Marissa Nadler, Geneva L’Usine, 21 November 2022

This was a concert that brought back all kinds of memories for me, as well as being hugely enjoyable in its own right.  Back in 2005, when I was still living in the UK, I reviewed Marissa Nadler’s first two albums, Ballads of Living and Dying and The Saga of Mayflower May, for The Sound Projector magazine.  Nadler hadn’t had a whole lot of press at the time, at least not in the UK, so I felt (with some justification) that I was blazing a trail for her somewhat.  A couple of years later, I reviewed her third album Songs III – Bird on the Water, also for The Sound Projector.  As those reviews bear witness I was very taken by this music, an impression Nadler’s subsequent albums have done nothing to dispel.

A year or so later Marissa Nadler played her first concert in Vienna, at an acoustic club which occupied the back room of a place called the Gasthaus Vorstadt in the 16th district.  It wasn’t a part of Vienna I knew well, and I’d never previously been to the venue.  Indeed I never went back there, and the place was to close down for good a few years later.  Google Street View tells me that the building (at Herbststraβe 37) is now empty, which seems a shame.  Anyway, my (rather short) review of the evening is here.  I was able to catch a brief word with Marissa after the concert, and mentioned that I’d written reviews of all her albums.  She replied that her mother kept a scrapbook of all her press coverage, so I hope my reviews made it into that scrapbook.

Looking online now for information about that evening, I find that Nadler had played at L’Usine in Geneva just a couple of days earlier.  And what do you know, a couple of weeks ago she was back there, giving me my first opportunity to see her live since 2008.  It was also my first visit to L’Usine, despite having lived in Geneva for six years now.  An impressively grungey and squat-like hangout, it reminded me very much of the Arena in Vienna (the small hall, specifically).

Whereas Nadler’s 2008 concert in Vienna had been a strictly solo affair, this time she came with two extra musicians – guitarist and keyboardist Milky Burgess and bassist Monika Khot, plus a drum machine that was occasionally pressed into service for the more uptempo numbers.  Despite these additions, it was good to hear that Nadler hasn’t gone rockabilly or anything in the intervening years.  Her sound is still defined by her gorgeous, ethereal voice and diamond-hard fingerpicked guitar, carrying songs steeped in myths, dreams and unexpressed longing.  Accentuated by the rich sound of her 12-string electric guitar, and aided by strong backing from Burgess and Khot, Nadler’s music cleaves to a heady, psychedelic vision of folk, drawing on uncanny pastoral imagery and bright, fluttering melodies.

Highlights of the evening included the title track from Nadler’s new album, The Path of the Clouds, which she introduced, without further explanation, as being “about D.B. Cooper”.  Cue blank looks from the majority of the audience.  Cooper, it turns out, was a mysterious individual who in 1971 hijacked a plane in the northwestern United States and parachuted into the night, never to be seen again.  Now this guy may be some kind of mythical figure in the US, but I personally had never heard of him and neither, I would suggest, have most Europeans.  Not that it matters much, since the song itself was a beautiful, airborne drift of a thing.

There was, moreover, something endearingly ramshackle about Nadler’s performance.  Whether asking the lighting man to turn the lights down, the soundman to turn the click track up in her in-ear monitors, or discussing some kind of unwanted bass frequency with Burgess, this was not a slick, polished performance, and was all the better for it.  Introducing the song “Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay”, Burgess promised that it would be a showcase for “Marissa’s hot riffs”, and indeed the outro to the song featured a fine, splintering solo from Nadler.  Returning to the stage alone, Nadler encored with the spectral “Fifty Five Falls” from her début album, a song so haunting and witchy it threatened to make the walls of L’Usine crumble around us and send us sliding into the depths of Lake Geneva.

Buttercup Metal Polish, Geneva cave12, 18 November 2022

Here was a classic cave12 concert – strange, baffling and hugely entertaining. Consisting of drummers Nicolas Field and Alexandre Babel, the duo of Buttercup Metal Polish is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. What better reason, then, to perform a special anniversary concert. This was my first visit to cave12 since the pandemic, and if I didn’t know quite what to expect from the event, it turned out to be an evening rich in fun and surprises. Babel was new to me, but I’d seen Field in action way back in 2018 with his N-Ensemble.

