CD reviews: Dana Gillespie, Strangers in the Room, Ian Lowery, Third Ear Band, A Year in the Country, Professor Louie and the Crowmatix

CD reviews, from Dana Gillespie focusing on the years she spent in the public orbit of one David Bowie to the ninth album by Professor Louie and the Crowmatix,
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Strangers In The Room - A Journey Through the British Folk Scene, 1967-1973

(Grapefruit/Cherry Red - 3CDs)

You wait a lifetime for someone to acknowledge the deepest roots of the seventies folk scene… and suddenly several hundred come along at once.Or, at least, over the course of the last decade or so.A shelf that once contained little more than the original Electric Muse box set now trembles every time you add another multi-CD collection to it, and one day the whole lot will tumble to the floor… but hopefully this one will land on the top.

Strangers in the Room, as it says on the clamshell, is dedicated to that half-decade-or-so during which British folk finally shook away the lessons of MacColl, Seeger, Lloyd et al; and rose instead to champion original compositions as much as hoary old ballads.

They were still a part of the show, of course - as early as disc one, track two, Steeleye Span recount the tale of “The Blacksmith.”It is, however, one of just six songs credited to the redoubtable Trad Arr (perhaps unsurprisingly, Pentangle, JSD Band, Fairport, the Albions and the Woods are responsible for the others).The remainder, fifty four songs strong, are originals cast in the folk tradition, and there are certainly moments where the divide between folk and plain ol’ singer-songwriters becomes very hard to discern.But that’s another story.

Across three loosely themed discs, the usual suspects are here, of course - indeed, it’s difficult to think of a single crucial act of the era that does not appear here in some form, whether it’s Fairport’s Liege and Lief out-take of “Sir Patrick Spens,” or Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull previewing “We Can Swing Tgether” on a 1969 solo single or the remarkableTrader Horne’s orphan single, the list goes on.Indeed, in case you’re still glancing at the track listing and grumbling “same old same old,” look closer.

Unissued mixes of Matthews Southern Comfort’s “Woodstock” and the Strawbs’ “The Man Who Called Himself Jesus”; a Bill Fay demo; out-takes and unreleased songs, a heap of odd (and rare) 45s… Strangers in the Room is aptly titled, not only for Michael Chapman’s opening title track, but also for the fact that great swathes of its contents will indeed be unfamiliar, no matter how many other compilations and reissues you have piled up already.

Whether the rarity of so many cuts necessarily guarantees the best quality example of an artist’s work is up to the listener.Maybe there was a reason why Fresh Maggots did not include “What I Am” on their album, or why Oo Bang Jiggly Jang released nothing more than a solitary single.No matter.From an archivist’s point of view, Strangers in the Room is a treasure trove; and for the casual listener, it’s a great introduction.

Besides, it’s not entirely “hit” free.A few have already been mentioned, and elsewhere, Sandy Denny and the Strawbs’ 1967 version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” closes the package; Canticle’s take on “Like A Rolling Stone” ends disc two.The ever-fabulous Unicorn are here, with a cut from their so-scarce Transatlantic debut LP, Bridget St John and Harvey Andrews, Robin Scott and Beau.The accompanying booklet is delightfully detailed, and if you picked up last year’s Gathered From Coincidence: The British Folk-Pop Sound Of 1965-66, then this completes the set-so-far.

Professor Louie and the Crowmatix

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Songs of Inspiration

(Woodstock Records/MVD)

Ninth album time for a band that some listeners, at least, may know primarily for their influence on the nineties revival of The Band. But a lot of time has passed since then, and a lot of music, too.

This latest set might well be the one that the Crowmatix have always threatened to make, a mix of three band originals and eight, as they say, inspiring songs: “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Rivers of Babylon,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Motherless Chjld,” “Up Above My Head”… Each of them given that Crowmatix magic touch that lathers such timelessness over everything they do.

It’s an easy album to love, then - there’s such fire and enthusiasm in the band’s playing (and, indeed, arrangements) that no matter how clear the band’s musical lineage might be, still there’s a branch of Americana that is all their own work.And with Songs of Inspiration, their very roots feel suddenly unique.

Dana Gillespie

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What Memories We Make - The Complete Mainman Recordings 1971-1974

(Mainman/Cherry Red - 2CDs)

It’s one of rock history’s less palatable flaws, the fact that mention of Dana Gillespie will inevitably focus on the years she spent in the public orbit of one David Bowie. He was one of her early boyfriends; their friendship lasted deep into his years of stardom; and he wrote and produced her best-known song.

