Jane Siberry – ‘The Walking’ – Round 2: Tom’s Choice

Jane Siberry – The Walking

Whereas Oar (my first selection for DRC) is a record that I have gradually come round to, Jane Siberry’s The Walking was, for me, love at first listen…odd considering its reputation as a difficult album. Indeed, the Rough Guide To Rock describes The Walking as a record to file alongside Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Starsailor by Tim Buckley. Sometimes I wonder whether I am listening to the same record as the critics. And whilst I would probably take a difficult Beefheart album to my desert island (Lick my Decals Off Baby would be my preference), I would be packing Jane Siberry’s 1987 album before it! The Walking has just as many twists and turns, blind alleys and unexpected shifts in texture, time signature and atmosphere as Beefheart at his most tangential yet, crucially, Siberry’s album is grounded in the most beautiful hook laden pop as opposed to the raw and visceral delta blues and free form jazz of the good captain.

Thinking about my choice from last night during the day today, I am minded to draw a comparison with Joanna Newsom. I am a great admirer of some of Newsom’s work, in particular about two thirds of the Milk Eyed Mender and a similar proportion of last year’s Have One On Me. I have never really clicked with Ys and yet, of all her three albums, the song structures on it probably bear the closest resemblance to those of The Walking. Joanna Newsom seems to have adopted a remarkably similar approach to constructing a record as Jane Siberry and pop hooks are in evidence throughout Have One On Me (see Good Intentions Paving Company, ’81, Baby Birch, Go Long, Jackrabbits) along with quieter, more difficult songs that have obviously been included to provide contrast and punctuation. However, to my ears, the (necessary?) comedown tracks just do not work as well as the more accessible, pop based songs and I could happily live without No Provenance, Occident and Kingfisher. Ys is a very different beast with songs meandering along through many different phases, yet without the hook driven poppiness to anchor it, it is a long and, at times (depending on my mood), turgid listen. In contrast, the songs on The Walking are all, in essence, pop songs but these are pop songs with a difference. With the exception of the third track (Goodbye) each song has a bright and breezy melody that envelopes the song and provides just enough of a foundation for Siberry to really experiment and surprise. All the songs contain dark passages, changes in light or texture, shards of noise or whispered vocals that serve to spotlight those glorious gossamer melodies all the more, precisely because they are used briefly and within the songs themselves. Throughout the album Siberry deconstructs her songs to the point of ruin and then, just when all seems lost, when she has created a cacophony of Tilt like noise or an eerily quiet whirring sound that plays for just the right amount of time,  she will reinstate the original tune. And the magic is that it is seamless. And how she does that is something I do not understand, and that is (partly) why this in one of my absolutely favourite albums. Of all time. Ever….and it only cost $1.95!

Nick Listened: I enjoyed this an awful lot, and while I could see straight away why Tom was incongruent regarding its comparison to the likes of Beefheart, the eccentricity of the compositions would, as we discussed in relation to Bohemian Rhapsody and Scott Walker, perhaps make it a little too leftfield for some. I was reminded very strongly of Kate Bush, but if anything even more out there. The occasional whirls into near-cacophony were always tempered by moments of extremely pretty melody, and my aesthetic tastes are at a point where mid-80s gated drums and grandiose sweeps of artificial synth strings don’t offend me like they used to. If I was to have any misgivings about this album by Siberry, it would be that the whole package, front-to-back, might be too rich, to luxurious, in both texture and melody and eccentricity, to take in often or in completion.

