The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, September 19, 2006
S.O.S.

I was absolutely delighted to receive in the post this weekend the CD reissue of the album S.O.S. by the group of the same name. This is the second time that Ogun boss Hazel Miller has sent me the album – the first copy, on vinyl, was posted to me at my request some thirty years ago, when I was but a schoolboy, and still resides proudly on its shelf at the family home in Glasgow. It is a total joy to welcome the record back into circulation.

S.O.S. stood for saxophonists Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne and John Surman, and it was indeed a trailblazing group in that it was the first working saxophone-only group in jazz; a track by a prototype World Saxophone Quartet had appeared on Anthony Braxton’s New York, Fall 1974, shortly before the S.O.S. album came out, but the WSQ (with David Murray coming in for Braxton) didn’t become a fully functional working group until 1977, whereas S.O.S. had been performing since 1973 (they also predated Rova by some years).

They really were the crack reed team of progressive British jazz; Alan Skidmore, the acknowledged young master of the tenor, first call to adorn and amplify the work of every forward-thinking rock musician – he appears, inter alia, on Kate Bush’s “Saxophone Song” and the Walker Brothers’ “Fat Mama Kick” – Mike Osborne, the almost superhumanly intense altoist, still the greatest exponent of his instrument to be produced within these isles; and John Surman, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of his era anywhere – as a baritone saxophonist he ranks alongside Carney, Mulligan and Chaloff as one of the all-time greats, as a soprano saxophonist and bass clarinettist he is still exceptional, and as one of the earliest advocates of synthesisers and electronica in the world of improvised music (McLaughlin, Holland and de Johnette all tried to persuade Miles to hire him after Wayne Shorter left) he was also a controversial figure in the early-mid ‘70s.

That latter aspect to Surman’s music was the crucial differential in S.O.S.’s work. On the album there are many remarkable performances which feature saxophones and reeds alone, and a wide stylistic range is covered, from the mournful Ellingtonian grandeur of the gorgeous “Chordary,” which sounds like the Duke playing Robert Wyatt until broken open by Surman’s imperious and urgent baritone solo – about a month away from recording Citadel/Room 315 with the Westbrook band, he really is playing somewhere near his peak here – via the energetic Brotherhood of Breath-like riffing of “Where’s Junior?” to the far-flung shores of Scottish pibroch (“Country Dance”) and klezmer laments (“Ist”), their empathy as saxophonists and improvisers is closely and deeply palpable; they were extremely close friends, appearing on each other’s records and as a self-contained unit within many of London’s finest big bands of the period, including those of Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, Chris McGregor and Stan Tracey (indeed, each saxophonist has formed a working duo with Tracey at different periods) – I would imagine that it made putting big bands together much easier, since that was 60% of your sax section already taken care of, and they did tend to come as a package.

Where the S.O.S. album really takes off, however, is when Skidmore and Surman move away from their saxes and take the music down unexpected trajectories. Thus on “Wherever I Am” we encounter the totally unexpected spectacle of Skidmore bashing away enthusiastically, Latin-style, at a drumkit, with Surman’s Moogs and Fender Rhodes providing both a sturdy bassline and deadpan block chord comping behind Osborne’s typically coruscating alto meditations. True, as a drummer Skidmore isn’t exactly Tony Oxley, but that level of technical expertise isn’t quite what this music requires; indeed Surman’s synths and Skidmore’s drums give the project an attractive homemade feel, slightly indie and post-punk in its own pre-indie, pre-punk way, where feeling rather than immaculate technique is the priority.

Similarly, “Cycle Motion” sets up a furious rondo which fractures into agonised dialogues between Surman’s bass clarinet and Osborne’s alto before exploding into a squalling free-for-all; but then the tumult suddenly subsides to give way to a lugubrious synth melody which retreats, unresolved, into silence. My favourite track, though, is the aptly-named “Goliath” which reminds me of what prog rock could have been in kinder and more adventurous hands; over a monster bass and synth riff and thunderous drumming from Skidmore, Osborne again solos to a degree beyond intensity, and the track not only makes me think of a better Emerson, Lake and Palmer but also sounds startlingly contemporary in this age of Leafcutter John and Polar Bear. Listening to “Goliath” you wonder why Virgin or Charisma never picked up on S.O.S. (or indeed Ogun Records as a whole).

