Posts Tagged ‘radiohead’

Recently I took one one of those Facebook ‘challenges’ where one posts various pet picks every day. This one was ‘7 Songs in 7 Days’ – selecting songs or pieces of music which are significant to you.

Of course this could be interpreted in almost infinite ways, so I thought I would keep it simple and post seven songs that shaped me over the early part of my life as a fan and musician. I also included a song which shows that I continue to be shaped, maybe a little less cataclysmically, by music I hear up to the present day.

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#1: ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum

1970. I was 13, very geeky and more interested in model hot rods and Marvel comics than music.

Then this thing came on the radio.

To this day I wonder what possessed the producer to underpin this sappy hippie-happy-clapper song with such a malevolent, heavy, fuzzed out boogie. Spirit of the times I guess.

Whatever… I was hooked. Something about the sound of the guitar on this song – beyond the lyric (daft) or melody (perfunctory) – just got inside me and made 13 year old me feel strange, a little scared and yet, good. (By the time I took drugs a couple of years later, I had already felt their delicious disconnect through musical and visual art experience).

I dreamed about this song and waited and waited for it to reappear on 2SM and when it did, I stood before the radio in a trance for 3:47. There was nothing else like it on the radio, there was nothing else like it in the world.

Of course, as with most drugs, you need more, and more, and stronger. So the search was now on for The Sound. I didn’t have to wait too long…

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#2: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin

Through a strange quirk of misread marketing, disc jockey taste and the wrath of Odin, Led Zeppelin’s five and a half minute ‘Whole Lotta Love’ also came out of our radios in 1970.

Intended to be the B-side of the one vaguely ‘pop’ single on Led Zeppelin II, ‘Livin’ Lovin’ Maid’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was (strangely) preferred by radio station programmers. Once again, spirit of the times. Soon there was a trimmed down version being played but not before the full heavyweight opus had done irreversible damage to my child’s fragile eggshell mind.

A toughened up reading of Muddy Waters’ ‘You Need Love’ (or callous racist rip-off, your call), ‘Whole Lotta Love’ remains to this day, the template of hard rock for me. A full, phat and badass bottom end of bass drums guitar, with sky scraping vocal and nothing much in between (which is why I prefer Maiden to Metallica any day, and love working with women vocalists in my current bands).

Too much wonder in this mini-symphony: the scraping slide guitar figure in the chorus, the kick in the balls when JPJ’s bass enters, Jimmy Page’s scratching and spitting guitar break, Robert Plant’s animalistic howls and choir-girl sighs and John Bonham, just John Bonham.

And the middle bit. You know, the bit where your mind splits in two and sonic magma runs out.

The whole thing roars like a machine: dead on in purpose, yet frightening in potential. Chills me to this day.

Did its European-ness awaken some Germanic race-memory in me? Did it clad a scared schoolboy in Asgardian armour to do battle with Trinity Grammar School? Maybe – all I know is it knocked my fucking socks off.

After ‘Whole Lotta Love’ I was gone. What would the wond’rous radio ensnare me with next? It was about to get strange…

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#3: ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix

Still too young for a record player, I depended on the radio for my moments of musical satori. And there, among the Mary Hopkin and Brotherhood of Man pop fluff would come some dark jewels that made me shiver in my boots.

Jeff Beck’s ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ (if mainly for the grinning sarcasm of his overloaded guitar break), Melanie Safka’s ‘Candles in the Rain’, The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’ and The Four Top’s ‘Reach Out’ made life worth living, but it was ‘All Along The Watchtower’ that really made my hair (short, back and sides that it was) stand up.

Jimi Hendrix came to me fully formed, godlike and alien. His name alone was future-primitive and his music was something I had strangely always known, down in my bones. Ancient, flamboyantly filigreed and above all, fucking trippppppy. When I finally saw a picture of him, I loved him even more.

Producer Chas Chandler’s vision for this nightmarish Dylan tune was widescreen with sets by Dali and lighting by Cocteau. And Hendrix does it to perfection – his Dylanesque droop at the end of every line, his stoned but wise delivery, his space-ace blues lines throughout.

His guitar break seems to be a show-reel: whammy bar dips, wah-wah retorts and Curtis Mayfield-style lead-rhythm chops. Like the best late-period Beatles, Hendrix and Chandler fit almost too much in and it all works, every note.

A couple of years later, my mother threatened to jump out the window if I played ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ again, that loud. It made me renew my vows to Hendrix, as I have done regularly my whole life.

Oh, and it also made me want to get a guitar. But first, I would have to own a small Dansette-size record player. And a David Bowie LP…

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#4: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ by David Bowie

Bowie was our Beatles.

