Monday, April 29, 2013

Mike Heron "Smiling Men with Bad Reputations" (3.5*)

Looking back on the British music scene in the late sixties from the cold hard light of twenty-first century reality there are a couple of things that tend to leave a definite impression. One of them, in an era where some major acts struggle to produce an album every couple of years is the sheer volume of music bands were able to churn out back then.

Quantity, of course, doesn’t always equate to quality, but in the hot house scene that operated then anyone who wasn’t delivering quality product that could be moved tended to vanish into oblivion fairly quickly.

In terms of quantity most acts would have been pushing to match the volume of releases the Incredible String Band rolled out between 1966 (The Incredible String Band) and 1974’s Hard Rope and Silken Twine. There’s a full dozen titles, two of them double albums in that nine year span, and that’s without Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations (released in 1971) and Robin Williamson’s Myrrh (1972).

Prolific seems rather close to understatement, and the quality was pretty good as well.

Unlike Williamson, who’d started the ISB with fellow folkie Clive Palmer, Heron had been a rocker, something that’s obvious from the beginning of the quite boppy Call Me Diamond, with squealing sax from South African avant-gardist Dudu Pukwana and decidedly rocky piano from Heron himself. Decidedly non-Stringy, but mighty fine fun. Flowers of the Forest sits in more familiar territory for ISB fans, though it’s somewhat rockier than his work in that setting with Richard Thompson’s electric guitar running through the ramble.

There’s something that sounds remarkably like a harpsichord in the introduction to Audrey, which is heading back towards ISB territory with a trace of A Very Cellular Song in the harmonium while he’s expressing a desire (or an intention) to take your clothes off.

Brindaban evokes Hindu mythology, in particular legends involving Krishna and the milkmaids in the town of Vrindavan over an evocative string arrangement, while Feast of Stephen works Cat Stevens territory quite magnificently. A great song that’s on a par with almost anything he managed with the ISB and finishes well ahead of most of the pack. Spirit Beautiful is much more obviously Indian in inspiration, with tabla tapping away and the veena and tambura droning away in the background, a swooping, swirling chorus that includes the members of Dr Strangely Strange and a Very Cellular jaw harp in the instrumental play-out.

By contrast, with instrumental accompaniment from Tommy and the Bijoux (Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane and Keith Moon) Warm Heart Pastry heads straight towards full-blown heavy rock. In the end it mightn’t quite get there, but it winds up in a reasonably adjacent postcode as Moon flails away and Townshend’s guitar picks its way through an intricate little riff.

There’s a synthesiser lead into Beautiful Stranger, where a (presumably, it’s got that sort of tropical island vibe) native beauty looks after a wounded traveller, soldier or sailor coming out of a fever over an instrumental track that’s rather muddled and cluttered and the album proper ends with an intimate No Turning Back with sparse acoustic guitar and a mysterious lyric that might involve a premature departure from a loved one delivered in a hesitant manner.

The album reappeared in 2004, remastered with two bonus tracks, an uptempo Make No Mistake and the decidedly rocky Lady Wonder that combine to take the remastered version out with a bang rather than a low key semi-whimper and point towards the increasingly rock orientation to come on the later Incredible String Band albums.

All in all, a fairly eclectic collection of material that probably wouldn’t have fitted into the earlier incarnations of the ISB and breaks new ground, largely due to John Cale’s brass and vocal arrangements and the extra tonalities he delivers on viola, harmonium, piano, and bass. Maybe not essential, but definitely interesting.

Kevin Ayers "The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories" (4*)

In my reading of the Kevin Ayers story, three albums into his career Ayers had gone for something approaching mainstream success with his fourth (Bananamour), largely, I think, on the basis that if certain of his notional peers could do it (and here we note the relative successes of Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells) why couldn’t he? A bit of tweaking around the edges and, well, you never know. Stranger things have happened...

And when Bananamour once again failed to move significant quantities you might conclude the problem lies with the label and start looking at a switch. Island Records were known to lavish money on developing and promoting their own artists, but that sort of generosity usually comes at a price and the price usually involves supervision and a degree of diminution in the old artistic freedom.

In this case that meant Ayers was absent from the producer’s chair, with his place taken by  Rupert Hine. It also meant there was money to throw around, which goes a long way to explaining the presence of a few more notable names alongside the usual suspects. Mike Ratledge and Mike Oldfield are back, but they’re joined by a substantial array of session players.

Mike Giles (ex-King Crimson) gets to sit behind the drum kit, but there are three bassists (John Perry, John Gustafson and Trevor Jones), three other guitarists alongside Oldfield and Patto man Ollie Halsall and a whole slew of keyboard players and backing singers. Throw in Lol Coxhill on sax Geoff Richardson’s viola, Ray Cooper on percussion and a guest vocal appearance from Nico and Ayers has plenty of sonic elements to work with.

The commercial aspirations are fairly obvious from the start of Day By Day, full of funky pop elements, with punchy backing vocals and a catchy hook, and See You Later definitely channels the Bonzo Dog Band before running straight into Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You, one of Ayers’s all-time classics, with a superb guitar solo from Ollie Halsall. Up to that point I was unconvinced about the changed approach, but here we’re back in a familiar environment with added punch from the female chorus. Ayers at his best.

Not quite in the same boat, but definitely in familiar territory Everybody's Sometime And Some People's All The Time Blues matches a typical Ayers ballad with a subdued bluesy treatment and a delicate guitar solo (Oldfield this time around). Equally familiar is the introductory lyric in It Begins With A Blessing / Once I Awakened / But It Ends With A Curse, a much more bombastic reworking of The Soft Machine’s Why Are We Sleeping, complete with night club interlude (alto sax by Lol Coxhill) and a grandiose hard rock church organ climax that needs something after it to settle things down. Thirty seconds of Ballbearing Blues might be a throwaway of little consequence or substance but it does the job.

The album’s showpiece, however, is the four part suite labelled The Confessions Of Doctor Dream that starts off with Irreversible Neural Damage but actually isn’t a suite at all, rather four distinct songs segued and crossfaded to create a larger entity. This is presumably the result of pressure from higher up the pecking order since Ayers has gone on record as stating it wasn’t his idea.

A vocal duet with Nico, Irreversible Neural Damage runs over the top of a layer of acoustic guitars and spacey synthesised sound effects, delivering a creepy atmosphere that’s as sinister as the title is presumably meant to suggest before an electric guitar lick segues into Invitation, another moody piece that morphs into The One Chance Dance, complete with childish chorus and freak out before Ratledge's organ takes over the running.

The final section, Doctor Dream Theme matches a menacing vocal to a threatening riff, a five minute psychodrama that gyrates slowly and was presumably intended to pick up some of the Dark Side of the Moon audience. When it’s done the album proper runs out with Two Goes Into Four, an acoustic ballad that winds things up as it morphs itself into Hey Jude.

