Review // The Album Years podcast – A New Pair of Ears

The Album Years, a new music podcast by No-Man colleagues Steven Wilson and Tim Bowness, went off to a roaring start, with fans applauding the first two episodes. The new series even hit the top 3 on Apple Podcasts in various countries. 

My opinion? The enthusiasm and insights of Wilson and Bowness make you want to pick up a pencil and take extensive notes. I’m afraid this series is going to cost me a small fortune in record stores. If a music podcast can achieve that, it’s a success in my book.

Each episode zooms in on a particular ‘album year’, a year from an era where albums existed as a unified art form, not just a random collection of hits. For Wilson and Bowness, who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, the era started in the mid-60’s–which is true, as long as you don’t take jazz albums into account–and ‘ended’ around the year 2000, which seems to be a more arbitrary choice, especially since the album era never really ended. But you need to draw the line somewhere. I get that.

Beyond Bowie and Pink Floyd

The first two episodes, focussing on 1980 and 1973, where lots of fun already. Without spoiling anything, I can say that while ‘Closer’ by Joy Division, Bowie’s ’Scary Monsters’ and Pink Floyd’s ’The Dark Side of the Moon’ are briefly mentioned they don’t feature in the official selection. As Wilson rightfully comments, these albums have been dissected and reconstructed over and over already: “There’s nothing more to say.”

Instead, Wilson and Bowness pick favorite, significant and strangely-under-the-radar records of a particular year and reflect on it, placing the albums in their historical context, commenting on sonic innovations, adding personal recollections and funny ad-libs (like only friends can), talking about the influence and nachleben of certain albums, often connecting the dots between them. It’s history, debate and annotated playlist rolled into one.

Real discussion

They don’t always agree, which is the kind of dynamic you need to make a podcast like this interesting. Even more so as the podcast isn’t allowed to use any sound clips, so both hosts have to work extra hard to ‘dance about architecture’ and they’re magnificent at it.

Wilson talks quite quickly and in a confident voice (almost as if his knowledge and opinions are fighting to get out), at times cutting off the soft-spoken Tim Bowness mid-sentence.

The Album Years Podcast - Steven Wilson & Tim Bowness - No-Man

The latter chooses his words with great care and manages to keep his composure when Wilson questions his choices or statements. It really makes you want to be a fly on the wall during No-Man recording sessions, which have consistently spawned great albums. Maybe that’s their magic.

But both offer remarkable insights and analysis. Even when they talk about records you already know, you’ll be inclined to dig up that LP and listen to it with a new pair of ears.

Just to give you one example: in the 1973 episode, Wilson talks about the horrific drum sound on Todd Rundgren’s ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. So I went back to the Zen Archer, and lo and behold, he’s right. Though one could argue it’s part of the DIY aesthetic of the album.

Insightful and exciting

There’s really no point in judging the selection of albums. Wilson and Bowness have been sharing their playlists online for years. Together they turned me on to dozens of albums. They set out the boundaries of the podcast clearly and within that framework I’m confident they’ll keep balancing every episode between the familiar and the obscure, the accessible and the bizarre. The Album Years has been both insightful and exciting so far.

Enjoy ’The Album Years’ now on all major podcast platforms.

Jaco Pastorius composing Word of Mouth at the piano, with a pencil between his teeth

Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Word of Mouth’ (1981) – Album of Extremes for Extreme Times

The first few days of quarantine, I struggled to enjoy anything at all. Then I started to feel the gravitational pull of Jaco Pastorius’ 1981 album ‘Word of Mouth’.

I hadn’t given the record much attention until a couple of months ago, when I went through a major Pastorius phase.

Now, with corona taking over our lives, the album reveals even more of its identity. We’re going through a period of extremes.

There’s chaos and peace, solitude and togetherness, beauty and anxiety.

There’s Crisis. And there’s John and Mary.

Complexities of life

Ever since I heard Jaco’s solo piece Portrait of Tracy (‘Jaco Pastorius’, 1976) I’ve been fascinated by his use of light and shade.

He could pair supernatural dexterity with an all-knobs-up-to-eleven racket, just like Jimi Hendrix, all the while writing the most sensitive and beautiful compositions and bass parts.

Jaco may have been a virtuoso and a prankster.

A brilliant and sometimes disastrous performer.

Or even a homeless person with a severe mental disorder, overwhelmed by success and the pressures that came with it.

A comeback kid in the making, tormented by disappointment and instability.

But for me, what he did best was capturing the complexities of life with his highly individual combination of tone, chops and composition.

He did that in a heart-stopping way on Portrait of Tracy, which he wrote for his then-wife.

It’s just 02:22 long, but that solo bass piece, encapsulates everything that makes life hard and worthwhile at the same time.

John and Mary

Hearing ‘Word of Mouth’, reading Bill Milkowski’s excellent biography and thinking back about Portrait of Tracy made me realize how much of Jaco’s life went into his art.

