Tuesday, 31 December 2019

What was that all about then?

Well, wasn’t that something?

Together we’ve listened to 365 albums – that’s rather a lot. My rough calculation is that if you listened to all of the albums here, that’s about 346 hours, or about 14 and a half days’ worth (and that doesn’t include the indefinitely regenerating lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to). And it’s quite a wide scope – there are albums from 98 countries, and from 1955 all the way to some of my favourites from 2019 (there were no albums from 1962, 1978, 1981 or 1985, apologies).

It was a lot of writing too. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been really difficult, but I have really enjoyed the experience as a whole. I rediscovered albums that I forgot I loved or why I loved them, I’ve given albums I’ve known for a long time a really deep listen that illuminated elements I’d never noticed before, I found out that some albums I had very fond memories of weren’t as great as I remembered.

But the important thing is: thanks for reading! Whether you’ve been reading religiously or just dipping in, I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the music, and maybe even discovered some new albums or artists or musical styles that you’d never encountered before. And I hope that you’ve also, to some degree, enjoyed reading my various thoughts, opinions and general ramblings about music and other things. If you ever fancy recommending some Good album or other to a friend, feel free to direct them here!

So thank you very much. If nothing else, we can definitely agree: 2019 has certainly been a year. And now if you’re going to need something to read in the new year now that 365 Good Albums has finished, why not head over to my new blog for 2020: 366 Good Books!

365: Anatoly, by Oligarkh

Oligarkh (Russia)
Anatoly (2016)
9 tracks, 38 minutes

Over the course of this blog, I’ve talked about albums that have political significance, albums that are culturally important, albums that symbolise a musical movement or that rebel against the norm, albums that represent musical styles that are very rarely heard, albums that can tell us something about the histories of certain musics or cultures or peoples or that can hint at the future of the same, albums that have a particularly intense emotional connection for me personally, or strongly associated with a beloved memory. Then there are albums that aren’t any of those things and that I chose for just being pure bangers.

Readers, today’s album is in that latter category.

The concept behind Oligarkh is a simple one and that simplicity is its strength. Samples of Russian and other ex-Soviet folk music, Orthodox chants, old TV shows and readings from classic literature and fairytales are all chopped up, flipped, turned inside-out and otherwise mangled before being added to deep bass, heavy beats and epic synthscapes and rounded off by a live kit drummer. Together, it becomes the dirtiest, most unholy combination of trap, dubstep, happy hardcore, techno, gabber and hip-hop, all with that rich seam of the land’s old musical traditions running through it. All it needs from you is to blast it as loud as you can and have your own Russian rave.

Every track here is 100% built for making you dance as heavy and as hard as possible in whatever movements take the fancy of your limbs, so it’s hard to pick out any particular highlights in that way. The most surprising for Anglophone listeners, though, would be ‘Devochki’, built around a sample of the Ukrainian song ‘Shchedryk’ – you’re more likely to know it as the ‘Carol of the Bells’. It may feel strange to listen to it as an all-year dancefloor filler, but I can guarantee that as soon as that bass drops any of those reservations will go right out of the window. And, looking it up, it turns out that ‘Shchedryk’ was originally written to be performed as a New Year’s Eve song, so there you go, it’s fate: if you need something to power up your New Year’s Eve party tonight, Oligarkh’s ‘Devochki’ is your secret weapon.

Oligarkh’s music isn’t necessarily too clever, but it definitely is big, as well as being boisterous and loud. It’s just a massive heap of messy fun and it comes with a side order of Russian folk, so what’s not to love? Music doesn’t need some deep or intellectual message or meaning. When you have that primal need for music to facilitate an arm-in-the-air bounce around whatever space you happen to inhabit at any given moment, that’s the meaning of Oligarkh.

Monday, 30 December 2019

364: Mask Dance, by Black String

Black String (South Korea)
Mask Dance (2017)
7 tracks, 55 minutes

Korean music has been one of the biggest revelations across the music world of recent years. In the past decade or so, the South Korean government has put so much effort – and money – into promoting the country’s musical culture of all different forms. Most visibly, K-pop has taken the world by storm, a phenomenon unequalled in pop music since the boy- and girl-bands of the 1990s. The effect has been felt on the world music scene too. It feels as if every year, another two or three Korean artists working with Korean classical or traditional music make themselves known across Europe and the Americas. And it’s not for nothing – each of these groups do something different and each of them do it in an incredible way. Just this year, I have seen performances by Kim So Ra (solo janggu (hour-glass drum) player innovating the classical style), Ak Dan Gwang Chil (a band turning folk songs from a region now in North Korea into sophisticated jazzy pop) and NST & The Soul Sauce featuring Kim Yulhee (a roots reggae/dub band backing lead vocals from the ancient epic sung poetry of the pansori). What a wild mix, and each of them were fantastic. Today’s album comes from another such group, and probably the Korean artists that have made the most impact on European world and jazz scenes in the last five years.

