Robert Wyatt – Nothing Can Stop Us: Round 108 – Steve’s Choice

My choice this week is in a compilation album. Whether that break the rules of Record Club or not I don’t know. Rules are not something that Mr Wyatt would pay much attention to. I see Robert as as the alternative to the alternative, having no frame of reference nor yardstick against which he can be measured. From his very first solo outing ‘ The End of An Ear’ he has sought to define his own train of thought. Even here, as he interprets a range of different covers of well-known artists, he does it in a way that is uncharacteristic even of himself, and yet with deference to the originals.

Until recently I only owned two Wyatt albums – ‘Ruth is Stranger Than Richard’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ – both of which I love dearly. I also have a connection to the artist (standing joke in DRC) in that I’m a good friend and former work colleague of his nephew. Recently his nephew posted some pictures of a family wedding on social media, and sure enough there was a picture of Uncle Robert. He had a flowing white beard, looking wizard-like with eyes glowing bright as one with far too much creativity and light to be human. Statuesque. Still. It is perhaps this stillness and unique style that has, down the years, made Robert Wyatt stand out as a lighthouse of British talent. Home grown eclecticism at its best. At least that’s how I see it. Other’s in our group may beg to differ.

‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ compiles covers and reworkings of recordings made (B-sides and others) from the 1970s and early 80s. The only original and new recording is the first track ‘Born Again Cretin’ which, with it’s characteristic Wyatt vocal warbles and baby-like ‘goo-goo’ sounds announces he’s back after almost a 10 year hiatus (released in 1982 this was the first recording since 1975) into a new world. Punk has almost dispatched itself. Disco done and Wyatt is here to sing to the world at a time when the UK was once again sadly aiming to recreate its imperialist past. This album spawned the single ‘Shipbuilding’, an anti-Falklands war song, lamenting the decline of the shipbuilding industry and the boys instead fighting an unjust war. This song does not feature on the album, but another Ivor Cutler number ‘Grass’ (originally ‘Go Sit Upon the Grass’ and recorded in 1975). It’s a slightly disturbing song, and Wyatt manages to capture the sublime violence beautifully

“Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you
Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you

And do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
Do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
I’ve something important to say

Other more mainstream covers are well-executed. Chic’s ‘At Last I am Free’ reveals the pathos of Nile Rogers’ original, giving it an almost reinvigorated political edge. The line “I can hardly see in front of me” evokes blinding tears of joy. Maybe because this track follows ‘Born Again Cretin’, which echoes the heartless views of apartheid South Africa, and the Thatcherite UK government’s stance on Mandela

“So let Mandela rot in prison
Someone should tell him how lucky he is

that we may even imagine the leader himself being released from chains, blinking through his tears into the light? In 1982 this was a bold and brave album indeed. On ‘Strange Fruit’ his tender vocal and gentle piano pay homage to the Billie Holliday original, but in a way that still capture the haunting images of black people hanging in the summer trees. Unnerving and yet altogether a reminder of terrible times and continued racial prejudice.

Other fights for freedom are raised to the podium. ‘Caimanera/Guantanamera’ is a Cuban song of independence – with Caimanera’s proximity to Guantanamo Bay we can all sing along to this one. My kids do! ‘Stalin wasn’t Stallin’ is a great Horrible Histories-esque folk compaction of 20th Century conflict

“Stalin wasn’t stallin’
When he told the beast of Berlin
That they’d never rest contented
Till they had driven him from the land
So he called the Yanks and English
And proceeded to extinguish
The Führer and its vermin
This is how it all began

Wyatt, so generous that he is, even allows the use of his vinyl space to give a song over to another other artists, without his contribution. At the end of the album we are treated to a rendition of ‘Trade Union’ originally penned by Abdus Salique, and sung here in traditional Bangladeshi style. The song is a call to arms for Bangladeshi workers who were suffering appalling treatment in East London factories in the late 1970s. Wyatt is not averse to the causes of his day, and his rendition of ‘ Red Flag’ is not, as some have assumed, an allegiance to the Labour Party, but true to the original a socialist call for unity that has been sung by Irish workers, South African miners and oppressed radical working classes since the 19th century.

So, in these febrile times, when the ruling classes seek to divide and conquer, raise your first, stand firm and still. This album is a true iron fist in a velvet glove, true in its word today as it was then. Aye comrade.

