Tuesday, June 30, 2009



Zed-U – Night Time on the Middle Passage (Babel)
Steve Lehman Octet - Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi)
Joe Lovano Us Five - Folk Art (Blue Note/EMI)
Andy Sheppard – Movements In Colour (ECM)
Miroslav Vitous – Remembering Weather Report (ECM)
Acoustic Ladyland – Living With a Tiger (Strong and Wrong)
Troyka – Troyka (Edition)
Kronos Quartet – Floodplain (Nonesuch)
Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (Decca)
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt (Vanguard/EMI)
The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Bella Union)
Wilco – Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
Tinariwen – Imdiwan: Companions (Indipendiente)
City Center – City Center (Type)
Apostle Of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts)
Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts)
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Jagjagwar)
Cortney Tidwell – Boys (City Slang)
Gossip – Music For Men (Sony)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Meltdown

Acoustic Ladyland - Clore Ballroom Sunday 14th June
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra/The Bad Plus - Saturday 20th June
Ornette Coleman with Baaba Maal, Flea, Charlie Haden and The Master Musicians of Jajouka - Sunday 21st June

The Meltdown festival has become something of a regular fixture in my musical calendar and the presence of the legendary Ornette Coleman as curator for 2009 made it completely unmissable. Sadly, I wasn’t able to catch as much of it as I would have liked but what follows is a brief dispatch from the shows I did attend.

Whilst their musical tropes are by now familiar, Acoustic Ladyland’s new line-up still comes as something of a shock. Tom Herbert departed to focus on Polar Bear and The Invisible some time ago and now superb pianist Tom Cawley has left to concentrate on his own more meditative music. Ruth Goller has picked up the mantle of aggressive, driving bass playing with consummate ease, but Cawley’s shoes must surely be particularly difficult to fill. Sensibly, Pete Wareham hasn’t tried to do that, instead opting for the terrifying presence of rock guitarist Chris Sharkey.

The new music isn’t much of a departure from their now established thrash jazz template, although whilst the group seemed to be treading water a bit on ‘Skinny Grin’, they now sound positively rejuvenated. The title of their new album (‘Living With A Tiger’) seems apt – this is a tougher, louder beast of a band. Seb Rochford continues to demonstrate his versatility by playing at about seven hundred times the volume he would deploy with Oriole or even Polar Bear, with heavy snare drum accents and swashbuckling cymbals in abundance.

The best of the new tracks slow it down a little, but keep it swampy – with what sounds like a pretty heavy Led Zeppelin influence. Space for improvisation continues to be minimal – but Sharkey’s dynamic bursts of noise have given this engaging, attacking sound fresh impetus. The group’s name continues to seem completely incongruous – and the one significant limitation is that it’s all a little one-dimensional. Hopefully one day Pete Wareham will surprise everyone by writing some ballads that are every bit as exciting.

I would have liked to have been able to stay through for the concert that featured Marc Ribot, Evan Parker and Han Benninck and also a surprise support slot from About, the new improvising group featuring John Coxon, Charles Hayward and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor. From the other reviews of this show that I’ve read, and from what Alexis has told me about the About project, the upcoming album that the group have produced should be one of the year’s essential releases. It’s encouraging to think that Taylor’s presence might bring freely improvised music to a new, broader audience here in the UK.

The final weekend saw Ornette Coleman himself perform twice, and a mouth-watering collaboration between Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley and Robert Wyatt. I missed the first Ornette Coleman show, although a compelling account of it can be found here: http://mapsadaisical.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/ornette-coleman-and-the-master-musicians-of-jajouka-royal-festival-hall-190609/

Support for Charlie Haden’s project came from New York trio The Bad Plus. My opinion on this group has fluctuated widely from passionate enthusiasm through to complete frustration. Where once they concentrated on creating a modern standard repertoire from pop, rock and dance music (Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin etc), they now seem to have shifted to reinterpreting twentieth century classical music (they performed pieces by Stravinsky and Ligeti). I have no objections to this per se, but there’s increasingly something irritating about their studied quirkiness and intellectual playing. There’s no doubting their brilliant musicianship and supreme technical ability, but I can’t help feeling (as I think I’ve said in more than one previous review), that all this talent is now better served by their own compositions. There was plenty of support for this argument when the group unleashed the beautiful ‘Giant’, composed by bassist Reid Anderson and from their best album (‘Prog’), where some restraint and directness enabled the group to come alive.

