Reviews: Van Der Graaf Generator, Rob Clarke & The Wooltones, A Year in the Country, Anthony Phillips, Brinsley Schwarz, and Oodles of Interviews

1Van Der Graaf Generator

Do Not Disturb

(Esoteric Antenna EANTCD 1062)

Thirteen studio albums into their overall career; and five into the re-re-birth that brought VDGG back to life in 2005, one thing remains as true today as it was the first time you ever heard them – whether it was in 1969 with Aerosol Grey Machine; a year or few later in their pomp on Charisma; through the mid-late 1970s, with that first magnificent reunion… or now.  And that one thing is, there’s not another band on earth that makes a noise like this.  Including, a lot of the time, their own past incarnations.

No matter that time and tide have whittled the band down to just three members – Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton, the ultimate power trio.  No matter, either, that Hammill possesses one of the most distinctive voices in rock, readily identifiable even among people who’ve never heard him sing. In terms of sonics, dynamics, approach and assault, the VDGG of Do Not Disturb is as far removed from that of Alt as Godbluff was from Pawn Hearts.  A lot of the band’s recent press, egged on by a mischievous Hammill, has suggested that this might be Van Der Graaf’s final album.  But they still sound like a band that’s just making its first, in the knowledge that no-one has ever sounded like this.

The album opens gently – “Aloft” is oceanic cymbals and soft guitar, with Hammill’s voice warm and alluring, a taste of side two of his solo Silent Corner that collides with jerking organ around the two minute mark and, after that, all bets are off.  Stentorian riffing without a riff, deathly shrieks that don’t raise their voice – three extended movements crammed a single seven minute song.

And maybe that is Do Not Disturb’s raison d’etre, a sense of such constantly shifting notions and motions that, even if this was to prove VDGG’s final album, there’s at least half a dozen successors worth of ideas to investigate – ‘Alfa Berliner,” that slashes a whiter shade of organ with some scathing Hammill guitar lines, and a vocal swell that nods casually towards a past life’s “Wondering,” without ever going so far; “Room 1210,” which starts out like a solo Hammill piano ballad, only for his bandmates to come storming into the studio and jam an unheard corner of Godbluff.

The sharp shards of “Forever Calling” could be a single, if the idea of the modern VDGG releasing 45s was not so bizarre; and “Shikata Ga Nai” ought to be mantra, if it wasn’t (a) wordless and (b) so short.  It does, however, sit as a bridge between the two halves of the album, an utterly unsuspecting prelude to the hard rock guitars and bludgeoning vocals of “(Oh No! I Must Have Said) Yes,” a song that ominously opens with Hammill declaring “I don’t want to talk about the old days any more,” before delivering its title like a Monty Python catch phrase.

“Brought to Book” and “Almost the Words” are two more that start out sweet and sadly, and this time, you’re expecting the 180 degree descent into madness that will rip them to shreds around the midway point.  But it’s a trick that never gets old, even if the latter’s improvisations are just a shred more jazzy than they need to be. And then we’re into “Go,” the closing valediction that reinforces the sense that this could, perhaps, be the last time.  The final words, “it’s time to let go,” might well speak volumes, but even they’re not as loud as the opening verse:

“There’s the thing, hold it close

“You had your fling, you laid your ghosts.”

Nobody would ever suggest that Van Der Graaf’s third life was intended to do nothing more than that; not when Hammill’s solo career apparently remains in as rude health as it ever has been, and his lyrics are as lyrical as they ever were before.  Neither could you neatly draw a circle linking Do Not Disturb with VDGG’s beginnings, as though “Firebrand” and “Forever Calling” are the conjoined twins that nobody suspected had ever survived.

But thirteen albums and not a single misstep might well mark an accomplishment that no other band has ever made, and thirteen that each sound like nothing else you’ve heard is even more impressive than that.  The album’s called Do Not Disturb.  And it’s banging on your door right now.  

 

2Rob Clarke and The Wooltones

Are You Wooltoned? (CD, download)

(Kool Kat Music)

Three or four months ago, you’d have wrapped one ear around this album and that would have been your summer listening sorted there and then.  Right now – well, who cares what the weather does outside?  This is the sound of the season that never ends.

From Liverpool, England, out of an unrelenting psyxties central, Are You Wooltoned?  is an album and a half’s worth of crystal clear melody riding spiraling guitars and heatwave harmonies.  The single “Iron Eyes Cody,” sets the stage, garage guitars and Townshend chords, but even at their most raucous (“Are We Here?” gives you an early taste of that), the Wooltones pull off some incredible twists and turns.  Imagine Donovan writing for early Cheap Trick – or, perhaps, vice versa, but then “Pancake Cupcake” smacks you round the face with the kind of song you expect the Beatles to unearth as a mid-period bonus track, the next time they need a number one.

The Bo Diddley-esque “Peas”; the vaguely-first-album-Tom-Petty-ish “Mind the Gap, Henry Beck”; and a title track straight out of “Eight Miles High” add to the fun, but truly there’s not a cloud in sight, no matter where you look, and by the time the bonus disc’s worth of past odds and ends gets around to “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” you’re already cueing up the Pretty Things to listen to next.

