Grapefruit box sets tease further British 70s treasures

How many British sub-genres to rock and pop would you say came and went in the handful of years from the mid 60s to 1973? Baroque pop, heavy psych, psychedelia, psychedelic pop, underground, popsike, singer-songwriter, female vocal folk and folk-pop, just to name a few?

If you know and care about these distinctions, I would call you a certified nerd. And in that case, at least one specific 3CD clamshell box in the series of such boxes offered up by the Cherry Red sub-label Grapefruit certainly has your name on it.

Or you might be a different kind of nerd, who, just like me, simply want all of the stuff from that era because you think most of what was made there and then is most often great, but at least always interesting to hear. Like me, you then probably appreciate the talk of sub-genres as a story-telling device, but in your heart you really just want to hear all of it.

But in both of these cases, you have been served well by two decades of increasingly barrel-scraping reissues and you might already have it all. Could this be a bit of challenge even for pop archeologist David Wells who is heading up Grapefruit?

At least I am feeling the pinch as we now get a look at avant-pop and art rock on a three-CD collection titled Lullabies For Catatonics as well as an examination of progressive pop on a ditto collection called New Moon’s In The Sky. Both collections contain an incredible amount of great music, but to put it bluntly: I have all but a few tracks on these boxes already. And regardless of what kind of nerd you are, if you are in the market for this, I suspect you might have most of it too.

But here’s the thing. The few tracks I hadn’t heard before here are truly special – and they also tantalisingly point to hidden treasures yet to be unearthed.

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There are in fact only three tracks I previously didn’t have on Lullabies For Catatonics. But what they lack in numbers they certainly make up for in substance! First of all, there is As You Like It, a band that rose from the ashes of Tales Of Justine and here contribute the lovely and very tuneful ‘No More Sunshine Till May’.

This track really makes you want to hear more from them, and it turns out you might well do just that at some unspecified point in the future. More exactly, they recorded a full album 1972 at the R.G. Jones studio in Morden – from which the present track is taken. But then they recorded another full album at Chalk Farm. Incredibly, neither of the albums were ever released, due to commercially trickery and subsequent failure by their manager. Given that a track appears here, I assume that Grapefruit have obtained the rights and could release both albums rather than just tease us with a track like this! Wow!

And as if finding one full set of hen’s teeth wasn’t enough, a similarly unbelievable story unfolds with the folky yet progressive sounds on ‘The Machine Grinds On’ by Gnome Sweet Gnome. Yes, that band name might sound like a garden variety joke, but the music here certainly is for real, and imbued with exactly that playful whimsy I just can’t get enough of. Again, there is potentially lots more where that came from: We are offhandedly told that Gnome Sweet Gnome recorded “a couple of albums” that only made it to acetate stage, while the liners tease us with a sound amalgamating early 70s Genesis with Canterbury scene acts like Caravan. OK. So I would pay an arm and a leg to hear those albums, not just this one song!

In all honesty, the third previously unreleased track here, ‘Can I See You?’ by former Donovan backing-band Open Road is every bit as amazing, with its moody mellotron and soft string backing. And once again, the inclusion of the track here teases more treasures to come. Because although the first Open Road album, ‘Windy Daze’ from 1971 was indeed released and is a pretty decent album, nothing there is even half as good as this, which comes from their second, fully completed but never released second album. 

So again, wow!!

Please, please David Wells, release all these albums now that you obviously have access to them!! I am counting to at least five full albums that have not yet seen any release in any shape or form in the intervening (close to) half century. That is a sub-genre in its own right, worthy of its own box set! 

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Although the New Moon’s In The Sky box doubles the number of tracks I did not have before from three to six even though it just focuses on the year 1970, they struggle to live up fully to the by now extremely highly set expectations. But that’s not to say the sky is empty here, maybe it is more that the moon doesn’t shine as brightly as the stars on the previous box.

For starters, four of the tracks, from Bill Oddie (of the Goodies fame, no less!), Love Street, The Iron Maiden and Canticle, are from singles and as such might not point to further treasures. But, as often is the case, there’s more if you scratch the surface. And – no, it is not because the Iron Maiden here have any relation to the metal spectacle that came later. Instead, this bunch came from Essex and were actually called Bum; a name deemed too offensive and thus changed to Iron Maden for their sole single that went nowhere. A real bummer that, because it turns out they recorded a whole album that never got beyond acetate stage!

And then there is Love Street, whose cover for the Israeli release of their single here serves as cover picture for the whole box set. It turns out they as well made an unreleased 1970 LP that I would very much like to hear, although it seems to contain a fair share of cover versions.

