Archive for May, 2013

I once heard John Coltrane’s playing described as the sound of a ‘very large man crammed into a tiny room, shooting notes at the corners of that room.’ I have often though of that neat phrase when experiencing the playing of Sydney tenor colossus James Ryan. Lyrical as it is, in a jazz setting  – even in his big, bad Sonic Mayhem Big Band – his playing can so strong that it sometimes threatens to immolate the horn with that same sort of phosphorescent energy Coltrane could put out.

So it makes sense that jazz-fusion is a good fit for James Ryan. Jazz-rock fusion (theoretically) takes the best of both musics – the unbridled energy of Rock and the freedom and imagination of Jazz – and combines them to make something (theoretically) greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, too much fusion seems to take, instead, the bombast of Rock and the noodling of Jazz and can be excruciatingly awful.

That said, outfits such as Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s various Return to Forevers have made music that hits some stratospheric and ecstatic highs – that wouldn’t be possible in either Jazz or Rock individually.

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Ryan’s fusion super-group, The Subterraneans, are the best of the best. Comprising a core of Ryan, electric bassist Steve Hunter, drummer James Hauptmann and hyperkinetic guitarist James Muller, they are a force of nature, balancing ferocious energy with focused and sharp musical ideas. John Shand has said of The Subs “This is what the fusion of Jazz and Rock always promised but rarely delivered: sophisticated improvising harnessed to raw power.

Their recent album Live at The Townie is drawn from shows The Suberraneans performed at Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel every Sunday in February, March, April and May 2012 and Feb 2013. Every performance was recorded and eight tracks (out of over 100) were selected. Guests Rai Thistlethwayte on keys (lovely gritty Rhodes on the very Miles-ish ‘So To Speak’) and guitarist Ben Hauptmann add to the proceedings. subterraneans1

All this talk of Rock and power, howver, belies the scope of The Subterraneans’ dynamic. Opener ‘Constant Change’ is a demonstration of the freedom the band can spin music from – trippy and ambient, it is the sound of band that can truly breathe together (something surprisingly rare in ‘super-groups’). ‘So To Speak’ begins with bass-harmonic atmospheres from Steve Hunter, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Continuum’, before moving through 11:09 of beautiful soloing from Ryan and the previously mentioned Thistlethwayte.

But all subtle grooving aside, it is the excitingly hair-raising pieces here that really get the band’s blood flowing – their take on ‘The Subterraneans’ makes the studio version, already a barnstorming performance, pale by comparison. Ryan’s soloing threatens to split his tenor at the seams, but it is James Muller’s shredding explorations that push the band into hyperdrive. Muller’s playing throughout is a reminder of the power in his playing, but power – as it is with every member of The Subs – that is subservient to the music and the collective momentum.

It is a rare treat to have a band bristling with soloists such as Ryan, Muller and Hunter. It is an even rarer treat when they subsume their egos to combine into such a remarkable band. And it is a yet even rarer treat when the performances of such a collective can be recorded (nice work Dave Bourke!) in a live setting with all its attendant fire and brimstone and in-the-moment immediacy. As I said, the best of the best.

The Subterraneans – Live at The Townie is released through Rippa Recordings and available from www.ripparecordings.com and Birdland.

Published May 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

Daniel Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley is a feature of this year’s Sydney Film Festival – a festival humming with music-related films. From portraits of The Warumpi Band’s George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga and a Flemish bluegrass family to a doco on an orphanage in Angola where hardcore punk helps war-shocked kids release their angst, there is music everywhere this year.

In many ways – not least the casting of Gossip Girl heartthrob Penn Badgely in the lead role – Greetings from Tim Buckley is maybe the most conventional of the lot. Centred around the 1991 New York tribute concert to 60s cult-hero Tim Buckley that launched the career of his estranged son, Jeff Buckley, the film often looks almost a little good to be true.

Even though Jeff Buckley was one handsome bohemian, Badgely’s geometric jaw and stratospheric cheekbones are almost too much. The same goes for co-lead Imogen Poots (28 Days Later) as NYC art-chick Allie – in fact, everyone in the movie who isn’t a grizzled old hippie muso is just a liitle bit too clear-skinned and fair-browed.

Penn Badgely as Jeff Buckley

Penn Badgely as Jeff Buckley

Beyond that, Algrant’s screenplay (written with David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang) builds a simple story of a son who missed his father as he was growing up. Asked to perform his father’s songs at the 1991 tribute staged by Hal Willner at NYC’s Church of St Ann, the then-little-known Jeff agrees. As rehearsals grind on, the perpetual comparisons with Tim Buckley wear Jeff down and deep-scarred resentments rise to the surface.