That’s why Bill Milkowski quotes from the entry for the word ‘eulipion’ in ‘Websters New World Dictionary’:

“Music that is inseparable from life.
Sound that embodies the lifeforce and evokes visceral sensations.”

When you hear the kids whispering and giggling over the introductory piano chords of John and Mary—the children Jaco had with Tracy—, followed by a joyous steel pan-driven theme, it almost feels like viewing the world through Jaco’s eyes.

And then when the orchestra and flute take over and Jaco croons along … Wow!

‘The world’s greatest bass player’

Five years after his eponymous debut was released, everything was different.

Judging from the acclaim of the jazz press and his worldwide audience, Jaco Pastorius had actually become what he had always claimed to be: the world’s greatest bass player.

He enjoyed giant success as a member of Weather Report and as the bass player in Joni Mitchell’s band. He also started his own Word of Mouth Big Band.

In February 1980, Jaco signed a deal with Warner Brothers and the record company promptly trusted him with a $125,000 advance—about $390,000 in today’s money.

The world seemed to be Jaco’s oyster. But everything was NOT alright.

Jaco had essentially lost his family, with Tracy retaining custody of the children.

It seems like from that moment on, Jaco was rudderless. As his friend and steel plans player Othello Molineaux said:

“That Tracy thing haunted him for the rest of his life. It was deep in his soul.”

Jaco became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. His performances were often hit-or-miss. Sometimes downright disastrous.

Meanwhile, signs of mental illness came to the surface. Dr. Erskine, father of Peter Erskinewho sat on the drum stool with Jaco and Weather Reportthought it was manic depression. Later on, Jaco’s condition was diagnosed as bipolar disorder.

Whatever it was, ‘Word of Mouth’ proves that Jaco had the clarity of mind to compose, arrange and produce the most challenging music of his career.

Crisis and consolation

Crisis opens ‘Word of Mouth’ like ball lightning in a living room.

Bill Milkowski, who knew Jaco personally, wrote:

“This volatile piece captures the anger and internal chaos Jaco must have been experiencing at the time […] Crisis was uncompromisingly honest, expressive music that represented how Jaco felt.”

As a listener, you’re being attacked from all sides for five minutes straight, with the frenetic bass loop and the jumping hi-hat the only things to hold on to.

Jaco seriously pissed off the executives at Warner’s when he insisted Crisis should be the first track on the album. But he didn’t cave for their concerns about commercial suicide.

Right after the chaos of Crisis, the gentle melody of Three Views Of A Secret—a beautiful performance by Toots Thielemans on his trademark harmonicabring consolation.

The 12 minute long Liberty City, featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, ends the first side of the album in an optimistic, light-hearted and exploratory mood.

Bach’s Fantasy and Blackbird by The Beatles

In a way, the second side of ‘Word of Mouth’ follows a similar path. The leading track is the most ‘difficult’ one: a rework of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.

The first notes of the high-speed bassline almost seem like an echo of the bass loop in Crisis. And when the orchestra comes in, that’s when the song goes into uncharted territory. It feels like an abstract sound painting of sound. And it’s not easy on the ears.

Bach’s piece seamlessly segues into a breezy rendition of Blackbird, originally released on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ (1968).

I’m always touched by the father-and-son dynamic Jaco and Toots Thielemans had going on. On Blackbird, they emphasize that bond by sharing the lead, with Jaco running in and out of phase with Toots’ melody.

FUN FACT: Paul McCartney revealed that the guitar part for Blackbird was inspired by Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, which he and George Harrison used to play as a show-off piece in their teens. Jethro Tull probably made the most famous arrangement of Bourée inn the rock erait appeared on their 1969 album ‘Stand-up’No doubt Jaco must have seen the Bach link and placed the two songs side by side deliberately.

At the end of Blackbird, a few distorted bass notes signal the final chapter in a trinity. We’ve had Chromatic Fantasy and Blackbird. Now it’s time for the tormented fusion of Word of Mouth.

Jaco unleashes his demons as well as his inner John McLaughlin.

Finally, just like he did on side one, he wraps everything up and restores the balance with a long piece: the heartfelt John and Mary.

When one day I look back at this strange quarantine period—and let’s hope it’s just a one-off—I will remember Jaco’s ‘Word of Mouth’.

“There was Crisis. And there was John and Mary“.

Further reading
Bill Milkowski, ‘Jaco. The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Anniversary Edition)’, Backbeat Books 2005.

 

 

Bokanté and Metropole Orkest – ‘What Heat’ // A beautiful, important record

What does it take to make of good cocktail? The trick is to use the right measuring cups and shakers, a balanced mix of juices, liquor and spices and a splash of creativity. ‘What Heat’ by the multinational Bokanté is such a cocktail. A wonderous fusion of cultures and musical idioms. A blend that reveals new aromas with every sip. A keeper on the menu. Indeed, an important album.

