Keiron Phelan makes chamber pop for 2018


Listening to Keiron Phelan’s new album ‘Peace Signs’ makes you think about being Swedish. The reason is very simply that the subject of the first track ‘New Swedish Fiction’ is what the title states. I’m not into Swedish crime novels myself, but I appreciate someone who treats my country in at least a little more nuanced way than normally is the case. So no vikings, tall blond social democrats or free sex this time. Thank you for that. (Not that I mind vikings, social democrats or sex…)

But in this new era of protectionism, there is of course another aspect to nationality. Next year, Britain will leave the EU and that could mean import tax on all records from the UK, in effect doubling prices due to an import handling fee of about €7 on parcels from outside the tax wall.

So as 2018 draws to a close, I am also drawn to introspective and slightly quaint music like this, because it will become even more hard to get hold of in the future.

And this is a mighty fine album in its own right, irrespective of my Brexit-induced pre-emptive nostalgia.

‘Peace Signs’ is released on the wonderful Gare Du Nord Records label, and like many other releases on that label, has an early 70s sound. This is already very apparent on the nicely arranged title track, as well as on the following couple of tracks, not least the Stackridge sounding ‘Song for Ziggy’ and the lushly simplistic ‘Apple Shades’. 

Wistful melodies and beautiful acoustic arrangements. Definitely more Kevin Ayers than the Marc Bolan references so much favoured by label mates Papernut Cambridge. However, this isn’t just throwback music. Instead, this is chamber pop for 2018, made with a mindset very much filtered by Phelan’s other outfits such as the arty chamber sensibilities of Littlebow and the postmodern J-poppy feel of Smile Down Upon Us.

Although there is slide guitar on a few tracks, it isn’t until ‘My Children Just the Same’ –  which makes me think of the Water Boys – that I become aware of a rather strong country undercurrent. That continues on ‘Ain’t She Grown’ and peaks with an instrumental simply called ‘The Country Song’. I am normally not a big fan of country, but when it is done in a Byrds-turned-English way, it can work very well.

However, by the end of the album, we are safely back in Albion, with Phelan reading a Chaucer-related lyric on final track ‘Canterbury’. When wordless voices join in, it all turns slightly hymnal. A beautiful way to end a beautiful record.

The definitive British baroque pop compilation


How do you describe that rare sense of wonder that makes you sit up straight as a candle and listen? At least, that is how I felt when putting on “Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73”.

A new compilation curated by David Wells is always cause for celebration, but although this one covers 1967-73 there is, thankfully, no mention of psychedelia. Instead, this is about a pop genre that may or may not have been accidentally invented by McCartney when he had the idea to use a string quartet for ‘Yesterday’. Legend has it that British baroque pop was born in that moment. But even though it was there right in front of everyone, the world didn’t notice.

And that is easy to understand. There is little if any testosterone. Voices have an unshakable air of naivety. The pace is slow and the atmosphere is generally very intimate. Bedroom pop played by made-up chamber orchestras.

And I love it.

In fact, some of what is on here belongs to the standard by which I find myself measuring music: Mike Batt, Honeybus, Fickle Pickle, 10cc (represented here as Festival, one of their many Strawberry Studios incarnations, but nevertheless), Tony Hazzard, Stackridge, to name some of them.

British baroque pop isn’t exactly exhaustively compiled. The only other officially licensed compilation, ‘Tea & Symphony: The English Baroque Sound 1967-1974’ was recently spotted for €150 on Discogs but isn’t available at any price anywhere as I write this. 

You can still buy the ‘Ripples’ compilation series but then you have to apply your own quality control as it collects soft pop in general. You would then be better served by the unofficial, yet trail-blazing Fading Yellow compilation series, now up to 16 volumes. 

But now this release gives you a choice, which is really David Wells meets Fading Yellow, without necessarily crossing paths. Partly this is due to the fact that we to an extent have David Wells compiling David Wells compilations here. So from his previous labels Tenth Planet and Wooden Hill, we find artists such as John Pantry, Howell and Ferdinando, Angel Pavement, Forever Amber and Five Steps Beyond that at least I would never have heard otherwise. 

As an example, when ‘The Upside Down World Of John Pantry’ was first released on Tenth Planet back in 1999 it forever changed my world of pop music. There was something pensively dramatic yet well-arranged and catchy to Pantry’s music that struck a deep chord in me.

And then there are artists like Bill Fay, Clifford T. Ward, The Alan Bown!, West Coast Consortium, Billy Nicholls and The Freedom who were slightly more known – but where David Wells added a whole new dimension by compiling their back stories. If you don’t have their David Wells compilations, you are missing essential pieces of the very fabric of pop music.

And it is all here represented here. Incredible stuff. But even though I have collected all of the above, there were still a full 19 tracks that I had no clue about. I can only listen in awe and be grateful to David Wells for again leading me down new paths of discovery. As a result, I have in fact already bought three LPs and a couple of singles on Discogs.

Finally, a minor complaint. I am afraid that a lot these tracks actually come from vinyl records and not from master tapes, yet this crucial information is nowhere to be found. For example, the Mike Batt track “I See Wonderful Things In You” seems to be very close in sound quality to the single I already own, so I assume it is unfortunately not from a master tape. But if the master tapes really exist, I would so much want a compilation of Batt’s late 60s singles. Could there be outtakes?? I would so love to hear them in that case! 

Speaking of Mike Batt, his protégée (or alter ego??) Vaughan Thomas put out a long string of singles and a great self-titled LP all in the time frame for this compilation. It is all baroque pop to the gills, and not including a single track or even a mention of Vaughan Thomas here is the one decision Davide Wells made that I don’t understand. 

