From Nursery to Misery
Pixies in the Woods (LP)
The Dark Entries label’s penchant for unearthing some truly visionary music from the underground that lay beneath the post-punk underground is so well-known today that it’s hard to be surprised by anything they uncover. But, if you’ve never encountered them in the past, From Nursery to Misery is one of those discoveries that will leave you breathless for hours.
Compiled from the clutch of cassette-only releases that the trio released in the late 1980s-early 1990s, then bolstered with a few unreleased tracks, Pixies in the Woods begins with what you could easily mistake for a couple of teenagers singing along with their favorite Ultravox album, unaware their rotten brother is taping them.
Uncrafted harmonies, unschooled mannerisms, sisters Gina and Tina Fear half- sing, half-recite, and never seem wholly certain about, lyrics that are themselves poised somewhere between dark poems and prosaic warnings. Behind them, keyboard player Lee Stevens layers simplistic, but so dramatically suitable themes and dramas.
The overall effect, once past the sheer dislocation of the combination, is how beautifully it works, and how unnerving it feels. But while most of the music that merits such descriptions goes out of its way to be ugly and dissonant, From Nursery to Misery remain firmly at the very extremes of their band name. Nothing in-between and nothing beyond. And that is a major part of their brilliance, the effortless ensnaring of such disparate energies, and the careless ease with which they are blended.
Packaged with a poster that offers both band history and song lyrics, and spattered with photographs, drawings and doodles, Pixies in the Woods is not simply a disquieting exhumation from the archive. It also thrusts itself unapologetically into the heart of what modern critics and fans call Hauntology, and the fact that it does so without those modern progenitors even being aware of the fact (at least, we hope they’re not… somebody would have mentioned them by now, if they were) only amplifies the intrusion.
Hauntology, after all, is built around the unremembered, the mostly-forgotten, the lost and the liquified relics of our past. What better ingredient could there be than a couple of home-made cassettes, a slew of obscure compilations, and a three piece band from Basildon?
Soul of a Nation - Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power; Underground Jazz, Street Funk & the Roots of Rap, 1968-79 (CD, vinyl)
Released to coincide with the Brooklyn Museum (New York) and Tate Modern (London)’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibit, Soul of a Nation stands alone, too, as a thrill-packed thirteen track ride through an archive that is all-too-often overlooked in mainstream surveys.
Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution will Not be Televised” should be familiar to all (and, if it isn’t, it sensibly opens this set), either in its original form or via sundry subsequent samples and covers… thank Genaside II for the most devastating update, albeit one that itself is now almost twenty years old.
Likewise, Roy Ayers (“Red Black and Green” is here). And most people know the Last Poets (who, bizarrely, are not included), if only for their absorption into the cult of Performance. But, in terms of your “average” fan’s awareness, the Mandingo Griot Society, Philip Cochran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Duke Edwards and the Young Ones and Oneness of Juju are true archaeological excavations, confined in their prime to minor (if not self-run labels) and revealed now not only in their musical pomp, but also (via a fabulous 36 page booklet) in their sociological context, too.
It’s an exhilarating listen - Cochran and co’s “Malcolm X” is a mantric brass and rhythm-backed chant that feels so much longer than its five minute running time (in a good way, of course); while eleven sultry minutes of Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra (“Dsert Fairy Princess”) end way too soon.
Vibes from the Tribe, a 1970s Detroit collective, offer up a loose, avant-garde piece that haunts around the horns; and the opening moments of Doug Carn’s “Suratal Ihklas” cannot help but remind you of early Zappa in their disregard for what you think is going to happen. Recorded in 1977, Carn himself isn’t the greatest singer and, on this occasion, the liners are strangely silent about who he was or where he came from.
But that’s a complaint for the trainspotter’s among us. Soul of a Nation is a breathtaking collection, as demanding as it is dynamic, and one that should, if you can make it, send you scurrying to see the show. And if not… Soul Jazz have also republished Freedom Rhythm & Sound, their guide to “Revolutionary Jazz Cover Art 1965-83.” Like all the label’s other books (and yes, their albums, too), it’s a beast of absolute beauty.
Silhouettes and Statues: A Gothic Revolution 1978-1986 (5CDs)
Whether you like the music or not, you have to grant the Gothic scene one thing. It’s tenacious. Almost forty years have elapsed since its birth among the first major post-punk upheavals of the late 1970s, which means it’s also almost forty years since the first reports of its death, slaughtered by critics who couldn’t stand the fact that Joy Division were being blamed for so much of it.
