Climb Sheer The Fields of Peace
(Mega Dodo - LP/CD/download)
It’s peculiar, these days, to hear Alison O’Donnell described as ex-Mellow Candle, the sound of Swaddling Songs, and so forth. For most people, she’s far more familiar as a sometimes voice with the Owl Service, and a permanent presence in United Bible Studies, two bands whose mark on the past decade or so of the English underground is at least as indelible as O’Donnell’s past, and is only growing more pronounced.
Indeed, Climb Sheer the Fields of Peace, her first truly solo album since 2009’s Hey Hey Hippy Witch, is very much the child of the UBS mothership - bandmate David Colohan is a constant presence alongside her, lending pump organ, guitars, synths and further keyboards to the dozen songs; other band members float in and out, and there’s even a couple of guest appearances by Grey Malkin, of the inestimable Hare and the Moon.
But truly this is O’Donnell’s album, as haunting as her voice; as sparse as her melodies; as stark as her lyrics. Sleepy-eyed comparisons to a pastoral Nico or a whispered Kate Bush could be excused if you have to have a bag for it, but it’s more cinematic than that - even the simplest lyric packs the most vivacious imagery, and the musicians are less an accompaniment than a backdrop to the story telling, the rolling repetition of patterns and shapes that reach an early peak just three songs in, with “In the Snowmelt”’s insistent refrain of “falling on stumps… falling on stumps…”
An early peak, but not the sole one. Occasional songs (“The Road We Know,” “Hunting Down”), feel almost conventional; others (“Sleeping on Strange Pillows,”“Memorial”) utterly disconcerting, like glimpses into the secret sketchbook of some great Victorian engraver. And then there’s the closing “The Pull and Drag Blues” which undoes every darkened sky and glowering cloud you’ve wrapped around yourself with something that sounds like an early-eighties synth hit. And that’s a big hit.
Her titles are as entrancing as the songs - “Swans They Are a-Feeding,” “Redbreast in a Rowan Tree,” “Sylvia’s Deadbolt,” and maybe there’s a reassuring sense of folkiness therein. It’s deceptive, though - like UBS themselves, there’s an almost avant-garde sensibility underpinning Climb Sheer the Fields of Peace, but one that would probably shudder at that description.
Rather, it’s music that is made without particular reference to any other you could name, “a lasting, wondrous creation” as “Sleeping on Strange Pillows” might put it, and maybe that’s the song that most fully encapsulates both this album and its maker, the tale of a woman “drawing out the pictures that will be a sight to behold…,” who “sleeps in a cave, washing her hair in the sea…,” whose “body of work is going to last forever.”
Because it will.
A Year in the Country
From The Furthest Signals
(A Year in the Country CD)
There is a theory that nothing that has ever been broadcast on earth can be described as irretrievably lost; that, no matter how thoroughly tapes might be wiped or destroyed by their makers, once they are committed to the airwaves, they are still out there somewhere, heading towards some distant galaxy… and, if only we had the technology, we could retrieve them whenever we wanted.
It’s a nice idea. All those age-old radio shows, weather reports, breaking news specials and odd Doctor Whos, still intact decades after they were consigned to the Transmission Impossible file - and that, after a fashion, is what we have here, fourteen tracks that might well be summed up by the title of just one of them. “Curious Noises and Distant Voices” is Keith Seatman’s vision of white noise distorted by the ghosts of sound and vision, slowly building into what might once have been an AM Tangerine Dream broadcast, but could be something else entirely. In space, no-one can read your tags.
From the Furthest Signals is audacious indeed, recapturing memories that we may never have had, or which time has distorted into other things entirely - any conversation between vintage TV buffs is as likely, after all, to hinge around things that didn’t happen, but which everyone is convinced they saw with their own eyes, as it is to conform to reality. And so the Pulselovers “Endless Repeats/Eternal Returns” captures a loop and then besets it with whooshing; and the Hare and the Moon’s “Man of Double Deed” might be the theme to the show of that title, if such a thing had ever existed.
