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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

There were too many accidental discoveries for Easter to have been an accident. Things which I had been unsuccessfully seeking since August turned up as soon as she turned up – so maybe there’s a lesson here. And I have to say that since she had to fly back, I haven’t gone off the habit of browsing for music but I no longer feel it a solitary pursuit – or, for that matter, writing about it. In truth I haven’t felt that way since last August but Easter helped to accentuate the necessity of such activities being done as a pair, a couple (as with life).

One thing I have decidedly gone off doing, however, is looking in “new” record shops. The prepackaged DVD-dominant glare of the entrance lobby is enough to give me a headache, never mind the increasingly unappetising menu of “new releases” one has to scan, with their desperate, jumbled bazaar look, their cursory Photoshop cover designs, the knowledge gleaned from four years of writing for the printed media of how much of this critically feted stuff is hyped from the PR word go, rather than arising naturally – so much of what passes as new music in 2007 is constructed on such a fragile Meccano basis that all you would have to do would be to pull one screw loose and the entire, boneless edifice would collapse.

Add to that the fact that, since the print writing career dwindled to a barely noticeable zero last year, I have inevitably fallen off a good many PR/record company mailing lists, such that I have to return to the ancient habit of buying CDs with my own hard-earned cash, a lot of 2007 things simply don’t get sent to me any more, and I am loath to expend large sums on new, untested things, and you may wish to resign me to an early Hornby Retirement Home (by the railway). Unlike my former salad days, when you only had to pay £4.49 or at the very most £5.49 for a new release – and thus could afford to take frequent gambles – the random investment of thirteen or fourteen, or even ten, pounds is getting harder and harder to justify. Witness (as Lena did) my dawdling in the Portobello Rough Trade over whether to buy the Besnard Lakes album (only £9.99) which has had more than good notices elsewhere (and they’re Canadian!) but which I myself haven’t yet heard – and truthfully I was mightily put off by the RT cover blurb which compared them to Pet Sounds, Roy Orbison and Julee Cruise; I’ve fallen for too many of these lines in the past, with the counters of sundry MVEs inevitably filling up with bog-standard indie fare. So I’m ending up as the Simon Cowell of music writers – ranks of stuttering CDs lining up in front of my desk, as I sternly observe them with an unavoidable air of “come on, then, impress me.” Not like the 1981/2 days, when I was happy to be impressed by everything!

So increasingly I have returned to the dusty haunts of used record shops, car boot sales and charity shops with a clear mandate not to look for any specific record; just to flick through what’s there and prepare to be surprised by what, if anything, I find. That’s one of the good things about the “mid-price” racks you get at the Berwick Street and Camden MVEs; with relatively recent CDs priced at £4-6 (or less) you are more likely, as a punter, to take risks. Much as in the former salad days, indeed. I would tell record companies to take note, except since everything is going to end up as virtual music, downloadable but uncherishable, there’s no real point.

But getting back to this article’s point, much of what I discovered on our joint record (and book) shopping trawls in the capital over Easter was done so in this way, accidentally. Nearly all of the CDs listed here are old, and many of them I still possess on vinyl, in another country – but at the moment, no music sounds fresher, and it was her presence that enabled this freshness to happen.

I will begin, however, with the two records Lena brought over from Canada as a present for me:

Their first album, from 2004, and a considerably darker and more enclosed affair than National Anthem Of Nowhere; the long and winding, and largely instrumental, title track sets out its dim path. Songs like “Baby, You’re In Luck” and “Kings & Queens” are pop, but played deep within an inaccessible bunker. Highlight: the closing Tinderstickian undulation of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (not the old Racing Cars hit) with Leslie Feist suitably unearthly on “vocal ghosts.”

DO MAKE SAY THINK: You, You’re A History In Rust
Their fifth album in ten years of existence; over Easter we listened to their third, & Yet & Yet, and while that contained frequently sublime work in the post-Godspeed/Mogwai tradition (already a tradition!! Lena had never heard Mogwai, so I played her “New Paths To Helicon” as an introduction to Hamilton’s finest and she was suitably astonished), Rust takes things considerably forward. Persisting with their barnyard operation (which in turn may also be exercising a subtle influence on what is now called post-rock; see Grizzly Bear especially) the stateliness of tracks like “A With Living” reminds me somewhat of Arthur Russell’s mid-seventies group work; urbane pastoralism, Sunday mornings in smoky, closed cities while simultaneously reaching out to the countryside; their long, languid spins take the music in continually unexpected directions, including the two shocking blast-offs into riffing noise – “The Universe!” and the stunning “Executioner Blues” which latter climaxes the album as it free-ascends into stardust. “When you keep that in mind, you’ll find a love as big as the sky.” Quite.