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Maisha– There is a Place: Round 107 – Steve’s Choice

It’s a hard task to choose an album of the year when, if like me, you tend to associate certain albums with different seasons. Playing something that reminds me of zipping along country lanes in the long hot summer we had (such as Rolling Blackouts, Snail Mail…) hardly seems congruous with a damp cold foggy night in the weeks running up to Christmas. So, I chose some jazz. But not any old jazz. This is the debut outing by Maisha, a six piece jazz collective helped initially by the very influential organisation Tomorrow’s Warrior’s and their founders Janine Irons and Gary Crosby. Now only a few weeks before I came to DRC on that cold foggy night I was with both these good people at the 70th Anniversary of the formation of the University of the West Indies in London. Talking to them I learned about their incredible influence on an emerging new jazz scene from London, including other new talents that have blossomed this year, such as Ezra Collective (I will bring their new LP along soon).

It’s hard to write a review of a jazz record without sounding pretentious or inviting sneers of derision aimed at comparing you to the character in the Fast Show (‘nice’). I’ve liked jazz most of my adult life, but it’s always been more attuned to the traditional sounds of Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Just recently I ventured out to more experimental lands via The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s ‘Les Stances a Sophie’ and some of Robert Wyatt’s more eclectic recordings (such as his debut solo ‘End of an Ear’). After Maisha I’ll not look back, or more probably I will, to seek out its roots and influences. For theirs is a tradition of its own, but splitting into many roads and narrow lanes of various genres.

The album itself is beautiful. As the cover photo suggests a paradise, so the music journeys into a rich orchestral landscape (see I can do pretentious….). The incredible depth of sound that emanates from just six players is astonishing, drawing in hip-hop, afrobeat and funk. Members of the DRC, with more musical knowledge than I, found it hard to place in time. The frenetic lead single ‘Osiris’ opens the album. More symphonic saxophony of ‘Eaglehurst/The Place’ and ethereal piano-musings of closer ‘There Is A Place’ suggest a more contemplative mood. Overall the album has a richness of jazz folk (those of you who know Stewart Lee well can snigger now). Reworked jazz standards played with a distinctively urban and current sound. See it is possible to combine the two, and Maisha pay homage to their roots, but not too much deference to overshadow their craft.

Rob lent me Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ as a consequence of my choice for the night. Her album combined jazz with her interest in Hinduism – she became a disciple of the guru Satchidananda Saraswati. This intersection was apposite since my other track for the night was Poly Styrene’s ‘Code Pink Dub’ from her final album Generation Indigo – she became a Hare Krishna devotee for much of her later adult life. In a time when the idea of cultural appropriation is questioned we do well to remember that with respect (and respect is critical) this is how new forms of music develop. Styrene moved to dub reggae roots on her album, but on her earlier solo album she incorporated folk influences. Maisha continue this approach, drawing in influences that surely reflect the multiculturalism of London. So a jazz-folk genre is born.

Tomorrow’s Warrior’s vision is

We believe in a world where opportunities for participation, ownership and leadership in music and the arts are available to all.

Now, who could argue with that as a positive call for respectful appropriation and mixing of styles. Long may they be supported in this venture.

Hop Along – Bark Your Head Off, Dog: Round 107 – Tom’s Choice

Given that we haven’t met for almost a year (and it’s early December), this felt like a ‘best of 2018’ evening in all but name. Out of the half dozen or so records I have purchased from this year (a ridiculously small sample size admittedly), I have had to concede to myself that Hop Along’s Bark Your Head Off Dog is my favourite.

I will admit that ‘have had to concede’ is a funny way of putting it but it’s how I felt as I went through the process of selection and found this coming out on top. Whilst I could have taken Low’s radical sounding Double Negative or Rolling Blackout’s motorik janglefest Hope Downs, or Georgia Anne Muldrow’s eclectic and soulful Overload, in the end the indiest choice won out and, as such, it felt almost like a guilty pleasure, the musical landscapes traversed on Bark Your Head Off, Dog being familiar territory for anyone who would have been taking their bowl haircut and misshapen jumper to the indie disco in the early to mid 90s (as I regularly did). In the end though this album was undeniable, the strength of the songwriting, the conviction of the performances and originality of the lyrics placing it, in my mind, in with a shout for the ‘best of the decade’ accolade that we will no doubt be wrestling with in 12 months time.

My first listen to BYHO,D was an underwhelming experience, as is so often the case when I first hear a future favourite; hooks being buried so deep within the writhing twists and turns of each of the song’s amazingly complex structures that on first listen they almost passed me by completely. However, I had already checked out Not Abel before buying the record and the fact that initially this sounded like the best of the bunch was perhaps an indicator of what was to come.