It was immediately evident, from the moment you entered the performance space, that this was not going to be an ordinary concert. The low-rise stage was empty, save for a few chairs and scatter cushions, while Field and Babel’s drumkits were placed facing each other on the floor. Meanwhile, four microphones were strategically placed at points around the room, clearly for the use of the “special guests” whose presence had been advertised.

It’s not often that you’re told in advance exactly how long a concert will last, but as part of his traditional pre-show announcement, cave12 MC Sixto had specified that the performance would last exactly 70 minutes. I couldn’t resist setting off my stopwatch and glancing at it occasionally, just to keep an eye on the passing of time, although the passage of those 70 minutes would in any case loom large in the concerns of at least one of the four guest vocalists.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, however, Field and Babel were left to their own devices. Perfectly attuned to one another, the two drummers used every available object to construct a dizzying array of percussive sounds and mazelike polyrhythms. The dynamic shifts in the music – from loud to quiet, intense to playful, spare to clattering – drew in this listener inexorably, left slack-jawed at the musicians’ extraordinary agility and dexterity.

Things started to get interesting at this point, as the four vocalists/observers began to make their presence known in various corners of the room. The deal here seemed to be that they were there to keep a watchful eye on Babel and Field, amplifying and commenting on the music as it unfolded. Of the four, the one who made by far the strongest impression was Joke Lanz, the veteran Swiss provocateur whose principal project, Sudden Infant, also features Babel on drums. On this occasion, Lanz kept up a steady stream of invective in English, French and German. Whether counting down the number of minutes remaining for the duo to play or announcing that he would “let the boys play their drums”, there was something uneasy, almost Kafkaesque, about Lanz’s increasingly harsh interventions.

Elsewhere, American artist and noise musician Fritz Welch complemented Lanz’s commentary with caustic words of his own. I was less convinced by the performances of Maarten Seghers and Catherine Travelletti, who traded Lanz’s transgressive and confrontational position for a more self-consciously physical and absurdist approach. Reciting aphoristic texts while roaming the room in wildly expansive movements and gestures, I felt that Seghers and Travelletti’s whimsical contributions detracted from the overall impact of the piece.

The most striking thing about the performance, though, was that despite all that was unfolding around them, Babel and Field never reacted to the commentators’ presence. Sealed in some hermetic zone of isolation they continued to play, their improvisations sustained by creative dialogue and telepathic understanding. It was as if they were Lanz’s subservient playthings, being unwillingly coerced into ever more desperate bursts of activity. As the allotted time wore on, Lanz’s tone became more hectoring and bullying while the drumming reached new heights of intensity. On the stroke of 70 minutes, the music stopped. Were Field and Babel released from Lanz’s grip, or had they somehow escaped from it?

Roberto Ottaviano Eternal Love Quintet, Geneva AMR, 7 October 2022

My first visit to AMR since the pandemic, and it’s reassuring to learn that nothing much has changed there in the meantime. I still haven’t quite got over the fact that it’s situated slap bang in the centre of Geneva, a stone’s throw from the main railway station and the red light district. Once you’re inside, though, the hustle and bustle fall away in favour of a relaxed and informal vibe that carries you through the whole evening. Whereas the late, lamented Blue Tomato in Vienna was a cramped and often unpleasantly overcrowded basement joint, the main first-floor space at AMR is spacious enough to allow punters to enjoy the music and conversation unimpeded – a not insignificant factor in these delicate post-COVID times.

Anyway, what brought me to AMR last Friday was a concert by the Roberto Ottaviano Eternal Love Quintet, an Anglo-Italian group with which I was previously unfamiliar. In fact, I was there primarily due to the presence of pianist Alexander Hawkins in the line-up, a surefire guarantee of quality. Although I was aware of Hawkins’ work thanks to his collaborations with Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton, this was only the second time I’d caught him live – the first being with Rob Mazurek’s Chicago/London Underground back in 2018, also at AMR. On this occasion, Hawkins’ sparkling piano runs were the fulcrum around which soprano saxman Ottaviano and clarinettist Marco Colonna pivoted with their expressive, interlocking solos.