The man behind the bar? Tireless Michael League. As if conquering the world with Snarky Puppy isn’t a fulltime job already, League is head of the GroundUP label, a champion for musician’s rights and a distinctive producer, notably responsible for the sound design of David Crosby’s sublime ‘Lighthouse’ (2016) and more recently, ‘Here If You Listen’. He really must need very little sleep as he also immerses himself in other passions, like mastering Turkish percussion and the art of the oud, a (North) African and Middle Eastern lute-like string instrument.

In Bokanté, League surrounds himself with true masters of their domain. Musicians out of five countries and nearly as many continents. On percussion: Jamey Haddad, André Ferrari, Keith Ogawa and djembe supremo Weedie Braimah (who also played on Bill Laurance‘s ‘Aftersun’). On guitar, there’s Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti, two of Snarky Puppy’s usual suspects. And Roosevelt Collier plays pedal steel (prominently on closing track La Maison En Feu).

And then there’s this fenomenal, multifaceted voice, which belongs to Guadeloupean singer Malika Tirolien. Together these nine unique identities make all boundaries evaporate. Just like that.

Seamless fusion

On its second album ‘What Heat’, Bokanté time travels back to the roots of the blues in Africa and the Arabic world, bringing back its finest elements and merging them with delta blues, Caribean music and a range of other influences, until someting new and exciting appears. The acoustic guitar arpeggio’s of McQueen and Lanzetti add western, almost singer-songwriter-like flair. And importantly, the Dutch Metropole Orkest gives wings to Bokanté’s sound.

Michael League and conductor Jules Buckley masterly avoid the pitfalls of the orchestra treatment – as they previously managed to do on ‘Sylva’ (2015), which landed Snarky Puppy a Grammy Award. ‘What Heat’ is all about unpredictable and exploring writing and arranging. Groove and melody come first.

The orchestral backdrop is always stylish, never ever blatant, always right on point. You can sense that these arrangements were intensely polished. But you can’t discern their screws and the seams. The orchestra rocks, soothes and rages in the background. And then sometimes it bursts out with an instrumental flash, to baffling effect.

World on fire

The song closest to my heart? Definitely Famn, which translates as The Woman. It touches a nerve unlike anything I discovered in the past few months. Its off-centre rhythm, deep bass, hissing and ominous strings, the tapestry of voices, the ‘speed bump’ at 02:32, the oud coda, … Chillingly beautiful.

Tirolien’s lyrics (often in Guadeloupean Creole) seem to focus on the state our world is in. Take Bod Lanme Pa Lwen, which means The Beach Is Not Far. The viewpoint of a sunbather or the yearning cry of a refugee on a rickety boat? The final words of the album leave no doubt about Bokanté’s social engagement: “Il est temps d’utiliser notre pouvoir / Maintenant” [“It’s time to use our power. Right now.”]

I’m far from done with ‘What Heat’, that’s for sure. It’s a deep, fun, layered and, dare I say, important album. Because it reflects on the world on fire. Because it’s a mirror of our complex society. Because it shows how boundaries and genres are merely artifects, which we can transcended. Again, ‘What Heat’ is a beautiful, important record.

The Breeders, Fabrik, Hamburg (3 July 2018)

All smiles, all authentic // The Breeders @ Fabrik, Hamburg (3 July 2018)

It all began with coincidence. When my grandmother and I decided to visit Hamburg, I instinctively went looking for the city’s best venues and their programs. Before long, I was holding tickets for The Breeders at the Fabrik, a former machine parts factory right in the middle of the lively, down to earth Altona neighbourhood.

It had been scheiße heiß that day in Hamburg’s Altstadt and by the waterside in the harbour. The slight breeze passing over the Elbe and the sight of the glacial Elbphilarmonie provided some refreshment, along with a pint of Erdinger Weissenbier. In the early evening, the piercing sun left behind a sultry, harmless heat.

You could easily mistake the sidewalk in front of the Fabrik for an outdoor screening of a World Cup match. Hands holding Carlsberg bottles, people wearing T-shirts of their favourite team (either The Breeders or local club FC Sankt Pauli), anticipation in the air.

Sturm und Drang

Apart from the old crane on the roof, the front of the Fabrik didn’t seem to hold anything special. But once inside, I got struck by its unique architecture: a high church-like room with a glass ceiling, hefty wooden beams, a 360° gallery on the first floor and an impressive wall of fame on the second floor. U2, Killing Joke, John Abercrombie’s Gateway Trio, Alphonse Mouzon, Holger Czukay, Klaus Schulze, Carla Bley, Billy Cobham, John Mayall, Miles Davis, … These greats and many others made the Fabrik the modest music temple it is today.

 

 

The Amsterdam youngsters of Pip Blom moved the audience’s minds away from the past. The band played its first gig on German soil. And as soon as 20 year-old singer Pip (vocals/guitar) and her band started making noise and launched their energetic form of slacker pop into the former factory, people started pouring in.

