

A release you should seriously consider!

Diagonal go Arc

a3654377566_10

After the release of Diagonal’s self-titled album in 2008, a quite good record although it leaned heavily on prog and hard rock from the 1970s, Alex Crispin  pursued something more akin to art rock in Baron. Diagonal went on to make one more album without Alex (and without bass player Dan Pomlett), ‘The Second Mechanism’, before going into hibernation.

Now, seven years later, the Alex and Dan are back and Diagonal have released the excellent ‘Arc’. In fact, it is their best record ever in any constellation including Baron.

And before we let Baron off the radar, this album more than anything picks up where that group left of with ’Torpor’. Furthermore, it does so by honing in on the ambition to combine the seemingly incompatible elements of Van der Graaf Generator and Talk Talk. And in their best moments, on ‘Arc’ they manage to create  a strange but beautiful geometry out of it.

To that, Diagonal add a newfound funky yet deadpan pop touch, most prominently on opener ’9-Green’.

Simultaneously they have scaled back on the less interesting post-rock influences that Baron had, while cleaning up on the distortion and opening up the sound to be wider.

One instrument that adds a lot of texture is Nicholas Whittaker’s saxophone, and I particularly like how he allows interplay with the various organ sounds to conjure up a quite 70s atmosphere; something that in turn is allowed to contrast wonderfully with some of the more Talk Talk influenced moods.

Although the album works nicely as a whole and I honestly have had it on repeat since it was released, I would easily pick ‘Citadel’ as the highlight. Granted, it is probably the most traditionally proggy track here, but I just love every aspect of it; from the stark vocals in the beginning, to the superb 60s sounding organs in the middle and the sax that gradually takes over towards the end.

Then, when you start wondering if the Talk Talk influences were nothing more than fictions of you aural imagination, the music comes to a long halt on penultimate track ‘The Vital’ and the rockier energy that was in the air is replaced by something much more ethereal and fragile. I am not sure what the title actually refers to, but as a statement that Diagonal is reaching beyond most other bands in the current prog revival, it certainly states its intention as clear as could be.

And although the album is available on most streaming services as well as being distributed physically by Svart Records in Finland (yes that may sound odd, but Svart also released ‘Torpor’ back in 2015), this really is an album you must buy on Bandcamp.

I am not saying that because Bandcamp is the best music distribution platform on the planet – which I do think it is – but because you will get a full-blown 24 bit 96 kHz audiophile grade download thrown in for free. Or, you can just get that audiophile download for only £3. Heck, that is what they charge for the cup of burnt coffee on the Stockholm-bound train I am sitting on while typing this! Avoid that coffee and get the album download instead!

The Cold Spells sum up the holes

Cold Spells Interstitial

Let’s be honest, the sophomore album ‘Interstitial’ from Tim Ward and Michael Farmer aka The Cold Spells is easy to pass by. It is a restrained and autumnal affair, only occasionally dipping its toes into passages that bother the VU meters. In that, it is no different from last year’s cryptically titled debut album ‘- . . . . . / – . – . – – – . – . . – . . / . . . . – – . . . – . . . – . . . . .’.

But compared to that debut, the sound is more polished and the interplay between electronic and acoustic elements more to the fore. Although it might be a simple thing, the combination of synths and acoustic guitar on ‘Landscapes’ works incredibly well. 

Although the album was recorded in only two days, you certainly get the feeling that the post production phase in which synths and noises were added got much more love this time round. Whereas the debut album had more of a divison between the music and the background amendments, the sound here is more integrated and arranged.

Generally, that works to the band’s advantage, although I can sometimes miss some of the slightly rougher edges and more overtly psychedelic leanings. Instead, the storytelling folky elements from something like ‘Thomswood Hill’ on the debut are more indicative of where the new album is going; the deal-with-the-devil track ‘For All Us Sorry Travellers’ might be a standout example.

Hence, the more existentially oriented ‘It Is Time’ was exiled to the back of their recent single, as thematically it might harken back more to the debut. Nevertheless, it is a lovely, flowing piece of music that you shouldn’t miss.

