Rainbow Ffolly: Spectromorphic Iridescence

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The fact that I am such an irreparable anglophile is an influence from my beloved late father. He was the one who introduced me to Monty Python and we would watch the shows on TV together. The first episode aired in Sweden in November 1969 and I was so small back then that I am not sure how much I understood. But I liked it. Later on when we had a video deck, my dad would buy tapes with several episodes, and we would go down to the TV room in the basement, turn on the telly and binge watch together. It changed me.

And then there was that other weekly TV show, I was probably around 11 or 12, and it featured women dressed in ornate Elizabethan clothes who would lift their legs up high in front of the audience while dancing, and in the process displaying their equally ornate underwear. It was incredibly exciting and I always made sure to go the TV room when my parents were watching it.

On this show, it wasn’t just the women’s dresses that were ornate. The announcer himself would go on and on, piling arcane adjectives on top of each other for ever and ever. And then some. The audience would go “oh” and “ah” the more convoluted and gaudy he became. In the beginning, I just wanted him to get on with it so I could get a glimpse of the women’s underwear, but at some point I also started enjoying his absurd verbal torrents.

The show was called ‘The Good Old Days’ and the flamboyant announcer was Leonard Sachs. On their 1968 debut LP ‘Sallies Fforth’, Rainbow Ffolly start off with a parody of him and continue with a shambolic pop album that feels just like a Monty Python show. Things happen seemingly randomly but still manage to make some sort of inexplicable sense. Unwittingly, then, my father really primed me for this album, since it combines the Good Old Days and Monty Python like no other. (It even features a woman showing her knickers on the back cover; certainly not a coincidence.)

I didn’t discover the album until around year 2000, when living in Tokyo. It was easy to get hold of since it had been reissued two years earlier, and had seen its first round of reissues and reappraisals as the wonderful late 60s funny-mirror collage that it is.

For me it was like opening a secret door to my half-forgotten childhood. Naturally, it became one of the cornerstones and starting points in my treasure hunt through the British late 60s musical underground that I hadn’t really explored until then.

What I didn’t know back then and in fact hadn’t really understood until I read the booklet accompanying the new, improved, stereoscopic, monaural, dazzling and complete Rainbow Fffolly 3CD box set now being released by David Wells’ Grapefruit Records, is that the band themselves never intended this to be released. Instead, this is really a set of demos strung together with banter and pieces of unrelated recordings by a studio owner who had a deal with EMI for a string of exploitation albums. It was sold without giving the band either proper payment or a proper recording contract.

As a consequence the whole thing petered out after a single from the album had also been released but didn’t sell well.

It would take the band until 2016 to release another album, appropriately titled ‘Ffollow Up’. I bought it right away although it was very difficult, as the release was limited and the band very slow to respond to my inquiries. The album consists partly of songs written back in the 60s and is a surprisingly good effort. However, being made more in earnest, it lacks the spontaneity and outright silliness that made the debut a classic and a must-hear 1960s artefact. Needless to say, it is included in a remastered and expanded version on the box.

You also get an astounding wealth of pop-archeological tracks, demos, front-room recordings, radio sessions and hospital (!!) radio jingles, making this yet another essential release from Grapefruit. Spectromorphic iridescence indeed!

There is even a home-recorded cover of the Honeybus near-hit “I Can’t Let Maggie Go”. What more can you ask for?

In a word, ffantastic!

https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/rainbow-ffolly-spectromorphic-iridescence-the-complete-ffolly-3cd-clamshell-boxset/

‘Gap Species’ from the NSRO – all highlights, no gap filler

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The ‘Gap Species’ compilation by the North Sea Radio Orchestra suddenly arrived on Bandcamp without much fanfare. This is incredibly welcome, not least since that this wonderful English band mixing pop and classical music without the bombast that often comes in tow, only have four previous albums to their name.

 

Even more intriguingly, according to the sparse information supplied, these tracks mainly date from the period after the demise of the Shrubbies in 1998 and leading up to Craig Fortnam forming the NSRO whose first album arrived in 2006.

 

These humble beginnings are probably easiest to spot in the two “organ miniatures” that feel like the result of Craig just noodling around on keyboards until he found what he was looking for. But what he found turned out to be the pot at the end of the rainbow. Even these simple pieces combine a gentle surface with an strong melodic depth that has been their hallmark ever since. Tellingly, an organ miniature also opened the NSRO debut album.

Next, ‘The Flower’ goes for a much fuller orchestration. But Sharon Fortnam’s vocals keeps the pure feel of the opening piece and adds an ebb and flow on top. Originally the opening track of their first single and then reappearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here is most likely earlier, since the organ takes on the role of the strings on the later versions.

Then, ‘Nest of Tables’ starts almost like another organ miniature but then adds more instruments, that build to the characteristic NSRO sound.