Sure enough, over the course of many listens over the balmy summer months of 2018, gradually each of the nine cuts on the album began to fall into place, so that eventually even the funereal How You Got Your Limp and its B-side sister, the ridiculously all over the place The Look Of Love (most definitely NOT an ABC cover) made sense, to such an extent that it was impossible to recall what was causing the problem in the first place.

And, strangely, once I had reached that point of understanding, Bark Your Head Off, Dog did the opposite of what so often happens and kept returning to my turntable. Why? Well, I don’t really know as I am always confused about how I choose the music I play but I imagine it’s a combination of the nostalgic qualities of the sound of the record, the multifarious qualities to Francis Quinlan’s voice (sometimes shrill, often sweet, occasionally raspy), the incredible drum and guitar work…and those lyrics, which are some of the most intriguing words put to song I have heard in a long, long while. Try these from Not Abel for starters:

The whole town lined up outside the tent
What those kids thought they saw
Do you really want to remember this?
Today, think of all the alien shots in the dark
That at one time, all at once, coexisted
I mean aside from all the burning
Hurry by the shanties beside the road
Sunset on a cart
Pulled home by a white horse
Conscience of the husband was righteous and coarse
There must be a limit
If we only circle around
There’s no hurry in reaching it
No idea what’s she’s going on about with these lyrics but, crucially, I want to work them out; for me, there is a sense of a greater meaning here, but I will need to sit down with the lyric sheet and have a really good think before I stand much of a chance deciphering the code! For a record to provoke such an investment of effort from me has to be pretty special and, despite not really breaking any new ground, Bark Your Head Off, Dog does everything so well that, as far as I am concerned, there was only ever really one choice for my AOTY.

Danny Brown – ‘Atrocity Exhibition’: Round 102 – Rob’s choice

WRP276LP_1024x1024I don’t follow hip-hop closely. In fact, so intermittent is our relationship that I’m pausing now to check whether I’m sure hip-hop is still the preferred tag. I love it, but we just don’t see each other very often. (Come to think of it, I don’t follow any music closely, do I?).

One of the plus points of this infrequent contact arrangement is that when we do see each other, maybe once or twice a year, the music has almost always changed, mutated and spun off in some unpredictable direction. Add to this that when you’re dipping in, then you tend to go first for the most acclaimed artists and records, hopefully a short-cut to the cream of the crop, and it all adds up to me having my socks blown off most times I actually sit down with hip-hop albums.

This, and a fulsome appreciation, grown steadily over the 30 years since I first heard ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, for hip-hop’s sense of sonic adventure, the detail, the ambition and the sheer amount of work and that goes into producing a record as dense and packed as most of these albums puts almost all other musicians to shame.

In 2015, having been wowed by both ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and Vince Staples’ exceptional ‘Summertime ’06’ I considered making 2016 a hip-hop only year. I didn’t last too long but in the midst of exposure to Future and Young Thug, the glorious return of A Tribe Called Quest and a joyful mixtape from Chance The Rapper, the record that stood out, that pounced from the pack and got its steel hooks into me, was Danny Brown’s thrilling, disorienting ‘Atrocity Exhibition’.

From the opening ‘Downward Spiral’ this is a different proposition from any album you’ve heard before. A warping guitar chord is crudely overridden by Brown’s unhinged Wile E Coyote psycho-babble. “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave/ Been in this room for three days/ Think I’m hearing voices/ Paranoid and think I’m seeing ghost-es/ Oh shit”. The guitars bend and bow around him, the voice grating like an ice cold fever. The tone is set for a descent down one man’s personal brain drain.

The second track, ”Tell Me What I Don’t Know’ is more straightforward but no less stretching, the verite tale of kids dropping out of school to sell drugs, and the death and destruction that follow. This counterpoint to the opener, and the space that opens up between them, offers a potent expression of the function of contemporary hip hop. Here is an artist seeing a nightmarish real world as a trap from which the only viable escape is into psychedelic hyper-reality, via drugs and sex and into an imagination rotten with wormholes.

As if the paranoia, dislocation, drained cold possibilities aren’t explicit enough, then Brown also begins to makes good on the album title by drawing out clinical descriptions of debauchery that would have JG Ballard nodding in admiration whilst referencing Joy Division, who had their own ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ in more than one place. “This is the way N****, step inside” he snaps and shoves on ‘Golddust’, whilst ‘Rolling Stone’ rocks and shivers to a bassline that could have been lifted straight from a Martin Hannett production.