Please David, if anyone can also give us the definitive late 60s Mike Batt and early 70s Vaughan Thomas story, it is you!!

Papernut Cambridge play the toy Mellotron


I was a bit skeptical to a ‘Mellotron Phase Volume 2.’ After all the idea of library music seems almost meaningless today when YouTube can present you with any sound in a second. And whereas a first volume was both fun and refreshing, making an actual series out of this is something else.

But as it happens, this is totally different from the first instalment. At first, I thought this was just another Mellotron album – after all, there is a picture of one on the cover. So I was quite confused when I could not find my bearings. Sure, there are swaths of the typical wobbly strings here and there that we all know and love. But mainly there are other things going on here.

And most of that is about the early 70s rather than the 60s. Thankfully, as it is less explored.  It wasn’t until I heard the track ‘Parker’s Last Case’ that I realised what was going on. I perked my ears and thought “Hey, they use that sound on the Persuaders’ signature tune!”

So the 70s it is and that’s where this gets really interesting and totally new for me. It turns out that the toy company Mattel, who makes Barbie dolls and whatever, for some unknown and unknowable reason had purchased the Chamberlin patents as well as some other organ technology related patents. Now the Chamberlin was actually the pre-cursor to the sacred Mellotron and here we have a giant toy maker trying to turn it into a entertainment thing for every family. 

Their little frankensteinian monster was called the Optigan and you could load it with celluloid LPs containing pre-recorded accompaniments. The buttons that marked these accompaniments were marked in three rows of “Major,” “Minor” and “Diminshed.” All keys were numbered so you could literally play by number-sheets and there were also buttons for effects and even reverb on some models. 

The Optigans didn’t sell well of course as they were probably all too advanced for kids anyway and all too shoddy sounding and plastic to be considered by grown-ups as instruments in their own right.

So Mattel dropped the whole thing after a while – and being the kind of dinosaur they are, they are probably sitting on those patents even to this day, not knowing what to do with them and not even caring.

But the thing is that there were as many as 40 of those plastic discs made; each containing a single lead sound and a grab bag of accompaniment rhythms and effects. Luckily, the majority of those discs have now been collected in an OptiTron Expansion Pack for the M-Tron Pro – and that is actually what Ian Button and his parpernutty bandmates are using on this disc. More specifically, they have taken one such rhythm accompaniment as the basis for each track and then added Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds as well.

So here you have a record that is guaranteed to confuse you if you are in any way a Mellotron lover. The sounds here are simply subverted and transformed. For starters, there is much less wobble – probably an effect of switching from tape to disc. And out with the wobble goes the darkness. Instead you get a range of more preppy and happy sounds; while others have a whooshing quality to them that is quite nice. It is like meeting the Mellotron’s unknown sibling at a cocktail party.

Altogether amazing!

Testbild! make the parts greater than the whole


The theme for the new Testbild! album ‘Stad’ is the city. An appropriate title as cities pulled the band apart when most members left Sweden’s second largest city Malmö for Stockholm. Simultaneously, it was the second largest city, Gothenburg, that presented the opportunity to record this new album in Sonores Studios.

So while Testbild! isn’t really a band anymore, we have a new album. And that is cause for celebration. Their experimental pop is extremely tuneful, beautifully arranged and innovative. Grounded in Bacharach rather than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, they plow a post-punk furrow of their very own.

Having said that, the parts of this album are definitely greater than the whole. City life provides diversity, and so does this album. The flip side of diversity is incoherence and that is where I would place this as a listening experience.

The title track is a 16 minute freeform improvisation. A quite suggestive piece that makes me think that the title might better translate into “town” than “city”. Although it does get a bit noisy at times, it doesn’t feel like the stress and speed of a big city. Maybe suburbia then?

By being so different to the other tracks, the title track structures the album into three parts: A longer intro of pop songs, title track, and a shorter outro of pop songs.

The first track that really grabs your attention is also city titled, ‘Vita Staden’ (that would be ‘The White City’), sung by Petter Samuelsson. It starts out with jazzy drums and a sumptuous melody line fusing Rhodes and clarinet, and an atmosphere of urban innocence that you can’t help but surrender to.

The song turns out to be a microcosm of the album itself; not only is it steeped in a suburban feeling, it also replicates the three part structure with a longer pop intro, an experimental middle section containing sounds found near a pedestrian crossing, and a shorter pop outro.

But I would argue that the ultimate gems on this album are the more subdued tracks sung by Petter Herbertsson. Easier to overlook at first listen maybe. I am talking about tracks like ‘Skymningens kritiska punkt’, ‘Stram arkitektur’ and ‘Betongens form’. These songs absolutely nail every angle; songwriting, arrangement and performance. 

And the lyrics fully capture the importance of making music in your native language; they are crisp, poetic and political yet devoid of cliches. For example, the first verse of ‘Betongens form’ goes like this:

“I betongens form / visar sig en tro på människan

Kollektivets kraft / cementerar drömmar

Välvda tak i takt / rytmen från maskinerna slår dag och natt

Året om dom ger / en oavbruten atonal…”

Taken out of context, that could almost be from a 1970s political prog album. But here, Petter’s shy to the point of I-really-try-to-pretend-I-am-not-here delivery creates an incredibly intimate environment that sucks you in and gently nudges you into the gently powerful release of the layered choir of the verse ending: “… symfoni”

I can play that single part over and over and over and still get a surging and tingling sensation every time. Honestly!

The second verse ends with the same mechanism although the words are different and suddenly it feels like a chorus. Simultaneously minimalistic and totally luxurious – and absolutely masterful.

So, while ‘Barrikad’ remains Testbild!’s masterpiece – this new album may actually contain some of their best pieces ever!