But it didn’t die, even if it did mutate an awful lot, and this collection catches it during the earliest years of its most dramatic summer. Indeed, full marks to the compilers for selecting a cut-off date that not only ignores all the Johnny-come-latelies, it also spares us the ignominy of sundry participants’ late eighties nadirs. When you look here and find the Cure on board, Pil and the Mission, the Cocteaus and the Damned, you know they were still making great records at the time; and records that matched the mood of the genre which, let’s face it, few of them welcomed.
They had no choice. From Bauhaus to the Banshees (who aren’t here, unfortunately), Goth must be the only musical movement whose most potent agitators went out of their way to insist they had nothing to do with it. A lot of the time, they were right, as well. But they were drawn in regardless because, at the start, Goth had nothing to do with the uniforms and accoutrements with which we would later associate it; had nothing to do, in a way, with music, either. It was a mood and a certain melancholy, that’s all. Hell, it wasn’t even called Goth at the beginning; that term came later and was then applied retroactively to all who might have sailed the ship earlier.
Enough. Five discs, eighty-three tracks, and sprawling from the super well-known (Birthday Part and the Sisters join all those named above) to the guilt-by-association (Bauhaus spin-offs Tones on Tail, Dali’s Car and Love & Rockets); and onto names that you might recall if you hung around the UK club scene at just the right time (UK Decay, Brigandage, Gloria Mundi, Play Dead). And a few that you’d need a carbon-dating machine to find some verifiable trace of.
What they all have in common, though, is… they work as a single listening experience. Nothing leaps out like the proverbial sore thing; nor raises its head above the grave to ask “what the devil am I doing in this place?”
Again, other gothic collections go sprawling all over the place, whirling through time and space like a sepulchral Doctor Who, and then corrupting the old Field of Dreams quotation, “if you stick it on the album, they’ll agree.” This one doesn’t. This one sticks to the script, and the only grey areas are likely to be the ones that your own ears don’t agree with. Love and Rockets’ “Seventh Dream of Teenaged Heaven,” for example would be as apt on a latter day Glam compilation as it is lurking here next to Alien Sex Fiend, but even that’s a borderline call.
Likewise, you’d see as many black-clad bodies at a period Nico show as you’d catch at the Batcave on a rainy night, so her “Sãeta” is a welcome inclusion, even if it could be a part of another tale entirely. (Plus, the Sisters opened for her at least once, so that has to count for something. They encored with the Velvets’ “Sister Ray,” but Nico looked surprised when apprised of that fact. “Why would anybody want to cover that?”)
The sound quality is great, and the rarity quotient’s high; odd singles and b-sides, self-issued one-offs, tiny independents, cassette-only releases. Little is truly rare these days, when you can go online and find an mp3 of almost every record that has ever been made. But a few continue elusive, even amidst that hurly-burly, and the sound quality here is pristine throughout.
One question, however, remains to be answered. Why no Rikki and the Last Days of Earth? (And you can substitute your own lament here.)
Stop Motion Happening
Fascinated by sonics, by signals, by snatches; born out of a restless exploration of pasts and presents that can never resonate with you as much as they do with them… but which, when taken all together, add up to something just as valuable; this is the Focus Group (aka Ghost Box co-founder Julian House)’s fifth album, and a vivid smorgasbord it is.
Sounds are thrust towards you, then snatched peremptorily away; a phone rings, a voice repeats, a melody floats, a rhythm sinks. If “psychedelia” had never been co-opted by a bunch of long-hairs playing guitar for hours, while singing about Uncle Molly’s Platonic Washboard, it would be a fitting description - an evening with the Focus Group is at least loosely comparable to a night spent out of your body, while you watch a bunch of movies at five times their normal speed. Not many albums sound like a rapid blur of flickering light, but Focus Group have done it.
Even when you think they’ve relented, and “Kinodrome Koolaid” opens up with a riff, it’s only so it can disappear again, loop around a couple of times and then, after fifty seconds of such, turn into the next track - which might be a science show theme played backwards, but could as easily not.
What it never is is boring… uninteresting… uneventful. Most of the tracks are over in minutes, if not seconds (and the longer ones feel like short ones that have been softly folded together); start the disc and you won’t be leaving the room to let it play out alone, even when you’ve heard it a few times and think you know what to expect. There’s always something else around the bend, snatched and grabbed from a recess some place, and there’s a tone to the whole thing that keeps you seated; a restful calm, a gentle drift. Imagine falling asleep with pins-and-needles. You know you ought to move but, no. You’d rather find out what happens.
First Light (CD)
Fader are producer Benge and Blancmange’s Neil Arthur - a combination which might, if your ears are especially eighties-heavy, sound just a little peculiar. But that’s only because you’ve not listened back to Blancmange for a while, unless you count occasional appearances on Top of the Pops repeats.
