Bill Nelson goes back to the Futurama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School of Language makes music matter again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gold Needles pop Through A Window

Gold Needles June 21st

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool pop for hot summer nights!

Bitw, best in the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Wyatt reimagined by the North Sea Radio Orchestra

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There is the younger Robert Wyatt and there is the older Robert Wyatt. 

The younger Wyatt introduces himself amply in the Soft Machine tune ‘Why Am I So Short?’:

“I’ve got a drum kit and some sticks

So when I’m drunk or in a fit

I find it easy to express myself

I hit the drums so hard I break all my heads

And then I end the day in one of my beds”

The older Wyatt is a unique personality. Soft and generous yet unflinchingly always on the side of the underdog. Constantly joking, and making excuses for his shortcomings, yet always serious and purposeful. His honesty and uncompromising stance has carried Wyatt across fashions and musical styles and kept him relevant across generations and genres.

But in between there is a dark inferno. If the young Wyatt was very much a free spirit, spirits were also flowing freely. At a birthday party for Gilli Smyth and Lady June on June 1st 1973, Wyatt, drunk beyond control, fell out from a window some floors up and was paralysed from the waist down. He has been in a wheelchair ever since and will never feel the ease of expressing himself behind a drum kit again.

And between the young and the old man lies also the album that he wrote while in hospital. Full of agony and unreleased tension, ‘Rock Bottom’ is a cornerstone in any serious modern music collection. An irrefutable masterpiece that sounds like nothing else before or since.

The North Sea Radio Orchestra performed the album in its entirety at the Conservatorio Nicolini in Piacenza for the ”Musiche Nuove a Piacenza” festival on November 30, 2018. And, with Wyatt’s blessings, that concert is now being released on Dark Companion Records as an album called ‘Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom’.

The album opens with ‘Sea Song’ just like on the 1974 original. The first impression I have – particularly after watching the promo video showing what looks like an encore of that specific song filmed at the event – is that this must be a studio take and not a live take.

On the video Annie Barbazza and John Greaves share vocals, but on the record, Barbazza is the only vocalist. Secondly, there is no audible clapping or any other hint that an audience is present on this or in fact any of the tracks on the record, giving the distinct impression of a live in studio setting rather than, as is really the case, a concert in front of a full – and, judging from the YouTube clip, very actively engaged – audience.

But this is the blessing – or the curse, if you are so inclined – of modern editing software. You can change almost anything also after the fact, and here the audience has been edited out. While it does make the sound clearer, it also creates a somewhat artificial atmosphere, and in some cases exposes also moments of hesitation in a way that would not have happened in a studio.

Notably missing in action from this incarnation of the North Sea Radio Orchestra is bandleader Craig Fortnam’s wife Sharron. Although I have no idea as to the actual reason, it is easy to imagine that she found replacing Robert Wyatt’s vocals with her own a too daunting task.

Instead, vocals are handled by Annie Barbazza, who has previously released a homage to the music of Greg Lake as well as a playlist album of covers from various artists primarily from the 60s and 70s. She does a great job here, but given that Wyatt’s original vocals are so extremely special, I can honestly say that you won’t come to this album to be blown away by the singing.

Another temporary band member for this concert is John Greaves, who with his background in Henry Cow is of course a welcome addition in this context. Apart from bass guitar he is also chipping in with vocals, as well as the spoken word parts that were originally handled by Ivor Cutler. But even though Cutler might not be a Robert Wyatt, it is difficult to come up with anyone who could handle those parts as brilliantly as he does (well, maybe Stanley Unwin, but then that’s it). In fact, Cutler was given a three-album record deal with Virgin just based on his performance on ‘Rock Bottom’. So again, replacing him with John Greaves is great but not exceptional.

Instead, the vocals rather act as a guide to let you find your bearings in an otherwise totally new soundscape for these songs. And that is the real beauty: This very different recording lets you discover aspects of Wyatt’s music than you do not even consider when his strong personal presence there.

More specifically you can look at the compositions themselves and judge them for what they are, namely adventurous art rock songs of high calibre. Also, whereas the original album is performed with a hypnotic, almost alien pulse and naked intimacy, here the melodic twists and turns are revealed in the brighter light afforded by an orchestra that combines rock music instruments with a string section as well as clarinets, vibes, recorders and keyboards.

It is quite an experience to hear the album from this perspective. And I cannot think of anyone better to guide me through the music of Robert Wyatt in this way than the North Sea Radio Orchestra, who in their own music display a similarly English sadness and yearning melancholia.

