Archive for October, 2013

“Big Blind” Ray Lechminka is one of the towering characters of the Sydney blues and roots scene. His larger-than-life presence – both physically and musically – is reminiscent of a time when giants such as Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson roamed the earth, blowing down tall trees and even taller women with a mighty blast from a Marine Band blues-harp.

Big Blind Ray may not quite yet be of that immortal stature, but I for one would not want to be in his path when he blows his harmonica, son. His Trio’s self-titled debut – Big Blind Ray Trio –  has captured that raw power and just plain workin’-mojo across eight chooglin’ tracks.

Together with guitarist Karl “P. Hound” Mardon and livewire drummer Rebecca Clarke, Lechminka has cooked up a feast for fans of the Blues, ancient and modern. From opener ‘Hipshake’ – the Slim Harpo raver made famous by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main Street – through essentials such as Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and Willie Dixon‘s totemic ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, the Big Blind Ray Trio cooks with all pots on. Originals ‘Keep Myself Close’ and ‘Mereki’ – written with guest guitarist Cam Kinsey – fit seamlessly with the classics; the band obviously eat and breathe this music.

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Recorded at Katoomba’s Soundheaven and Sydney’s Nut’n’Butter, and mixed by simpatico mixer Michael Wheatley, the resulting album catches a nice balance between live vibe (with this music moreso than almost any other, if the vibe ain’t there, don’t bother) and sharp playing. big blind ray3

And, thank God and Muddy, Lechminka doesn’t seem to have a purist bone in his big body – mixed in are Tony Joe White‘s wry ‘Polk Salad Annie’ (nuzzled along by Serge Coniglione‘s Fender bass) and The Stones’ ‘Ventilator Blues’ – along with ‘Hipshake’, a nod to their 70s golden-period (not to mention the ‘secret track’ at the end of closer ‘Goin’ Down South’, a moody take on Sticky Fingers‘ ‘You Got To Move’, Sydney via London via Mississippi Fred McDowell).

It’s all good, big-hearted stuff. If you like the Blues, if you like the more current take on the form, or the ancient tales retold loud and proud, you will love Big Blind Ray Trio.

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Prior to posting this review I asked Ray Lechminka a handful of questions. Here are his responses.

The Orange Press: The Trio sounds very raw and lean – was it a conscious decision to travel light without a bass player?

Big Blind Ray: Very much so. Apart from the obvious aspect of having one less mouth to feed – musically I felt the need to work on a project that omitted the bass as a way of developing a sonic framework that was sympathetic to this. I think we have managed to successfully pull this off and in turn further develop our individual style. I was also very much inspired by the sounds of the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues style and the modern interpretations that spawned from this movement.

TOP: Your material draws from the best – Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and even second generation white bluesmen such as The Rolling Stones and Tony Joe White – do you think the past was a golden period for The Blues?

BBR: I think so yes. The songs that we picked to record on the album were the acid test as to whether we could take our simple line up and make it work in a modern context without losing the sensibility of the old style.

TOP: What do you think it is about Blues-based music that seems to still get people jumping for joy?

BBR: For me, discovering the Blues was like returning back to a source – THE source if you will of Western Pop and Rock based music. When I listen to the Blues it feels like I’ve come home musically and that brings me joy. There has certainly been a resurgence in the sound over the past few years and perhaps the new blood out there spearheading and embracing this old sound are experiencing something similar to what I did and still continue to feel.

TOP: Will we be seeing more originals creeping into The Big Blind Ray Trio’s set over time?

BBR:  For sure! We are writing new material and hope to record again round this time next year with all original content. But it’s no race. As much as we want to be regarded for originality as well as keeping the old sound alive, writing good songs is paramount and particularly writing original music that incorporates the sound of my instrument (Harmonica) within a context that isn’t just straight out 12 bar blues matters to me.

TOP: What are your thoughts on the state of The Blues today?

BBR:  I think the Blues is alive and well. If anything there has been a resurgence of the genre locally over the past few years and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and that excites me.

TOP: What are your thoughts on mainstream music in general today?

BBR:  There is a lot of great popular music out there. I won’t delve into my guilty Pop pleasures but hey – I’m sure we can all agree on this: What makes music so beautiful is that there is something for everybody and if you find you connect with a song and it brings you joy then who am I to cast judgement as to whether that is in good or bad taste and who are you to do the same?

 

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

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The 1972 Sunbury Pop Festival was in many ways Australia’s Woodstock. Though more boozy, more wildly colonial and less peaced-out, Sunbury had similar results to the iconic American ur-Festival: both showed the wider, ‘straight’ world around them the cultural power of rock music (not to mention the potential big bucks that could be made from the revolution) and launched the careers of myriad bands.