The music of Black String is somewhat hard to describe, because there are so many different ways that it can be described. Depending on what ear you bring to it, it is sophisticated math rock; it is free jazz in the Ornette Coleman mould; it is an eclectic mixture of Korean classical, folk and religious styles that date back many centuries; it is contemporary improvised sound art. The music is meditative, acidic, mysterious, aggressive, confusing, calm, powerful. Of course it is all of these at once. The ensemble is led by Yoon Jeong Heo from the geomungo, the ancient Korean fretted zither. Other traditional Korean instruments are provided by Aram Lee on the daegeum and danso flutes and the yanggeum metal-stringed zither and Min Wang Hwang on the janggu and other percussion and voice; with a very different sound is Jean Oh, an electric guitarist with a jazz background who plays his instrument with as much distortion as possible and liberal use of the whammy bar, as well as contributing electronic sounds. As much as each musician is a master of their own instrument in their own tradition, each one of them is taken in a new direction. They play using unorthodox techniques, they use their instruments as much as noisemakers as musicmakers, they bring in bubbles of influence from unlikely places. From all of it comes forth music that is immediately recognisable as deeply and traditionally Korean, but as viewed from a different angle. Black String are pioneering this new wave of Korean improvised art music and, by doing so, creating a whole new tradition with those that came before.

It’s so exciting to see all of the impressive new talent coming out of Korea every single year, with each artist bringing something new and astonishing to the table, and playing every conceivable type of music, too. The pool of these artists seems inexhaustible. It’s indisputable that South Korea is now one of the musical powerhouse countries. And you know why? Because their government doesn't only value music in a way that means lip-service is paid to its importance as part of a wider culture while slashing music education, creating a hostile environment for music venues and generally making funding for musicians increasingly rare and hard to come by (thanks, nine years of Conservative leadership!), but instead literally value it by pumping actual money into music programmes, consistently, for years. By paying musicians to make music or empowering those who can, and by letting those musicians create new sounds that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. By funding those artists to travel abroad to play at festivals, make tours or present at professional events. By running those festivals and music professionals’ events in South Korea in turn, to bring the world to the music as well as vice versa. It’s really simple: if you make music a national priority, you get incredible, international-standard music out of it and a valuable national export to boot. Black String are just one particularly compelling example. It’s a methodology that could and should well be considered by many other governments around the world. Listen up!

Sunday, 29 December 2019

363: I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain, by Sven Helbig

Sven Helbig (Germany)
I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain (2016)
10 tracks, 43 minutes

Classical music has been used to complement and add melodic interest to electronic dance music since the latter genre’s beginnings – when you think of those epic, anthemic dance tracks, that classical sound is particularly strong, either from samples of big sweeping strings or the influence of the awe-inspiring impact of a huge symphony orchestra in full flight. The use of club music in classical styles, however, is explored much less often.

Composer Sven Helbig, in his work I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain, brings electronics into his music in a way that complements the classical, rather than the other way around. The principle sound here is choral music, the voices contributed by the Vocalconsort Berlin. It’s a very old sound. The choir sing in reverential tones and the harmonies and counterpoint that are used are reminiscent of medieval music – mostly using wide open chords which occasionally drift into friction-filled dissonances with pleasing resolutions – but they do lean in subtly unorthodox directions now and again, showing the influence of modern art music and even jazz, but only in a way that benefits the overall atmosphere. Although Helbig himself wrote many of the texts that are sung throughout the work (in German), the sacred sound is made solid with the inclusion of the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, both common elements of the sung Latin mass. The composition for choir alone is suitably beautiful, powerful and haunting.

So far, so classical. But Helbig’s work comes into its own with the use of live electronics, performed by the composer himself. The way he uses the electronic sounds is very similar to the way they’re used in house music, but the context in which they’re used gives those sounds a very different feel. He basically takes the exact opposite direction to club music: the beat is far from the main focus, to the degree that it is hardly present at all. Where a ‘beat’ is manifested, it’s a world away from four-to-the-floor kick and clap-snare; rather, it is a subdued, even shy, rhythm described by a crunchy synth hit of a similar quality to a bendir frame drum. Instead, the dance music makes itself heard in its texture the way its sounds and effects are layered up. A great example is in the track (or, in Helbig's terminology, ‘episode’) of ‘Kyrie’. The first sound heard is an electronic drone. The note provided by the drone stays consistent but its harmonic quality is ever-shifting. As the choir comes in with their overlapping lines, the drone seems to ‘pick up’ on the sound of their voices, and the reverb and delay effects fold those voices back into the drone so that it evolves throughout the piece. At points, it means that it is hard to distinguish whether you’re hearing human voice or synthesised tone.

This use of electronic sounds and influences from dance music in I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain are so subtle that it seems strange to focus on, but it nevertheless defines the sound. Most of the time, the listener will probably be unaware of the impact of these elements – that’s the point, after all – but without them it would be such a completely different atmosphere, and probably one ‘lacking’ in some indiscernible way. To use any sonic element in such an all-important yet understated way is the sign of acute musical intelligence, and to marry classical and religious choral music with electronic dance music in such a way is absolutely fascinating and shows real, felt knowledge of both styles. If classical music has a raison d’être it must surely be to look into the past and future in equal measure – in this work, Sven Helbig captures that dual consciousness in the most satisfying way.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

362: Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, by Junior Kimbrough

Junior Kimbrough (USA)
Most Things Haven’t Worked Out (1997)
8 tracks, 49 minutes

I first heard of Junior Kimbrough through the Fat Possum Records’ sampler I wrote about in September, Not the Same Old Blues Crap. It actually turns out that the highlight of that compilation is also the highlight of the album it came from: Most Things Haven’t Worked Out by Junior Kimbrough.

