Random Notes (April 2017)

Well, the days fly by, a third of the year already gone & I’m late with this. The end of April was spent attending “Distorted Perspectives”, Donegal’s premier psychedelic festival. A long trek involving planes, trains & automobiles (“As much fun as I’ve had on this little journey, I’m sure one day I’ll look back on it and laugh.”) was made more than worthwhile by  a second chance to see my friends the Gatefolds play live. On a big stage, with a proper PA & sympathetic lighting they absolutely killed it. The following day I celebrated the marriage of Alison & Kevin, two lovely people, new friends made on my recent visits to Ireland. This was my first Irish wedding. Man, these people can drink & they can talk. The middle of the night bus ride back was a Flann O’Brien novel come-to-life. Wonderful people, great times.

 

OK, on to the music that has caught my ear in April.

 

 

Whitney’s LP “Light Upon the Lake” was a highlight of 2016. Short (30 mins), sweet & fresh its blend of indie-pop with touches of ramshackle roots was just what I needed when more established favourites seemed to be repeating the old tried & tested. Julien Ehrlich’s plaintiff falsetto & Max Kakacek’s precise guitar insertions give their music a distinct individuality which, for me, elevates Whitney from a horde of new sounds. The classy, considered brass contributions of Will Miller brings to mind Calexico & that’s a good thing too.

 

Image result for whitney band you've got a womanI caught Whitney’s set at Coachella (not a place I hung around for too long, them, Chicano Batman & I’m gone) & they have put their cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” on Spotify. Now there’s an upcoming 12″ record featuring a couple of surprising cover versions. “Gonna Hurry (As Slow As I Can)” is a Dolly Parton demo that wasn’t released until 2009 while “You’ve Got A Woman” is a Pop-Psych-Funk classic (really !) originally recorded in 1975 by Dutch duo Lion who made just this one record & nothing else. Whitney have done a great job here, there’s a flash video to promote the song &, while Julien’s voice still seems to divide opinions, I think (OK, hope) that they are set for bigger things.

 

 

Robyn Hitchcock has a new record out, the CD case is on the table in front of me. It’s his first since 2014’s “The Man Upstairs”, a cover-heavy collection produced by the doyen of British Folk-Rock Joe Boyd, which turned down the whimsy & turned on the charm. “Robyn Hitchcock” is his 22nd studio LP (probably, someone else is counting) & is a return to the rocking good music he made with the Egyptians & the Venus 3. He’s relocated to Nashville, there are a couple of countrified tracks here, hooked up with co-producer Brendan Benson off of the Raconteurs, got some star guests including Gillian Welch & Grant Lee Buffalo, & assembled 10 new songs that are proving to be most pleasing.

 

Image result for robyn hitchcock 2017Hitchcock’s work is always shot through with imagination & wit. The record opens with the melodic Power Pop of “I Wast to Tell You About What I Want”, closes with the pretty glorious, jangling Revolveresque “Time Coast”. His 60’s influences (Beatles, Syd Barrett) are always apparent but “1970 in Aspic” & “Autumn Sunglasses” are new Hitchcockian gems. It’s tough to choose just one track & “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” makes the cut because it reminds me of “Birds in Perspex”, an old favourite round here. “Robyn Hitchcock” is getting a lot of play this month.

 

 

Image result for black grape straightI’ve not yet listened to lead Kink Ray Davies’ new record “Americana” enough. I’m sure that, like “Working Man’s Cafe” (2007), it will get me in the end. So the third pick of the month is an immediate, groovy new single, the opening track from “Pop Voodoo” the new LP by Black Grape. I was not the biggest fan of Happy Mondays, at the time my ears were otherwise occupied, but I knew people who loved them. For a while they were everywhere & when I listened properly it did seem that someone had a handle on the varied influences of a bunch of drug-fucked Manchester chancers & was knocking up some very effective contemporary Dance-Rock. When Shaun Ryder hooked up with Kermit off of Ruthless Rap Assassins (a useful Hip-Hop crew from the north) in Black Grape “It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah” & its hit singles had a rush & a push of direct, appealing energy.

 

Happy Mondays have always had an audience for their reunions & Shaun has become a shoot from the lip Man of the People in his tabloid column & on reality TV. This is Black Grape’s first record for 20 years & I’ll nick Irving Welsh’s review, “The world is in a bit of a state right now, and bullshit reigns more than ever, and perversely disguised as candour. We need Manc street sass, intelligence and wit more than ever right now. This album has that in spades.” Hearing Shaun Ryder point out on “Everything You Know Is Wrong” that POTUS has “the biggest fucking lie in the world on top of his fucking nugget” to a very danceable rhythm provides a little, much needed & appreciated relief.