If the name of Ottaviano’s quintet hints at a quest for spiritual enlightenment in the style of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, it’s a sense that was never quite dispelled over the course of this evening’s two uniformly strong 45-minute sets. Not that we were dealing with anything of a particularly free or Fire Music nature here, yet still the overriding impression was one of a group striving for some kind of emancipation through its music. The quintet’s most recent album, 2018’s Eternal Love, is described in the press release as “a tribute to Africa, its culture, its music and its people, at a time of migration and racial intolerance”. From that album, the gorgeous “Uhuru” (Swahili for “freedom”) opened the second set of the evening with a stunning, melodically affecting solo from Hawkins, before the piece gradually opened out with yearning sax from Ottaviano, sensitive bass from Giovanni Maier and probing percussion from Zeno de Rossi.

Elsewhere, Colonna perfectly complemented Ottaviano’s emotive soprano with his dark, passionate clarinet moves, including a long passage of circular breathing that stilled the room with its quiet rhythmic pulse. At times, the luminous interplay of reeds and piano reminded me of Keith Jarrett’s stellar European quartet with Jan Garbarek. Yet the Eternal Love Quintet retains its own unique identity, distilled from the indefinable chemistry between these five fine musicians.

The Young Gods, Geneva Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, 23 September 2022

Until recently, the only thing I knew about The Young Gods was that they took their name from an early Swans song. I knew the name, of course, one which is frequently mentioned alongside not only that of Swans but also those of other early industrial rock pioneers such as Test Dept and Einstürzende Neubauten. But although those other groups have all been important to me over the years, the music of The Young Gods has remained an unknown quantity, an omission made all the more egregious by the fact that I’ve been living in their home city for several years now. It was clearly time to rectify the omission, and what better occasion to do so than a live performance of the new Young Gods album, their version of Terry Riley’s minimalist classic In C.

The evening seemed to be some kind of co-production between L’Orchestre de Chambre de Genève, as part of its 30th anniversary weekend of concerts, and Cave 12, often described (not least in the pages of this blog) as the best music venue in the world. The OCG itself, however, played no part in the concert, while Cave 12 would certainly not have had the capacity to contain the large and appreciative audience that made its way to the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices last Friday evening.

The Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, by the way, was a new venue to me, and something of a revelation. This impressive building has been sensitively converted from an industrial site into a cultural centre, with various items of industrial kit scattered around the place and, as part of the OCG weekend, a kinetic installation, Hula Hoop (see my Instagram for a short video, if you’re curious). It was uncomfortably hot in the auditorium on Friday night, and some air conditioning wouldn’t have gone amiss, but you can’t have everything.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my undying love for the music of Philip Glass. I’ve never found quite as much to admire in the work of Glass’s fellow New York minimalists Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young, although all three have undoubtedly produced work of great quality. In the case of Riley, I’ve never cared for In C as much as I have for A Rainbow In Curved Air, which seems to me to be Riley’s masterpiece. The score of In C consists of 53 short numbered musical phrases, which can be played by “any number of any kind of instruments”, in numerical order but allowing for each musician to drop out and repeat phrases as they wish. The fact that the piece depends so much on chance and individual preference means that, for me at least, it lacks the formal rigour of something like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts. Which made The Young Gods’ spirited approach to In C all the more surprising and refreshing.

Most performances of the piece seem to rely on at least a dozen musicians, and some have used as many as a hundred (Riley’s score recommends thirty-five). The Young Gods, however, only need three. In their hands, In C sheds the pedestrian quality of the 1968 studio recording (the only version of the piece with which I was previously familiar) and is transformed into a powerful, distorted entity rich in dynamic shifts and atmospheres. Much of the credit for this must go to drummer Bernard Trontin, whose relentlessly creative percussion was crucial to the draining impact of the performance. Stationed either side of Trontin, Franz Treichler and Cesare Pizzi on keyboards and electronics constructed giant slabs of sound that loomed menacingly against Trontin’s intoxicating forward motion. Meanwhile, Treichler’s occasional interventions on guitar and vocals brought the kind of timbral variety and colour that is sorely lacking in the 1968 version. As the piece drew to a close, sequenced synths recalled the glistening surfaces of Tangerine Dream, only to be engulfed by gutsy rhythms and obliterating blasts of noise.

