Why, in the age of streaming, should you even bother buying a CD box set? As far as I am concerned, Grapefruit Records have found the answer. It is all about the accompanying booklet.
Whereas analogue LPs might be bought on the grounds of the cover art and the (questionable) quality experience of having to turn sides after 20 minutes, a digital CD might not improve much on a lossless stream from Tidal or (soon) Apple Music. But with Grapefruit label owner David Well’s incredibly well-researched and insightful liner notes in your hands, the listening experience turns into a kaleidoscopic discovery journey. Yes, they really are that good. And the stories here constantly point you to side quests, prompting you to discover music way beyond the box set itself.
For me, this time round, the major discovery was the track ‘Once Upon A Dream’ by Rusty. I have long had their 1972 acetate test press on my Discogs wish list but have not come across a copy. Not only is the song included here a fabulous late 60s sounding Beatlesque psychedelic pop song, but it turns out that Cherry Red have made the whole album available for streaming as well, and to my surprise, it is a fully realised pop album in the same vein: some of the tracks are all the way up there with the nugget included here. The streamed album is a straight vinyl rip, vinyl clicks and all, and the first track is even full of digital jitter and transfer errors, so let us hope that Grapefruit eventually gets around to issuing a properly treated CD release!
Although I have a tendency to go down a rabbit hole, I should point out that this box set is not only for nerds. It caters expertly to listeners who are interested in getting an idea of what was going on not only in the charts of 1972 but also beyond them.
Many of the big names of the day are here, such as Thin Lizzy, The Moody Blues, Slade, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, even Yes. And, importantly, reading about them sheds new light on their music. Take Barclay James Harvest for example. Did you know that they released a single under the pseudonym Bombadil? Read all about it here.
Still, it is the lesser known contributions that draw me in. Some of them are totally new to me, such as the fabulous Ray Davis-penned ‘Nobody’s Fool’ by Cold Turkey or the wonderful soft psychedelia of ‘Birds Must Learn To Fly’ by the strangely named Rocky Cabbage or the magical ‘I Am… I Think’ by the even more strangely named group Grobbert & Duff. Fantastic stuff!
Then there are some thankful additions to my collection, such as the single that Rockin’ Horse made under the Atlantis pseudonym. I already had the A-side ‘I Ain’t Got Time’ on another compilation but was very happy to finally get to hear the Campbell rocker on the B-side, ‘Teddy Boyd’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Show’.
Another true highlight is the McCartneyesque ‘Maybe I’m Lost Without You’ by Neil Harrison. While I have this lost gem on the original single, the sound here is better, indicating the possibility that it might come from a recovered master tape. That idea in itself is a tantalising proposition: Neil recorded more songs during his time with Southern Music, and might this lead to a chance that they tapes still exist??
However, it seems that even David Wells can get his facts wrong at rare occasions, as he writes that Neil Harrison was involved in the 1977 Jabberwock single ’Sneakin’ Snaky’, which is not true. I contacted Neil, who wasn’t even aware of the realease of this compilation, to double check, and he says: “It must have been some other Neil Harrison.”
I could ramble on forever about this compilation, but I will not distract you any longer from going out to buy it now!
When putting on And So Sinks The Sun On A Broken Sea, my immediate reaction was: “Wow, Misophone haven’t really changed much since I first heard them a long long time ago!” But then I realised that this is a compilation, and the first track on there is indeed from a long long time ago, more exactly from their 2007 debut album, released on the Swedish Kning Disk label. A great record I must say, that bookends this compilation while pointing to the titular water theme.
Amazingly, although featuring songs from across their career, this compilation works incredibly well as an album. In fact, it has prompted me to seek out and buy all of this intriguing English duo’s original albums – and I can’t give you a better recommendation than that! (Unfortunately, physical copies of their two albums released on Japanese label Inpartmaint still elude me…)
In case you didn’t know, misophonia is a disorder of decreased tolerance to certain sounds, such as repeated clicking or for example chewing. Hence, Misophone present their music tentatively, as if trying to caress your ears and avoid triggering sudden reactions. The result is a very personal sort of introverted bedroom folk that combines a slow-burning knack for pop melody with a steampunky mix of timeless found sounds and Victorian music hall atmospherics.
But as if even such soft treading can in itself become repetitive and trigger misophonia, they also suddenly change gear, as on “Ghost of right wing America”, probably my favourite track here, with its discordant circus comp.
Paul & Linda McCartney’s album ‘Ram’ was released on May 17th, 1971. At that time I was 9 years old and more or less the only real pop song single I had was by a fake group, the Monkees. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the Monkees to this day.) My dad’s classical music influence was still shielding me off from the Beatles – and I was happily unaware of the abuse music journalists were heaping on Paul McCartney for his second solo album. Paul was to blame for everything that had gone wrong with the Beatles, and on top of that he was a wussy whereas John Lennon was a cool dude. And how dared he make such silly pop music!
Three years later I was equally unaware of how, as a result of all the critical scorn and abuse, McCartney had turned his back on the album and moved on. Around that time, I spent increasingly much time at the home of a school friend where lax circumstances allowed us – and my school friend’s older brother – to do pretty much anything we pleased.
The older brother was into hard rock. I remember albums from Nazareth, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Blue Öyster Cult. We were not allowed to put on his records when he wasn’t there as he said we’d damage them. However, he had a couple of albums that were too soft for him to bother about anymore, so we could play those. One of them was ‘Ram’ by Paul and Linda McCartney. We played that ever so often in the background while hanging about in the almost cave-like room in the cellar where the record player was. This was an exciting room to be in back then, because there where cigarettes lying about, and also quite often bottles of beer or wine that my friend’s older brother had left there.
But eventually, I did start noticing the music of ‘Ram’. And at some point, it became a more important reason for me to want to spend time in that cellar than the forbidden smell of tobacco. Obviously, I had listened to a lot of other pop music before then, but it mainly was singles and hit song oriented radio programs. I had an album by the New Seekers of Eurovison Song Contest fame, and even ‘Headquarters’ by the Monkees, but ‘Ram’ was the first album that I truly got hooked on.
And boy, did I get hooked.
We spent most afternoons in my friend’s place – and I insisted on wanting to play the album all the time. Soon, everyone refused to let me put it on agan, and the older brother let me take it home and listen instead, since he didn’t care about the LP anyway. I still have that battered copy and I love it as much to this day. Together with ‘How Dare You’ by the 10cc, it became the measure of all other records. While I have added a couple of more albums (including an album or two by that other group Paul McCartney used to be in, the Beatles) to that list of essential cornerstones since then, ‘Ram’ remains very much at the centre.
