A Year in the Country
The Quietened Journey
(A Year in the Country)
How to pick any one from the dozen albums that AYITC have released this year, as the one that will fill your holidays with intrigue and cheer? Easy – just reach out for the most recent one, and then direct the curious backwards.
The Quietened Journey is the story of Britain’s railroads… not the mainlines that are traveled everyday, but the dark and deserted ones that … well, you could get all political here and say cost-cutting bureaucrats and city-centric architects are responsible for their closure,
But you could also celebrate that vandalism by exploring what’s left behind, the rusted and overgrown lines that vanish into the distance, the abandoned stations and buildings that pop up out of nowhere, the ghostly commuters who wait on empty platforms, they’re all here, across ten tracks that occasionally namecheck the relics they are visiting, but are just as likely to close their eyes and not even think of checking the map reference.
As always, a wealth of contributors ensure that each journey is very different to the last… as different as the journeys they remember, in fact. Sproatly Smith, Field Lines Cartographer, Dom Cooper and Zosia Sztykowski, Widow’s Weeds and Howlround are among the curious this time around, with Smith’s haunting “The 19.48 from Fawley” and Grey Frequency’s desolate “Empty Platform” poised among so many highlights that a second volume has to be in store. Or so we hope….
Build Your Own Box Set
No, that’s not the title, it’s the instructions. Modern Merseybeat’s finest have proven as prolific in 2019 as in any previous year, scattershot-ing at least a dozen different releases across twelve months, each as lurid and low-fi as you could wish, and cranky and cranked-up, too.
And, to jam the cherry onto the cake, all are available free from the band’s Bandcamp site. So, build your own box set, but beware. The Bordellos long ago established themselves among the most compulsive bands of the modern age, an oft-times raucous rocking that leaves you wondering precisely what they grew up listening to.
From the Pretty Things to the Len Bright Combo, Billy Childish back to the Dowliners Sect, and a hefty dose of all that’s good for you from either side of those spans, even their Christmas offering (The Bordellos Do Christmas EP) has sufficient fuzz and grumble to blow Santa’s sleigh off course, while the archival exhumation of an unreleased album from 2009, In the Kingdom of the Broken reminds you’ve they’ve been making these noises forever – and we’ve still not grown tired of it.
A Prayer for the Birds
Crystal Jacqueline is well-known enough now that we can forgo all the intros that her name used to demand; suffice to say, a new album of all-original material cannot help but drip allure and anticipation, and once again she doesn’t disappoint.
It’s a folkier set than her sundry other projects generally allow and there’s a conceptual air to the album, a celebration of early mornings, nature and gardens which moves into ever brighter focus as side one plays through, before being revealed in all its glory across side two’s side-long “A Prayer for the Birds Suite.”
Six tracks range from the unhinged duet for vocal, bird cries and ghost guitar that create the opening “Arise the Sun,” to the brief (92 seconds), chorale title track; from the pounding rock of “Turn the Tide,” to the tumultuously closing “Bird Song.”
But there’s a cohesive magic to bind all together, and that is probably the least surprising aspect of the entire package. They know how to make great records in Crystal Jacqueline’s corner of England, and here they go again.
Custard Flux is Gregory Curvey, and Curvey is the frontman of the Luck of Eden Hall, so beloved of this parish and really, that’s all the introduction you require. Following hard on the footsteps of the glorious debut Helium, Echo is described by its maker as “an annex” to the deluxe box that accompanied its predecessor.
It is also, however, an extension, as Custard Flux’s hitherto inviolate acoustic law is shattered by an electric guitar, and it doesn’t hurt a bit. Indeed, there is a sense of continuity here, in that Echo is no less the child of Syd Barrett, Andy Partridge and a flock of fellow psych explorers than Helium, and no less captivating, either. Eight songs include the propulsive “America,” the jaunty “Pink Indians” and the evocative “Cirque d’Enfant,” and if your ears do catch hints of period gems dancing around the edges of some songs, you know they’re meant to be there.
Dodson and Fogg
Watching the World
Ninth album time for the one man, two names, project that has proved nigh-on irresistible for the past four years, and it’s not even the most recent release; Watching the World was released in June; and a new set, Swim, has just appeared on the website.
Guitar-folk driven, intriguingly worded, and chime-ingly produced, Watching the World might be Dodson and Fogg’s most rock-inflected album yet, at least if the garage thunk of “Here and Now” is anything to go by – imagine primal Kinks in a primeval bog, every note slothed-out to eternity, and even the guitar solos drawn slowly across your skull.