Wherever they go, Kim and Kelly Deal seem to prefer (part-)female opening acts. With ‘Last Splash’ and lead single Cannonball they hit jackpot in a male-dominated music industry and did things by their own standards. No compromises. Now they support other bands to do the same. For Pip Blom, it worked. The crowd appreciated the melodic Sturm und Drang of the Dutch quartet. Some people sang along, some mirrored the shaking bodies onstage.

Tension and release

Obviously, The Breeders gave a more mature impression, marked by a 30 year history of monster success and disintegration, addiction and rehab, line-up changes and reconciliation.

In 2013, the rejuvenated classic line-up of Kim and Kelley Deal, Jim MacPherson and Josephine Wiggs embarked on a tour to celebrate 20 years of ‘Last Splash’. A reunion that eventually led to the brilliant ‘All Nerve’, released in March.

The Breeders, Fabrik, Hamburg

Not that old tensions are gone altogether. “We don’t always get along”, Kim told J Double. “I think it’s sort of key.” Of her sister Kelley, she said: “Sometimes, I just want to take a knife and gouge her eyeballs. But then at other times, she says something and I think, Wow, that was really cool.” Meanwhile, Kelley told The New York Times about the experience of recording ‘All Nerve’: “We still butted heads.” And then they went out to get some ice cream and discuss the latest episode of their favourite true crime series. (Uncut Magazine #251)

So when Kim introduced Kelley in the Fabrik as the singer of the next song (I Just Want to get Along) with the words “Mother says Kelly has to sing a song”, it was both funny and poignant.

Smiling and shaking

If past tensions had left its mark on the band, you couldn’t tell from the energy on stage. Even in the back, it was hard not to be enchanted by Kim’s beaming smile. And Jim MacPherson’s drum set was a living thing, shaking with excitement right from the beginning, which had new song Wait in the Car sandwiched between ‘Last Splash’ favourites New Year and No Aloha. The band mainly drew songs from that album, 25 years old this year, and the new one, ‘All Nerve’.

 

Not suprisingly, just two tracks from the interim period made it to the setlist. MacPherson, who had left the band after the release of ‘Last Splash’, recalled in Uncut Magazine: “Hearing the new Breeders records coming out was like a knife in my gutt.”

Kim didn’t try to beat around the bush. Before she started one of those songs, Huffer, she said: “You can all song along to this, for it is the album before rehab. So the lyrics are really simple.” A goofy stab at herself.

On the verge of falling apart

Watching The Breeders launch into Cannonball and the wild audience reaction from the gallery was a sight to behold. Suddenly the crowd began jumping around as if trying to walk barefoot over red hot coals.

Tracks like Spacewoman, the gentle country of Drivin’ on 9 and Off You balanced the pace, the latter beautifully played by just the Deal sisters (“I am the autumn in the scarlet, I am the make-up on your eyes”) and immediately followed by the Pretty Vacant-like mood of I Just Wanna Get Along. Allegedly, Kim wrote that song about her failing working relationship with former Pixies-bandmate Frank Black, but after all that happened in her own band, the title took on a wholly new meaning.

Josephine Wiggs, who always comes across as the most sensible of the quartet in interviews, got it right when she told of the band’s sound to The New York Times: “Often I feel like it’s right on the verge of falling apart, and then it doesn’t. And there’s something super-exciting about that.”

In hindsight, I think that’s exactly what made this gig so special. That and the amazing surroundings of the Fabrik. All authentic. The real deal.

[Full setlist: below video]

Further reading

 

The Breeders@Fabrik, Hamburg – Setlist

  1. New Year
  2. Wait in the Car
  3. No Aloha
  4. Divine Hammer
  5. All Nerve
  6. Huffer
  7. Shroom
  8. Glorious
  9. Spacewoman
  10. Safari
  11. Drivin’ on 9
  12. Walking with a Killer
  13. Fortunately Gone
  14. S.O.S.
  15. Off You
  16. I Just Wanna Get Along
  17. Cannonball
  18. Happiness is a Warm Gun
  19. Skinhead #2
  20. MetaGoth
  21. Gigantic

ENCORE

  1. Do You Love Me Now?
  2. Nervous Mary
  3. Saints
Snarky_Puppy_Eindhoven_1

Snarky Puppy in Eindhoven: Grown Folks

Yesterday Snarky Puppy ended their ten-week tour of the world, showcasing Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’ and playing in three different line-ups along the way. I had the chance to watch two of them in action. And while the setlist and group partly remained the same, I left the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven with a entirely different feeling.

The circumstances of both shows could’nt have been further apart. The AB in Brussels is a revered rock hall in the center of Europe’s capital. A plain rectangular room, mostly for a standing crowd, painted bright red – the room, not the audience. There’s very little space outside of the actual concert hall, which gives way to a busy, electrifying atmosphere that reflects the vibrant metropole around the venue.

The energy that floats through the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven is more easy-going, more relaxed. The audience is waiting in line to get their tickets scanned – imagine that!

