A little Twink and a lot of Robert Halcrow

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When I recently ordered the new Twink vinyl single that has been released on Gare du Nord Records, in order to save on postage, I also got the self-titled debut CD by District Repair Depot that I had previously overlooked.

Little did I know how well they would fit together.

But let us start from the beginning. Twink, in case you don’t know, was a central figure in the British psychedelic pop movement. He was the drummer in the In-Crowd, together with other luminaries such as Steve Howe and Keith West. They soon changed their name to Tomorrow, and made a near-perfect psychedelic pop album before breaking up. Twink then played with The Pretty Things on the classic ’S.F. Sorrow’ before making a solo LP and then moving on to the Pink Fairies. 

The rest, as they say, is post-history, and I haven’t really been following the various subsequent Twink releases. For this reason, I was not sure what to expect from the ‘Brand New Morning /Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’. Suffice to say, I was blown away. Totally.

The A side is a psychedelic pop nugget that would fit nicely in 1968 and has a clear Barrett-era Pink Floyd influence. Very catchy, with slightly deadpan vocals, and an incredibly nice Mellotron. The B-side ‘Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’ is more hippyish and in line with what I would expect from Twink; spaced-out and with lyrics that are quite fuzzy at the edges. Nevertheless, it is a great track and again the production is spot on for this type of music, including the plaintive Mellotron.

It is so good, that I immediately want to play it again. It isn’t until I turn the single over to play ‘Brand New Morning’ from the start, that I notice it is a co-write between Robert Halcrow and Twink. So that explains the poppy feel of it!

Robert Halcrow has had a band called Picturebox for several years, where he plays pop music influenced by the post-punk era of the 80s and bands like XTC. I always buy their albums, and the latest one, ‘Escapes’, that came out in 2018, is their best yet. It has many really great tracks, such as the sarcastic opener ‘Stumble’, the more introspective ‘Siren’ or the driving pop of ‘I Got the Pox’ with its chaotic and strung-out outro. But my favourite may just be the strange circular tale of ‘The Vicar’s Dog’.

I then went on to play the other record that I had ordered together with the Twink single. It immediately made me sit up straight and listen. Hooky pop songs that don’t make a lot of noise but are totally charmed. Quite indebted to the 1960’s but with a relaxed, almost rural feel to them that both soothe and fill you with wonder. Wow! 

What the hell is this? It turns out that District Repair Depot is again Robert Halcrow, this time together with Stephen Evans. I browse around the internet for a while, but find very little mention of this rather magical little album; it seems I am not the only person who overlooked it upon release. Time to make amends!

Although the songwriting here is top-notch throughout, ‘Flat Stanley’ has all the components of a classic psych-pop song, including a barmy melody with unforgettable story-telling lyrics.

That song alone makes this a must-have album. But before I even have time to wrap my head around the rest of it, my inbox bings with a message from Bandcamp saying that District Repair Depot are about to release a new EP. 

It turns out to be a 4-track EP, called Argy-BARGY, and two of the tracks are already available with the pre-order.

The title track, ‘Argy-Bargy’ is back to the 80s Picturebox style and has an itchy new wave XTC melody, whereas ‘(The Word of) Autumn Feelings’ has that contagious 60s feel again while at the same time taking everything nice and easy. Both of these tracks are incredibly nice, although I might prefer the latter one. Can’t wait to hear the other tracks on the EP upon their release on the 8th of March!

Eastern Western music from Lefty Wright

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One of my favourite albums of 2014 was ‘Songs From the Portal’ by Dundee multi-instrumentalist and sitar player Paul Lefty Wright. That album was as sprawling and wide-eyed as it was unexpected in its treatment of pop music. Playing it today, it still feels incredibly fresh in its unconventional use of conventional building blocks.

After five long years, Paul is back again, this time with The 3rd Eye Flute Band. And musically, there are very few connections. For starters, it is all instrumental. I must say that I miss the vocals, since the lyrics on ‘Songs From the Portal’ were great, and had some truly amazing stories to tell.

