Reviews: A Year in the Country, Residents, Left Outsides, Beau, Us and Them, Permanent Clear Light, Cary Grace, Jim McCarty, Tir na Nog, Moonweevil, Belbury Circle, Honey Pot John Foxx

A Year in the Country

Audio Albion

(A Year in the Country)

Across a bewildering (but so compulsive) series of limited edition CDs, A Year in the Country has spent the last few years painstakingly documenting those corners of the British landscape that mere physicality will never truly capture – the hums in the hedgerow, the whisper of old walls, the murmuring of the stones.  

This latest offering, however, is the first to fall exclusively back upon genuine field recordings.  Captured in locations as diverse as a derelict workshop in Holloway, Hereford Cathedral, a flood marsh in the Roding Valley and the cavern beneath Peveril Castle, the sounds of the surroundings are then blurred and blended into newly composed musical pieces – ambient nature overlaid by ambient sound, in which the former forms the backdrop that then drives the latter along.

Familiarity with the locations themselves is not essential, although David Colohan’s “On Stormy Point” does seem to capture the very essence of Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a soundtrack for a page or two from one of Alan Garner’s darker moments; while Bare Bones’ “Marshland Improvisation” depicts east London’s Hackney Marshes on a particularly traffic and football-free evening.

Grand indeed is Sproatly Smith’s evocation of Hereford Cathedral, with bells and organ hushing the murmur of tourists, while Field Line Cartographer’s bubbling eve-of-the-storm-scented “Coldbarrow” was inspired by a reading of author Andrew Michael Hurley’s masterful The Loney – set in a fictional location amid a very real, and beautifully desolate stretch of northern English coast.

As always with A Year in the Country, the limited edition CD version of Audio Albion is an enthralling artefact in its own right; and there’s a download to soundtrack your own travels.  Whether you leave your armchair while listening, however, is entirely up to you.

 

The Residents

Duck Stab/Buster & Glen

Fingerprince

(Cherry Red/MVD Audio/Ralph)

Two more in the newly-launched series of Residents remasters/reissues; and a few more familiar favorites expanded to delirious proportions by the much-awaited scouring of the vaults.

Duck Stab (home to the eyeballs’ effervescent rendition of “Constantinople”) Buster and Glen, Fingerprince and Babyfingers are all familiar names from the catalog, and they sound as great here as they ought to.   Arguably, this was the Residents at that peculiar time when you could almost see them breaking through into something approaching the mainstream – we’ve already mentioned “Constantinople,” but “The Booker Tease” and “Lizard Lady” will probably feel like old friends too, even if you don’t know the Residents from Robbie Dupree.

That mood persists across the self-styled ephemera that completes each package – a full disc and a half on Duck Buster, a well-jammed second disc on Fingerprince.  Opening with period out-takes, or whatever the Residents call the music they don’t end up using at the time, the discs then hurtle on through rehearsals, live recordings, reimaginings and more, and all spread across the band’s full career.  The earliest recording on Finger Ephemera dates from February 1976, the latest from a show in 2014.

Were one to don one’s True Purist hat for a moment, it’s true that the additional material rarely competes with the original recordings, but isn’t that the fate of most latter day live rehearsals and recordings?  Besides, the unreleased instrumentals that complete the Duck and Buster disc are certainly a welcome addition to that particular corpus, and you can never get too much of “Santa Dog 78,” which of course was itself a latter-day remake, as the band returned to the pastures of their very first recording, to see if they could do it again.

And besides, it is intriguing to sit back and listen as the passing years, even decades, resolutely fail to take their toll on the Residents’ attempts to replay the music of their youths, and “Melon Collie Lassie” in 2014 is just as delightful as she was almost forty years before.  Doubtless, the next two albums in this series will be more delightful still.

 

Cary Grace

Covers Volume One

(http://music.carygrace.com /album/ covers-volume-i)

Although she is far better known for her own compositions, American-in-Britain Cary Grace has also devoted at least some of her recent past to conjuring entire new landscapes out of a variety of favored cover versions – a litany that runs from David Bowie to Pink Floyd, Cream to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones to Amon Düül II.  

Not, then, the typical repertoire, even if many of the cuts were originally released by the Fruits de Mer label – which itself broadens the package’s appeal, as collectors rush to pick up music that disappeared on implausibly limited editions before the pressing plant even shut down.