Non-album singles kick off the inevitable bonus tracks, with The Up Song bopping along quite pleasantly, though one doubts it was ever likely to garner massive airplay. After the Show seems to be about a groupie or similar creature, but, again, one doubts the actual commercial. The B side, Thank You Very Much, is a subtle reflective whisper, while four tracks recorded on 7 July 1974 at the BBC's Maida Vale studios (mightn’t start off very promisingly with a snippet called Another Whimsical Song (Really? Who’d have thought?) before a masterful acoustic rendition of The Lady Rachel. Ollie Halsall’s lead guitar shines on a reworked Stop this Train and he’s even better on a total shredding of Didn't Feel Lonely Till I Thought of You, a definite keeper if ever I heard one.

Ayers mightn’t have held the album in high esteem, and from where he was sitting (having watched while his artistic instincts were seemingly overruled, that notional four-part suite and all) you can see where he was coming from, but...

Having worked through the first five Ayers albums in some depth, having landed The Harvest Years 1969-1974 set, however, what we’ve got here is the most commercial outing of the five, and the switch to Island definitely seems to have been made with a view to maximising sales and/or impact. It mightn’t have worked out quite the way he’d hoped or anticipated, but, for mine, it worked out pretty well.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Peter Stampfel & The Ether Frolic Mob "The Sound of America" (4*)

As the latest in a long line of interestingly-monikered outfits from MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers in 1960 down on New York’s Lower East Side, through the Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancy Street into various incarnations of the Holy and Unholy Modal Rounders, The Ether Frolic Mob (originally Velocity Ramblers) date from around 2004, with a shifting lineup, since everyone, as Stampfel points out in the liner notes, has day jobs and/or other bands.

In a similarly lengthy line of descent Ether Frolics apparently date back to the middle of the eighteenth century, and originally referred to the recreational use of the anaesthetic gas by  well-to-do revellers and medical students, developing into entertainments where a troupe of performers fuelled their activities with the gas and invited members of the audience to join in the revelry. Such events continued into the Jazz Age, and one notes the presence of ether among the additives that fuelled Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They were, in Stampfel’s description, Sort of an old-timey acid test.

And although the twenty-first century The Ether Frolic Mob, don’t indulge, that old-timey acid test is probably the right label to apply to this particular variant on the genre that has come to be known as Freak Folk. Stampfel describes the entity known as The Ether Frolic Mob as the culmination of over a half-century of thinking about my ideal of a musical group, even though the thinking, itself, will never culminate, a collection of people across a range of age groups he enjoys playing and hanging with, all of whom contribute vocally and bring a wide variety of angles and attitudes into the mix.

The Sound of America comprises a selection of eighteen tracks out of at least twenty-five cut over two days  at the Jalopy theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the summer of 2011. From the opener, Great Day, a track originally recorded by Bing Crosby and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the early thirties, with slight modifications by Stampfel to the unlikely closer (I Will Survive, the seventies disco track reworked so it’s of a piece with everything in between) we’ve got a collection that sits right in Old Weird/Freak Folk territory, with a prime example being the traditional Jawbone, which they hadn’t planned on recording, but someone went into it, everybody joined in and it took a second take to nail it. Old Weird/Freak Folk works like that. Drunken Banjo Waltz started its existence as an instrumental, needed a title, and once that arrived the words didn’t take that much longer.

The four volumes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music are a prime source for OWFF, and a prime link to what Greil Marcus has termed the Old Weird America, so it’s no surprise to see some of the contents turn up hereabouts, including Train on the Island, which gets a bit of padding with verses borrowed from elsewhere and a couple made up by Stampfel. Charlie Patton’s Shake It Break it doesn’t turn up in the Anthology, but it does here, a good timey slice of raunchy ruckus, and Wild Wagoner, the second selection from the Anthology, gets a slower treatment than the original because Stampfel can’t play fiddle that fast and, anyway, he prefers ‘em done slower so you can appreciate the melody. Last Chance started off  as a Hobart Smith instrumental, though Stampfel decided it needed some words, and duly provided same.

Playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard at one stage played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders and contributed the tune for Back Again (a co-rewrite that started as an instrumental from an old recording with banjo-playing son Walker, words by Stampfel). The son’s no slouch on the banjo, and at the age of seventeen with just seven months experience under his belt, according to Stampfel, could do stuff on it I couldn’t, after going at it for about fifty years, and singing like an old Southern mountain guy from a hundred years ago. That’s Stampfel doing the vocal here, though, sounding like something from the nineteenth century though there’s a contemporary edge to the lyrics with references to falling off the wagon and such. LIstening to the tune there’s a fair bit in common with the one Robin Williamson appropriated for the Incredible String Band’s Log Cabin Home in the Sky...

Things are in much more authentic old time territory for Golden Slippers, straight out of the blackface minstrel era, and then we come to the genuinely odd Shombolar, originally recorded by Sheriff and the Ravels in December 1958, and, according to Stampfel the Rosetta Stone connecting African music, Caribbean music, and doo-wop.

There’s a fair dash of old time jug band about Gonna Make Me and the good time music continues through Hey-O, Memphis Shakedown and New Fortune Fortune, a couple of prime examples of cuica-driven Old Weird Freak Folk. Comes Around embraces the principle that a melody cannot be too simple, or too stupid, or too stupidly simple and Deep in the Heart of Texas might seem to fit the same bill, but features new words from John Morthland.

The Harry Smith Anthology provides Blind Uncle Gaspard’s La Dansuese and Stampfel’s intention to record a song for every year of the twentieth century provides I Will Survive, which might seem like a surprising choice or 1979  but has, in Stampfel’s own words Really nice chords, and it’s fun to sing.

Old Weird/Freak Folk (OWFF) is Stampfel’s term for what’s on offer here, and the contents may or may not actually fit under generic classifications, though Stampfel’s descriptors of the stye add a bit of clarification to what you can expect from his current projects.

OWFF tends to be multi-generational and generationally inclusive, as opposed to that just-for-the-young or just-for-the-hip exclusivity common to other genres and the instrumental breaks lean towards soloing amidst ensemble improvisation (tail-gating in traditional New Orleans jazz) as opposed to the Everybody-take-turns-and-show-off solo aesthetic you tend to find in bluegrass and jazz with, in Stampfel’s words an ever-increasing possibility of neat weird shit happening.

Your mileage will, of course, vary, depending on your tolerance of one man’s neat weird shit. Approach with caution, but definitely worth investigating if those descriptors sound like the sort of thing that floats your boat. Definitely works for me...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Various Artists "Jamaican Skarama" (3.5*)

There are some who’ll baulk at the prospect of paying full price ($16.99, thank you very much at iTunes) for a dozen tracks, none of which run past two minutes and forty-five seconds, but as far as Hughesy’s concerned this small (Japanese) label collection of early ska sides that date right back to the early days of the Jamaican music industry delivers a rather good time vibe as it’s playing through.