Of course it’s a solid electronic soundscape; and, of course, Arthur’s inability to write songs that don’t become subtle ear worms is to the fore as well. But the oddly eerie “Check the Power” is the first of several tracks that paint the collaboration in its true colors; “Way Out” is simply stupendous, and “Trip to the Coast” is so layered in atmosphere that you can almost feel the seagulls stealing your chips.
Besides, there are just as many isolated moments that send the memory banks scurrying in search of the precise reference point, and then finding it where they least expected. Or maybe Ki Di Me’s “Mother Is” was not a vague inspiration behind “I Prefer Solitude.” And “Wonderland” is not a friend of the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette.”
Not that it matters. First Light is one of those albums that blithely waves its forebears in the air, and then constructs something new, but equally memorable from their vapor trails; and, with a new Blancmange album also on the horizon (not to mention a multi-CD recounting of the vintage material), Neil Arthur seems determined to remind us what a spellbinding songwriter he has always been. And a startling visionary, as well.
Chip Shop EP (CD)
As supergroups go, the wryly named Tex Pistols take a lot of beating… Pete Thomas, Martin Belmont, Geraint Watkins, Paul Riley, Bob Loveday are a who’s who of superstar sidemen from the seventies and beyond, and in frontman Phil Rambow, they boast one of the most distinguished songwriters of the age, as well.
They prove those credentials straight out of the box, with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”… best-known, of course, from Kirsty MacColl’s immaculate rendering all those years ago, but retrieved now by its author, and dispatched straight into the heart of Nashville. Everything screams country authenticity, from Sarah Jane Morris’s backing vocals to Bob Loveday’s violin, and on through Rambow’s accent and Riley’s bass; and, if you have even half a soul, it will send you out to buy matching hat and boots before you reach the final verse.
But pause the CD before you go, because Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” is just as grand, and when the Pistols launch into “Train Kept a Rolling,” you’ll have no alternative whatsoever but to drag your sweetheart out to the barn and get down to some serious shit-kicking.
The party EP of the year? Yeah. “Louisiana Blues” keeps the energy boiling and only a live take of “I’m Coming Home” spoils the show a little - not because it’s not a thrill, but the sound quality is ever so slightly rough and distorted, and the Tex Pistols deserve a lot better.
No matter. There’s probably not many chip shops left… not the good ones that sell fat, greasy chips, and sausages fried in days-old lard… but that doesn’t stop the guy who works there still being Elvis. And it doesn’t stop the Tex Pistols from making you want to move.
Giddy up and get it.
Live in Berlin 2017 (download, CD)
The title tells you some of what you need to know; the band’s name should do the rest. There are precious few bands, even among those who other people cite as such, who you can listen to for hours on end and never feel like you’ve heard it all before. But Welsh cosmonauts Sendelica are one of those who could release a new album every week and never start repeating themselves. In fact, it sometimes feels as though they do.
With the band now working as a four piece, Live in Berlin is, in fact, their first in that configuration, which itself is cause for curiosity. Suffice to say, however, that all past elements are present and correct, and that includes their penchant for jamming completely new songs out of rehearsals.
In a set otherwise dominated by what you might call Sendelica’s greatest hits, the brand new “Lost City of Cardiza” is an aggressive duet for guitar and sax, while the drums spend the whole time tumbling over a cliff. It’s still only a fragment, one suspects - at under five minutes, it is a stripling compared to the gargantuan voyages of “Baalbek Stones,” “Cromlech Chronicles,” “12 Shades revisited” and “…Dante’s Inferno.” But stand back and watch it grow. Next time around, it’ll probably last an hour.
It’s pointless to reiterate the standard lines about Sendelica - how they’re the only worthwhile living descendants of Hawkwind and the Ozrics; how they could wake the dead and the Dead as well; how space rock has never traveled so fast or loud as it does in the hands of this band. Suffice to say, there’s a new Sendelica album, and even they’ve probably lost count of the number of times they’ve released a new version of “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Buddha.” But whatever it is, it isn’t enough.
Thomas Leer’s place upon the pinnacle of the late seventies electronic music movement is unassailable. Not quite singlehandedly, but as much as anyone could be, the Port Glasgow native was barely out of his teens when he released his first single, “Private Plane,” in 1978, and he followed through with the music featured here.
Named for the year in which its contents were recorded, 1979 is a double album’s worth of edgy experiments, harsh distortion, mutant melodies but, most important of all, pretty pop songs that refuse to get out of your head. Famously, Leer was inspired towards electronics after hearing Kraftwerk, but all you can really hear here is the sound of the people who came after him.