It’s the very first track, ‘Lonesome Road’. The thing that immediately strikes me is that this track is modern American blues at its most African. It’s just Kimbrough and his electric guitar playing a lanky, plodding drone blues. It has a feeling of Lightnin’ Hopkins slowed way down, or Ali Farka Touré if he’d taken an extended stay in the Mississippi Delta. That drone feels so irresistible that I’m sure it could go on for hours, Kimbrough’s fingers picking out understated licks from the deepest wells of the blues all the while. His vocals offer an appropriately mournful cry that bends down to the notes that give the most emotional resonance, even if those notes would be considered horrendously flat by any classical music scholar. The way he moves his voice is with a melisma that could have come direct from the Sahara desert, echoing the muezzin’s call and uniting the dusty roads of Mississippi and Mali. It’s a real shiver-down-the-spine piece, and opening the album with it is Kimbrough’s way of setting the scene. This is what the neighbourhood looks like. With the rest of the album, he beckons you into his jukejoint.

Really. The album was recorded in Kimbrough’s own venue, and after the first track, the mood picks up. His guitar playing and moaning vocals retain their earthy hues that trace a path half-way across the Atlantic to the blues’ first home, but he is joined by drums, bass and lead guitar that push things in a rockier direction. It doesn’t lose its way: this is rock in the direct lineage of the old Mississippi jukejoint players anyway, sometimes literally – the drummer is his own son Kenny Malone, and the bass player is Gary Burnside, son of R.L. The result is a meeting across generations that reaches back even further, with simple punkish blues rock finding a comfortable place to play alongside tones that stretch back to the oldest ancestors, to the enjoyment of all.

Although he’d been playing the blues since he was a child and had recorded his music starting in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 90s, and the last years of his life, that Junior Kimbrough began to get the level of attention he deserved. By the end he could count Iggy Pop and Keith Richards among his friends, and in the years since he passed (just a year after this record came out), at least two tribute albums have been released of Kimbrough’s songs, one by rock duo the Black Keys whose sound is deeply indebted to the great man. Kimbrough’s music isn’t quite like anyone else’s, in the Mississippi Delta or elsewhere, and to listen to it is to hear links back and forward through the whole of the history of the blues – and it’s all summed up in that one unfaltering drone.

Friday, 27 December 2019

361: Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation, by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (USA)
Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation (1960)
9 tracks, 55 minutes (1990 CD version)

Jazz music is brilliant, a boundlessly creative form that exists to push the boundaries of what’s possible, its musicians exploring the outer wilds of rhythm and harmony and creating some of the catchiest and most exciting melodies to go around them, even off the top of their heads.

Jazz isn’t just music, though. Jazz is a whole world of art and attitude. Painting, architecture, graphic design, photography, dance, pornography, journalism and fashion can all be jazz. It can also be the way you receive things, you can hear something with a jazz ear or see it with a jazz eye or behold it with a jazz brain. Conversation can be jazz. I’m not really sure how, but I’m pretty sure there can be jazz in food, too – if anyone knows any hip chefs who can help me confirm, that would be very useful. There is a whole world of jazz that is solidly in the realm of not-music. We’ve heard non-musical jazz on this blog before, and much like the monologues of Lord Buckley or the comedy of How to Speak Hip, Jack Kerouac’s writing is jazz.

Kerouac thought in jazz. The way he describes scenes in his novels are so lush and full of passion – whether that is a positive or negative passion – and when he describes actions it is as if it they have been filtered through centuries of poetry. My favourite part of his writing, though, is when he gets on a riff. Kerouac’s riffs can be on anything, from the aforementioned scene-setting to thoughts on philosophy or culture or the taste of food. You can feel the text building up a pace as his thoughts tumble over each other. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness, but in a way that has been keenly honed. Thought threads come and go but never seem random, rhythms are developed and dissipate and the rules of grammar are bent and broken in a way that only serves to increase the beauty of the riff without losing any of its intelligibility. That’s right: Kerouac wrote in jazz solo.

The most potent example of this for me comes on this album of Kerouac performing his work – poetry and excerpts of his novels – completely solo. ‘The Beginning of Bop’ (later retitled ‘Fantasy: The Early History of Bop’) was originally an essay written for a gentleman’s magazine in 1959, but becomes another beast when he performs it out loud. It’s an 11-minute flight into the formative moments of bebop that never quite existed. It’s a stunning listen, and incredibly hypnotic. Kerouac bends his words into an almighty groove, his smooth, smoky voice and heavy Massachusetts accent giving the written words a rhythm so palpable you could play drums to it. The story he spins is compelling, too, musing on the meanings and deeper religious, philosophical and nostalgic bases of the music as well as its sounds and cultural impacts. I first listened to this recording sitting in a beautiful, empty church, followed that evening by a small but feverish obsession whereby I transcribed the whole of that recording as I heard it, pen-on-paper across five A4 sheets. I felt desperate to imbibe the words into myself, and I’m still glad I did that. It’s as if I solidified my own experience and connection to this amazing work.