So yeah, it’s the sound of summer from now until the next one, and such a bundle of unrepentant fun that you can even forgo the sunscreen.  The Wooltones are protection enough.

 

3various artists

Audiological Transmission 38/52, No More Unto The Dance – Future Dissolvation (CD/download)

(A Year in the Country)

Across somewhere in the region of a dozen releases, and a myriad more musical moods, A Year in the Country has quietly established itself among the very foremost UK labels specializing in what we might call Wyrd Folk, but wish we didn’t have to.

Building out of the website of the same name, with music just one arm of an operation that also produces prints and ephemera alongside elaborate handcrafted packaging for every release, A Year in the Country has no singularly defined, or at least definable, object.

Rather, it is redolence that matters the most, audio and sensory explorations of the same English landscape that does indeed fire the wyrd folk imagination, but spreads further into the realms of psychogeography, hauntology, folk magic, relics and remains, industrial decay and social change.  One album, The Quietened Bunker, reflects on the relics of Britain’s decommissioned cold war artifacts; another, The Quietened Village drifts eerily around the small villages and hamlets that time and progress have swept off the map.

A future Spin Cycle will be delving deep into the background of the label; past posts have already visited releases by United Bible Studies and She Rocola.  For now, No More Unto The Dance – Future Dissolvation is, at the same time as it isn’t, a meditation on what appears to be another of Britain’s disappearing traditions, the club scene.

It is surely coincidence alone that the album was announced almost simultaneously with the news that Fabric, one of London’s best-known and most-popular nightclubs, is being forcibly closed down as part of the continuing war on drugs.  And the fact that it stands in the heart of one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods has nothing at all to with that.  This album is by no means its epitaph.  But it could be.

A solid forty minute sequence of sound and impressions, a mix tape of electronics, rhythms and clatter, its twelve sequences are relentlessly modern, post-industrialized pop that flirts with the imagery of earlier dance beats, but never loses sight of the beat, the heartbeat that every great club has (or had), that gave every one its own sense of purpose and desire, be it a prohibition speakeasy or a chill-out room in a rural barn.

Such imaginings are haunting, layering one another with emotional imagery that cannot help but lead the ghosts onto the floor, a disco queen here, a rave scene there, the scent of northern soul, the smell of teen spirit.  By the time it’s over, you feel as though you’ve been dancing all night; by the time you’ve recovered, you want to do it again.

Two very distinctively packaged versions of this remarkable disc are available – a Night edition, limited to 52 copies, pressed on black CDr and featuring a twelve page string-bound booklet, four buttons, five stickers, a makeup mirror (!) and a one-off unique print; and a Dawn edition, with a white/black CDr album, and a textured, recycled fold-out sleeve with inserts and a button.  There’s also a digital version available if you’re too slow to catch the discs.

 

4Anthony Phillips

Private Parts and Pieces V-VIII (5 CDs)

(Esoteric ECLEC 52561)

Above and beyond his “mainstream” output of studio albums, Anthony Phillips also maintained a constant stream of discs aimed more at fans and collectors than the general public.  Odd instrumental pieces, waif out-takes and stray demos, snatches of epics that had still to be written – all the things, in fact, that you’d imagine being bundled together as private parts and pieces.

Reaching the mid-1980s, and with four volumes already under his belt, Phillips revised the concept somewhat, no longer focussing purely on the scraps from past tables, but recording an entire album in one sitting and, just to add to the fun, only playing one instrument, his faithful twelve string guitar.  The result, Twelve (PP&P V), then furthered the concept by featuring twelve tracks, each named for and evoking the spirit of one month of the year.

It was something of a comedown from the original concept, which was a fully scored orchestral accompaniment to Peter Cross’s book Trouble for Trumpets.  But the simplicity of the new arrangements, coupled with the “how did he do that?” sonics induced by what even Phillips describes as an “unusual tuning” that he stumbled across one day, might well distinguish the music more than any grander scheme could ever have managed.   Indeed, only the lack of a major record company at the time (he parted company with RCA following PP&P III) seems to have prevented this from reaching as many ears as it deserved to, while the success it did garner among the fans prompted Phillips to follow through with a similarly themed piece.  Only this time, with piano.

PP&P VI, aka Ivory Moon does hark back to early volumes, in that the nine tracks were composed over a fifteen year period, including a couple that just post-date his time with Genesis, and a bonus track, “Let Us Now Make Love,” which was originally written in 1968, and became a showstopper during that band’s early years.  (This version was recorded solo in 1990.)

For all its mixed origins, however, it’s a very cohesive collection, with the first half further strung together as the suite “Sea-Dogs Motoring,” while others hail from the aborted Masquerade musical; all were then rerecorded, again in one sitting.  And it might well be the best album in this box – although only by a short distance.