That sound is then taken to its upper limit on ‘Move Eastward Happy Earth’ with the addition of a big choir. Initially appearing on second album ‘Birds’, the version here seems slightly slower in tempo, yet is shorter overall. There is also more distortion on the choir, giving it an even more numinous feel. A song for wintry nights that is so good it makes you long for wintry nights!

From track five onwards nothing has, to my knowledge, appeared anywhere else before. And there are quite a few gems, such as ‘The Lintwhite’ with Sharron’s vocals to the melodic fore. Like many tracks by the NSRO it seems rather simple the first time you hear it but gets increasingly complex on each consecutive listen. I have no idea how they pull that off!

There is also a trio of tracks featuring the inimitable James Larcombe from Stars In Battledress. He also appears in many other related bands, including  the collaboration with Craig Fortnam on the amazing second Arch Garrison album ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’. He opens ‘Stations Green’ with some wonderfully odd organ notes and gradually hands over the melody to the violins; on ‘L.U.C.A.’ his melodic counterpart is a vibraphone; and finally on the title track ‘Gap Species’ he is up against clarinet, bassoon and oboe.

Speaking of woodwind, other highlights include the neo-classically oriented ‘Music for Two Clarinets and Piano’ and the the ten minute chamber piece ‘Lyonesse’ with violin and piano to the fore. Not something you expect to find on a pop record exactly, but at this point you are already so taken by the sheer beauty of the NSRO music that you just follow along.

‘Gap Species’ holds together very nicely as an album and certainly is no gap filler. There is an understated sadness throughout that makes me think about Robert Wyatt – an artist whom the NSRO have spent much time covering, especially live, but also on record. The presence of Cardiacs bandleader Tim Smith is also clearly felt. Not only because he has mixed most of this, recorded the vocals and contributes some backing vocals of his own, but also in the moods conjured up.

 

This album will definitely be in my top list for 2019. Now, how do we make sure this eventually gets a physical release? This absolutely is the kind of album I want to hold in my hand while listening!

The best unpopular music 2018

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There are two ways to look back at music in 2018. 

On the one hand, and as I hope these lists will prove, it has been a year of wonder. Everything listed here is quite marvellous. Stuff that makes you happy to be alive.

On the other, music may never have been as marginalised, despite being a child of the political 60s. Now Trump, May and countless other leaders ignore the need to stave off global warming and instead form a new axis of selfishness without much of an opposing musical scene taking shape.

There were two great Brexit albums, namely Robert Rotifer’s ‘They Don’t Love You Back’ and ‘Merrie Land’ by The Good, the Bad & the Queen. But two isn’t a crowd, it’s hardly even company. I vaguely remember reading an article by Nick Currie of Momus already back in the 19080s about the rise of unpop (unpopular music, a type of music that sounds very much like it should be popular, except it isn’t). It feels like unpop fragmentation has just continued since then and the idea of a common dream isn’t even on the table.

Greatest album 2018

While not outright political, my top pick for 2018 is an album that makes fragmentation its core idea. Like the soundtrack to a film about a world where humans never regained language capacity after being punished for building the tower of Babel, it is an album where the narrative is pushed to the fore but the narrators have lost the ability to communicate. 

It also grinds musical languages such as ambient, experimental, electronic, musique concrète and progressive rock into a garbled whole. The effect is utterly captivating and I have played it almost daily since I got it.

Unfortunately, the album is even more marginalised than everything else. The ridiculously small pressing is long since sold out and right now even the digital download is unavailable. Calling all labels out there – reissue this instant classic right now!!

Sternpost – Anti-clock

https://www.discogs.com/Sternpost-ANTI-CLOCK/release/11769701

12 best albums 2018 (in alphabetical order)

As always, it has been extremely hard to pair down the list and that is why I ended up with twelve rather than the proverbial ten. I just couldn’t make it smaller as everything here is really pure magic. And together with my greatest album pick, that makes for 13 albums this year; my lucky number!

Green Seagull – Scarlet Fever

Homunculus Res – Della Stessa Sostanza dei Sogni

Crayola Lectern – Happy endings

Simon Love – Sincerely, S. Love x

Palm – Rock Island

Papernut Cambridge – Outstairs Instairs

Regal Worm – Pig Views

Sanguine Hum – Now We Have Power

Testbild! – Stad

Cosmo Sheldrake – The Much Much How How & I

Slug – HiggledyPiggledy

Whyte Horses – Empty Words

Best singles 2018 (in alphabetical order)

I only listen to singles when there are no albums so it makes sense that this list should be short. And every artist here has made an album that I really love, not just this year.

With no less than five singles this year, it feels like Ralegh Long really could have made an album – and I hope he will in 2019. I picked one of his singles but all of them are equally amazing.