Pop culture rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story – and so it is with the story of Tim and Jeff Buckley. Jeff only met his father twice in his life – once when he was one and again when he was eight, briefly. Much is made in Rock history of their remarkable (spooky!) similarities: the fact they looked so alike, and sounded so alike etc etc. Rock history, like many convenient histories, seems to ignore the plain facts – in this case the plain facts that they actually looked nothing alike and sounded nothing alike (even though, coincidentally, they were both astonishing vocalists).

Imogen Poots as Allie

Imogen Poots as Allie

The only undeniable similarity between the two is the adventurous nature of their music. Tim Buckley’s late 60s prolific output (nine studio albums prior to his death at 28) ranged from humping and pumping Stones-flavoured barroom rock to the ‘unlistenable’ (and quite brilliant) avant-garde experiments of albums such as Starsailor. Almost thirty tears later Jeff Buckley only put out one album – the era-defining Grace – which was brimming with jaw-dropping originality.

Greetings from Tim Buckley sees Jeff three years before Grace, and is intercut with flashbacks to Tim Buckley’s rise in the 60s. Boho dives such as the Café Wha are beautifully recreated, as is the 1991 tribute concert in St Ann’s.

Small details divert and irk, though. During a scene where Jeff and guitarist Gary Lucas (coolly played by Frank Wood) jam on what would become Grace’s title track, the headstocks of their guitars – a Stratocaster and a Telecaster – have the ‘Fender’ logo taken off, due apparently to brand protection.

In a record store, digging for vinyl with Allie, Jeff hugs and kisses a copy of the Led Zeppelin III LP before falling to the floor and singing garbled almost-lyrics from the album. He tells her everything from the 70s was ‘big big bullshit – except for ONE thing’. That One Thing is obviously Led Zeppelin (Buckley drowned in 1997 after walking into a river at night singing Led Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’) but he can’t say it – the Zep lawyers might be circling.

In this litigation-stupid world, this product un-placement pokes some holes in the veracity of the story. This may be trainspotting but anyone who is moved to go and see a story about a 60s freakout cat and his Boho genius son just eats up details far, far more trivial than this.

The heroic arc of the story culminates in the Tim Buckley Tribute Concert which Algrant nails down on all levels: musically, theatrically, emotionally – watch out for Frank Bello thoroughly enjoying himself as NYC proto-punk Richard Hell.

Ben Rosenfield as Tim Buckley

Ben Rosenfield as Tim Buckley

Penn/Jeff’s rendition of the beautiful Tim Buckley song ‘Once I Was’ is a time-stopping moment in an otherwise slightly too-neat dramatic climax.

In fact, one of the finest features of the film is the heavy use of Tim Buckley’s music – spacey, deep, 60s fragrant and unlike any other singer-songwriter before or since – in favour of Jeff’s more hard-edged 90s mojo. Let’s hope a whole new generation is turned on to his back catalogue – ‘Song to the Siren’, ‘Morning Glory’ and so much more by Greetings from Tim Buckley.

Greetings from Tim Buckley will be screened on Friday June 7, 9:45 pm at Event Cinemas George Street 4 and on Saturday June 15, 4:30pm at Event Cinemas George Street 8.

Published May 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

 

Composer and trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood is known for her inventive and genre-busting arrangements for Sydney’s Sirens Big Band – check out her ‘Balkanator’, the opener of the Siren’s recent debut album, Kali and The Time of Change. (The band also rocks her arrangement of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ in performance.)

Kirkwood’s small group – the whimsically named Captain Kirkwood – is a whole other trip from the Sirens. But the much reduced format doesn’t reduce Kirkwood’s smart ideas and great sense of tonal colour one iota.

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In fact, on the band’s debut, Theseus and the Minotaur, Kirkwood has taken on a hell of an idea: the Greek legend of Theseus and his battle to the death with King Minos’ monstrous cannibal creature, the Minotaur. The band tell the story over five linked pieces, with narration by Ketan Joshi.

It could easily be a train wreck – very few of these jazz-prose things really fit right – but on this one it all works beautifully. The balance between the music and Joshi’s measured narration never tips, the music following and enhancing the narrative path, now and again moving to the forefront to feature the ensemble or some brilliant and considered soloing.

