Thursday, 28 December 2017

Miranda Lee Richards - Existential Beast


(This review first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

Invisible Hands CD/LP

There's been a steady stream of records concerned with ecology, corruption and the state of the planet over the last 40 years. What makes this offering from LA-based Miranda Lee Richards so special is its articulate power. Without naming names political leaders are evoked and rebuffed by intelligent poetical argument.

Musically the album draws from several 1970s sources – Laurel Canyon country rock royalty ('Ashes And Seeds'), Joe Boyd's Witchseason productions for Island Records ('Autumn Sun' and 'Oh Raven'), through to the spoken word sections of David Axelrod's Earth Rot (the end section of 'Lucid I Dream'). Subtle use of echo throughout the album adds to the continuity of sound and aids its woozy intoxicating power.

The album's tour de force is saved till the end. Clocking in at 12 minutes, 'Another World' is the most overtly political song, calling out those in power and offering a vision of how things could be. Clever stuff.

GospelbeacH - Another Summer Of Love

(This review first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

Alive CD/LP

Whether 2017 yields a season of goodwill remains to be seen. This follow up to GospelbeacH's 2015's debut Pacific Surf Line can only help it happen. Its ten tracks of lush, cosmic Americana could only have been made on America's west coast, so the opening lyric cheekily borrowed from The Jam (“In the desert there's a thousand things I want to say to you”) is a neat attention grabber. You know you're listening to a band with serious pop-nous.

GospelBeacH's sound recalls Tom Petty's mix of roots rock and new-wave, along with the grown-up country rock of Chuck Prophet. Though recognising they may be peddling an idealised version of the Golden Sate their take on Cali-rock is seductive – catchy tunes, tasteful song-serving guitar solos and accomplished musicianship that doesn't stray into session-player blandness. Not one for neophiles, but those of us who value quality can bask in its revitalising sun-drenched goodness.

The Band FAQ - Peter Aaron

(This review first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

Backbeat Books

Though they had a hand in destroying “all that psychedelic bullshit” and giving rise to The Eagles (er thanks guys!), there's no denying the influence The Band had on many leading musicians of the late '60s. Urbanist futurism was out, heritage and rural-living was in. Even The Beatles took notice ditching the satin Sgt. Pepper suits and Eggman garb in favour of more natural fibres.

It's a story that's been told in print before - Barney Hoskyns' Across The Great Divide, and the I-was-there memoirs of both Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, so you wonder what there is to add. To his credit Aaron doesn't dig dirt or focus on the fissures that ultimately split The Band apart, nor does he take sides. He opts instead for a fact-heavy celebration of the music, and is particularly insightful when analysing what made the quintet so special as musicians. Key concerts, their gestation periods backing Ronnnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, and a guide to their most essential bootlegs are also well covered, as is their reformation in the 1990s and the often overlooked solo releases.

Not quite so necessary is the chapter focused on the genres that fed into The Band's work as most readers will already have a good grasp on blues, jazz, soul etc. A minor quibble, and while this is not a book to devour, its concise chapters are great for dipping into. It'll certainly have you digging out The Band's albums and hearing them with a fresh appreciation.  

Green Seagull - Scarlet / They Just Don't Know (Ltd. 7")

(This review first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

Mega Dodo 7”

As you'd expect from a band that bonded over a shared love of obscure '60s psych, Green Seagull's vinyl debut sounds like it's been beamed in from 1967, determined to warp modern day minds. 'Scarlet' sits on the darker side of baroque pop, documents the dream/nightmare knife-edge of obsessive love, and is packed with ideas, intricate instrumentation, tight harmonies and a neat melody.

Flip-side 'They Just Don't Know' could be an out-take from Forever Changes. Its opening guitar motif and odd time signature give way to a frantic flamenco rhythm, the music matching the apocalyptic theme, full of compositional quirks and false stops before the dramatic instrumental finale. Listen closely and there's as much a debt to the classical cannon as there is to The Left Banke and Love, courtesy of keyboardist Sarah Gonputh (Formerly of The Lysergics, New Electric Ride). A thrilling debut and a must-have piece of vinyl!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Interview with Me And The Bees

(This feature first appeared in issue #66 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished interview click over the jump at the bottom of the post.)

Barcelona's lo-fi indie pop trio get set to spread the goodness. Duncan Fletcher picks up the positive vibes.