Situated in the middle of the Netherlands fifth-largest city, the Muziekgebouw is a rather luxurious venue, comprising a grand audiophile auditorium (mainly for jazz and classical) and a wealth of plush surroundings. While the audience in Brussels (9 May 2017) sang along to tunes and ooh’d and aah’d their way through every solo, the Eindhoven crowd (7 June 2017) seemed to be more focused on hearing every detail.

The difference is exemplary of the two hemispheres of Snarky’s universe: classy jazz and world music themes coupled with rock, funk and dance vibes. Melodic, harmonic and improvisational subtleties played in ecstacy-inducing manner.

Sonic hurricanes, then and now

With keys player Bill Laurance replaced by Bobby Sparks, guitarist Chris McQueen replaced by Bob Lanzetti, percussionist Marcelo Woloski (a lot of feeling) replaced by Nate Werth (a lot of power), a reduced horns section (sax player Bob Reynolds left) and Zack Brock on violin, we got introduced to a ‘new breed’.

I didn’t really have to analyze both shows – one month and two days apart from each other – in order to notice what’s changed. I listened a lot to the FLAC recording of the Brussels concert, so variations, both subtle and radical, revealed themselves right away. Let’s mention the big ones:

  • Chris McQueen played a wonderful rootsy guitar solo on Grown Folks in the AB. While in Eindhoven, Bob Lanzetti spiced things up with a big fat phaser effect. He also took the first solo of the night: a spiky, heavily harmonized improv on .
  • Solo interplay between keyboardists Justin Stanton and Bobby Sparks was limited in Eindhoven, unlike the chemistry between Stanton and Bill Laurance in Brussels. That’s just an observation. Both musicians played blistering solo’s, with Stanton ripping What About Me? to pieces and Bobby Sparks delivering the highlight of the evening with his volcanic Hammond-cum-Moog exploration on Gemini. Sparks later Mooged his way through fan favourite Thing of Gold, the oldest song on the setlist.

Snarky Puppy Bobby Sparks

  • Percussion had a predominantly supporting role in the AB, while Nate Werth and Larnell Lewis brought things to boiling point during Tio Macaco in Eindhoven. Great to hear that song, along with other songs that didn’t make the stage in Brussels: Semente, Thing of Gold and Shofukan.
  • Apparantly, the Brazilian-inspired Semente (which I mispronounced until Michael League announced it correctly als ‘Semenchi’) got a bass solo by Michael League for the first time ever.
  • The atmosphere of GØ changed dramatically when Zack Brock graced it with a near-perfect violin solo.

Who did I forget? Sax player Chris Bullock (see picture) and Mike ‘Maz’ Maher, of course. While they didn’t step into the spotlight like they did in Brussels, they played multiple imaginative solo’s. Maz is a great at playing fluid lines. Bullock specializes in more angular improvisation, taking small motifs and developing them into sonic hurricanes that make your hairline recede.

Snarky Puppy Chris Bullock

Close to tears

Being the last show of a ten-week worldwide tour, there was a sense of friendship and nostalgia in the air. Magda Giannikou (see picture), the brilliant Greek singer of GroundUP’s Banda Magda who was joined by the Snarky crew for the opening set of the evening, was both overjoyed and close to tears. During one of the solo’s Chris Bullock and Justin Stanton fist-bumped casually at stage left.

Snarky Puppy Banda Magda

Addressing the audience in between songs, Michael League seemed a bit tired (no wonder after such a mammoth run of show). After the show, he told me he was plagued by a sore throat. But that didn’t prevent him from delivering a passionate speech about the importance of supporting artists (not just streaming their music) – I previously transcribed his similar call to the Brussels crowd.

Danish dog

Over the last month, attending two very different shows and talking extensively to Bill Laurance (interview coming soon!), I enjoyed the opportunity to have an exceptional look into the DNA of this very special band: the inner dynamics, the brotherhood, the adventurous spirit and endless versatility, … What once started as Snarky Puppy is now a full-grown Danish dog. And still our favourite pet.

All of Snarky Puppy’s 2017 live shows are now available for download.
And they sound amazing!

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R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner 'Make It Be' Album Cover

‘Make It Be’ by R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner – Deranged radio show // Review

Nashville lo-fi legend and “godfather of home recording” R. Stevie Moore (RSM) puts out albums and nutty pop songs with remarkable ease, most of them self-released as tapes and cd-r’s. From time to time indie labels have shown interest in Stevie’s recordings too and at the turn of the century he won a zealous supporter in Ariel Pink, who introduced the bedroom work aesthetic of his mentor to an entire new generation. ‘Make It Be’, the latest in a series of over 400 DIY releases, now marks a new milestone in that wonderfully peculiar 50 year career.  

On ‘Make It Be’, R. Stevie Moore – usually a lone wolf, occasionally a keen collaborator – seeks assistance from power pop stalwart Jason Falkner. The result is a delightful album, destined to one day become some sort of lost, overlooked classic.

