Monday, 19 August 2019

231: Wátina, by Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective

Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective (Belize)
Wátina (2007)
12 tracks, 50 minutes

The first time I heard Wátina was also the first time I heard the music of the Garifuna. And my brain couldn’t process it. What was this?! It sounded distinctly African, but in a way that I couldn’t place – I couldn’t work out the musical geography of it at all. There are Latin inflections to it and it’s quite bluesy in its own way…and I didn’t recognise the sounds or the rhythms and cadences of the language that was being sung at all.

Well, that’s because while this music may be African, it’s not from Africa. The Garifuna people of Central America and the Caribbean have their origins in 1635. Two ships full of enslaved people from West Africa sank off the island of St Vincent. About half of the Africans managed to survive and make their way ashore, where they lived with and became part of the native Carib people. The Garifuna culture remains a syncretic mix of native and West African cultures with further influences from colonising European powers. So, their religion takes shamanic elements of the Caribs together with elements of West African vodou, cloaked in Roman Catholic imagery; their language is derived from Carib and Arawak with idiosyncrasies evident from African languages and loanwords from French, Spanish and English creoles. And then you have the music…

Andy Palacio had already been a star of punta music (a Belizian pop style that mixes Garifuna music with rock, reggae and other Caribbean music with the help of loads of synthesisers and drum machines) since the 1980s, but Wátina was the result of a decade of work and research into the roots music of the Garifuna people. Although Palacio himself was from Belize, for this album he worked with Garifuna musicians from all across Honduras and Nicaragua as well, and of all generations, including the old master Paul Nabor. Every song on the album is sung in Garifuna and the ensemble is packed with traditional drums and rattles that outline the unique Garifuna rhythms for shimmering guitars, the occasional ultra-tight sax-and-clarinet section and, of course, Palacio’s irresistible, soulful voice; the music is infectiously danceable but the melodies are strangely sad.

The whole decade’s work really paid off. With the wealth of talent in front of the mics as well as behind the desk (the sound solidified by renowned Belizian producer Ivan Durán), Palacio and crew created an album that awoke the world not only to this wonderful music but to the Garifuna people in general. It’s just the right balance of incredibly rootsy folk with just slight touches here and there to make it relevant to today’s ears. The effect of the album was immediate: it became a hit in world music circles around the world, and quickly saw Palacio honoured as a UNESCO ‘artist for peace’ and a recipient of the WOMEX Award, both in the same year that the album came out.

Unfortunately, Palacio didn’t get to experience the legacy of this album – he died suddenly less than a year after its release. Whether he knew it or not, though, with Wátina, he’d created a real impact that continues to be felt today. Garifuna musicians are a regular fixture in the world music scene, the band he put together are still touring the world, and the songs he wrote have even captured the imagination in other contexts: I even heard calypso legend Calypso Rose singing ‘Wátina’ at this year’s WOMAD. This album is a wonderful artefact, a perfect encapsulation of the Garifuna people in sound: unmistakably African, undeniably indigenous American, at once completely immersed in the roots while being thoroughly modern. What a legacy to leave behind.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

230: Aq Beliq (White Fish), by the London Uyghur Ensemble

London Uyghur Ensemble (East Turkestan/Kyrgyzstan/United Kingdom)
Aq Beliq (White Fish) (2009)
13 tracks, 50 minutes
Nowhere to listen or download online, I’m afraid, but you can buy the album from the London Uyghur Ensemble website, or take a listen to the band together with assorted clips of Uyghur music on their YouTube channel.

What I really hold close to my heart about the London Uyghur Ensemble is what it represents in terms of the city in which it resides.

The Ensemble itself is rather a nebulous thing, with members coming and going often (hey, even yours truly was once a member, playing the dap frame drum and occasionally the long-necked tämbur lute). At the time of recording, though, the ensemble was a quartet of Rahima Mahmut on vocals, Nizamidin Sametov on the tämbur, Rachel Harris on the dutar (another long-necked lute, but with silk strings instead of steel) and Stephen Jones (who we’ve met before) on the ghijak spike-fiddle. Of those four, there are members from East Turkestan, Kyrgyzstan and the UK; they’re university lecturers, writers, translators and bricklayers. They may be amateurs in the strictest sense, but these are all people for whom the music of the Uyghurs is incredibly dear, whether in terms of personal heritage, familial or friendship ties or just an intense personal interest. As such, their performance is almost that of a professional ensemble, and they must surely be one of the top Uyghur ensembles in Europe.