Field Line Cartographer’s “The Radio Window” is as eerie as any night spent entranced by the shortwave dial, capturing those fragments of speech and scale that - we are told - could be alien test signals, or else they’re Cold War spy communications; and Polypores “Signals Caught Off The Coast” leaves you becalmed on the ocean, in thrall to messages that might well mean nothing. Or could be warning you to run.
It’s a gloriously uneasy listen, as likely to creep up with folk guitars and disconnected voices (Sproatly Smith’s “The Thistle Doll”) as it is to hiss softly on the edge of your consciousness while distant choirs howl at the stars (A Year in the Country’s “A Multitude of Tumblings”). And all ends, as is so often the case, with “Only the Credits Remain,” Listening Centre’s somber accompaniment to the names we’ve not read in half a century or more.
Every new A Year in the Country release offers up a compelling reason to switch out the lights. From the Furthest Signals, however, demands that you leave one on. It’s the pale glow behind the tuning dial.
(Cherry Red - 3CDs)
First there was C86, a cassette released through the New Musical Express music paper, highlighting and heralding the best indy rock of the year beneath a term that itself became a (short-lived) genre. Then came C87, a three CD box that followed a similarly expanded reissue of the original tape. And now we’re up to C88, three more discs dedicated to no less than seventy-one of the bands and 45s with whom you might have been familiar had you spent an entire year with both ears jammed to John Peel; but which could just as easily double as the latest volume in a twenty-years-later edition of Nuggets, Rubble, or Piccadilly Sunshine.
As with previous volumes, a handful of names cannot help but leap out - the Stone Roses. the House of Love, the Vaselines, Kitchens of Distinction, Inspiral Carpets and the Shamen head the litany of bands that could only get bigger. There’s a small, but perfectly formed contribution from the then-infant Creation label; and less-than-a-handful from Sarah, a label that in many ways epitomized the C86 ethic to begin with. Or so the music press of the day liked to smirk. As for what that ethic was, however, how long is a piece of licorice?
You’ll play through the box and pick out your own common features; you’ll gravitate towards the bands with the catchiest names (or, contrarily, the weirdest ones… all hail the Murrumbidgee Whalers) and the poppiest songs. For that is one thing that most come equipped with - an eye for hook and line that might not have bothered the stinkers that were topping the charts of the day, but which nevertheless echoes down the years with surprising tenacity.
C88 is dominated by lo-fi sounds before that, too, became a genre; by cheap picture sleeves and limited editions, although that’s been the story of indie all along. Once, however, you always felt that the makers of such records aspired to do better. By 1988 (in case you hadn’t already figured it out, each collection is titled for the year it showcases), “better” was not necessarily an improvement. Honesty, enthusiasm and the sheer love of doing it were far more important.
The Man From Delmonte, the Wilderness Children, the Revolving Paint Dream, King of the Slums… the Popguns, the Raw Herbs, the Flatmates, the Waltones. There is a much-of-a-muchness that links a lot of these records together, but is it stylistic glue? Or time and a place? Zeitgeists do not, after all, attend only those eras that history subsequently deems “important”; there’s one attached to every age, whether your ears are open to what it’s saying or not. C88, like C86 and C87, insists they should be.
Neil Ardley and the New Jazz Orchestra
On The Radio: BBC Jazz Sessions 1971
(Duskfire - CD)
The slow rediscovery of the modern British jazz scene from the late 1960s and early 1970s takes another massive leap forward with this astonishing exhumation of two classic BBC sessions, highlighting both the speed and the single-mindedness with which Neil Ardley was moving back then.
From February 1971, a twenty-minute set brings together a twenty-strong band that feels like a who’s-who of the then contemporary scene. Don Rendell, Barbara Thompson, Dave Greenslade, Henry Lowther, Dick Hecktall Smith and Jon Hiseman are just a few of the names you might know, and their six song show is devoted to the band’s customary live show, including a couple of great Mike Taylor compositions, and Jack Bruce’s “The Immortal Ninth,” a piece he wrote specifically for the orchestra.