Joining Charlie Haden, Carla Bley were a group of London musicians, including Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, demonstrating just how vibrant the Jazz scene in the capital is right now. Haden began the show by emphasising the political context of his recordings – with albums having been recorded under Nixon, Reagan, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr. ‘Don’t make another one!’ shouted a member of the audience, perhaps missing the point that the albums had been written and recorded as responses to the political climate. I don’t get the impression Haden had ever intended to instigate years of reactionary conservatism in the United States!

Reaction after the show from friends seemed mixed, largely due to some rather shambolic organisational difficulties. Apparently the concert had been timed rather carefully to arrange for an appearance from curator Ornette Coleman, which never actually happened (although he did appear at the end to embrace Haden). Perhaps the rustling to locate sheet music not yet on stage, the spaces that Haden needed to fill with some admittedly hilarious jokes and his struggling to announce the names of the musicians correctly may have turned collective ears against what was actually a rather powerful performance. Reviews in the mainstream press so far seem to have been overwhelmingly positive.

The concert featured music from throughout Haden’s career, but focused on most recent album ‘Not In Our Name’. This material could seem redundant in the brave new world of the Obama era, but a reiteration of the value of music as a means of protest and celebration can hardly be a bad thing. Indeed, whilst a lot of ‘political’ music can seem negative or aggressive, Carla Bley’s arrangements of tunes from the classic American songbook (particularly ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’) had a joyous potency.

The sound of a group this size is often a source of great joy, but the playing was often full-blooded and rich. There were some wonderful individual contributions too, from Shabaka Hutchings’ fiery and vibrant bursts of ideas contrasting with mellifluous trumpet solos. The dignity and humanity of the music came through in the group’s playing throughout.

As promised, Robert Wyatt joined mid-set for two numbers sung in Spanish, Silvio Rodriguez’s ‘Tale of the Tornado’ and Haden’s own ‘Song For Che’ (which Wyatt himself recorded on ‘Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard’ and curator Ornette Coleman also performed on ‘Crisis’, if memory serves me correctly). If Wyatt seemed slightly nervous and hesitant on the former, the latter demonstrated his familiar and distinctive conversational style in more confident flow. His voice seemed natural and unforced on this beautiful and haunting piece of music. It was a joy to catch a rare onstage performance from him.

The set ended in truly compelling fashion, first with a majestic drum solo – one of those supremely controlled displays that began with a simple piece of phrasing, before developing it around the kit and embellishing it with flourishes both technically accomplished and musically intuitive. Haden of course made his individual statement too, although it was hard to tell whether his persistent requests to ‘turn the bass down’ were part of the by now jokey atmosphere or a serious irritation hampering him. If the latter, it wasn’t evident as the solo developed, characterised by singing lines and some knowing quoting of Coleman’s modified blues ‘Turnaround’.

It was a shame that the intended appearance from Coleman for ‘Skies of America’ didn’t happen, but perhaps an even bigger shame that the distracting hustle and bustle made everything seem a little on-the-fly and disjointed. The first part of the set seemed a little stylistically boxed too – with a Cuban piece followed by an arrangement with a reggae feel. On balance though, this was a powerful, musically thoughtful performance.