Recorded at Federal Studio in downtown Kingston, produced by Ken Khouri the highlights come from The Maytals, with My Daily Food offering a slice of prime Toots and One Look couldn’t really be anyone else.

Apart from Toots and company there aren’t a whole lot of familiar names hereabouts and a quick scan of the reggae titles on Hughesy’s bookshelves failed to deliver much detail, but the Techniques bop along nicely on I Love You, Jamaican Gleaner salesman and proof-reader Dobby Dobson works more R&B related territory on Cry Another Cry and Tell Daddy. Eddie Perkins gets deep and meaningful on My Darling and may be the Eddie in Eddie & Patsy, who are out to Take These Chains From My Heart.

The Sneer-Towners deliver a Him Say You Say that bounces along merrily in a neighbouring postcode to Toots and the Maytals, complete with blaring trombone and Stranger & Patsy’s Word Is Wind has the characteristic infectious ska beat down pat. Big Brother took away the X-Rays’s girl, My Dream has one of the Group Singers reaching for the high notes over a doo wop background with some angular guitar cutting through the rather sparse backing and Eric Morris delivers There's A Place with familiar ska horns parping away in the background.

Hardly what you’d call essential unless you’re a ska/reggae completist, but an interesting slice of history that’ll add a bit of interest to your day to day shuffle playlist if this sort of thing floats your boat.

Kevin Ayers "Bananamour" (4*)

Coming at the end of Ayers’ first stint on Harvest Records, his fourth studio album came with a new rhythm section (drummer Eddie Sparrow and bassist Archie Legget) and delivered some of his most accessible recordings, apparently intended to break Ayers to a wider audience (he was on the verge of switching management to John Reid, who was looking after Elton John's career at the time).

Given the fact that we’re talking Kevin Ayers here, you might baulk at that suggestion of wider audiences, at which point I’d ask how else you’d explain the presence of the British music industry's premier session vocalists (Liza Strike, Doris Troy, and Barry St. John) to flesh out the vocal sound and deliver a healthy dose of Dark Side Of The Moon to the proceedings.

Their presence, and that influence is obvious from the first chorus of the Beatles-tinged Don't Let It Get You Down and the chorus swells as it modulates through the chord progression. There’s a definite nod towards the pop end of the spectrum, a great horn section and an arrangement that delivers an almost perfect opener. Shouting In A Bucket Blues follows it up very nicely indeed, with tasty Steve Hillage licks under the vocal in a tongue-in-cheek exercise in intelligent pop song. Hillage soars, Ayers does a passable impersonation of Leonard Cohen and all’s well with the world.

That changes When Your Parents Go To Sleep which comes across as an exercise in writing something that doesn’t suit Ayers’ vocal timbre, which (presumably) is why he hands the vocal duties over to bassist Archie Leggett. It’s the sort of move that might well work in concert (give the front man a break territory, folks) but doesn’t make much sense here on a Kevin Ayers album. It’s not that the vibe doesn't fit with the rest of the album, the horns work fine and the previously noted backing vocalists are working the same territory as they have been earlier in proceedings, but this little Stax knockoff would probably have been better as a single B-side or as an Archie Leggett solo piece. It works, but doesn’t quite work here, if you catch my drift.

With a distorted vocal that sounds like the singer is out on the periphery rather than front and centre, Interview lines up rugged guitar (Ayers) with spacey psychedelic organ (Ratledge) over an odd minimalist funky percussion rhythm to create some of the trippiest moments on the album, crossfading into Internotional Anthem, which does another odd bit of lining things up. There’s some of Don't Let it Get You Down (For Rachel) matched with some lyrics from Interview, delivered by the Dark Side of the Moon backing vocal ensemble, which sounds like a bit of a hodgepodge but works as a lead in to the eight minute drone of Decadence, Ayers’ portrait of Nico, ex-Velvet Underground chanteuse and creator of The Marble Index and Desertshore: Watch her out there on display / Dancing in her sleepy way / While all her visions start to play / On the icicles of our decay / And all along the desert shore / She wanders further evermore / The only thing that's left to try / She says to live I have to die.

It’s undeniably the album’s set piece major artistic statement, and quite an impressive achievement, an atmospheric exercise quite unlike the rest of the album, and several light years from Ayers’ regular territory though he’ll be back in the same neighbourhood on Confessions of Dr. Dream. There’s an almost Krautrock vibe (hardly surprising given the subject matter) with Steve Hillage's spacy guitar over a bed of hypnotic guitars, droning synthesisers and metronomic beats.

By contrast, his tribute to Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, Oh! Wot A Dream, comes across as almost flippant, though that’s as much to do with the duck quack and clinking glass that runs through the rhythm track. Well, he’s referring to aquatic sojourns through Cambridge water meadows, more than likely with imbibing involved, so that’s probably appropriate, but still...

After those decidedly odd percussion effects Hymn‘s percussion click track is rather conventional as Ayers’ multi-tracked vocals and Wyatt’s restrained harmonies hover over a melismatic melody in a gentle ballad that’s as charming to the same degree that its predecessor was odd.

Finally there’s Beware Of The Dog, a minute and a half of swelling orchestration by David Bedford that finishes the album proper with a rousing finale and the observation that She said 'you're not happy, you're just stoned', which was, of course, probably true.

As far as the bonus tracks go, Clarence in Wonderland gets a reggae makeover on Connie On A Rubber Band, and the result is a cheerful bit of fun, as is Caribbean Moon's melodic calypso. Not much substance but a fair bit of levity. Take Me To Tahiti is slightly more serious but still good fun. A Bob Harris session from 11 April 1973 provides live versions of Interview, Oh! Wot A Dream and Shouting In A Bucket Blues that are quite acceptable without adding anything to the originals.

AS his final release on Harvest before jumping ship and heading to Island, Bananamour delivers some of Ayers’ most accomplished and accessible work, and lays the foundation for The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories’ quest for mainstream success.

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course, but here Ayers managed to combine his Mediterranean muse with enough concessions to glam rock and the mainstream rock market to suggest that it just might.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Graham Parker & The Rumour "Three Chords Good" (4.5*)

The cynics among us would probably be inclined to ascribe the reunion of Graham Parker and his original band the Rumour for the first time in thirty-one years to pecuniary mercenary motives but it seems we’re looking at a rather remarkable slice of serendipity.

Parker has worked, on and off, with various members of his old band over the years, presumably on the basis of what felt right and who was available at that particular time, and with Three Chords Good’s dozen tracks written Parker apparently decided bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding would be really something as the rhythm section on the new album. Goulding suggested bringing guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont and keyboard ace Bob Andrews aboard as well and without any prior planning there’s a full-blown Graham Parker & The Rumour reunion.

That was May 2011, and the recording, produced by Parker and Dave Cook and cut in upstate New York was finished by August. At that point, movie writer/director/producer Judd Apatow turned up on Parker’s doorstep with the offer of a role in his new film, This Is 40, a comedy that updates the story of the duo from 2007‘s Knocked Up and features Parker, cast as himself, performing in a duo and with the Rumour.