While my appreciation of ‘Ram’ hasn’t changed one bit over the year, the way the rest of the world thinks of it has. It is no longer an ugly duckling, but instead a full-fledged swan, viewed by many critics as Macca’s best post-Beatles album. And while it was accused of not having any good tunes (for example by Ringo) back then, now it is hailed for the beautiful melodies it has always had. And while it was scorned for being simplistic (such as John Lennon comparing it to muzak), these days it is praised not only for its ambitious compositions, but also for its overall sophistication – particularly by those who actually listen to it and realise that while the cover art depicts life on the farm in Scotland, this is in fact not an amateur home recording like the 1970 ‘McCartney’ album was, but instead was recorded with session musicians in New York (including guitarist David Spinozza who would then ironically be hired by Lennon to play on his ‘Mind games’ album). The album also had orchestral scores by George Martin recorded by the New York Philharmonic with Paul conducting, and was meticulously mixed by Eirik Wangberg, who among working with everyone else of note also co-produced the Beach Boys ‘Smile’ sessions as well as the ‘Smiley Smile’ album.
That is not to say that ‘Ram’ isn’t full of silliness, because as every great pop album of course it is.
The title track, or maybe more correctly title ditty, isn’t called ‘Ram’ but instead ‘Ram On’ as in Macca’s one-time stage name with the Silver Beatles, Paul Ramon. And he also recorded the full album in a cheesy orchestral easy-listening version, although it wasn’t to see the light until six years later, as ‘Thrillington’.
Still – and most likely due to the incredibly low status it was initially given by all the cool people in the industry – McCartney has avoided it like the plague when it comes to live performances. It has instead been up to other artists to honour the album on the stage. More specifically, Tim Christensen and Mike Viola played ‘Ram’ in full from start to finish as a one-off tribute concert at Vega in Copenhagen to celebrate Macca’s on the very day he turned 70th. It was released as ‘Pure McCartney’ a year later. I remember interviewing Tim about that concert and he said that Sir Paul McCartney had indeed been invited to the party, although he for some reason had not shown up…
And now, it has become time to celebrate the 50th birthday of ‘Ram’. Certified Beatles superfan, and well-known and all-round LA musical scenester Frank Perdomo together with original ‘Ram’ album session drummer (who went on to play on ‘Wings Wild Life’ and ‘Red Rose Speedway’) have recreated ‘Ram’ in full, from start to finish as a studio album, with help from a lot of artists. David Spinozza plays all his original guitar parts, and Marvin Stamm reprises his flugelhorn on ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’. Other guests include Brian Wilson’s daughter Carnie Wilson, Joe Santiago from the Pixies, Dave Depper from Death Cab For Cutie and a host of others. Fittingly, this tribute album is adopts the longer title, ‘Ram On’.
Oh, and it wouldn’t be a 50th anniversary without a 50th anniversary edition, so just in case you still actually do not own a copy of this essential album, you can pick up a half-speed mastered vinyl edition a few days before the actual birthday party starts. I know I will be celebrating on May 17th – and maybe, finally, Paul will too!
In the UK, you did not have to pay sales tax if you only pressed 99 copies of an album. As a result, the private press scene could exist almost as a parallell world next to the major labels. Today, most originals are extremely expensive, but their scarcity has also generated interest in wider circles, making reissues possible if not exactly popular.
For a long time, Tenth Planet (and its corresponding CD label Wooden Hill) was my favourite acetate reissue label. But as of last year, I may just have a new favourite, Seelie Court. Only a handfull LPs have been relesed so far but as many as 50 LPs are allegedly already lined up for release. Given the quality of the first batch of releases, I certainly will buy all of them, and I think you should too. Let us take a look.
In Scottish folklore, faeries are divided into the Seelie and Unseelie spirits. The Unseelie Court contains the malicious faeries and in the Seelie Court we find the more beneficently inclined ones. But it is advisable not to relax altogether, because they can still be dangerous. And this certainly fits with the music the label is releasing. These releases are said to be sourced mainly from a private collection of super rare and often completely unknown British acetate and private pressings, and there are indeed some jaw-dropping finds here.
First out on Seelie Court, with catalogue number SCLP001 we find Across The Water, recorded in 1975 by two university friends who made one side each and then pressed only two acetate copies. For me the winner here is the first side, taken up by a wistful and surprisingly complex suite that combines classical and progressive elements. Written by Peter McKerrow and inspired by his experiences counting sheep on the island of St. Kilda as a 16 year old, it is quite mesmerising. The B-side, made by his Canadian friend longing for home is also nice, but in the singer-songwriter vein and less unique.
SCLP002 was originally issued in only 50 copies on the S.R.T. (Sound Recording Technology) label that was originally started as Sky Records with involvement from Jethro Tull members. Sandalwood was a girl duo who made their Sandalwood album in 1971 and then promptly disappeared like faerie spirits in the night. If you like soft and beautifully sung acoustic folk, this is worth checking out!
However, it is really with the astounding third release that the Seelie Court label really starts living up to its name. Mysterious and draped in pagan mood, Anaconda’s 1969 ‘Sympathy For The Madman’ was where Michalakis Stelios Sergides went after he left Arcadium due to musical differences with Robert Ellwood that surfaced during their recording of their great ‘Breathe Awhile’ LP. Anaconda’s music is maybe less epic but much darker. With beautiful flutes, violins and vocals it is being likened to a more sane Comus, a description as good as any. Only one acetate is known to exist, so this thoroughly mouth-watering reissue is a must have item.
Next up is a much heavier affair, recorded by unknown artists in the Beck Studios in Northampton around 1969. Although there is more than a touch of blues to this, I must confess to being blown away by some of the musical interplay and the imaginative guitar playing (particularly on third and longest track ‘Waking’). But the real killer here is definitely the final track ‘See me’ with female lead vocals and blissed out yet heavy comp.
If I were to pick up only one of these LPs, it would have to be SCLP005, the self-titled Flux album. Recorded live on a BBC Mobile Unit in 1973, this music is nevertheless a true revelation, in fact almost defining a genre all of its own. It starts with a totally over-the-top frenetic jazzy instrumental, dominated by band-leader John Grimaldi’s quicksilver guitar assault. But as if this incendiary mixture of jazz and prog was not enough, the almost Greg Lake-like vocals on second track ‘Atonal’ turns this into an instant classic. *Flux’ is the best prog LP I have heard in many years. Don’t bore yourself with yet another King Crimson reissue, get this instead!
After former Tenth Planet label boss David Wells released Lifeblud tracks in compilations on his current Grapefruit Records imprint, I was extremely curious to hear their 1970 acetate LP ‘Esse Quam Videri’, made in only 3 copies. While less progressive pop oriented than expected and more in the prog folk vein, it nevertheless doesn’t disappoint. Melancholic, highly poetic and very tuneful, it sounds less naive than many of its peers, while retaining an air of natural mysticism. As far as I understand, Lifeblud recorded more acetates with a heavier sounds, and I really hope they will be released on Seelie Court as well.
Whereas catalogue number SCLP007 is reserved for the self-titled prog rock masterpiece Grannie, that has been delayed for unknown reasons. Instead, SCLP008 is currently the latest release currently available for purchase, and John Strang’s “The Masterpeace” turns out to be another amazing jaw-dropper. A concept album recorded in 1968 by the then 17-year-old Strang about nuclear armageddon and total annihilation, its pitch-black lyrics and experimental interludes take the psychedelic folk genre into new territories. Strang was later knighted for his work in psychiatry but made an aborted LP for Transatlantic in the early 70s, which allegedly will also be released on Seelie Court at some point in the future!