I was born a little too late for the first flush of Beatlemania and only came upon them after they had gone ‘serious’ and split up. The void was filled by Bowie.

Bowie, like the Beatles, was such a perfect Pop creation, and so utterly of his time that he became an iconic object of adoration for an entire generation, equal in fame and influence to the Fab Four.

Importantly, as with the Beatles, his art not only was blindingly brilliant and challenging, but also consistently led the pack, effortlessly breaking new ground with each new quantum release.

It has been said that Bowie was not more than a clever bower-bird, picking through the Twentieth Century and modelling the scraps and bits into new and shiny shapes. Even if that is true, which it may well be, those shapes blinded us to all else and gave us an almost religious hope.

I finally had a tiny, mono record player and my second album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, for Christmas. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, from the Ziggy Stardust album, has that disconnected, collage feeling. Bowie sings from a Ballardian dead-night dystopiascape, yet, as the song rises, the feeling of hope rises.

Even though I was a straight little schoolboy and he was something from another planet, I felt – as i lay in the dark, playing this over and over – that he was speaking directly to me, and me alone. It is what I have in common with One Direction fans and indeed anyone who has become besotted with a Pop artist. Musical worth really comes a distant second to such ecstasy.

But soon I would have a Guitar. And my days as a shining-eyed fan would be numbered, as I would become a Musician. Sadly, after that, I could never really listen to music again the same, simple and sweet way.

Of course, it was all Frank Zappa’s fault…

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#5: ‘It Must be a Camel’ by Frank Zappa

Studying jazz and jazz-fusion guitar with Australian guitar shaman, John Robinson opened me up to music that buzzes me to this day.

All I wanted to do was play like the guy in Steely Dan but Robbo put me through the ringer – Boulez, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg. Heavy shit, Jim. And I greedily gobbled the lot and begged for more.

He also got me listening deeply into Frank Zappa – not the ‘comedy group’ stuff that had us in stitches as we loaded the next bong, but Zappa as a composer and musical mind.

‘It Must be a Camel’ is from the Hot Rats album and when I first ‘got’ it, it moved me deeply and fundamentally, as it does to this day. It is extraordinarily beautiful, yet of a beauty that only exists in its own world. If the mark of genius is to envision and create something that has not existed before, then ‘It Must be a Camel’ is that.

Rhythm, harmony and melody are pure Zappa and the band play it as if they jam this shit every day (gold star to drummer John Guerin, Joni Mitchell’s beau at the time – dig his drum break: tuned tom deeeeelite).

Zappa’s personal quirks and curdled world-view seemed to make him shy away from writing more swooningly beautiful music like ‘Camel’ in favour of jarring or shocking his listeners – but when he did (‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’) he could bring you to tears.

Through listening to this stuff, I became infected with that malady called Jazz. It took me a long time to fully recover…

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#6: ‘Funky Tonk’ by Miles Davis

I really took to jazz while I was studying with Robbo – I loved the harmonies, scales, rhythmic mathematics of it all. The stars of jazz blew my mind – Coltrane, Monk, Bud Powell, Wayne Shorter – and turned me into a kind of jazz zealot who would sniff dismissively at rock music and berate people for not knowing who the drummer was on ‘Milestones’. Yep, a royal pain in the jazz ass.

I had fallen in love with the Miles Davis Quintet’s albums Working, Steaming, Cookin’ and Relaxing and for Christmas asked my Dad for anything by Miles Davis – thinking that it would be more of the same: toughly swinging post-bop, elegant and sharp.

It wouldn’t be the first time Miles would throw me for a loop.

What Dad unwittingly bought me (at our local record shop!) was LIVE-EVIL, a cauldron of wigged-out electric, free rock that could not have been further from ‘Relaxing’. I still remember the jolt it gave me: I was all-at-sea, with this music thrashing and crashing around my ears.

Miles plays his trumpet through a wah-wah, the band leaps across hot coals. He had said to them “If I hear you playing any of that jazz shit, you’re fired…’

The utterly wildness and ‘fuck you’ element in this music shocked something out of my system: after I heard it, I was never the same again, musically, or personally – it seemed to express a permission to truly do your own actual thing. In spades.

My jazz nerd self realised I wasn’t in Kansas any more, and for the rest of my life, I have gone wherever Miles has led me…

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#7: ‘Pyramid Song’ by Radiohead

The last band that blew me away with any great force was Radiohead. And mainly the two very inspired albums they made within a few months of each other in 2000-2001, Kid A and Amnesiac.