Cucina Povera & ELS, The Oystercatcher (Editions Mego)

I was never much good at chemistry at school. My teacher, Mr Grove, was a nice guy and, to the best of my recollection, was also an accomplished concert pianist. He may even have been a descendant of George Grove of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians fame, I have no idea. But he had his work cut out in my case, and I crashed out of O-level chemistry with an ignominious E, the lowest possible grade.

While two of my favourite groups, Shearwater and Van der Graaf Generator, have frequently drawn on themes related to biology and physics respectively,1 the role of chemistry in music has perhaps been undervalued. Up until now AMM’s The Nameless Uncarved Block, with its three long tracks “Sedimentary”, “Igneous” and “Metamorphic”, has stood as the last word in what can only be described as rock music.

All that could be about to change, however, with the release of Cucina Povera & ELSThe Oystercatcher on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label. The title sounds like it could have come from the pen of Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg (an accomplished ornithologist as well as a great songwriter). A close reading of the album, however, reveals that the duo of Maria Rossi (vox) and Edward Simpson (modular synth) are more concerned with the inanimate than with the animate. Opening track “Mantle” (the layer of rock between the earth’s crust and its core) sets the scene for the rest of the album, with Rossi’s multitracked vocals layered ominously over Simpson’s tenebrous synth tones.

The Finnish-born, Glasgow-based Rossi has released three solo albums as Cucina Povera prior to the present release. As a vocalist, she recalls Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance in her use of an outwardly unrecognizable language. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t sing actual words but she doesn’t use her voice as a pure sound source either. The implication is that she’s wired into some private, occult discourse, the language of spells and incantations (one track is titled “Loitsu”, the Finnish word for incantation). But where Gerrard soars blissfully towards some imagined paradise, Rossi’s closely-miked singing is resolutely earthbound, mired in gravity and density.

Simpson, meanwhile, has form as one half of Circuit Breaker, an avant rock duo that has recorded for the Harbinger Sound label and thereby forged links with kindred spirits such as Sleaford Mods and Consumer Electronics. On this album he creates a series of unquiet, disturbed soundscapes, with phased tones that modulate from cavernous bass rumbles to glinting mid-range frequencies. “1427°C” (the temperature at which glass melts, apparently) is a shivery chorale for electronics and voice, while “Marmori” (also a Finnish word, this time for marble) effortlessly evokes the cold, smooth surface of the eponymous rock with its undulating synth patterns.

The undoubted highlight, though, is the 15-minute closing track “Eon”, on which the restrained beauty of Rossi’s voice is gradually bent and twisted out of shape by Simpson’s malevolent presence. Forgoing the finely balanced symmetry between voice and electronics that characterizes the rest of the album, here Simpson engineers an assaultive laboratory of sound that confronts and finally obliterates everything in its path.2 Beset by malign dissonance and scalding eruptions of noise, the song turns inward on itself, looking for an escape route but finding none.

Notes

1. Not to mention the epic Nick Cave song “Higgs Boson Blues”, with its repeated riff on my hometown and the location of CERN, where the eponymous particle was discovered: “I’m driving my car down to Geneva…” Is this the only mention of Geneva in song?

2. It’s no surprise to learn that The Oystercatcher was mastered for release by noise guru Russell Haswell.

Cover of The Oystercatcher by Cucina Povera & ELS

Einstürzende Neubauten, Alles in Allem (Potomak)

It’s been thirteen long years since the last Einstürzende Neubauten album Alles Wieder Offen, but the boys from Berlin have been far from inactive in the meantime. There was Lament, not a proper album but the soundtrack to a site-specific performance piece, and the ironically titled, beautifully sequenced Greatest Hits set, around which the group have been on a more or less never-ending tour since 2015 or so. I saw them three times on this tour, in Munich (2015), Krems (2017) and Geneva (2018). As mightily impressive as those shows were, it was clearly time to switch things up a bit, there having been no new studio material since 2007.