Well, them and Jean Michel Jarre, because “Ad Astra” is pure Angry Oxygene.
Leer was not working alone in this sphere. Robert Rental (with whom Leer split an album, also in 1979), John Foxx and the daddy of them all, Brian Eno, played equally auspiciously in the same realms. But somehow the music gathered here feels as though it’s both coming from, and pointing towards, different places - “Never Met an Actress” is hard and harsh; “Crouch End” is a suburban cityscape reduced to its component melodies; the eight minute “Urbain” is a teasing, tormenting cyber-waltz, interrupted with what may or may not be curious fingers, pressing buttons just to see what they’ll do. (Don’t laugh; a lot of people did that.)
And then there’s “Crossmaglen,” named for one of the most notorious trouble spots in the ongoing struggles in Northern Ireland, and as foreboding as it ought to be. The sounds of warfare are forever whispering beneath a simple soundscape, while Leer’s voice conveys a distance and alienation that makes Gary Numan sound like he’s reading bedtime stories.
1979 is a magnificent album, one that pushes boundaries that few people even knew existed at the time. And today, we are so accustomed to their destruction that we’re still not aware they were there.
Leer takes us back to a moment, then, that was not simply musically crucial; without it, an entire skein of future doings might never have been allowed to occur. And it doesn’t matter whether that means he’s to blame for a lot of really bad music, or ought to be knighted for his services to synthesizers. Thomas Leer changed the world, and this is the sound of him doing it.
The Two Faces of Fame - the Complete 1967 Recordings (2CD)
It’s a good time to be a Georgie Fame fan, what with the bumper box of his Columbia recordings that was rolled out a couple of years back, and the full career anthology that turned up twelve months later.
This set has more in common with the former, of course. The Whole World’s Shaking devoted five discs to Fame’s entire output between 1963-1966, including each of his LPs to date; now the story continues with a two CD recounting of his very next album, its bodyweight consumed not only by the mono and stereo mixes of the original album, but twenty-four additional bonus tracks, including seven unreleased numbers, the hit “Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” and for all the completists among you, its Italian-language version as well.
The album itself was a mixed bag, with side one recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in March, 1967, and even there swinging between the jazz, blues and R&B instincts that had beguiled his audience since the start. But Fame’s so-comforting vocal links even the most extreme shifts in style, whether its the Harry South Big Band that is cooking behind him (“Bluesology”), or Jimmy Scott’s congas as they romp through “El Pussy Cat.” Complete with pussy cat noises.
Into the bonus tracks, and the variety grows even wilder, everything from the staccato pop of Fame’s debut single for new label CBS, “Because I Love You”; through the pulsating romp of “Knock On Wood” that opened his latest EP; a suitably driving cover of Junior Walker’s “Road Runner”; and on, inevitably, to “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde.”
Famously, Fame had precious little to do with the recording; his label wanted a hit, so they gave him one, recording the backing track without Fame even present, then flying him in from his latest tour to drop a vocal on top. Then they flew him out again.
But it went to number one in Britain, and Fame’s vocal gives away none of his discomfort. That the song also went some way towards scuppering Fame’s on-going love affair with everything but pop is a matter of record now; the liner notes here describe it as “a musical albatross that would hang uncomfortably from his neck for some time to come,” and it can probably be held singlehandedly responsible for the worst record Fame ever made, “Rosetta,” a few years later.
Before we worry about that, though, “Bonnie & Clyde” is just one song on disc one (and one, the aforementioned Italian version, on disc two). The remainder of the set is solid, classic, brilliant Georgie Fame. And if you already have the Columbia box set, then it’s not only all those things, it’s essential as well.
Toby Twirl (CD, LP)
What is Toby Twirl?
Well, readers of a certain vintage will answer that one with certainty. He’s a piglet who walked and talked like people, and got into all manner of scrapes and adventures through a string of books in the decade-or-so after World War Two. A bit like Rupert Bear, only not as condescending.
That was then. Today, Toby Twirl is a five piece band who walked and talked like a trendily-dressed beat group, and got into all manner of scrapes and adventures through a string of singles for Decca in the mid-late 1960s. And what you make of that depends upon how excited you feel (and you should… very, very) about a dozen recently exhumed, but previously unreleased recordings dating from later in that decade.
It must be confessed, a repertoire that ranges from “Baby You’re a Rich Man” to “American Woman,” via “Born to be Wild” and “Marjorine” paints Toby Twirl as little more than an accomplished covers band… and their hesitant version of the Beatles’ (presumably newly-released) “Something” wasn’t even particularly accomplished.