The most startling and adventurous track, however, is the last and longest one, “Calypso.” Over nearly eleven undulating minutes, Surman’s looped Kraftwerkian synth riff – again, remember, Autobahn had only very recently come out at the time of S.O.S.’s release – electronic tundras drift and shift out of and back into focus while the saxes, mixed back into dub-like, multitracked echoes, howl untraceable shards of atonality into the blank wilderness. It sounds like Global Communications or Black Dog Productions a couple of decades ahead of schedule (and with considerably less sophisticated technology to hand) mixed with elements of what I thought post-rock should always have sounded like; and it is truly a shame that no one has really followed this line of musical thought and development up; the Surman who went on to record (for the most part solo) soundscapes of lush desolation for ECM is still a remarkable player – the West Country Garbarek - but a lot of the wild(er)ness has disappeared from his later, lonelier work; and, of course, Osborne’s scarcely breathable intensity eventually forced his long-term silence. So S.O.S. remains a one-off achievement, but an astonishing and probably unrepeatable one, and you should renew your acquaintance with the record, or if you weren’t around for its first run, investigate it immediately.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
FUN-DA-MENTAL: ALL IS WAR

There are those among us, of course, for whom all is escapism; hide under the blankets and pretend that they’re still having uncomplicated fun. Some may still wish to pursue the Justin Timberlake path of pop-as-corporate-knocking-shop, who care nothing more about the Middle East than to visualise Timberlake in a mythical (or actual) Dubai, “swanning around in detective trenchcoats and big sunglasses and generally play-acting Thirties classicism,” while the world continues to burn remorselessly around their averting bodies, and view that as a good or even desirable thing. Yes, there are the unreconstituted doctrinaire popists, increasingly resembling the Japanese soldiers in the bush who still think that World War II is raging, or much, much worse, unapologetic post-Thatcher capitalists who still view the world as a playground in which to exercise their privileged right to do as they damn well please to whom they damn well displease. And then there are the turncoats; lapsed socialists creaming themselves over Paris Hilton and accusing detractors of wealth envy, just as Thatcher persisted in doing throughout the eighties as Brixton and Toxteth burned; or those who once blogged about music as though their lives depended on it, then immediately capitulated at the merest scent of a broadsheet freelance cheque, writing spurious rubbish about the “music blogosphere” in their reviews.

No, none of these souls, if souls they be, will entertain a record like All Is War, since its primary aim is not to entertain, but to provoke. In general such canting is mercilessly strung out to dry in the song “White Tongues” with its damning chorus of “When you say what we say then you say it’s OK/When we say what we wanna then you lock us away.” As indeed happened with Fun-Da-Mental back in 1993, at the time of their universally acclaimed Seize The Time, when the music press, such as it was then, could safely bracket them in with the Riot Grrls and Cornershop and Senser and a few others as “resistance” and “rebellion.” But continuing to resist and rebel in 2006 – oh, we’re so much older and richer, sorry wiser, now; the poor deluded fools…

Well, such reactions are the province of poor deluded fools, since by ignoring All Is War – and after the initial media controversy, that’s what most people seem to have done; when once “God Save The Queen” could be blanked out of the number one spot in Silver Jubilee week, now any dissent is politely labelled and stored out of the reach of impressionable would-be Cameronites – they are ignoring one of the most thrilling and dynamic albums I’ve heard in some time. The Pistols are duly acknowledged in the sleevenotes, and maybe you’d have to go back to the Pistols – or at the very least prime time Public Enemy – to find such articulate and incendiary rage. That rage roars into your cortex directly from the opening “I Reject” which angrily ticks off every perceived failing of Western society as it is so perceived. Beats are thunderous, choirs echo in grand, thunderous canyons of anger throughout tracks like “Electro G-Had” and “’786’ All Is War,” like Trans-Global Underground post-electrified cattleprod up the backside. These tracks describe possible pathways to mass rebellion and overthrow (the chilling concluding payoff of “Let’s build a mosque on Ground Zero!” which ends the latter track), but are far more of a warning than an incitement; this is what COULD happen if good people remain passive and do nothing. These tracks DEMAND attention, from body as well as soul.