Jack Kerouac is probably the most well-known of the movement known as the Beat Generation – he came up with the term himself, after all – and his semi-autobiographical book On The Road is regarded as one of the Great American Novels. It’s even more impressive when you consider that English wasn’t even his first language. For me, Kerouac is also one of the most defining voices in the non-musical world of jazz. His words can sing you to another place – listen to this album and let him read you there.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

360: Nu Yorica! Culture Clash in New York City, by Various Artists

Various Artists (Puerto Rico/USA)
Nu Yorica! Culture Clash in New York City (1996)
16 tracks, 109 minutes (2 CDs)
SpotifyiTunes (Weirdly, the digital edition has a different tracklisting than the CD, so both versions contain some unique tracks. But they’re close enough for the purposes of this blog, at least.)

This is one of those compilations that paints such a vivid picture of a specific time and place that it just makes you want to jump into that world, smell its smells, meet its characters, behold their fashions and listen to as much music as you possibly can. And it does it all with 16 impeccably chosen tracks.

The album presents the music of the Latin Caribbean played in a way that could only have come together in a city such as New York, and only in the 1970s. It’s the result of Latinx people from all over the Americas living together, sharing their differences and revelling in their similarities, all the while making music inspired by every sound bouncing around the city at that time. Each track is grounded in Latin styles, whether that’s son, rumba, charanga, bachata, guarancha, the old Afro-Latin rhythms, or, more often than not, a combination of many together, and that is then taken off into flights of everything that was around at the time. There is lots and lots of funk and jazz in there, a few really strong disco elements and even some classical music in Eddie Palmieri’s piano playing on ‘Un Dia Bonita’.

And all of it has a complete lack of that cheesiness that I find inherent in so many Latin styles. The musicians here filter out all of that over-the-top dramatics with a sincerity that leaves only mean skill and pure energy – and without taking themselves too seriously to have fun, either. The outcome of this equation is just liquid coolness.

What a wonderful collection. When I’m listening to this album, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be than in the late-night clubs of Nu Yorica with a whole load of dancing ahead of me. And if you turn up the music loud enough, close your eyes and let your body move its way, maybe that world doesn’t have to feel quite so far away.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

359: Zagazougou Show, by Le Zagazougou

Le Zagazougou (Côte d'Ivoire)
Zagazougou Show (1997)
6 tracks, 32 minutes

I actually wanted to talk about the original release Zagazougou Coup from 1993 on Piranha Musik, but seeing as it’s not available on any digital platforms, and this later album still seems to include a bunch of the recordings from the earlier, I’ve gone with this one instead, you’ll get the same sort of idea (although still buy that original from the Piranha website – it’s longer too!).

Côte d’Ivoire, and its largest city Abidjan in particular, was a Mecca for musical artists from all over West Africa, who headed there to record in the city’s studios, and often spent some time resident there as a result. With musicians coming from all of Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbouring countries and as far north as the Sahara, Abidjan became a hotbed of creativity. That’s why it’s so strange to me how few Ivorian stars there are whose reach extends beyond the country itself. For music fans in the UK, at least, the only Ivorian musicians to make any real impact are Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly, both reggae singers, and Dobet Gnahoré. Considering all of the musical energy emanating out of Abidjan in the last 50-or-so years, I would have expected that number to be far higher.

Which is why it’s exciting to come across an album from Côte d’Ivoire, especially one as unusual to the ear as this one. At the core of La Zagazougou is the accordion, meaning that their style is part of a pantheon of accordion music across the African continent from the funaná of Cabo Verde to the baladi of Egypt to the marabi of South Africa, and other styles from Zanzibar, DR Congo, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Kenya and elsewhere, where they usually came into circulation through the work of missionaries. In the hands of La Zagazougou, a pair of accordions are used to great effect to create a really uplifting dance music, adding layers on top of the traditional djembe drumming and gobe rhythms and all based around the jubilant vocal melodies.

A thing that I love about La Zagazougou is how jolly and fun the music sounds, and how enjoyable it is to listen to, despite using tunings that are really idiosyncratic to European ears. The accordions themselves are built with a tremolo, in which each note is played by two reeds instead of one; the reeds are slightly detuned from each other to create a warbling effect. On these accordions, though, the reed pairs are tuned really far apart, meaning that the tremolos are very fast – meaning that to some ears, like mine, it just sounds as if every note is out-of-tune with itself. Quite a feat! Add in the fact both accordions seem to be tuned slightly differently from each other and it amounts to a whole bunch of very spicy-sounding frequency clashes – just check out the intro to the song ‘Saya’ for the perfect example. I find stuff like that brilliant because it just makes us realise how culturally-biased our notions of what music should sound like are, when just a slight difference of tuning can make a style sound completely alien to us. And yet, within a few minutes, the brain adapts to the new information, and we can enjoy the music for its own merits even away from the jangly harmonics.

It’s good practice too. Stretch your ears and your brain by listening to as much differently tuned music as possible – Indonesian gamelan is great for it, and so is Arabic classical music with all of its quarter-tone scales. And for when you want to dance to something and confuse your friends at the same time, Le Zagazougou are the ones for you!

(Oh, and if it's your bag, Merry Christmas! If not, enjoy the day and your new-found love for Ivorian music!)