Multi-instrumentalist Paul Cutlan stands out, playing bass clarinet, tenor and Eb clarinet across the tracks. His howling, gnashing bass clarinet evocation of the Minotaur’s roars reminds us why Cutlan is one of our most respected musicians: he somehow manages to, among the terrifying animal sounds, suggest the anguish that the poor creature suffers, being not man and yet not beast.

The Minotaur’s lonely pain is also touched on in the sharply written text adaptation (by Kirkwood together with Oliver Downes), widening the psychological scope of the good-vs-evil aspect of the legend.kirkwood1

Kirkwood’s band writing is subtle and deceptively tricky – all to convey the moods and settings of the story. Her band – the traditional jazz two-horns-plus-rhythm combo – is up to anything she throws at them. There are some truly exceptional moments: the dread conveyed when Theseus enters the Minotaurs labyrinth using just Tom Botting’s scraped bowed bass and drummer Alon Ilsar’s ominous toms; the ragged, angular dance that suggests Theseus and the beast circling each other before their final battle; the use of kalimba suggesting sparkling sea.

As well as the five-track legend suite, the band also works through three tasty Kirkwood originals with Cutlan playing Eric Dolphy to the leader’s Miles-inspired trumpet (her tone on the ballad ‘Dharamsala’ is particularly luminous). Pianist Glenn Doig through the suite and the three band pieces once again proves he is one to watch.

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Prior to publishing this review, I asked Ellen Kirkwood a handful of questions. Here are her responses.

1. The most obvious first – why did you pick the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur for your debut release?

This decision was mostly about practicality and a setting that I thought I could write well for. As for exactly why I wanted to write a “music story” in the first place – that’ll become clear when I answer your other questions later.

Basically after I’d decided to write a music story, I then had to find a story that would suit. I looked at a lot of short stories, and asked friends to recommend some. Some people suggested I do a musical setting for poetry, but I mostly found that too abstract for what I wanted. I wanted it to be a story, and my narrator to be a storyteller. Short stories that I read, or that people suggested to me, had a lot of dialogue, or plots that branched out in a few different directions. Looking at these texts helped me tease out what I DIDN’T want, and let me to decide that what I needed was something with a fairly simple and straightforward plot, but with an interesting setting and strong characters that I could express through the music I’d write. I didn’t want a story that was too detailed or complex because I wanted the music to be the focus, and also because I didn’t want to make what was already going to be a big challenge even more difficult.

When I started looking at myths and legends I seemed to be getting closer to the mark. I had studied Ancient History for my HSC so was already familiar with Theseus and the Minotaur. The thing that most appealed to me about the story of Theseus was the fantastical setting, particularly the labyrinth. I pretty quickly got excited about the possibilities of writing and improvising music to describe the labyrinth and Theseus’ journey through it. The other good thing about this story is there are so many versions of it out there, so I knew I could tweak it to make it work for me.

kirkwood22. What was it about writing a themed cycle of pieces that appealed to you, rather than a selection of unconnected tunes?

I really love composing. When I got the news that I had been nominated for the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, and that I had to submit a recording and a proposal, after the initial freak out (“I don’t have a band! All the stuff I’ve written lately has been for big band and Sirens is too big to use for the award!” “I have a month to get a group together and record… what?”) I decided that, if I won the award, I wanted to do something extra challenging to make the most of it. I knew I had the ability to write enough original tunes to record an album with my own band, but I wanted to do something different with the opportunity. I guess I also wanted to do something to set me apart from the other shortlisted people (I still have no idea who they were, top secret!) too. And to be (extra) honest, maybe there was also an element of self-doubt there – lots of people out there writing and recording albums full of standalone tracks of their amazing original music – would a similar thing of my own stand out amongst those? Probably not, I thought. Do something a bit different!

And then I won the award! Clearly they liked my idea!

3. Was it more difficult to write like this – the symphonic challenge of individual pieces that work in a larger framework?

Yeah, it was pretty difficult, altogether. I didn’t find it too hard to come up with the raw material to begin with, but it was actually piecing the finer details together to fit with the story which was the hardest. The biggest mistake I made was not getting the text to be exactly what I wanted before I wrote the music. Instead, I basically wrote a summary of the story, which I then wrote the music to, thinking of it more as a general setting for the story, rather than music that followed the narrative closely. The more I wrote, though, the more tied in to specific events in the story it became. So then when I got Oli to help me fine-tune the text itself, I found that all the editing we did to make it better, including some changes in the sequence of events and the shortening of some sections, would mean I had to edit the music more than I had expected. This caused me to then have to re-think some parts of the music to see if I could fit things into different places, and reconsider if the mood of what I had still suited the changes in the text. Next time I do this something like this (and I hope to!) I’ll definitely make sure the text is exactly what I want before I write the music – after all, I’m a musician and composer, not an author.