southpacific: constance
Tuesday in Greenwich, cold and blowsily windy; without the sun and heat a rather withered-looking tourist trap. SE London in general I tend to visit seldom; although this is “our city,” some parts of it are more “ours” than others – especially the further west we go (Hampton Court – QED). The bus journey to Greenwich is long and unfulfilling, involving attractive changes at Elephant and Castle – just the place to be waiting for a bus or standing around passing the time of day in full receipt of unending and unrelenting four-cornered gusts – circuitous trips to bus terminals named Canada Water, grey, metallic trudges through loveless industrial estates doing their damnedest to look like a “community,” with their Frankie & Benny’s psuedo-Italian diners (there’s another one at Gatwick Village, so it’s a name guaranteed to engender depression in me). I travelled down to Greenwich again yesterday, in 28 degrees of sun and heat, just to check that the route was as joyless with added summer, and indeed it was.

But Greenwich also has an MVE, and it was while browsing through the take-it-off-our-hands-PLEASE racks that the southpacific album suddenly emerged, without my even especially looking for it, and I remembered that miracles can still occur. This was one of two CDs that Lena brought with her in August, borrowed from Toronto’s public library, and we listened to it then and marvelled at its scope and depth (particularly its bass response) and I kicked myself for not picking up on it first time around in 2000 (I recalled seeing it in the racks seven years ago, and it may even have come out on the Poptones label here). In the intervening eight months ago I’d kept an eye out for it in the usual places, since inevitably it was out of print…but here it was, suddenly, without any apparent effort from me…it was priced at £3, and I mused on how long it must have been sitting in this shop, starting off at an over-hopeful £12 or £13, then gradually winding its way down the price scale over many months, or perhaps even years, now just two steps away from the pound-a-piece basement…all the time waiting for its ideal buyer…waiting for us to find it and I am absolutely sure, or as sure as one can be about such apparent supernatural occurrences, that it had been sitting there all of this time specifically for us to go down to Greenwich on a freezing and windy weekday and meet it. One of many, many signs…

southpacific themselves were an instrumental trio (though ghostly vocals appear on “Built To Last”) comprising Graeme Fleming on drums, guitars and samples, Joachim Toelke, also on guitars, and Phil Stewart-Bowes on bass. Not really in the post-rock tradition, but reaching back to an older one; that of the Cocteau Twins and Dif Juz (constance would have been a sensation had it come out on 4AD in 1989). The thrust of the opening “Blue Lotus” is reminiscent of the similarly neglected New Zealand trio Bailter Space (find, if you can, the latter’s great 1993 album Robot World on Flying Nun Records for confirmation of this) but there are no vocals and the guitar work is as hand-free as anything I can recall this side of Loveless. As the album progresses, the music becomes steadily grander and more detached (though note the simplicity of the acoustic interlude “A Better Life Since”), diving headlong into untraceable abstractions on “Automata” before climaxing on the noble, bleeding beauty of “Telegraph Hill” and signing off with “Aria” with a small but telling demonstration of how it all connects to GYBE!, DMST and others; haunting and poignant, and not a little sad to listen to on one’s own – but it is a gorgeous record, and if Turnbuckle Records of 163 Third Avenue, NYC, are still in business, then they should be gently persuaded to reintroduce it into circulation.

The MEMBRANES: Wrong Place At The Wrong Time
John OTWAY: Greatest Hits
The GUESS WHO: The Best Of The Guess Who
Three of my four fruits from an epic (three hours plus) trawl through the MVE multiplex which dominates the north side of Notting Hill Gate (together we are nothing if not thorough and persistent in our searching) on Wednesday afternoon (thankfully far sunnier and warmer than Tuesday had been). The Membranes one is a compilation of the highlights of Blackpool’s premier punk band, though at £3 I really only wanted it for the immense “Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder,” a fearless rampage through what John Robb describes in the sleevenote as “media muddling and nuke out threats, local politicians and greed eyed howl scamsters” which made the Mary Chain sound timid; hitherto a 7” single only, I first heard it when it finished in the top ten of Peel’s 1984 Festive Fifty, but when I rushed out the next day to buy it, it had long since gone (out of print) and it’s taken me until now to find it again. It still sounds amazing.