The sessions for Three Chords Good and their spell on the set of This Is 40 also provide also provide a dramatic climax for the Gramaglia Brothers’ (End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones) feature-length documentary Don’t Ask Me Questions, a profile of Parker’s career that’s been ten years in the making.

It’s been twenty years since Parker recorded for a major label, but he’s spent the intervening period in DIY cottage industry mode, releasing a string of albums and official bootlegs and a book of short fiction (Carp Fishing on Valium) all of which feature the man’s pissed-off snarl and cynical attitude, which comes straight into play on the opening track here.

Snake Oil Capital Of The World appropriates the intro to Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions, arguably Parker’s best known track, and pursues that loping reggae-derived groove through a fittingly trenchant diagnosis of what’s going down in twenty-first century America, pointing out that the old, weird America (the one of medicine shows, snake oil salesmen, carnival barkers and opportunistic carpetbaggers) never went anywhere.

It’s the sort of thing that would have had the younger Parker seething, but as he points out on the following track the thirty-plus years since he came to prominence have been a Long Emotional Ride (Maybe I’m just getting old or something/But something broke down my resistance) so despite the fact that he sees snake oil everywhere he realises there isn’t a whole lot he can do about it.

Long Emotional Ride has a fair dose of the confessional about it as Parker looks back on his career and notes recently acquired wisdom with a degree of wistfulness and a rough-hewn tenderness that runs on into Stop Cryin’ About The Rain. The totally self-explanatory She Rocks Me works a snappy semi-skiffle groove while Three Chords Good would have fitted comfortably on any of those earlier GP&R albums. There’s a touch of Mose Allison to leaven the Van Morrison influences on the slower, moody Old Soul, a track that swings sensuously with Bob Andrews’ Hammond B-3 organ to the fore (as it is throughout).

Andrews is there again on A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round The World, a track that shows Parker can still rant with the best of them, Mercury Poisoning revisited while he takes aim at the music industry and the mainstream media again. There’s a touch of the doo-wops and Sam Cooke about That Moon Was Low and we’re into boppier territory for Live In Shadows before the trio of tracks that take the album out with a definite bang.

America’s role in Afghanistan and the apathy that has come as the conflict grinds on gets the once-over in Arlington’s Busy (And Arlington's busy and business is brisk, not that you'd notice ‘cos ignorance is bliss) a bristling track that decries lying military officers and politicians in a measured statement of impassioned disgust. Coathangers shows whose side of the abortion debate he’s on and manages to rock out while it does so, and Last Bookstore In Town delivers a wry commentary on the decline of small town niche businesses.

The Parker who emerged from obscurity and a string of dead end jobs in the Channel Islands, Chichester and Gibraltar and a hippy band that gigged in a Moroccan night club was in many ways a reincarnation of the ’50s English Angry Young Man, articulate, antiestablishment and extremely pissed off at the world in general and his social circumstances in particular. The Rumour, a collection of pub rock veterans who’d been around the ridges long enough to know what worked and what didn’t locked right in behind him to provide a worthy antidote to the increasing blandness and orthodoxy of mid-seventies rock.

Thirty-odd years after The Up Escalator it’s good to see the combination back as a unit, with Bob Andrews behind the keyboards (he’d left before Escalator and been replaced by Nicky Hopkins and the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan). Given their circumstances over the intervening decades (Brinsley Schwarz had been working as a luthier in London, while fellow guitarist Martin Belmont was a Yorkshire librarian) you mightn’t be expecting the old fires to burn quite so bright but taste and an understanding of nuance are timeless and one suspects it’s something like learning to ride a bicycle.

Once you know how, the ability doesn’t desert you.

Parker’s lyrics still bite and there’s a hint of the old snarl, though the anger’s tempered by a curmudgeonly resignation, Andrews’ keyboards weave their way through the melodies, the guitars add crunch and the supple rhythm section sets things up just right.

The result is an album that hearkens back to a pretty damn glorious past, delivers a continuation of the old vibe into the present and leaves this long time fan hoping for more of the same in the future.

That may end up being a case of living in hope and dying in frustration but, in the meantime, at least I’ve got Three Chords Good, a reinvigorated interest in past glories and an inclination to catch ip on what I’ve missed in the interim.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Los Lobos "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (4.5*)

It may have peaked at #47 on the Billboard Albums chart with the single reaching the lofty heights of #78 on the Billboard Top 100, but the major label debut from Los Lobos certainly carved the band a viable niche in the musical environment around them. Granted, it’s a niche that draws on a cult following and critical acclaim, and one that didn’t (apart from their status as the La Bamba band) translate into anything resembling mass market success, but that’s in the nature of the niche, isn’t it?

...And a Time to Dance had established the band’s credentials on the good time party band you can get down to side of things if you were on board from the start (which I wasn’t, hence initial misgivings many years ago) but with the major label debut it was time to reveal the outfit as a dance band plus, pointing towards an eclecticism that took a while to work through. The result was an offering that blended danceable R&B, heartfelt ballads, traditional Mexican influences, down and dirty roots rock, and a swag of seasoned salsa.

Inspiration for the title and the title track came from a National Geographic article entitled "Where Can the Wolf Survive", a pertinent question for a bunch of Hispanic musos trying to find a niche while maintaining contact with their Latino roots.

Starting with a T-Bone Burnett/Louie Perez/Cesar Rosas composition rather than something from the more prolific Hidalgo/Perez combination, the album kicks off with a straight-ahead jump electric blues in Don't Worry Baby, stomping away in search of a good time with a darker twist (Life is a fight/And then you die), but don’t worry, maintain the faith and we’ll get through.

It’s much the same with the migrant worker crossing the border in search of a better life in A Matter of Time. There’ll be a temporary separation from the family, but don’t worry, it’ll all work out, We will be alright/And we’ll all be together/It’s just a matter of time. It’s a compassionate look at the concerns of illegal aliens whose status underpins the bottom rungs of the American economy.

Mexican norteño with guitarron, bajo sexto and Hidalgo’s accordion comes to the fore in Cesar Rosas’ Corrido #1, a giddy blend of traditional grooves and good old rock’n’roll that works a treat and shows what The Wolves had been putting down in their own community over the years before they hit the (relative) big time and the same is true of the break-up song that follows. Our Last Night, contrary to what you might expect when you’re talking termination of relationships isn’t one of those crying into the beer efforts, more a rock and roll it now and we’ll figure out where we’re going in the morning sort of thing.

Burnett, Hidalgo and Perez get the writing credit for The Breakdown, four minutes of accordion led feel good until you listen to the lyrics two-step, then it’s off to a seven day version of Saturday night or its equivalent for I Got Loaded’s Cajun R&B grooves (it’s a Little Bob & The Lollipops cover). Steve Berlin’s sax work, and masses percussive handclaps deliver a definite feel all right factor, though one wonders how things are going to look in the cold hard light of morning.