Seven months later, however, all had changed. Now thirty minutes is devoted to just one piece, “The Time Flowers” - the first public airing for the electronic fascinations that would ultimately blossom into Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows in 1975. Based around JG Ballard’s The Garden of Time (if you haven’t read it, you should), and with Keith Winter’s electronics as integral to the sound as the slimmed down quartet that accompanied Ardley on more conventional instruments, “The Time Flowers” is a remarkable composition and a stunning performance.
It does not, however, only signpost Ardley’s future direction. It also aligns itself with a world in which such contemporary German acts as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were just beginning to move, in which electronics and live instrumentation co-existed as equals. Compare it with the Youtube footage of a contemporary Kraftwerk performing “Rückstoss-Gondoliere” on Beat Club, and a lot of inviolable assumptions suddenly fly out of the window.
The Hare And The Moon
The Hare And The Moon- Futur Passé
Bandcamp - DL/CD)
The title gives it away, but in case you’re not paying attention, The Hare And The Moon- Futur Passé is a collaboration between that most British of latter-day Scottish folk musicians, the Hare and the Moon, and France’s Futur Passè, ex-the much-loved Sourdeline, and it tumbles… where?
One online commentary describes it as chamber folk, but it’s “folk” in that lazy way that David Munrow’s Early Music Consort was once labeled likewise. It sounds old and it’s played on ancient instruments. But the music itself is less that of the common fo-delero-diddle-o-day herd than it is the court appointed composers that wrote for the affairs of high state. With not a rustic bone in their bodies, then the Hare and Futur here perform for the coronation of an unknown monarch, the christening of the first born prince, the wake of a lost, loved ruler.
The French language vocals, strident and proud, add to the overall stateliness; in its time, the church bells and ensemble musicianship would have suggested that no expense was spared to ensure this celebration would be one for the ages. In our time, they feel just as impressive.
It’s a dramatic album, a shock perhaps to those who are attracted by its makers’ reputation alone, and a haunting one, as well. It’s an experience that extends from the largely unaccompanied “L’Homme Armé,” all ghostly harmony and military drum (and a hint of “Three Blind Mice” around its melody), to the echoing vespers of “Rossignol”; from the circumstantial pomp of “C’est La Ville” to the funereal darkness of “Voulez Vous Que Je Vois Chante.”
But it’s also a breathtakingly beautiful record, whose outer limits are all the more remarkable for the rarity with which they have been explored in the past. The recent past, that is.
(Fruits de Mer - LP)
It would seem that Fruits de Mer have declared open season on classic albums of an age gone by, at least if recent releases are anything to go by. First there was Kris Gietkowski’s recreation of debuts by Egg, Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster; now comes Sidewalk Society’s re-envisioning of Rolled Gold, the deeply posthumous collection of Action demos and doodahs that appeared back in the mid-1990s, and caught that band at the end of its days.
The Action are no strangers to the Society, of course; they revisited them last year as well, for a couple of tracks on an EP. But some background will not go amiss - the Action were a London R&B band, big with the Mods on the mid-sixties club scene, and big enough with George Martin for him to sign them to Parlophone and produce them too. But five singles between 1965-67 did little, and by the time the Action came to record the demos that made up Rolled Gold, they were faltering. Vocalist Reg King left during the sessions; the tapes were shelved, the band broke up, already forgotten.
But the subsequent rediscovery of both has embedded the band firmly in the firmament of Invasion-era Brit-rockers, and if they never got around to completing what could have been their answer to any of the era’s bigger hitters, then Sidewalk Society have done it for them. With room to spare, as well.
All fourteen of the “album”’s tracks are included, melded to the Action’s own prototypes but in such a way that it’s unquestionably the Society’s own album too. Ideas and possibilities that the demos toyed with are brought to brilliant fruition, and while the band would deny that they ever wanted to “complete” the ghost of Rolled Gold, it’s not hard to reach that conclusion.
The original album is valued for the strength of the songs, and the sense of what might have been. Strange Roads amplifies the first point, and gives a good idea of the second, to emerge a collection that feels as much a part of 1967 (the Who meet the Move on the Small Faces’ allotment) as its parent LP would have.