But, as I said, it’s what the LUE represents that I especially love. London is such a huge place, with an unimaginably large population. Seriously, if you shook hands with one Londoner every second without stopping, it would take you 101 days to meet them all. London is also home to people of every single nationality in the world. In this environment, anyone, from anywhere in the world, can find a community to be part of in London. When you think of the Uyghurs, a people that are little known in the UK, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people of what is currently part of China, the fact that a professional-standard musical ensemble can coalesce is absolutely beautiful, and I can’t think of many other places than London that it would be possible. But it’s not just the ensemble. The Uyghur community in London, small as it may be, is nevertheless culturally active. One of the most exciting, humbling and confusing afternoons in my time in London was being invited to attend a meshrep, a traditional community meeting where there is food and music, but also notices, prayer, discussions and even a miniature court of peers. The fact that these people from all walks of life – teachers, construction workers, bouncers, shop workers and chefs – used to conducting their daily life in (mostly) English or Russian can get together regularly with people of the same heritage, to speak Uyghur and eat Uyghur food and listen to Uyghur music – and dance to it in the traditional way – is one of the magical things about London. And I have little doubt that similar gatherings happen involving people from their own respective communities from all over the world every single day in this big, beautiful city. When I listen to the London Uyghur Ensemble, that is what I think about.

Like the last time I talked about Uyghur music, I need to bring (or keep) to your attention the plight that the Uyghur people face in their homeland of East Turkestan – known by China as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Estimates say that over two million people – mostly Uyghurs, but also from other minority ethnic groups – are detained in the disgustingly euphemistically-named ‘re-education camps.’ These are concentration camps, and people kept there are usually held without charge or explanation, and quite often they simply ‘disappear’ there, with no word to their families until somehow (months, years or never) a rumour leaks out about their whereabouts. The people in these camps are political activists and scholars, but they’re also musicians, poets, comedians, sportspeople, writers and actors. Some never make it out again. This is an attempted cultural extermination of the Uyghur by the Chinese government and the world should not only be outraged, but should be following that with action to change this wrong. If you are interested in learning more about this, have a look at the links below:
Thank you to Rachel Harris for the links and advice.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

229: Rodrigo y Gabriela, by Rodrigo y Gabriela

Rodrigo y Gabriela (Mexico)
Rodrigo y Gabriela (2006)
9 tracks, 43 minutes

With this album, their third, Rodrigo y Gabriela received quite a bit of notoriety, albeit rather short-lived in the mainstream. Their line-up is so simple: two Mexicans playing nylon-stringed guitars with techniques largely inspired by the flamenco players of Andalucia…and that’s it. All acoustic, all instrumental, no plectra. Rodrigo generally takes the lead role with Gabriela providing the rhythm (that’s chords and percussion, derived from slapping the guitar, slapping the strings and all other manner of ingenious guitar manipulation).

When they first started getting attention, a lot of the discussion around them focussed understandably on their guitar wizardry, but I remember hearing them referred to most as flamenco guitarists, or their music as Latin, but I actually don’t think that’s right – or at least it’s not where their popularity comes from.

Because although flamenco is extremely evident in the strumming patterns and the way the instruments combine and share roles, and there are definite elements of Latin music in there (as well as bossa nova, tango and jazz), their core is something very different. This is metal. Yes, they’re nylon-stringed acoustics, but it feels like every piece on this album starts from a place of metal of some kind, whether that’s thrash, death or melodic. Where they go from there varies (even to include an improvised solo from Hungary Romani violinist Roby Lakatos on the track ‘Ixtapa’), but play these pieces on wailing guitars and stick a chugging bass and speed drums behind them and there would be no doubt. I’m actually surprised that apparently only one YouTuber has taken it upon themselves to make this a reality:

It’s not as if their metalness is a secret. The two were in a metal band before they formed the duo, and this album even features a cover of Metallica’s ‘Orion’. A lot of the press surrounding the album talks about their metal influences, but on the ground, all I heard was ‘flamenco’ and ‘Latin.’ Weird. I find it interesting what makes us put complex music like this into narrow boxes and why we choose what boxes we do.

But whatever you call them doesn’t matter really, does it? This is a great album of guitar interplay that presents familiar sounds in an unfamiliar way. There’s also something so entrancing about two instruments playing in such a close manner that even makes the brain go a bit strange – there are points that you’d swear there are some piano chords going on, or a miniature flute choir or something. They play hard and they play gentle, but there’s always a passion and a fire in their fingers.

Metal, flamenco, Latin, jazz or whatever – Rodrigo y Gabriela is an album by two amazing guitarists making their own thing in an interesting way. Now all I need is more metal YouTubers to get their fingers around this one…

Friday, 16 August 2019

228: A Gathering of Strangers, by UNITE: Urban Native Integrated Traditions of Europe

UNITE: Urban Native Integrated Traditions of Europe (United Kingdom/Bulgaria/Ireland/Hungary/others)
A Gathering of Strangers (2010)
15 tracks, 70 minutes

UNITE were a one-album (and I think one-tour) project that came into being, said what they wanted to say and faded away into their constituent parts again. Their only slightly awkward backronym Urban Native Integrated Traditions of Europe gives you some idea of what they’re about. Recorded across seven European capital cities and featuring urban folk musicians from even more, this album is the sound of a Europe under one banner, making brilliant music all together, making an exciting new styles while all retaining their own unique identities.

That’s right: it’s a Brexit protest! Except, it was released six years before anyone realised it was much of a problem at all and when Nigel Fridge was just a fringe nutter instead of an apparently mainstream nutter. Not that there weren’t already concerning signs: the whole reason this album was made was to show the foolishness of xenophobia and to highlight in its own small way the values of intercultural exchange and bridge building.