But luckily, the band name happens to be such a story in itself. It seems that Paul wanted to learn playing the metal flute, and a friend told him he should buy a Yamaha SL2 for £800. As Paul was sitting in his sofa dosing off in the evening, he thought the price was totally out of his budget. But just as his eyelids got heavy, he saw an image of the flute in the window of a local thrift shop in his mind’s eye. The next morning, he went there and of course it was there. It was in fact an LS2, for only £90.

He started playing and was an unusually quick learner, to the point that he is now participating on demos for Paul Weller’s next album both on flute and sitar.

With anyone else, I might scoff at a band called the 3rd Eye Flute Band for the above reasons – especially if the album title is ‘Music from An Eastern Western’  and the band leader calls himself Lefty Wright. But with Paul, I’m all OK with that. Once you have heard this guy’s music, you will know why.

When I saw the album sleeve, which lists all the different ragas that the songs are based on, I was fully expecting this to be a very Indian affair, not least since Paul is a sitar player as already mentioned.

And when the needle hit the first groove, it did indeed sound very Indian. Not that my judgment means much in this case. My experience barely extends beyond Ravi Shankar’s guest appearances on Beatles albums. To put it bluntly, although I do know what a sitar sounds like, I wouldn’t be able to tell a raga from a muffin even if you were to hit me on the head with them.

But after the short intro track, the music quickly changes character. ‘The Left of Spring’ is a flute led number, allegedly based on a theme from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’, with a thumpy bass to the fore and Mellotron in the back. It has a bluesy feel and I couldn’t help but think of Jethro Tull, although this doesn’t sound anything like them. ‘Hoedown’ comes across almost like a jig, albeit with different instrumentation, and ‘Paxploitation’ takes us on a jazzy flute fantasy trip.

Side two starts with a key track, ‘Theme from an Eastern Wester’, the title them to an imaginary Bollywood Western. If anything, it reminds me vaguely of mid 70s prog rock although again it doesn’t sound at all like that. The soundtrack theme returns towards the end of the album with ‘Theme, variations 1 and 2’ in a similar but different vein: first it gallops away but then stops and breaks into a forlorn Mellotron voice reminiscent of Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’. Except there’s lots of sitar so the comparison falters yet again.

While struggling to come to grips with the music here, I gradually realise that Paul’s strength is that although nothing he does is conventional, neither is it contrived. While the music on this album is definitely experimental, importantly, it doesn’t try to be different, or even difficult. When I asked Paul what kind of music it is, he answered: “I don’t really know what it is, it just appeared in my head like that.”

This music doesn’t try to fit into a certain genre, but at the same time it doesn’t consciously try to break genre rules either. It is innocent in a way, and as such it is a very liberating listen.

You really need to hear it.

https://paulleftywright.bandcamp.com/album/the-3rd-eye-flute-band-music-from-an-eastern-western

The psychedelic mystery of Mandrake Paddle Steamer

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Mandrake Paddle Steamer is a late 60s English psychedelic group that to this day remains shrouded in mystery.

The masterful obscurity rescue team also known as Guerssen records have just put out ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ on their Sommor sub-label that compiles hitherto properly unreleased material with the group. Now Guerssen always does things with style and class, and there is no difference here; these tracks come from the best sources that have surfaced so far and sound better than ever. And the music is hair-raisingly good, combining plaintive late-era psychedelia with wide-eyed proto-prog.

If you are at all interested in late 60s music, you must seek this one out. In fact, I suggest that you pause your reading right here and go out and buy it before you continue. Because once you have a copy, you will invariably start scratching your head and wonder at what you have in your hands, just like I will be doing for the rest of this review.

 


 

Welcome back! Although great, this release in a way deepens the confusion surrounding the band. Do you think that ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ rings a bell? It is also the title of Harry Nilsson’s debut album from 1967 which is of no relation. 

Instead, this CD/LP collects five UK recordings from 1968 focusing around the core creative team of Brian Engel and Martin Briley and then mixes in four recordings made after Engel had left: one from the tail end of 1968 and three 1970 recordings by which time the band had shortened its name to Mandrake. 

And then we get to the liner notes, which seem to be mainly written by original band member Paula (Paul in the mandrake days) Riordan. Although stating that some of these tracks have been previously compiled with inferior sound quality and wrong titles, they certainly do not help in clearing things up.