It’s a harsh spotlight.From the outset of her career, she ranked amongf the finest vocalists of her generation (and most others, too), and subsequent decades have seen Gillespie establish herself among British blues’ most fascinating performers.She has released at least a two dozen-strong string of excellent albums, and if you hunt down 1984’s Solid Romance, “Solitary Heartbeat in the Night” will haunt you forever.

Cat’s Meow, from a few years back, was a glory, too,

But back to the Bowie years. Back to this package.Like Bowie, Gillespie already had a recording career in play, and for (two of) the same labels as her former beau, Pye and Decca.Like Bowie’s, her debut album was produced by Mike Vernon and, in case you missed it, Crystal Jacqueline recorded her “Just Gotta Know My Mind” (co-written with Donovan) a few years ago.

So, when Mainman founder Tony Defries took over Bowie’s management in 1970, Gillespie was signed in much the same breath as Bowie, and the first attempt to land them a new record deal was a 1971 promo album, split one side apiece between the two of them.

Bowie’s half of that set was a Record Store Day special a few years back.Gillespie’s has remained unheard since its release, but the five tracks surface here, and they’re as enjoyable as the other side.More so, maybe, because her version of Bowie’s “Andy Warhol” (which was written for Gillespie in the first place) still makes mincemeat of any take Bowie has committed to wax, and features a simply staggering Mick Ronson solo, too.

“Andy Warhol” would be remixed for Gillespie’s next album, 1974’s Weren’t Born A Man; that set, and its Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle successor are both included here in their entirety, together with a super-rare 45 released under the name of Libido, a clutch of out-takes and demos (including a couple more with Ronson) and, because you can’t have too much of a good thing, another version of “Andy Warhol,” this time Gillespie’s original demo.More or less a dozen tracks here are seeing release for the first time, then, while the two LPs should never have slipped into commercial obscurity.

Weren’t Born a Man, in particular, is stunning, from the two-part opening “Stardom Road,” shifting from impassioned orchestration to raunchy rock, through “Dizzy Heights,” “Mother Don’t Be Frightened” and “Backed a Loser,” and onto the mournful “All Gone.”The title track, meanwhile, is cabaret blues par excellence, and what a treat it is to find an earlier, even rockier version of the same song on the flip of the Libido 45.

Onto disc two, and if Second Fiddle is a less cohesive set, still it shimmers… “Don’t Mind Me” in particular is glorious… and her bluesy future is already in sight.The demos that might have shaped Gillespie’s next Mainman LP continue in that vein, and we now hear what a marvel that could have been.In the event, it would be ten years more before she returned to the studio, with the remarkable Blue Job LP, and since then… well, there’s a ton of other albums to look out for, and if you’re in the UK, she’s still active on the live scene, too.So forget the Bowie connection.This is a fabulous collection in its own right.

A Year in the Country

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The Quietened Village

(https://ayearinthecountry.co.uk)

Among the consequences of the abnormally dry summers that the UK has experienced recently, one of the most fascinating has been the re-emergence of villages that had long since been lost to progress - drowned, for the most part, by dams and reservoirs.The newspaper stories that accompany such events, however, tell only part of the story of Britain’s “quietened villages” - everything from coastal erosion to military necessity has seen such places abandoned and lost, to the residents if not to the world.

This is the theme of A Year in the Country’s latest collection, as we tour the remains, and the memories, of a handful of these hamlets and communities.Imber, where the villagers were given less than seven weeks in which to pack up their lives before their homes became a dress rehearsal for the D-Day landings in 1944.Hornsea, where the eleventh century Domesday Book records more than forty communities that have since been lost to erosion.Armborth and Wythburn, sacrificed to the infant city of Manchester’s growing demand for water.

And, lest we forget that the United States has its own galaxy of ghost towns,Amboy in the Mojave Desert - a boomtown in the thirties, when Route 66 first opened, but all but deserted today.

Long time AYITC listeners will know the majority of names who take us to these places - the medieval-stylings of the ever-wonderful Rowan Amber Mill’s “Separations”; the Straw Bear Band’s “The Drowning of Mardale,” where the sound of running water is overlaid with stark melodics to picture a world beneath the waves; Sproatly Smith’s “Lost Villages of Holderness,” with gulls, wind and surf washing over spectral snatches of melody; the Soulless Party’s “Damnatorium,” stately impressions of an isolated country churchyard…. Howlaround’s “Flying Over a Glass Edge” poised atop a soundscape that was recorded in Amboy itself.