The sense of adventure I took from these incredibly creative and idiosyncratic albums was the same as I felt from when I first came across Pink Floyd.

Radiohead seem to use every trick in their trick-bag, musically and production-wise on Kid A and Amnesiac: they both crackle with electronica and whim. And it all works exquisitely and elegantly.

‘Pyramid Song’ does not go for any sort of electronic palette, but simply uses piano, bass, drums and orchestral strings. Its stately grandeur rises from the urban space-port of Amnesiac like a cloud-castle.

I finish my seven days with this anthem to sorrow and beauty.

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Another strange but beautiful fruit has dropped from Yum Yum Tree Records – the label of great guitar jazz from Jess Green, Aaron Flower and Ben Hauptmann – in the shape of The Ben Panucci Trio’s Short Stories.

In common with the above mentioned guitarists, Ben Panucci is an entirely uncommon player, with a sound and vision entirely of its own logical and aesthetic world.

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Also, in common with Green, Flower and Hauptmann, Panucci’s sound is entirely individual and recognisable from the first notes – in this case the sliding chord of the perfectly named ‘Lethargy Blues’. A crisp, chiming, almost blues tone, Panucci operates without added effects – opting to explore and coax new sounds from the electric instrument with almost an acoustic sensibility, beyond virtuosity.

‘Lethargy Blues’ is an early indicator of the aptness of the album’s title, Short Stories – each track feels like a small soundtrack to an episode in which the characters are just out of sight or obscured by clouds. I have never liked the laziness of the term ‘impressionistic’ when applied to music but Panucci’s compositions and playing – as well as the perfectly simpatico bass and drums of Alex Boneham and James Waples – tend to conjure shifting hazy scenes and fogged dramas just out of sight of the mind’s eye.

‘but anyway it isn’t a game’ – the title a lowercase conversational fragment perfectly reflected in the opaque composition of the tune: Panucci in its solo intro suggesting melancholy in descending resolutions, the sadness only strengthened as Waples and Boneham join him.

The storytelling ranges from the more accessible emotionally to the fascinatingly abstract. ‘Harmonics’ is just that: a skein of bass and guitar harmonics scratched across the top of a snare beat for 0:54. ‘Percussion’ is the band percussing for 1:48 – Panucci scratching, smearing and drumming on his strings, a device used on various tracks for startling effect. The intro to the darkly woven ‘Get Well’ is something to hear, made of smears and scrapes until the notes come.Print

But not all is out-there abstraction – just as one is lulling on all the atmospherics and haziness, the band whips into the Monk-ish ‘Party on the Event Horizon’, its driving swing reminiscent of Larry Coryell’s later work. The trio works beautifully through the solo sections, conversing joyfully and putting a real grin on the playing.

‘A Dance’ conjures Django romanticism in a drowned abandoned ballroom. ‘Old Themes’ calls to mind the exact opposite – a Radiohead miserablist anthem of cold gray towers, its dystopia shattered by the hot primary-coloured splashs of the Trio in full flight as the tune grows and progresses.

Such is the range and span of colours and shifting scenes across Short Stories. That all of this can be expressed through the limited means of a jazz guitar trio – to all intents and purposes acoustic – is not only a measure of Panucci, Boneham and Waples’ creative mastery, but also of their vision.

And it is that vision which – in a musical genre which can all too often veer into the empty adoration of technique – over and over rescues Jazz back for us, for Music.

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net 

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 

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!

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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

 

Sometimes I think it is Europe that will save Jazz – not that Jazz really needs saving, just as Rock doesn’t need saving, but both could do with the occasional cracker up the wazoo.

Whenever Jazz seems threatened by the over-zealous or paralysingly-respectful American approach, I am heartened by Northern sounds such as Esbjörn Svensson’s  E.S.T. (R.I.P. the band and the man) from Sweden or more recently Norway’s crushingly heavy Elephant9. I also think back to the enormous popularity among the hashish-and-Escher set of the arty ECM label from Germany, who gave us Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett (Americans ignored initially by their homeland) and continues to break new and intriguing artists to this day.

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The recent release of Walking Dark by Scandinavian-British trio, Phronesis, as well as reminding me of that particularly European approach to improvised music, is a delight. I say ‘improvised music,’ instead of Jazz, as their approach seems – like so many Euro Improv artists – to have leached any trace of the Blues out of it, finally cutting off that already shrivelled branch to Mother America.

The Euro approach seems to take as much from Northern European classical music as anything else, and (surprisingly) Latin music – especially the rhythmic quirks of Cuban music, which in itself was a beautiful mongrel of Spanish, African and anything else that happened to sail into port. Blues out, Latin in – ‘Chega De Saudade’ indeed.