For starters, there is even confusion about what the group released. Their only single came out on Parlohone in the UK back in 1969, the A-side of which, ‘Strange Walking Man’ has left quite a mark, having been included on such esteemed compilations as ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers’, ‘Insane Times’ and ‘Psychedelia at Abby Road 1965-1969’ among others. And for good reason; it is a track that very much captures the post-psychedleic spirit of the time.

But then there is another single, released by Mandrake, also in 1969, but on the Swedish branch of Parlophone, as original soundtrack music from the Swedish film “Skottet”. Although it is quite good and has been included on Mandrake Paddle Steamer bootlegs I think we can safely remove it from the official list: the songwriters on that single are Claes Fellbom and Calvin Floyd, both of them known producers, writers and composers. Unhelpfully, there is no mention of it in the liners to the Guerssen release – but I have word from Guerssen that the band has no memory of the single.

Some light was shed on the band when RPM released ‘Between the Sea and the Sky’ containing an album ’s worth of tracks recorded by Martin Briley and Brian Engel in 1970/71 at George Martin’s Air Studios, but subsequently canned. The music had become even quirkier in a proto-10cc sort of way, and this is a must-have item for any serious lover of British pop music. But it also proved that many bootleg tracks that had been circulating were actually from these sessions and not properly by Mandrake Paddle Steamer.

Are you still with me? Good, because here is where it starts getting really confusing. The liner notes on that RPM release promised that “an official long awaited Mandrake Paddle Steamer collection will follow”. We were just asked to hold on. Roughly a decade later, we were still holding on, when an account on Bandcamp, published a six song collection called “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes”. Now the sound quality was pretty good on these tapes, the haunted pyschedelic pop with a hard prog edge was proof enough that they were the genuine thing, despite the page misspelling Brian Engel as “Brian Engle”.

But at some point in time, the six track compilation was reduced to just one track, the instrumental ‘Carmen’ that I would assume is from after Engel’s departure. Instead the rest now appear on the Guerssen compilation, which references the just mentioned Bandcamp making it legitimate in the process. But there are still some interesting differences. ‘Nice Man’ from the “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” is gone, which is a pity because it has a great hard rock vibe and good vocals and it might just date from the Engel era. But it seems it was never finished back in the day and overdubs had been added more recently, hence its exclusion here.

The most worthwhile addition on the Guerssen release is unquestionably ‘The October Country’ which allegedly is the band’s first studio recording, that was only pressed on 10 acetates. It has all the atmosphere you could dream of, including the odd crackle.

There are also great sounding previously bootleg-only versions of ‘Solitarire Husk’ (‘The Ivory Castle of Solitane Itusk’ / ‘The Ivory Castle of Solitaire Husk’ on bootlegs) ‘The World Whistles By’ (‘In My Padded Cell’ / ‘East Wing’ on bootlegs) and ‘Upminster Windows’. These three tracks alone would make the Guerssen disc a solid purchase.

In addition, two 1968 tracks that have been redacted from “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” now appear on the Guerssen release, namely the title track ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (referred to on on bootlegs as ‘Cougar and Dark’) and the post-Engels track ‘Doorway To January’ (interestingly called ‘Slo Blo’ on ‘… Tapes’ just like on some bootlegs, whereas it has been called ‘Janus Suite’ on others).

From the 1970 Mandrake incarnation we also get ‘Stella Mermaid’ and ‘Doris The Piper’ that were also previously on ‘… Tapes’ but are not there anymore, as well as a hitherto totally unknown track, ‘Simple Song’ that despite its name is probably the most complex thing here. Martin Briley is still credited as playing guitar here but given that it is an instrumental track, I would guess it might be the last track with him on before he too left.

But that leaves out some interesting bootleg tracks unaccounted for, such as the yearning ‘Senlac Lament’ and the late night swing of ‘Nobody Flies So High’. So maybe there is more yet to be discovered?

Do you feel exhausted and confused on a higher level now? Well, I told you to go out and buy the thing before reading on, didn’t I!