Melbourne’s Madder Lake were the opening act of the inaugural 1972 festival and their highly original yet quirkily accessible take on the sometimes po-faced progressive rock of the time made them an instant hit. Unlike Billy Thorpe‘s barnstorming Aztecs (whose boozy Sunbury mantra was “suck more piss“) or many of their contemporaries – pub-blues bands like the Coloured Balls who honed a rusty edge to their music in merciless beer barns – Madder Lake had a spacier, more colourful approach.

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Their debut album Stillpoint worked through a range of styles from doo-wop to funk to rock’n’roll yet it all came from the same slightly skewed world where goggled-eyed singer Mick Fettes was KIng. It was telling in the music that most members came from an art school background (Madder Lake is a crimson pigment dye) – check out band roadie Drak‘s beautiful cover art of Stillpoint, too – and that the songs were worked up out of stoned jams in their bolt-hole. Creative, wide-eyed, joyful – much of it a psychedelic delight.

Stillpoint was followed by the less focussed Butterfly Farm in 1974 and then Madder Lake’s history hit various snarls, traps and forks in the road. The band never split up, as such, but slipped under that cruel radar that bands tend to slip under.

But, as they say, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Thirty-six years after Butterfly Farm the band set out to record their third album, spurred by bassist Kerry McKenna‘s title track, ‘World’. During the tortuous (and torturous) recording process there were catastophes, lineup changes and various trials and tribulations – not the least being Mick Fettes suffering two (two!) heart attacks. Recording continued in fragmented groups whenever the band members could manage it. madder lake3

So it is a wonder than the new album World, sounds as cohesive, jungle-colourful and ‘Madder Lake’ as ever. Refreshingly short – eight tracks at 30 minutes – the album spans the same panoramic fun-show of styles. The creativity, arty colour and quick wit are intact (I am so glad to say…)

Vocals are spread around the band – Mick Fettes lends his unmistakeable goblin growl to the sunny ‘Dreaming’ and (the ironically titled, considering Fettes’ health issues) ‘Hospital of Love’. Other members, keysman John McKinnon notably, contribute vocals throughout World.

Opening title track ‘World’ is heavy-psych, worldly wise (“In this world we all get good advice/And don’t take it…”), driven by Brenden Mason‘s tooth-and-claw guitar. ‘Badlands’ is rock’n’roll, booted along by guest vocalist Neale Johns (Blackfeather) and a scything harp solo from Mike Rudd (Spectrum/Murtceps) – yes, it’s rock’n’roll but it wouldn’t be Madder Lake without a jarring/jangling PinkFloydesque breakdown at 2:07.

Every track has its silver linings and golden eggs – the 50’s favoured doo-wop of ‘Please Please’ is darkened with jazz chords; ‘Heavy Weather”s storm clouds drift from St Kilda to rain on Moorish castles and back again; closing space-boogie ‘Calling’ shifts gears briefly to dislocate its rhythm before skidding back onto the rails.

The creativity is intact, Madder Lake is back and – despite the Big Miracle that it was made at all – World is a small miracle in itself.

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

 

Whenever I hear the saxophone used in classical orchestral music – after years of digging the instrument in jazz and rock with all its attendant growls, snarls, bleeds and honks – it sounds like a completely different instrument to its earthier-music sibling. Its tone is lighter and more burnished, yet with the faint ‘oriental’ tang of, say, the cor anglais.

The classical approach to the saxophone of course has much to do with it. In jazz, the aim is to go for as ‘vocal’ an attack as possible – throaty, acid-edged and happy to throw in the occasional ‘ugly’ or ‘wrong’ note (which of course are neither ugly nor wrong in jazz). The classical way is one of very pure, rich tone with any embellishments subtle and perfectly held.

The classical repertoire for saxophone is also extremely slight, despite being bumped up by sax adaptations of existing pieces for other instruments.

Australian saxophonist – now based in London – Amy Dickson’s new album, Dusk and Dawn, takes the smart tack of drawing material from various sources – classical and non-classical – to allowing her beautiful playing to be the star here.

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Sony has also aimed to widen Dickson’s audience – and hopefully that of the classical sax – by theming Dusk and Dawn as a mood piece: sensual and sultry, and evocative of cinema and sophistication. The inclusion of works by Kern, Nino Rota, Hoagy Carmichael and even Tom Waits – as well as cover shots of Dickson in evening dress (Armani) against Art Deco, broadcast this loud and clear.