I should also say that although Beetles isn’t a very good band name, we find Tom O.C. Wilson behind that moniker. I selected his ‘Tell A Friend’ as best album of 2017, and since then, it has only risen in stature. In fact, it is so good that I haven’t even reviewed it, for fear of not being able to do it justice.

Beetles – Finding Fault

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mr7IhiHBw0U

Chemistry Set – Firefly / Sail Away

Green Seagull – First Snow Of Winter / God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFjEoI1__AE

Ralegh Long – Super Blue Moon

The Wellgreen – Take What You Get / Cynthia Rhymes

Best archival issues 2018

An archival issue, as far as I am concerned, is an album that was never properly released when it was supposed to. 

Some years ago, a test pressing of the second and unreleased Honeybus album ‘Recital’ came up for auction at eBay. I put in my bid for £666. Of course I didn’t stand a chance in hell, as someone used a bot and put in a last second winning bid at £667. After 45 years this Byrds influenced yet quintessentially English baroque pop classic is now finally officially released.

Equally amazing is the story about Zuider Zee, who like Monty Python’s classic ‘Life of Brian’ movie were born in the bunk next to Big Star. Although they put out a fantastic self-titled album that has been criminally ignored to this day, 2018 saw the release of earlier studio recordings that are every bit as classic. As the story goes, Zuider Zee main man Richard Orange cried when he found the recordings after not having known of their exitence for decades. And they are in fact good enough to make any listener cry.

Honeybus – Recital

https://hankypankyrecords.bigcartel.com/product/honeybus-recital-lp

Zuider Zee – Zeenith

Best reissues 2018

Many other reissue lists have the Beatles ‘White album’ at the top. While that is my favourite Beatles album and I did pre-order it, I wasn’t really overwhelmed by its contents, simply as great as expected.

What did catch me totally off-guard, however, was the release of the rumoured double album version of ‘Red Rose Speedway’ by Paul McCartney and Wings. Macca played the underdog after the Beatles, and unfortunately ‘Red Rose Speedway’ was whittled down to a single album due to what might have been lack of confidence. 

Personally, I grew up with ‘Ram’ and still use it as the yardstick to measure everything else, so while I never held ‘Red Rose Speedway’ in the same regard, it is fascinating to hear the album in its full glory, complete with ‘Ram’ outtakes.

But if you really want to talk about underdogs, you should look no further that Fickle Pickle. Despite making the most intelligent pop music in Britain after the Beatles – and before 10cc – their album ‘Sinful Skinful’ didn’t even get a British release. But now, pop historian David Wells have put things right with a massive three CD reissue of the album. Just wish he would have included the Morgan Superstars hits cover album as well to make things really exhaustively complete… 

Fickle Pickle – A Complete Pickle

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoxwGyY0wfc

Paul McCartney & Wings – Red Rose Speedway

https://youtu.be/3zHB5B95xuY

Best compilation 2018

If there is one song that captured everything about the impending end of the 1960s, it must be ‘Fading Yellow’ by Mike Batt. Although compiler David Wells have elected to go for another Mike Batt track on this compilation, everything else here is basically essential for anyone who wants to get a feeling for the vacuum created in the wake of the Beatles. In fact, what we get here are bedroom symphonies that point towards the fragmentation that this article started with. So, by listing this as the final essential release of 2018, I have now come full circle.

Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73

https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/come-join-my-orchestra-the-british-baroque-pop-sound-1967-73-various-artists-3cd-clamshell-boxset/

See you in 2019!

With that I would like to wish you a great new music year! As it happens, the Lost Crowns album will feature in my 2019 lists a year from now and is already up for pre-order. Get on, go out, buy one, you know why and you know how!

10 best albums Q4 2018

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It is that time of the year. Everyone is scrambling to publish their year’s best music lists. But what’s the rush? Let us first focus on the final quarter of 2018. It has been great, musically speaking. Every single album on this list deserves a place in the yearly top 10, although that won’t happen since there were so many good albums also earlier in the year. 

In any case, make sure you don’t miss out. In alphabetical order, they’re all keepers!

Matt Berry – Television Themes

https://acidjazz.bandcamp.com/album/television-themes

Jack Ellister – Telegraph Hill

https://www.youarethecosmos.com/product/jack-ellister-telegraph-hill-lp

Group Listening – Clarinet & Piano- Selected Works Vol. 1

The Good, The Bad & The Queen – Merrie Land

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6p1mq19htTc

Hen Ogledd – Mogic

Julia Holter – Aviary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5uwPaCvbhA

Papernut Cambridge – Mellotron Phase vol 2

Keiron Phelan – Peace Signs

Sanguine Hum – Now We Have Power

Testbild! – Stad

Keiron Phelan makes chamber pop for 2018

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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

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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!!

https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/come-join-my-orchestra-the-british-baroque-pop-sound-1967-73-various-artists-3cd-clamshell-boxset/

Papernut Cambridge play the toy Mellotron

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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!