R Stevie Moore Jason Falkner Bar None Records

Credit: Bar None Records

Not some random dude

I knew RSM, but Falkner I didn’t. So I did some research and found he’s not just some random dude either. Falkner’s career immediately took off on a high note with well-established band The Three O’Clock, in the latter part of the eighties. Later he joined Jellyfish and The Grays and contributed to music by Air, Beck and even Paul McCartney. Recently Falkner produced albums by Syd Arthur (‘Apricity’) and Emitt ‘The One Man Beatles’ Rhodes (‘Rainbow Ends’). Like I said, not some random dude.

From Fab Four to Phonow Wow

Falkner and Moore share a passion for The Beatles – in typical absurdist fashion, Stevie once referred to them as The Beatlegs. ‘Stevie Does The Beatles’, a Fab Four cover album, dates back to 1975 and when years later Cherry Red Records launched an RSM compilation, it was accompanied by an ironic twist on the sleeve of ‘Meet The Beatles’.

In the introduction to that concise career overview Nuno Monteiro and Richard Anderson wrote about Stevie’s early output: “The albums flow in a simultaneously fluid and fragmented fashion, taking on the guise of a deranged, experimental and highly creative radio show.” That is precisely the feeling you get when you put on ‘Make It Be’.

Meet The R. Stevie Moore mirrors Meet The Beatles

‘Meet The R. Stevie Moore’ mirrors ‘Meet The Beatles’

The first three tracks (I H8 People, Another Day Slips Away and I Love Us We Love Me), all rock solid pop songs, flow into each other seamlessly. What follows is a peculiar mix of hilarious spoken word pieces (Prohibited Permissions), guitar interludes and more addictive pop songs (Stamps, Sincero Amore, Play Myself Some Music).

You’re also treated to a cover of Don’t You Just Know It by Huey Piano Smith & Clowns, breezy meditative synth track Passed Away Today and finally, a rough idea for a blues shuffle dedicated to Falkner (Falkner’s Walk, or more accurately Phonow Wow).

Like a dream. Like a vapor

Most tracks are (co-)written by RSM – some were even fully conceived and recorded decades ago. Those revisited tracks offer the key to what Falkner, a prodigious arranger, is bringing to the table. Falkner gives Stevie’s progressive pop melodies a polish and a more texturized sound, without impacting the uniqueness of the material. If anything, Falkner adds an accessible layer and a Byrds-like sparkle to a body of work that has been underground, unknown and largely unloved for way too long.

Another Day Slips Awayfirst released in 2006, is the one song that will probably occupy a spot in your long-term memory. That’s because of its infectious beat, vertigo-like melodies and telegraph-style lyrics: “Sleep and eat, love, work and play. Another day slips away. Days rushing by. Moving at the speed of light like a dream. Like a vapor.”

Get stamps!

There’s brilliant guitar work throughout. Check out that one-off riff in the middle of I Love Us, We Love Me and the lead playing on Horror Show. That last song took shape in Falkner’s head, hence the Three O’Clock/Dukes of Stratosphear neo-psychedelic atmosphere.

Play Myself Some Music, originally recorded in 1986, sounds like it ran away at an ‘Oddessey And Oracle’ recording session and tripped over ‘Mummer’ by XTC. That’s Fine What Time on the other hand, seems to channel both Barry White and Giorgio Moroder.

‘Make it Be’ – the title another nod to the Beatles? – is full of great influences like that. And Moore and Falkner never fail to paint their own little universe. Moore’s trademark oddball humor is never far away. Stamps, for example, is a high-powered punk song about someone desperately in need of, well, stamps. If You See Kay makes use of cheeky wordplay. And I Am The Best For You features Stevie doing his best impression of Lemmy of Motörhead.

Elsewhere there are genuine heartfelt moments, like Stevie singing “Baby it’s true” in I Love Us, We Love Me and Jason delivering the wonderful Sincero Amore.

Eclectricity

At 18 songs, ‘Make It Be’ is a lot to digest. But if you like your music eccentric and your albums eclectic, chances are you’ll be hooked for weeks. At last, it seems, RSM succeeds in bringing his pop craftsmanship to a wider audience – and rightfully so. With a little help of his friend, Jason Falkner.

Poppel, 'Alright', Sounds Tilburg

Meet Poppel, Lo-fi Janglegazers from the Lo Countries

Poppel is the name of a small and quiet town in the north of Belgium. Nothing much ever happens there. Since a few months, its name got hijacked by a promising four-piece band, comprising more or less local rock aces. Poppel likes to refer to their style as lo-fi janglegaze. Say what? Time to check out Poppel’s first cd release, ‘Alright’.

Poppel Alright 2017 Album Gazer Tapes

The general feeling of ‘Alright’ is one of deliberate brevity and sparseness. Listeners are being to treated to four cool, unpretentious songs, taking cues from Sonic Youth, Ducktails and Real Estate. Rhythmically drummer Lars Baeyens and singer/bassist Fik Dries take a straightforward approach, laying a solid foundation for the twin guitar work by Dries Hermans and Bram Van Gorp.  There’s not an ounce of fat to be seen, musically nor lyrically.