PP&P VII, Slow Waves Soft Stars, is perhaps the weirdest of the four, largely comprising electronic library music that Phillips recorded earlier in the decade, and which his label of the time, Passport, decided should be marketed towards the new age crowd.  It may or may not have been a snug fit – Phillips certainly didn’t think so.  But it was a far-sighted one.  He is adamant that he absorbed no new age influences while recording the music, but a lot of subsequent new agers absorbed this album very well.

PP&P VIII completes the box’s run through the chronology of the career, recorded in 1991 at the dawn of Phillips’ time with Virgin Records.  It’s a strong album but also one that was clearly viewed less as a PP&P, and more as a conventional new album – playing through the entire sequence here, it stands out like the proverbial thing-that-stands-out.  Which is not a criticism.  Just, possibly, a suggestion that it was mistitled.

No such problems with the final disc here, though, a jammed Private Parts and Extra Pieces that rounds up nineteen tracks dating primarily from the period that produced the rest of the box.  A clutch demos and alternate mixes, a few electronic links, a large part of the album that Phillips was about to record when the Tarka soundtrack came along, waifs and strays in all their glory.  Needless to say, it’s as crucial a part of the story as any of the “official” releases in the series.

 

5Brinsley Schwarz: Happy Doing What We’re Doing (book)

by John Blaney

(Mega Dodo: ISBN 978-0-9955154-0-6)

Following on from the really rather wonderful Brinsley Schwarz live album of recent, remarkable note, Mega Dodo label head and author Blaney now tells the full (and oft-times infuriating) story of the band that came to an end only shortly after Live Favourites was recorded – a tale that reaches back to the days of Kippington Lodge, also-rans on the UK psychedelic stakes, but heroes for several generations thereafter; and which carried on through the doings of Nick Lowe, Ian Gomm, the Rumour and so forth.

In many ways, it’s a tale that we are all familiar with – the posthumous applause to which Brinsley Schwarz arose ensures that it’s difficult now to even imagine a time when they weren’t huge.  As huge as management thought they would be after flying a plane load of British writers across to New York to see them at the Fillmore, and which backfired when the hacks returned home thereafter, muttering darkly of hype.

The truth, however, is darker and dingier than that, a band that just happened to be blessed with one of the era’s most delightful songwriters, but barely got out of the pub scene with which they are also now synonymous.

Related as an oral history, with band members and associates alike carrying the tale in their own words, it’s a roller-coaster book – Blaney eases some magnificent tales from everyone, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the hopes and dreams that their memories bring back to life.  Nor to feel the crushing blows that sent the entire edifice crumbling one more time.  Or the horrible feelings of deja vu that snagged the band members once they’d shattered, and they realized that they’d been right all along.

Recalling the New Favourites album, for example, Bob Andrews reflect, “The songs were good but it was a band in a wrong time. Everyone else had a uniform or some kind of outfit on that they went on stage with, or they played thirty-minutes songs. We were doing two and three minute songs when no one else was doing them…and then [once we broke up] everyone’s doing two-minute songs. Everyone’s doing two-minute sets!”

Beautifully illustrated with cuttings, records, posters and ads, photos, ephemera, press cuttings… a veritable scrapbook of Brinsleys ephemera… Happy Doing What We’re Doing is a treasure trove of time travel.  More than that, though, it’s a reminder to dig out all your old Brinsleys records, a couple of pint mugs and a tin of hand-rolled snouts.  It’s a long way from today to the Nashville in ’73, but this book knows a great short cut.

 

6Music Talk – An Interview Anthology (book)

by Chris Wade

(Wisdom Twins Books)

Years ago… years and years ago, in fact… there was a brief publishing insurgence of rock interview books.  No specific theme or genre, no bones to break or message to manipulate.  Just page after page of chatter between journalist and a handy musician, and the only common thread was that they may all have been published in the same magazine, conducted by the same writer, or relate to a similar time span.

Music Talk meets two of those criteria, as author Wade pulls the best of the interviews published in his Hound Dawg magazine, plus others extracted from various of his books, forty of them spanning the past fifty years and arranged loosely according to any single themes that might arise therein – Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt Roy were both members of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, for example, so their stories follow one another.  Hawkwind’s Nik Turner and Terry Ollis are neighbors; there’s a Lindisfarne lay-by, a Kinky corner, a Velvet Underground annex, and more.

Some names are instantly recognizable (Dave Davis, Donovan, Ian Anderson, Chris Difford, Judy Dyble), others are at least familiar and some might leave you scratching your head.  But read them and they blend exquisitely into a spoken word history of at least a few skeins of rock history, whether the discussion is rooted in the early days of the Beatles (Pete Best, Bill Harry) or the story of the Stranglers (Hugh Cornwell), Alison O’Donnell recalling the short life of Mellow Candle, sundry sidemen’s ruminations on life with Frank Zappa, and so forth.  The Incredible String Band interludes are especially terrific.

Well illustrated and sensibly laid out, good questions and great answers, the only thing that’s really missing is a torn and tattered, much thumbed cover, to match all the original books of this ilk on your shelf.  Read on!

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