I also had the help of the band members in making a lot of decisions about the performance of Theseus. As you can probably imagine, it took a lot of time to get it all together and fine tune it, and I purposefully left some decisions up to the guys in the band, because they all have great, creative minds and I wanted them to have some ownership over it as well.

4. What do you think about when you compose?

”How can I make this as complicated as possible?” Nah, just kidding (mostly). Tricky question. It can take me a while to get around to sitting at my computer and writing (that’s mostly how I do it) but usually once I’m there I’m pretty immersed in it. Or, alternatively, I can get pretty stumped and pissed off sometimes.

When I wrote Theseus there was obviously a particular context for the music I was writing, so my thoughts, at least when starting off, revolved around what I could write that would sound like it fit with stuff like the mood, characters, setting and action. Some of what was in Theseus was already written in older pieces I’ve done. Occasionally I also just do some free improvising when I practice and record it on my computer. I’ve come up with a few cool riffs that way, and then harmonised them and maybe put a melody over the top. A few of the patterns in Theseus came from those little recordings.

Theseus is sort of an exception though. I don’t usually have such a clear aim when I’m writing pieces. I mean, I think about the music itself when I’m composing, of course, but I rarely sit down and compose something that’s about my life. I don’t think I’ve written a song about a breakup, for instance, or about a specific person or occurrence, although I’m sure my general mood and what’s happening in my life sort of gets tangled up in there somewhere. No, usually it starts with me hearing stuff I really like and wanting to adapt one or more of those ideas into something new of my own. Or something pops into my mind that I get carried away with – the bassline of ”Tomorrow I’ll Know” is a good example of that. It came into my head as I was waking up from a nap one day, so I wrote it down and combined some other concepts that I’d heard and liked when writing the melodies, groove and structure. Once I’ve started and I’m into what I’ve got, it sort of takes off…usually.

And yes, I do also have a tendency to make things a little weird and complicated. I like odd time signatures and unconventional chord changes. And grooves, especially wonky ones. And I have this thing where I sort of fear using lots of major chords because I’m afraid of writing stuff that’s too cheesy, even though I know some amazing and beautiful music that’s mostly major and not cheesy. I’m trying to get over that.

5. I see Jeff Wayne gets a ‘thank you’ credit. His 70s ‘War of The Worlds’ top ten blockbuster seems a few lightyears away from your impressionistic writing. Or is the influence closer than we think?

Hehe, including him in the “thank yous” was my little joke, and a reference I hope some nerdy people pick up (yes John, I called you a nerd. It’s a compliment!). Maybe I should also have thanked Prokofiev, for “Peter and the Wolf”! But War of the Worlds definitely influenced Theseus, at least in the initial spark of an idea. As I said earlier, when I received word that I was shortlisted for the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, I decided that I wanted to do something a bit epic and challenging with it if I got it.

At the time, I had been listening to War of the Worlds (years after having heard it as a kid and being a bit freaked out, yet fascinated) and absolutely loving it. So that was where the idea of writing music to go with a story came from. I thought that jazz would suit this purpose extra well, because of the role improvisation can play in the telling of stories, too. But you’re right, my music is pretty different to Jeff’s!

6. And finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of jazz in particular, and music in general?

Whoah. What a question. I reckon you probably don’t mean “in the whole entire world”…I HOPE you don’t mean “in the whole entire world”, because that’s a hell of a lot of music. So I’ll go with Australia. But mainly Sydney.

Umm, jazz. Jazz is getting blurrier, and I like that. I mean, it was already pretty blurry, and the definition of jazz (is there even one?) is really broad and everyone has a different opinion of where music starts and stops being jazz. What I mean by the blurriness of jazz is all the different things that are being mixed with it, the different instrumentations and technologies people are putting into it, unconventional structures in the music, bands taking their sound to different venues that don’t necessarily identify as “jazz” venues… that sort of thing. And other styles are borrowing from jazz. There are some people who would say a lot of it isn’t jazz anymore – it’s gone too far from tradition, but I think that’s fine. Even if it’s not jazz anymore, it’s still great great music that borrows from jazz, but might not have a name to clearly identify it.