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

358: The White Stripes, by The White Stripes

The White Stripes (USA)
The White Stripes (1999)
17 tracks, 44 minutes

When I first became aware of the White Stripes – probably when I was a young teenager – I didn’t really pay any attention. I knew their biggest hit ‘Seven Nation Army’, but other than that I just thought they were another guitar-based rock group – a format that has never overly excited me in and of itself. There was the slightly interesting fact that they were a duo, but meh.

Then somehow I fell into an internet research hole and ended up finding the tracklist to the band’s debut album…and found out that it contained a cover of St James Infirmary (my favourite song at the time), as well as tracks by Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan and an extended quote from ‘John the Revelator’. Were the White Stripes a blues band and no-one told me?!

I found someone in school who could burn me off an incredibly low-quality copy of the CD (no streaming in those days kids!) and…yeah! It was blues all the way. Heavy, punk blues, but still definitely blues. While a bit of me was annoyed that I hadn’t given them a chance in the first place, but I was stoked to be able to ‘get’ what everyone else got a long time before me.

The group’s first album is made in the time-honoured punk tradition of having a million songs on one album, with only a handful of tracks breaching the three-minute mark. It means that the ideas come thick and fast; it’s musically hyperactive but the intensity of it all sweeps you up like a whirlwind – it never feels as if the album’s frenetic pace is outstripping the White Stripes’ abilities to create great things. Jack White’s vocals and guitars are simply superb, crazy wild, introspective, simple and brash, it’s got everything while all being indisputably bluesy.

And that’s a quick thing: it’s become basically a standard music joke that Meg White can’t drum, but I think that’s clearly bollocks, probably misogyny-fuelled bollocks at that. Her drumming as part of the White Stripes, and especially on this debut album, is very simply played, yes, but only because it needs to be. If the album was full of flashy or deeply intricate drumwork, it would have sounded out-of-place, not to mention that it would have completely overshadowed the whole meaning of the sound the two were creating. And what she does play – simple or otherwise – is perfectly in-keeping with that sound, and she executes it exactly right. Besides, Jack White also plays as simply as each song needs, and he’s the one hailed as a genius. Weird that.

It’s one of the reasons it all works so well. The fact they’re a duo is actually incredible. Aside from one or two overdubs on the whole album, it’s obvious to the ear that only two people are creating the music, but the sheer noise of it, and the emotional force with which it hits makes it resonate as if it were a band of many more.

So yes, I ended up loving the White Stripes, especially their first couple of albums. The bluesiness of their music became less obvious after that, although it was obviously never far away from Jack White’s antique record player, as evidenced by his subsequent musical adventures proved. The moral of the story is: teenagers can be hella snooty, never trust their opinions. Or maybe, trust every teenager’s opinions except mine, because the White Stripes are great.

Monday, 23 December 2019

357: Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze), by Django Bates

Django Bates (United Kingdom)
Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze) (1995)
10 tracks, 67 minutes
Doesn’t seem to be anywhere to stream or download this online, apparently. I’ve put together a YouTube playlist of five tracks from the album that have already been uploaded there, so that you can get a small feel for the album, and you can buy the CD from Amazon or Discogs.

With yesterday’s Winter in America and today’s Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze), you’d almost think it was winter outside the window as well. What a strange serendipity.

On this album, pianist Django Bates leads a big band set-up of some of the biggest names in UK jazz at the time. True to his boundary-pushing and forward-thinking form, however, the music they make is quite a world away from the standard big band fare. The rest of the arrangements treat the 15-piece ensemble more like an expansive small band; that ultra-cheesy swing sound is only present in a handful of moments and always used in subversion.

The result is a set full of noise and chaos that falls just on the right side of avant-garde. Well, it does for me at least, your mileage may vary. There are unpredictable and angular melodies, dizzyingly fast and wending lines, out-there harmonies that switch between heavy dissonance and ludicrously simple chords, time signatures that would need a maths professor to work out. Influences from funk and Latin music abound, and there’s a slight soul sway in there occasionally, but all of it is quickly taken into outer space and back so many times within each piece. Even the only cover on the album, a version of the theme from Scorsese’s New York, New York, is turned into a cacophonous Latin-prog-jazz-metal excursion.

In all of its pandemonium, there’s so much fun in the album. It’s obvious that the musicians are at the top of their game in terms of skill, and the creativity is off-the-scale, so that it doesn’t feel like a dry exercise in quirkiness without purpose or an exploration of the borders of any particular type of music for an academic curiosity. It fizzes with electricity enough to turn a well-known ensemble template into a completely different beast. That energy is captured most obviously in the album’s joyous conclusion, in a reprise of the disc’s opening track ‘You Can’t Have Everything’, starting with a wild penny whistle solo and ending with a triumphant all-together-now horns-blaring, arms-around-each-other singing-on-New-Years-Eve but still occasionally dissonant finale. Winter Truce (and Homes Blaze) is a big band album, but not one from any planet you or I have visited.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

356: Winter in America, by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson (USA)
Winter in America (1974)
9 tracks, 45 minutes