Sensibly or maybe not, Grace files the album’s contents according to artist – three Bowie numbers open the disc, beginning with her gender-bent “Queen Bitch,” continuing on through a “Sound and Vision” that borrowed its backing vocals from a passing doo wop dance troupe, and then a dirtily loping “Black Country Rock.”  At the back, meanwhile, a suitably drifting rendition of Floyd’s “Cirrus Minor” is the six minute prelude to an electrifying fifteen minutes roasting beneath a “Fat Old Sun” which ranks high among all the Floyd covers there have ever been.

Maybe Grace could have done more with her version of “2,000 Light Years from Home,” if only because it might be nice to hear one that doesn’t remember how spacey the Stones were.  that said, the guitar has a welcome vicious growl, and Grace’s vocal packs a lot more intent than most people bring to bear on the song.  

But “Tales of Brave Ulysses” contrarily is draped with an excellent echo of the tried and trusted, while Grace’s takes on Dylan (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”) and Amon Düül (“Archangel Thunderbird”) are both positively scintillating.  The “volume one” in the title suggests there will be more of the same coming sometime.  The wait will be worthwhile.

 

Jim McCarty

Walking in the Wild Land

(Angel Air)

The once and future Yardbird has undergone a variety of twists and turns as he’s pursued his career over the past fifty-plus years.  None, however, was so pronounced as his decision to step out from behind the drum kit that made his name, and reinvent himself as a solo singer-songwriter – and that despite his pen having made its mark as far back as the Beck-era Yardbirds, through Renaissance, Shoot and Illusion, and songs recorded as far afield as Dave Clark (no five) and Holy Smoke.

McCarty tells the story himself in his newly-published autobiography Nobody Told Me!  But this, his latest solo album, also illustrates just what a smart decision it was.  How else would we have discovered a lyrical gift that hides fresh melodies inside every tune ? Or learned that the McCarty voice is a soulful express that matches the instrumentation all the way?

It’s a pastoral album; folkier than not, more acoustic than anything else, and the accompanying booklet, with its vivacious vignettes of wildlife and wonder, matches the mood as perfectly as the music and lyrics.  So, if the occasional song (the life-on-the-road but-not-weary “Charmed,” the salutary “In the Clear,” the admonitory “Stop Living Life in the Past”) do break that spell a little, it’s only so they can weave a fresh one.

And in between times,“Dancing Leaves,” “Mountain Song” and the opening title track in particular imbibe Walking in the Wild Land with a genuine sense of good fortune – ours’, that McCarty should have chosen this path when others no doubt seemed a lot simpler.

 

The Belbury Circle

Outward Journeys

(Ghost Box)

The decade-plus long journeys through the hinterland of British library music that have been undertaken by the Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly have already been responsible for some of the most exhilarating, and adventurous, electronic music of recent years.  

It stands to reason, then, that when the pair combined as one, the results would be spectacular… although Outward Journeys, their first album-length collaboration, goes beyond even that.

The overall mood is not too far removed from the kind of airs and atmospheres that Tangerine Dream conjured at their mid-seventies peak, but there’s an air of playfulness at work here as well.  It’s a scenario that is only amplified when John Foxx climbs aboard as well, to add vocals to a couple of tracks (the buoyant “Forgotten Town,” the somber “Trees”), but it’s contagious – “Cloudburst Five” and “Transports” are both gloriously danceable; “Cafe Kaput” is agitated retro fed through backward sounding melodies; “Heading Home” is the so-accurately titled closer, Jean Michel Jarre riding the Trans-Europe Express.

The Ghost Box catalog is already renowned among that handful of distinctly targeted labels whose output just gets better and better.  By its own standards, then, Outward Journeys is less a giant leap forward than a logical progression.  In the outside world of electro rock/pop (or even, given Foxx’s involvement, rockwrok), however, this album demands more than the applause of the connoisseurs.   

 

John Foxx

Metamatic (Deluxe Edition)

(Metamatic Records)

Talking of John Foxx, though….

Departing Ultravox at the end of the 1970s, to leave them bound for whatever happened next, John Foxx was always the thinking man’s face of the emergent pop electro scene.  Neither as Bowied as Gary Numan, or glam as Soft Cell; as obscure as Thomas Leer or as weird as the best of the rest, his blend of serious synth and to-die-for cheekbones placed him perfectly on the edge of a major commercial step forward.  And that’s precisely what happened, as his first three singles shot off chartwards, and his solo debut album, Metamatic, marched into the UK Top Twenty.