John Otway is Britain’s Jonathan Richman, and possibly also Britain’s Daniel Johnston; a brazen hussy of a nitwitty genius who has littered the last thirty years with one-off classics; this compilation (which, though released only in 2002, is now likewise out of print -–poor old John!) collects everything the beginner (and possibly the finisher) would want to hear, from ‘77’s heady “Cor Baby That’s Really Free” and “Beware Of The Flowers” through ‘78’s tremulous, 100-piece orchestra-backed five-and-a-half-minute ballad “Geneve” (it wasn’t a hit, either in the charts or with the girl about whom Otway wrote it), 1980’s fearsome backwards electrochant “DK 50/80” which nearly gave him a second Top 40 hit, 1981’s hilarious, minimalist “Headbutts,” a “Delilah” which nearly cuts Alex Harvey’s, and onwards until 2002’s triumphant 50th birthday top ten smash “Bunsen Burner” (shamefully never heard at Club Poptimism) and its flipside “House Of The Rising Sun” recorded live at Abbey Road with a thousand-piece fan club choir, including at least one ILxor. How can any record collection not have a John Otway greatest hits lurking within its shelves?

One CD I did need, however, was a decent Guess Who compilation, and this was it (I was complimented for my purchase by the MVE checkout girl – “Hey! Canadian music!” Ah, if only she knew but we didn’t push it…knowing only “American Woman” (because that’s all we got in Britain) my interest was sparked by the inclusion of the shattering ballad “Sour Suite” – as unlike “American Woman” as any song or record could be – on Scott Woods’ Can-Con compilation, and indeed they visited strange, new corners of the musical universe. “These Eyes” is one of the great white soul sides, Burton Cummings’ agonised voice climbing higher and higher up the scale as the song refuses not to modulate until his throat is on the point of expiring (that being the song’s emotional point), while tracks like “Hand Me Down World” and especially “Grey Day” (emphatically not the Madness song) with their diversions into cocktail jazz and freeform minimalism demonstrate the forming of something new, the clear forefather to the determined discontinuity of Broken Social Scene and all who sail within and without them. The Guess Who really were my big musical discovery of Easter.

MATCHING MOLE: Matching Mole
Now here’s a record I know well, but I hadn’t seen it on CD until Good Friday – a magical and near-faultless day which, as Lena has already mentioned, took in the National Portrait Gallery, the Beach Burrito Café in Berwick Street (the best place to eat in London on a summer’s afternoon, complete with an agreeably unpredictable indie playlist; if only there were a beach to go with it), a trek around Portobello Road and then to Clerkenwell for Club Poptimism. In the Portobello stretch I passed on Besnard Lakes in Rough Trade (but am still open to persuasion, as those two great JA ladies, Jane Austen and Joan Armatrading, would put it) but jumped at seeing this in the racks of Straight Ahead, the power pop/’60s specialist shop which shares premises with Minus Zero, also for £9.99. Its peak is the opening “O Caroline” with one of Robert Wyatt’s most touching vocal performances, which deconstructs as profoundly as it mourns; thereafter the band float through fragments of songs, whispering ghosts of scat, textural modulations – all very Arts & Crafts (2006) and a precursor, in Haines terms, to both Soft Skeleton and Metric.

Their debut mini-LP, and still by far the best thing they’ve ever released; wearing out of the grooves meant that my vinyl original sadly went west some while ago but I was glad to find it again at Flashback, in Islington, on Saturday (where I also found Jeff Buckley’s Live At Sin-E for Lena, and she found much else besides). Strongly reminiscent, for me, of those late spring/early summer weekday afternoons in 1993 when I used to get on the (long defunct) hopper bus from the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital back home to Pimlico after a day’s work, venturing down Chelsea Embankment and the back end of Churchill Gardens, feeling good about the world and those flamenco guitars/police sirens (“Daughters Of The Kaos”) and sinister Moog/indie/closer-than-the-ear-can-hear rap interfaces (“Life Of Leisure”) warming a moment of immortal memory.

VARIOUS: Hard Workin’ Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story Volume 2
Stan FREBERG: Presents The United States Of America: Vol. 1 (The Early Years) and Vol. 2 (The Middle Years)
TRANQUILITY BASS: Let The Freak Flag Fly
The PRETTY THINGS: SF Sorrow Plus Resurrection (SF Sorrow Live At Abbey Road)
All discovered on our last Tuesday, way out west in Ealing. I didn’t even know that Ace had put out a second volume of Nitzsche stuff but there it was, already in Oxfam (at a steep £4.99, but you don’t see it every day) and full of wonders like Beefheart’s “Hard Workin’ Man,” which would have been worth the fiver in itself (first time on CD?), Timi Yuro’s “Teardrops ‘Till Dawn,” Karen Verros’ astonishing proto-psych/girl group freakout “You Just Gotta Know My Mind,” the Tubes’ “Don’t Touch Me There,” “Porpoise Song” with the full coda and everyone else from Frankie Laine to the Neville Brothers and back.

