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

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Since I heard his startling drumming on the Paul The Girl album some three years ago, and strengthened by his involvement with the interrelated groups Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, I have remained convinced that Seb Rochford is increasingly becoming one of the most significant figures in British music, and perhaps one of those rare, unknowing polymaths which British music throws up on average about once or twice per generation. By “unknowing” I of course do not mean ignorant; rather that Rochford simply isn’t aware that there are “boundaries” in music, between jazz and pop, between the pre-punk of Henry Cow and the post-punk of the Slits, or chooses not to regard them.

Count Herbert II, the debut album by his “pop” group, Fulborn Teversham, lends further weight to the belief that Rochford may be another Keith Tippett or even another Robert Wyatt; its fourteen tracks do not stray beyond, at most, four and a half minutes and yet have more adventure crammed into their brevities than most lauded “new music” records have in their entire, tiresome span. It comes to us via Leicester’s Pickled Egg Records, the enterprising, if still shadowy, label previously responsible for bringing us such unforeseen wonders as Pop-Off Tuesday, Oddfellows Casino and (at least for their first single) the Go! Team; in 1974 it would not have hesitated to come out on Virgin.

The group is based around Rochford himself on drums, saxophonist Pete Wareham, keyboardist Nick Ramm and singer Alice Grant. The album’s tracks alternate between astringently frantic free-jazz-rock workouts and sourly boisterous songs sung by Grant’s admirably raw (in a 1979 Ari Up sense) voice. Opening track “Beachtune” comes on like Ayler jamming with Matching Mole at 78 rpm, having accidentally walked into a Penetration recording session, Grant panting through rapid, indecipherable lyrics (apart from “I didn’t care” and an almighty scream of “AAAAAARRRGGGHHHH!” midway through) while Ramm’s solo eventually has no choice but to melt into Eno-esque whoops and slides. The title track switches violently between hectic, bass-drone driven entropy and a poignant tenor/organ meditation, merging into an extended organ feature for Ramm reminiscent of the more placid moments of Plaid and Aphex before Wareham’s tenor returns to blast the piece wide open again.

“Silent,” based on a Leafcutter John loop, is policed by Wareham’s cautiously winsome flute; eventually Grant’s voice enters, hissing, “silent – you’ll be silent/Quiet – you’ll be quiet” as the room dissolves around her, like a harsher Young Marble Giants. In contrast, “Castle Music” bumps along like the soundtrack to a Hungarian cartoon film of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, busy harpsichord broken up by occasional bluff brass blasts, and again Wareham’s tenor rasping its way through the ramparts.

Then comes the quite astonishing triptych of lost love: Over what sounds like a broken-down barrel organ, Grant, in the song “Amazing,” intones, utterly unconvincingly, “I’m over it now – no really I am – I’m better than good – I’m amAAAAAAAzing!” – and those middle “A”s become progressively more painful until the screams become too shocking to bear, while a fairground Portishead bash into Kurt Weill’s concrete dodgems behind her. This segues straight into the fast punk junk of “You And Me” (note the subtle “Come As You Are” reference in the second verse) while two jousting Wareham saxes boil in hell as Grant howls “There will always be a me and you!” The sequence concludes with the despondent prepared piano waltz lament of “Even If,” Grant’s mourning, self-bereaving voice very well controlled.

The sequence gives the record a huge emotional burden which it never quite shakes off. “Mara Song” is the kind of disjointed avant-wine bar jazz-funk workout in which groups like Back Door and John Stevens’ Away used to specialise, its beats slightly, and deliberately, constipated. But then we drift through the magnificent “The Love That Was Went Away,” very Wyatt-like with its bubbling, unstable organ and 6/8 ballad tempo, Wareham’s tenor carefully and delicately phrasing the gorgeous, tortured melody.

After that, it’s back to Grant and her “Off Song” which is what I thought Lily Allen might have sounded like (“There’s just one thing I would like to say to you!/Starts with F and ends with OFF!” accompanied by abrupt musical cutoff and then leading to a parched, Slits-like post-punk skank. “New Transylvania” follows like Michael Mantler on Dexedrine (particularly with Ramm’s Hammering organ), Wareham emerging with his most demented solo on the record – squarely, or perpendicularly, in the tradition of George Khan and Gary Windo.

Grant makes her final appearance on “Empty Shell,” a tripartite exercise, the first part of which is another furious punkish trot over which she squeals “Don’t want an empty shell!” before screaming a terrible “DON’T!” At the latter, Ramm and Rochford halve the tempo to ballad pace as Grant re-enters, still threatening – “Don’t want an empty shell/’Cos I’ve got a strawberry heart/Got juice for my blood.” Then the tempo picks up again, capped by Wareham’s hysterical tenor before Grant brings the band back to the original tune. Once again the tempo slows down to provide a regretful coda.

After that climax, Fulborn Teversham seem to drift just out of touch or recognition. “Uhse” is the old Heart Of Darkness river trip, pattering percussion, ominous animal sounds generated from Rochford’s additional electronics, Wareham wary with his sax lead. The closing “1515” underlines the group’s melodic kinship with Slapp Happy (there’s a lot of Peter Blegvad about the vocal tracks in particular), with Wareham’s tenor and Hayley Hung’s violin fluttering like moths around an absent lightbulb, out of which a dolorous and moving ensemble tune gradually emerges.

The recording quality is real time but superb; despite the various effects and the very few overdubs, we always get the intuitive sense of a band playing together spontaneously – the music is not tarted up in any obstructive way, and is clearly music which can only be enhanced by watching the group performing and developing it on stage (Fulborn Teversham virtually demand to be seen live). And the record brings home to me the feeling that this is the nearest thing Britain has to a Canadian type of musical culture, where different circles of players can intertwine, learn from each other, make music because they want to and therefore advance the cause of music in the most truthful of ways. I think it’s the best way forward.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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