Album Review – Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance – ‘Dionysus’ (Dead Can Dance/PIAS)

There are certain phrases guaranteed to make even the most seasoned music reviewer clammy with sweat and dread: ‘our music is actually really hard to categorize’ is pretty near the top of the list. Yet the duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry’s music is genuinely hard to pin down.

That’s not to say it’s unlistenable. Far from it. The reality is that over the course of nearly forty years they have drawn from a truly global pool of inspiration, whilst managing to avoid to either a) repeat themselves or b) produce something that sounds like worthy-but dull ‘world’ music.

Even the fact that this is a concept album (though not, as Brendan Perry was at pains to point out to me, in the style of a seventies progressive rock concept album) cannot destroy what is a very special album.

Dionysus – also known as Bacchus – was the ancient Greek God of wine. This album consists of seven pieces (they don’t really seem like songs) over the course of two acts which tell the story of the legend. Whilst both Perry and Gerrard have very striking voices, this is one where their own voices are used comparatively little, at least in the first Act. Instead of which, they use field recordings and chants, along with a vast array of folk instrumentation, which reaches right across the world, bringing in bird calls and European traditions along the way. Dead Can Dance probably weren’t what Mike Scott was talking about when he coined the term ‘The Big Music’ but even by their pretty high standards, this is music that is more than just widescreen.

Reportedly, this album took two years to research and record. That’s looking into the story, and researching the legend, and putting together something of gigantic scale, rather than getting sidetracked and not focusing on the matter at hand. In the process they have pulled off something with grandeur that feels spiritual rather than a folly of excess.

With Dionysus, Dead Can Dance have shown that not only are they one of the most original acts ever, but also that they are continuing to break new ground and reinventing the rule book. It’s been six years since the last album, Anastasis, over thirty since their self-titled debut, and they are still continuing to evolve as an act. A number of the instruments on this record are probably unfamiliar even to those who teach music, yet somehow it doesn’t matter.

A triumph.

****1/2

 

 

Album Review – Trials Of Cato

Trials Of Cato -‘ Hide & Hair’ (Water Records)

As ever, there’s a huge amount of records arriving and begging to be listened to. As those end of year lists have to be made any day now, there are two British-made folk records that are due for inclusion on those lists. One is Stick In The Wheel’s Follow Them True. The other is the debut by Trials Of Cato, Hide & Hair. What these records both hold in common is the way that they incorporate centuries old British traditions with something more contemporary.

Having honed their skills playing in Beirut, the middle east joins with English and Welsh heritage here. The album’s opening track ‘Difyrrwch’ is a case in point: it is their own arrangement of two Welsh tunes and one English -‘Hen Ferchetan’, ‘Difyrrwch Gwyr y Gogledd,’ and ‘The Parson’s Farewell.’ There’s an honesty and sincereity within, and it’s something that has nothing whatsoever to indie kids trying to align themselves to something vaguely rootsy (thank God). There’s a mixture of original and traditional material within. In lesser hands a song like ‘Gawain’ with its inspiration of the medieval tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight really could have ended up a complete pig’s ear.  In the hands of this acclaimed folk trio it’s something special, evoking the way that say, Led Zeppelin would draw on traditional music (without, obviously, sounding anything like Zep whatsoever). It’s genuinely spine-tingling.

There are other highlights here – their cover of Graham Moore’s song ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’ is infectious, and evoking the man who stated that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Somehow, with the political situation in both Britain and America, this seems right on the money. This is in contrast to their version of a seventeeth century widow’s lament ‘My Love’s In Germany.’ It’s affecting and a display of their skill at harmonising as well as on their instruments. While it would be great to hope that the song would have a happy conclusion (think Laura Cantrell’s version of New Order’s ‘Love Vigilantes’)…umm, it doesn’t. Yet, it never descends into a dirge.

This is a wonderfully warm album, which it is easy to surrender to. It reminds us that folk isn’t just about preserving old traditions but applying them to the present day and combining those two strands well. Sure there’s a lot of music coming into the inbox, but this is an example of something that I keep making the time to listen to again and again.