Even though the audience as already mentioned has been edited out from the album, it becomes more obvious that this after all is a concert performance, when we at the end of the album are treated to four bonus tracks from across Wyatt’s career. Calling it a hit parade may be exaggerating things a bit since Wyatt isn’t much of a hit maker. But we do get the usual suspects. And while the songs are great and the performances of high quality, it feels a bit strange to me to hear these songs presented with the same toolbox. The initial shock of hearing ‘Rock Bottom’ in such different light gets a bit painted over with a samey feeling. And covering Wyatt covering ‘Shipbuidling’ doesn’t feel like the most essential thing, even though I do think Wyatt’s version is better than Elvis Costello’s. However, these are bonus tracks, so these quibbles are just minor.

And it is difficult not get a warm smile on your face when you hear John Greaves sing the altered lyrics on final track, ‘O Caroline’, originally performed with the Matching Mole:

“Annie’s on Farfisa

I will play the base

North Sea Radio Orchestra will add a touch of grace

I just can’t help thinking that if you were here with us

You’d sing this song most sweetly, with a minimum of fuss

We love you still Caroline”

In short, a heartfelt and worthy celebration of the inimitable Robert Wyatt, by an equally worthy North Sea Radio Orchestra. We love you all.

Jouis on a cosmic Mind Bahn

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Unfortunately, I often find it hard to write about albums I really like. Partly I worry that I will not be able to do them justice, and partly I tend to like albums that go beyond my limited musical understanding.

Both issues apply to ‘Mind Bahn’, the sophomore album by Jouis. Hence, I am quite late to the party with this review. Nevertheless, ‘Mind Bahn’ is not only quite an ambitious album, I also think it is one of the year’s best.

The band describe themselves as follows: “Drawing on the Canterbury Scene groups of the late 60s / early 70s such as Caravan and Soft Machine, Jouis’ sound melds these influences with their own mellifluous West Coast harmonies”. While that is absolutely spot on, it misses the very tangible sense of musical discovery and exploration they convey. This is not copycat music; these guys are the real cats.

With five years having passed since debut album ‘Dojo’, the tracks on the follow-up seem carefully considered and thoughtfully worked-through. But the perfectionism has not diminished the strong spiritual vibe flowing through the songs. The lyrics are quite abstract and the music is multilayered.

In some ways, Jouis reminds me of Syd Arthur, another neo-Canterbury band. While their influences are obvious, both bands go to some length to stitch them into something that sounds different. Both bands are also in no hurry, and favour control over the recording process over volume of output. In this, they show a kind of honesty that is quite appealing.

‘Mind Bahn’ starts out with a tape that is quickly wound backwards and leads to the tempered pace of ‘Collapse Rewind’. Although the tempo isn’t very fast, there is immediately a groove that turns out to be a hallmark feature of the entire album. 

The opening lyrics also set the cosmic stage. “Time / travelling inside / the eye of your mind / Space between worlds / collapses and rewinds”

Instrumentation is traditional with guitar, drums and keyboards, and a sound embellished with vocal harmonies that could have been made anytime from the late 60s onwards. You could potentially think of the sound as retro, but in this case, timeless is definitely the word I would choose.

Second track ‘Sinking statues’ ups the CSN&Y feeling somewhat while maintaining the spaced out atmosphere. On the digital version of the album, this track reappears as a funked up remix bonus track that just wants you to get up and dance on the floor, no matter that it is well past midnight and that you are alone. One of the better remixes I have heard – and I generally don’t like remixes!

My favourite on the album may just be the album’s longest track, ’Turtle’. It starts with a soft Rhodes piano riff but then develops into a more organ driven piece before suddenly shifting down tempo about two thirds in with plaintive voices and instruments that just float in a still pool of water. They way it slows me down is rather amazing and my mind shifts gears as I leave the stress and pressure of modern life for just a little while.

And that slowing down of pulse and perception is exactly what is needed in order for me to appreciate the final track on side A, an introvert piano piece called ‘Cat’ that is part Erik Satie and part something otherworldly only hinted at by the strange sounds lurking just beneath the surface of the mix.

The pace is gently picked up again with ‘Cloud Plough’ that starts off side B, which then leads to a heavier piece, the instrumental rocker ‘Medievil’, probably the most progressive piece on the album if you are into that sort of thing.

Before long, we reach the conclusion of the album with the track that has the most difficult title, ‘Effloresce’. Had to look that one up, and it basically means “to bloom” which is exactly what the track does as it again works wonders with pace and timbre, from a rather tempered beginning that then unhurriedly opens up as a flower before finally shrivelling and dying away. It becomes a microcosm of the album as a whole, in that it packs a lot of drama in a limited space while never being rushed to go anywhere.

I think I have heard the album maybe twenty times since I bought it now, and I can say for certain that this is one of those albums I will continue listening to for years to come.

Kavus Torabi: The Gong ‘Rejoice! I’m Dead!’ interview

Today the utterly brilliant new Gong album ‘The Universe Collapses’ is released. To celebrate the new release, we here republish an interview with Kavus Torabi about the 2016 album that saw him take over the lead after Daevid Allen.

The article was written by Michael Björn and originally published in Shindig! #60 on 05/10/2016.

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