On paper, Ornette Coleman’s closing night performance looked potentially dangerous. With guest appearances from artists in residence Master Musicians of Jajouka, Baaba Maal and that well known free improvising jazzer Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers – this had the makings of a rather confused and confounding event. Thankfully, it proved to be nothing of the sort – and was rather a consistently engaging, wonderfully enervating concert experience.

The Master Musicians’ support set must have required some adjustments for most Western ears. I’ve not got a good enough musical ear to identify what precisely is so harsh about their sound – the pipes seem tuned against each other in very narrow intervals and it takes a while to locate the true pulse amidst their complex polyrhythms. Still, though, their visible sense of enjoyment and showmanship was enough to persuade me to immerse myself in their mesmerising and ultimately uplifting sound.

Ornette Coleman took to the stage immensely slowly, with a sense of fragility that made me a little nervous, especially as he struggled to connect his strap to his saxophone. As soon as the first notes emanated from his alto though, it became clear that the concern was entirely unwarranted. What a marvel that this pioneering figure can produce such eloquent phrasing and vigorous sound at the age of 79 (or 82 as someone else quoted, I’m not sure which is correct).

Titled ‘Reflections of This Is Our Music’, this concert might better have been dubbed ‘reflections of an illustrious and radical career’. Continuing to reject conventional harmonic accompaniment in favour of a two bassists line-up (Tony Falanga and Al McDowell), Coleman’s approach somehow still sounds as furious and otherworldly today as it did in the late fifties. Yet deconstructed airings of ‘Turnaround’ and ‘Blues Connotation’ suggest that those who view Coleman’s music as impenetrable or intractable are missing the point – here is a man who remains as in touch with the blues as he is with his own attempts to move away from form. Veering between violin, saxophone and even a brief spell on trumpet, he seemed gleeful, impish and full of ideas from both within and outside the jazz idiom.

Listening to ‘Blues Connotation’ particularly, I wondered whether the term ‘punk jazz’, which provided the title for a Jaco Pastorius composition and has since been lazily dished out to all manner of groups attempting some kind of jazz-rock fusion, might genuinely be apt for this group. They played throughout with a devil-may-care and visceral abandon that left my heart racing and my thoughts buzzing off in several directions simultaneously. Denardo is an unashamedly unconventional drummer, with a relentless but muffled sound that goes against the brightness and verve of most jazz drumming. He seems to have devised his own range of stick grips and frequently veers out of time, forcing Tony Falanga to work his way back into the fold and his conception of swing exists somewhere out on its own astral plain. Yet there’s something lucid and compelling about his peculiar stomp, and it imbues this already captivating music with an undeniable originality, even when the material being performed is the best part of 50 years old.

The choice of music is both richly satisfying (‘Lonely Woman’) and somewhat bizarre (a perhaps slightly hesitant recontextualisation of Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1). The collaborations mid-set seemed like the perfect encapsulation of Coleman’s questing spirit and open-mindedness. I had admittedly been prejudiced against the appearance of Flea, but his intuitive playing somehow managed to make the three-pronged bass attack completely invigorating, and extraordinarily physical. His contributions often featured the language of disco and funk, which might be expected. What was less predictable was just how much of a positive impact his propulsive playing had on the overall sound of the ensemble. When joined onstage by the Master Musicians, it seemed as if Coleman and his group were initially grasping at something and not quite finding it but, slowly, a more singing tone emerged from the saxophone responding to the persistent dynamic of the Master Musicians. It was a tremendous, intoxicating cacophony.