The collection conjures its own memories - a landlocked version of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, perhaps.Each track unfolds like a snatch of soundtrack to a documentary that ought to be made; each one conveys a sense of the desolation it honors, whether at the moment of its destruction, or at some point on either side.Even those tracks that reach more for the feel of the theme, as opposed to the mood of a specific place, cannot help but touch the walls, or trace the ghosts, of these forgotten places.And remind us that maybe they’re not as quiet as people think.

Third Ear Band

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Alchemy

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - 2CDs)

Continuing the long awaited exhumation of the Third Ear vault, but moving backwards in time from last time out’s Elements, this was their 1969 debut album - the one that hit the music press with such force that it’s still hard to believe we’re talking about a barely-remembered cult.In certain circles, they should have been enormous, as Melody Maker’s review made plain.“The three-eared men are a Godsend for lovers of mysticism, Stonehenge and the cosmic force lines.Absorbing, almost hypnotic… [and] 90 per cent improvisation.”

What more could one ask for?

As before, the original album is expanded to encompass all of the band’s doings around the time it was recorded - there’s aPeel session that includes a celebration of the group’s biggest gig so far, opening for the Stones at the Hyde Park free concert, and no less than eight unreleased studio tracks.

These in themselves are worth the purchase price.We begin with a 1968 session with producer Ron Geesin, destined for an album of library music a couple of years later (they appear under the name of the National Balkan Ensemble).Next up is a couple of songs taped early on in the sessions for Alchemy, on the eve of one of the band’s regular personnel shifts;and, finally, the first steps towards its follow up are here, including another version of “Hyde Park Raga.”Although this being the Third Ear Band, the title is the most familiar part of it.

In truth, the Third Ear Band are an acquired taste, a time-and-place-y experience that can demand more attention than a lot of ears are willing to give.The eastern elements certainly overwhelm anything that can even be loosely described as rock, and a good case can be made for expunging them from pop history altogether, and planting them instead within the realms of modern classical.Or, maybe, even folk.Sharp-eyed connoisseurs will spot them lurking within the Strangers in the Room collection mentioned above.

That, however, would be to deny the impact that they did make on the age.The Stones gig, after all, was just one of the festivals they played; they were also on the bill at the Isle of Wight that same summer, a few names down from the headlining Dylan. They shared management with Tyrannousaurus Rex (with whom they also gigged), Roy Harper and the Edgar Broughton Band; and a label with Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Barclay James Harvest. They haunted the same arts labs that David Bowie frequented; and though they drew little influence from their stablemates, the same thing cannot always be said the other way around.There’s a lot to listen out for in Alchemy, then, and a lot of great music as well.

Ian Lowery

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Eye of the Beholder

(Spectacle Music)

The fourth, and possibly last, in Spectacle’s excavation of the late (1956-2001) Ian Lowery archive is something of a mixed bag, at least in terms of content.

The music itself is exemplary, as always -to take just one example, “Bent and Rusted Crown” was one of the highlights of an earlier album in the series, Get Out The Sun. But whereas that was a delicious up-tempo incarnation, here it’s a plaintive lurch that opens the collection with laconic urgency.

But Eye of the Beholder is also something of a barrel-scraping exercise, in as much as its contents were drawn from across Lowery’s unreleased eighties and nineties - here, a demo recorded with the transitional Phantom Limbs in 1982 (“Uncondition Myself”); there, a song penned at the end of Ski Patrol (the funky sax-blurged “Spook”). Here, “Juicer’ is a downbeat ballad, through which a pair of violins keen with dramatic intent. And sitting smack in the middle of everything, “Somewhere to Crash” packs positively the meanest, nastiest, guitar sound you’ve heard since your favorite Velvets bootleg.

Untitled cassettes give up the cream of their contents, forgotten sessions are hauled out of obscurity - this is Lowery’s Odds’n’Sods collection, but again, don’t allow that description to put you off.As a songwriter, Lowery had few peers, at least among his contemporaries, and any of the ten songs here would have dignified a “proper” album, be it the Stonesy “Son of Negative” or the bruised blues of “Victory Parade”… and if this is the bottom of the barrel, maybe the compilers should start looking beneath it, to see what’s lurking there.

The liners tantalize with mentions of other unreleased material - the rest of those abandoned cassettes, for example.Maybe the sound quality’s not up to much, but if a gloriously vulnerable solo sketch of “Baby Monster, Baby Star” is anything to go by, that won’t matter in the slightest.