Posts Tagged ‘David Byrne’

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).

crooked fiddle 2

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


British soul diva, Alice Russell, has always pushed the art of soul singing into the future.

Since her 2005 debut, My Favourite Letters, she has eschewed the obvious retro stylings of fellow UK soulstresses such as Amy Winehouse (RIP) and Adele in favour of a more taut and synthetic hip-hop groove. This has led to collaborations with Mr Scruff, Quantic, DJ Yoda, Nostalgia 77 as well as David Byrne and NZ funksters Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Under the production eye of her guitarist, producer and Soul mate TM Juke (known to his mother as Alex Cowan) Russell’s four studio albums have put her in a special place artistically – a place where there is nowhere to hide if you don’t have Soul.


Just as Damon Albarn’s up-to-the-minute production hints, tips ‘n tricks brought out the beauty and heart of Bobby Womack’s voice on 2012’s The Bravest Man In The Universe, Cowan’s sleek and hard-edged production makes Russell’s newie, To Dust, a stand-out affair.

Her first solo album since 2008’s Pot Of GoldTo Dust seems to have perfected the soul vs production balance – gone are the songs that leaned too far into the beatz or, conversely, too far into over-egged Aretha-worship that irritated on previous releases.

First single ‘Heartbreaker’, is a perfect example. Cowan and Russell mix up elements of soul, pop and hip-hop into a smoothly groovy gumbo – the track’s trés-2013 production (nice panned drum figure throughout) never letting it sink into retro pastiche while the cap-G Gospel vocals keep it cap-R Real. A little later on the album there is a gorgeous ‘Heartbreaker Interlude’ – one minute or so of Russell and her backing singers riffing the ‘Heartbreaker’ hook-chorus over boxy beatzs – tasty.

(Check the video for the single on YOUtube. It stars long-time Russell fan Harry Shearer from The Simpsons and Spinal Tap, and is a beautifully touching little vignette/short story. Worth a watch all the way through, you ADHD kidz).

The Gospel of ‘Heartbreaker’ is just one feel among many though and To Dust has a nice sense of exploration about it. The pugnacious ‘Hard And Strong’ – one of the few modern soul songs to name check British Isles warrior-queen Boadicea – has a Prince-ish kick. The title track ‘To Dust’ brings back the Gospel shouts but now over a driving rock beat.

Torchy groove-ballad ‘I Loved You’ shows how damn good Alice Russell really is – a total command of her voice and all its shadows and light, a complete understanding of the history of her chosen genre and a straight-arrow conception of her style. And in this music, as in everyday life, style (yes, cap-S Style) counts for a lot.Alice_Russell-To_Dust_b

Speaking of working with her musicians, producers and collaborators (‘the boys’) Russell says: At times I think you feel a lot more vulnerable than the band. Generally you have an instrument that you’re translating your emotions through, whereas with the singer, it’s inside of you. There’s nothing to hide behind… Also sometimes when the boys are jamming, there is something about just instrumental jamming. It’s very tight. When you add a voice it changes it into something completely different, going scatting or something in that jazzy root. Sometimes you feel like you’re out of it. Very much with the boys I work with, I’m in it though.”

And on To Dust, Alice Russell is very very ‘in it’.

To Dust will be released worldwide on 22 February 2013 through Brighton-based label, Tru-Thoughts.

Published January 2013 on

Even if I hated the music of Annie Erin Clark, I think I would find some way to like it. Not only does she take her performance name – St Vincent – from the hospital where Dylan Thomas died in 1953 (“Where poetry comes to die,” she says – poetically) but she dropped out of the esteemed Berklee College of Music upon the realisation that “at some point you have to… forget everything that you learned in order to actually start making music.” But it’s a good thing I like her music – literate, dreamy, alienly original and archly arty – very much.

David Byrne… well, I have wanted to have his babies ever since I heard Talking Heads ’77 – in 1977. A musician who even out-eggheaded Brian Eno, Byrne has always gone for the left of field, the multi-layered joke and the coolly artistic (even if it is often wrapped in humid NYC salsa or scratchy funk).

My excitement at seeing these two bright sparks come together for the recent release – Love This Giant – was tempered with a little trepidation: would Byrne and Clark cancel each other out? Would their cerebral tendencies produce an impenetrable code of clever-clever – signals emanating from a brain-box that none of us dummies would get?

Silly me. Upon listening to Love This Giant I realised that, yes, they are smart cookies but both have always made music for people. St Vincent’s sly grooves and pop hooks, Byrne’s dips into the hothouse of ‘world’-music. And Love This Giant is made for people.

Talking Head’s last album, 1988’s Naked, was filled with Latin flavours – salsa, mambo, latin funk – and the thudding mambo of Love This Giant’s opener, ‘Who’, is the mission statement. Rich with a phat horn section and ass-whipping drums, its joyful street-parade strut sets the template for what is to come. “Who’ll be my Valentine? Who’ll lift this heavy load?/Who’ll share this taxicab? Who wants to climb aboard?”

