Here comes another one
I'm pleased to introduce another guest post, this time from Bristol, England's experimental folk-rock musician Robin Allender. Robin (formerly known as The Inconsolable, but only professionally, thank God) is one of my favorite musicians and certainly my favorite musician without an actual release to his name. That will change later this year when he puts out his first solo record, and also appears on the debut Azalea City Penis Club album--so stay tuned! In the meantime, you can visit Robin at Dreamboat Records (where you can order the label's summer sampler) and his Myspace page, and, if you live in the Bristol area, see him perform live (check dates on his Myspace). The rest of us will just have to be satisfied with a couple of his fantastic demos.
A Case of Leaves - Robin Allender
The Frith - Robin AllenderThere are few things more pleasurable than introducing people to music you love. Whether it be one of those drunken evenings in which you force a roomful of party-goers to endure your ten favourite drum fills, or a mix-tape about which you spend so much time fretting over sequencing and thematic fluency that you feel disappointed if the recipient doesn't write a complimentary thesis in response. So I've decided to post five songs that I'd play if you were to come round to my house for a bottle of gin or two. And tonic.
I've chosen songs that either have immense personal significance for me, or have one of those magical "spots in time"--moments which you insist on playing to people, saying, "You have to hear this bit! No wait, this bit coming up! Here it comes! This bit here!"
Uncle Pat - Ash
Ash were one of the first bands (post-Nirvana) that really meant a lot to me, and it's important not to be ashamed of these early infatuations. Indeed, I still think Ash are underestimated. They were generally grouped with the Britpop movement, but their first record, Trailer (US, UK), had a sophistication that their older contemporaries lacked.
”Uncle Pat” is about a young lad who traipses through the countryside to visit the grave of his eponymous uncle. The lyrics seem a little trite now, but as a naïve fourteen year old I was really struck by them as a kind of perfect poem. I thought this was what poetry was all about and I wanted more like it. I started scouring my dad’s anthologies of poetry, trying to find something else that would give me as direct a hit. Along the way I discovered Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley. But nothing matched Ash’s song somehow. Everything that these poets wrote seemed so cryptic, as if they didn't want to just let you have a clear view of something "beautiful," they had to make you work for it.
I still listen to this song on occasion (if I'm feeling particularly nostalgic), but I suppose I've since learned that the devil is in the detail, the beauty is in the complication.
In London So Fair - Eliza Carthy
... as in this song, for example. And this is where we go from faux Irish folk to the real thing. After a peculiar shift from first to third person in the second verse, “In London So Fair” (from Anglicana, US, UK) appears to retell the Odyssean story of a sailor being reunited with his long-lost love, but from the heroine's perspective. The unnamed "fair maid" in this song is anything but a placid Penelope figure, and is therefore well suited to Eliza Carthy's gutsy delivery. The sailor goes to sea and she disguises herself as a man to get on board (and, as in Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies, the song boasts a hint of homoeroticism, as the sailor and his lover in disguise lie in the cabin together). The heroine reveals herself to him through the very refrain of the song: She quotes the sailor's promise back to him ("For as long as I'm a sailor on the sea") and the scales fall from his eyes.
Aside from the narrative cleverness of the song, what makes this version so special is Carthy's piano playing which, rather than simply underpinning the melody, actually mirrors the vocals, phrase for phrase. Every slight nuance, hesitated rhythm, grace note or stress is reflected in the dark piano. The effect is to bring the melody to the foreground, to almost give it the feel of an a capella performance.
As striking as it is, you can't help but want to hear a more straightforward version of the song, where the rhythm isn't so stilted by the piano. But then that's the beauty of folk music: There doesn't have to be a definitive version of anything.
One Voice - Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke Band
The Kroke Band are a klezmer band that recorded this track with the classical cockney (or mockney) violinist Nigel Kennedy. I’m not an expert on what is and is not klezmer, but this track (appearing on East Meets East, US, UK) has the hugely expressive instrumental performances, imitative of vocal phrasing, that are associated with that genre. It's just an unbelievably beautiful melody. I’ve included it because it has one of those genuine wait-until-you-hear-this moments: Just under four minutes in, Kennedy lets out an involuntary, "Yeah!" It's a little flaw that makes the whole thing complete.
Owed T'Alex - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Captain Beefheart's songs are made up entirely of transcendent moments, those "spots in time." As supposedly challenging, you wouldn't expect Beefheart to provoke the same aesthetic reactions you get from more straightforward rock. I remember the night someone first played me Captain Beefheart. As it happens, the person's name is Alex, and he's one of those people who can play you something and open it up for you in a way you hadn't thought possible. Alex played all of Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (US, UK) and, far from being difficult and exclusive, it was the most joyous, interesting and funny music I'd ever heard. I think we actually spent most of the evening in hysterics -- the absolutely ridiculous howling in "You Know You're a Man," the entirety of "Tropical Hot Dog Night" ("like two flamingoes in a fruuuiiiit fight!"), the fact that there was a song called "When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy."
But while the impact of some of the songs was immediate, I had to live in the album for a while to "solve" it. The intensities are so unexpected, the music so detailed and complex that, like the poetry I'd discovered via "Uncle Pat," I had to work hard and pay close attention to make it come alive.
Despite sounding strange and inscrutable on first listen, "Owed T'Alex" actually pushes the same buttons as the most obvious, unashamed-of-rock songs. To put it simply, I don't like this song because it's "experimental," I like it because it's fucking brilliant. It begins with a series of tense, endlessly shifting riffs (that I think are spread over some weird 6 time metre) that build to that one wonderfully climactic moment at 1.24, that "spot in time," when, preceded by a tantalising hint of feedback, the slide guitar kicks in and the song releases its pent up energy. It's such a magnificent and unexpected change in tone! And then, when the verse comes back in, with yet another brilliant 6 time riff (played on the trombone?), and Beefheart is singing as if he's still on the chorus ("Glad I'm not home tonight! / Five miles back I took a spill!"), you find yourself thinking, "That's just not fair! That's just ridiculously good!"
There's nothing else like this. And I haven't even got on to how good the lyrics are. Or how fantastically maniacal the Captain's laughter is at the end. Or how you suddenly realise you're been sitting on the edge of your seat by the time the song has finished ...
Sod it, just listen.
Here Comes Another One - Monty Python's Flying Circus
I'll end with this because the first time someone played it to me I laughed so much I couldn't breathe, and it's a real pleasure to think that people might be hearing it for the first time. Enjoy! You've been very kind.