There are only two properly hitherto unreleased tracks on New Moon’s In The Sky, and in fact both of the acts have appeared with other unreleased tracks on other Grapefruit compilation boxes , so it seems that David Wells is portioning them out across releases in order to always have something unique for the nerdiest collector. More specifically then, the Regime who appears here with ‘Mr and Mrs Franklin’ were also on Come Join My Orchestra with the lovely ‘Dear Amanda’; and Lifeblud who had ‘Waxing Of The Moon’ on Strangers In The Room now appear here with the beautiful, baroque pop sounding ‘Bridge’.

Are there even more pop nuggets from these two bands just sitting on the shelf in the Grapefruit offices, awaiting future box set releases?

How nerdy and how much of a completist are you? If you have read this far, I think you already know the answer, and will want these boxes regardless! 

But I urge you to also let Grapefruit know that you’d really want to see a box with all those unreleased albums only teased and hinted at in these two releases. In a recent interview I did on behalf of Swedish mag Mono (in Swedish only, see link below), David Wells explained the reason for his focus on box sets: “The problem is that single CDs now have the feel of a monthly music magazine giveaway. With a box as well, you have scope within to put in a massive booklet. So it is a more collector friendly format, and it gives me space to expand really on certain bands.”

Well, half a dozen hitherto unknown albums form the early 70 would certainly tick all those boxes! I promise that I will buy a copy regardless of the price of such a set and even splurge on a second copy just to support the cause!


POPARKEOLOG DAVID WELLS ÖPPNAR DÖRREN TILL EN NY VÄRLD

 

Black Midi reinvent music from a full page

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MIDI is an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a technical standard for digitally playing, editing and recording music. If you think about MIDI as a musical annotation for the digital age, then it is not difficult to imagine MIDI sheet music that is so full of notes that only a computer is fast enough to play them all. Picture the mechanical pianos of the past with their punch-hole rolls for notes in a digital scenario and you get the idea.

Black MIDI takes that picture at least one step further, as it is the concept of sheet music so full of notes that is not only beyond human playability, but also beyond the capacity of computers. Sheet music like that would be so full of notes that to the human eye it would look completely black, hence the  name. And given that there are black MIDI compositions using the maximum number of notes possible in the MIDI standard, around 93 trillion, I am sure any printer would in fact print that just as a black sheet anyway…

The band Black Midi are a young London quartet taking inspiration from such incredibly dense and unplayable music, and as a result the sound they make is cacophonous, manic and frequently quite hard on your ears.

Now if you think that sounds like a description of a Cardiacs record more that anything else, you might be quite right, because if I would be forced to use only a single word to describe the music on this quartet’s amazing debut album ‘Schlagenheim’ it would in fact be pronk, the term invented to describe the musical style combining punk and progressive rock invented by the Cardiacs.

But while pronk is indeed a good starting point, the Black Midi are certainly not copycats. Although they do reach firmly into King Crimson territory both when it comes to fragility and brutal power, hardcore punk when it comes to sheer speed and abandon and the Talking Heads when it comes to postmodern frustration, they stretch beyond that. More particularly, black midi add a sense of post truth disillusion that feels very much 2019 – such as for example when singer Georgie Greep, with a true sense of envy repeats the comment “what a magnificent purpose” over and over again on debut single ‘BMBMBM’ as if someone seeing any kind of meaning is beyond his imagination in the age of fake news.

As is often the case for me, I find it hard review of music that really surprises me, and certainly that is true for this record. I am totally transfixed by this record, to be quite honest, and just can’t stop playing it.

So for now, I will limit myself to saying that the sound on ‘Schlagenheim’ is incredibly fresh and invigorating. And while it is impossible anymore to say that something sounds like nothing else, this comes as close as you are likely to get at least inside of the rock music idiom, while still managing to deliver beautiful melodies and poetic moments. 

It is as if by filling the sheet with so many notes that it becomes totally black, has in fact made it blank. The page that is truly full has enabled these young musicians to start with new musical ideas, from scratch again.

A truly unique album that you need to hear.

10 best albums Q2, 2019

As always seems to be the case, the second quarter of the year is a busy time. Nevertheless, I have tried to reduce this to the bare backbone of what I found to be really essential stuff. Among the new albums, I would particularly like to highlight the Jouis album. I know that I already wrote a swooning review about it, but I just can’t find enough praise to heap on it. Mind you, all the other albums on the list are also sublime!

I try not to focus too much on archival stuff, but there was just no way I could avoid that this quarter. I would particularly like to point out that The Ocean Tango needs everyone’s attention. A pop classic, simply put!

Speaking of pop classics, Green Seagull keeps delivering them, so I decided to have their new single in solitary majesty this quarter. Dying to hear their new album soon!