The project itself was spearheaded by Tim Whelan and Hamid Mantu, the core duo behind Transglobal Underground. Although the album ostensibly revolves around its guest stars and the collaborations thereof, for my money, it’s clearly at its strongest musically when they let the TGU-iness to flow forth and build up vast layers of the dubtronica in and throughout all the other influences, like some mad lasagne. Whether it’s Bulgarian bagpipes and choirs, Czech dubstep, Victorian music hall songs or whatever the next artist brings, it’s all held firmly in place as an important element of the overall sound. I think the best run to demonstrate this is the three tracks of ‘Karanka’, ‘Van Dieman’s Land’ and ‘Immigrant Song’, with that middle track being the one I come back to the most. Based on an old British transportation ballad, provided here by Irish musician Martin Furey, it also includes half-sung half-rapped Mandinka from Czech-Senegalese singer Bourama Badji and Polish throat-singing from Bart Pałyga. It’s like some strange alternate universe where the concept behind the Afro Celt Sound System bore fruit with TGU at the helm instead, and it’s full of that slight darkness that TGU are brilliant at curating.

There are so many different influences going on here that it’s not possible to describe it all together, but that’s not really the point. It’s all good stuff and it’s the plurality and heterogeneity that makes it so – it revels in it. The saddest thing is that this album, the UNITE project and the messages at the heart of both have only become more relevant over the past nine years, rather than an artefact of their own time. I hope it can start becoming less relevant – if no less banging – as soon as possible.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

227: Roots Rock Soca, by Black Stalin

Black Stalin (Trinidad & Tobago)
Roots Rock Soca (1991)
11 tracks, 59 minutes

If nothing else, you have to at least admire the balls of someone who chooses their professional performing name as Black Stalin. I never worked out why he chose that name. And, okay, maybe the name contributed a little bit for me selecting him for this list. It was definitely a big part of what urged me to listen to his music in the first place. I mean, what sort of music does someone called Black Stalin even make?!

Well, as you can tell from the name of this compilation, it’s soca, that poppier, funkier version of the classic calypso style. But Black Stalin (still feels weird to call him that, but w/e) puts his own spin on things that makes it extra special. Roots Rock Soca isn’t available on streaming services, but as it’s essentially a ‘best of,’ you can get the same gist by falling into a YouTube hole. I’d suggest starting with this song, ‘Burn Dem’:

It’s my favourite of his, and I reckon it’s a good round-up of his sound. It’s soca that is unashamed of its roots in calypso, it’s got Cuban-style horns, it’s got a reggae feel, and even rhythms that bring to mind styles from across the Caribbean and South America – what else could you want from a song to get you up dancing? And that’s how the rest of his music goes too, with more or less accent on each of those styles, and sometimes bringing in other sounds such as New Orleans piano or a South African tinge in the bass.

Although a little less so than calypso, soca is still very much focussed on the lyricism of its singers, and in that, Black Stalin also has his own way of approaching things. Unlike most soca singers and calypsonians, he is a Rasta, which influences his use of lyrics. While he doesn’t often dwell on especially religious aspects (although he does shout-out Jah quite a bit), it does lead to his lyrics often emphasising deeper political themes of black liberation, pan-Caribbeanism and pan-Africanism

For such a well-regarded musician with nuanced political thoughts conveyed in a thoughtful but entertaining manner, how bizarre to go by a name invoking the legacy of one of history’s biggest bastards. But if you can get over that, Black Stalin’s music is an ideal party music – a wonderful (and only slightly cheesy) mix of the Caribbean’s most infectious grooves.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

226: Dog House Music, by Seasick Steve

Seasick Steve (USA)
Dog House Music (2006)
13 tracks, 54 minutes

When I was a teenager, blues was my thing. I listened widely, but blues was always my go-to. I loved the electric stuff like Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, and the older acoustic stuff of Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. I was even into the early periods of blues revival – like Led Zeppelin’s early stuff that we heard yesterday. But anything after that left me cold. When I thought of blues from the 70s onwards, it was all blues-rock guitar wankers such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Bonamassa, Johnny Winter and the like. Extremely technically proficient all, but (for me) completely anodyne. It was really disappointing to me that all of the ‘good’ blues was gone, put out of my reach by time. And then, at the Big Chill Festival in 2006, that changed with Seasick Steve.

On a stage just about big enough for a chair, a couple of guitars, an amp and a stomp box, a man with a big beard, denim dungarees, tattoos and a farmer’s tan came on stage and played the blues. Not in a soulless, boring way like the blues-rock dudes, and not even copying the old masters. He had his own style, heavily influenced by players such as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House, but also with small elements from country music and even shades of punk. Everything was rough around the edges, from his homemade stomp box to his tattered trucker’s cap and especially his electric guitar, a cheap Japanese original in red, decorated in Sharpie and glitterpen and – crucially – with only three strings, tuned wrongly and in the wrong place and played with a slide. His songs and stories all told of a life hopping freight trains and living the hobo life across the great American continent. After a while, he abandoned the tiny stage altogether, taking his acoustic guitar and jumping into the modestly-sized crowd (I took that picture!). I was hooked.