Things take a more serious turn for Evangeline, a tale of a missing seventeen-year-old runaway that still manages to rock along as Hidalgo croons the lyrics about the queen of make believe gone missing after going out dancing on Saturday night.

Rosas is front and centre for I Got to Let You Know‘s two and a half minutes of Mexican punkabilly, and we’re in folklorico territory for the instrumental Lil' King of Everything before Will the Wolf Survive, which kicks off with a joyous thump on the drums. Over jangling guitars Hidalgo invokes the chill of winter/Running across a frozen lake/Hunters hot on his tail/All odds are against him/With a family to provide for/The one thing he must keep alive/Will the wolf survive?

It’s a good question as the wolf is allegorically transformed into Mexican immigrants (and, I guess, young Hispanic musicians) trying to figure out a way to survive and provide for a family while on the run and maintaining a low profile.

It’s going on for thirty years since How Will the Wolf Survive? appeared in the shops, and Los Lobos have, over the intervening decades demonstrated exemplary musical taste, with an eclectic virtuosity that’s rarely flashy, world-class musicians who meld a diverse range of genres into a seamless whole.

A timeless album that was a definite sign of greatness to come...

The Valparaiso Men's Chorus "Guano and Nitrates" (4*)

You might figure you’ve heard all the versions of (What Shall We Do With a) Drunken Sailor you’re likely to need, but there’s a hearty roughness to the version that opens this collection, a sort of seedy singalong raunch meets Crescent City degeneracy that might persuade you to have a go at just one more.

You mightn’t think you need another Blow the Man Down either, but Alex McMurray and crew appear to be having such a good time anyone who fits into the target audience (thirsty people who love to bellow and still know how to curse, drink, and party) is probably going to find themselves reaching for a chilled article and looking for a chance to join in.

All for Me Grog breaks down into bar room chaos about half way through and gets itself back together to finish in a suitably rousing fashion, while Serafina features a rather classy little jazz solo in the middle, emphasising the fact that the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus might be a bunch of alcohol fuelled degenerates but they happen to include a fair cross section of New Orleans’ best musos.

So Early in the Morning sounds like a hangover song (the sort of hangover where you immediately reach for the hair of the dog that bit you, assuming, of course, you have actually started sobering up). New York Girls works the way the Steeleye Span version (for example, I could cite others) doesn’t, with a ragtag chorus, thumping bass drum with just a tad of syncopation and tin whistle and accordion churning away in the background. Magnificently ragged.

But it’s not all rant and rave, though the words in the chorus of Spanish Ladies suggests it should be. The track starts out as a sort of soft, serenading waltz, builds up a bit of momentum and switches back to maudlin sentimentality until the chorus kicks back in with odd blasts of drunken sousaphone picking its way through the melody line.

The chorus are back on the ran-tan for Sally Brown, complete with a trombone break that sounds predictably the worse for alcoholic wear, while Rio Grande starts relatively tenderly, with an electric guitar solo that fits the vibe that runs through the album perfectly. Light and shade is still possible, even in the degenerate company we’re sharing hereabouts.

Cape Cod Girls and Rosyanna bring proceedings to a rousing finish, with the latter throwing in a few contemporary references as the bottles clink, the Chorus roars away and the trombones and sousaphone rag around the tune.

All of which goes to show what can be achieved on the Monday after Thanksgiving if you happen to have an assembly of degenerates, recording equipment and a substantial supply of beer to lubricate their throats. According to the self-proclaimed mythology the single session at the Mermaid Lounge lasted as long as the beer supply, and the resulting set of traditional sea shanties filtered through an alcoholic New Orleans sensibility might have been larger had the beer supply been more generous, but what’s on offer here will do very nicely for mine.

It’s not the sort of thing that can be repeated on a regular basis (two or three albums at five year intervals would seem to be about the right ration) but as something to spice up your playlists this highly energised exercise in contagious tomfoolery and ribald rowdiness delivers plenty of fun, with a a drunken lurch as the sousaphone, trombone, washboard, guitar, accordion and viola go about their business and the Chorus does its thing.

The Hot 8 Brass Band "The Life And Times Of…" (4.5*)

Five years on from the rerelease of their debut album on the British Tru Thoughts label, the second recording from New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band (the third if you count their contribution to The Blind Boys of Alabama Down In New Orleans in 2008) continues the Hot 8 tradition of recasting New Orleans marching music by filtering more contemporary material through a second line sensibility.

Last time around it was Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing and Snoop Dogg’s What’s My Name? This time Basement Jaxx’s Bingo Bango and The Specials’ Ghost Town get the Hot 8 treatment but from the opening of Steaming Blues it’s obvious we’re still looking back at the same roots, hot straight-ahead New Orleans jazz, with the writing credit going to former Hot 8 member Joseph Williams, whose death at the hands of the New Orleans Police Department is the subject examined a few tracks later on Can’t Hide From The Truth. The tuba growls, the horns blaze and the hollers and percussion deliver a sound that’s a 100% New Orleans fusion of traditional jazz, Afro Cuban, brass band and funk elements.

It would have been easy to do a Trombone Shorty (not that I’m knocking Trombone Shorty, just pointing out a difference in approach) to have headed into and Heavy Friends territory, rousing up guests but no, the Hot 8 work much the same territory as their debut, and you won’t find a featuring in the track listing.

There’s a fine funky tuba and snare drum driven start to Fine Tuner, a percussive groove with call-and-response vocals that builds gradually to a joyous fusion of parade music, R&B and old-fashioned swing. Basement Jaxx's Bingo Bango gets a Latin-tinged makeover, blending Afro-Cuban and New Orleans elements, jazz and funk influences and braying horns into a joyous salsa before a rap intro runs into New Orleans (After The City), a gospel-derived hip-hop assertion that, basically, there’s no place like home and home is where the Hot 8 want to be. At the same time things aren’t all rosy on the home turf.

New Orleans police shot and killed band member Joseph Williams and Can’t Hide From The Truth castigates the culprits and those who know what went down. Anger and bitterness run deep, and not without reason, though the truth will set you free. Sure, there’s hurt and bitterness in there, and it comes out in the music, but there’s also a solid New Orleans second line vibe as the drums rattle and the horns deliver a message that’s equal parts protest, tribute and call to celebration. It’s a potent blend of seemingly contradictory emotions.

Given some of the redevelopment issues that formed one of the major plot lines for the Treme TV series, you’d possibly have thought someone would have picked up on the idea that The Specials’ Ghost Town is a rather obvious fit for post-Katrina New Orleans, The Hot 8 shift it firmly into the casbah with a Moroccan intro that has virtually nothing to do with conventional N’Awlins notions but works just fine anyway when they start ragging on the theme and bring it back home.