****

Hide & Hair is released on November 9 on Water Records

Album Review – Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch – Just A Simple Soul (BMG)

Just a simple soul, perhaps, but what a guitarist.

Whilst there have been a number of Bert Jansch compilations over the years, Just A Simple Soul is significant for covering Jansch’s career over five decades. (It focuses on the solo years, rather than the Pentangle releases.) It has been assembled by Jansch’s estate and Bernard Butler, one-time Suede guitarist and David McAlmont collaborator. Butler knew Jansch well and he contributes the liner notes here.

There’s no doubt that the legendary Scot had a good voice – but it was his spectacular skill as a guitarist that he will be most remembered for. This compilation brings together 39 tracks, presented here in chronological order. His debut self-titled album (sometimes referred to as the  ‘Blue Album’) has three tracks here, including the instrumental ‘Angie’ and the harrowing ‘Needle Of Death.’ No prizes for guessing that the latter is about heroin – it concerns a folk singer friend of his called Buck Polly who died of an overdose. It’s one of his best-known songs – the darkness within is echoed in tracks like Nick Drake (one of many who claimed Jansch as an influence) and Drake’s song ‘Black Eyed Dog.’

The 1960s were a prolific period for Jansch, producing six albums between his debut and 1969, by which time he had formed the legendary Pentangle. There’s a number of highlights from this period, but amongst them are the instrumentals ‘Angie’ and ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’ as well as the eco-warning ‘Poison.’

The seventies and eighties were a more difficult time for Jansch, but not without their musical highlights. The first part of this set finishes with a stunning duet with Mary Hopkin (one of the great, lost voices) on a cover of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.’ Sure, it’s been covered by everyone from Roberta Flack to Johnny Cash to George Michael, but it’s a testament to Jansch and Hopkin’s skill that their version holds its own. 1974’s L.A. Turnaround was his first album after the Pentangle split, featuring another stunning instrumental ‘Chambertin’ and that album’s opener ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ which truly earns (and owns) the title. Towards the end of the decade, with punk having swept away much of what had been held sacred, a concept album about birds may have been the most out of time release possible for 1979, but Avocet is brilliant. It’s represented here by ‘Kittiwake.’ (I might personally have substituted it for the title track but a seventeen minute composition is something you should make the time to investigate.)

Jansch’s influence cannot be underestimated, even if it took until the 1990s for the respect he was so clearly due to truly arrive. He had a run of highly regarded albums in his last decade of making music, among them 2000’s Crimson Moon, 2002’s Edge Of A Dream and 2006’s The Black Swan, all represented here. His collaborators included – in addition to Butler – the likes of Hope Sandoval, Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton, and he even found time to play with Pete Doherty.

Given that licensing restrictions can often make albums such as these difficult (as many artists are signed to different labels over the course of their careers), it’s great that this exists, as a fantastic introduction to Jansch and also showing just how consistently brilliant he was. When he died in 2011 he had influenced a whole range of musicians, including the likes of Jimmy Page, Fleet Foxes and Roy Harper. Listening to this compilation reminds me just how brilliant many of those studio albums are. His work remains compelling and vital.

****

Just A Simple Soul is out now on BMG

 

Low’s ‘spooky’ new video

OK, so this arrived in my inbox on Hallowe’en, but this seemed to be so much more than just an opportunistic video, so I’m posting it today.

Low’s Double Negative record is fantastic, and will hopefully be doing well in the end of year lists, which will be swamping anyone with even a slight interest in music any day now. ‘Always Trying To Work It Out’ is one of the best tracks on the album, and whilst the electronica approach on this new record is yet another new(ish) thing for them, the song itself is classic Low. And the video is so very good it deserves to be shared.

Directed by Phil Harder, in the words of Alan Sparhawk from the band: ‘We present our slightly Halloween-themed video for “Always Trying to Work It Out.” In which… friends and family star in a stroll through the grocery store; familiar fragments from memory appear; masks are filtering light. Thank you National Sawdust, light tech Shane Donohue, and the Food Co-op in Duluth. It’s dedicated to our city of Duluth.”