I also added a spoken word album. Partikelbana features poems written and read by Martti Soutkari. But you need to get this even if you do not speak Swedish, because it also contains four short, sweet jazz pop nuggets composed by Petter Herbertsson of Ocean Tango, Testbild! and Sternpost fame. If you have read my other texts on this blog, you probably know that I pray at the altar of his sense of melody. Although the tracks are short as a Swedish summer even taken together, Petter is on top form.  He assisted on vocals by another favourite, Siri af Burén. Totally essential.

Bitw – Bitw

black midi – Schlagenheim

https://youtu.be/TMn1UuEIVvA

Cate Le Bon – Reward

Gong – The Universe Also Collapses

Jouis – Mind Bahn

North Sea Radio Orchestra – Folly Bololey

O Terno – <atras/alem>

Rev Magnetic – Versus Universe

Daniel O’Sullivan – Folly

Wovoka Gentle – Start Clanging Cymbals

 

Archival releases Q2, 2019

Rascal Reporters – Redux, Vol 1

Peter Lemer & Friends – Jet Yellow

Be Bop Deluxe – Futurama

The Muffins – Secret Signals 3

Mothboxer – Time Capsule Vol. 1

The Ocean Tango – The Ocean Tango

Radiohead – MiniDiscs [Hacked]

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Single of Q2, 2019

Green Seagull – Simeon Brown

 

Spoken word album of Q2, 2019

Partikelbana – Partikelbana

Bill Nelson goes back to the Futurama

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The three albums that made me discover my musical taste in my early teens where Paul & Linda McCartney’s ’Ram’, ‘How Dare You’ by the 10cc, and ‘Futurama’ by Be Bop Deluxe. The latter is now available in a deluxe reissue and you can save yourself a lot of time by just getting it because it is essential. If you keep on reading, you have been warned, this text is longer than necessary.

Whereas I bought ‘How Dare You’ a souvenir from a language course in England during the summer of 1976, the other two albums I heard because they were the possessions of older brothers of classmates. I used to visit the friend whose brother had ‘Ram’ on an almost daily basis, and eventually managed to borrow it on an interminable basis.

But I did not meet the other classmate as often. And I think at one point his older brother got tired of me always wanting to hear ‘Futurama’ so he started refusing my requests. But as it happened, their dad ran a sound systems installation business from home, so they had lots of audio equipment. In the end, the elder brother gave in and made me a cassette tape copy of the album.

I remember listening to the cassette while trying to picture the cover art in front of me, with its intriguing symmetries and Art Deco stylings. There was a streamlined black phoenix bird flying over a futuristic machine landscape, a contrast between nature and technology that made an indelible mark on me. The phoenix was also on the inner sleeve, and in my imagination it became increasingly fantastic, to the point that I was slightly disappointed when years later I bought an actual cop only to find out that there where just two birds in black and white on one side and the picture repeated in negative on the other side.

That’s what a vivid fantasy can do to you. But it could never do that to the music on this album, because it still to this day goes beyond my wildest dreams.

Already the upfront assault of guitars on the opening track ‘Stage Whispers’ sounds like nothing else then or since. Now here was a guitar hero who sounded like he come in a spaceship from Mars, with alien melody lines and a heavy octane energy that nevertheless had no trace of hard rock in it whatsoever. Instead the guitar tones would sputter forth like electrified droplets of quicksilver.

It seemed to me that this visitor from outer space was gradually coming to grips with the primitive instruments we had here on earth. He sang “This guitar does not lie / The great deception is not my achievement” on that first track, and then he opened the following track ‘Love With The Madman’ with the lines “Piano keys don’t please me / They’re so dark.”

My suspicions where confirmed on third track ‘Maid in Heaven’ – that is, at least for as long as only had that cassette copy and didn’t realise that the first word in the title was in fact not “made”.

The fourth track on the album extends the breathless halo of energy that embraces these recordings, and to me, ‘Sister Seagull’ was the phoenix bird on the cover turned into a spaceship.

I could continue with half-remembered childhood memories for all of the tracks on this album, but suffice to say is that the opener on side 2, ‘Music in Dreamland’ gave me the idea that space was maybe something inside us as opposed to beyond the heavens. In that way, it gave the remaining tracks a more philosophical significance, or as the lyrics on ‘Jean Cocteau’ go: “Enchanter of souls.. / Your dreams still unfold.. / Sign your name with a star…” 

Listening to the album today, I can confirm that it just sounds better and more unique the older it gets. What I didn’t know back then was that the album was recorded at Rockfield Studios by none other than Pat Moran who made one little known but fantastic album with his own band Spring released on the cult Neon label in 1971. l can now attribute that extra magic to Pat Moran. Bill Nelson gives Pat a lot of credit for the album’s sound in the new liners, while admitting his own ego clashed with the album’s official producer Roy Baker Thomas, who was called in as star producer after his success with Queen.