It’s been a long time since I last listened to this album, and it’s still as great as it always was. Just like that first time I saw him live, Dog House Music is completely solo (well, almost) and incredibly intimate. It was recorded in his kitchen on an old four-track recorder, and it feels like you’re right there. You can hear the squeaking of his rocking-chair and the patting of his foot on the ground; he even addresses the listener with story fragments and quips, and it all adds to the real down-home atmosphere. And the songs are to die for. He covers a surprising range: he does right barn-stomping plugged-in pieces with his three-string trance wonder, such as ‘Dog House Boogie’, ‘Cut My Wings’ and even the second half of ‘Fallen Off a Rock’, where he’s even joined by his son on crashing drum kit, but he also has surprisingly poignant and touching moments, such as ‘The Dead Song’ and the beautiful ‘Salem Blues’.

His guitar technique is exciting, his songs and stories are fun and hey – I’d finally found blues music in the 21st century that didn’t make me cringe. This was great! Of course, no-one would ever heard of him…so it was a (pleasant!) shock to see his rise to unexpected fame over the next few years. Future albums would peak at #4 on the UK album charts, he played the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, performed and recorded with everyone from KT Tunstall and Ruby Turner to Nick Cave, Dave Grohl, John Paul Jones and Jack White, and even appeared on Top Gear. So weird. And for me personally, he also opened up a whole world of not-shit modern day blues, from the old-style musicians like C.W. Stoneking to the punk of the White Stripes, Dogbreath and Bob Log III, and to whatever it is that Son of Dave does.

Yes, a lot of Seasick Steve is an act. Whether he ever hopped trains or not is probably impossible to know, but his 20 years living as a hobo is far exaggerated at best – instead he pursued a moderately successful musical career as a session musician and producer (he even played with Zakir Hussain and Aashish Khan in the shortlived project Shanti – look, there he is on bass!). Maybe those rocking-chair squeaks were added afterwards for effect, who knows. But while those revelations maybe took something away from his mystique, nothing takes away from his music. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter that Seasick Steve is a character. He is lovable, has funny, interesting and gripping stories and, with Dog House Music, a truly superb album of blues.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

225: Led Zeppelin, by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin (United Kingdom)
Led Zeppelin (1969)
9 tracks, 45 minutes

I never cease to be amazed at the fruitfulness of the 1960s. To think there was a time when the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Captain Beefheart, Dr John, the Stooges, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Can, and, and, and… were all creating scene-defining music in their own fields all at the same time is just mind blowing. And that’s just in the vague field of rock, without mentioning all the jazz cats, the blues revivalists, the folkies on both sides of the Atlantic. And all of those intersected at important junctions too, of course. I’d hope that someday we’d look back on any era with the same awe in hindsight, but you have to admit that the line-up the 1960s had going on is kinda hard to beat.

I guess that’s a bit of a non-sequitur (can something start with a non-sequitur? Who knows), but considering the shape of popular music at the beginning of the decade, to end it with Led Zeppelin – the eponymous group’s debut album – it really shows what a transformative period this was. In this album are the inklings of what was soon to be heavy metal. In fact, when I listen to this album, I cannot help but hear it as the birth of the whole wide-ranging musical movement that metal became. Although every song has a heavy imprint of blues or British or American folk overlaid with all the trappings of 60s psychedelia, there’s something else in there. Whereas psychedelia usually revels in mellowness or trippiness, Led Zeppelin took it to a different place: in their hands, it was harder, heavier and more aggressive – and more exciting.

Even as a blues band, Led Zeppelin excel on this record. Their versions of ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘How Many More Times’ (the former made famous by Muddy Waters, the latter a development of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘How Many More Years’) show a group that were capable of doing the blues rock thing without abandoning their own sound of burgeoning heavy metal to do it, making them stand out as more interesting and innovative than the other British blooze boom bands such as John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac and even the Rolling Stones.

Throughout this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing for in-between points in music, whether that’s music that highlights geographical-cultural-historical connections between different traditions or that marks the mid-stage of a musical evolution. Led Zeppelin is definitely one of those in-between stages, with psychedelic rock, blues and British folk as its ancestors, and all sorts of metal as its descendants. The 1960s had so many of those albums or musical moments that spun whole genres on their head, or conjured them from some genius realm, and nothing could be the same since. I wonder when the next such upheaval will happen, and what will come of it…

Monday, 12 August 2019

224: center:level:roar, by Youngblood Brass Band

Youngblood Brass Band (USA)
center:level:roar (2003)
15 tracks, 68 minutes

Considering that the Youngblood Brass Band hail from Madison, Wisconsin, they are most definitely in the storied tradition of the New Orleans brass bands, but they don’t play the same stuff as you would hear on those streets in the 1950s. Theirs reflects the tradition’s place as folk music – music that moves with the people. So as well as playing that signature Louisiana jazz, their music is suffused with the sounds of hip-hop, breakbeat and funk. They were one of the first generation of groups to fully embrace the idea of a ‘hip-hop brass band’ along with the Soul Rebels and the Hot 8 Brass Band, which later became an important sound even in the venerable old bands such as Rebirth Brass Band and Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