It’s all music and it’s difficult, even annoying, to define. Unfortunately people ask “so what sort of music does that band play?” “Well, it’s sort of world (I don’t like that term, all music is from the world, but the meaning that people have given to that word makes it convenient) music, mostly African type stuff, mixed with jazz but there’s some rock and funk and…oh just listen to this [dodgy recording of a rehearsal/youtube video someone posted last gig they did/new album of theirs I just bought].” That happens to me a lot. It also says a lot about the bands I go and see, and listen to, and play with. So I feel like, even though over the last couple of years my “music bubble” has gotten a lot bigger than the mostly “jazz bubble” it used to be, but of course there’s still TONNES of other music out there, in Australia and the world, that is amazing and inventive and groovy and beautiful. I know I’ll discover some of it, but it’s impossible to hear everything. The music that’s around me is alive and well, and constantly changing, and it’s great.

http://captainkirkwood.bandcamp.com/album/theseus-and-the-minotaur

Published April 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a composer whose work spans the entire breadth of what it is to be human. From ribald ditties, to almost ‘pop’ hits of his day to soaring, achingly spiritual works, his music covers everything. His genius of course is that he adds even more dimension along the way – deeper laughter, more knife-edge pain, keener spiritual longing.

So it is particularly fitting that The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presents their current program of the music of Mozart, Mozart The Great, under the direction of Paul Dyer – also an artist of great breadth, depth and humanity.

Instead of selecting the lazily popular, the obvious or – contrarily – the pretentiously obscure, Dyer has mixed it up beautifully. We have, at one end of the artistic spectrum, a choral canon that Mozart wrote largely for the fun of having a singer imply the words “arse” and “balls” as he mispronounced the Latin. At the other, the truly magnificent C Minor Mass – “The Great” – which vaults further toward Heaven with every movement.

Paul Dyer in rehearsal

Paul Dyer in rehearsal

Dyer has also mixed up the presentation: we have horn duets, trios, a sonata, and choral works as well as full ensemble plus chorus pieces that fill the City Recital Hall stage. It is all Mozart – and it is all superlative.

One of the joys of the Brandenburg is their use of period instruments. Since most music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is performed nowadays with modern instruments – with their attendant ‘improvements’ in tone, volume and execution – it is only when we hear a period orchestra that we actually hear the sounds that composers such as Haydn and Mozart were reaching for. To hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played as Mozart intended – in which I include the Brandenburg ensemble’s full-blooded attack on the music – is a bright gem in a glittering night.

The characteristic tones of period instruments is especially evident in the tone of the orchestra behind the singers – soprano Sara MacLiver and mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell. The period instruments, being markedly quieter and slightly more ‘woolly’ in tone, sit at a level that seemed more sympathetic to the vocal; music at a more human scale.

Dyer’s piano sonata (“with violin accompaniment”) also benefits from the use of the much quieter and woodier tone of the forte-piano, the ancestor of our present-day piano. (The comedic piano dusting is a good sign that Dyer and his players are – like Mozart before them – not taking life or music too po-faced seriously tonight).

The sharp narration from MacLiver and Campbell threads the disparate pieces together, mapping out and illuminating Mozart’s life and times. Dyer’s direction also intriguingly makes use of the various spaces within the Hall – from the opening basset horn (a great uncle of the clarinet family) duet performed in the balcony directly above the stage, to the choral canon Difficile lectu mihi mars. Here the chorus is split into sections – the women singing from various parts of the upper gallery and the men weaving through the downstair aisles as they sing. A little theatre never hurts – Wolfgang Amadeus, a great showman himself, would have approved.Mozart-the-Great-e1368104830394

But the crown of the program is ‘The Great’ – the Mass in C Minor which takes the entire second half of the evening, and from which the program takes its name. It is cap-G Great in every way – it is big, with the entire ensemble and the 32-strong choir, as well as four voice soloists on the stage; it is artistically expansive, running to thirteen movements (even though it was unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791) and uses a dazzling combination of voice and orchestral elements, and; it is spiritually overpowering, its brilliant solo and ensemble writing suggesting – at various points across its almost hour in length –  the yearning for grace, the unfathomable deeps of eternity and the smile of the beyond.