After a trio performance with Charlie Haden for the encore, on which Haden’s bass sounded opulent and resonant, Coleman seemed reluctant to leave the stage, thanking the sound crew before embarking on a personal odyssey to shake as many audience members’ hands as he felt possible. Even when his security intervened he didn’t seem particularly inclined to be rescued. Whether this was an act of gentlemanly kindness towards his audience or an egotistical acknowledgement of his iconic status didn’t really matter – this man has earned the right to a long goodbye. Whoever they get to curate Meltdown next year has some big shoes to fill.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hitting The Spot Like Gatorade

Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino, 2009)

‘Bitte Orca’ would appear to be Dirty Projectors’ breakthrough album – the one that somehow makes sense to critics alienated by the conceptual quirks of ‘Rise Above’ or ‘The Getty Address’. Those who, like me, fell in love with ‘Rise Above’ and its audacious reimagining of hardcore punk as meticulous and virtuosic composition might initially find it hard to locate precisely what is so singular about ‘Bitte Orca’. On first listen, it seems like a beefier, heavier take on the group’s bizarre mix of math-rock and African soukous and hi-life rhythms. It’s every bit as planned and cerebral as ‘Rise Above’, but with some concessions to commercial production techniques that threaten to make it less visceral and exciting.

Thankfully, repeated listens reveal ‘Bitte Orca’ to be yet another example of David Longstreth’s peculiar genius. It seems like more of a collective enterprise this time – with Longstreth’s female collaborators Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian allowed a more individual and imposing presence. This time, Longstreth has added a sincere affection for poptastic R&B and chamber folk music into his already overflowing melting pot. How it all coheres is a total mystery. Somehow, ‘Bitte Orca’ doesn’t simply sound like a grab-bag of musical influences but rather a carefully arranged and highly original synthesis. References to Talking Heads are understandable (especially given Longstreth’s tendency for vocal yelps and acrobatics), but that band rarely sounded as aggressive as Dirty Projectors do on ‘Cannibal Resource’ or as tender as ‘Two Doves’. Essentially, there is no other rock band at work now covering this range or making music as simultaneously adventurous and entertaining.

Longstreth’s cerebral approach (it’s no surprise to discover he studied composition at Yale) can be off-putting for those who prefer rock music to be more instinctive and less studied. My response to this has been to emphasise the sheer thrill of this group’s sound – the unexpected jerks and rhythmic shifts, the sudden explosions amidst otherwise pretty surroundings, the unpredictable ebb and flow of Longstreth’s daredevil melodies. It also strikes me that the idea that collective improvisation or the basic energy of four square rock have somehow superseded the art of composing is a rather offensive and pretentious notion. Any understanding of music’s value and impact has to recognise that are a wealth of different means to achieving an emotional reaction. Many of this album’s most exciting moments occur as a result of Longstreth’s ambitious arrangements. The vocal breakdown on ‘Remade Horizon’, which the group do indeed replicate in concert, is particularly staggering.

Sometimes it appears as if the African influence on Longstreth’s writing and guitar playing has diminished here. Arguably, it’s more plausible that it has been better subsumed within the group’s overall sound. For example, ‘Remade Horizon’ veers joyously between a lush folk strum and a 12/8 afro groove. The guitar lines throughout the album proudly display these influences, even when the rhythms suggest more common western idioms.

Beneath the hard-hitting punctuation of Brian McComber’s precise drumming ( which at times hints a little too much at the famous Dave Fridmann thunderous drum sound), there is a nuance, subtlety and care to much of this music. Sometimes this is deceptive – amidst its sweet string arrangement and tender vocal, ‘Two Doves’ contains some crushing lyrics. After listing some inspiring images, Angel Deradoorian confesses ‘our bed is like a failure’. ‘The Bride’ is at least partially melancholic and reflective, whilst the closing ‘Flourescent Half Dome’ could almost be described as a ballad. ‘Temecula Sunrise’ is a peculiar mix of delicate, intricate plucking and noisy outbursts of joy.

‘Stillness Is The Move’ has been the main talking point here, for obvious reasons, as it seems like a move into soulful slow jam territory. Amber Coffman’s vocal might be flighty at times, but it also makes for the most accessible piece of music Longstreth has yet produced, albeit one which is impressively artful in its construction. Much of its success comes from the juxtaposition of the vocal melody with Longstreth’s looped, confounding guitar figure. Even better though is the extraordinary ‘Useful Chamber’, which begins in a delicately vocodered electronic haze before travelling off in several different directions, its most aggressive section giving the album its title.