Most bands form not for money, fame or a blue tick, but for the pure reward of making music with friends. So it is with Me and The Bees. Bassist Esther Margarit, drummer Verónica Alonso and guitarist Carlos Leoz (all three share vocals) are set to release Menos Mal, their third LP since starting life as a duo in the MySpace era. Verónica explains - “Esther started the band with Eli Molina. Almost all the first record's songs were made in that time, but before recording I got asked to play a special concert. After that I was in the band. Two gigs later Carlos played with us and we never let him go. By the second album Eli left for her own project (Fighter Pillow - really good!) but we never let her go completely, she normally comes in the studio to make a collaboration or two. MATB is about friendships, how life makes them stronger by understanding, help and of course some small passionate fights along the way.”

Inspired by '60s girl pop and seminal '90s guitar bands Pavement, Guided By Voices and Teenage Fanclub, the band named themselves after a song by cuddlecore duo The Softies. Says Esther - “A friend recommended K Records, I fell in love with many bands on the label, one being The Softies.”

The band spent five days recording Menos Mal at Cal Pau Recordings studio, in its idyllic rural setting outside Barcelona. “Being there was magic” says Verónica, “you woke up and could see horses through your bedroom window.” “Almost paradise” agrees Esther. Spain's strength in nurturing indie-pop is not only due to weather and scenery as Carlos explains - “There's always been good independent bands to learn from... from your own city you could share feelings and fun with. Also many foreign bands tour here... learning how to do things independently of the commercial circuit. Hopefully this will continue till the end of time.”

Menos Mal is out now on La Castanya.

(Click over the jump for the full interview)

Interview with Aquaserge

(This feature first appeared in issue #65 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished Q&A click over the jump at the bottom of the post.)

The French experimentalists' latest LP is a dazzling journey into uncharted musical zones. Duncan Fletcher straps in for the ride.

“Begin afresh, afresh, afresh” The final line in Philip Larkin's poem The Trees may not have been Aquaserge's mantra while making new LP Laisse ça être, but its theme of Springtime optimism is apt. The band (their name a pun on à quoi sers-je?, meaning "what am I useful for?") formed in 2005 in Toulouse as a collaborative project that has since involved over 60 musicians. They make music that like the buds in Larkin's poem is in a constant state of renewal. Though now distilled to a core of five key musicians featuring auxiliary members of Stereolab, Melody's Echo Chamber, Tame Impala and Mother's Acid Temple, the open door policy is still in place. “Aquaserge's studio process is like a Cassavetes movie: some characters are energetic, others anxious, playful, or obstinate. Each of us, in turn, can be brilliant, pathetic or dramatic... In Aquaserge there are the main characters but also the secondary characters: the visitors, the friends which are important too. When you spend ten days together in a studio, you start to become crazy, like living in a submarine. Visitors are our breath of fresh air and often we invite them to play with us; this is why there are so many people in the credits” says bassist Audrey Ginestet.

While there may be traceable influences on the record – Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, prog, free-jazz, Third Stream music and the work of fellow countrymen Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Claude Vannier and Air, their music refuses to be easily pigeonholed. For Aquaserge, music making is more about friendship than adhering to the rules of any stylistic genre. That said, for this album they were intent on making a record that paid special attention to rhythm. Keyboardist Julien Gasc explains - “In 'Les Yeux Fermés' we talk about a dance that doesn't exist. The narrator says that ghosts are entering him at night, teaching him the moves for this new dance.The album is full of dance genres from Africa, South America, Europe.”

Their experimental approach also extends to their lyric writing. As Julien says of the methodology used on one of the album's standout tracks 'Tintin On Est Bien Mon Loulou' - “It's just automatic writing... more of a Dada text, it says everything and nothing. The writing of the texts is our favourite game to play. In this case, the rule was that each line must start with a syllable that sounds like the last syllable of the previous line.”

What really impresses about Laisse ça être is its sense of fun. Play the album to any of your friends and at some point their eyes will widen at its brazen charm. A charm due in no small part to Toulouse's independent mindset. “There are a lot of musicians in Toulouse... if they move to other places they always come back” says guitarist Benjamin Glibert. “They are also losers in a way, (toulouse, to lose), but there is a strong friendship between them. This is what we are, defeated, independent, idealists and solid. We do the music we want even if nobody cares and we keep doing it.”