Thus “Cook Book D.I.Y,” with its warped vibraphone-led crawl of a groove, like an older and more bitter Earthling, does depict a suicide bomber methodically assembling his device, but then pans out to consider the graduate research scientist open to the highest bidder, and then the Pentagon expert putting together the plan for the neutron bomb; the guilt is multiple and manifold (“The simplicity is numbing/Genius is dumbing down the situation to a manageable level”). Similarly, “B4 I Leave” shifts its perspective to encompass the Blairite platitudes of “The English Gentleman” and the righteous anger of “The Street,” bridged by an anguished female vocal (“I’m tired of the sight of you/Everything you stand for”). “White Tongues” itself is a rapid tabla rasa of rage, beefed up by the participation of “The Aki Under 10 Football Team” – but also underlines the essential demand of the record as a whole: “Until you learn to respect us.”

There are also comparatively straightforward, upbeat dance tracks like “Bark Like A Dog” and “Ya La Li,” powered by the Mighty Zulu Nation, which explode into delightful multilayered rave-ups reminiscent of the days of Rip Rig & Panic (i.e. when you could still do such things organically); but then there is the really dark stuff – “Parasites,” which in a neat reversal of the banjo-to-sarod journey of the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence,” begins as a swirling Indian string drone and gradually mutates into deep, Delta blues guitar echoes (“This is why big fish continue to consume the small fish”) – the point is subtly and brilliantly made.

And then there is the devastating “5 Prayers Of Afghan Women,” where narrator Shivani describes the slaughter of her family – by bombs or by gunfire – and collapses into tears halfway through the recital; if nothing else, this track alone should be made compulsory listening for scoffers and accusers alike. Maybe, as Lester Bangs once opined, nothing is simple except the feeling of pain; but for the thousands we lost on 9/11 and 7/7, thousands are being lost, equally brutally and randomly, every bloodied day out of the corner of our reluctant eye. And certainly “5 Prayers Of Afghan Women” should silence the nonsense about All Is War being a pamphlet of extremist Islamism; in such a system, neither music or women would be heard. Yet the anger is so vast and palpable that such a system could eventually come to pass; listen also to the fearsome percussive procession and half-tempo lament of “Srebrenica Massacre,” and then do something about that chill running down the backbone; the river of percussion runs red throughout the entire album (and also consider the parallels with The Drift; all that talk about the Silver People…).