Beautiful organic flavours abound – the sound of real instruments, whether those baritone-sax driven horn blasts (‘Weekend In the Dust’) or Salvation Army Brass Band brass choir (the intro to ‘I Am An Ape’). St Vincent herself sounds transported on the compassionate ‘Ice Age’, after a drifting first section, when the horns pick up steam – “Oh diamond, it’s such a shame/To see you this way, freezing it out/Your own little ice age.” An icier, synth driven, background might not have brought out the rise in the song as full-bloodedly.

The horn charts were written by Tony Finno and were so complete by the time Clark and Byrne got around to incorporating them in the music, Byrne says “Often when we could, we didn’t use any bass. The tuba or the baritone sax would do the job of the bass and Annie and I would play guitar. I was more the rhythm guitar guy. And she was the incredible lead guitarist.” (And she is).

The burnished-brass fruit of a three-year gestation/circling between two mutually appreciative artists (what a pleasure to use that word accurately for a change) – after Byrne and Clark were brought together for a 2009 charity performance – Love This Giant is, if the god of NYC bohemia is smiling upon us, the beginning of more from these two. I truly hope so.

Read (lots) more at

Published September 2012 on

Malcolm McLaren could bend a whole generation to his will but he could not bend John Lydon. McLaren, the evil genius and Svengali behind the Sex Pistols and the Punk explosion of the mid-1970s, cast Lydon as Johnny Rotten – the figurehead and spitting, snarling poster boy of Punk.

What McLaren hadn’t counted on was that – unlike Sid Vicious and most of McLaren’s other minions – Lydon had a mind of his own, and a razor sharp mind at that. As soon as the Pistols debacle had slithered to a halt, Lydon cut all ties to McLaren’s circus, cast off the faintly daft Rotten name and formed Public Image Ltd – known (and loved) as PiL.

With bass player Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon produced a number of superb albums, incorporating experimental rock, dub and drone over which he ranted and howled his pained, angered lyrics like a manic preacher. The second, 1979s Metal Box (packaged in a round metal box) was described by NME as ‘arguably the first post-rock record’.

It is hard to say whether PiL has ever truly split and reformed, as John Lydon hired and fired at will, working across the years with an army of musicians as diverse as Bill Laswell, Steve Vai and Ginger Baker. His music has always been highly original, willfully abrasive – full of sardonic wit and the sort of withering insights that a mind like like Lydon’s can’t help.

The last official PiL album was 1992’s That What is Not. The intervening years have been used up with Lydon playing the pop-culture game as only he can (appearing on British reality TV and, hilariously, on Judge Judy), writing his memoirs (the wonderful Rotten – No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) and unashamedly making money on Sex Pistols reunion tours.

Oh, and making butter commercials for British television. This is significant because it is the money made from his TV ads for Country Life Butter that funded the recording etc of the new PiL album This Is PiL. Is this rock and roll? In a world where AC/DC put their name to a range of mid-priced wines and Mötörhead put out a fine-bodied shiraz (not to mention the Sex Pistols fragrance range) I don’t know what rock and roll is anymore.

But I do know I like This Is PiL. On reggae thumper ‘One Drop’ Lydon caterwauls “You cannot change us” with the same dramatic defiance he used to power the best of the Sex Pistols’ fuck-you tunes. Throughout the album Lydon’s vocals also have the same feeling of stream-of-consciousness that made any PiL album always seem close to coming off the rails with intensity (check 1983 single ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ or the “Anger is an energy” refrain from 1986’s ‘Rise’).

Lu Edmonds guitar is a wonderfully irritating  (as it should be) foil for Lydon’s squawks and retorts across the album – jangling till your head splits on ‘Deeper Water’ and fuzzing it up on ‘Terra-Gate’ – with enough of those post-punk one and two-note string constructions that work to such great effect (I often wonder what The Edge would have come up if he had never heard Metal Box?)

The electro-dub of ‘Lollipop Opera’ shows Lydon at his dramatic best as his voice slides in and out of a harsh robotic tone, adding a metallic bristle to his hectoring. One of rock’s all-time great non-singers, Lydon – like Lou Reed or David Byrne – makes up for any lack of God-given pipes by laying the drama on thick and filling your head with a new atmosphere. Rock is one of the only musics where this could work and it is one of rock’s true mongrel delights.

But the question always remains with a new release from a band that did its best work 30 years ago – is it worth it? This Is PiL gives us what we want from John Lydon and his cohorts, but after all the intervening music from the bands that Metal Box influenced, this could sound a little tame. If shock and abrasion was all PiL had to offer then This Is PiL would fall short. But Lydon has not lost his drama and the PiL sound still delivers.

As with Janes Addiction’s 2011 album The Great Escape Artist (my review here) it is a still a bit of a thrill to hear any music by rock’s great rule breakers, even now that there are few rules left to break.

One does wonder, though, what Malcolm McLaren would make of it all.


Published June 2012 on