The pastoral title track, on the other hand, reminds us where Dodson and Fogg’s other heart lies, and that’s the world that Watching the World is watching most closely. Sing-along-a-Dodson, strum-along-a-Fogg, and you will wind up wanting the rest of the catalog.
(Ditton Pye – 1 CD)
Goodness, has it really been twenty years?
Twenty years since English singer-songwriter Philip Jeays’ debut album, October, burst onto the pre-millennium, post-Britpop, pre-Napster, post-whatever scene (how excited we all were to party in 1999), alerting anyone who would listen to a performer who could have flourished in any musical era he chose. And how fortunate we are that he selected ours.
Eight albums later, and four years after his last (The Wildest Walk), Jeays at least glances back at the anniversary with two songs, “November” and “December,” that he admits “carry on the same story from ‘October’.” But he then counters the continuity with “Already April,” which has nothing to do with any of them.
It’s a typically wry Jeays gesture; as wry (although this was certainly not planned) as the fact that Angelina was released just three days on from the death of Scott Walker – perhaps the only Anglo-American songwriter with whom Jeays’ vision could be said to share its living space. (At least across Walker’s first four albums.)
There’s that same sense of high drama, eternal emotion and romance poised on a tightrope of despair, and the same barely-disguised love of Jacques Brel. Those same glances into everyday mundanity, too.
Lines leap out like saber toothed tigers. “What Did You Do In The War?” is already sardonically flavored by the current state of British politics and culture, a lacerating dismissal of all the nonsense that now seems “normal.” Yet still there’s one phrase that hits like a ton of well-aimed bricks: “Johnny hurt his arm. Shall we have a five minute silence?”
Across twenty years and nine albums, Philip Jeays has consistently, and unerringly, delivered, to the point where it’d be disingenuous to even try and proclaim Angelina Supercop his finest album yet. They all are. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one.
Modern psych-folk legends Gayle Brogan (Pefkin), Grey Malkin (Widow’s Weeds) and Stephen Stannard (The Rowan Amber Mill) have been teasing out Meadowsilver music since August’s “Midnight Queen” single… two further singles have appeared since then, and they’re all gathered together on the Singles mini-album.
But this is the main attraction, the trio’s first full-length album, and all the fearsome promise of its predecessors is here. True, there are just four new songs… elsewhere, past singles reappear in either extended form or as unreleased versions. But the haunted energies of the individual pieces simply slide together here, like points on a ley-line that you didn’t know existed until the missing landmarks were pointed out to you. Brogan’s voice alone is a national treasure.
The full album is available for download on Bandcamp, but better to hunt down a physical edition, featuring the CD plus four art prints, four art stickers, two art badges, and a limited edition certificate all housed in a deluxe tin.
The Mortlake Bookclub
Requiem For Uriel
Three songs short, but twenty minutes long, the Mortlake Bookclub’s long (two years)-awaited third prolusion sees the union of Antony Ralph Wealls, Darren Charles, Grey Malkin (again!) and Melmoth The Wanderer unleashed once more across a largely electronic landscape that looks back at your old Nurse With Wound CDs and wonders what would happen if….
Atmosphere and energies are the keys here – nobody sings along to “Mossmouth.” But “Psychic Haunting” lives up to its title with half-heard voices and footsteps on the stair, and “Daemons Roost” is all flutter and fuss atop a wind that’s forgotten how to howl, so it groans, instead.
No less than its predecessors, Requiem for Uriel demands nothing more from the listener than what you’re prepared to give in return. Just be careful what you hand over, though. The bargain may be darker than you expect.
Exotic Masks and Sensible Shoes
O’Donnell’s third solo album was one of the highlights of summer, and has carried those laurels into the first days of winter (well, it’s cold enough) as well.
Far better regarded today for her work with United Bible Studies than the more (comparatively speaking) traditional folk of her youth, O’Donnell has both the voice and the delivery to render even the sweetest melody or most innocent lyric slightly … “disturbing” is the wrong word; “disruptive” might be better.
The opening “Girl of the House,” drops its “bodies in the kitchen garden” into the very first line, and allows things to spiral out from there, while the splendidly titled “The Floppy Ears I Love So Much” is a duet for piano and haunted steel guitar, over which O’Donnell layers a vibrato-laden ode to lost childhood pets.