Enjoy.

 

 

Fresh from Young Fathers

When you’ve championed a band as long as I’ve been championing Young Fathers, it’s great when they are having hit albums, and in the next few weeks, about to headline their biggest show yet, at London’s Brixton Academy! Respect.

This year’s Cocoa Sugar album, their third, may well be their best album yet, and from the sessions that produced that album, today the previously unheard ‘Cocoa Sugar’ with the David Wrench remix of the album track ‘Border Girl.’ This is a very good thing.

Which reminds me; I must start on my albums and tracks of the year…

Young Fathers topped my annual Festive Fifty with this track last year:

New from Aidan Moffat and RM Hubbert

I hadn’t intended for it to turn into a two week holiday from the blog, but hopefully it encouraged people to read the interviews with Richard Thompson and Miles Hunt (still really, really chuffed about those). Anyway, while I was away, amongst the emails that popeed into my inbox was this wee beauty.

I’ve long talked about my love of all things Scottish and cover versions, and of course Christmas, so it’s rather cool to have AIdan Moffat and RM Hubbert collaborating on a cover version of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ from their forthcoming Christmas album (out on Mogwai’s Rock Action label) entitled Ghost Stories For Christmas. One of the the impressive things is how this starts out sounding lo-fi, then the backing vocals come in and the strings are just gorgeous.

This is the first tasting from the album, the tracklisting for which is:

1. Fireside
2. A Ghost Story for Christmas
3. Desire Path (Baby Please Come Home)

4. Such Shall You Be
5. Lonely This Christmas
6. Weihnachtsstimmung
7. The Fir Tree
8. Only You
9. Ode to Plastic Mistletoe
10. The Recurrence of Dickens


Whilst I’m looking forward to hearing the whole album, I am intrigued (because I think it’s a great Christmas song) that the other cover version on the album is Mud’s Lonely This Christmas (in its original form, one of the greatest Elvis pastiches ever.

In fact, the whole album sounds intriguing. Take it away, press release:

These are the ghosts of love, haunting happy homes and fairy-lit bars; these are the ghosts of memory, of haunted mirrors, pagan festivities, and unforgettable friends. As with this year’s critically acclaimed debut album, Here Lies The Body, Moffat’s quiet, pensive storytelling finds a perfect partner in Hubbert’s intimately intricate, flamenco-flavoured guitar. Across eight new original compositions and two deftly executed covers, here they offer an alternative view on the Season To Be Jolly.

The album began with an idea for a song – forthcoming single A Ghost Story for Christmas. Originally intended as a one-off, seasonal release, it proved such fun to write that soon they had enough songs for an EP. “Then, on a nice, sunny, summer morning, I phoned Hubby and suggested we just do a whole album,” says Moffat. “We were really enjoying it – there’s something pleasantly perverse about recording Christmas songs in summer clothes – so we just kept going.” There followed an intense few weeks of writing and research, with Moffat taking lyrical inspiration as always from the life around him, but which also found him adapting a classic Hans Christian Andersen fairytale and an essay by the king of modern Christmas himself, Charles Dickens. The album also features their cover of Yazoo’s synth classic Only You – a favourite from their youth and one of Moffat’s oft-tweeted late-night comfort hits, and already a popular number in their live show (and, of course, a Christmas Number One for The Flying Pickets in 1983) – and the set was topped off with a sombre rendition of Mud’s 1974 hit, Lonely This Christmas. “There really wasn’t any other song it could have been,” Hubbert says of this choice. “It sums up the album well!”