Some lines prove hard to get out of your head. And although words like “I was at your house today // You were not home you were away” may look simplistic, they’re really effective coming out of Fik Dries’ mouth. A craft he perfected with his previous band Believo!, which made some waves in Belgium and The Netherlands.

I’m going to resist the urge to review every song in detail. Just listen for yourself and find out what Northern-Belgian janglegaze is all about.

‘Alright’ is released on Hermans’ own label Gazer Tapes. Earlier, Poppel released a tape called ‘Couldn’t Care Less’, which included modest instant classic I Like You:

On Record Story Day, Poppel played in-store at Sound in Tilburg. Here’s a snippet of I Like You. Come closer!

Poppel share a YouTube channel with Fik Dries’ former band Believo! and Pastel Ruins by Believo! guitarist Dirk Thielemans. Go check it!

King Crimson Antwerp Live Review banner

Volcanic! // King Crimson (Antwerp, 3 Nov 2016) // Live Review

King Crimson, Stadsschouwburg Antwerp (Belgium), 3 November 2016

In 1969, King Crimson shook the world with a radically new sound, firing off the manic 21st Century Schizoid Man at a time when the familiar sounds of The Beatles and The Stones ruled the airwaves. Now, well into that 21st century, Robert Fripp and his gang of master musicians continue to undertake radical action. I witnessed the second of their Antwerp concerts – a nearly two-and-a-half hour onslaught. And I’m still recuperating.

What went before …

It’s fair to say I’ve had a European affair with King Crimson. I bought my first album, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’, in Tuscany – along with Gentle Giant’s eponymous debut album, ‘H to He Who Am the Only One’ by Van Der Graaf Generator and – perhaps surprisingly – Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’, which had just been released. So it must have been 2002.

A year later I climbed the narrow alleys that lead towards the Galata Tower in Istanbul to find ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ in a tiny record shop. Unlike my first encounter with ‘In The Court’, I didn’t immediately get ‘Larks’. The spark caught fire months later, during a bus ride to Prague.

The irony of this KC-inspired travelogue is that Robert Fripp himself has been unwilling to play Europe after his 2003 tour of the continent. I can’t retrace why exactly, but Fripp had experienced some serious issues with the conditions of European concert venues. Thank god he reopened the case and found a way to tour this chunk of the old world again in 2015 and again 2016. On 3 November, Antwerp unfolded the red carpet for the Crimson King …

Polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzles

From the first part of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic on, it was clear we were going to be treated to a rock sound of volcanic proportions. The frontline consisted of Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey and Gavin Harrison and their personalized ‘cyclops’ drumkits. An impressive, ehrm, sight. Together they produced an almost terrifying sound. I was seated in row three, at eye (and ear) level with the kick-drums. And boy, it felt like being trapped in a thunder cloud.

Whether it was justified to enlist three drummers? No doubt about that. Each one brought his own strengths to the table. Harrison proved to be the conductor and metronome of the drum department, while bowler hatted Jeremy Stacey crafted a more sober counterweight and played mean mellotron, and Mastelotto reshaped the percussive inventions of ex-KC maestro’s Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford. The result? A highly musical polyrhythmic jigsaw puzzle.
King Crimson European Tour 2016 Antwerp

The unmoved mover

Meanwhile, Robert Fripp sat quietly in the background. Mastermind of all this tricky music. Personification of Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’. Guitar innovator in every conceivable way.

He recalled old cohorts Mel Collins (flute and saxophones) and bass player Tony Levin to duty. And lent the singer/guitarist spot to lifelong zealot Jakko Jakszyk, who played a PRS guitar with a striking ‘ITCOTCK’-print.

The combined careers of all these players reeds like a who’s who in rock music. Fripp famously played guitar on Bowie’s Heroes, Mel Collins provided the sax solo on Miss You by the Rolling Stones and featured on Dire Straits’ live album ‘Alchemy’, Tony Levin seems to have played with everyone but Elvis, … But there’s probably no bigger challenge for them than playing King Crimson.

King Crimson 2016

The Antwerp setlist was like a wet dream (see below). There were quite a few songs from the earliest incarnations of the band, which frankly I hadn’t heard in ages. Jakko Jakszyk did a terrific job interpreting the original vocals by Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell, and even John Wetton (Easy Money and Starless).

The lack of eighties material was remarkable. It’s not unlikely that Adrian Belew’s jerky voice stylings were too much of a stretch. Even more since Jakko replaced the spoken word sections of Indiscipline with a vocal melody, which worked astonishingly well.

King Kong Crimson

The new material – there’s quite a lot of it, including two drum-only instrumentals – blended in nicely with the rest of the set. 60’s, turn-of-the-century or present-day Crimson? It all shared the same forward-thinking spirit, delicacy and King Kong-like power. At times it felt like the earth trembled underneath the Antwerp Stadsschouwburg. It reminded me of the thundering intensity of a Swans gig.