In a perfect world, Rolled Gold would be up there alongside Smile, the second Barrett-led Floyd LP and a sensible follow-up to Revolver among its era’s most legendary unreleased albums. In this world, Strange Roads eclipses them all.
Night Comes Down - 60s British Mod, R&B, Freakbeat and Swinging London Nuggets
(RPM/Cherry Red - 3CDs)
How many compilations have tried, across the past fifty-plus years, to capture the sounds of swinging London? There was a time, at the dawn of that span, when simply a picture of a dolly bird in a miniskirt and raincoat, sheltering beneath a Union Flag umbrella, was sufficient to conjure the mood, but record buyers are more sophisticated now. And here’s the proof.
This collection is amazing. Priceless. Peerless. Content-wise, it’s all over the place; chronology-wise, it spans close to a decade; and stylistically, if you were buying British pop at the end of the decade, it also wraps up what your parents were digging at its dawn. Or maybe, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Money” was always destined to share an album with Lita Roza’s “Mama,” Twiggy and Ken Moule’s London Jazz Chamber Group.
Hits here are conspicuous by their absence. Rather, the intention seems to have been to drop you, the gentle listener, onto the dance floor of a London club at any point in the sixties, and keep you there for several years. Fads and fashions race by - it’s ska night, blues night, soul night, psych night. Movie themes flicker, odd covers cavort, slick instrumentals meet stumbling R&B, and it’s unlikely that any casual listener will know more than a handful of songs per CD. Indeed, this is British pop history from the bottom of a well, with even the best-known of its contributors either serving time in obscurity, or reveling in b-sides, flops or obscure album cuts.
But playing it through, even one disc at a time, is like spending your time in a fabulous world where history was written by someone other than the winners; where the Northern Soul scene’s mania for esoteric unknowns is allowed to spill out over a dozen other genres, just as long as you can dance… pose… drink… smoke to it.
There’s books to be written about the clubland this celebrates, and a movie to be made as well. For now, immerse yourself in the soundtrack to them all, and if you wake up tomorrow and its 1966, you’ll only have yourself to blame.
Tír na nÓg
The Dark Dance
(Mega Dodo - LP)
Two years on from its original appearance, Sonny Condell and Leo Kelly’s first new studio album in forty years is reissued on both black and silver vinyl (250 copies of each), and so we pause briefly to recall what Spin Cycle (and others) said about it last time. The Dark Dance was rated #3 in Classic Rock magazine’s top albums of 2015, and deservedly so.
Less a collection of songs than a singular statement that just happens to be divided into ten pieces, the show opens with the gentle “You in Yellow” and “I Have Known Love” before “The Angelus” steps out into the sideways-shifted melodicism that was always the duo’s strongest aspect. “I Pick Up Birds at Funerals” is exactly how it ought to be with a title like that; “Ricochet” is the kind of dance that sends you bouncing off walls; and the title track stalks forebodingly through the fog, the closest Tír na nÓg come to acknowledging their traditional Irish roots, but distant from them too, a gorgeous melody penned by Elly Lucas, and delivered with likeminded deliberation.
The result is an album that sits as quietly on the turntable as it did on the CD player, but which calls out loudly, regardless. And, alongside last year’s Live at the Half Moon in concert set, it confirms Tír na nÓg’s place among the most perfectly realized reunions of the age.
Heaven Is In Your Mind
(Regal Crabomophone/Fruits de Mer EP)
Three covers and one original serve up a remarkable summary of all that there is to love about Berlin-based, Sacramento-born Barbeau - and that’s a lot to cram into a single EP. A voice that echoes mid-period Peter Murphy opens with a title track that takes the classic Traffic number and wonders what a Scary Monsters-era Bowie might have done to it, then closes with “Scary Monsters,” and doesn’t wonder what Traffic might have done.
Which is impressive enough, but there’s more. Big Star’s “September Gurls” unfolds as as summertime sensational as it should, and still Barbeau’s own “Secretion of the Wafer” is the highlight of the package, a song that slips easily into this most elevated company, while leaving you convinced you’ve heard it before, buried deep inside some long-running psych anthology, probably by a band with a ridiculous name.