The soundscapes elsewhere are just as stunned and stunning, from the contrapuntal hammering of ‘Pneumonia’ to the pounding of ‘Aint It Funny’, hitting you like stepping through a street door into a club, and immediately realising you’ve made a big mistake.

The album, although not long, is way too dense and detailed to take in on one pass. It’s smothering, stunning, dislocating and intoxicating in all the right ways, and takes you to places that you are unlikely to have been before.

Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda – ‘World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’: Round 106 – Rob’s choice

download (2)The album of the 2018 in our house, in that it is the record we’ve played the most, by some considerable distance, and, by dint of this, it’s been a subtle soundtrack to our year.

I’m not sure what prompted me to check out the reviews for the album when it was released in May. The cover art helps – it’s gorgeous, bursting with colour and with Coltrane Turiyasangitananda beaming at its centre. I also heard NPR’s interview with Ravi Coltrane (https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2017/05/15/527975501/all-songs-1-alice-coltranes-astonishing-ecstatic-music), which was so warm and engaging, and which included a performance of ‘Triloka’, a duet between his mother Alice, and the bassist Charlie Haden. It caught me at just the right moment and I found it extraordinary. I can still remember where I was when I heard it, and if loading bags of bricks into the back of a van is not the perfect context for a revelation about ecstatic religious music, then I don’t know what is.

Spotify did the rest, and the record just never left us once we’d let it in to our lives. It became the music we played to help children get to sleep, to fill the background while we ate dinner, and to act as the soundtrack to almost anything we needed to get done. Eventually I bought the vinyl to recognise the impact that the music has had on our family, and to throw something back to Luaka Bop and the people who managed to bring this collection together.

Having said all that, I realise now that I come to write about it, that I have absorbed a few half-heard details, but essentially I know nothing about it.

The story as I have chosen to remember it is that Alice Coltrane became the leader of an ashram at some point in the 1980s and, as one might expect, found herself at various moments surrounded by worshippers with more musical tendencies than the average congregation. In my version of events, these serendipitous jazz super bands got up to perform music as part of the daily rituals, and these joyful jams were recorded, started to circulate on cassette amongst Coltrane aficionados  and 30 years later finally got an official release.

The record comes with copious liner notes including, I kid you not, the equivalent of the Ashram’s parish magazine. I haven’t read any of them. I’m curious about the origins of the music, honestly I am. I just haven’t got to the stage of wanting to dig yet. After 8 months. Thinking about it, as I do now for almost the first time, perhaps the music has a now-ness to it that deters me from wanting to break through the surface. Perhaps in keeping with its religious inspirations it encourages a meditative experience, listening in the moment, not allowing oneself to become distracted by narratives and viewpoints.,

[Now, give me a second… wikipedia is calling…]

Actually, no, still can’t be bothered. I’ll just listen to the record instead. There I’ll find what I imagine to be space age trance jazz interpretations of sacred music, swimming with massed chants, handclaps, swirling 90s synths, twinkling harp and countless other intoxicating, mesmerising sounds I’m unable to decode. Woven through much I’ll also hear the album’s major revelation: Coltrane sings,in a strong, warm voice, confident, powerful and assured. When she does, it lifts an intriguing and captivating record into a beautiful and moving one. Meditative, boundless music, worth retreating for.

Tom listened: Good to have you back Rob. Your moratorium on writing had been for far too long!

Well, what an awesome record this is. Nothing like I would have expected (prior to this meeting knowing only that Alice had been the wife of John I thought it would be, at the very least, awkward, if not downright challenging), this record with the ridiculously convoluted title was, in fact, accessible, enveloping and immersive; sounding great from the off, the tracks, though long, never outstaying their welcome. To sum up then, a wonderful surprise and one of the reasons DRC is such a great thing to do (after the curry and the Exeter Uni based chat that is!).

 

Meat Puppets – ‘Meat Puppets II’: Round 105 – Rob’s choice

c6eb4e4b3fc37f53c006dcc62e542dd6We have instant access to all of recorded music, more or less. As a result, genres are collapsing and fragmenting, subcultures are mutating and combining at a rate beyond the capacity of any reasonable follower to keep up. Dizzying music is being made, but with pandora’s box now irreversibly open, I wonder whether a band like Meat Puppets would be possible in the 21st century.

I don’t know too much about the context in which brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood grew up but if, as is reasonable to expect, the music they made is infused with their influences, then as a listener to that music, I think I’m allowed a little license to colour in the gaps.