After covering Gil Scott-Heron’s debut studio album Pieces of a Man in August, I knew I couldn’t leave it at that. It was difficult to choose between this one and his 1981 album Reflections – the latter includes the brilliant tracks ‘Is That Jazz?’, ‘“B” Movie’, ‘Gun’ and the cover of Bill Withers’ ‘Grandma’s Hands’. I went with Winter in America in the end because it’s a great example of the collaboration between Scott-Heron and flautist/pianist Brian Jackson. Although the music is still the funk and soul that fits Scott-Heron’s voice so well, Jackson also brings a big jazz influence – you can hear Miles heavy in Jackson’s arrangements, as well as Coltrane and other Afrocentric jazz players, which accurately reflects similar themes in Scott-Heron’s poetry on this album. The music on Winter in America is perfectly attuned to the poetry and lyricism being laid down; it’s great in its own right but is never overstated, instead allowing the words to take centre stage. When dealing with such a genius wordsmith as Gil Scott-Heron, that is exactly the correct approach.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see Scott-Heron live, headlining the WOMAD festival in 2010, less than a year before he died. He was obviously ill at the time, but his performance was out of this world. His voice was croaky and weak (as can be heard on his last album We’re New Here) but his words and his energy were as strong as ever. If my memory serves me correctly – and the more I think about it, the less I’m sure, but it’s the memory I have and I hold it dear anyway – the highlight of the night was a medley of ‘The Bottle’ and ‘The Other Side’ that he played pretty much solo on vocals and keys. It was a sight to behold. The words were so dear and personal and passionate, full of grief and pain and regret and sung as if it was being dredged up from the very depths of his soul. It was stunning and left us all gaping in awe. Hearing ‘The Bottle’ in the context of this album is maybe not as harrowing as that performance but it’s still a masterpiece of insight, addressing the problems of alcoholism and drug addiction both within his own life and from the outside as a member of the community bearing the brunt of the effects. It’s a song that requires a huge amount of introspection that is handled with dignity and clarity without losing any of its raw emotional power.

Winter in America also shows a slightly softer side to Scott-Heron than some of his other albums, with a few really sweet songs such as ‘A Very Precious Time’, ‘Song for Bobby Smith’ and ‘Your Daddy Loves You’ showing his sentimental side, especially clear when his soulful voice is backed only by a jazzy electric piano. My favourite track off the album, though, is ‘H²Ogate Blues’. It’s an extended spoken word poem complete with a sparse but groovy blues accompaniment and a vocal audience of the band themselves. Although Scott-Heron speaks his part, it syncs up so perfectly with the blues changes in a really satisfying way, somehow even when he falters and goes back to the beginning of a line. It also does a really good job of making a bitter political subject funny without losing any of its impact. It’s about the biggest scandal of the day (“If H²O is still water and G-A-T-E is still gate, what we’re getting ready to deal on is the Watergate Blues”), but it’s still quite depressing how much the themes cut across 45 years and an Atlantic Ocean, even if some of the more specific references are lost on those of us who weren’t around at the time.

Gil Scott-Heron had many personal flaws, but as an artist he was flawless. Every word he spoke or sang was the best possible one for the situation, articulating each of his thoughts in the most impactful and entertaining ways. If history is just, he will be remembered not just as a wonderful poet and singer, but as one of the greatest thinkers of his generation. Much like a West African griot, the things he said are a history in and of themselves, telling the story of the lives and politics of Black people in the US all through his lifetime. His works are treasures and need to be regarded as such – especially seeing as how relevant they still are today.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

355: lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to, by Various Artists

Various Artists
lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to (2017 onwards)
∞ tracks, ∞ minutes
Stream live on YouTube

lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to is one of the biggest musical phenomena of the past few years. It some ways, it represents a whole new paradigm of how and why people listen to music. And no, it’s not technically an album. If you’ve not yet been exposed to it, let me introduce you to the wonders of lofi hip-hop, compiled by ChilledCow:

I’ve been really excited to write about this, because there’s so much to talk about. Even the format that it takes is very much a 2010s thing: sort of a midway between an algorithmically-generated playlist and a curated radio station, a never-ending and continually updating set of tracks available 24 hours a day. There’s something I love about the infinite but unselectable nature of it. You don’t get to choose to only hear the tracks you know that you like, and you don’t get to skip any, but you can drop yourself in and out whenever you like. The tracks aren’t played in any specific order, but they are very carefully selected – a mix of the automated and the personal.

The music itself is a very specific genre with a very specific ambience. The name ‘lofi hip-hop’ may lead you to expect a little different to what it actually is. It’s an almost entirely instrumental style that is based around the marriage of off-kilter J Dilla-esque beats and samples often taken from relaxed jazz. The whole thing is chopped up and rearranged in a slightly surreal or hypnagogic way, and everything is treated with a production that makes it feel warm and fuzzy, cosy even, using vinyl-like surface noise, a strangely warped and wobbly feel to it, lots of shimmering and glittery timbres and a slow, steady tempo for ultimate chill-out vibes. Bassist, music theorist and YouTuber Adam Neely even looked into the way lofi hip-hop uses harmonies and unusual tunings and posited, very convincingly, that it has much more akin to a new field of jazz than hip-hop.