Though ideally I’d like a proper 2CD retrospective of Freberg’s work, preferably one which includes his brilliantly pedantic take on “Ol’ Man River” (“He must know something…but doesn’t say ANYTHING!”), this will more than do - £3.99, out of another branch of Oxfam, which is about a eighth of what you’d pay for it new in HMV; lots of very droll and telling satire on Our Shared History, one volume recorded in ’61 and the other in ’96 (though he sounds no different, and the second volume, including things like “Stephen Foster, Beloved Songwriter,” is arguably funnier and sharper than the first).

Tranquility Bass – not to be confused with Canada’s Tranquility Base of “If You’re Looking” fame – billed on the woozy, multicoloured inner sleeve as “The Insatiably Eclectic Hippy Free Freakout Band” – were essentially one man, Chicagoan Michael Kandel, who as far as I can tell only ever released the one album, in 1997. Indeed I used to own a copy, can’t remember why I got rid of it and am still kicking myself for doing so since, like nearly everything else on this list, you can’t exactly go down to your local emporium, or even a national one, and pick up a copy (moral: hang on to things because you never know when you’ll need them again). Anyway, if not quite “free” or “freakout,” Let The Freak Flag Fly is certainly unclassifiable; utilising samples, dance beats and Jimmie Rodgers covers with equal abandon, but with absolute political commitment, tracks like “Five Miles High” and “The Bird” are oddly similar to the way DMST or Broken Social Scene go about their music – long, discontinuous, but still strangely, or magically, unified – except here Kandel deploys trip hop and even Madchester memes to make his point. The highlight may well be the marathon, 22-minute medley “I’ll Be Here”/”Let The Freak Flag Fly” which is akin to the Steve Miller Band of Sailor wandering through a lost land, trying to find answers, attempting to get back home.

Getting back home, I found the 2CD SF Sorrow package new, for a fiver, in the dark and cheerless Ealing Broadway HMV. A long-cherished classic which again I do still have on vinyl somewhere, but here on one CD is the original “rock opera” complete with contemporary non-album single releases such as the magisterial, mouth-opening “Defecting Grey” (was 1967 really the greatest year ever? The evidence in its favour re-gathers by the day). The second CD sees them reunited thirty-one years later at Abbey Road to perform the same material live, complete with Arthur Brown as narrator, and they make a pretty damn good job of it.

Yes, trying to find answers, attempting to get back home – and the awful Wednesday morning when she did have to get “back home.” When she left for the departure lounge (passengers only) I felt a sudden and horrible emptiness in the sense that now it was just me standing there, and there was nothing else to do but get on the train back to Clapham Junction and thereafter the bus(es) back home, the terrible business of having to re-adjust to “real life” – especially as the ten days we spent together WERE our real life.

But even then, on that gloomy, overcast Wednesday lunchtime, one more sign that she hadn’t really left; in the Scope charity shop at Clapham Junction, another classic Canadian album, Snow’s 12 Inches Of Snow, for a pound, and Lena had mentioned that had she found it used she would have bought it. So I bought it for her, and I’m keeping it safe for her, awaiting her permanent return. These next five months can’t pass by quickly enough.

But wait a minute - what about the fourth unspoiled spoil we found in MVE that first Wednesday?

Glenn GOULD: Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Some records, conversely, you can will to appear if your will is strong enough. This was the other CD Lena borrowed from the library in August, and again it has vanished from circulation, and again I spent eight fruitless months searching for a copy - until we were both back here, and well, it HAD to be there, in the Stage and Screen branch of Notting Hill MVE. We stared at it for a few, long-seeming moments, as though frozen, and then it was my purest pleasure to convey the sleeve to the counter for CD and payment.

This album documents the life of a mind as few other "compilations" can; Bach, Hindemith, Wagner (with Toscanini and full orchestra), Beethoven ("Practice"? Many pianists would envy this as an end) and on through Scriabin, Schoenberg and Hindemith ("Personal Ad," "Forty-Nine" - the subtitles tell their own remorseful story; fifty years as Glenn Gould or a hundred years as anybody else?), a piano which sounds stroked by angel wings, even if it were stoked with prescription drugs. It emphasises, as though it needed emphasis (but so often it does!) that there is never a true end to all good things, and all good people.

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