Just check out Walking Dark’s ‘Upside Down’ which starts with a single, repeated syncopated piano note from Ivo Neame (UK). This simple-yet-complex motif is soon joined by the bass of Jasper Hoiby (Denmark) and the drums of Anton Eger (Sweden) to create a very Latin lattice of cross-rhythms and cross-currents that works so perfectly. Maybe it is because the piano cannot bend a note that the Blues is banished but I don’t see that as the full story. Phronesis seem to work best when creating this mesh of sound and pulling and pushing it into different texture and shapes.

Phronesis – the word means ‘wisdom’ or ‘intelligence’ or, more specifically ‘the wisdom to change our lives for the better’ – is the brainchild of London-based bassist Hoiby and was formed in 2005. The group has been described by Jazzwise Magazine as “the most exciting and imaginative piano trio since E.S.T.” and I think they are right.PhronesisLP

Much of this excitement, to my ear, comes from the democratic approach of Phronesis, each player given entirely free rein to move their strand of the music forward as they see fit, or feel at the time. In this sense, ‘democratic’ is not an accurate term, as it suggests a lowest common denominator. Phronesis are all leaders – they just lead simultaneously (is this the essence of true democracy?). Check out some of the improvising – or ‘blowing’ sections – on Walking Dark, such as the middle of ‘Lipwash Part II’ or the drum solo over a groovy montuno (there’s that Latin vibe again) in ‘Zeiding’.

Walking Dark is a revelation. Any Radiohead or Brian Eno fan out there will dig it – once again, the European-ness of it all brings it together.

Thinking of checking Jazz out? Now’s the time, Phronesis is the band, Walking Dark is the album.

Pics by Katja Liebing. Check out Katja Liebing’s gallery of photos from Phronesis’s recent Blue Beat show here.

Phronesis’s website is here.

Published March 2013 on theorangepress.net

The conundrum with new releases from long-established artists – artists who have made their name at a time when music had an entirely different aesthetic and sound – is this: do I make my contemporary music sound like my old stuff, or do I bring my sound up to date? It’s a harsh decision.

There have been some blunderous artistic miscalculations under the banner of both these approaches, yielding hoary forced old-timey stodge or (generally worse) embarrassing concessions to “the kids” from past masters who should know better.

Joe Henry adopted the first approach with Solomon Burke’s 2002 ‘come-back’ album Don’t Give Up On Me to great effect, framing the mighty Burke in an old-school, analogue sound that just worked beautifully. On Bobby Womack’s latest, The Bravest Man In The UniverseDamon Albarn adopts the second approach – creating a landscape of almost Radiohead-like bleeps and bubbling basslines behind Womack’s care-worn voice.

And it equally works beautifully.

Produced by Damon Albarn, The Bravest Man In The Universe was recorded at Albarn’s Studio 13 in West London and New York’s Manhattan Center, is Bobby Womack’s first album of original material since 1994’s Resurrection. Co-producer is Richard Russell, who co-wrote the songs with Womack. Russell recently produced Gil Scott-Heron’s excellent I’m New Here ‘come-back’ album, so his empathy and respect for the artistry of these men is a living thing.

Bobby Womack wrote and originally recorded The Rolling Stones‘ first UK No. 1 hit, ‘It’s All Over Now’. He worked at Chips Moman‘s American Studios in Memphis in the 60s and played on recordings by Joe Tex and The Box Tops. He played guitar on several of Aretha Franklin‘s albums, including Lady Soul, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Everything about him is vintage, historical and old-school.

But the contemporary nature of Albarn and Russell’s tone-colours under Womack accentuate the warm and ragged humanity of his voice. The man is 68; he has had his ups-and-downs with dope and drink and damage of all sorts in his day. Sometimes here his voice is like a blue-brown brushstroke across glass; sometimes like a ragged tear, ripped into flawless metal. It could sound plain wrong: uncohesive and at-odds. But it doesn’t – Albarn and Russell get the balance just right, to the enhancement of both voice and backing: the voice sounds more human than ever and the beats sound slick, smart and funky.

The guests also pull the Womack sound into the present. Lana Del Ray sings the lion’s share of ‘DayGlo Reflection’, swathed in ghostly reverb. Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara sounds afro-regal on ‘Nothing Can Save Ya’. 