So that’s what they do: their line-up – for this most exciting of their albums – is a 10-strong jumble of trumpets, trombones, tenor sax, sousaphone, drums and percussion, all set up to march with the best of them, but with the beats and funky basslines of hip-hop integral to the sound. Snare drummer David Hinzie-Skogen is also the group’s rapper, and his style ranges from almost-spoken word poetry in the more subdued pieces to the rapid-fire scream-spitting of Rage Against the Machine in the full-on bouncing tracks.

Although the raps are rich in content and rhythm, I rather prefer their instrumental tracks here – or the ones closest to instrumental – such as ‘Round 1’, ‘Camouflage’ and ‘V.I.P.’. And then there’s ‘Brooklyn’. Another instrumental track, ‘Brooklyn’ is just an incredible recording. The composition is absolutely spot-on for one thing: it moves between themes quite quickly, but they don’t come out of nowhere; each make sense with the ones around them, and each are as head-banging and foot-stomping as the others, the layers of music split between the instruments all coming together as a great barrage of sound. And you’ve got amazing solos too, from trombone, tenor sax, sousaphone and percussion as they roll through old-school New Orleans brass, soul, R’n’B and hip-hop on their journey. It’s a wonderful piece that quite rightly became the Youngbloods’ signature, and was even adopted into the brass band canon around the US.

Nat McIntosh’s sousaphone deserves a special mention too. Although the instrument is basically a fancy, stretched out and looped tuba, the sounds that McIntosh gets out of it are astounding. I’d never heard anything like it before. All throughout center:level:roar, the pieces are punctuated by the scratching of turntablism, strange synth chords and a whole range of sound effects from sirens to horses…but it’s all the sousaphone. By playing the instrument more like a didgeridoo – where the voice, embouchure and shape of the mouth cavity and throat are all manipulated to change the quality of sound rather than the pitch – McIntosh brings a whole new layer of sound to the traditional brass band set-up.

As a bit of a ‘you might also like…’, if you dig center:level:roar and a bunch of other stuff I’ve covered on this blog before, check out the Brooklyn Qawwali Party. They were formed by a few members of the Youngblood Brass Band and made a mash-up between brass band music, jazz, rock and qawwali music, their repertoire consisting solely of pieces made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The results weren’t always exactly on the money, but it really is a fascinating experiment that has its special moments…and I’ve just noticed that they released a second album that I never knew existed, a whole seven years after their first. So that’s my evening sorted…

Sunday, 11 August 2019

223: Árnica Pura, by Davide Salvado

Davide Salvado (Spain)
Árnica Pura (2011)
12 tracks, 41 minutes

In preparing to head over to Santiago de Compostela for my first WOMEX as a member of the production team (rather than just as a delegate), I decided to delve into the music of Galicia, the region of Spain in which Santiago is the capital. Galician culture is rather different from other Spanish cultures, with its language having much more in common with Portuguese and many of its ancient traditions tracing back to the Celts. Of course, the music reflects this: there are no traditions quite like Galician music. The combinations of instruments in Galician folk music is very pleasing (to me, at least, and maybe you if you like somewhat harsh tones), with melodies played on a combination of gaita (bagpipes) and zanfona (hurdy-gurdy) and rhythms backed up by the large square frame drum, the pandeiro, and the pandeireta (tambourine).

But, like most folk music traditions, the jewel of Galician music is its song. And that was what I first found in my Galician music journey. Very specifically, it was this video by singer Davide Salvado*:

I watched that video and I was awe-stuck. My mouth was literally hanging open. Everything about it is so, so beautiful to me. The setting in a woods next to a mossy, ivy-covered rock, the delicate and intimate actions of washing someone’s feet, and the connection with ancient nature-based rituals with the use of flowers. There’s a subversion of the masculine in this act too, which is really lovely, helped by the fact that Davide is so good looking. And, of course, there is the song itself. ‘Meu Meniño’ is from his debut album Árnica Pura, but the rawness of the performance in this short video makes it extra special. Its melody is simply stunning; so gentle and fragile, but with a deep sadness to it too, and the way Davide’s voice flutters around the ornaments and leans into some of the more uncomfortable notes has the effect of tugging on the heart strings. Even in a few short verses, you can hear all sorts of musical connections too, with little bits of Spanish, Celtic and even Arabic working their way into the melody.

After I watched that video the first time, I was stunned for a few seconds, and then I watched it again. And then I had to show everyone. Although most liked the song, no-one seemed as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. My friend Robin even said something to the effect of “Jim, this looks suspiciously like hippy nonsense.” And yeah, he’s right, but come on. Even hippy nonsense can be achingly beautiful sometimes – here’s proof. So, although today’s entry is ostensibly about the album, I’m basically using it as an excuse to show more people the video of Davide’s ‘Meu Meniño’ in the hopes that one of you will be struck by it as much as I was. And if you’re not, at least you have a whole album of top-notch Galician folk song to enjoy either way.

