Reviews: Custard Flux, A Year in the Country, Bob Frank, the Flat Five, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Prana Crafter, Oi!, Laraaji, Toyah, Anton Barbeau, the Wall, Spencer Cullum, Ronnie Wood.

Dave Thompson rounds up some choice fall releases
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1

Custard Flux

Oxygen (LP)

(Custardflux.com)

Once more into the breach for Gregory Curvey’s solo show, and the opening “Oxygen”/“Gelatinous Mass” (great title!) is evidence that everything promised by the Flux’s last couple of albums remains intact across this, the third.

A shuffling dislocation hallmarks the fanfare, with harmonium, guitar and sax (from sometimes Psychedelic Fur Mars Williams) to keep your ears on their toes even as the melody line demands your attention. It’s an invigorating way to kick things off, and the mood doesn’t let up.

“You Can’t Get Away” is a great, pounding rocker; “Quarantyne” a ballad that is only slowly invaded by the massed ranks of custard cacophony. And the violun across “Monster Island” makes it feel like something Curved Air might have done, had they only been disposed to write songs called “Monster Island.”

And that’s just the first side. The second grips just as hard, spasmodic psych kicking gleefully against even the most generous boundaries , and so delightedly shrugging off the ghosts of influences past that the only thing Custard Flux really sounds like now is Custard Flux,

oi

Various Artists

Oi! The Albums (6xCD Box Set)

Captain Oi

Oi! was a peculiar genre. Punk with attitude… even more attitude. The Sex Pistols crossed with Slade. An angry Slade. Sham 69 probably kicked the whole thing off in the first place, all raised fists and stamping fee, and the likes of the Angelic Upstarts took it further. But, by the time journalist gary Bushell got arund to compiling the first volume of Oi! bands, the sensibly titled It! The Album, the floodgates had already opened.

And this is what poured out of them.

Six albums are compiled here, the original 1980 disc, followed by Strength Thru Oi! and Carry On Oi! (1981), Oi! Oi! That’s Yer Lot (1982), Son of Oi! (1983) and Oi! Of Sex (1984). And between them, if they don’t sweep up every band that raged beneath the banner, you need to dig very, very deep to find those that didn’t make the cut.

Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, The Exploited, The 4 Skins, 77’ veterans Cock Sparrer, Slaughter and The Dogs, Peter and The Test Tube Babies, Toy Dolls, Cock Sparrer, Last Resort, The Business, The Gonads, The Partisans, Blitz, Red Alert, The Ejected, Infa Riot…

That’s a lot of noise, a lot of shouting and a helluva lot of excitement spread over half a dozen discs. Particularly as you approach the end of the series and the natural assumption is, “this is where things start getting dodgy.”

They don’t. Oi! was as vibrant in 1984 as it was in 1980, and while mainstream rock, and even punk, history doesn’t normally give it a more than cursory glance, the fact is - Oi! said more about the mood of the UK, its politics, its problems and its people, than any other single genre on the scene.

Liner notes by Bushell himself tell some of the stories that surround the songs, and they make entertaining reading. But not half as much fun as just jumping into the box and playing the lot, while remembering the days when music still felt as though it could change the world.

2

Stephen Prince

The Corn Mother: Night Wraiths (CD, download)

A Year in the Country

The Layering (CD, download)

The Quietened Dream Palace (CD, download)

(all ayearinthecountry.com)

Compared to previous years, A Year in the Country has been relatively quiet through 2020, more than halving the release schedule but nevertheless maintaining a steady train of thought whose reflections on different aspects of the past suddenly seem even more pertinent than before.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge that we are living now through times that will themselves one day exercise the imagination of psychogeographers and musical time travelers. Or perhaps it’s because the themes that A Year in the Country evokes with these releases… abandoned cinemas, the passing of time, the accumulation of history… are themselves reminders that everything passes eventually. Even 2020.

As usual, the two new Year in the Country releases draw in a host of collaborators, mostly familiar from past releases: Sproatly Smith, Field Lines Cartographer, the Heartwood Institute. Familiarity with names, however, does not dent the impact of music that itself seems to hang just out of reach, distant melodies within the strains of time and place; Quietened Palaces in particular will enthral, with its titular evocations of all that we have lost - and what, given the current situation, we could very easily lose again.

Against these sobering, yet so compulsive backdrops, AYITC mainman Stephen Prince’s own album stands as a one man soundtrack to his recent novella, The Corn Mother… or, perhaps, to the 1982 movie of the same name. Which, according to the book, has since vanished without trace, alongside all popular references to the Corn Mother herself.

Now, only the music survives. Listen, in case it, too, disappears.