The intro to ‘DayGlo Reflection’ samples a scratchy snatch of audio: 50s Soul king Sam Cooke (Womack’s mentor and early employer) speaking about the evolution of the singer as artist. Cooke says “As a singer gets older, his conception gets a little deeper; he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more…

In Bobby Womack’s voice, all around its burred edge and shot through the fabric of its threadbare silk, you can hear every day he has lived – his struggles and his joys, but mainly his struggles. For contemporary producers such as Albarn and Russell to capture this with such heart – especially set against a machine-made backdrop – is really worth you taking a listen to Bobby Womack and The Bravest Man In The Universe.

Published July 2012 on theorangepress.net

When the bands and polemicists of Punk Rock created their Year Zero circa 1977, they ushered in a new age of creative play in music. The 20th century had already gone through a Jazz Age from the roaring 20s through to the late 50s, when it was supplanted by Elvis et al (artists who the Punks’ frenzy and danger ironically mirrored) and the new Rock Age.

When the Punks decided it was time to wash the past away, their theories (if not always their practice) opened rock music up – a dam-busting which gave birth to Punk’s obsessively creative monster children: New Wave and Post-Rock. Musically it was the Miasma Age, where anything goes and the only artists sticking to the bindings of a particular genre were those who did so out of purism, zealotry or blind love.

It is obvious and plain that this Big Bang still reverberates today – but a bright surprise that it is present in non-Rock musics, such as Jazz.

Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis and his band, The End, have as much rock going on in their jazz as jazz in their rock – and who cares anyway? In the Miasma Age, this is what all music should sound like. The End’s second album, Keep Your Chin Up is eight tracks of sublimely creative music that packs a funky rock-edged punch.

Openers ‘Chers Amis’ and ‘Save Me From The Rednecks’ are a pair of great rockers – the first brisk with a tautly unfolding jazz solo from Willis, the second a muggy half-time skank – that have everything we knew and loved from their 2011 debut album, The End (see my review here): the tough rhythm section of double-bassist Gareth Hill and drummer Nick Martyn, the unusual twinning of the alto and tenor saxes of Jon Crompton and John Felstead, and the heavy powerchords/fleet jazz lines of Tim Willis.

But it is the third piece, the evocatively named homage to Willis’s partner ‘Lying On Her Bed Listening To Steve Reich’ that shows how far the band has evolved in the short time between The End and Keep Your Chin Up. The piece is built on a lattice of stabbing eighth-notes that fade in and out, leading to a remarkable middle section where the band passes these eighth-notes around almost mechanically, yet to extraordinary effect – mirroring the music of minimalist maestro Reich. It’s jazz, Jim, but not as you know it.

Extra horn player Jack Beeche is brought in for the meshed sax harmonies of Jon Crompton’s piece ‘The Rose’ which rolls along on a heavy blues-boogie shuffle over which Willis solos entirely unhinged but in complete control. Title track ‘Keep Your Chin Up’ has a strutting swagger that reflects its positive title. (Willis dedicates the album to his sister’s courage during her battle with breast cancer).

The drive and looped melody of ‘It’ll Be Ok… No It Won’t’ calls to mind 70s proggers Van Der Graaf Generator more than it calls to mind any Jazz artist I can think of. And why not? Such is the nature of Jazz in the Miasma Age – and this is one of the best bands and albums of this Age.

The End’s website is here – www.timwillis.com.au

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Prior to publishing this review, TheOrangePress asked Tim Willis for his top 5 ROCK albums. Here are his responses:

1. Jimi Hendrix – Axis Bold As love
I love this album cause Jimi plays his arse off on every track and it has some of his most beautiful and most rockin’ tunes. I love albums where you can listen to every tune and not want to skip through it, this is one of those. It sounds so raw and energetic, it’s still so fresh and exciting!

2. The Beatles – Abbey Road
Fantastic songs and I love the way the album flows from one song to the next. I love the lesser known tunes on this album such as I want you (She’s so Heavy) and  you never give me your money.

3. Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine
This album made me want to join the young socialists and burn down the local Liberal Party member’s office. It rocks out hard and has some fantastic grooves. It’s so angry and you can feel all that in the music.

4. Radiohead – OK Computer
Once again, It’s an album  where you can listen to the whole thing without skipping through tracks…every song is gold and has it’s own story to tell. The overall mood is one of melancholy and loneliness, it’s beautiful.

5. Faith No More – King For A Day Fool For A Lifetime
I love this band because they are impossible to categorize and every-time they do something new it’s different and out of left field. Standout moments on this album are Richochet, Evidence, Cuckoo for Ca Ca, Star A.D. and Just A Man.  This Album rocks out hard and has something for everyone!

Published June 2012 on theorangepress.net