Issues with heroin come up in Let Me Do My Thing as Hot 8 trombonist Tyrus Chapman addresses the war on drugs in a righteous spray that blends elements of soul, jazz, hip hop and reggae, but the rap towards the end might tempt the rap-averse listener to press the shuffle button. In my case the sentiments are sufficiently righteous to avert that, but mileages may vary.

The shuffle button will almost invariably come into action if it’s within reach when Skit comes around, not that I’ve got anything against a band shooting the breeze in the studio, you understand, but there are some things that fit into the programming but don’t necessarily float your boat when you remove them from that context.

The context, however, is fairly obvious when you get to War Time, a blast of infectiously catchy, percussive sound, with blaring horns, snappy drums, whoops, hollers and handclaps in a fusion of traditional jazz, parade music, R&B, funk and Afro-Cuban elements that winds things up in the best way possible, leaving the listener looking for more.

The Life and Times Of ... delivers nine slices of prime twenty-first century New Orleans music that couldn’t be cut any way other than live in the studio, with a definite sense of community that invokes a tradition of marching band music that stretches back well over a century to the pre-jazz era. The Hot 8 matches a brassy blast of joyous grooves with Dixieland, jazz, R&B, rock, funk, Afro Cuban and hip-hop elements to produce something that’s simultaneously contemporary and traditional, a great expression of second line fonk.

It is, according to reports, half of a pigeon pair of albums, with the sequel apparently intended as a more reflective tribute to fallen friends delivered through a collection of traditional brass band material. That’s a prospect I’m looking forward to with considerable anticipation, though Tombstone, due 20 May doesn’t, judging by the track listing (there isn’t too much that’s recognisable about the names, anyway) doesn’t seem to be too traditional.

The preorder will, however, be going in regardless...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Kevin Ayers "Shooting at the Moon" (4*)

He might have decided he’d had enough at the end of Soft Machine’s gig opening for Jimi Hendrix across North America, taken the guitar Hendrix gave him and headed for the shores of the Mediterranean but the regular demands of the record business seem to have kicked in after Ayers released Joy of a Toy in 1969. An album on the market, it seems, demands a tour to support it, which in turn demands a band, and the result was an ensemble dubbed The Whole World. A British tour and another batch of material ready to go tends to point towards another album and that, in turn, suggests the retiree is back on the treadmill.

Or not, as the case may be, because the outfit Ayers assembled wasn’t your common or garden rock’n’roll hits the road band playing your common or garden rock or pop. Ayers had leanings toward the avant garde, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find someone like free improvisation saxophone specialist Lol Coxhill in the line up, along with teenage prodigy Mike Oldfield, who could switch between guitar and bass depending on what Ayers was turning his attention to.

Keyboard player and arranger David Bedford remained on board from Joy of a Toy, Mick Fincher alternated with Robert Wyatt behind the skins and folk singer Bridget St. John added an extra dimension to the vocals. 

Coxhill, born as far back as 1932, had a few years on the rest of them, and in between busking in informal settings had toured US airbases jazz outfits and backed visiting American artists including Rufus Thomas, Mose Allison, Otis Spann, and Champion Jack Dupree. He’d also worked with Canterbury scene bands Carol Grimes and Delivery, which later evolved into Hatfield & The North and was, more than likely, the collaboration that brought him into the Ayers orbit.

After the tour, when the outfit retired to the studio in October 1970 Ayers for the sessions that resulted in Shooting at the Moon the proceedings, unsurprisingly, produced an odd amalgam of sunsoaked balladry and avant garde experimentation. Equally unsurprisingly, the outfit had splintered by the time Ayers was ready to record his third solo album (Whatevershebringswesing) though most of those involved turned up on one or more of the sessions. Outfits led by people with a propensity to disappear towards the sunny Mediterranean would, one suspects, be odds on candidates for a relatively early demise.

Given the players with whom he was collaborating, and Ayers’ own avant garde background the experimental and improvisational side of Shooting hardly comes as a surprise. With Soft Machine he’d spent the summer of 1967 touring France, performing at psychedelic events along the Cote d’Azur with a three week residency playing daily musical transmissions hallucinatoires, hired by Jean Jacques Lebel to be the second half of his Festival de la Libre Expression outside Saint-Tropez. Picasso’s play Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue (Desire Caught by the Tail) had been the first half.

Equally unsurprising is the warm Mediterranean carefree ballad style that runs through the album from the opening May I? (reprised in French towards the end as  Puis Je?). Rheinhardt & Geraldine/Colores Para Delores heads off into experimental territory, particularly on the instrumental cut up collage in the middle. There’s a more conventional (or as close to conventional as we’re likely to get) heavyish rock approach to Lunatics Lament that runs amok towards the end. 

The experimental side of things is back to the fore on Pisser Dans un Violon while The Oyster and the Flying Fish comes across as a rather pleasant folky duet with Bridget Saint John. It’s a rather pleasant little ditty that adds a bit of light and shade to the albums proggy and experimental overtones, which are back in the foreground on the atmospheric Underwater, a four minute instrumental that leads into the cheerfully sunny ballad Clarence in Wonderland

Red Green and You Blue inhabits a neighbouring postcode, with the Ayers croon in the forefront, then it’s back into Soft Machine territory for Shooting at the Moon (a reworking of the Softs' Jet Propelled Photograph). The sunny balladry kicks off Butterfly Dance, which turns up-tempo and heads off into avant garde territory around the fifty-second mark, while Puis Je? as previously noted, is May I? rendered in French.

As far as bonus tracks go in The Harvest Years 1969-1974 incarnation of Shooting there’s a trio of titles labelled Alan Black Session, apparently recorded for Radio One (Gemini Child, Lady Rachel and Shooting At the Moon) and another from 9 June 1970, recorded for John Peel’s Top Gear (Derby Day, Interview and We Did It Again / Murder in the Air).

Looked at as a whole Shooting is a solid record, though the listener’s enjoyment is going to depend pretty directly on his or her inclinations when it comes to progressive, arty rock. Take the experimental elements out and what’s left comes across as a collection of sunny ditties that bop along rather happily (Clarence in Wonderland being the best example), carefree but not exactly lightweight, add them back in and you’re looking at the sort of avant-garde fusion the average listener might well be happy to go without.

Overall, I think, one to approach with caution though there’s definitely something of interest  to be found.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Kevin Ayers "Joy of a Toy" (4*)

First, the back story.

At the end of a long jaunt around the USA opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Kevin Ayers was exhausted from the grind of touring, quit Soft Machine, announced he was retiring from the music business, sold his bass to Noel Redding and retreated to the hippy haven of Ibiza. Ayers had contributed much of the material for The Soft Machine, and had obviously impressed Hendrix, who presented him with an acoustic Gibson J-200 guitar on the last night of the tour, extracting a promise that Ayers would continue with the writing.