And here they all are again, the original album remastered across disc one, and two CDs more to serve up close to forty bonus tracks, ranging from the period de-rigueur radio edits, b-sides and extended versions, a near-alternate album’s worth of out-takes and instrumentals, a crop of early demos and no less than fifteen contemporary instrumentals that would themselves have made a fabulous album.

If you know the rest of Foxx’s output, little here is especially surprising. But if you think of him solely in the light of the hits and the era, it’s a spellbinding awakening, a collection that posits him both far above his supposed peers, and deep in the underground that murmured behind them, darker and deeper than the pop kids ever went, the id to synthipop’s ego.  

That Foxx quickly shook off the pop star trappings is, while listening to this material, no surprise.  What’s shocking is that the trappings didn’t follow him regardless.  

 

The Left Outsides

All That Remains

(Feeding Tube (USA)/Cardinal Fuzz (UK))

Following on from the recent (if belated) US release of their last album, 2015’s astonishing The Shapes of Things to Come, the Left Outsides’ next LP, All That Remains, will be with us in May and everything its predecessor promised, it delivers in dramatic fashion.

A London duo that feels a lot larger, guitar and viola duelling alongside the voices of Alison Cotton and Mark Nicholas, it’s a sound that has drawn comparisons from as far afield as acidic psych and Nico-id desolation, and both extremes are fair.  

“The Ballad of Elm Tree Hill” is as stark as a slice of Desertshore (although that may just be the viola talking); “The Unbroken Circle” is the Creation jamming Sandy Denny.  But “Down to the Waterside” could be Nick Drake musing over a jam jar full of insects, and “Clothed In Ivy, Obscured By Dust” might have a title that Dead Can Dance would die for, but it’s propelled by a solid Kinks rhythm, circa the album or two before Face to Face.

All of which sounds like it could be a jumble, but it works with almost malicious glee, pushing its own frontiers to one side, but always keeping the furthest extremities in sight.  So we slip from the keening morbidity of “All That I Danced With Are Gone,” Cotton’s always-heart-lifting vocal fly-tipping pain across a tune that’s not quite a melody, to the plaintive near-plainsong of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and then a title track that could have spent the night putting lyrics to a Sigur Ros mid-section.

Which still sounds like a jumble, but it isn’t.  The Left Outsides say “come on in,” and you’d be a fool not to listen.

 

Beau

Rattle the Asylum Bars

(Cherry Red)

There are souls, still, who think of Beau as the artist formerly known as “didn’t you used to record for John Peel’s label?”  And others who know him from the host of further offerings that have taken him from beat boom antiquities for Fruits de Mer, to the avant-garde of Simfonica.

Rattle the Asylum Bars, if pushed, would probably ally itself more with its maker’s Dandelion catalog, but only in as much as it’s Beau at his barest, a largely acoustic collection of songs that dwell on the more sober side of contemporary observation.  

It’s an affecting collection made all the more effective by the sheer exuberance of Beau’s vocal, and the often mocking melodies with which he underpins his thoughts – “Moral Clarity” is a singalong that you really wouldn’t want to hear being sung too loudly, and if the overall feel is redolent of the kind of agitated folk that the early-mid seventies did so well, then that only amplifies the album’s strengths.  

Too often, too recently, such an approach gets so bogged down by polemic that it vanishes up its own good intentions before you’re even halfway through.  Beau, though, grinds his axes with such bright bonhomie that he not only peoples his songs with character, he inhabits them, too.  “People Like Me” will leave people like that simply squirming in the spotlight, while “The Hedgerows of England” gives a dozen good reasons for paving over the lot of them.

Unashamedly current in its political stance, but universal and timeless in the shape that stance takes, Rattle the Asylum Bars is probably not an album to delve deep inside if you’re looking to escape the maddened undercurrents that swirl through the headlines of the news every day.  But that is not Beau’s concern.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, in times like these, it becomes more than a moral duty to listen to an artist speak his mind. It becomes a pleasure.