And for all its weird quirkiness, this isn’t some small niche, it is hugely popular. ChilledCow’s YouTube channel has over four million subscribers. At any given time, lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to has tens of thousands of listeners (at the time of writing – 3pm on a Saturday – it has over 19,000 people tuning in). Neither is it the only one: ChilledCow also runs lofi hip hop radio - beats to sleep/chill to (4,200 listeners right now), and there’s also the marginally differently-titled lofi hip hop radio - beats to study/relax to (2,400 listeners), the festive 24/7 Christmas lofi hip hop radio - beats to study/chill/relax (1,200 listeners) and the list goes on. The music has the same atmosphere, the names are almost interchangeable and even the aesthetic of the artwork is precisely the same – a short looping animation of a cosy but cluttered anime bedroom with a sleepy protagonist relaxing/studying. What makes these so popular? The clue is in the name. These streams and the music within aren’t really used to be listened to as much as they are to be heard. They provide a background noise that’s meant to manipulate the listener’s thinking: the chilled, atmospheric sounds of the music are interesting enough to divert some attention while being relaxed and predictable enough to still ‘fade into the background,’ meaning that any distractions from the outside world are drowned out while still allowing the conscious brain to focus on something else. It’s perfect, then, to ‘relax/study to.’ For a lot of listeners, these lofi beats don’t even really register as ‘music’ at all; they don’t listen to it because they enjoy the music, they put it on because it fulfils a function and it works. There are two particularly interesting articles on this aspect of lofi hip-hop on JSTOR, which takes a positive view on it, and the New Yorker, which is much more negative, but I highly recommend both of them.

As that New Yorker article hints at, the popularity of this style of music has also had a backlash, with people angry at the musical movement for its perceived lack of musicality or creativity, for turning the noble art of music into insipid background noise fit only to be ‘used’ like a tool, and for just being plain boring. But it’s impossible to deny its success. For me, all of these reactions are really fascinating, from the music’s quiet but incredible popularity to the venom with which its detractors attack it. Personally, I actually really enjoy listening to the music, even in an engaged, ‘active’ capacity – I just think it’s chill.

As we reach the end of 2019 and get ready to roll on to a new decade, everywhere is full of retrospectives of the past ten years, everyone looking at the best, the most influential, the most definitive. I reckon that, regardless of anyone’s individual opinions on its merits or quality, the phenomenon of the lofi hip-hop YouTube stream as exemplified by lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to is one of the most iconic musical forces of the 2010s. It’s just not something that could have existed at any other time, and certainly not with the same amount of success.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to spend the last few days of the year writing intermittently in a notebook, wistfully looking out of the window with my plump ginger cat, feeling drowsy and listening to some slightly wonky but incredibly comfortable chill af beats.

Friday, 20 December 2019

354: The Imagined Village, by the Imagined Village

The Imagined Village (United Kingdom)
The Imagined Village (2007)
11 tracks, 61 minutes

Allll the way back at the beginning of this blog, in the very first entry, looking at Bellowhead’s Burlesque, I said that I’d be writing about the Imagined Village here at some point. Well, with only 12 days and 12 albums left to go, I’m finally getting around to it. No time like the present, right?

Alongside Bellowhead, the Imagined Village were the group to turn me on to English folk music. I can’t remember which one I’d listened to first, but they both hit me at roughly the same time, and I think that’s important. If I’d have heard one group doing interesting, exciting and different things with English folk music, maybe I would have been tempted to write it off as a one-time thing, the work of a few particularly talented musicians. When there’s two doing it – and making very different music from one another on top of that – that means there’s a movement happening. ‘Hmm,’ thought I, ‘maybe there’s something to this…’ thus leading me down a years-deep rabbit hole of scratchy field recordings, folk clubs in the upstairs rooms of pubs, fragile tomes of folklore and many great albums and gigs from the English folk scene.

Really, if you ever wanted to draw me into English folk music, you could barely come up with a formula as compelling as the Imagined Village. The idea was to use the music of the past to conceive of how the folk tradition may more accurately reflect the England of the 21st century. All the repertoire here is made up of traditional English songs and tunes or else directly inspired by them, and the musicians involved include such folk royalty as Martin and Eliza Carthy, Chris Wood and the Coppers but also big names from other fields such as Paul Weller, Benjamin Zephaniah, Billy Bragg, Sheila Chandra, the Afro Celt Sound System and Transglobal Underground.

It’s one of those projects where you look at the line-up with all its suitably impressive names and go ‘…can it actually work, though?’ Well, that’s an emphatic YES from me. You don’t have to listen to many of the tracks from here to realise it. Take ‘Tam Lyn Retold’, in which Benjamin Zephaniah updates the age-old story of a whirlwind romance, unexpected pregnancy and an epic battle between elf and fairy into one of clubbing, asylum seeking and the cruelties of the UK’s immigration system. He recites this genius spin on the old folktale in a dubwise fashion, backed by the beats and bass of Transglobal Underground, the sitar of Sheema Mukherjee and the fiddle and vocals of Eliza Carthy. That’s probably my favourite of the bunch, but they’re all like that, fresh takes that put the old songs in a different light while an astounding cast create magic around it.