Watching Paul Dyer conducting The Mass is a joy to behold. Utterly lost in the music, at once inside and outside its sphere, teasing and willing notes from the air – playing the Orchestra as an instrument, as all great conductors do – his energy is a symbol of the energy of the Brandenburg, one of our true national treasures.

Why this performance didn’t get a standing ovation on the night is beyond this reviewer. These Sydney crowds are tough.

Published May 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Expectations are what an artist usually tries to deliver, and what music fans always want satisfied. But there are some brave artists that thrive on diverting expectations, subverting their audience’s preconceptions and moving their art ever forward. Scott Walker consistently baffles and bamboozles and Radiohead got really interesting when they kept the guitars in the cupboard and defiantly spat Kid A at us in 2000.

WA singer Abbe May is one such brave little indian. 2011’s AMP-nominated debut Design Desire – with it’s sludgily rocking single ‘Mammalian Locomotion’ – put May right in our faces as a Gibson-wielding cap-R Rock maven sucking us all towards the dark side. Nic Harcourt of MTV US was moved to write “Abbe May plays a scorching guitar – she is the fucking shit”; Popmatters shouted “Abbe May is set to destroy the entire rock world”. Fame, festivals, fantastic!

abbemay_hirespic

Time came for the follow up. More of the same? No, like Radiohead she left the guitars (mostly) in their cases and spent a year and a half (with producer Sam Ford) playing with drum machines and a Mellotron. They locked themselves in a small studio in Perth (the world’s most isolated capital city) and magicked up Kiss My Apocalypse.

Gone is the blues-rock bump and grind, gone is the organic in-your-face production. Instead we have an album that takes May’s blues base out to some pretty synthy star systems, transmuting along the way into a darker kind of Pop. Whereas Design Desire’s sexuality was brazenly out in the open, Kiss My Apocalypse happens behind closed doors – claustrophobic, machine-cool and almost alien. What she hasn’t lost – thankfully – is the sense of danger, menace and theatre in her music.abbemay_kmaalbumart

“Pop is sexy when done well and it’s incredibly difficult to do it well if you try too hard,” says May. “We wanted to get away from music that took itself too seriously. I’m so tired of this whole shoe gaze – it-cost-a-lot-of-money-to get-a-haircut-that-looks-like-i-haven’t-brushed-my-hair-in-months type shit. “Artists” in denial that they are basically just entertainers. Being an entertainer is more meaningful if you ask me. It’s not such a selfish pursuit.”

Back in late 2012, first single ‘Karmageddon’ signalled the new direction  – a cool-as-fuck doomy piece of Goldfrappian pop. Kiss My Apocalypse is loaded with some equally heavy-lidded gems – ‘Tantric Romantic’ strides across the dancefloor, pilled to the gills. Title track ‘Kiss My Apocalypse’ is Dusty Springfield floating on Quaalude clouds of reverb. ‘Perth Girls’ rocks it up a little more, but still seems to be moving through a druggy fug.

In such a heavily stylised, synthetic sound world as is Kiss My Apocalypse, May’s voice is the unifying factor. Although heavily treated throughout – sometimes to the point of distortion – that very human and very soulful approach that won us all over on Design Desire cannot be glossed over by the machines. Kiss My Apocalypse is ultimately a very human and very moving album, albeit wrapped in a shiny new skin.

It is a brave new world definitely worth a listen.

 

Published May 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

Early this week we lost a true rock and roll original when Christina Amphlett passed onto the next plane. She was only 53 and the cause of her passing was cancer and MS, the latter a disease she had been fighting for years.

A wild child of the 70s – footloose and Beat – she formed the rock band the Divinyls with guitarist Mark McEntee in 1980. Amphlett’s relationship with McEntee was volcanic and toxic, yet produced some of the most tautly brilliant and exciting Australian rock of all time. Their debut single ‘Boys in Town’ – a tale of suburban teen desolation and “too much too young” – is as wound-up and boiled-over as any great rock and roll song should be.

Chrissy1

Later singles, “Science Fiction” (selected by APRA as one of the top 30 Australian singles of all time) and “Pleasure and Pain” kept the standard high, but it was the paean to masturbation “I Touch Myself” that put the Divinyls on the international stage. Could any other vocalist have carried off “I Touch Myself”s mix of simmering eroticism and self-containment as beautifully as Chrissy Divinyl? I doubt it.

From the start she really stood out like a queen. Whereas Angus Young‘s school uniform was a cartoon, Amphlett’s torn St Trinian’s tunic was a flag, a message to all – quite simply, don’t fuck with me.