* Mad coincidence: just found out that it’s apparently Davide’s birthday as I write this…on my own birthday! Happy birthday to us!

Saturday, 10 August 2019

222: Tim Key. With a String Quartet. On a Boat, by Tim Key

Tim Key (United Kingdom)
Tim Key. With a String Quartet. On a Boat (2010)
30 tracks, 54 minutes

I honestly think Tim Key is one of the very funniest people around at the moment. I first encountered his work as part of the short-lived (three-episode) TV sketch show Cowards, and have been hooked on his work ever since. He seems to approach comedy from a different tack than everyone else. There’s not that many comedians that, for all their acting, writing and TV appearances would still have a legitimate claim for the primary title of poet. But Tim Key’s not exactly normal. So of course one of his most successful solo projects would be a comedy album in the old fashioned way, one made specifically for the listener rather than just a recording of a live show.

The album is ostensibly one of Key performing a collection of his poems to the backing of a string quartet. And it very much is that – there are 29 poems here, all performed in his impeccable manner and of varying length (although most are only a few seconds long, showing a genius and depth of storytelling in their brevity). But it’s so much more than that – in fact, the majority of the album comes after each poem has finished. Key interacts with the listener, instructing them on the premise of the album and how to listen to it, chats with the string quartet and deals with the increasingly frustrated Tom Basden (a.k.a. Lord, and fellow Coward), his usual musical accompanist ousted for the album. Another stroke of genius means that the tracks as presented are not in the order that they ‘happened,’ meaning you can only piece together the drama of it all by listening to it from beginning to end and making a mental jigsaw. In the end, then, Tim Key. With a String Quartet. On a Boat is a deliciously meta sitcom: the situation being the making of the very album you’re listening to.

This album is a great showcase for Key and his double-act with Basden, as it neatly distils Key’s humour and the dynamics of the pair: somehow both dark and silly, light-hearted and ridiculous but occasionally cruel. Above all it’s all absurd, abstract, intelligent and completely deadpan. There’s even an unexpected moment from Basden right near the end of the album in the form of ‘Lord’s Moment’, an incredibly poignant song that comes out of nowhere, but is appreciated all the same.

When I first came to Tim Key’s solo material, I did spend a while pondering, was he was an actual poet, or just pretending to be a poet? Can his works be described as poems? But really, what’s the point in wondering about it? When the end result is that he writes, performs and publishes his takes on poetry professionally, there’s very little difference either way. And when he somehow manages to come out with a record that is at once a collection of performed poems and a spoof of someone performing a collection of poems, you know that that line is always going to be – very deliberately – blurred.

Friday, 9 August 2019

221: Split, by Groundhogs

Groundhogs (United Kingdom)
Split (1971)
8 tracks, 40 minutes

For me, this album is like a distillation of British hippy rock of the late 60s-early 70s. All the way through there are elements alike with artists such as Jethro Tull, Blodwyn Pig, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart and a million psychedelic bands of the time, all refined into one sound. There’s an extravagant looseness to the music that skews it to a slightly odd angle and adds to its trippy atmosphere, but it’s saved from sounding sloppy by the tightness of the compositions – the eight songs on this album all have a direction that they are headed towards, and even if they take some detours here and there, there’s no rambling. It’s like if garage-band jamming had a very clear purpose in mind. That at-once looseness and tightness of atmosphere is also helped by the tightness of the group itself, with Tony McPhee on guitars and vocals (and very much the leading man of the band), Peter Cruikshank on bass and Ken Pustelnik on drums, there’s no extraneous sonic elements that need to be built into textures that simply work perfectly as a trio.

The fuzz of the guitars, the crunchiness of the vocals, the chugging rhythms and the clashing cymbals show Groundhogs’ place in the evolution of heavy metal, but the structure of the compositions and their slightly mystical and conceptual airs also foreshadow the prog rock of the latter part of the decade. But me being me, the track that always stands out as a highlight is the last one, ‘Groundhog’, the song from which the group took their name. Interestingly, it’s a song written by the artist featured yesterday, John Lee Hooker. It’s clearly his too: his trademark style is left intact, and the cover is a very faithful one, stripped back as it is from the rest of the album. It’s an almost-solo by McPhee (with just Pustelnik’s kick drum keeping beat), shredding up the electric slide guitar alongside his relaxed but weighty vocals. One of the things I like most about this track is its placement as the album closer. There are blues bits all the way through the album, but ‘Groundhog’ coming at the end is like a proper full stop, as if to say ‘that’s what we are and what we can be, but where we came from is just as important.’ After some strange directions in the rest of the album, the simple, raw Hooker groove brings it all back down to earth with as much grit as any other track.