Laisse ça être is out now on Crammed Discs.

(Click over the jump for the full Q&A.)

Interview with Mother Island

(This feature originally appeared in issue #65 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished Q&A click over the jump at the bottom of the post)
The Vicenza-based band have a dark and impassioned take on '60s Americana. Duncan Fletcher checks out this Italian renaissance.

Can you imagine crossing Venice through its canals on a little wooden boat, late at night while the city sleeps? ... When you see the moon mirroring itself in the water while a Mexican guy is bringing you, with his boat, to an after-show party... you know you’ll remember that moment forever.” So says vocalist Anita Formilan explaining the inspiration behind the title of the group's second long-player Wet Moon. Following on from 2015's  

Cosmic Pyre, this latest work contains echoes of US acts such as The 13th Floor Elevators and The Doors, along with tracks which favour a more expressionistic, textural approach.
What holds it all together are Anita's vocals, reminiscent of San Francisco sirens Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, which spar with the twang 'n' tremolo guitar of her band-mates. “My favourite singers are Billie Holiday, Karen Dalton, Diamanda Galas, Nina Simone, Memphis Minnie. My approach is shaped by different elements - the golden decadence of jazz and blues, the raw energy of punk and the smooth elegance of Italian movie soundtracks from the '60 and '70s.”

Along with the obvious love of American sounds, there's a passionate Italian heart at the core of their work. Anita explains - “We love Vicenza: art, architecture, history and events make this area interesting and alive. Venice, Padova, Treviso and Verona are less than one hour from here, all beautiful cities. Entertainment and culture are easily available everywhere.”

The album was recorded with friend and producer Matt Bordin in his Outside Inside Studio, where the band made full use of its analogue sounds and vintage instruments. “Working with him is always funny and intense. We love recording there, it allow us to retreat in a hideaway where we can switch off from our daily lives and focus on what we love the most.”

Wet Moon is out now on Go Down Records. 

(Click over the jump for the full Q&A.)

Interview with Karl Blau

(This feature first appeared in issue #73 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unpublished interview click over the jump at the bottom of the post.)

Karl Blau has been the go-to producer for successive waves of American musicians. His latest solo LP defies genre, speaks to both head and heart, and calls for a little tenderness. Duncan Fletcher sees him step out of the shadows.

In Skagit County, Washington, USA is the town of Anacortes. It's home to Karl Blau, a fourth generation oyster farmer, prolific musician and de-facto in-house producer for K Records. He's helped this independently-minded corner of the country forge a strong musical identity, one that's proudly DIY and musically self-educated. He's released many records via his own KLAPS mail-order subscription service but a deal with Bella Union resulted in 2016's Introducing Karl Blau, a sublime LP of country-soul covers, which brought him to a wider audience. Anyone expecting more of the same is in for a surprise. His latest album Out Her Space draws on Afro-pop, mariachi, dub, funk, non-rock rhythms, and stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

“I think people are more open-minded than ever now,” says Karl, “being able to hear any kind of music anytime as we have it now, kind of like gender, music genre seems to be less and less important. What's more important perhaps is the story. If an artist can interact with the cultural story that is unfolding right now, it may be advantageous. And yeah, making different styles is inevitable for me because my interests in music are so varied.” It's a dazzling record with over-arching themes centred on human values, decency and tenderness. “Tenderness, yes!” agrees Karl, “I'm inspired over and over to explore with writing about compassion and curiosity. Understanding is a key to great things, and that often may only happen with tenderness and patience.”

Blau is backed on the record by the Spacebomb house band - “I got to know them through recording with them over the years starting in 2007 with The Great White Jenkins - guitarist Matthew E. White and drummer Pinson Chanselle. The Spacebomb rhythm section is these guys plus bassist Cameron Ralston. There's something so low to the ground about their approach, they take nothing for granted in the moment. This quality for me is one of the main branches on the tree of great music. They really listen and lean into each other. We tracked all the basics live together, that helps a vibe a lot.” It was this association that helped birth Matthew E. White's breakthrough LP Big Inner, which Blau engineered. He describes Out Her Space as “a cousin to Big Inner”, hence the playful titling.