Finally, as Spike Lee does at the end of (and throughout most of) Do The Right Thing, Fun-Da-Mental’s frontman Aki Nawaz urges the listener to make their own mind up. There are two spoken passages; one, “Che Bin Pt 2,” appears halfway through the album and is a furious recitation of a speech by bin Laden where he argues against the concept of “innocent victims.” But “Che Bin Pt 1” ends the album, with a quietly authoritative recitation of a speech by Che Guevara, where he argues against terrorism (“since it often makes victims of innocent people and destroys a large number of lives that would be valuable to the revolution”) and in favour of industrial sabotage (“there will be displaced workers, but this is entirely justified by the paralysis of the life of the region”). Which one is it going to be? The placing of the latter at the end of the record suggests that this is the far more logical and rational response, and by far the more desirable option. But consider what has been said throughout the rest of All Is War; touch the anger which radiates down to every last hit of the tabla, and understand WHY people feel so marginalised, patronised, abused and generally shat upon that they feel that they need to blow up other people to achieve some recompense, because they actually feel that there is no other way left to them to express their disgust. Whose fault is that? Read this week’s Observer, with its six large, closely-typed pages devoted to a virulent, selective rant by Martin Amis against “Islamism,” in which he comments that “Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta.” Might I suggest that if the late Mr Atta had been afforded some basic respect by the society for which Amis stands in the first place, such that he didn’t feel so alienated and so susceptible to fatal persuasion that he had to crash a ‘plane to make his “point,” things like 9/11 would have been far less likely to have occurred? Or, several pages ahead in the same section, the comments of one Killian Fox on Asian Dub Foundation’s soundtrack for the opera Gaddafi: A Living Myth, currently playing at the London Coliseum: “Their tunes appear to be stuck in 1995, when drum ‘n’ bass was an edgy novelty…there seemed to be very few self-contained ‘songs’.” In other words: get back in your cage, monkeys, know your place and keep it (and, of course, it's quite all right for the Kaiser Chiefs to be stuck in 1995). As I said, most people would prefer not to look a record such as All Is War squarely in the eye; it’s so much more profitable and FUN to consider whether old Justin is sexual predator or being predated on, and who wants to drag dreary old politics into this shiny yellowing Thatcherkid world? But then, reject All Is War, and you have to reject, among many other things, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, the collected works of Phil Ochs (and most of the collected works of Joan Baez) and everything by Buffy Sainte-Marie; consider especially the latter’s “Moratorium” with its howl of “FUCK THE WAR AND BRING OUR BROTHERS HOME” – and that’s before we even start on Sly or the Temptations or Shepp or Hendrix or Simone or Lincoln. I would urge every one of you readers to seek out All Is War, listen to it and comprehend what it’s trying to tell us, how it’s trying to warn us; it’s available in shops now, though I’ve no idea for how long, but grab it while it’s here – as far as incendiary post-punk/post-rap energy and emotion are concerned, it’s easily on a par with Never Mind The Bollocks and Nation Of Millions. Whatever you do, don’t just sit there.


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Tuesday, September 12, 2006
CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: 5:55

I have known that feeling too many times; usually I am too preoccupied with getting ready to get out of bed, but when I don’t – well, it has struck me; it doesn’t strike me now, because everything has changed and I am no longer alone – but those endless ends of the night, where you blink yourself into bleary consciousness “adrift upon the night/And miles away from land.” There have been many times when I have laid there, utterly lost, directionless, crippled by the crutch of unresolved memory and guilt (“Soon the morning will arrive/Can I begin another day/Whilst this old day is still alive/Refusing to be put away?”). “I sacrifice myself again and again and again…” and again and again (as on Escalator), and you can hear her trying to bite her tongue off to stop these thoughts from flooding her blood.

Oh yes, I know those feelings which Charlotte Gainsbourg feels, or which Jarvis Cocker’s words articulate; so 5:55 needs to be played at that time of day, or night, preferably in the gathering autumn such as we now approach. It is essentially the new Air album, with Gainsbourg on vocals and Cocker and Neil Hannon on words, and if this is already getting too 1995 then it’s the stunted, fearful quietude of the second Tindersticks album, though Air are very naturally more expansive. They make the kind of elegantly melancholic and slow-burning music which these nascent feelings of despair deserve; really they have made the same album several times over, but as with Boards of Canada that is the cynosure of their charm – there are certain colours of my soul which they know how to touch, and why they need to be touched, and how to help make them blossom and bloom, even when their atomised enchantment seems to want to deny continuation of life in every other respect.