But the album as a whole bangs along with touching period charm; it’s not going to set the world afire, or launch a vast cult of trolling aficionados who will argue about who heard “Toffee Apple Sunday” (one of those aforementioned Decca singles) first. But it’s fun, and that’s all you really need.
Milk of the Tree - An Anthology of Female Vocal Folk and Singer-Songwriters 1966-73 (3CDs)
Somewhere, I’m sure, at the back of everyone’s mind, there’s a little voice muttering darkly about how the only thing the contents of this box set have in common is, ultimately, gender… that you wouldn’t find a similar set devoted solely, and so blatantly, to the male of the species… that this must be the first time in history that Mary Hopkin has found herself sharing an album with Judee Sill; or Anne Briggs with Nico, come to that; purely on the strength of their sex.
But there is a tendency among fans of a certain ilk to imagine that the Foremost Femmes of the Folk Rock Canyon really did spend their off-time hanging out together; that Judy Dyble and Sandy Denny, say, would meet for a cuppa and a nice old natter in between engagements with their respective combos; and, when you drift through the annals of their social media pages, barely a week goes by without somebody asking, “so were you friends with Mrs So-and-So?”
People don’t do that to the guys, either.
Timbre and something-else-beginning-with-“T” are not, however, all that the sixty artists here have in common. There is a common thread that unites them… chronology, of course, in that every significant era in music does have a certain feel to it, even if it’s apparent to the listener alone; and an eye not so much for folk music, but for the pastures that folk music opened up in the years following the initial Baez-Dylan led boom, and the multiplicitious possibilities that subsequently blossomed there.
Songs like Sill’s “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” Janis Ian’s “Society’s “Child” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Come and Stay With Me,” after all, have nothing overtly in common with, for example, the Stone Poney’s “Different Drum,” the Bunch’s “When Will I Be Loved” and Nico’s “Chelsea Girls”…the latter three were all written by men, for a start.
In terms of roots, however, and the secrets that are contained in performance, delivery and stance, there are common threads and these do bleed down through the years.
Plus, everybody needs a little Melanie in the house, and “Do You Believe” is a great way to get the box set going.
The collection’s scope is phenomenal. It would be easier to list who is absent than who is included here, but you probably wouldn’t have heard of most of them. An early side by Joan Armatrading rubs shoulders with Sally Oldfield; Serpent Power with Principle Edwards Magic Theatre; Vashti Bunyan with Julie Covington. Mimi Fariña’s “Morgan the Pirate” closes the collection in epic style, but similarly grandiose statements are littered throughout the three packed discs.
Grandiose and lasting, too. This year has seen rightfully acclaimed new releases from several of the collection’s stars, but this is where they were forty years ago… Trader Horne’s “In My Loneliness,” with Judy Dyble voicing one of Jackie McAuley (oooh, another fellow!)’s loveliest songs; the teenaged Alison O’Donnell, “Feeling High” with Mellow Candle; a long-before-working-with-Dodson-&-Fogg Celia Humphris with Trees.
And when you look at it all like that, Milk of the Tree is less of a gathering of girls who can sing and strum sweetly, than it is a thoroughly researched and very well thought-out snapshot of that brief window before folk turned into Fairycon, before prog went po-faced, and before introspective singer-songwriters vanished up their own behinds and became the soundtrack to seventies fondue parties. It just so happens that many of the most persuasive and pervasive singers were women.
White Glue (CD)
The artwork doesn’t give too much away, but if you have even half a soft spot for Cabaret Voltaire, you’ll be placing your order now. And that despite this album now being nine months old and, therefore, something you should have owned all along.
So why review it now? Why not.
Wrangler is Stephen Mallinder of aforementioned fame, plus Phil Winter of Tuung, and producer Ben Edwards. But, more importantly, it’s one of the most exhilarating new electronic albums of recent years, a point brought immediately into focus by the opening “Alpha Omega.” If you’ve ever wondered what Kraftwerk would sound like if they didn’t spend their free time getting older, this could be it.
The remainder of White Glue wanders, but never truly deviates from that opening statement; hypnotically danceable, but eminently listenable too, it certainly has its retro moments (kick me when the early nineties arrive, please) and yeah, you could say “Clockwork” does nothing that its title doesn’t lead you to expect.
But that’s not the point. Or maybe it is. It’s an electro album for people who like electro, but don’t really care for Billy Big Bananas showing off all the latest tech he just bought with daddy’s charge card. It’s dance music for people who like to twitch; and it’s the future that the Cabs were once aiming for, but never quite got around to reaching. And, if you need further proof of that, YouTube hosts a Wrangler take on the old band’s “Sensoria,” again from 2014.
Now will you place that order?