However, this is not a competition and I have to say I love both Cold Spells albums equally much at this point. Their brand of contemplative psych-folk pop is difficult not to like. Melodies take their time to stick in your mind and the clock ticks only slowly, but bit by bit, you disappear into a parallell universe that while not containing any of the hauntological components on something like a Ghost Box Records release, still seems uniquely British yet impossible to pinpoint in place or time. The conjured-up landscape is the sum of the holes rather than the whole; located somewhere between the now and the then and the here and the there. In short, an interstitial place.

The promotion material mentions a range of artists from Robert Wyatt, via Brian Eno to Cluster. There is definitely a bit of wyattesque melancholia and intimacy at play here. The krautrock reference, on the other hand, applies nicely to the instrumental titular track, but with the twist that the monotony is driven by a jazzy acoustic guitar. Fab!

If you are an anglophile post-punk pop lover with a soft spot for the forlorn and experimentally pastoral, then this album is definitely just as much for you as it is for me. Kudos to Gare du North Records for continuing their quest to release quirky and interesting albums. ‘Interstitial’ is certainly another highlight in their fearlessly varied catalogue.

Fruupp and the petty story of pretty prog

fruup wise as wisdom

Both rock and pop come in various states of rigidity.

Most obviously, there is hard rock of course – it can also be heavy or full-on metal. But there is also soft rock as its polar opposite.

The pop world has a similar toughness grading. Power pop on the one hand, and soft pop on the other.

However, when it comes to prog there isn’t much talk about anything being soft. Progarchives.com, for example, lists heavy prog, progressive metal and tech/extreme prog metal as different official sub-genres, but makes no mention of anything even remotely related to soft, delicate, balmy, gentle, mild or even light. Nada. Nichts.

Which is a shame because it is certainly as difficult to make good music that could be described using such adjectives rather than just stoking the fire, as it were. Going rough is just taking the “gentle” out of the man, how hard can that really be?

You might say that Canterbury is a soft prog genre and while that could sometimes be applied to bands like Caravan or Hatfield & the North, the genre contains a lot of stuff that isn’t soft as well. Not least by the Soft Machine…

Enter Fruupp; delicately and without much fanfare. With harpsichords rather than distorted organs; and whispers not screams. That is not to say there are no organs or screams on Fruupp’s albums; there are plenty, we are just inverting the power scale here.

And while on the topic of instruments, Fruupp is unusually a prog rock band conceived by a guitarist, namely Irishman Vincent McCusker. Just don’t expect any solos. Or power chords. For what Vince doesn’t do, he is really is a guitar hero.

Fruupp’s debut album ‘Future Legends’ is the only of their four efforts that gets a four star rating on Progarchives, the others all get a meagre three stars.

To me, that is a bit like giving ‘Trespass’ by Genesis a higher rating than their subsequent albums. But even though Fruupp’s debut is of high standard, reviewers fail to appreciate that the band then progressed beyond the conventional prog-rock fold, and, in many ways, left comparisons behind.

While second album ‘Seven Secrets’ is good yet somewhat transitional, Fruupp find their true voice on ‘The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes’. While you get what by now is almost a signature dial-in of the music, opener ‘It’s All Up Now’ makes it quite clear that Fruupp are no longer the slightest afraid to be cute. Not camp in any way, just plain pretty. 

Prince of Heavens Eyes

But that gives them a more colourful palette and a broader range to draw from than most other bands. The album manages to constructively build on that dynamic, and is not only my clear favourite in their catalogue but also one of the unique moments in prog. Fabulous stuff. Their final album ‘Modern Masquerades’ is almost as great, even though it is more of the same rather than another big leap forward.

Although I have all their original vinyl albums as well as the original Japanese CD reissues from 1990, the Japanese paper sleeve editions of the first three albums on Arcangelo from 2004 together with ‘Modern Masquerades’ on my own Strange Days label in 2006, and the Esoteric remasters from 2009, I still think it is great that Esoteric have now collected the albums in a box with a name taken from a track on the second album, ‘Wise As Wisdom’.

Mind you, there is nothing new on this box: no hitherto unreleased material, and the masters seem to be the same ones that were used by Esoteric last time round. Also, if you want quality replicas you still need the Japanese paper sleeves.

But Fruupp are a band that deserves every reissue they get!

The pop listener’s fear of the pollen count

Now that abnormal weather is the new normal, it feels like it has been a loooong sneezy season. I have been doing little more than popping antihistamins and hitting the beach; with summery pop music in my ears most of the time, of course!