The album also finds the duo expanding and experimenting with their sound, with eerie bowed guitars, dreamscape doo-wop, and a piano-led tale of a looking-glass ghost. “I had some words that I felt would suit a piano backing, so I challenged Hubby to write something for piano and he spent two weeks on YouTube learning to play it,” says Moffat. Joining them for the first time on violin and vocals is Jenny Reeve, a long-time Moffat collaborator, most recently with Arab Strap and his Where You’re Meant To Be project; ex-Delgado and longtime friend of the duo Emma Pollock on choral duties; and the band’s live drummer, David Jeans, also of Arab Strap and many more. Returning to augment the sound is John Burgess on clarinet and flute, while a young family member waits to offer a final seasonal message …

So come close and gather round! Pour a drink and take a seat! The fire is roaring, the chestnuts are roasting, the children are laughing – and it’s time to tell Ghost Stories for Christmas.”

Hell yeah.

Interview – Miles Hunt

In which 17 Seconds hears about why Miles Hunt is The Custodian…

When I catch up with Miles Hunt over the ‘phone at his home in Shropshire, he’s not long returned from London. ‘I have a rule about London,’ he tells me. It transpires that it’s not about bacchanalian excess, but a far more necessary concern for any musician in the second decade of the twenty-first century. ‘Coming back with more money in me pocket than I went away with!’ As someone who feels that trips to the Big Smoke end up with me haemorrhaging money, I can sympathise.

He and his partner, Erica Nockalls, are working towards a new Wonder Stuff album, which will be due out next year. But for now, he’s talking about his new album, The Custodian. Given that some people’s solo albums have so many co-writers and collaborators it makes a mockery of the concept, this is the real deal. It’s just Miles and his acoustic guitar. Though another person’s input that is central to the thirty song project is none other than the legendary Tom Robinson.

Miles describes Tom Robinson as a ‘sweet man,’ who’s been in his life since he was eleven or twelve (his tells me his Dad used to take him to Tom Robinson band gigs in the late seventies). In the late nineties, a conversation between Messrs Robinson and Hunt in New York City led to Tom Robinson asking Miles ‘Who do you think owns your songs now?’ The publishers…or me? suggested Miles. But Tom Robinson’s answer changed his approach. He reminded Miles that his songs now belonged to his audience. With the songs out there in the world, it was Miles’ job to see that the songs he had written were treated and performed with respect.

‘You’re in the very privileged position of performing part of the soundtrack of their lives,’ explains Miles, now. The album was recorded over the course six weeks. ‘It starts with the very first song I ever wrote, which amazingly I can still remember, ‘Speakeasy.’ ‘ It finishes with a brand new song called ‘Custodian’ which looks at the Tom Robinson idea. So few albums have ever ended so…neatly.

The Wonder Stuff were described as being part of the Stourbridge scene, which also included Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. All three bands came from the indie scene but in the late eighties and early nineties made enough of a splash that they made the journey to Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits (I should know, I was reading it. the latter magazine once said he was really nice, and he is!). Pre-stardom, he’d played in a band with members of the Poppies (as they were affectionately known), though he wasn’t actually from Stourbridge himself. ‘Pop Will Eat Itself were incredibly helpful to [The Wonder Stuff],’ he says, generously, citing examples of how the former passed on contacts of places they played beyond the Midlands and encouraging listeners to Janice Long’s show (then on Radio 1) to check out the new singles from the Stuffies.

The second half of the eighties saw the Wonder Stuff sign with Polydor, with whom they released four albums between 1988 and 1993: The Eight Legged Groove Machine; Hup; Never Loved Elvis and Construction For The Modern Idiot. While the first two albums did well, it was ...Elvis which saw the band move up a step or two with top ten hits and stadium gigs in the UK. How did he handle stardom?

‘I wouldn’t say I was handling stardom,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘I had this idea that I should be on-duty and off-duty. As far as audiences are concerned there is no off duty.’ ‘Size Of A Cow’ became a top ten hit, and the band worked on their biggest record yet with producer Mick Glossop. Glossop had been bought in because Polydor wanted a different producer, and because of his work on The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea as well as a variety of punk albums. Around this time, the band also found themselves reaching no.1 in the singles chart, when they backed Vic Rooves on his cover of Tommy Roe’s 1969 single ‘Dizzy.’