  

3

Bob Frank

Within a Few Degrees (2xCD, DVD)

(Lagoonside Pictures/Light in the Attic)

Bob Frank was one of the heroes of the Vanguard label’s last years of folky-flavored dominance before it edged into more “popular” waters; one of that tiny handful of singer-songwriters, too, who didn’t feel the need to recite their contents of their laundry basket in the hope we’d feel sorry for them.

As such, any exhumation of Frank’s catalog, overlooked as it has been for so many years, is welcome. Light in the Attic reissued his self-titled debut back in 2014, and his name has bobbed in and out of public awareness since then, most recently (and sadly) when he passed away in 2019.

Film maker Isaac Pingree was already working on his 76 minute documentary, Within a Few Degrees, when Frank died, and it is indeed a fitting tribute to the man. It’s a gripping story, made all the more entertaining by Frank’s own apparent disinterest in the machinations of fame, or even the music business in general. “I come off as just one more fucked up mind,” he said when he saw the movie shortly before his death. And, apparently, he loved it.

Loaded down with performance and music, interviews and a lot of humour, Within a Few Degrees leaves the viewer in no doubt as to why John Hiatt, to name but one, was so enamored by his music. But just in case you need further persuasion, two CDs of unreleased material serve up one full disc of demos recorded between 1968-1971 - which, at times, exceed even the album’s mood and magic; and another of the “Cassette Tape Years,” home recordings made over the decades that followed, which indicate that Frank remained a superlative songwriter, long after the labels stopped knocking on his door.

Don’t let it pass you buy.

4

The Flat Five

Another World (LP)

(Pravda)

Second album time for Chicago’s Flat Five, and it very much follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, 2016’s It’s a World of Love and Hope - eleven songs rooted in rootsy bar-room rock’n’roll, high on harmony and gutsy enough to remind you that sometimes, all you really wanna hear is a record that could have been made at any time in the last forty years. And it sounds all the better for that.

Ideas float in from all over the place. “This’ll Be The Day” bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Buddy Holly song; “Drip a Drop” rides a percussive pattern that could have been borrowed from an early eighties synthipop band, and “of course we’ll look after it for you.” (They don’t.)

And then there’s Look at the Birdy,” which rides the wayback machine back to the kind of songs that would break the tension when a smokey nightclub grew just a little too smokey.

“Great State of Texas,” “Butterflies Don’t Bite,” “World Missed Out” - it’s astonishing just how much fun this album is, and that’s despite us nursing just a smidgeon of regret that, once again, they’ve not seen fit to include that glorious version of Spanky’s “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” that’s been floating around on Youtube for the last ten years.

So, yeah. The Flat Five, If you know them, you’ll already love this record; if you don’t, well you should. That’s all.

 

5

Jimi Hendrix Experience

Live in Maui (2xCD, DVD)

(Experience Hendrix/Legacy)

It’s funny how time changes perceptions. Back in the day, whenever that was, the sages warned us that this wasn’t one of Hendrix’s greatest shows… that the wind and weather played havoc with the sound… that the Rainbow Bridge movie was not among his greatest triumphs.

Ah, but that’s before this came along, two CDs capturing the show in its entirety, two full sets with barely a note of duplication, and an absolutely captivating documentary which tells us why those perceptions were wrong to begin with. All in fabulous four fold packaging with a 32 page booklet of photos and notes.

It was a weird gig to begin with, set up purely for the benefit of the cameras and attended only by however many locals they could coax up to a volcanic crater for the day. The wind was just as bad as history insists, tearing at tassels and howling in places that even a hardened road crew had never imagined existing. Of course they nailed down the gear; they could probably have nailed down the musicians as well.

It played havoc with the sound, of course; in fact, when the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack was readied for release, drummer Mitch Mitchell rerecorded his parts to make up for all that the elements that were blown away.

Ah, the wonders of modern technology… here we hear him in all his on-the-day glory, and while the liners remark that the overdubs remain technically superior, “it’s great to hear the Experience as nature intended.”

Musically, too, Live in Maui rises above the shows’ reputation, and above many of the more conventionally-staged gigs the Experience played during these last few months of Hendrix’s life. He knows the cameras are there, but he doesn’t care - he just leads the band through a mix of tight oldies and loose jams, sounding relaxed and happy, just having fun.

If you’re looking for the greatest hits, disc/show one serves up a handful of the expected titles. But, if you’re looking for Hendrix just kicking out, disc two is glorious, and we’re practically at the end before he even glances at the material that was performed in the first set - that show’s opening “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).” Then it’s into “Midnight Lighting” and “Stone Free,” and we’re outta here.