 

 

Random Notes (January 2017)

For much of the time I am perfectly happy listening to music I know so intimately that a molecular transference has occurred & made it part of me. Lately, if I want to hear something previously unknown, there has been much satisfaction to be found in crate digging for Soul & Funk gems from the early 1970s. Whether it’s getting beyond the singles of ex-Temptation Eddie Kendricks & discovering the delights of his 7 solo LPs for Motown or grooving to the gritty Blues-Soul on the 4 records Little Milton made for Stax after leaving Chess, there’s much great music that passed me by at the time.

 

Image result for pinegrove cardinalAt the turn of the year I was checking for a “best of the year” list on one of the few message boards I trust (hey, it’s the Internet, be careful) & I heard something that just knocked me over. I bought the CD within hours &, a month later. have had no reason to regret my impulse purchase. Here’s just 80 seconds of Pinegrove, a song that’s not on their record “Cardinal”, an indie-pop blast that has certainly helped to lighten the mood in the weird times of January 2017.

 

 

 

Pinegrove are from Montclair, New Jersey, out near Paterson, the setting for Jim Jarmusch’s latest film. In 2015 they signed for Run for Cover records, tying up the loose ends of Bandcamp tracks & self-released cassettes on “Everything So Far”. “Cardinal” opens with “Old Friends” & closes with “New Friends”. They have made plenty of the latter with this assured collection. Evan Stephens Hall’s songs combine emotional lyrics with dynamic melodies, changes that are subtle while still having a real belt to them. The all-to-brief “Angelina” brings Teenage Fanclub to mind & that is never a bad thing.

 

 

Congratulations to the good people at Audiofeed who recorded 8 tracks with Pinegrove which are even better than the record. “Aphasia” is just a triumph, the whole band pulling together to make a good song even stronger & getting the sound it deserves. Both of the LPs are on the Y-tube, you can, as I did pay what you like for “Cardinal” at their website. Now over at Pinegrove’s Bandcamp there is the same deal for “Elsewhere”, 8 tracks recorded live on their last tour. Pinegrove are visiting the UK in late February/March. They are not playing too near my house but I will seriously try to go those extra 70 miles to catch my favourite new band.

 

Meanwhile the #1 in my heart for 2016, Whitney, continue to make an impression on the mainstream. I caught their “Golden Days” being used in an infomercial for one of those machines that you shout at & it plays music or turns off your lights. I don’t know what these things are called nor do I care. They monitor every move you & your family make in the name of progress & it’s a no thanks from me. The band also got to play that song again on their US TV prime time debut for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”. Here’s how that went…

 

 

There is, I guess, a touch of alt-country about both of these groups though they are hardly hanging out in the barn or whittling on the porch. It’s emotional Indie Rock that relies on melody & intelligence rather than a run along the effects pedals for impact. I’m hearing a freshness & an energy that I no longer hear in more established artists. I’m ready to put Wilco, Son Volt & Ryan Adams (though not Jason Isbell) on the back burner & look forward to Pinegrove’s & Whitney’s future music. I know…Just kick my ass, okay.

 

Well, that’s enough brand new modern music thank you very much. My album of the month was released in 1968. Joe South had success as a producer/writer for Billy Jo Royal before recording his own debut LP “Introspect”. The second single from the record, “Games People Play”, (you know it…”people try to sock it to ya, singing glory hallelujah”..great electric sitar) became a world wide hit. Capitol Records, wanting to reach this new audience, withdrew “Introspect” & quickly released an LP with the same title as the hit. Only 3 songs were retained, Joe’s versions of his better known songs included. It’s a good record but what the heck do record companies know ?

 

 

Image result for joe south“Introspect” is a Southern Country Soul classic, a little heavy on the strings but enough imaginative production flourishes to still surprise. Joe’s strong voice is matched to lyrics containing a strong element of social commentary (Joe had played on Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”). “Mirror of Your Mind” & the 7 minute closer “Gabriel” step into Psych-Country Pop, not the most populated genre & South is really good at it. Even “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden”, a syrupy country hit for Lynn Anderson in 1970 & a song I was never too fond of, sounds tougher & better. I was lucky enough to catch Joe playing an acoustic set of his hits, he was a fine songwriter. “Introspect” (again the full works on the Y-tube) could be the template for when Elvis went to record in Memphis. I prefer the one that got there first.

 

Loosehandlebars Pick of The Pops 2016

Well, this has been some year. My generation is of an age where its cultural heroes are getting old & a certain amount of loss is to be expected. In 2016 the Grim Reaper seems to have been on some sort of productivity bonus & too many of the good & the great have left the Earth. The impression made on my own life by Muhammad Ali, Johan Cruyff & Prince ensures that their memory is eternal. There are others, it’s a list & it’s a long one. Parallel to this exit of giants has been the rise of political pygmies. The success of Theresa May, Nigel Farage & President Trump (now there’s something to choke on), pedlars of fear, hawkers of hatefulness & nostalgia for an age that never was, has been, for myself, a shock & a disappointment. Thank Jah that music is still able to calm my unease & to raise the spirit.