More than eighteen months later (Ayers was never a bloke to hurry about things, and I’ve seen his personality described as laissez-faire sloth) he was back in London at Abbey Road Studios cutting his first solo album with a little help from Robert Wyatt (drums) and David Bedford, who did the arrangements and contributed piano and mellotron. Ayers looked after the guitar and most of the bass parts, Softs mates Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper turned up on Song for Insane Times and the whole exercise cost the Harvest label a reasonably hefty £4000.

Eighteen months in the Mediterranean with an acoustic guitar is almost certain to produce something a fair bit more laid back than the manic organ/bass/drums conflagration that characterised his former outfit (they’d been known to do something like We Did It Again for a quarter of an hour when opening for Hendrix in the States) and from the start of the album it’s obvious he’s headed in another direction. Joy of a Toy Continued is an infectious la la singalong instrumental that bears absolutely no resemblance to the Softs as far as the instrumentation goes (brass, woodwinds, bass and drums, not an organ in sight) and not too much to the track on The Soft Machine that it supposedly continues. It is, however, something of an ear-worm.

Woodwinds and strings lead into Town Feeling and odd guitar solos fill in between verses that seem to be setting out to evoke a rural community where there might be something lurking below the surface. Today, the town seems like a tomb / Everybody’s locked up in his room delivers a hint of something, anyway. There is, however, nothing covert about The Clarietta Rag, a jaunty little pop number complete with a fuzz guitar solo over what sounds like a trombone wheezing away.

There isn’t anything ambiguous about Girl on a Swing, a slice of summery love song with piano and odd mellotron tones Very much in the spirit of the times assuming you weren’t getting down with the revolutionary rhetoric. Not much of that in the sunny Mediterranean, particularly in outposts of Franco’s Spain.

His old colleagues from Soft Machine join Ayers for Song for Insane Times which takes a pot shot at pseudo-liberated narcissistic groovers joining in the chorus of I Am the Walrus, while Stop This Train (Again Doing It) delivers a six minute nightmare about a train that never stops and accelerates into some trademark Mike Ratledge strangled organ through the manic soloing that comprises the second half of the track. Eleanor's Cake (Which Ate Her) delivers a gentle dreamy acoustic number with springtime flutes and leads directly into The Lady Rachel, another five minutes of nocturnal ramblings with an interesting instrumental break and a charmingly sunny chorus.

Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong takes a semi-robotic bass and drum riff, marries it to two of Benny Hill's Ladybirds vocalising a Malaysian folk-song and then heads off into increasingly avant garde otherworldliness to end up in a chaotic discordant-edge mess. From there you need something to wind things up on a more positive note. All This Crazy Gift of Time manages to do that very well indeed, winding up an album that’s full of invention and variety.

Predictably, with the album proper out of the way it’s off into bonus track territory, starting with the charming 1970 single Singing A Song In The Morning, which follows on nicely from All This Crazy Gift of Time in a way these things don’t always manage to. A Top Gear session delivers a Whole World version of Clarence in Wonderland with a vocal contribution from Robert Wyatt, a Stop This Train that also features the Whole World with Coxhill wailing away and Bedford chipping in with odd discordant piano motifs, a reworked Why Are We Sleeping that veers off into Whole World avant garde free jazz territory and a maddening little ditty called You Say You Like My Hat featuring (I think) Robert Wyatt on kazoo.

When it comes to bonus tracks, two separate copies of an album have been known to deliver two sets of those buggers as well. The 2003 CD re-release came bundled with two alternate takes of The Lady Rachel (a longer orchestral version from the Odd Ditties compilation and a slightly shorter single version that seemingly didn’t make it onto the marketplace), three takes of Singing a Song in the Morning (two of them labelled as Religious Experience, one of which features the alleged presence of Syd Barrett) and Soon Soon Soon, all of which are nice to have but don’t add a great deal to the album itself.

Taken as a whole, Joy of a Toy comes across as very much a product of its era, which for someone who lived through the period in question isn’t a bad thing, though those unfamiliar with or daunted by exposure to whimsical English psychedelia may find their mileage varies substantially.

While it’s not Ayers’ masterwork (and there’s a fair body of opinion that would suggest he never managed to deliver one) Toy’s syncretic blend of English music hall elements, warped pop sensibilities, Malayan and Mediterranean languor, lysergic psychedelia, and the French       i indicated a potential that was worth further investigation.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kevin Ayers "Whatevershebringswesing" (4*)

While The Whole World didn’t last, and, on the surface you wouldn’t have expected it to, David Bedford and Mike Oldfield stayed in the picture for the 1971 sessions that produced Kevin Ayers’ third, and arguably most acclaimed album. In between Shooting at the Moon and Whatevershebringswesing, Ayers had been gigging across Europe with Daevid Allen's band, which explains the presence of saxophonist Didier Malherbe after the departure of Lol Coxhill,

Having worked through Joy of a Toy and Shooting at the Moon the collision of disparate styles hardly comes as a surprise, but here the different styles work together better than they had in the past, from the symphonic notes that start There is Loving > Among Us > There is Loving through to the end of the Didier Malherbe flute solo on Lullaby, with plenty of territory covered in between.

The Whatever sessions started before the demise of The Whole World, which accounts for the David Bedford writing credit (Among Us) stuck in the middle of the two slices of Ayers’ There Is Loving. There’s a fair slice of similar vibe to Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother here, in Bedford’s symphonic, brass heavy orchestral arrangement, but after an avowedly experimental beginning Margaret turns out to be a rather straightforward ballad, intimate in a perfectly romantic setting with understated orchestration.

From there light and shade factors and what comes next probably explain the lightweight New Orleans vibe that runs through Oh My, three minutes of lightweight before the sombre introduction to Song from the Bottom of a Well, which looks back to The Soft Machine’s Why Are We Sleeping? and forwards to Dr. Dream, four and a half minutes marries an experimental arrangement with Oldfield to the fore with a cryptic lyric Intoned in a creepy voice that sounds like it’s coming from a well, tomb or grave, guttural and brimming with foreboding over a barrage of jarring sound effects and dissonant elements.

And after the subterranean spookiness, Whatevershebringswesing's extended bass solo introduction, swirling female harmonies and languid warmth leads into a prime slice of languid warmth with what’s probably the most accurate summary of Ayers approach to life in the chorus (So let's drink some wine / and have a good time / but if you really want to come through / let the good times have you*) with Wyatt's fragile high-pitched treble warbling away in the background and an extended understated solo from Mike Oldfield. Gorgeous, and, for me, the highlight of the album.

There’s a bit of competition in that department from Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes, another expression of the Ayers approach to things with classic rock and roll references, the hip exile (one imagines) faced with a stuffy maitre d’ in a restaurant with pretensions above its actual station. Catchy, old fashioned rock and roll that Ayers obviously enjoyed, re-recording it a couple of times on subsequent projects.