That of course, is just smart marketing – it does not take a thing away from the beauty of Dickson’s playing. The nominal ‘classical’ pieces here – works by Walton, Debussy, Fauré and Bellini – are equally chosen for their ‘cinematic’ moods. The opener, Fauré’s duskily plaintive ‘Pavane’ (which I won’t admit here that I first encountered on The Jethro Tull Christmas Album) sets the mood of Dusk and Dawn – one of rich sentiment, human-scale emotion and the tone-poetry of concert hall and movie house. dickson-dusk

Jerome Kern’s ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ is perfect – the spiraling tone of Dickson’s alto suits the winding melody: you can see the blue smoke drifting upwards from a cigarette in a slim, gloved hand. Equally, of the ‘jazz’ pieces here, Carmichael’s ‘Skylark’ – over a swooning string arrangement by Nan Schwartz – shows how much feeling Dickson can conjure with little but a pearlescent tone and effortless technique-beyond-technique.

Harry Warren’s 1934 blues-ballad ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ suffers slightly from the inclusion of a jazz rhythm section, making the unadorned saxophone sound a little flat against the backbeat.

Dickson shines, though, on Tom Waits’ ‘In The Neighbourhood’, its sparse arrangement – now devoid of Wait’s picaresque lyric – bringing out the warm churchy melody; like many Randy Newman tunes, sounding like an old Shaker hymn you just can’t quite place.

The piece which to me perfectly and delightfully expresses the lushly romantic brief of Dusk and Dawn is Nino Rota’s ‘La Strada’. The theme from Fellini’s 1954 semi-surrealist film is one of Rota’s loveliest, and Amy Dickson’s flute-like lightness – over Chris Walden’s orchestration – voices the yearning and pathos of the melody far far better than any overwrought, ‘vocal’ approach possibly could. Stunningly beautiful stuff.

Amy Dickson is a champion of contemporary composers and has recorded works by Pärt, Nyman and Glass. That she is equally at home playing Chopin’s ‘Nocturne No.2’, Tom Waits and ‘Skylark’ shows she is a complete musician who loves music and making music. Simple as that.

But what do I know? I listen to The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. Make up your own mind, and bask in some unabashed beauty along the way. Have a listen to Amy Dickson’s Dusk and Dawn.

Published October 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

 

In David Byrne‘s smart (of course) recent book How Music Works, he suggests that music is created to fill a context that is brought about by the natural ebb and flow of the society around it. For example, Gregorian chants were created to suit the highly resonant architecture of Medieval cathedrals, yet African drumming was created to sound strong and carry far outdoors wherever it was played.

Listening to the new Crooked Fiddle Band album Moving Pieces of The Sea, I was reminded of Byrne’s idea – the microphone, that surprisingly innocent-looking device, makes any context you want possible. In the Crooked Fiddle Band it allows heavy (John Bonham heavy) drums to sonically co-exist alongside the band’s nyckelharpa, guizouki and cittern (what wonderful words for instruments), adding a contemporary thud to some very ancient sounding music. (No, not ancient sounding: more always-been-here sounding music).

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But who cares about all that musico-anthropological flannel?  –  The Crooked Fiddle Band and Moving Pieces of The Sea make one want to jump for joy (albeit jump in a Bulgarian 9/8 – 2,2,2,3 – time signature). From the first note, the Band, via Steve Albini‘s (Nirvana, The Pixies, Gogol Bordello, Joanna Newsom) transparent and very sympathetic production, burst forth in a torrent of joyous/sad/reflective/triumphant feeling – whether whirling dervish-like at a mountain wedding, toasting the hunt with millet beer or gazing across the green waters for the return of a lover, these eight tracks (well, six and an 18 minute two-part suite) will transport you. I know they did me.

Brian Eno has said of the Band, “The Crooked Fiddle Band are completely surprising. The music is original and quixotic, and yet has the strength of some deep and strong roots. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything else like it!” crooked fiddle 1

Brian Eno, Steve Albini – The Crooked Fiddle Band are attracting the attention and patronage of some heavy hitters. And it is no wonder – Moving Pieces of The Sea has that perfect balance of joy in the telling and some serious musicianship going on. It can be enjoyed on a number of levels and thrills one as much from the neck up as from the neck down.

Inspired by Scandinavian fjords, lakes, waterfalls and streams, Moving Pieces of The Sea is dripping with water imagery. The title comes from oceanographer Jacques Cousteau‘s letter to his son in 1963 which says “The fish were just moving pieces of the sea. I smiled because I knew… you would always seek after the vanishing shapes of a better world”.

Opening track, ‘The Vanishing Shapes of a Better World’ conjures these fleeting fish with guitars and marimba (and those John Bonham drums!) before a lovely fiddle melody from Jess Randall morphs into that Bulgarian hoe-down.