Another twelve albums are currently slated for release on the Seelie Court label this spring. Some of them have been delayed twice already, so if and when they will actually be available is anyone’s guess. We can only hope that the faerie tale will continue!
Rascal Reporters – Redux vol 2: Rascals Revenge and The Great Reset
Although this album is based on recordings from the 1970s, and some of those even have been published previously, this is not a simple reissue although it is based on archival material.
In fact this is so great that I would like to invent a new genre for it: how about post-archival?
Just like the Rascal Reporters ‘Redux vol 1’ release from 2019 ,the addition in particular of drums turns these tracks into something completely different. Just like on that volume, the drummer is James Strain and his drumming is as maximalist as everything else here. Memorising the near infinite twists and turns here is a herculean task, but he does it with apparent lightness and not the slightest sign of strain.
Although this album is being compared to Egg and other Canterbury bands on the Bandcamp site, there is also mention that it turns into something else entirely. I think that is an ample characterisation; it combines friendly melodies and soft keyboards with aggressive complexity into a Canterbury-like sound, but then goes off into more tangents than you can shake a trigonometric function at.
This music is so insane that you can only conclude it is genial. Rather than progressive rock, I would call this permissive rock, given that the artists have given themselves permission to break any rule you could imagine.
Dario D’Alessandro from Homunculus Res has provided the cover art as well as some additional synths on the wonderful ‘Egg Soup’ (a snippet of which featured on his second Homunculus Res album), and Bob Drake has done the mastering, so you know you are in good company when listening.
OK, so the first quarter of 2021 was really the quarter from post-Brexit hell when it comes to music. When a trade agreement was finally signed between the EU and the UK late last year after much drama and political posturing, I let out a big sigh of relief. As an unashamed anglophile I had been worried that music from the UK would be locked in behind heavy iron toll gates. But now things would be OK.
Instead, the toll gates closed with a little click that was so low that no-one could hear it, rather than slam shut with a bang.
So there I was, happily buying records from the UK on an almost daily basis. A couple of months later, I am still suffering the consequences as some of those records take forever to trickle through corona-impacted distribution and bureaucracy-bloated customs. And for each parcel that gets through, I have to pay a £6.25 (SEK 75) import handling fee plus 25% of whatever value is stated on the parcel. After around 20 parcels, I am taking extreme care not to buy stuff from the UK anymore.
Oh, and even once we get through this pandemic, that guy in the UK who singlehandedly killed music, Boris, has made sure that bands can’t come and play here either, by refusing to negotiate a musicians’ work permit exemption deal with the EU.
But even though shit happens, it seems the show does indeed go on. So here are my favourites from the first three months of 2021, as always in alphabetical order.
Cobalt Chapel – Orange Synthetic
Let us be quite clear from the start: This is a minor masterpiece. The 2017 debut Cobalt Chapel album was already moody and strange, but the strangeness quotient is upped several notches here, such as with the nightmare circus atmosphere of ‘Cry A Spiral’ that leads into the apocalyptic dance of ‘It’s The End, The End’.
Conceptually, the album focuses on Yorkshire. The titular track is about the 1970 Krumlin music festival, which was a complete disaster due to bad, stormy weather. It was staged on a hillside in Yorkshire, and that is also the location of the cover photo; the orange synthetic blankets in the shot replicate those seen on old photos from the festival.
Cobalt Chapel are a duo consisting of Jarrod Gosling and Cecilia Fage. Their music combines psychedelia with folk and touches of kraut. It is inherently rhythmic and primarily keyboard driven – Jarrod is a collector of vintage synths and uses all of them here. But despite the amazingly layered analog sound, the songs themselves sound like the future rather than the past, not least thanks to Cecilia’s stately vocals. Her voice is paradoxically both passionate and somehow slightly aloof.
Compared to earlier albums, ‘Orange Synthetic’ is also closer in style to the sound of Jarrod Gosling’s “prog” band Regal Worm, whose new album is expected later this year!
Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co-Aklan
It has been eleven years since Cathal Coughlan committed his voice to record – and the moment you hear it, you will be painfully aware of how much you have missed it. He has a voice like no-one else, expressive and sullen while somehow not coming across as grumpy.
Although I still prefer his work in Microdisney together with Sean O’Hagan to his Fatima Mansions and solo records, the new album is certainly the best thing he has made since those days.
Maybe the renewed inspiration is related to the fact that Coughlan was instrumental in reforming Microdisney for a number of concerts, Not only do some of his old mates appear on this record; the songs are great, there is lots of drama in the arrangements, and the intense lyrics are filled to the brim with chaotic pictures expressing the life of alter-ego Co-Aklan.
The high point on the album is probably ‘The Knockout Artist’, what a pop song! It is also great to hear Sean O’Hagan contributing some synth on it. O’Hagan reappears on the closing track ‘Unrealtime’, this time on vocals.
A real keeper.
William Doyle – Great Spans Of Muddy Time
I was never a big fan of East India Youth although that was William Doyle in everything but name. However, his first proper solo album ‘Your Wilderness Revisited’ totally and absolutely floored me, and I included it on my 10 best albums of Q4 2019 list.
Whereas that was a perfectionist album in every sense, William Doyle is now back with something quite different.
His hard disc crashed and he then had to piece together the album based on cassette copies that he had made. Or at least that is how the story goes, because who really backs their recordings up on cassette these days? Whatever the truth is, these songs are definitely more spontaneous, and definitely represent something that is a bit muddier timewise. Initially, you don’t notice, as the two opening tracks are crisp and pretty great pop songs. But then you are thrown into something that sounds more like a collage. There are more good pop songs further into the album but there are interspersed with more experimental – or maybe I should rather say unfocused – pieces.
Apart from the track ‘Semi-bionic’, which literally starts out sounding like a hard disc crashing, the sound quality on the album isn’t muddy or full of tape hiss, but you definitely get the feel that some of tracks aren’t still finished. While that does lend the album an air of spontaneity, it also makes for a somewhat stumbling listening experience. But when it clicks, it is clear that Doyle’s sense for melody combined with ambient drama is intact!
Ed Dowie – The Obvious I
It has been four years since Ed Dowie’s debut album ‘The Uncle Sold’. I liked that very much and although maybe his new album is a little less experimental, I like it every bit as much. With arrangements very much designed to lift Ed’s strong voice to the fore, it plays like a synth pop album for those of us who never liked synth pop albums. It is all here, sampled instruments, blips and blurbs, programmed drums and more. But done with restraint and a sense for the rather straightforward songs on the album.
And while there are many layered sounds here, they never unnecessarily take over the soundstage, allowing for much space between instruments, sometimes even creating a cavernous yet simultaneously clear sound for the vocals to inhabit.