The music on 5:55 dreams to fit Charlotte’s dreams of emotion; she mostly sings to and in herself, but the contours and folds of Air’s genius serve to embrace her, to cushion her despair, maybe even to elevate her, help her to liberate what exactly she feels. Indecisive isn’t the same thing as vulnerable; fear isn’t interchangeable with surrender. The music stays relatively quiet throughout, but so full, so rightly lush, so wonderfully patient; “Little Monsters” is a warier variant on “Playground Love” with cyclical piano framing Gainsbourg’s dread-filled whispers (“Making out that she knows the rules/A sincere imposter”) and a spine-freezing glockenspiel refrain (“Can’t you see that we’re only playing?”). She is not emotionless; under the serene cover she is frantically scrabbling to retrace and reclaim emotions – the seductively sinister “AF607105” finds her frozen, numb on the flight with that number, feeling nothing, forgetting everything (“I love you/I miss you/I cannot see your face”) and only finding salvation as the ‘plane crashes to its inevitable doom; she audibly becomes animated and even excited as she intones “The cabin is burning/I smile and feel complete” – Melody Nelson’s story, told from her own perspective. “Tel Que Tu Es” barely exists but for piano and whisper (the title translates as “Come As You Are” and it’s not a Nirvana cover). “Beauty Mark” is a remarkable pledge of clenched sobs (“This hidden place/This private part/The secret door into my heart/I’ll keep it for you”); she sighs the word “mark” – as with all of her vocals, in immaculate Birkin-perfect Home Counties English – as if she’s bringing the whole planet crashing down with her, or maybe on her.

It doesn’t all work – the contrived cinequotes of “Jamais” remind us of Cocker at his laziest (the miracle of this album’s best work is that you forget that Cocker is involved), and the faux-Serge gestures of “The Songs That We Sing” seem unduly facile – but the record climaxes with the remarkable “Everything I Cannot See,” where her voice finally breaks free of restraint in the song’s astonishing downward-cascading rapid piano chorus (“You’re my life you’re my hope you’re the chain you’re the rope you’re my God you’re my hell you’re the sky you’re myself you’re the reason I’m living you’re all that I discover,” which takes Charlotte fractionally less time to sing – ecstatically - than it did me to type). It’s not quite clear to whom, or what, the song is addressed; whoever or whatever it is, she loves them, but she has to leave. Yet this leaving comes with its own inbuilt escape hatch, namely: “If I leave, will you follow, can I put my faith in you?” The line “But this island life/Just had to end” suggests that it’s perhaps not a lover she’s asking to decide, but France, her family’s legacy, perhaps the past in general. And eventually she breaks away, but gladly the Other breaks in tandem with her (“So let’s face it together/Now this storm is finally through,” hot on the heels of the remarkable imagery “the stars hang like a noose”). “You’re the miles left to go you are everything I ever wanted and you are my lover.”

Finally, the circle completes with “Morning Song” – it has all been a dream (“Last night I saw a ghost/He seemed familiar to me”) and nothing has really been resolved (“But to get to the morning, first you have to get through the night”). Still, she will persist, and survive, and prosper, away from ghosts, towards the warmer reality of the present and the future, just as I am doing; if I’d written “Everything I Cannot See” I would have interpreted it as having the courage to walk away from the memory of Laura towards the reality of you, and that is how I pretty much interpret it, and that chorus I imagine singing to you, without precondition, with love, only with utter love and devotion. Maybe that’s why I love 5:55 so much, since it reminds me of how far we’ve truly travelled; it now encapsulates a past for me, and sums up what needed to be summed up, and reminds me that I’m more alive now than I have ever been, so beautifully and gently and tenderly.


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Monday, September 11, 2006
THE MYTH OF PATRICIA BARBER

I kept hearing the name Patricia Barber in various hidden places, and there was a review of her new album in Friday’s Guardian which sounded arresting enough to make me want to investigate further – you see, section editor, you can persuade readers to listen to music if you don’t treat them like retarded five-year-olds. An Ovidian concept album about Mythologies? It has to be better than bleating Beyoncé (truly, soul as timesheet) extending her charge card limit for a further three dreary years.

I asked about her on ILM and most respondents pointed me in the direction of her piano playing above and beyond her singing, but then ILM isn’t really there to be trusted unless I’m writing about Pick Of The Pops. The album was there, downstairs in HMV, but priced £16.99 (inexplicably the US wing of Music From EMI do not have me on their mailing list for hot new Patricia Barber platters, despite my never having mentioned her previously on my blog and not knowing anything about her) and I knew I could do better than that; Ray’s Jazz Shop came up trumps with a far more reasonable price of £12.75 – no loss-leading perpetual HMV Sales to bankroll, you see – and what’s more they were playing the Brotherhood of Breath as I walked in (“Kongi’s March,” the Bremen To Bridgwater version) so that had to be a good sign.