Split is a great album to get your fix of psychedelic rock with a bluesy tinge without having to stray into acid trips and badly-played sitar territory – Groundhogs keep their feet on the ground even when their brains and voices and fingers maybe travelling a little outside our usual astral plane.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

220: Live at Café au Go-Go, by John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker (USA)
Live at Café au Go-Go (1967)
8 tracks, 35 minutes

Unlike Skip James, another blues artist who featured here a couple of weeks ago, there’s no shortage of recordings by John Lee Hooker, from any stage of his career as a musician. From cutting sides while working as a janitor in a Detroit steel mill in the 40s to recording with Carlos Santana, Miles Davis and Van Morrison in the 1990s, his career was as varied as his sound was unique.

But instead of going for some of his perhaps more recognisable albums – or even those that feature his most famous singles of ‘Boom Boom’ or ‘Boogie Chillun’, as good as they are – I’ve gone for this rather low-key live recording from 1966. I think it’s so easy to remember John Lee Hooker as the popstar bluesman that he became, with ultra-polished recordings, cheesy production and guests for days, but it’s what he did before that that sets him apart. There’s a grit inherent in his work – in his voice, in his lyrics, in the tone of his guitar and the way he played it. It all sounds like a dirt road in the middle of a desert.

For this album, it’s not even like his solo recordings that you could very easily imagine being played in some lonesome town somewhere in the middle of the American nowhere. He’s already a big deal by this point, and you can tell that just by looking at the credits: engineered by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder of Blue Note fame, accompanied by Otis Spann on piano, and also with Muddy Waters adding his guitar to John Lee’s now and then, entirely without fanfare. The important thing is that it sounds raw. This is the real deal: a group of musicians that learnt their trade in the Mississippi delta, who plugged in, moved to Chicago and took the blues to the future while never forgetting the roots.

Everything is so simple. The songs are either in a 12-bar-blues or just stay on one chord all the way through, the licks are short and modest and the timing is very loose, but it’s clear that every one of these musicians are experts in what they do, because every note is in exactly the right place. There’s nothing too much or too little, and it all allows John Lee’s rough but subtle voice to cast its spell over the whole thing. Just listen to ‘Heartaches and Misery’, a lesson on the meanings of the blues and a rumination of why he does what he does; everything lines up so perfectly that you will believe every single word he says and understand it to your core.

John Lee Hooker, for all his music is recognisable, went through many different phases in his recording career, but I think none are as potent as when he just relaxed, kept things on the down-low and didn’t just play Blues Music, but really played the blues. At the Café Au-Go-Go in 1966, John Lee Hooker and his band were definitely channelling the real blues.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

219: Journey, by Austin Wintory

Austin Wintory (USA)
Journey (2012)
18 tracks, 58 minutes

It’s been a little while since I had a video game soundtrack to nerd out over, so it’s great to get to bang on about Journey today. Journey is an achingly beautiful game; it’s one of those that are brought up in conversations about ‘video games as art.’ As the title suggests, it is the story of a journey, that of a faceless, cloaked figure controlled by the player. There is no language used in the game at all – the objectives are discovered in the exploration, the internal lore and mythology are all told through vague and ancient-looking pictograms. You meet other players along the way and you guide each other and keep each other company – all wordlessly. Above all, it is entirely graceful. Every movement is like that of a silk scarf on a gentle breeze, and even when the action becomes agonising or scary, it is all with the utmost beauty and elegance.

While I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to play the video game before you approach this soundtrack as an album – I wouldn’t be recommending it as a Good Album otherwise – the two work so much in tandem that they show the best of themselves as one symbiotic piece of art. That’s because the music of Journey doesn’t play out like the OST of a film, or even like the soundtracks of earlier games. It’s not linear in the same sense that the cues are heard from beginning to end before the next one starts; instead, the soundtrack is dynamic. This means the music itself adapts and changes subtly depending on the actions or movements of the player – themes will come and go, textures swell and decay and even rhythmic aspects become more pronounced or become absent entirely, all based on how you are playing in any given moment. This not only means that the music always fits the actions and emotions of the gameplay perfectly in real-time, but also that for every player and every playthrough, the soundtrack is an entirely unique and distinct work. How to capture this in the still-linear format of an album? Well in this instance, the composer Austin Wintory also takes the role of curator, selecting the pieces and themes to highlight and balancing them in a way that reflects the emotional tones of the game without the interactive element that would otherwise ‘create’ the soundtrack.

And all of that said, what is it like? Well, as you’d expect, it’s just as elegant and graceful as the game it is part of. Its lush sound is provided by a full orchestra, with soloists featuring on cello, flute and bass flute, harp, viola and serpent (an early wind instrument made of wood and shaped like a snake, roughly analogous to a modern tuba). Wintory has stated that he tried to write the music in a way that made it sound beyond any specific culture, but instead I hear a set that has worldwide influences, amalgamated respectfully but in a way that creates something new. It’s impressive that sounds that bring to mind Indian tambura, Indonesian gamelan, Irish fiddle music, Chinese strings, Japanese taiko and West African kora can all sit so easily within swelling orchestral music and enhanced with abstract or avant-garde sounds without any of it sounding forced or out-of-place.