So whereas there are clear homages to the sounds of the 80s here, and the 8-bit cover art had me worried, Dowie has delivered a powerful album of gentle pop that really shines.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & the London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
This is continuous piece for saxophone, strings, keyboards and electronics composed by Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, really made me sit up and listen from the get go. There is a luxurious smoothness to this take on jazz symphony that made me feel almost like when I heard Neil Ardley’s ‘A Symphony Of Amaranths’ the first time. Sadly, ‘Promises’ doesn’t continue to develop thematically like that album, but rather tries to sustain its opening magic.
In a way, this album’s strength is also its weakness. Based on joint sessions in the USA with the inimitable tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and Shepherd on piano, the latter has then embellished the tapes with keyboards and strings played by the LSO back home in the UK. The good thing is that Shepherd’s keyboard layers and electronic treatments are masterful and really lift the devotional tone of the composition to the fore – while the bad thing is that it becomes very much Shepherd, and Sanders’ contribution is almost reduced to that of session player.
And speaking of being reduced, the other 30-40 musicians here comprising the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra feel almost like an indulgence on Shepherd’s part; surely with his synthesiser skills, Shepherd could have done this on his computer using a sample library like Spitfire Symphonic Strings?
Chlöe Herrington – Silent Reflux
Although bassoon and sax player Chlöe Herington has been active as a recording artist since 2003 when she started out in Angel Racing Food together with Jowe head, this is her first solo album. I must admit that I didn’t buy the Angel Racing Food album until after having discovered her playing with Kavus Torabi in Knifeworld and started tracing her through various bands including the inimitable Chrome Hoof and her more recent and playful VÄLVĒ project.
Her solo album, however, is very much a reflux in the sense that it represents a turn back; not only back to a series of recurring dreams Chloe had as a child, but also back to the feel of a 70s solo album made by someone on time off from an art rock band like Henry Cow. The dream states are surprisingly tangible and as a listener you get the feeling of being moved outside the flow of time. A wonderful album!
Simon McKechnie – Retro
They don’t make prog rock albums like this anymore. So this is the exception that proves the rule. Here we have long songs with many sections, conceptual lyrical themes, guitar solos, instrumental workouts… the whole shebang, in other words. But whereas modern prog groups who try to sound like in the good old days either seem to end up with uninteresting pastiche or with a lifeless modern digital sound that doesn’t fit the style, Simon McKechnie somehow manages to get it all right.
It is hard to think of a more bombastic theme to start out with than ‘The Origin of Species’, a 20+ minute track that lays out the whole story by (at least partly) using the words of the great man himself, Charles Darwin.
We then get the title track which almost sounds like it is belying its title by starting with some 80s synth sounds, but soon reveals its old-timey soul.
McKechnie has made a number of albums before this one, but this is his first on Bad Elephant – and I have to say that I only gave this a listen because I like the label. Glad I did, this is great!
The Milk and Honey Band – Songs From Truleigh Hill
Whereas the Milk Milk and Honey Band have always had a pastoral touch and a a love for acoustic instrumentation, there was also a lot of pop energy in the arrangements. But here, Robert White has stripped down the “band” to a solo effort with only piano acoustic guitar and voice, and slowing everything down to a snail’s pace in the process. The result is beautiful and just what is needed for times like these. As I continue to pass my days in enforced isolation, listening to this album makes the claustrophobia recede and the stillness around me seem much more comforting.
While never explicit, there is a life-affirming warmth to the songs despite the sadness of some of the lyrics. And while the minimalistic arrangements do their best to hide it, there is still a lot of pop in these songs, so while it takes a couple of listens longer than usual, eventually you can’t help but hum along!
Truleigh Hill is one of the highest points in the South Downs chalk hills, and I suppose the slow-mo drama of that place is what the music is reflecting. Robert White certainly has come a long way from his noisy beginnings in Levitation. But, surprisingly, the album really lends itself to be played at really high volume – something which also helps blow away some of the stress of continued lockdown. So tune in, and turn up!
Portable Radio – Portable Radio
The Junipers are one of my favourite contemporary psych pop bands. Unfortunately, nothing has been heard from them since they made their brilliant third album ‘Red Bouquet Fair’ five years ago. Since then band member Robyn Gibson has kept us entertained with his wonderful Bob of the Pops album series of covers. But it is great to see that he is finally together back with a psych pop band that does originals.
The Portable Radio album is one of those that you are almost by default expected to introduce as “nothing new under the sun” while immediately balancing this by saying “but it doesn’t matter, when it is this good”. While that may be an example of pop journalism cliché, it certainly holds true in this case.
Already album opener and single cut ‘Hot Toddy’ sweeps you away with a summery feeling of love and beautiful harmonies. The quality is sustained throughout and even though the album was pieced together separately by the members due to the pandemic, it sounds incredibly organic. Colour me impressed!
So here you are, Beatlesque pop, filtered through a love for Brian Wilson but reflected trough a lockdown prism. You know you want it.
TT Reuter – IV
40 years after ‘III’, which was a live album, and 41 years after their masterpiece ‘Sång, Dans, Sex’, ‘IV’ is finally here. Recorded with three of the band’s original members back in 2015, but never finished when guitarist Peter Puders sadly died in 2017, only 58 years old.
A few years earlier, the band had started playing live again and I remember hearing some of the tracks on this album back then mixed in with older material. Back then, I was amazed at how well they fit in with their classic early material. Hearing the studio versions now, they still manage to stand well on their own, and Puders’ guitar playing is heavily featured throughout.
Some tracks in particular shine, namely ‘Vem äger rymden?’ which was released as a single, and the two long tracks ending the album; ‘Cabal’ and ‘Se dig inte om igen’. These tracks alone were absolutely worth the long wait. TT Reuter are back!
Reissues these days tend to be very much focused on putting out what is already available on CD out on vinyl. Sorry, but that doesn’t do for me. I am more interested in unreleased tracks or new mixes or versions and new fact-filled liner notes than if it comes on a larger or smaller disc. That is probably also why I tend to gravitate towards releases from Grapefruit Records, headed by David Wells. All of his releases deliver something new, and they are always impeccably researched and compiled.
Luckily, there were some significant releases on other labels as well!
Be Bop Deluxe – Axe Victim (Esoteric Recordings)
‘Axe Victim’ from 1974 is one of my favourite debut albums of all time. Bill Nelson had already released a solo album a couple of years earlier, but this was something completely different. Steeped in the Roxy Music and David Bowie mannerisms of the era while remaining more epic, it existed in a glamprog bubble of its own. Nelson would reconfigure Bop Deluxe after this album’s release and return with one of the decade’s most stylish albums the year after, but the sheer audaciousness this debut still gets my neck hairs to stand on end.
The 3CD/DVD box set adds lots of interesting material, including a hitherto thought lost 1973 Peel session, and a great 5.1 surround mix. However, delivering that mix heavily compressed as plain old DTS on a DVD Video disc while claiming that it is a DVD Audio disc is ignorant at best. People who buy this expensive deluxe set are real fans, and they deserve a Blu-ray disc with full and uncompressed surround.
Cardiacs – Vermin Mangle (Alphabet Business Concern)
Everything else here is an album or a 24 disc box set, and this is just one song available only for download or streaming. But in importance and stature it is just as important.