Alles in Allem is the outcome, the result of a vigorous crowdfunding campaign with rewards for donors of “exclusive content” such as 7” singles, webcasts, videos of Blixa Bargeld cooking and goodness knows what else. In the first place, it’s time to nail the canard put about by Bargeld in numerous interviews that Neubauten, specifically Bargeld’s wife Erin Zhu, invented the crowdfunding model. The first Neubauten crowdfunding campaign was in 2002, but neo-prog also-rans Marillion had already done the same thing two years earlier. I hold no brief for Marillion, but credit where it’s due.

I don’t have a problem with crowdfunding per se, although all this talk of “making a record without record company backing” does make me wonder exactly what is new here. Musicians have been producing and releasing albums themselves – self-publishing, essentially – ever since the 1960s (various folk and psych private pressings), 1970s (Throbbing Gristle, Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch) and 1980s (Current 93, Nurse with Wound, Whitehouse, etc). These people managed to get their music out into the world without recourse to crowdfunding, so it’s certainly possible to make an album without record company support and without relying on this particular model.

The problem with Einstürzende Neubauten’s take on the crowdfunding model is that it partially cedes creative control of the project to the donors (my preferred term for what Neubauten refer to as ‘supporters’) – the very last people, in my view, who should be allowed anywhere near the creative process. As part of the recording for Alles in Allem Bargeld called up randomly selected donors and asked them to suggest words or phrases which he would then incorporate into the lyrics. I must admit, I find it quite staggering that a writer of the standing of Bargeld, a man whose dazzlingly clever texts are steeped in the German Romantic literary tradition, should now deem it appropriate to go about the business of songwriting in this way. (And yes, I’m well aware of the aleatoric ‘Dave’ system used by the group and of their alignment with the Dada artistic movement, neither of which have any bearing on this new practice.) What we end up with is the spectacle of Bargeld declaring “Here comes Ten Grand Goldie” with evident glee, while the rest of us are left scratching our collective heads and wondering what Bargeld, or more precisely some bloke from Stockholm, is on about.

The good news is that “Ten Grand Goldie” is a barnstorming opener that fairly crackles with energy, a loopy and likeable song with splashes of funky brass and organ. The rest of the album, by contrast, is mostly slow and reflective, reaching deep into central European folk traditions and powered by the insistent throb of NU Unruh and Rudolf Moser’s percussive architecture. Jochen Arbeit’s sleek, understated guitar work and the lowering bass of Alexander Hacke construct the spaces within which Bargeld sings, his rich and sumptuous voice tenderly evoking the German word Sehnsucht that underpins all of Neubauten’s work, fusing nostalgia, longing, regret and destruction. The one discordant note is struck by “Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick”, a delirious lurch of a song that, recalling the group’s legendary early days, features the unmistakable sound of the power drill.

Those who pay close attention to Alles in Allem will come to realize that it’s actually a psychogeographical exploration of the city of Berlin, and specifically of the West Berlin in which Neubauten were birthed in 1980. Wandering from the district of Wedding in the north to Friedenau in the south, via the Liechtensteinbrücke, the Landwehrkanal and the Grazer Damm, Bargeld traces a path through streets shot through with shadows, ghosts and fading memories. Flickering field recordings and sounds carved from Neubauten’s historic arsenal of metal instruments, many of them sourced from Berlin junkyards, mark the route of Bargeld’s dérive. He ends up at the disused Tempelhof airfield, lost and alone, the unlikely but perfect strains of cello and harp his only companion.

Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20 Records)

Like most people, I imagine, my introduction to Lucinda Williams came via her breakthrough 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As a long-time Cowboy Junkies fan the alt.country associations were always going to be enough to draw me in, although Williams was clearly a rawer, tougher proposition than the Junkies ever were. Nevertheless Car Wheels was to become one of my favourite albums of the 1990s, overflowing as it was with winning melodies, heartfelt lyrics, thrilling flights of guitar and the sultry drawl of Williams’ voice.

Doubling back, I swiftly picked up her self-titled 1988 album and 1992’s Sweet Old World, finding in both of them evidence of a rich, deeply rewarding talent. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I had never visited the American South of which Williams sang, I was entranced by her vivid, Carveresque descriptions of those places, the people who passed through them, their losses and gains and the turns they took. What really sealed the deal, though, was the way that these chronicles were given such gorgeously varied musical expression. An intoxicating blend of fragile ballads, raucous rockers and gritty blues episodes, Williams’ music seemed to embody the hurt, broken and undaunted attitudes that dwelt within her songs.

Williams was a perfectionist back then, which accounts in part for the six-year gap between Sweet Old World and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. As is by now fairly well known, the first version of Car Wheels, recorded with her long-time producer Gurf Morlix, was trashed in favour of a completely re-recorded version with Springsteen keyboardist Roy Bittan at the controls. I have a copy of the Morlix version, and the difference is striking; it’s clearly of a piece with Sweet Old World, laced with the same hesitancy that pervades that record and makes it the least essential of Williams’ early albums. The Bittan version is a different beast entirely, and proves Williams’ instincts true: it has a radio-friendly punch and immediacy largely absent from the original. It was a trend continued on Williams’ next two albums, 2001’s Essence and 2003’s World Without Tears, both of which contain some of her greatest songs.

I’ve only seen Lucinda Williams live once, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2003. I can’t remember much about that show, to be honest. I would have seen her again in 2005, since I had tickets to see her at Shepherd’s Bush, but her entire European tour that year was postponed until the following year. By the time the rescheduled tour rolled around to London in November 2006, I had moved to Vienna and thus missed the rescheduled date. Of course, that was the night Bruce Springsteen joined her onstage for the encore, and the fact that I wasn’t there has rankled with me ever since. (Still, at least Williams rescheduled the tour. I still haven’t forgiven The Hold Steady for not rescheduling their entire 2008 European tour, thereby robbing me of my one and only opportunity to see them.)

If Williams’ early records represented a thoroughly modern take on Gram Parsons’ vision of Cosmic American Music, it’s been frustrating to me, as a long-time fan, to see her direction heading stubbornly earthward on every album since 2007’s patchy West (which did, however, contain in “What If” perhaps her most sublime song ever). The run from 2008’s dire Little Honey to 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20 has seen Williams progressively shed her country influences in favour of a blunt, rabble-rousing style that relies heavily on awkwardly confessional lyrics (“Oh, my little honey bee/I’m so glad you stung me/Now I’ve got your honey/All over my tummy” – yeah, thanks Lu) and uninspired rock workouts.

The other problem, unfortunately, is the ageing of Williams’ singing voice. On her early albums that sultry drawl was tempered with a sweetness and lightness of tone, but that has gradually disappeared and now it’s all drawl, compounded by an unpleasant slurring of the words that strips the songs of whatever communicative impulse they may once have possessed. This Sweet Old World, an entirely unnecessary 2017 re-recording of Sweet Old World, is unlistenable for this reason.

Which brings me to the reason why I’m writing this article, Lucinda Williams’ new album Good Souls Better Angels. I really wanted to like this album, but it’s an ugly slog for the most part, devoid of the shade and nuance that made Lucinda Williams and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road so essential. The apocalyptic anti-Trump tirade “Man Without A Soul” is an early highlight, with scorching guitar courtesy of Stuart Mathis, but Williams soon lapses into routine and cliché. “Big Black Train” is a dull ballad built around stock lyrical tropes, “Wakin’ Up” a rote evisceration of an abusive relationship and “Big Rotator” (there’s an awful lot of bigness here) a pedestrian rocker crippled by squally guitar and lumbering drums. By the time the limp “Good Souls” comes along to round off the album, I’m exhausted. Lucinda Williams has comprehensively lost her way, but I’ll always have Car Wheels on a Gravel Road to remind me of what an outstanding talent she once was.