In fact, the first half of the show was a bit much to take – can’t tell you why – and I felt like I needed a pause as much as the band did. Somehow the Crimson machine ran smoother in the second half. Or was it my ears, that had ultimately surrendered to the onstage gunfire? I clearly wasn’t prepared for this. And that’s probably why the concert keeps ringing in my brain.

I don’t really feel like analyzing every player’s virtues. What would be the point? The most important thing is that this seven-headed King Crimson is a force of extreme unity. And unity makes strength. All hail the mighty King Crimson!

Highlights

  • Easy Money
  • Indiscipline
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two
  • Starless
  • the finale of Banshee Legs Bell Hassle and 21st Century Schizoid Man
  • and Mel Collins cheekily citing St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins during one of his solos

Full setlist – King Crimson, Antwerp 3 Nov. 2016

Set 1

  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Pictures of a City (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Lizard (The Battle of Glass Tears – Dawn Song) (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • VROOOM (‘Thrak’, 1995)
  • Cirkus (‘Lizard’, 1970)
  • Hell Hounds of Krim (new)
  • Peace: An End (‘In The Wake of Poseidon’, 1970)
  • Radical Action (To Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind) (new)
  • Meltdown (new)
  • Epitaph (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • Easy Money (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Radical Action II (new)
  • Level Five (‘The Power to Believe’, 2002)

Set 2

  • Indiscipline (‘Discipline’, 1981)
  • The ConstruKction of Light (‘The ConstuKction on Light’, 2000)
  • The Court of the Crimson King (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)
  • The Letters (‘Islands’, 1971)
  • Red (‘Red’, 1974)
  • A Scarcity of Miracles (‘A Scarcity of Miracles’, 2011)
  • The Talking Drum (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two (‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, 1973)
  • Starless (‘Red’, 1974)

Encore

  • Banshee Legs Bell Hassle (new)
  • 21st Century Schizoid Man (‘In The Court of The Crimson King’, 1969)

Fripp frenzy

It’s been Fripp frenzy here at Unearthing Music HQ since the show. Here’s the evidence:

Fripp frenzy after King Crimson show Antwerp Nov 2016

Jenny Hval - Apocalypse Girl

‘Apocalypse, Girl’ by Jenny Hval – Totally disorienting

The world is a tough place. You can’t deny it. At least when you allow Jenny Hval’s ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ to spread its tentacles into your mind – and I did. The artwork features a woman tripping over a space hopper rather clumsily. Face down.

If we may believe Hval, such uncomfortable situations dominate our lives. The pressure not to make a fool out of yourself is unbearable. A phenomenon the Norwegian chanteuse analyses with an almost painful self-awareness.

Championed by Michael Gira

When in September 2014 noise guru Michael Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) agreed to do a brief Q&A session before steamrolling Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, he turned up at the eleventh hour. Luckily, he picked some interesting music for the eagerly waiting audience.

Not particularly extreme-sounding, the combination of a fairylike female voice and some seriously disturbing words, was surprising. Later on, back home with ears still ringing, buzzing and roaring from Swans, Google told me the singer was Jenny Hval.

Deceivingly innocent

Hval’s writing style is rather, erm, carnal. Involving a small army of cunts and ‘soft dicks’. Mastering a sense of drama likely learned from childhood idol Kate Bush, Hval sets her angelic, deceivingly innocent voice against a spiky musical backdrop. You’ll understand it doesn’t take ages before ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ totally disorients you.

Hardly a melodic piece, opening song Kingsize immediately shows Hval is capable of tremendous mental leaps. In a matter of moments she mentions bananas rotting away in her lap, cupcakes and a “huge capitalist clit”. Ominous strings and spoken word set the tone. And it’s a grim one.

Fierce social commentary

Take Care Of Yourself dissects what people do to keep themselves happy. Which apparently comes down to: meeting the expectations of others (“shaving in all the right places”) and … masturbating. Hval sounds in turns joking, elegiac and unpleasantly disturbed. While synths paint the scene in ever darker tones.

Only after that there’s room for a more or less accessible song: That Battle Is Over. Hval’s voice might sound heavenly, but excells in fierce social commentary. Specifically about the burden on today’s women’s shoulders:

“Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying
That I need man and child to fulfill me
That I’m more likely to get breast cancer
And it’s biology, it’s my own fault.”

Washed up from a wild sea, Heaven takes the tempo to a mild trot. With pounding electronics and strings and harps spiraling around Hval as she climbs to a higher register. But again, her words are arresting: “I never was a girly girl, forgive me”, reveales that it’s damn hard to swim against the tide.

The pains of being a female outsider

The velvety Sabbath is dominated by the feeling that we have zero control at all. Self-doubt is the starting point for Angels and Aenemia, while the lengthy Holy Land culminates in Hval violently gasping for air.

Despite her unfiltered stream of consciousness, Hval’s message is crystal clear: people are constantly judged – even more so being a female outsider. Taking herself as an example, Hval exposes her inner self as few did before.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.

FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.