‘Vermin Mangle’ comes from the hitherto otherwise unreleased sessions for the Cardiacs album that Tim Smith was working on in 2008. But then he suddenly suffered a debilitating heart attack that rendered him unable to do more work and would ultimately lead to his untimely death on 21st July 2020, aged only 59. The song was released as an homage to the great man on the day of his funeral.
As a piece of music ‘Vermin Mangle’ is utterly captivating. Listening to it feels almost like entering Tim Smith’s mind. Circus crazy maybe, but also serious and grand.
Tim was one of the true geniuses of modern music, and this track serves as a worthy reminder.
The Divine Comedy – Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time (Divine Comedy Records)
I remember picking up ‘Promenade’ as a limited edition with an extra CD of live performances on a trip to London in 1994, and immediately being convinced it was the best album since Prefab Sprout’s ‘Swoon’ a decade earlier. And although I like a lot of the Divine Comedy albums, it is really that album and *Liberation’, the debut on Irish indie label Setanta from the previous year that are the true classics. And what makes this box set so special is that you get previously unreleased demos as well as single B-sides related to those two albums. And to all the other albums as well of course…
Sadly though, several important tracks are still missing from this huge box, most notably the Michael Nyman covers of ‘Miranda’, ‘Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds’, ‘Time Lapse’ and ‘Knowing the Ropes’. I am sure there were some licensing issues, but it is a pity, since the Michael Nyman influence is such an important part of what became the unique Divine Comedy sound.
The Idle Race – The Birthday Party (Grapefruit Records)
Eveyone knows ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. the Beatlesque hit by E.L.O. from their 10 million copy selling ‘Out Of The Blue’ album. But very few seem to know or care that Jeff Lynne actually started his career by making a whole album full of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ soundalikes that are just as Beatlesque and whimsical.
‘The Birthday Party’ has been so neglected that the only previous proper CD reissue is the 2007 Japanese paper sleeve edition; other than that it has always been reissued as a twofer together with the more uneven self-titled 1969 follow-up, or in some other compilation context. For this reason, it is great that David Wells has now assembled a definitive CD reissue for his ever-excellent Grapefruit label.
Neil Innes – How Sweet To Be An Idiot (Grapefruit Records)
Although Neil Innes is sadly gone, we now live in a world that needs him more than ever.
Just before his death, he was working with Grapefruit on the definitive and much needed reissue of his debut album, ‘How Sweet To Be An Idiot’. This album is shock full of Innes’ carefree charm and warm humour, and, if you have a bit of patience with the first few songs, it offers up some absolutely cracking Beatlesque pop songs.
The original B-side is particularly great, serving up one pop wonder after the other. Fittingly, the side begins with the title track, and what a masterful song it is; starting with the heartfelt lyric about the idiot, then changing tack and turning into something from Sgt Pepper.
You need an idiot with a duck on his head and a piano. Maybe you just don’t know it.
Jason Crest – A Place In The Sun (Grapefruit Records)
Hailing from Kent, although not in any way related to what is called the Canterbury scene, Jason Crest debuted with the great single ‘Turquoise Tandem Cycle’ in 1968 and thus belonged to the psychedelic era, although they managed to miss its peak. Still, they would make their indelible stamp on pop history with their final single in late 1969: ‘A Place In The Sun’ was a wistful and beautiful period piece, and on the B-side was the hauntingly dark yet flippant ‘Black Mass’. An altogether amazing single.
This reissue also contains a handful of equally great yet unpublished-at-the-time tracks as well as somewhat less interesting later radio sessions. Although all of it has been released on Grapefruit label manager David Well’s previous labels Wooden Hill and Tenth Planet, this is the first time everything has been gathered in one place. Essential.
Anthony Moore – Out (Drag City Records)
A solo album by Anthony Moore’s first was set to be released in 1976 on Virgin, but was dropped due to management changes at Virgin before release. It is a surprisingly catchy and well-produced art pop album that is at odds with his Slapp Happy / Henry Cow collaborations of the previous year. One might have expected a more underground-bound album from him at this stage, not least considering that his previous solo album from 1972 was a minimalist neo-classical affair, but in reality Moore was quite eager to shake off some of the restraints that the Henry Cow experience had put on him. Working with Peter Jenner as a producer, he came up with a set of odd yet hummable ditties that almost felt like something Kevin Ayers could have made at the time (and he indeed guests in bass guitar on the track ‘Please Go’, which, by the way, also happens to be arranged by David Bedford).
The album wast was eventually released on Voiceprint in 1997, as a low cost affair typical for that rather confounding label, with different cover art since the original was thought lost, and also with some of the tracks in wrong order. But a package containing the complete Hipgnosis artwork that had been send to CBS Japan back in the day has now resurfaced, and it is great to see the album finally issued in the way that was originally intended.
Brian Protheroe – The Albums 1974-76 (7T’s Records)
Generally, I would recommend against buying a whole box set just for one song. But in the case of Brian Protheroe, that is of course perfectly OK – especially since that song is a session out-take from his brilliant 1974 debut album ‘Pinball’. And if you don’t have ‘Brian’s Big Box’ from 1996 that compiled his three first albums on the Dutch label Basta, you get all of them here: You don’t only get that debut album, but also the even better follow-up ‘Pick-Up’ from 1975 and the absolutely classic 1976 album ‘I/You’.
Unfortunately, though, the CD with unreleased material that was included on the Basta box is not here. Although that disc is not as good as the albums, and probably contains songs from later in the decade, it is nevertheless worth seeking out once you have become a proper fan.
In any case, if you like quirky and convoluted mid-70s pop from bands like 10cc, then Brian Protheroe is an absolute must. This compilation is currently the best point of entry.
Tea and Symphony – The English Baroque Sound 1968-1974 (Ace Records)
This is a great and must-have release, but also a very confusing one. The confusing thing is that it has almost exactly the same title as the he 2007 release ‘Tea and Symphony – The English Baroque Sound 1967–1974’. Spot the difference! The two releases even variations on the same artwork…
The original was released on Castle Music, a label that went down together with its parent Sanctuary and is now near impossible to find. Even more confusingly, only four tracks are overlapping between the two releases, making both of them absolutely essential stuff for those of us who think that Mike Batt’s 1968 single B-side ‘Fading Yellow’ is one of the best pop songs ever made. At least this new release includes that track as a first-ever official reissue…
Now don’t hesitate, go get this fantastic CD before it also becomes a highly sought after collectable!
Twenty-Five Views of Worthing – 25 (Wind Waker Records)
Some people say that there is no such thing as a Canterbury sound, as it is quite diverse and a lot of the key people involved in that scene weren’t even from Kent. But I would be happy to settle that dispute by defining that sound as anything that sounds like this record. Although Twenty-Five Views of Worthing did actually support Caravan at the Vanbrugh College in May 1972, they are from Watford, north-east of London. But as can be heard on these previously unreleased tracks recorded using downtime at Island’s Basing Street Studio in late -72 and early -73, they play complex music without taking themselves too seriously, and combine sweet melodies with a touch of absurd humour.
The LP ends with a self-released 1977 EP recorded by a quite different lineup of the band, which is equally good.