In the world of classic Hendrix concerts, Maui still falls some way below the peak… might even be the least “essential” one yet to have been given a full release (as opposed to being tucked away on Dagger Records). But that is not a criticism. Because it’s in those less-frequented corners that a lot of Hendrix’s most powerful performances lurk. So while it would be nice to finally have an official release for… name your Jimi Dream Date here… while we wait, more like this would be marvellous.

 

6

Prana Crafter

MorphoMystic (LP)

(Cardinal Fuzz)

Prana Crafter do not make “albums” for you to “play.” They make great slabs of sound that envelop, engross and enfold you, guitar and synth-led instrumental epics that don’t so much start and finish as float into earshot, hang around for a while, and then float away to be replaced by… more.

Themes surface and then disappear, sequences and melodies drift and dissipate. If there’s an historical comparison, imagine stumbling across a cache of lost Takoma label tapes… not the Fahey stuff, but the corners where the likes of Kottke and Basho are found.

It’s experimental, but only in as much as the experiment is worth pursuing. Yes, occasionally (the startled scarabs scratching through the end of “Pyramid Peak”), a notion goes on a little too long. But then “Chalice of the Fungal Sage” nudges in, white noise over moods that introduce the Velvets to the brew, before twittering into the echoey “A Path is Where You Make It,” and so into the gentle tones and drips of “Ears to our Earth,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Another triumph? Yes, indeed.

 

7

Laraaji

Moon Piano (LP)

(All Saints)

A companion to the Sun Piano album reviewed in Goldmine’s print edition recently, Moon Piano picks up where that set left off, in as much as it was recorded across the same two nights at the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn in 2018.

The difference is, last time around, Laraaji focussed on the upbeat side of things. This time, the moon is out, the sky is dark and the noises of the city that act as background ambience throughout the performance take on their own nocturnal resonance.

It’s a quiet record, which is not an invitation to turn up the volume. More a reminder to focus, listen, and for goodness sake, leave your phone in another room. Treat the record as you would a performance. It will reward you.

  

11

Toyah

Sheep Farming in Barnet (2xCD, DVD)

(Cherry Red)

Toyah was, to put it gently, something of an acquired taste. Even at the height of the new wave’s struggle to escape the crash of punk by aiming for the art school stars, Ms Wilcox came over as somewhat quirky, with a voice that found the middle ground between Kate Bush and a fax machine, and an image lurking somewhere between Kings Road punk and David Bowie’s sketch book.

Bluntly, you either loved her, or you ran screaming from the room.

Time has softened the edges a little, as it so often does. What seemed totally out there in 1978 was so long ago incorporated into rock’s mainstream mannerisms that even avowed Toyahphobics can now listen without breaking out in hives, and her six song debut EP rumbles along with all the focus and genius that her fans always said they saw.

This package exceeds even their highest hopes, however. The EP itself is bolstered by no less than 14 bonus tracks, including the five songs that were added to bump it up to album length later in the year, a single, two out-takes and four songs recorded for the BBC detective drama, Shoestring.

Disc two then heads for the demo studios for 21 further tracks (including a handful more EP/album out-takes), and it’s fascinating to follow her progress across the course of the sessions. And finally, a DVD throws in a couple of period TV performances, a documentary on the album’s creation, a track by track commentary and an acoustic session filmed earlier this year, revisiting three songs from way back when.

It’s a gloriously compiled and annotated package, a mass of memories and fresh discoveries, and hopefully the herald to a full scale Toyah reissue package. Because we haven’t even got to the hit singles yet.

 

10

Anton Barbeau

Manbird (2xCD)

(Beehive/Gard du Nord)

How many Anton Barbeau albums do you have? How many do you need? Even a conservative estimate answers the first question with thirty-plus, and as for the second… well, what do you think?

And still Manbird is bundle of surprises, an autobiographical concept album that Barbeau describes as “an ambitious… trip about leaving the nest, traveling the world and finding home.”

But that’s not necessarily all it is, as he follows, too, his own musical development across the years, touching on the themes and sounds that thrilled him at different times of his life (and occasionally those that he hated, as well); he even revisits the first song he ever wrote, aged eight, and you can bet it’s a long way from the sometimes Kraut rocking, sometimes punk shocking, many times mantric and solid state psych that flows elsewhere across the two discs.

What is crucial, however, is that no matter how many of Barbeau’s past records you know, Manbird is the one that will also set you wondering how many more you ought to… because, let’s face it, with the possible exception of Bevis Frond, there is absolutely nobody else wandering these kind of pastures who has managed to remain as powerful as they are prolific. And that’s not a sonic comparison. Well, not altogether.