What really swung it for me, though, was the recollection of one of Morley’s old OMM columns where he despairs at The X-Factor and lists a long procession of voices to whom he’d urgently have to listen again, straight after the programme, to remind himself that there was such a thing as singing, and among the names there, in between Wyatt and Cat Power, was Patricia Barber. So I had to give her a chance. To complete the circle and also break the chain, I played Mythologies while watching Saturday’s X-Factor, on mute; listening to Barber breathing avidly about Morpheus and Persephone and especially Narcissus (“Can I woo her through the looking glass/This refraction of light I see?”) while watching what appeared to be an unbroken string of failures; a stream of glum and hurt faces, a would-be Girls Aloud destined to be forever Girls Hushed, a greasy pair of ageing sideburns which hadn’t yet heard the news about Buddy Holly (and the inevitable jump-suited Elvis impersonator which always makes me re-evaluate the comparative merits of euthanasia), all the while listening to this deep and smoking but benevolent female voice, stroking my speakers and caressing my ears, telling me that it doesn’t have to be Like That.

Disappointingly there isn’t much evidence of Barber’s pianistic skills on Mythologies other than a rather dazzling and mesmerising run at the beginning of track one, “The Moon” (“But tonight there won’t be light/’Cause I can’t shine without you”); thereafter she concentrates on singing and leaves most of the solo work to guitarist Neal Alger, who wanders through Barber’s fields of nettle in an agreeable Bill Frisell-ish way. So I guess I’ll have to trawl through the back catalogue for her piano; what this leaves Mythologies sounding like is a caffeine-filled, quarter to one in the morning Joni Mitchell circa Shadows And Light (no bad thing) with a seasoning of Annette Peacock sauce. The production is sparse in an expensive, echoing sort of Tate Modern way; Barber is pictured on the rear of the CD in side profile, smiling ruefully out of the corner of her left eye, and in the CD booklet clutching her brow and throat rather theatrically. What this means is that Barber is For Adults Only; there are no shots of Patricia goofily grinning and whooping it up, reclining in the arms of four bemused sailors as per the new Christina Aguilera album. Which is fine by me; when 90% of 2006 pop makes you feel that you’re too old for this shit, even if you were six, it’s refreshing to listen to grown-ups (and of course, the corporate five-year-old market culture makes no allowances for the genuine and beneficial childishness of Broken Social Scene and we know the rest) because being an adult and listening to adult music isn’t interchangeable with being condemned to fifty years of “Fly Like A Fucking Eagle.”

The concept only derives in part from Ovid (“Morpheus,” “Phaeton,” “Persephone”) but Barber uses the myths to sing about the world as it burns now; so “Icarus” says a rueful but hard-edged goodbye to Nina Simone; “Whiteworld/Oedipus” in particular is a sweetly damning indictment of the whole Sting/Timberlake let’s-swan-around-the-Third-World-like-we’re-Dick-Diver syndrome and how it invariably and inevitably contributes to sackings, pillages, bombings and massacres – it should be heard in tandem with “White Tongues” off the new Fun’Da’Mental album; and more about the latter very soon – while the closing duologue of “Phaeton” and “The Hours” uses children’s choirs and hip hop breaks observes from the Moon’s distance the world’s final incineration (another parallel with All Is War). “The Hours” in particular is masterly; a melancholy whole-tone doo wop piano cycles across ticking (bomb) rhythms, like the Flamingos covering Robert Wyatt, Barber’s voice sounding uncannily (as it does elsewhere, e.g. “Orpheus”) like Billy MacKenzie – those same swooping dives and settlements of rubati, asking for “just one more day” but recognising that it is all in vain, as a choir enters to herald the wave which will submerge all (“You will endure/Long after we are gone/And these hearts and this wave/Will break”), closing the album with the repeated question, “Who’ll save us now?” Meanwhile, on the TV screen, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? comes on, and as ever I dream to myself: just make the most of the life we have – that’s how people and dreams are saved.


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