Like the game itself, the soundtrack to Journey is a masterclass of subtlety. It sounds like discovery and learning, and it is exciting because the next thing is always to some degree unexpected. The perfect way to approach this soundtrack is to experience it, rather than just listen to it, to create your very own version of the soundtrack and to let it touch your emotions so much more deeply for it. Listen to this album by all means, but play Journey if you can.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

218: The Epic, by Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington (USA)
The Epic (2015)
17 tracks, 173 minutes (3 CDs)

More than half a century after Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, the genre is still exciting, still evolving and still looking on into the future. Possibly the biggest star in jazz at the moment is Kamasi Washington, and his 2015 album The Epic is a musical statement as world-shaking as Ornette’s was – and hopefully as prescient.

And ‘Epic’ is correct: this is a rarely-seen triple album of almost three hours of music. It’s not just epic in its length either, this is a big album in every sense. The core band is already larger than most – trombone, trumpets, two keys players, two bassists, two drummers, a percussionist and Washington on the monolithic tenor sax. Then there’s guest vocalists and instrumentalists dotted around…and a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-piece choir. The themes – narratively, musically, politically – are similarly huge. There’s certainly a lot of listening in this one, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort dedicated to a close and concerted listen, even if it’s not always necessarily the easiest or most comfortable experience.

This album is a manifesto not only for Washington’s work, but for the whole of the new era of jazz. The very first track is ‘The Changing of the Guard’, the title of which is a self-assured statement of musical and artistic significance with only the slightest (and well-earned) arrogance that rivals that of Ornette’s 1959 album. And by the time the 12 minutes of that track are over, you’ll surely agree that the title is entirely warranted.

The notions of what jazz has to be make no constraints here. Even within the jazz realm Washington sees no boundaries. It’s why it’s so hard to describe The Epic in simple terms. It’s not bop, or hard-bop or post-bop, but it includes those things. It’s not big band, but that’s there’s too. Free jazz, spiritual jazz, jazz fusion, funk, soul, gospel, hip-hop, Afrofuturism, full-blown orchestral music á la Sketches of Spain – it’s none of these things because it is all of them. For me, the obvious comparisons in terms of composition are to Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but (for me!) more defined than the former, and more refined than the latter. In terms of his playing, he has all of the greats inside him – Coltrane, Coleman, Sanders, Ayler, Parker even, to go back that far – but there’s also the energetic, powerful spark that all those musicians had that gave them something else, and Washington has it too.

And you know what’s incredible and exciting and a little terrifying? Aside from a couple of limited-run self-releases, this is Kamasi Washington’s debut. He spent a long time learning and earning his stripes, and obviously putting years of thought into his craft…and then marks his arrival as a bandleader with an explosion. Nothing is a half-measure; he knew his statement would take three hours to recite and so he took those three hours and it’s a marvel. There’s no point talking about every aspect of this album because it would take too long and he already says all he needs to say on the record. With this one album, Kamasi Washington has surely made sure his name is carved in marble among the pantheon of jazz greats, and he still has an entire career ahead of him. The Epic is an odyssey, and it’s only the start of this journey.

Monday, 5 August 2019

217: Tender Prey, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Australia)
Tender Prey (1988)
11 tracks, 54 minutes

I don’t know why, but this album always makes me think of the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers. I reckoned it was because it may have been used as part of the soundtrack, but I looked it up and nope, no Nick Cave there at all. I think it must be because they both share a similar vibe, or maybe aesthetic. The most memorable and exciting moments of each are made up of an unsettlingly entertaining combination of ultra-violence and bleakness with a twinkle-eyed but pitch-black humour and a haunting beauty. Tender Prey’s songs are catchy like pop songs, but you won’t want to catch yourself idly singing these lyrics in public.

I really like the subversion of styles that Cave uses here, and things are never usually as they sound. ‘Deanna’ is an up-tempo gospel song that tells a gruesome story with a bug-eyed and manic delivery from all musicians involved; ‘Up Jumped the Devil’ is a work song suitable for mining brimstone in hell. The album is also relentless. There is a darkness to every single track in some way, whether it be subject matter, musically or just in the slightly weird and disturbing production. It’s also in the tracks themselves: both ‘The Mercy Seat’ and ‘Up Jumped the Devil’ end up in just a rolling and roiling jumble of sounds, repeated and overlapping phrases that get more and more demented the longer they tumble along together. As an exercise in atmosphere curation, Tender Prey is a masterwork.

And for all that, Cave doesn’t enjoy it at all. He’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t particularly like the songs, or the performances, or the production. His later disappointment (even revulsion?) in the result is a little understandable from a personal level – the album was made at a dark point in his life, at the height of his heroin abuse, living in a foreign country with a band wracked with disagreements and divisions. I reckon it’s natural to resent anything that comes from those origins. But those pressures somehow resulted in – from a neutral standpoint – an amazing album that reflects the darkness of its birth without seemingly any effect on its quality as a piece of art. This is not an album I could listen to every day. In fact, I’ve not listened to it for years. But when I do break it out, I revel in it all over again in disconcerted joy. Back into the CD rack for another few years, then.