‘What I got out of the [‘Dizzy] experience was making two really good friends,’ he says of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. ‘I’d never heard the song!’ Another person he met around the same time was the legendary Kirsty MacColl. He recalls meeting her at the Townhouse Studio one night when they were both drunk. MacColl was working with her husband Steve Lillywhite on the Electric Landlady album.While Hunt exclaimed ‘You’re Kirsty MacColl!’ she replied that yes, she was, and who the fuck was he? But Glossop played her a rough mix of the track ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’ and within a week MacColl had added her vocal. The single went on to be another top ten hit for the Stuffies.

The fourth album, Construction For The Modern Idiot was released in 1993. It wasn’t the best period for him. Some of the tracks on the album he views poorly, singly out ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘I Wish Them All Dead.’ Of the latter he describes it as a ‘lazy re-working of ‘A Size Of A Cow.’ By his own admission, at the time he wasn’t in a place where he wanted to write. He’d just married Radio 1 DJ Mary Ann Hobbes and was ‘happier with home life than with band life.’ Looking back he tells me ‘I think we chose all the wrong tracks to put on the album.’ I mention how strong b-sides like ‘I Think I Must’ve Had Something Really Useful To Say’ and ‘Room 512, All The News That’s Fit To Print’ are. They’re both on The Custodian. ‘The suspicion that we’d chosen the wrong tracks [to put on the Construction For The Modern Idiot album] was confirmed.”

The version of ‘On The Ropes’ is possibly the finest performance on the album, and takes what was already an excellent song (and was yet another top ten hit for the band) and takes it some place else. If you were going to only listen to one track on the album, well, you’d be a fool, but it would be a good choice. I ask him how the song came about.

“It came about after listening to ‘Ghosts’ by The Jam,’ he reveals (the song is one of the finest things Paul Weller has ever recorded, and can be found on their final studio album, The Gift).

A friend of a friend asked me to ask him why it often appears second in the set list. He’s very happy to explain.

‘If we’ve opened with ‘Redberry Joy Town [the opening track on their debut album], it’s got lots of space in it. It allows our sound engineer to adjust to the audience being in. I like songs one, two, three to go bang! bang! bang! Instrumentationwise, it’s the same as Redberry Joy Town.’

Reflecting on his role as the custodian, he concludes: ‘These songs have been in people’s lives for so many years. Nowadays you’re like ‘I can hear the audience more than I can hear us!’

 

Gig review – Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

Perth Concert Hall, October 13

It had seemed touch and go whether we would make this gig. So often, desperate as I was to take Mrs. 17 Seconds to her first Richard Thompson gig, it seemed like something was conspiring to stop us. Finally, we took our seats and, as ever, he did not disappoint.

Although billed as Richard Thompson, it was actually the Richard Thompson trio (with  a lot of help from Bobby the roadie on guitar). Whilst Thompson on his own with an acoustic guitar is pretty amazing, tonight was a reminded why one of the characters in the book of High Fidelity offers the view that he is England’s finest electric guitarist.

The reviews for 13 Rivers, his latest album have been very complimentary, and it’s clear that it’s going down as his best album for a decade, and maybe even in the 21st century. Whilst he jokes about playing a couple of new songs before playing the classics that we’ll have driven hundreds of miles for (well, Edinburgh, but y’know, it’s his only Scottish date), the live renditions of tracks from the new record like ‘The Rattle Within,’ ‘Bones Of Gilead’ and the still jaw-dropping ‘The Storm Within’ are delivered with a passion that shows these new entries to the Thompson songbook hold their own with the older entries. Live it’s amazing to watch just how much he can still rock. When people talk about Hendrix and Clapton, they should be paying attention to Thompson on that level.

His humour remains intact, he’s wry about the fact that it’s half a century of performing and he’s a genuinely funny guy. As with any Richard Thompson gig, there’s a whole heap of songs it would be nice if he played, but when the setlist includes the likes of ‘Wall Of Death, ‘ Dry My Tears And Move On,’ and Fairport Convention’s ‘Meet On The Ledge’ it would be silly to moan much. It’s mostly delivered as part of the band, but the solo renditions of ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ are still a masterclass in both songwriting and performance.