There can be little doubt now that Longstreth is a massive talent. Whilst he’s kept the same formation that toured Rise Above, he’s cleverly avoided simply remaking that record with original lyrics. Whilst he is undoubtedly both playful and confounding, it’s also clear from ‘Bitte Orca’ that his passion for a broad range of music is entirely sincere. The interplay between the various voices is a delight, whilst the rigorous control of the entire ensemble is unmatched elsewhere in alternative rock. This is as complete a record as we could have wished for, this time without any endearingly conceptual peg. The astounding music speaks entirely for itself.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Comforting Sounds

James Blackshaw - The Glass Bead Game (Young God, 2009)

In spite of (or perhaps because of?) once naming a song ‘The Sound and The Fury’, I’m rather suspicious of musical works named after great literature. It always seems rather lazy to state your broader inspirations in such a transparent and unadventurous way. This, however, is a James Blackshaw record, and this exceptionally gifted young guitarist and composer has yet to disappoint. True to form, ‘The Glass Bead Game’ marks a further development of his ambition and may well be his most fully realised work to date (although at least one reviewer at The Wire magazine is obstinately dissenting from the critical consensus for Blackshaw). Now signed to Michael Gira’s Young God label, Blackshaw looks sure to secure yet more devotion from the faithful for this extraordinary record.

Even given his unexpected piano playing on ‘Litany of Echoes’, it might still have been tempting to dismiss Blackshaw as a derivative exponent of the Takoma school of folk music. ‘The Glass Bead Game’ answers this charge with a richer, more arranged tapestry of sound. The opening ‘Cross’ is simply beautiful. Whilst Blackshaw’s basic guitar foundation sustains his core preoccupations and could have appeared on any of his albums thus far, the addition of strings (contributed by members of Current 93) and wordless vocals takes it to entirely new territory. The vocals hint at predictable Reichian influences but actually remind me more of Meredith Monk’s ‘Mercy’. There’s already something mysteriously powerful about Blackshaw’s hypnotic playing – whilst it remains harmonically anchored, it’s still emotionally resonant and deeply satisfying.

The epic, 18-minute ‘Arc’ (with Blackshaw on piano again) is the yang to the yin of ‘Cross’ and it therefore makes perfect logical sense that it should close the album. Whilst it adheres to a minimalist framework, there’s something powerful, maybe even devotional about it, achieved largely through the deliberate over-use of the sustain pedal, allowing its clusters to blur, overlap and blissfully merge. The heavy sustain comes perilously close to burying the contributions from strings and wind instruments, but in effect allows notes to rise and fall from a resplendent overall sheet of sound. The effect is deeply moving.

In between, there’s the sublime ‘Bled’ which seems to begin with broad brush strokes before expanding into a more detailed and colourful response to the initial theme. There might even be a rare nod to the blues in its closing minutes. ‘Key’ is more in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from Blackshaw, but no less impressive for its notional familiarity. Melodically, it is strikingly pretty.

More controversial for me is the other piano piece ‘Fix’. I have been pondering whether this might be the first time Blackshaw has resorted to more calculated emotional manipulation. Whilst it sounds haunting and sad, the plodding, insistent crotchet rhythm invokes the overrated Sigur Ros, or could even be something Chris Martin from Coldplay might come up with. Whilst the presence of the violin certainly enhances the track’s warmth, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit too straightforward and transparent for Blackshaw, although some see it as the album’s standout track.