“The Owl of Saint Chartier” and “Saint Begnet of Thorn Island” feel like snatches of your own memory, so powerfully does O’Donnell depict what she sees, while the closing “When Magpies Squabble” draws a timeless dream to a close with stately vision and hurdy gurdy, too.
The Cosmonaut Years Volumes 1-3
Okay, you may wanna brace yourselves for this one. Three LPs, one CD and a DVD too tell the story of Sendelica’s youth, a decade-plus back, at the dawn of their careers… their long out-of-print second, third and fourth albums jammed together in a beautiful box, splashed with colored vinyl and rounding up rarities, too.
If you know the band already… the most logical heirs to Hawkwind, the Ozrics and a clutch of Krautrock heroes, too… the three albums here fill a hole in your collection that even money has a hard time plugging. It’s not the fact that old Sendelica albums are rare that’s the issue, after all; it’s the fact that the people who own them don’t want to sell them.
The band here are clearly at the beginning of their travels, but still they have journeyed further than most and many, one space-dazed jam after another, with titles that hint at the band’s inspirations (“Several Species Of Furry Humans Gathered Together In A Cave Grooving Like Groovy Picts” is Spin Cycle’s favorite this week), but wind up sounding nothing like them.
Modern live favorites proliferate, but so do the surprises, and that’s remarkable too, when one remembers there’s something like thirty Sendelica albums out there now, and they all hang like moons just awaiting discovery. But hurry! Sendelica albums lean towards the most shockingly limited editions, are littered with bonus giveaways, and rarely sit around for long. In fact, this one might already be sold out… oh well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Sunny Spells (EP)
(Fruits de Mer)
Last year, Fruits de Mer’s tenth anniversary celebrations included the magnificent 3LP Three Seasons collection of golden psych classics revisited by a host of label regulars (and more). Next year, that set will be expanded across a CD box set, to encompass all four seasons. And to get you in the mood, here’s a taste of a few of the extras.
Two FdM regulars appear – Schizo Fun Addict, who launched the label in the first place, linking with Ilona V for a positively shimmering, gorgeous and utterly transformative “Dedicated To The One I Love”; and Us and Them lifting Neil Young’s “What Did You Do To My Life?” out of the half-hearted anonymity of his debut album, and into almost symphonic pastures.
New to Fruits, Hanford Flyover drape near-Floydian clouds across Neon Pearl’s “Lust Another Day,” but the real eye-opener is the acoustic version of Chad and Jeremy’s so darkly humored “Rest In Peace,” performed by… Chad and Jeremy. And they still sound as good as ever.
Again, this is just a taster of what’s due when the full box emerges. Looks like we already know what 2020’s “compilation of the year” is going to be.
Transience (Southern Domestic) was largely written on tour (hence the title)… largely, because “Strange Locomotion” is a Kevin Coyne cover, and “Father to the Man” was written following the death of his mother last year. Elsewhere, however, you find yourself pondering the irony of this most English of singer-songwriters delivering an album that focuses such a sharp eye on modern America.
Of course you can’t change the voice, which still sounds as though he knows the best joke you’ve never heard, and it only makes sense if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic. But modern life has rarely been so harshly dissected, all the more so since it’s not always obvious that that’s what Wreckless is working with.
In-jokes abound. The Hollywood ruminations of the seven minute “The Half of It” manages to mash fleeting glimpses of Nick Lowe, Neil Young, Ray Davies and Day of the Locusts into one glorious whole, to create probably the best LA song since… well, name your own; while “Dead End” takes the spirit of another Davies classic (guess which one) but twists the knife even harder.
There’s “Indelible Stain,” which feels like a lost second-album Velvets backing track (with words), and there’s “Creepy People (In the Middle of the Night),” which somehow blends Eric’s own “Land of the Faint at Heart” (from way back when… ask your dad) with a crunchy Modern Lovers-in-the-garage backing, and a melody that sticks like pins in your head.
Actually, they all do. Eric has long been among the most gifted tunesmiths around, even if he does delight in disguising his gift beneath his trademark basement crunch, and you’ll be singing along with half this album (“Tiny House” more than most) before you even know the words.
A mention, too, for the backing band that includes members of Cheap Trick, Costello’s Attractions and his own family (wife Amy Rigby, of course), all apparently instructed to simply busk-along-with-Eric. But, of course, he and they are far smarter than that, and we’re back to “The Half of It,” which broods like an incipient thunderstorm, and breaks your heart at the end.
Reviews elsewhere have celebrated Transience as one of Eric’s best albums yet. It has some stiff competition, but you know what? They’re right.