When I interviewed him recently, he expressed his wish to spend his 70th birthday in a cave. He’s still got plenty of energy, but if you haven’t seen him live yet, take the opportunity to do so.

And best of all, was the point where Mrs. 17 Seconds looked at me and went: ‘I get it…’

EP review – Grand Champ 1990

Grand Champ 1990 -‘Pressure Points EP’ (self-released)

There was sadness around Edinburgh and further afield when Scott Longmuir called time on The Last Battle a couple of years ago. They’d produced two brilliant albums of folk rock and it seemed a shame that they would be no more.

But a few months ago, news emerged of a track called ‘Sayonara’ which had only Scott Longmuir in common with the Last Battle. Working solo, he’d taken the name Grand Champ 1990 (he was a youth karate champion), and it prefaced this five track EP. The folk tag has been well and truly shed, and instead it has more of an electronica vibe.

So the first thing to say is that while ‘Sayonara’ starts off this release, it isn’t the best track on this EP. That might well be the brooding electronica-meets-shoegaze of ‘Look For Me’ although it’s a strong release as a whole. Indeed, that first track may possibly be the weakest track, the others feel rather more polished. Additionally, while it has an electronica vibe, it also evokes eighties (and beyond) giants like New Order and Depeche Mode, the dancier side of indie. Indeed, ‘Photocopies’ has a bass line that evokes Peter Hook and vocally he has never sounded so much like Bernard Sumner.

Sure, he may be finding his feet with this release, but it’s a strong debut. His debut live appearance, meanwhile, suggests that there are more tunes in the bag, and I look forward to both more live and studio exploration with interest.

****

The self-released Pressure Points EP is out now.

 

Album Review – Miles Hunt

Miles Hunt – The Custodian (Good Deeds Records)

Miles Hunt’s new solo album came into being as a result of performing with one of his heroes, Tom Robinson. During the course of a conversation, Robinson put across the viewpoint that all the songs that Hunt has now written belong to his audience; that his job (as with any other songwriter) is to see that the songs are treated and performed with respect. It’s an interesting idea, and one that it’s easy to be sympathetic to.

So The Custodian is a double album of thirty songs written over the past forty years. It begins with the very first song that he wrote, as a thirteen year old ‘Speakeasy’ and concludes, appropriately with a new song, ‘Custodian.’ Comparisons with this collection could be drawn with the three Acoustic Classics albums that Richard Thompson (another songwriter Hunt admires) has released this decade. It’s simply Hunt singing and accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar. In a similar way to the Thompson albums, one of the most impressive things is just how easy to listen to it as an entire album. It is testament to Hunt’s tremendous skill as both a songwriter and performer just how well it all flows together. In lesser hands, this might be an album just to dip in and out of, but not here.

Not surprisingly, much of the material comes from Hunt’s regular job as singer of the Wonder Stuff, although there are also songs from his solo albums, and Vent 414 (the band Hunt formed after the Wonder Stuff split for six years in 1994). Given that the instrumentation of these songs gave them a particular group sound, in less skilful hands this could have felt half-arsed. But, this approach shines a new light on them. Perhaps the shining light in the whole collection is ‘On The Ropes.’ A top 10 hit from 1993, and the first single from the Stuffies’ fourth album, Construction For The Modern Idiot, it still contains the emotion that the original recording (still) has, but this version shows just how well the song is put together. Not for the first time, the inclusion of songs like ‘Room 512, All The News That’s Fit To Print’ show just how good the b-sides often were, too.

Whilst the second disc may contain songs that aren’t as well known, there are still so many gems within. ‘The Custodian’ is an excellent addition to his songwriting catalogue, and as last year’s album with his partner Erica Nockells, We Came Here To Work, he’s still touched with a particular gift. That album is represented here with ‘The Sweetest Of Bitterest Ends.’

This album succeeds on so many levels, but in essence, it is an album that stands on its own terms, and highlights just how brilliant a songwriter Miles Hunt is. Respect is due.

****

The Custodian is released on October 5 on Good Deeds Records