Just as blues seems to rise up in disparate cultures across the world from Africa to Chicago, so does the frenzied dance – ‘Neptunes Fool’ could be Bulgarian, Celtic, Pakistani. I am trying to avoid the ‘world music’ tag here – as John McLaughlin said “We all live in the world” – and it is lazy. Suffice to say The Crooked Fiddle Band draw from the music of the world – just dig Joe Gould‘s 7/8 tabla groove on “Shanti and The Singing Fish” before it explodes and goes all Led Zep on yo ass.

And so to the big one, the two part suite – ‘The Deepwater Drownings Part I & II’. The first part is a song, melancholy sea shanty – albeit twisted. The second part – all 13:39 of it – is where The Crooked Fiddle Band show themselves to be what all the great bands are: a force of nature. Over the course of the tune, the Band jam a tone-poem to wond’rous water, in all its forms – from wide Swedish rivers, to rippling streams pouring through the Carpathians, to fjords and eddies and ice creeks, widening out finally to oceans and oceans and oceans. As I said, transporting stuff.

The music and vibe of The Crooked Fiddle Band show themselves to be curators and stewards of vanishing shapes of a better world. Whether applied to the nature world – we all know, painfully, how quickly and irreversibly it is succumbing to myopic business interests – or to the vanishing shapes of music that is made for celebration, rituals of kith and kin, or just the plain joy of living – there is something elemental and – dare I say it? – important in what The Crooked Fiddle Band  do.

But while we are pondering all that heavy shit, grab your partner, charge your mug and  have a Balkan boogie to Moving Pieces of The Sea.

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

Scratched onto the back of the envelope containing my review copy of Corrina Steel’s new album Borrowed Tunes in the publicist’s handwriting was the phrase “This is the coolest country album you will hear for a while.”

Maybe a little apprehensive that I was not a country fan per se, maybe just moved to add her opinion (she is that cooler sort of PR that actually has passion for music beyond press-friendly platitudes and bums-on-seats), the phrase was so prescient that I almost used it – short and sweet – as my full review for Borrowed Tunes.

But being a lover of words – and quite taken with this beautiful record – I have a few more to say about it.

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Firstly, despite being named by her parents after the Merle Haggard song, Corrina Steel is not a country artist, nor is this a country album. Or if she is and it is, it is Country after Punk, after Classic FM rock, after The Fall.

Hell, it even has an Iggy Pop tune on it ( a duskily plaintive ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’) and was conceived into being by jamming Rod Stewart‘s pretty dire 1977 hit ‘Hot Legs’ at a party (a song that  didn’t make the final cut of Borrowed Tunes – even though I would have loved to hear what Steel and simpatico guitarist/accompanist Mike Anderson would have done with it).

As you may have guessed Borrowed Tunes is an album of Steel and Anderson’s take on a range of covers. A wide range, lasso’ing in punk, pop, Primal Scream (‘Damaged’) and – yes – Country. Steel says of the project “Our only rule was that there are no rules. Nothing was too corny, nothing was too cool… “

The inclusion of show-biz kid Peter Allen‘s sappy ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ – usually performed by a weepy, spangled Allen in front of a phalanx of Vegas showlgirls – proves how wide the lasso was cast. And yet, the spare and lovely arrangement brings out the true sweetness of what is – on this new listening – a touching and true song of affection and love.corrina steel01

This is true of every borrowed tune on Borrowed Tunes – the perfectly weighted accompaniments (often only Anderson’s acoustic and Steel’s voice, with maybe a sprinkle of mandolin, violin or Rhodes) really let the song do the talking. And this is where the ‘Country’ approach – possibly the most song-oriented music we have – works seamlessly and beautifully across every track.

Monkee Mike Nesmith‘s pop-country gem ‘Different Drum’ loses a lot of its hit parade gloss under this new sparse arrangement – wrapping possibly one of Pop’s most wry lines “We’ll both live a lot longer, if you live without me” in a folky groove. Jim Webb‘s aching “Wichita Lineman” – possibly the single loveliest song I have ever heard – is given possibly the single loveliest  interpretation I can imagine.

A note here on Corrina Steel’s voice. There is a moment in one of the long, yearning notes in ‘…Lineman’s chorus where she breaks the long, beautifully held and controlled note with the slightest burr. It is a small thing, technically perfect yet emotionally devastating, and the mark of a truly remarkable vocalist. Yes, Country is the music of songs, but it is also the music of singers – George Jones et al – great singers.