I asked Karl what initially sparked his interest in recording. “It's always felt magic to me to bottle time by recording sound vibrations. In grade school ping-ponging multiple tape decks, swapping the tapes, each new track dramatically degrading the tracks before them... in the mid '90s a group of us would record every waking hour and compare notes almost daily. That helped a lot to be in a gang inspiring one another - Dave Matthies (The Gift Machine) and a bunch of others. Nothing to do for twenty-somethings in Anacortes, especially in the '90s besides art or hanging on the beaches or forest trails.”

Small-town life is a gift to exploratory music and Karl Blau is a rewarding discovery. Check out either Bella Union record and work backwards. It's a rich seam.

Out Her Space is out now on Bella Union.

(Click over the jump for the full interview)

Dengue Fever - Dengue Fever / Escape From Dragon House

(This review first appeared in issue #67 of Shindig! magazine.)

Both Tuk Tuk CD

Having secured rights to their back catalogue the Los Angeles-based band begin a reissue campaign with deluxe versions of their first two albums. Bolstered with remixes and live tracks, they're a reminder of what a spirited force the band can be.

Originally released in 2003, their eponymous debut was unique - western rock musicians paying tribute to the lost sounds of '60s and '70s Cambodian pop. Their mix of western and Khmer rock gained authenticity thanks to the vocals of Chhom Nimol, who'd served her apprecticeship singing in Cambodian restaurants in the Little Phnon Penh neighbourhood of Long Beach.

The 2005 follow-up Escape From Dragon House saw the band expand rhythmically and texturally, and includes more self-penned songs and vocal contributions from other band members. Of particular interest among the extra tracks is 'Sni Ha', a Cambodian language version of Sonny Bono's 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).'

Thomas Wynn and The Believers - Wade Waist Deep

(This review first appeared in issue #67 of Shindig! magazine.)

Mascot CD/LP

Thomas Wynn is a man not afraid of asking big questions, as befits someone whose musical upbringing was centred around the Christian church. Family, spiritual fulfilment, redemption and the hope to become a better person are all themes which run through his band's third album.

Longtime local heroes, the Orlando-based sextet to opted to record in Nashville this time round, hoping for a sound that might bring them wider recognition. A good move. Their melting pot of classic and country rock, southern soul and gospel sounds big thanks to a sterling production job. Their sound may be traditional but they can also throw nu-rock moves – the riffage and slow-burning groove on 'Burn As One' or the shifting time signature and tempos on 'We Could All Die Screaming'.

With hot musicianship and in-the-pocket playing this is a record for fans of Little Feat, Drive-By Truckers and Joshua Tree-era U2. Authentic modern Americana for grown-ups.

Ann-Margret - The Definitive Collection

(This review first appeared in issue #67 of Shindig! magazine.)

Real Gone Music 2CD

Swedish-born Ann-Margret Olsson must have been a record producer's dream after signing to RCA Victor in 1961. Having honed her vocal skills on the live circuit she could switch between sultry and coquettish as required. The label envisaged her as a female Elvis, unsurprising given her interpretive abilities and photogenic looks.

This compilation centres on her 1961-1966 recordings for the label. The supper-club jazz, pop standards and light entertainment may be too sweet for some, but Olsson's voice still charms. Her simultaneous movie career took off with Bye Bye Birdie and she went on to star alongside Presley in Viva Las Vegas (the pair's two duets from the film are included). Also of interest here is 'I Just Don't Understand' complete with fuzz guitar and wailing harmonica, later covered by The Beatles for a BBC session. Olsson would go on to play the mother in The Who's Tommy, but that's one for another time. 


Jim Jones & The Righteous Mind - Super Natural

(This review first appeared in issue #67 of Shindig! magazine.)

MaSonic CD/LP

Jim Jones has always looked across the Atlantic for inspiration in his thirty years of music making. From channelling The Stooges in Thee Hypnotics, playing homage to soul and funk in Black Moses, to the good time rock 'n' roll of The Jim Jones Revue. This latest incarnation embraces the dark-hearted voodoo and rhythms of New Orleans.

As always there's an emphasis on volume and sheer sonic attack. The louder tracks may take your head off, but alongside the ear-bludgeoning guitars are perhaps the best lyrics of Jones' career, delivered with a gravelly growl Captain Beefheart would have been proud of. The effect is akin to Nick Cave fronting an art-rock version of The Band armed with stacked amps and Big Muff pedals. Superstition, catharsis, darkness, dynamics, the ghosts of music past and pointers to a new future, it's all there. Swamp rock Jim, but not as we know it!