The band cut their performing teeth in the clubs and mega-pubs of early 80s Australia, where venues such as Rydalmere’s Family Inn, The Coogee Bay and Narrabeen’s Royal Antler – gritty, brutal beer barns reeking of suburban disaffection, weekend piss-binges and bloody violence – ruled supreme. The Divinyls played the same stages as tough-as-guts outfits such as The Angels, Cold Chisel, The Radiators and Midnight Oil. Whereas Midnight Oil had their seven foot rock’n’roll Frankenstein, Peter Garrett (yes, kidz, our current Federal Minister for Education) to stave off the boozed-up punters, all Chrissy Divinyl had was her tattered school uniform, her attitude and that voice.Chrissy2

Artist Brett Whiteley once referred to Bob Dylan‘s voice as ‘mango and Courvoisier’. Christina Amphlett’s voice was more fresh garbage and Stolichnaya – an over-ripe and unsettling concoction of predatory-sexual growls and little-girl tease. And it all came out of that mouth – one of rock and roll’s great perma-pouts.

Would music today allow a Christina Amphlett? Weird voice, no super-model, scary attitude, sexually in control. I wonder. Rock and roll, that unkillable mongrel music that chews up what it wants and screws what it wants and spits out devilish delights like Elvis, like Rotten, like Chrissy Divinyl, is maybe too self conscious now to give dirty birth to such a brat.

I call her Chrissy Divinyl, because to a certain private schoolboy, she was not of this world, she was of the world that he lived in, in his head, during those gray schooldays. Like Bowie, like T.Rex before, she saved his sanity and his soul – saved his life. And now, all these years later, I thank her for it.

 

Published May 2013 on theorangepress.net

Soaking up the rootsy atmosphere at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest (often to saturation point), I began thinking on music and the notion of authenticity. To be honest, I began to get a little irked by the relentless barrage of worn leather, road-dusted denim and sweat-ravaged Strats used in the style-language of this music.

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

There is a division of Fender Guitars, the iconic US manufacturer of the Stratocaster whose job it is to create a patina of age and wear on factory-new instruments. The ‘Road Worn’ range comes complete with distressed paintwork, rusted hardware and, apparently, built-in ‘history’. It really is a bunch of bullshit in anyone’s language, but of course they sell like hotcakes (or maybe out-of-date cheeseburgers).

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

And I often wonder if the same can be said of the very notion of ‘realness’ in 21st century Roots music.

Roots music – like World Music, a catch-all term invented by marketing/media to weave a saleable genre out of multiple disparate threads – comprises Blues, the less airbrushed forms of Country and the more earthbound elements of Jazz. A prerequisite seems to be that it appeals to everyday people and usually conjures up either elation or deep emotion – ‘good times’ or ‘blues’. Roots also prides itself on its ‘realness’.

I love Roots music deeply and its innovators and artists – both old and new – I hold in the highest regard. But is Roots music any more real than any other form of music? Is it any more real than Punk, or Hip-Hop, or Black Metal?

If a music’s level of ‘realness’ can be measured by the importance it has in a person’s life then the music of Dance-Rave people is easily as important as Roots – they live their musical culture minute by minute. If the question of history comes up – the longevity and historical development of a music in years – then J. S. Bach is the rootsiest muthafucka on da block.

If the idea of authenticity is where ‘realness’ comes from – music woven like veins or DNA helices into the fabric of a culture, inextricably – then I direct you back to the above para about Fender USA’s factory-made ‘soul’. These days, ‘rawness’ and authenticity can be bolted on, as skilfully and easily as a (factory-)‘rusted’ Strat tailpiece.

And it appears to be something Roots fans are all too ready to believe. Maybe because there is so much plastic fakery about, we imbue the lesser fakes with at least some hope of Truth.

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With these cogitations swirling in my mind, I decided to ask some people, way wiser than I, for their thoughts on Roots, ‘road-worn’ and realness. They are Johnny Cass, blues-guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire, DJ/producer Marc Scully, known to Australian dance-music fans as Omegaman and Jim Woff, man-about-town and bass-player with Sydney band Crow.

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf

Here are their responses:

What does the term ‘roots’ music mean to you?

Johnny Cass: A derivative type of music. Just like the roots of a tree, genres of music grow from a base and then branch out into other genres.