Due to the pandemic, most if not all concerts were cancelled in 2020. With other types of stage related work opportunities also having dried up, it was a horrible year for musicians. Yet, paradoxically, it was a great year for music listeners.
The past year was absolutely peppered with brilliant record releases. Since you haven’t been spending a lot of money on concert tickets, I therefore suggest you buy albums instead, on vinyl or CD – or as a high quality digital download. Here are 10 more great albums from 2020 that absolutely need to be in your collection!
cabane – grande est la maison
This is not a Sean O’Hagan album, but you could have fooled me. Still, he is the arranger and has co-written two tracks with Thomas Jean Henri Van Cottom who is the main man behind the cabane moniker. The quality of the songwriting is excellent throughout, and vocals are handled by no other than Bonnie Prince Billy and Kate Stables (from This Is The Kit).
If you can find it, get the CD-R version as it starts with a track not available elsewhere.
Spencer Cullum – Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection
The initial quartet of songs on this album are totally amazing and have a suppressed intensity not unlike Nick Drake or Duncan Browne. Although some momentum is lost with slightly meandering instrumental, ‘Dietrich Buxtehude’, and I could live without an Incredible String band cover as final track given the strength of original songwriting on display here, this album from Nashville’s Music City Center sideman and steel guitar player Spencer Cullum, originally hailing from England, is quite a find.
The music is restrained and beautiful and vocals are correspondingly subdued. The mixing feels almost proto-stereo with Cullum’s voice in the right channel and the backing in the left, making it feel as if someone is whispering in your ear if you listen in headphones.
Stephen EvEns – Employee of the Month
Stephen Gilchrist is a man of many talents. He has playd drums with Graham Coxon and even the Cardiacs, and also runs the Brixton Hill Studios. But on dark nights, he sometimes transforms into Stephen EvEns and puts out searingly sarcastic punk-pop records. On this release, the razorblades are a bit front-loaded, which might unfortunately scare away some listeners from the more restrained tracks, starting with forth track ‘Freak Show’ featuirng beautiful piano playing by William D Drake. From there on in, there are some great tunes to discover!
Seamus Fogarty – A Bag of Eyes
Fogarty’s new album has the kind of atmosphere that immediately makes me feel at home. An organic sound that is as much electronic as it is acoustic. Synthesizer meets banjo as if it were the most natural thing. It is also as much a folk pop album (think Meilyr Jones who also appears here) as an experimental excursion. Brian Eno sometimes comes to mind, although the dry humour on a track like ‘Nuns’ almost plays like a glitchy take on Kevin Ayers.
Green Seagull – Cloud Cover
Just like their debut, Green Seagull’s sophomore album is overflowing with late 60s psych tinged harmony pop of the highest order. Listening to this album is like stepping into a perfect time warp, everything is done with skill and precision, even the lyrics are in technicolor. While decidedly very retro, at the end of the day, an album is never better – or worse – than its songs. And the tunes here are absolutely cracking!
Oddfellow’s Casino – Burning! Burning!
Oddfellow’s Casino is a long running project by author and radio presenter David Bramwell from Brighton, helped out by various friends. Given that Bramwell actually is a member of a druidic order, more specifically the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and the album covers a large range of the supernatural – this time loosely connected to fire – it might be easy to but this in the hauntology category. But what makes this album different is that, just like most previous Oddfellow’s Casino albums, is very much song based. So if you want your pop laced with pyschic children, rituals, poltergeists and standing stones, this is the way to go!
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus – Songs of Yearning
If there is one thing my dear departed father told me was how to be an atheist. But what he didn’t manage to teach me was to listen to religious music, which he loved. It wasn’t until I discovered the Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus that I understood how to do that. ‘Songs of Yearning’ is their most consistent and haunting album since their reformation in 2015, after having been in hibernation since 1987. With songs in multiple languages, the album has a gorgeous pan-European feel and proves the deep cultural connection between England and the rest of Europe, that hints at just how big a mistake Brexit really is.
Rustin Man – Clockdust
When Paul Webb reappeared after a 17 year absence from the record business with a great introspective record that didn’t feel rusty at all, few probably expected him to follow up just a year later with an even better record. Yet here he is, and just as last year there is a Robert Wyattesque shimmer of melancholia over the whole thing which makes it irresistible for me.
Oh, yes, you are supposed to mention that Webb used to be the bassist in Talk Talk in reviews like this as well. So there you go!
Snails – Hard Wired
I loved debut album ‘Safe In Silence’ and their sophomore release proves they are no one-time wonders. From Bristol and with one foot in the Sarah Records take on twee, their music is open and welcoming. Yet, the more you listen, the more you discover undertones in the lyrics as well as the strength of their songwriting. A wonderful album that manages to attract at first listen but keeps on growing the more you listen.
Richard Wileman – Arcana
Wileman has been making great music as Karda Estra since the very dawn of the 21st century, but only started performing as a solo artist a couple of years ago. With this release, inspired by the Tarot, it feels like he is combining his more song-based folk approach with his more arranged and progressive band work. And the combination works brilliantly, resulting in an at times hummable yet haunting collection with great musical depth and emotional impact.
I would like to apologise to those of you who have followed this blog in the past. Halfway through 2020, I simply ran out of steam.
My work stress was at an all-time high. The looming Brexit made me feel less enthusiastic about music, given that much of the stuff I care about likely would be behind an import tax wall come 2021. The pandemic and the climate crisis certainly didn’t make things better. Then my sister died in October.
The pain from my sister’s death is still very much there, but I have decided it is time to crawl up out of that dark hole I dug for myself. I will try to find some work-life balance in 2021. Boris gets his divorce but remains fuck buddies with the EU, meaning no import taxes. Vaccines are coming and the man who in himself is an affront to the colour of orange is going, so maybe the world will now act on the Paris Agreement at long last.
And, importantly for this blog, whatever 2020 was like for you, it has been full of great music. That is a cause for celebration – and here are my 20 favourite albums of the year. I can’t rank them as they are all incredibly good, so I present them in alphabetical order.
Aksak Maboul – Figures
With their feet firmly placed in the Canterbury origins of RIO and their heads in a cloud of Stereolab albums, Aksak Maboul have delivered quite a masterpiece. Whereas Marc Hollander and his wife Véronique Vincent pay tribute to Francophone 1960s pop, they simultaneously turn it upside down. The track ‘Dramuscule’ features a dialogue between a dominant man and a submissive woman while simultaneously exposing the absurd misogyny on display.
Véronique Vincent was not an original member of the band, but she certainly takes centre stage here, and the album is all the better for it.
Arch Garrison – The Bitter Lay
Laid back and mellow yet whimsical and playful. Arch Garrison is Craig Fortnam’s side project with James Larcombe when not busy with the North Sea Radion Orchestra. While suffused with an acoustic six-string folk feel, the music trickles forth like a calm brook, constantly branching out and forking in an unhurried and understated way. Almost inherently self-effacing, this music is easy to pass by but has that world-in-a-grain-of-sand quality if you just stop and listen for a change.