The new reissue by Esoteric comes in two variants, a double CD with a remaster of the original album and a new remix of the album, as well as a deluxe box with an extra CD and a DVD. I haven’t heard the DVD, but I am afraid that just like the recent Esoteric reissue of ‘Sunburst Finish’ the new surround mix will be presented in a heavily compressed DTS version due to limitations of the DVD format rather than in a lossless version. Given that the box is expensive as hell, I do not at all understand the reasoning for not using Bluray instead, as even my old PS3 can read Bluray discs. 

On the extra CD, there is a hitherto unreleased BBC “In Concert” session from 1975 with three tracks each from the two first albums as well as the only BBC recording of non-album track ‘Piece Of Mine’. It is a great session that shows a band on fire, and given the rarity of the “At The BBC 1974-1978” package that contains the other BBC 1975 appearance on the CD as well as the videos on the DVD, it might well be worth the price of entry.

But for me, the bonus tracks on the second disc, available in both packages, are potentially more intriguing. First of all, there is the never before available initial, unfinished and piano-led, backing track, three-piece version of ‘Music in Dreamland’. It is fantastic to hear this early version as it says a lot about the gestation process.

But then there is the mysterious alternate single version of ‘Between the Worlds’. The single was withdrawn almost directly after its release, and I have always thought there was just one version that was then re-recorded by the same band on the album. But that there should be an alternate single version, hitherto unreleased? I suspect that what we are talking about here is the recording made by an interim lineup of the band in late 1974 with Milton Reame-James on keyboards and Paul Jeffires on bass, both from Cockney Rebel. But the same version has previously between released on the “The Be Bop Deluxe Singles A’s & B’s” compilation, except here it has 14 seconds added to the beginning. Since when did adding 14 seconds warrant calling a track previously unreleased? I wish the liner notes could have been more informative!

In any case and despite all my ramblings, you need this album. ‘Futurama’ is guaranteed to take you back to the future.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0qTRTdxSHo

School of Language makes music matter again

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Over the last two years, I have been increasingly disappointed at the lack of political interest among modern musicians. There is a big 60s revival going on since forever, but what most of those revivalist seem to totally miss out on is that music was political back then. Music was not only fun, it changed the world.

That belief in the political power continued in the 70s with both the progressive and punk movements, and stretched towards the 80s with RIO.

But then something happened and music turned into a product. It hasn’t recovered, and the fact that there inexplicably has not been an avalanche of albums protesting the return of the nationalists and conservatives on a global scale just goes to prove that point.

Enter David Brewis and his School of Language with a new concept album about the 45th president of the Untidy State of America.

The album is simply called ’45’ and it takes us through a laundry list of heinous and misogynist behaviour from lies to lies and over more lies to building walls to being declared mentally unfit to paying off whores to racism to grabbing pussies, to letting down Puerto Rico and to colluding with the Russians. Among other things.

By compressing all that stupidity into just a few songs, it becomes clear how normality has totally been set aside and democracy has been lost. If that wasn’t clear enough already…

Allegedly, the album went from a list of prospective song titles to a mixed and mastered record in around seven weeks. And the digital version has now been rush released way ahead of physical formats because… well because getting stuff like this out there now is important.

Musically, this is a treat of angular funk. David himself says it is a love letter to pioneers of black American music of the 60s and 70s, to artists like James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, The Meters and The Isley Brothers. Simultaneously, it is very understated and, to be honest, a bit constipated in a very charming way.

The album starts off with very dry and sparsely instrumented songs, that are based on repetitive rhythms and ironic lyrics with stellar passages such as “Nobody’s more conservative / And no one respects like women I do”.

You can laugh or you can cry, but it is difficult not to sing along. This stuff is hypnotic, and incredibly catchy despite its rather non-sweaty stiffness.

As the album progresses, songs become a bit more complex, more instruments are used and different vocals come into play. But the basic, raw and very political funk is never abandoned. And the music keeps on playing with your sense of rhythm. There are many stops and surprising starts that keep you on your toes. On your toes, dancing along, that is. Because while the lyrics may be aimed at moving your mind, the music on this record certainly moves your body, albeit in spurts.

It is great to hear music that is willing to make a stand like this. David has has always been the more angry and the more politically inclined of the Brewis brothers, also on the Field Music albums. And luckily, he hasn’t mellowed with age and fatherhood. Instead here he finds focus and purpose. I can see why this was made in such a rush; it is an inspired record, and above all it is not a product. Instead it is a call for action to the listener.