Marc Scully: To me its about tradition – blues, country, reggae etc – some acoustic element, a certain heartfelt rawness, echoing back where it all began… back to basics…. at a grass roots level

Jim Woff:  Someone once asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of folk music, he replied “all music is folk music”.  The rural blues of the twenties and thirties sprout country and jazz, while the blues itself mutated countless ways using the same three or less chords. If we’re talking about how “roots” earnt it’s inverted commas, that seemed a 21st century thing. Good when it was Gillian Welch, not so hot when it was hippies with dreads and acoustic guitars and rich parents. The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was significant.

Does ‘roots’ music need to have a historical/traditional element to it?

Cass: Yes. The term roots has been overused and has lost its definition.To understand Roots music you must know its history and the struggles of the people of that time.  To keep true to it meaning ‘roots’ music must have strong similarities to the roots genre it claims to be from. Those elements would be chord progressions, tonal qualities of instruments and melody.

Scully: I think so, an element of nostalgia and instrumentation is required, a nod to the past, you would not be playing a certain style if it weren’t for what came before you, something that inspired you to dig deeper, caught your ear in the first place – something styles don’t need re-inventing.

Woff:  I think so. The historic/traditional aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be old, electronic music has a relatively short history for example. The work of the German bands in the seventies is a “roots” music, it’s been incredibly influential.

Can the idea of ‘roots’ be applied to any form of music?

Cass: No. I don’t really think you can say that roots can be applied to Classical music. Roots music was spawned from the urban areas, city streets and small towns and communities. It was a way for the people to express themselves, Roots music was not born from the Aristocracy it was born from the worker, the farmer, the musicians on the street.

Scully: As long as there’s a traditional element, having said that really I can’t see glitch, dubstep or techno being termed ‘Roots’ music.

Woff:  Cave men blowing flutes, wandering minstrels on lutes, spreading the gossip and news from town to town… it’s all free reign, go nuts. I wish more people were as good as Beethoven but you can’t have everything.

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Does the ‘roots’-iness of musics such as Country and Blues make them any more ‘real’?

Cass: I think the rawness of those musics keep it real. Acoustic forms are the most real. Those instruments don’t lie. The combination of flesh, wood and emotion really take aim at hearts. As the listener or the musician there is no room to hide. There is no wall of sound to get lost in, the message gets through, its more personal.

Scully: To me, yes… some artists can sound quite contrived, be real = be true. Raw, back to basics music played by real musicians – doesn’t have to be flash.

Woff:  Those early recordings… Louis Armstrong… Hank Williams… the Blind men of the blues, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, WiIllie McTell… Duke Ellington… all rather real. You could appropriate their sound but it wouldn’t be real. You have to make your own sound to be real.

Does the ‘roots’ factor of music such as Blues hold back its future development and evolution?

Cass: Musically, maybe. Lyrically, no. Roots music evolves into new genres as it branches out. The most pure form of the genre will always be respected. What may end up happening is roots music won’t be performed as much. Without the support of mainstream it becomes harder for roots genres to exist. Only purists will hold onto its legacy.

Scully: Not as long as artists still carry a torch in salute of what came before them, you have to acknowledge the past, the birth of a style – without that, there is no future.

Woff:  I’d argue that jazz hit the wall in the eighties but I’m sure there’d be plenty to take issue with that. Blues has never changed but it’s influence is a musical universe. From a young Jagger and Richards listening to Muddy Waters through Tom Waits reeling in Howlin’ Wolf to Nick Cave obsessing over John Lee Hooker, it’s all pervasive. Country hasn’t changed much.

What are your feelings on current ‘roots’ music in particular and the wider art/product of music in general?

Cass: Reality talent shows concern me. Their lack of integrity make music take the back seat. Those shows are not about the music, and they are not about the performer, they are about getting the most viewers and exploiting people’s dreams, disabilities and personal crisis. I understand that it gets some musicians a chance they would not normally get, but it’s fleeting. Viewers that sit at home and don’t experience the live factor of music. That is the real feeling of music. Watching music being made in real time in front of you, is like having your food cooked to order. It tastes better and feels better. That goes for music too.

The Coen Brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

The Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

Scully: Some of the modern roots artists can sound a little contrived… that goes for all styles. You are either true to your art or you are following musical trends. Way too many producers out there that know how to use a music software program and call themselves artists… Be yourself, learn how to play an instrument, you don’t have to be the best at it, as long as you are passionate about what you do.

Woff:  “Roots” was a Noughties thing, wasn’t it? The good ones will continue to grow while the imposters are already considering another career path.