According to Mike Oldfield Champagne Cowboy Blues came about in two parts. Arriving at Abbey Road to find no one else had bothered to turn up on time, Oldfield and engineer Peter Mew filled the waiting time by putting together a track. You can do a fair bit in an hour and a half if you put your mind to it, and when Ayers finally arrived Oldfield had an entire track: all the overdubbing, the percussion, the guitar and bass and the studio staff singing impromptu lyrics.

Ayers mightn’t have been happy about the whole thing, but he kept the backing track, cut a snatch of the circus theme from Joy Of A Toy Continued into the middle, came up with a new set of words and the result was a lightweight drinking song that’s pleasant enough without giving the listener anything to write home about. The album proper closes with Lullaby an appropriately titled pastoral instrumental featuring Didier Malherbe's liquid flute accompanied by piano and a running brook.

As far as the inevitable bonus tracks go, with two versions, we get two sets. The 2003 remastered version delivers Stars (the B side to the Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes single), Don’t Sing No More Sad Songs and Fake Mexican Tourist Blues from Odd Ditties and a previously unreleased early mix of Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes.

Stars, with that female chorus that’ll be all too familiar half way through Bananamour, has a definite trace of Vanilla Fudge, Don’t Sing No More Sad Songs waltzes along over a jangling piano with female harmonies and Fake Mexican Tourist Blues probably goes close to redefining the concept of throwaway...

Then there’s The Harvest Years 1969-1974 box set version, which throws up Stars and Fake Mexican Tourist Blues again, but pads the thing out with half a dozen tracks from a BBC Bob Harris session (Lunatic’s Lament, Oyster and the Flying Fish, Butterfly Dance, Whatevershebringswesing, Falling in Love Again and Queen Thing).

Languid and reflective, Whatevershebringswesing delivers (largely) uncomplicated ballads, light on prog rock pretensions with some of Ayers' most appealing compositions. It might fall short of the ambitious peaks in his earlier work, but overall it’s more consistent and the average listener will probably be glad to be away from the jarring discordant elements that creep in when Kevin’s colleagues decide to go all experimental on us.

Ayers: “That’s, basically, how I’ve lived my life, that’s my feeling about life.”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Irma Thomas "Simply Grand" (4*)

There are some things that are best kept simple.

When, for example, I have the opportunity to open a really good bottle of red wine I’m inclined to line it up beside a sizeable chunk of Tasmanian eye fillet or rib on the bone, thoroughly sealed on both sides and finished in the oven. When that’s done, deglaze the pan juices with water and a tad of the red (I’m not in the habit of overdoing the sauce when I’m looking at a $50 plus Halliday 95 or 96 pointer) and serve with some mashed potato and steamed broccoli or zucchini. It’s something that allows you to enjoy the complexities of the wine and the fall apart tenderness of the beef without having too many other factors getting in the way.

Given Irma Thomas’ status as arguably the greatest of the female R&B and soul voices to come out of New Orleans you might be tempted to surround her with upbeat fonk, heavy on the horns and it would probably come out OK. Thomas, however, always comes across as a little understated, medium rare as opposed to well done to continue the steak analogy, and those vocal tones work best, for mine, over a minimalist, uncluttered backing.

Here, the concept is straightforward. Take Irma, give her some ballads and set her beside a piano, bass and drums trio and let things run their course. This could have worked pretty well with any one of the ivory-tinklers on display here, but rather than sticking with one player they’ve recruited the pick of the New Orleans piano practitioners (Henry Butler, Dr. John, Jon Cleary, Tom McDermott, David Egan, Ellis Marsalis, Davell Crawford and Marcia Ball) and a couple of notable ring-ins (Norah Jones, John Medeski, Randy Newman) and only one notable absence (Allen Toussaint).

John Fogerty’s River Is Waiting with Henry Butler on piano and a gospel trio in the background is straight out of church, which the following track, If I Had Any Sense I'd Go Back Home, a Louis Jordan cover, isn’t as Irma and Dr John give the lyric a resigned reading. Jon Cleary’s the guest pianist on Too Much Thinking as Irma addresses the problems you have when you’re too busy to worry about minor considerations like rent, bills and all those other things you can’t do anything about.

It’s back to Louis Jordan territory for Early in the Morning with Tom McDermott looking after the accompaniment on a track that lacks the fire of some other readings. It’s one that may be getting the shuffle treatment when it turns up by itself a a little further down the track. I’m not entirely convinced by the Burt Bacharach co-write What Can I Do either.

Lil' Band O' Gold‘s David Egan provides Underground Stream and looks after the keyboard duties on a gospel call for regeneration, complete with choir, and the combination works better than the two tracks that preceded it. One that’ll work its way into myTop 1500, and if I was still doing the radio bit it’d be getting a regular spot on the airwaves.

Norah Jones takes over the keyboard for Thinking About You, which is a little restrained after the preceding track. Better, and more assertive is Dr John’s contribution to Be You, a track he co-wrote with the great Doc Pomus, originally intended for Etta James. Dr. John played on Irma’s first recording session (You Can Have My Husband But Don't Mess with My Man) back in 1959 and his work here delivers a playfully funky counterpoint to a playful shimmying vocal.

This Bitter Earth was a hit for Dinah Washington some fifty-plus years ago, and gets a smoky nightclub style treatment here with elegant but quite restrained backing from Ellis Marsalis and delicate upright bass and hi-hat action on the drums, and it’s a similar story when David Torkanowsky returns for Cold Rain (he’d provided the piano part for the Bacharach number) the combination works much better than it did earlier as Irma meditates on the cleansing that follows a storm.

Allen Toussaint wrote Somebody Told You and Irma recorded it way back in 1962, but this time it’s John Medeski rather than Toussaint providing the backing while Thomas testifies. Overrated features Davell Crawford on an R&B ballad that’s rather soft around the edges and in danger of attracting smart-arsed references to the title. Along with What Can I Do, it’s one of the weaker tracks on an album that’s pretty consistent otherwise. There’s a more spartan turn around the eighty-eights from Marcia Ball on Don Nix’s Same Old Blues, though there’s a gospelly twist there that definitely ain’t the same old barrelhouse variety.

But the album’s highlight comes when Randy Newman slips onto the stool in front of the keyboard for I Think It's Going to Rain Today. Newman’s bleak vision, with hope and desolation presented as opposite sides of the same coin makes for a moving meditation in the aftermath of a disaster, and Thomas’ understated vocal delivers a poignant combination of heartbreak and vulnerable dignity. Stunning.

And, when you look at the title, the title says it all. Simple, slightly modified to fit grammatical requirements and grand, as in piano, and also as in the dictionary definitions.

Take your pick from:
magnificent and imposing in appearance, size, or style
of high rank and with an appearance and manner appropriate to it
used … to suggest size or splendour
of the highest rank
very good or enjoyable; excellent
all of which are taken from the Dictionary app on my Mac (which, in turn, is taken from the New Oxford American Dictionary, so we're talking authoritative here, folks.

Authoritative. That's another descriptor that fits like a glove...