Steel has been too often compared with Lucinda Williams but I can’t agree – Williams, though a singer of great depth, doesn’t ever really seem to utterly bare her soul, as Steel does with that little ‘…Lineman’ burr. The Sydney Morning Herald said that Steel’s voice has “the kind of force that knocks down flimsy buildings and men…”The Age agreed, hearing it as “dripping with sass, attitude and raw emotion”. I don’t – I usually run a mile from the blowsy, maneater, blues-mama types – and Corrina Steel’s depth and heart draws me in from note one. It is the restraint and tiny emotional increments that are irresistible.

And it doesn’t hurt of course that she – and Mike Anderson and Borrowed Tunes –  is so damn cool! Or, as someone smarter and waaaaay less wordy than me, said: “This is the coolest country album you will hear for a while.”

 

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

Outside of hardcore jazz, albums built around a particular instrument are rare. If they do exist, they are either impenetrably virtuosic, one-trick ponies or for shred-heads only. Which kind of makes them a failure as music, in a way, if the value of music is to move you and me and my uncle Bernard.

When an album is built around the drums, the potential for failure increases. It is a brave artist – one with a true and deep belief in their ability to move their listeners, above and below the waist – who would attempt to carry it off.

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In the case of New Zealand drum polymath, Myele Manzanza it helps to be the son of Congolese master percussionist, Sam Manzanza. It also help that Myele Manzanza concieves of the drums as a “talking” instrument, one with a language which can speak to people. “Growing up, music and rhythm was all around me and I understood it from a very early age. Through my father I learnt the language of the drum probably at the same time as I learnt to talk!”

Long a core member of New Zealand’s acclaimed modern jazz-soul group, Electric Wire Hustle, Manzanza has stepped forward with his debut solo album, One.

And as if to lay out the fact that this is no po-faced instrumental professional’s showreel, One starts with the wickedly funny ‘Neighbour’s Intro’ – a jittering polyrhythmic drum solo sandwiched between two phone messages from politely irate neighbours calling to complain about Manzanza’s nocturnal drum practicing.

While we are smirking he smacks us with the roller coaster ride of ‘Big Space’, a 7/4 latin groove that carves its way through a dense, muli-coloured mesh of electro, shooting out the other end with a lovely wordless vocal from Bella Kalolo – reminiscent of 50s sci-fi movie soundtracks, but definitely cruising the Space of Now.Print

Kalolo features – with lyric this time – on the smooth-as-skin ‘Absent’ next: a cool soul groove built across an angular skeleton. The groove here is typical of Manzanza’s thing – irresistible drum rhythms which are built from highly original architectures: quite beautiful from whichever angle you look at them.

An example is ‘Delay’ which has Manzanza playing with the shapes thrown back at him by reverb echo delay – on the surface quite a simple backbeat but the ripples beneath the waters lend it a shimmering sparkle.

The lovely ‘Elvin’s Brew’ features keys player (and major collaborator) Mark de Clive Lowe. Perhaps namechecking jazz drum colossus Elvin Jones (and Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew) the track is built on a dreamlike cloud of billowing tom-toms under acoustic keys and electro blips-and-snaps.

Other guests include Myele’s father, Sam Manzanza, NZ’s Ladi 6, Bella Kalolo, Mara TK and Rachel Fraser. International guests include Charlie K from ex-Philadelphia Hip Hop group ‘Writtenhouse’, Canadian vocalist Amenta and James Wylie’s Boston based woodwind section.

The lovely woodwinds form a spectral backwash to the completely transporting ‘City of Atlantis’, their timbre reminiscent of Herbie Hancock‘s psych-funk albums of the 70s such as Speak Like A Child. There are so many flavours here from a similar time and headspace – Stevie Wonder synth squiggles, Weather Report ‘world’ beatz (dig the pan-African percussion of ‘7 Bar Thing’), George Duke Rhodes phat phunk.

The old and the new, the acoustic and the digital, soul and jazz, rap and song – all these strands are bound together by the tight yet embracing sinew of Myele Manzanza’s omniscient drums.

He says of One: “Creating this album has been a real process. Each track has it’s own story and developed in it’s own interesting and sometimes unexpected way. This is my first experience in creating my own solo full length body of work and the guest artists were great in helping me to realise my vi­sion. It was also really exciting to work with a woodwind sec­tion in Boston with James Wylie, and see a little fragment of harmony I was messing around with turn into the blooming orchestral parts of ‘City of Atlantis’ and ‘7 Bar Thing’.”

Blooming. One has a feeling of flowering and blooming, a joyful and summery efflorescence that could not come from a mere virtuoso. It need to come from a Musician – there is a difference.

And if you don’t know the difference, check out Myele Manzanza’s One and you will.

Myele Manzanza’s website is here.

Published September 2013 on theorangepress.net