The eagerly anticipated Francis Lung album ‘A Dream is U’ was released in the beginning of August and it is different both to the more experimental indie rock stuff he did as a member of Wu Lyf and the laid back home recorded pop of his two more recent EP’s ‘Vol I (Faeher’s Son)’ and ‘Vol II (Mother’s Son)’. However, the difference to the EPs is more in production than necessarily in songwriting. The sound here is layered and incredibly lush. The music is quite introvert and deal with, among other things, very contemporary identity problems. It all feels both intimate and unhurried. The effect is that of a bedroom recording done in a big studio, which gives the album a unique touch. The songs are great too, and show a strong Beach Boys influence.

Speaking of the Beach Boys, it is impossible not to hear their influence also on Roger Heathers on his latest album, ‘Next Week In Münster’, although there is also a lot of other stuff going on here. In fact, the standout feature of this album is exactly that over-the-topiness; songs stop and start and are full of instruments and ideas in a mid 70s way that make you feel rather overwhelmed the first time around. But I love this type of energetic and intelligent pop a lot and have been playing this album to death. Amazingly, it is only about 25 minutes long but you really have to double check that timing when you’ve listened because there is so incredibly much on offer here.

Speaking of much to offer in a small package, it is impossible to not mention the new EP by The Martial Arts, ‘I Used To Be’. The music here also shows its mid 70s influences but has a much more commercial sheen, more Elton John than Cockney Rebel if you get my point. And spice that with an ABBA influence or two. But that certainly does not mean lightweight as the songs on this EP are complex and grow with every listen. Although The Martial Arts sounds like a band (which I believe they were at the time of their sole 2006 LP, ‘Your Sinclair’), but this is the work of a single person, Paul Kelly, who has played with several other great Scottish acts such as How To Swim and The Radiophonic Tuckshop.

Check out the video below where Paul plays all the parts, and then make sure to get a copy of the EP, it is incredibly worthwhile. Unfortunately the EP is not on The Martial Arts Bandcamp site (but the album is, just a few copies left!!) but you can get it directly from the label, Last Night From Glasgow.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FfpOOBqBN8

Another small package is of course John Myrtle’s debut EP simply called ‘Here’s John Myrtle’. Although Myrtle also references that musical past, it is the quintessentially English side of that past that is at the fore here. The instrumentation is also much simpler, focusing on acoustic guitars, and there are few if any production flourishes. But all of this works to great effect as the songs themselves are allowed to take the front seat and show off their considerable quality.

if there is anything that disappoints with ‘Here’s John Myrtle’ it is that there are only four new songs, as the track ‘Cyril the slug’ already appeared on the excellent ‘Two Minute Bugs’ digital single last March. I honestly had hoped for more from Mr. Myrtle by now. But what is here absolutely raises expectations for a full LP through the roof. Classy stuff!

And you can’t of course talk about classy in this context without mentioning John Howard. As opposed to the other artists introduced in this post, he was there back then and debuted with ‘Kid In A Big World’ already in 1975. Very much an archetypal pop singer/songwriter of the era, combining the pop sensibilities and vocal capabilities of someone like the already mentioned Elton John, albeit with his own signature theatrical touch, his debut went nowhere on release. Although its reputation has been growing slowly and steadily ever since, I remember picking up a vinyl copy in the early 90s and it still cost next to nothing.

Even though John Howard is over 65 years old now, he is still making music, and his latest album ‘Cut The Wire’ is as classy as they get. While also being quite sparse, there is much more instrumental variation from track to track compared to John Myrtle. It is also soon obvious that Howard knows all the tricks in the book: Although the recording budget probably was not very big, the arrangements are great, the vocals are never less than superb, and Howard certainly has the musical ideas to go along with the craftsmanship.

Overall, an album full of songs that are every bit as good as they were in the 70s from an artist who no-one might really expect more from, yet turns out to be at the top of his powers.  Not only does Howard often run circles around younger musicians, strangely, he doesn’t sound a day older than them either. A little gem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YepVprmtz1A

These records have been on repeat in my ears as I have been anxiously keeping an eye on the pollen count. But even though the pollen season is over now, I am still playing the music. You should be too!