Compared to the previous album, Larcombe’s contributions are more understated – but remain a key part of what makes Arch Garrison such a unique experience.
Army of Moths – By Word of Moth
Army of Moths refer to the sound they make as a “racket” – and indeed it is. The influence of the Cardiacs is not only evident in the layered sound, the chord sequences and the falsetto voices, but also in the dedication of the album to Tim Smith who sadly no longer is with us. However, they add enough personality, witty twists, oddball ideas and strong songwriting to the mix to make the album stand fully on its own.
Clocking in at a full hour, the listening experience can be almost disorientating, akin to being at a wonderfully crazy circus show. Don’t mothball this one!
Barringtone – Bonanza Plan
Twelve years on from the first Barringtone single and 15 years from his first album, back then with electro pop band Clor, Barry Dobbin is finally, finally back with a full album again. Not sure if that was the plan all along, but what a bonanza it is! Although this time the sound is as scaled down to the basics of guitar, drums and bass as the complexity is scaled up with math-rocky angularity and unexpected time signature changes, the catchy melodies remain intact. Singular in vision and execution and guaranteed to reward your efforts.
Betlehem Casuals – The Tragedy of Street Dog
Bethlehem Casuals feature seven members, and they certainly make a lot of noise on their second album. While definitely a pop album, it is eccentric, full of twists and turns, and with a sound that throws everything from the past 50 years into the sonic mixer.
But somehow, it all comes out in a quite tuneful way, and doesn’t sound contrived at all. Some tracks are progressive and funky, with a driving saxophone theme; others are smooth and melodic with restive violins and beautiful voices.
Saying that this is the future of pop is an overstatement, but the Betlehem Casuals certainly prove that pop has a future!
Bingo Harry – Bingo Harry
Discovered by Martin Bramah of the Blue Orchids, who covered their song ‘If They Ever Lay A Finger On Us’ on their album 2018 album ‘Righteous Harmony Fist’, this is as far as I understand not yet a proper Bingo Harry album. Instead it is a collection of demos done with Bramah for an aborted album. But while decidedly low-fi, there is nothing here that feels unfinished; instead the primitive approach feels just right for this set songs that more than anything remind me of Tyrannosaurus Rex before they went glam or even pop. Still, this stuff is more focused and less naive. Although the music sounds like it could have been made any time during the last half century, it has that unusual spark of originality that makes you perk your ears.
Peter Cat – The Saccharine Underground
If your idea of observational lyrics is ironic humor that first makes you laugh at the absurdity of what is said and then laugh again at the bitter truth of the same thing, then you need to check out Scottish musician Peter Cat’s debut LP.
Take the track ‘If you can’t live without me’ with the obvious question: ‘Then why aren’t you dead yet?’ Story-telling is definitely the name of the game and The Divine Comedy are definitely a reference here. But you need to go back to an album like ‘Promenade’ with tracks like ‘The Booklovers’ to find the same contrived-yet-natural humour. It has taken Pater Cat more than five years to assemble this album, but it was certainly worth the effort.
Joss Cope – Indefinite Particles
Although ‘Unrequited Lullabies’ from 2017 was a great surprise and made my top ten list of that year, I have to say that ‘Indefinite Particles’ is even better. Having grown up on music from the 60s and early 70s, and taken part in the punk and post punk scenes, Joss channels that into something timeless yet personal. The melodies are great and the lyrics are even better. Although not necessarily straightforward, the texts touch on many burning issues, not least the climate crisis. But rather than whine, Cope makes you think constructively in these dystopic times, while managing to simultaneously being very Lewis Carrollesqe.
One for the ages. Unmissable!
Anna von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
It is not often that I find myself with my hands in the air all the way up front by the stage next to a bunch of death metallers at concerts, but with her gothic angst Anna von Hausswolff draws a rather diverse crowd.
Her new all instrumental album takes its inspiration from a park of statues in the Italian city of Bomarzo commissioned in the 16th century by Pier Francesco Orsini in mourning of his dead wife. The album is recorded using only the baroque organ in Örgryte New Church, and conjures up visions of disfigured monsters or the underworld in a way that both attracts and disgusts. Fascinating.
Kevin Godley – Muscle Memory
I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten.
After ‘How Dare You’, the 10cc broke up and it was immediately clear that among all the talent, Kevin Godley was the real genius. I remember editing down the massive ‘Consequences’ on to a cassette tape to get to the music on that sprawling thing, and by the release of ‘L’ I knew Godley was my true hero.
So, when Kevin released his first-ever solo album this year, it was a big event for me. And, ever the inventor, Kevin with this album somehow anticipates lockdown, by reaching out across the internet for musical ideas from anyone and everyone, on top of which he adds his unmistakable touch and great vocals. Magic!
Homunculus Res – Andiamo in Giro di Notte e ci Consumiamo nel Fuoco
Palermo art proggers Homunculus Res are back with another anarchistic, esoteric, apocalyptic, catchy and fun album. Combining the spiritual heritage of Picchio Dal Pozzo with the Canterbury quirk of Hatfield & the North, they are certainly one of the most interesting bands around today.
The title translates into something like “We go around at night and consume ourselves in the fire” which in its original Latin from of “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” is a palindrome (try it out!) of unknown medieval origin that also happens to be the title of a 1978 film by Marxist philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord. Compared to earlier records, the music is more dense but the rhythms are as jerky as ever, and once you find the melodies, you discover how sweet they are. Masterpiece!
July – The Wight Album
‘The Wight Album’ is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin.
It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968 when the original and by now classic July album was released, yet simultaneously is very much of the present. What connects it to the here and now is of course the changed perspective on life as experienced by Tom Newman and Pete Pete Cook who are now two old men getting close to 80.
Paul McCartney – McCartney III
I was too young for the Beatles. Instead, my real-time musical epiphany was caused by Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ and 10cc’s ‘How Dare You’. I still count these two albums among my top ten.
Macca has had his ups and downs since then, but here he continues his latter day purple patch in grand style. Although allegedly a cleaning out of leftovers, the album actually showcases Paul at what he does best – fooling around and inventing ingenious bits and pieces that take on a life of their own. Nowhere is that more obvious than on the track ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, which is well over 8 minutes of repeating the refrain over and over without ever losing its vitality. Magic!
Micko & The Mellotronics – 1/2 dove – 1/2 pigeon
If you don’t think they make art rock like they used to, this is the album for you. Heavily riff based with observational lyrics, bitten-off vocals and poppy melodies that never fail to pack a punch. I could line up references to everything from Syd Barrett via Roxy Music to Magazine here, but what really clinches it for me is the wistful revengefulness of ‘You Killed My Father’ with piano and twisted string arrangements by none other than the late Neil Innes. One of those albums that I absolutely had to get on vinyl, this music demands being held in your hands.
OTEME – Un Saluto alle Nuvole
Although I absolutely love their first two albums, OTEMEs 2018 release ‘Il Corpo nel Sogno’ for some reason slipped under my radar. That is something I will have to remedy, as their new album ‘Un Saluto alle Nuvole’ is absolutely gorgeous. It would be too easy to just slot OTEME into the Canterbury genre; instead, I think they are inspired by a similarly broad musical history as the original Canterbury bands were.