Cowboy Junkies, Ghosts (Latent Recordings)

Most people, if they know Cowboy Junkies at all, came to them via what I am duty-bound to call their “sophomore” album, 1988’s The Trinity Session. Famously recorded live in a Toronto church off a single microphone, the album has become the group’s most popular and enduring recording for its hushed ambience, its inspired mix of covers and originals and, in particular, its definitive take on The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. True to form, though, I was slow to wake up to the group, and only got on the bus with the follow-up, 1990’s The Caution Horses. But it was that record, which I regard as not only better than The Trinity Session but as Cowboy Junkies’ best album ever, that made me a fan of the group for life. It’s remarkable that they’re still here 30 years later, still with the same line-up and still making albums of impeccable quality, of which Ghosts is just the latest. The album had a very specific gestation, of which more in a moment. First, though, and since this is primarily a blog about live concerts, a little reminiscence.

Although Cowboy Junkies are still an active live group, it’s been many years since I last saw them. Culturally speaking, I suspect that alt.country is not a particularly good fit in Austria and Switzerland, the two countries where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. The group are still very popular in the UK, though, and indeed I saw them several times in London and Brighton in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember two such occasions very well, in sharply contrasting venues. In 1992 they played the Royal Albert Hall on the Black-Eyed Man tour, and very effectively took control of that beautiful yet cavernous venue.

Four years later, on the back of the superb Lay It Down album, I saw the group at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, north-west London. The other week I wrote about 1990s London being my golden age of concert-going, and indeed the Mean Fiddler and its adjoining Acoustic Room was a place I returned to time and time again. The fact that Cowboy Junkies were playing such a small venue was certainly not a sign of their appeal becoming more selective, since the show was sold out many times over. Instead I seem to remember it was part of a week of special concerts by artists who normally played much larger venues, and indeed my recently unearthed 1996 gig diary confirms that I saw The Divine Comedy (another group who could normally be relied upon to fill much larger venues than the Mean Fiddler) the day after the Junkies concert. Queueing up outside the Mean Fiddler before the concert in order to get a good spot (a habit I retain to this day), it was a very pleasant surprise to see all four members of the group walk out of the venue, no doubt on their way to some pre-concert meal or other. My copy of Lay It Down was duly signed.

Fast forward 24 years and Cowboy Junkies are back with a new album, Ghosts, currently available only on streaming services. The story goes that, shortly after the release of 2018’s excellent All That Reckoning album, the mother of the Timmins siblings (who together make up three-quarters of Cowboy Junkies) sadly passed away. In the aftermath of her passing, the group started working on a batch of new songs that, in their words, “deal with the ultimate reckoning, the reckoning that comes with the death of a loved one and the reassessing that one goes through as one tries to process such a loss.” The original intention was to release these songs as part of a double vinyl set along with a remastered and reissued All That Reckoning. With Covid-19 putting paid to that plan, the group decided to release the new songs anyway.

Musically, Ghosts breaks little new ground for Cowboy Junkies. The group’s sound is still built around Margo Timmins’ gorgeous voice, which slides like honey over Michael Timmins’ emotionally wrought guitar and Peter Timmins’ unerring percussion. “Slides like honey”, by the way, is in reference to Neil Young’s famous “honey slides”, a snooze-inducing combination of marijuana and honey that was apparently consumed heavily during the On The Beach sessions. Not that I’ve ever tried one, but I’d like to think that the effect of this concoction is not unlike the narcotized bliss of Cowboy Junkies at their most mellow. Check out, by the way, their magnificent cover of one of my favourite Neil Young songs, “Helpless”, on the bonus disc of 2004’s One Soul Now.