And, of course there is a limited edition in orange vinyl. Obviously.

The Gold Needles pop Through A Window

Gold Needles June 21st

After having delivered the wonderfully sprawling debut album ‘Pearls’ in various formats on various continents during 2018, The Gold Needles are now back with their sophomore effort. With ten short, sharp tracks, it is much less sprawling than the debut – but every bit as wonderful.

Although very much part of the psychedelia revivalist crowd around Fruits de Mer Records, their music is liberatingly free of psychedelic furniture; while there might be a byrdsian jangle here and there, there are no backwards sounds, sitars or kitchen sinks.

Instead, we get pure-hearted pop with the focus on the tone rather than the tinsel. The effect is one of timelessness, and a slightly rural feel that somehow makes me think of the Honeybus although The Gold Needles clearly have a more rhythmically oriented and heavier sound.

But of course, this is all very much rooted in the 1960s, a link that is made explicit by the inclusion of a couple of well chosen covers among the originals. It does make a lot of sense to do a track like ‘I’m Gonna Try’ by the Monkees, since the original is only available as a bonus track on the remastered edition of ‘The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees’, and it blends in here very naturally. There is also a cover of The Lemon Pipers’ ‘The Shoemaker of Leatherwear Square’ that while very nice, doesn’t fully live up to the original.

Whereas the songs penned by The Gold Needles themselves do not necessarily break a lot of new ground, they are very good indeed. In particular, songs like ‘Sunset Girl’, ‘Upon Our Skin’ and ‘This Autumn Road’ are imbued with melodic yearning and a sense of warmth that is difficult to resist. While they are simple enough to enjoy on first hearing, these songs grow the more you listen and are of that kind that become part of you rather than start to grate.

Turns out I was totally wrong about this, but the final song, ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ I thought of as a homage to David Bowie, in his character as Major Tom. After all, The Gold Needles are from Hull, the hometown of the Spiders From Mars. When I presented this idea to keyboardist Mark English, his reaction was “That never occurred to us […]  I wish we’d been that clever!”

Just my imagination being ignited by the quality of the songwriting here, then. But while you can go wrong with your imagination, you can’t go wrong with the album.

Cool pop for hot summer nights!

Bitw, best in the world

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I love the feeling of amazement when a new record unexpectedly ensnares me and carries me away. ‘Bitw’ is that kind of a record. Despite its unassuming home recorded blend of acoustic and electronic instruments and undemonstrative vocals, already the first song hides a huge melody in its guitar lines and an irresistible lo-fi choir.

And the second track ‘Diolch Am Eich Sylwadau, David’ just takes that in its stride and carries on, except the expressive guitar is now commented by an analogue keyboard.

The third song, ‘Love Is Happening!’ exposes a bleeding pop heart that makes me think about something from Postcard Records, although with less youthful energy.

The first five tracks are essentially sung in Welsh and I have no clue what the lyrics are about, but on ‘Honey Milk Salt Miracle’ and onwards everything switches to English, and with lines like “Eating / corpses in your kitchen / might seem short of meaning” I realise that there is more to this than first meets the ear.

The next song with English lyrics is ‘Don’t Get Caught In The Rain’. That injunction also constitutes another catchy refrain, which by now clearly is a hallmark of the album: Everything here is underlined by a memorable melodic hook, making this a big pop album despite the low-key DIY feel of the production and the rather mellow pace throughout.

Although ‘Bitw’ is Gruff ab Arwel’s debut solo album, it is not his first record. He has already made several records as one half of instrumental surf inspired band Y Niwel. Under the Bitw moniker, Gruff has also published an EP of instrumental electronic experimentation – a style that makes a brief return on the track ‘Poen Tyfiant’.

Whereas the original plan seems to have been to self-release ‘Bitw’, fellow Welsh pop artist Cate Le Bon at some point stepped in and recommended it for release on the Joyful Noise White Label Series. She should have a lot of credit for that. I was expecting her recent album ‘Reward’ to be the shiniest Welsh pop thing this spring, and although it is brilliant, I have to say that ‘Bitw’ shines just as strong, although in a somewhat different spectrum of light. 

Rather than Le Bon, the combination of fetching songwriting with an experimental attitude is not totally unlike that of her one-time partner Huw Evans, aka H. Hawkline. And he is in fact credited with sleeve artwork and design, so the connection is there.

Bitw, by the way, allegedly is Welsh child-talk for tiny. Like that famous grain of sand in the William Blake poem then…