 

Us and Them

From The Corner of My Mind EP

(Mega Dodo)

Previewing Us and Them’s upcoming On Shipless Ocean album, “From the Corner of My Mind” follows in what has long been a tradition for this most enchanting of modern combos, a four song EP that mixes the possibly-familiar with original material, then dares you to choose which is which.  

True, half the package is available as bonus downloads alone, but they are worth the bandwidth. First, the duo’s own “When Life Begins” soars on augmented classic folksong wings, before Bowie’s “All the Madmen” sends the eerie dislocation of the original soaring into the red, not only in terms of delivery, but also execution.  Play it, you’ll see.

“From the Corner of My Eye,” too, startles, a haunted ballad with Britt Ronnholm’s vocal hung as mysterious as the lyric, to conjure up a fission that a monochrome cover of Barclay James Harvest’s “The Iron Maiden” only enhances.  On this form, the album cannot come quickly enough.

 

various artists

Goldfish: 10 Years of Fruits de Mer Records (3LPs + 7-inch)

Permanent Clear Light

Maurice N’est Pas la (7-inch)

Tir na Nog

Columbine (7-inch lathe cut)

Moonweevil

Verticle Tide (LP + CD)

The Honey Pot/Icarus Peel’s Acid Reign

Silver Diamonds (5-inch lathe cut)

(all Fruits de Mer/Strange Fish/Friends of the Fish)

Ten years of Fruits de Mer, and it barely feels like fifty since George Martin’s ”Theme One” was first rearranged to herald the dawn of a radio onederful new age of psych-pop-acid-electro-shoegaze… whatever.  

For a label that was born, and has since been borne, on a reputation for covering the past’s most uncoverable classics (“really?  You’re going to take on “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”?  Good luck!”), Fruits de Mer has spent the last decade developing into one of the most adventurous, open minded and far sighted indies of even distant remembrance, and a host of goodies mark out the birthday in classic fishy fashion.

Misplaced modesty does not deter Spin Cycle from mentioning its own part in the celebrations – The Incomplete Angler, a full-length history of Fruits and all who have been seeded within, is available now to all who click this link.  It even has its own label catalog number.  And if you’re new to the story, then you’ll also want to catch yourself some Goldfish, as it sprawls across the entire back catalog to trawl thirty tracks from the depths.  Most, if not all, of which, were sold out so long ago that half of them don’t even turn up on eBay any longer.  And those that do often require the trading of limbs if they are to be thine.

Sensibly eschewing any kind of chronological listing, Goldfish does dig back to the first fish of all, Schizo Fun Addict’s glorious encapsulation of the Small Faces most idiosyncratic hour (see above).  But it then twists the memory by looking to Tor Peders for “Theme One,” as opposed to Schizo’s original label-launching version.

We get Sendelica’s genre-wrecking “Venus in Furs” and Us and Them’s so lovely take-home from The Wicker Man.  Claudio Cataldi revisits the Velvets, the Blue Zeta Giant Puppies go hitchhiking with the Eagles, Vibravoid deliver some eye-shaking kraut rock, Sidewalk Society shake some action on “Strange Roads.”  And the temptation to continue on in this vein, until all thirty songs have been detailed, is strong.  

Suffice to say that Permanent Clear Light’s “Wherewithall” may or may not prepare you for their brand new 45, “Maurice N’est Pas la,” which the band themselves describe as French language astrofunk, so who are we to disagree; and the Honey Pot’s “Dr Crippen’s Waiting Room” leads nicely into “Silver Diamonds,” which itself is available only on the five-inch lathe cut single that will be sold at the FdM birthday party in Glastonbury on May 12.  It’s a sparkling piece of gorgeous pop that has the ghost of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” hanging around its outskirts, so you may want to start saving now.

Tir na Nog, whose Goldfish-ed “I Pick Up Birds at Funerals” is as sensitive as its title suggests it should be, will also be marking the party with a laconic lathe-cut romp through a lyric written for Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 novel Lud-in-the-Mist; and if you find Cranium Pie’s version of “Baby You’re A Rich Man” as irresistible as you ought to, mainman Rob Appeton’s Moonweevil sound nothing like it.  

But Verticle Tide – available (you know where) in a limited edition of 160 – is marvelous, moon-gazing electronica-plus, two side-long slabs of twenty minutes apiece devouring the vinyl component; eight shorter pieces joining them on the CD.  Some people call this library music, but none would ever dare shush it.

Happy birthday to you all.

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