Alexander ‘ Skip’ Spence – ‘Oar’ – Round 1: Tom’s Choice

Alexander Spence – ‘Oar’

Choosing an album for the inaugural meeting of the Devon Record Club was a strange process for me. Obviously it was important to make the right impression – especially when considering the esteemed company I was keeping – and my choice had to be obscure enough but not willfully so, something they’d have heard of and yet not heard. In my head I ran through a list of possibilities, over and over, to such an extent that, on the night prior to the meeting, I even had a dream that I had selected the post-rock behemoth that is Spiderland by Slint; a lame choice as anybody who is anybody knows this record inside out, back-to-front and upside down. And Rob and Nick are certainly anybodies who are anybodies! But by 6.30pm on the night of the meeting, I had narrowed down my choice to one of three. I went over to my LPs and my eye, followed by my hand, mysteriously bypassed my shortlisted contenders and settled upon Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence’s ‘Oar’. So that’s what I took.

Oar is a curious beast. Mainly acoustic, pretty much uncategorisable, varied yet coherent. I remember being unsettled on first hearing it, which is no bad thing in my book, but I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard. The music is spare, even spartan at times, and on some of the tracks (Weighted Down, Books of Moses, Broken Heart) the pace is funereal. I can not remember the exact chronology, but I think I purchased this after acquiring the first Moby Grape album and the contrast between Spence’s work on Oar and the psych pop anthems of his full band probably has no equal in popular music. There is no pop sensibility in evidence on Oar, the ‘Summer of Love’ is a very dim and distant memory; this is the paranoid, psychotic world of an acid casualty in meltdown. Sonically, the shift in atmosphere is similar to Scott Walker’s 30 year evolution from Make it Easy On Yourself’s bright melody to the blood curdling sound of Tilt, yet what makes Spence’s record so remarkable is the rapidity of the change – one, maybe two years of hallucinogens and his transformation was complete!

So what’s to like? Well…I love the fact that he’s playing very basic songs (on the whole) with minimal accompaniment and yet the sounds and songs are utterly unique. I recall a similar feeling upon hearing Sung Tongs by Animal Collective for the first time – with a myriad other acoustic guitar albums, how could someone produce something so unlike anything else? And to make it an enjoyable, even accessible, listen smacks of genius in my book.

But more than the songs and the sounds of the album, the words, the singing and the message, the one thing I admire about Oar above all else is its heroic, supremely courageous, honesty. Here was a man on the verge of commercial success, a possible major player in the late 60s rush to replace the obviously imploding Beatles, the worn out Byrds, the now less than essential Dylan. And Moby Grape could have been a contender to take over. But you only have to listen to first few bars of Little Hands, Oar’s opening track, to realise that Oar is no contrivance, no deliberate ploy to garner commercial success. This is the record that Spence HAD to make at that time in his life and by baring his soul, exposing his demons, in such a manner has produced an album that will live on, gradually gaining its rightful place in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s great lost classic albums Hall of Fame, long after the sunny dalliances of the San Fransisco scene have been well and truly forgotten.

Spotify link: Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence – Oar

Nick listened: Oar is a record I’ve been aware of for years but never heard; so Tom made a pretty perfect judgement call in picking it. By reputation I’m aware of its status as one of a raft of solo records made by less-prominent members of 60s and 70s bands who… how shall we say… had perhaps become a little damaged. I’m thinking of I Am The Cosmos by Chris Bell from Big Star, Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson. I’m sure there are others. So was Oar what I expected? I’m not sure what I expected, but I wasn’t surprised, except perhaps by how much I enjoyed it – those other “psychedelic casualty” records have never actually resonated all that much with me. The way the final track unfurled a groove, accelerated and decelerated itself, was unexpected and very welcome. Despite our propensity for chattering over the top of the records we brought in, I don’t feel like I missed out on experiencing Oar. It’s slid a little way up my mental checklist of records to pick up when I’m flush again.

Rob listened: I confess I hadn’t heard of this. Having it trailed as a solo effort by the chap from Moby Grape I assumed that huge amounts of brain-smooshing drugs had been involved and that the record would be a spectral, acid-fried wash-out. Wrong. It’s great, and nothing like I expected. Rich and strange, it rolls and meanders and climbs and dives. Spence has a warm and welcoming voice, just enough to tempt you into the weirder backwaters. Sounded like a fine choice to me.

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