 

 

So #1 in my heart for this year is “Light Upon the Lake”, the debut LP from Whitney. This Chicago band came almost out of nowhere, I knew the Smith Westerns, less so the Unknown Mortal Orchestra. This short, 10 tracks, 30 minutes, collection of mostly break-up songs doesn’t waste a moment. The individual falsetto of drummer/singer Julian Ehrlich is a taste worth acquiring because repeated listening brings out the band’s Country Soul. Of course references to past music will be made, the use of brass reminds me of Calexico, while the guitar insertions of Max Kakacek (co-writer with Erlich) have the economy & taste of George Harrison, not a name you hear enough nowadays.

 

Image result for whitney bandAt a time when I’m finding the output of established American artists to be mining a seam that, while still productive, was providing a greater return 10 years ago, Whitney sound fresh & modern. The songs they choose to cover indicate a finely tuned taste. There’s a touch of Allen Toussaint in the way the songs are short, sweet, restrained & melodious. “Nashville Skyline” Bob Dylan provides “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You” & anyone who checks for NRBQ is OK by me. Have just one more. This swashbuckling version of “No Matter Where We Go” was a digital release which brings to mind the pop sensibility of Big Star. That’s some heavy names & no-one here has mentioned the Band…Get on this record !

 

 

New music can take longer to reach me now. Johnny Marr’s solo LPs were released in 2013/14 but it was only this year that I really came around to them. Similarly the melancholy Merseybeat stylings of Bill Ryder-Jones’ “West Kirby County Primary” was almost a year old before it made a very good impression around here. Anyway, I keep returning to the music of Steely Dan & Donald Fagen, some of it 40 years old now, a reminder that intellect, sophistication & a jaded cynicism are still to be valued. Here’s #2 on this year’s Hit List.

 

 

Way, way back in the early 1990s while the world was going “grunge” & then, over here, buying into the Britpop thing there was a thread in British music, collectives who were listening to House, Hip Hop & Dub before creating their own sounds. Dreadzone, Leftfield. the Bristolians Massive Attack & Tricky were all making music that seemed more acute than the rock retreads of boys & girls with guitars (Teenage Fanclub being the exception). Underworld’s “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” & “Second Toughest in the Infants” LPs were a one-two knockout combination of high quality techno & world class production placing the trio in the vanguard of the new dance music’

 

Image result for underworld band barbaraAn Underworld b-side “Born Slippy. NUXX” featured in “Trainspotting”, Cool Britannia’s flagship movie. “Lager lager” was a popular flavour at the time & the group had a big hit on their hands. Subsequent releases did not match the quality of those two records, we were chilling out & trip-hopping while they were becoming Underworld-by-numbers. This year’s “Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future” is their first release for almost 6 years. They are back to the original duo & Karl Hyde’s collaboration with Brian Eno, 2 albums in 2014, was a tip off that they had got it going on. It’s a collection for the head, the heart & the hips, strong songs topped by the glitter-rock done by the Fall of “I Exhale”, tailed by the shimmering beauty & power of “Nylon Strung”. Underworld know what they want & know how to get it done. Listening to”Barbara…” is, for me an exhilarating & uplifting experience & 2016 sure needed some of that.

 

 

OK, the 3rd choice is a tough one. For most of the year Daniel Romano’s “Mosey”, an exercise in Bohemian Country, was almost nailed on. Later in the year the 2 Knowles sisters, Solange & Beyonce, impressed with their new records. Common’s “Black America Again” sounds like Hip Hop as it should sound while the return of Tribe Called Quest always demanded attention but “We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service” came a little late & well…I miss Phife. This past month I have been listening to a lot of Sade !

 

Image result for sade mf doom“SADEVILLAIN” is a 20 minute mix made by young Portsmouth producer Seanh2k11. It matches #1 rapper MF DOOM with Ms Adu, a prominent purveyor of Eighties coffee table Soul & man, it sounds very good to me. DOOM sampled Sadie’s “Kiss of Love” on “Operation:Doomsday” his debut back in the last century (1999) & Sean Harrison has merged the greatest hits of both of them with imagination & skill. His Soundcloud page is well worth a visit. I am familiar with Sade’s work, I knew a lot of women who loved her back then. The light jazzy tinge suits DOOM’s other-worldly flow & gives a consistency to the 8 tracks. I recently watched Common’s NPR concert, Jazz-Rap in the White House Library is a little too refined for me. “SADEVILLAIN” is as cool as I need Rap to be. While we wait for DOOM’s collaboration with Ghostface Killah, this will do !