Since I don’t speak Italian, I am afraid the impact of the words are lost on me, but they are first person accounts by those who who care for the terminally ill at the Hospice of San Cataldo in Lucca.
As always, a fairly large cast of musicians participate on the album, but I am nevertheless surprised to find Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L Reininger on violin.
Pea Green Boat – The Unforgettable Luncheon
If you have read the entries above, then you already know that I am a big fan of the Godley & Creme era of 10cc. And if you know that, then you know that I love this album too. Playful and all over the place, yet serious and focused when it comes to hooks and structure. An album that might be as challenging to the listener as to the musicians trying to nail all those twists and turns, but nevertheless a minor masterpiece. Without doubt one of the best albums of the year.
Keiron Phelan – Hobby Jingo
Keiron Phelan’s second album takes the classic pop tendencies from his first one all the way. When I recently plugged this album at the Prog Fest Online event in Tokyo, I said that this a Kevin Ayers for the 2020s, and that is all you should know to rush off and get yourself a copy right away. The sound here is incredibly warm and friendly, and the tunes are very proper, with traditional structure and hummable refrains. To say that Keiron’s vocals are smooth is almost an understatement. Think europop or maybe Bacharach. All of this could easily have drifted into schmalz, but it simply never does.
Pulling this kind of a warm fantasy off in our current dystopic times almost comes across as radical. If you just manage to open your heart to what is on offer here, you might find that it’s just what the doctor ordered. Wonderful stuff!
Sanguine Hum – A Trace Of Memory
After the wonderfully zany and circular story of the Buttered Cat trilogy of albums, I was expecting to have to wait years for the concluding part, ‘A Suitable Heir’. But instead 2020 gave us both the Archive Vol. 1 album and an album that takes us down memory lane rather than go on a storytelling spree.
And what a wonderful album ‘A Trace Of Memory’ is. Mellower, and more loosely played, yet somehow even more coherent and intense than their previous offerings. To me, this album works like a hall of mirrors that I can get lost in for hours, and that I will continue exploring probably for the rest of this decade. Ignore the prog rock label that some stick on this, and allow yourself to experience something that really moves beyond genres.
Tugboat Captain – Rut
Ahh! This is what it’s all about. Putting on a record and feeling your heart swell with delight. Tugboat Captain’s debut album has it all: memorable hooks, swooning melodies, humour and despair. With orchestral – ramshackle or otherwise – backing to boot. Recorded at Abbey Road – secretly, using free studio time – “Rut” manages to not sound derivative while unashamedly cherry-picking from pop history.
Although the use of an 11-piece choir as well as 13 additional musicians on various instruments lends grandiosity to the sound in places, there is no suffocating perfectionism or cloying production sheen. The DIY approach remains intact and the festive feeling of friends being invited along to make some magical noise is captivating.
Zopp – Zopp
If you love Canterbury music like I do, then you will immediately warm to the self-titled Zopp debut album, which not only includes contributions from people like Theo Travis but also unashamedly states its Kentish intent from the get-go.
Did I say I am Swedish? Hope I won’t spoil it all by saying that the first track, ‘Swedish Love’, is a well-chosen opener. It is pretty smart to start with such a short and whimsical thing that lures me in – and then to pull my ears further in with the longer and more complex ‘Before The Light’.
Zopp’s debut ticks the right boxes in the right way. While sounding very familiar, it remains in control of its own destiny and stands tall with its own compositions.
Today is the last day of July. Today is also the day the last a July album is released. And let me tell you that these guys are going out with a bang. “The Wight Album” is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin.
It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968, yet simultaneously is very much of the present.
What connects back and indeed makes it feel like a true psychedelic artefact is the approach to music making, rather than the sound on the surface.
Obviously, the production is much better. Tom Newman who is one of the two remaining core members did after all go on to become one of the key Virgin Records figures, when he together with Richard Branson created the Manor Studio where Mike Oldfield’s unlikely smash hit album Tubular Bells was recorded with Tom’s able help; and he also produced several other key Virgin albums, as well as continued working with Mike Oldfield. Tom still knows his way around a studio, even at the age of 77.
But the music itself still comes across as quite ramshackle, even artless to a degree. Things do not happen in logical order, and conventions seem to be unrecognised rather than broken. Whereas many modern records that recreate analogue sounds from the 60s come across as lifeless and somewhat mechanical, here is a record that breathes and surprises at every step.
There is also at least one track on the album that actually belongs to the iconic 1968 July album era. After having finished what was originally intended to be the final version of “The Wight Album”, Tom one night had a dream in which he was singing one of Pete Cook’s original compositions called “The Game” that was never recorded back in the day. But this dream was unusually lucid in the sense that Tom could still sing the track when he woke up. He immediately called Pete – the main songwriter in July, although he was manoeuvred out of the group for the 1968 recordings – and sang it to him. Pete could not remember it but he found the title in his book of songs, confirming that he had indeed written it. Pete subsequently reconstructed the few parts that Tom had not been able to remember from his dream, and it was added to the album.
What connects “The Wight Album” to the here and now, on the other hand, is very much the perspective on life as experienced by two old men who are getting close to 80. Whereas their brilliant comeback album from 2013, “Resurrection”, aimed at stepping back into their teenage heads and write from there, the perspective this time round is much more grounded in the realities of old age.
Tom – who has been more productive as a songwriter this time than previously with 9 of the 23 songwriting credits – takes what you might call the typical old git stance and largely writes about what has gone wrong in the modern world. But he is also painfully aware of his lifespan nearing its end and offers up his regrets and goodbyes. One touching example that combines both elements is “Love’n’Love” where Tom examines the important relationships of his life and sees that he was not mature enough to keep them going, but instead always ran away.
Pete, on the other hand is bitter, and his anger is as intense as ever a teenager’s anger can be. But whereas Tom looks back on his youthful arrogance with affection, Pete concludes that it was all just hot air that led to nothing. He sees himself as an underachiever and a failure. He never managed to become a rockstar although that was all he ever wanted from life; he didn’t even manage to be on his group’s iconic album and didn’t even get credit for his songs that were on it.
His self-loathing is most visible on tracks like “Special Guy” but in fact underpins most of his writing; it can take ironic turns as on “Truth” where the main character realises that there is an afterlife after all and he is an even bigger failure than even he had imagined because his utter disrespect for such things in this life will doom him in the next.
The album title reflects the fact that it was recorded in Tom’s studio on the Isle of Wight, but is also an obvious homage to the Beatles. Just like their so-called “White Album”, it is a sprawling double set, and also contains a collage intended to play a similar role as “Revolution 9”. Although everything pales in that comparison, it does point to the level of ambition on display here, and the dream of creating something of lasting value at the end of their careers.
Available both on double vinyl, and as part of a CD box set titled “The Complete Recordings” – I suppose to hammer home the point that July is seeing their last summer – I urge you to give it a chance. This is psychedelia from the original era, yet original, vital and new.