I see two brothers, kicking their heels in a distant corner of the continental United States (Phoenix, Arizona), baking in the heat, wondering how to occupy their gently frying teenage minds. From the air, from passing trucks, from a hundred radios and whispering TV sets they are picking up sounds from distant broadcasts, drifting in across the mesa and finding ways to put hooks into them as, in turn, the brothers begin to hold on to them like lifelines.

Actually, that’s where my romantic notion veers from the tracks. I’m sure it’s all wrong, but the idea that the boys who would be Meat Puppets grabbed onto music as a lifeline just doesn’t ring true. For here, plainly, is music made without any expectations whatsoever, with no care for who might hear it and what they may subsequently do with it. No-one could have created this stuff thinking it was going to offer them a way out or open up an escape route. The songs are so internal,. so personal, so unique.

When Meat Puppets formed in 1980, the brothers were in their early 20s. It’s entirely possible that by this age all they had heard was country music and, recently, hardcore punk. Taking these two forms, they set out to make some music that would make them happy. That lack of exposure, that insularity, is almost impossible to imagine these days. And yet in these hands and mouths and minds is turned into wonderful, charming, surprising organic shapes, combining the naivety of school children with the assured playing of alien virtuosos. The thrashing stumble stomp of ‘Split Myself in Two’ staggers into the whirling reel ‘Lost’ and then on into rich and wild meadows. ‘Plateau’ discovers undiscovered lands. lyrically and musically, and its playing is deft and intoxicating, as is the ‘Aurora Borealis’ that blooms after it. Everywhere you listen there are new forms of life growing from familiar places.

And here, I think, is where things are different now. I wonder whether it is still possible to make music that feels as unexposed to and unconcerned about the world as this. Truly this was a strange and wonderful nirvana, where unique and fleeting conditions existed.

Burial – ‘Rival Dealer’: Round 104 – Rob’s choice

a2179941635_16Adam Curtis is a film-maker who has made his name by assembling disparate, incongruous, often dissonant, images, sounds and stories into palettes and pieces that lay claim to hidden realities and subterranean narratives that may or may not lie beneath the post-war, neo-liberal consensus. When his films are at their best, they bring together wildly divergent elements to illustrate the completely unexpected, in ways which may not otherwise have been directly approachable.

The use of music – surprising, cinematic, evocative, contrapuntal – has always been central to his work. He uses it to open up emotions, to manipulate mood and, in combination with often dizzying, disorienting film footage, to suggest what seem to be entirely new ways of seeing, hearing and interpreting the world.

And so, when he speaks haltingly, gushingly of an artist like Burial, as he did (see below) to Adam Buxton last year, it’s clear that he feels he has found a common spirit.

“I think Burial is the genius of our time… The most important Burial song to listen to, which will tell you everything about him, is Come Down to Us… Why it’s so incredible, because what Burial does is he takes what is essentially industrial noise – and songs – but fuses them together to create something that is epic and romantic, and sort of gives you a clue of the sort of thing that might be coming, culturally – which is a higher system, I think. And I think he’s there ahead of everyone. It’s so emotional; yet, at the same time, just noise. And, I don’t know, it’s just, I can’t – sorry, this is me being inarticulate – it’s just… wonderful… It takes you into another world.”

‘Come Down To Us’ is the third and final track of the ‘Rival Dealer’ EP. By the point of its release, Burial’s approach had shifted radically from his beginnings in rainswept garage and two-step, but which retained throughout a constant, imposing sense of the cinematic possibilities of urban existence, For Curtis to describe the music as ‘just noise’ is misleading. The EP’s 28 minutes bristles and sways with ambient atmospherics, underscored by vinyl crackles, metallic weapon clicks and the sub-sonic alien buzz of concrete. But the two counterpoints of the set, the 10 minute title track and the 13-minute ‘Come Down To Us’ are compelling pieces of music, first and foremost, not noise. ‘Rival Dealer’ bustles and sprints, stumbles and surges, a flurrying beat pulling the track through what feels like a hurried escape. ‘Come Down To Us’ is entirely different, a mesmeric, devotional head-nod, underscored by a heartbreakingly delicate melody and skated over by a yearning vocal. It’s intoxicating and incredibly affecting. The entire EP is spun through with spoken snatches dealing with identity and the closing sampled speech from transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski throws everything that has preceded it into a breathtaking new light.

“It’s just… wonderful… It takes you to another world.” And put together with the EPs that have followed in the 4 years since Rival Dealer, it really does seem as if Burial may have found a new way forward, and got there ahead of everyone.