By the time you read this in a week or so (or maybe years in the future, I don’t know), this won’t be news any more, but as I’m writing this, it’s the day that we’re coming to terms with the Conservatives’ massive re-election that keeps Boris Johnson as prime minister for another five years. It hurts, a lot; not just for me but for the millions whose lives will be negatively affected over the coming years. But I’m glad I get to write about the Imagined Village today, because this project, this group and this album are the opposite of Boris Johnson. The Imagined Village takes something that has been a valuable part of English culture for centuries and brings it more in line with the make-up of English culture today without dumbing down either side or losing anything in the process. The Imagined Village doesn’t hark back to a time long gone, but instead embraces all that is wonderful about multiculturalism, modernism and progressivism. Introducing dance beats and rock singers and dub poets and Indian sitars and dhols into English folk music doesn’t make it any less English – that is the England that I see around me and that I love. And it makes me love all these beautiful old traditions of England even more. Fuck Boris Johnson – I don’t live in his country. And I will strive to make my corner of this green and pleasant land a welcome home for all. This Imagined Village doesn’t deserve to return to the imagination.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

353: Amerika, by Dimitris Mystakidis

Dimitris Mystakidis (Greece)
Amerika (2017)
14 tracks, 57 minutes

Rembetiko music is often referred to as the blues of urban Greece for its lyrical focus on the stories of lives hard lived as well as that general vibe that it gives off. Stylistically, though, there’s no real connection to blues, or even any particular resemblance there either – it has much more in common with Turkish and Arabic music, to which it can trace many of its melodic scales, and Balkan music that comes through occasionally in the rhythms. Above all, it’s just really obviously Greek music.

But actually, rembetiko does have its links to the blues, if you know where to look. Dimitris Myskatidis is one of the foremost guitarists in rembetiko music, in both traditional and innovative styles, and is also a historian for the style, exploring the various pasts and paths of the style and incorporating that into his music. For Amerika, he looked (unsurprisingly) to the United States and to the fingerpicking guitar style of tsibiti that developed among Greek musicians there in the early 20th century.

The unique way that the guitar is used in the tsibiti style was directly influenced by the way delta blues players created their own tapestries of sound, even down to the way they tuned their strings in ways unheard of in Greece. Add on top of that lyrics that told an immigrant’s tale of oppression, poverty and longing, tsibiti rembetiko is a style that only could have come from the US.

Amerika is a set of 14 such tsibiti songs from that style’s heyday. He plays it all solo, just his expert guitar and deep, silky voice – although with a few guest singers on a couple of the songs – and it’s incredibly evocative. And amazing how clear the blues is in there, too. The melodies and rhythms and unexpected chord changes are all totally Greek, and then you get a blue note thrown in there, or an errant bending or pulling-off of a string and it all falls into place, and you’re struck just by how bluesy the whole thing is. It’s quite uncanny how little and yet how much that influence is there. As if to ram things home at the beginning of the album, Mystakidis makes the connections even more obvious by starting ‘To West’, the second track on the album, playing deep delta blues riffs that seamlessly transform into the Hellenic lament.

Dimitris Mystakidis’ music is a great example of applied musical history. The music of the early Greek immigrants to the US is important to understanding their experiences and an important area of American history, but it is so little known. With Amerika, Mystakidis not only lets the voices of these people be heard once again, but explores the music’s stylistic origins and originality with the most subtle but startling ways. By looking at the tsibiti style, Mystakidis makes sure that this obscure shared branch of Greek folk music and African American blues gets some of the recognition it deserves.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

352: The Butterfly, by Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider

Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider (Ireland/USA)
The Butterfly (2019)
12 tracks, 45 minutes

I usually think of Irish folk music as usually falling within one of two broad categories: perky, fast and often boisterous tunes made for dancing; and long and fairly slow songs of lament. Fiddler Martin Hayes has long been a proponent of a third way: he plays his tunes slowly, giving a repertoire originally meant for dance a different meaning. Under his bow, the melodies have longer to lie on the air before reaching the ear, and this lends a sort of maturity to their sound; this can mean that they can perhaps have a slightly melancholy tone, or a more thoughtful one, or maybe one that conveys a wise and knowing smile.

With this album, released earlier this year, Hayes’ signature style is given a perfect setting from the unlikely source of Brooklyn Rider. They’re a string quartet from New York that work somewhat in the Kronos Quartet mould, performing contemporary and avant-garde classical music and frequently collaborating with artists of different genres from all over the world, including Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and roots banjo player Béla Fleck.

Here, the collaborators do what they do, and the marriage is beautiful. Hayes plays his fiddle in his calm and considered way, and Brooklyn Rider’s refined but explorative arrangements putting the Irish melodies into a context that allow them to breathe. The quartet play lively when needed, weaving Hayes’ lines with countermelodies, harmonies and even miniature rounds as appropriate, but they can also sometimes act as a breeze, playing long, floating notes that quaver and flutter occasionally, but allow the fiddle melodies to echo out into the distance, as if they’re being played to a hill, a cloud, a spring or the sea.

It’s always a risky business to bring classical music into a type of music that…well, basically, isn’t classical music. The western classical form has led to the creation of wondrous works for many centuries, but it also brings with it many rules and conventions that are often strictly applied. When classical music is used in fusions, it must be very carefully applied, in case these restrict the characteristics of the other styles or the musical freedom of any collaborators involved. The Butterfly represents the optimum classical collaboration – neither party steps on the other’s toes, while both craft their own sounds to bend in the direction of the other, enough to work in harmony but keep their own sound strong at the same time.

The Butterfly is a lovely record that shows relatively little-heard side to Irish folk music while taking it to a different sphere – and introducing the folk aspect into the classical sphere as well. An unexpected delight for me, and one of my albums of the year.