Lyrically, too, there are no major surprises in store. Michael Timmins has long been one of the most profoundly literate and affecting lyricists in rock, his texts resonant with absence, loss and regret. And here in these songs Timmins speaks bravely and eloquently about one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can undergo, the death of a parent. As Margo sings with paralysing self-doubt on “Desire Lines”: “Was it love that drew us in? Was it love that she’d impart? All I know is that these ghosts, piece by piece, are pulling me apart.” Elsewhere, the sepulchral, piano-led “Breathing” could almost serve as an epitaph for those lost to Covid-19: “I watched your chest and stomach heaving, I know this is not right.” Of course, the group also know how to cut loose when they want to. “(You Don’t Get To) Do It Again” is a fiery rocker with an insanely catchy refrain and searing guitar from Timmins, while “This Dog Barks” is marked by furious riffing and hectic fiddle work.

The problem is that at just over 30 minutes long, the album feels frustratingly slight. What’s more, of its eight tracks, two are basically superfluous. One song, “The Possessed”, was already released on the CD, but not the vinyl version, of All That Reckoning – which is presumably why it’s now been added to what was originally planned as a vinyl-only release. Lyrically chilling, its presence on Ghosts nevertheless feels unearned due to its piffling ukulele accompaniment – an objection that applies even more forcefully to the album’s closer, “Ornette Coleman”, which has the dubious distinction of being possibly the most inconsequential song Cowboy Junkies have ever put their name to. The rest is fine stuff, although it will certainly make more sense in its originally intended form as an appendix to All That Reckoning than it does as an album in its own right.

The Necks, Three (Fish of Milk)

Having experienced one of my best concert-going experiences of last year with The Necks at AMR, it was a no-brainer to pick up their latest and (by my reckoning) 16th album, Three. The album contains three tracks, and The Necks have three members. What’s more, the three tracks all clock in at around the 21-22 minute mark and hence would fit perfectly on a side of vinyl (although the album is, for the moment at least, only available on CD). All of this may or may not be coincidental.

As is by now well known, The Necks’ live performances are an accretive, totally improvised mix of piano, bass and drums, developing over the course of two 45-50 minute sets from quiet soloing to full trio sections. In the studio the group take a variety of different approaches, including other instruments being overdubbed. I’m certainly not familiar with their whole body of work, but Three seems as good a place to start as any.

Opening track “Bloom” in particular roams far from the blueprint of the group’s live style, based as it is on a blistering percussive attack, virtually unidentifiable in origin but presumably the handiwork of drummer Tony Buck. This mysterious, truculent force threatens to overwhelm the whole piece, but is finally kept in check by the diamond-hard pianistics of Chris Abrahams and by Lloyd Swanton’s seething bass runs. Occasional, exceedingly subtle sounds coming from what sounds like an analogue synthesizer only serve to deepen the mood of furrowed intensity that sustains the piece. There’s something truly miraculous about “Bloom”, a hinting at transcendence that stems (no pun intended) from its relentless forward motion and its extended durational perspective. Which is just another way of saying: it rocks.

Things get taken down several notches on “Lovelock”, a tribute to the late Damien Lovelock of the Australian group Celibate Rifles. This piece has an eerie, almost Nurse With Wound-like ambience, haunted by flickering chimes and ominous percussive interventions. Stricken by grief and loss, “Lovelock” barely manages to sustain a pulse, yet grips the listener with spare, incisive drum rolls from Buck and ghostly piano from Abrahams. From the murk and gloom there emerges a quiet, lovingly etched memorial to a departed friend.

If “Bloom” highlights The Necks’ avant rock tendencies, while “Lovelock” nods towards their industrial and dark ambient influences, then “Further” illustrates why the group still have one foot in the jazz tradition. Yet it’s a take on jazz like no other, with Abrahams’ shimmering piano positioned at shifting angles to Swanton’s sinuous bass riffing and Buck’s magisterially driven percussion. Recalling “Bloom”’s dense mosaic of sound, here Buck transmits a tense rhythmic foundation that flows seductively through the piece’s 21 minutes. Guitar and Hammond organ weave hazily in and out, as if reanimated by the group’s insistence on duration. Indeed, it’s this urge towards reanimation that goes to the heart not only of “Further” but of Three as a whole. Constantly transforming yet enduring as three into one, The Necks continue to amaze and delight.