Still, this is only a minor quibble with an otherwise outstanding album that sees Blackshaw continue to expand his reach. The ideas are well executed, and developed with care and grace by Blackshaw and his accompanying musicians. These tracks hint that a more ensemble-based approach could be just as fruitful as Blackshaw’s virtuosic solo performances, perhaps even more so.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Blinding Light

Antony and the Johnsons - London Hammersmith Apollo, 27th May 2009

This was my first full live encounter with Antony and the Johnsons. I’m prepared to admit that, for many, the novelty will by now have worn off, as indeed it has for me a little on record. Yet there can be little doubt that Antony Hegarty is a distinctive and important voice – unpredictable in personality, but clear and deeply touching in voice. It is a voice that has the power to move in complicated ways. As my girlfriend perceptively pointed out, his songs are essentially uplifting. Whilst they are often tinged with melancholy or deep sadness, the overriding characteristic is hope.

The show began with fifteen minutes of contemporary dance that I have to confess was a bit lost on me. Having said that, it fitted with Antony’s New York art aesthetic and made more sense as an opening than having a conventional support act would have done. When the band took to the stage, most of the musicians appeared as mere silhouettes, so dim was the lighting. I was a little concerned that this would remain the atmosphere for the whole show but the subtle changes in lighting enhanced the impact of the performance, with Antony only gradually illuminated. A glaring lantern near-blinded the audience during ‘The Crying Light’ and again at the end of the show, during the encore of ‘Hope There’s Someone’.

Even the songs I like least from ‘The Crying Light’ seem to come alive in these performances, with nuanced arrangements that are at once both intimate and overpowering. It was an unconventional band set-up – with Antony on piano, accompanied by a musical and dynamically restrained drummer, a bassist who frequently played melodic lines and a string group where one of the violinists doubled on guitar. Perhaps most interesting of all though were the contributions on saxophone and clarinet. This arrangement stripped some of the bombast from the more self-consciously dramatic material but also provided a compelling counterpoint to Antony’s still staggering voice.

These were performances where detail and texture really mattered. In this environment, the fearsome, nasty and explosive guitar solo that threatened to overpower ‘Fistful of Love’ became even more menacing for its contrast with all that surrounded it. I had wondered whether Antony’s vibrato might become tiresome over the course of a two hour set, but placed in contexts that varied from the soulful to the more theatrical, it continued to draw an emotional response right up to the show’s conclusion.

I would have to concede that the songs that mine the subjects of gender, sexuality and androgyny remain the most powerful of his songs. It’s fair enough that he shouldn’t want to mine these subjects forever, but the touching vulnerability that accompanies ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’, ‘Hope There’s Someone’ and ‘You Are My Sister’ is not a major feature of ‘The Crying Light’. The gently lilting ‘Aeon’ certainly strives for it, but it feels a little more transparent and contrived. Hopefully, ‘The Crying Light’ is a transitional statement on the path to finding new subjects and contexts for that remarkable voice.

Nature and the various man-made threats to it are clearly preoccupying Antony’s mind nowadays, so much so that he makes a quite lengthy speech about ‘Hope Mountain’ being his response to climate change, imagining Jesus returning in feminine form in the hills of Afghanistan. The song itself is far from the most memorable in the set though. Luckily, his talk proved weirdly entertaining, aware of much of life’s absurdity and charmingly self-mocking. On this basis, most people seemed happy to indulge him this protracted digression from the music.

Musically, some of the less predictable moments in the set pointed towards potential new avenues. It was good to hear ‘Shake The Devil’, a more percussive moment from the ‘Another World’ EP that highlighted the saxophone and, in its slightly darker sound, vaguely resembled something The Bad Seeds might concoct. The aforementioned ‘Fistful of Love’ guitar solo was even more unexpected. Perhaps these only worked because of the striking contrast with the gentleness and tenderness elsewhere, but they did serve to highlight the fact that Antony’s voice might be more versatile than many have assumed.

This was altogether a superb concert though – delicately arranged and delivered. Although it was almost entirely devoid of physicality, there was a sense in which it felt more choreographed than the peculiar dance that preceded it. Not only covering all bases in Antony’s career so far, it also produced some compelling variations on his languidly paced, powerful torch songs.