Manbird is a long listen, but an engrossing one, the stylistic shifts and wriggles feeding out of one another and, perhaps, off one another as well. Highlights litter both discs, and if Barbeau has an out-takes reel, that would probably be well worth hearing, too. But let’s not be greedy. After thirty-plus albums, he’s just made one of his best.

 

11

The Wall

Ian Lowery's Long Lost Last Tracks with the Wall EP

(https://www.discogs.com/artist/292348-Ian-Lowery)

For a time, right at the start, the Wall were one of the UK punk movement’s most exhilarating outfits. Initially fronted by the late Ian Lowery, a frenetic precursor to all the magic that he would subsequently unspool, the band has long cried out for some form of anthology and, for a time, it looked as though it would get one.

Unfortunately, corporate greed (or maybe just recalcitrance) appears to have scotched that notion, with the two singles Lowery recorded with the Wall now out of reach even to the singer’s own family. So the album slims down to a mere four song EP. But it’s still fantastic.

For long time fans, the big draw will be the previously unreleased “Peroxide.” But of equal note are three songs that the Wall recorded during sessions for their third single, shortly before Lowery’s departure.

That release (“Ghetto”/“Another Day”) went ahead, but only after Lowery’s vocals had been wiped and replaced with the new frontman’s. These, however, are the original takes, with Lowery in full and fine form, and they’re joined by the original version of a third, similarly reworked, number, “One Born Every Day.”

It is a shame that Lowery’s entire Wall catalog cannot be reunited at last, but that’s what cassette recorders are for. In the meantime, an unheard chapter in the life of a much loved hero is more than cause for celebration.

  

13

Spencer Cullum

Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection (LP)

(YK Records)

Londoner Spencer Cullum long ago established himself among Nashville’s leading pedal steel players, but it’s clear that his time in Music City has not dislodged his musical heritage.

While not quite the “quintessential English folk record” that Cullum admits he set out to record, Coin Collection definitely rubs shoulders with the likes of Pentangle and Nick Drake (“Imminent Shadow”), and cheekily, Pink Floyd, too. The vocal melody of “Tombre en Morceaux” is so close to their “Paintbox” that it might as well be a brush and easel.

What else is great? The opening “Jack of Fools,” with its delicate harmonies and furtive guitar lines; the epic “Dieterich Buxtehude,” nodding towards classic Krautrock; the closing “The Tree,” with its gentle whimsey.

As coin collections go, Cullum’s is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a hangling ragbag of pennies, cents and more besides. But it’s a joy to paw through and, cleverly, it arrives with artwork that itself could have stepped out of an early seventies art department.

 

14

Ronnie Wood

Somebody Up There Likes Me (DVD)

(Eagle Vision)

Even without the pictures, clips, footage and conversation, any documentary retelling of Ronnie Wood’s story was destined to become one of the great epics in rock’n’roll. Most stars today, after all, owe their historic glory to one, maybe two projects. Even among Wood’s bandmates… but stop right there. Which bandmates?

His buddies in the Birds, the boys in the Beck Group, his fellows in the Faces, his sidekicks in the Stones? Any one of those bands would be worth a documentary in itself. To try and cram them all into a mere 102 minutes would be like trying to … I don’t know, do something numerically impossible with a host of unlikely objects. But it works.

It’s the fact that Wood himself comes over as “just one of the boys’ that … okay, it doesn’t surprise, because that’s been his image all along. But it makes a difference, regardless. No tirted recitation of “and then I did this and then I did that,” Wood opts instead to be open and humorous, self-deprecating and daft.

We know he has not necessarily led the most trouble-free of lives, but watching this, you don’t see how any of them could have phased him. He’d just turn and flash that cracked, crooked grin, run a hand through a haircut that should surely be numbered among the 7 Wonders of the Musical World, and all the nonsense would melt away.

So much for the man, what about the music? Well, it’s peerless, innit, all those clips and flashes that send you scurrying to dig out the albums from which they came… Truth, A Nod’s As Good as a Wink, Every Picture Tells a Story, Some Girls, Voodoo Lounge. If there’s not at least one Wood-inflected album in your all-time Top Twenty, then you clearly weren’t paying attention.

In terms of what it shows and what it says, Somebody Up There is very much standard rock doc fare. Where it bursts through the ceiling is in the sheer joy of its subject matter - and we’ve not even mentioned his paintings yet! Well, you’ll just have to watch it for that.

  

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The Loyal Seas - Band Photo - for Teaser page

THE LOYAL SEAS – Strange Mornings In The Garden

Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly) and Brian Sullivan (Dylan in the Movies) have teamed up as The Loyal Seas. Their debut 7" is limited to 500 copies and features two original songs on beautiful white vinyl. Available exclusively from American Laundromat Records.