Lonesome Jonesome, The Peeper and Chin Chin

The kind of performer for whom the term “bedroom artist” might have been coined, Lonesome Jonesome is the silly alias of Chris Jones, a young guitarist from Derby. The Peeper and Chin Chin (eh?) is slight to the point of inconsequentiality: a mere 18 minutes long, it consists of ten flimsy instrumental doodles on classical guitar and tambourine. The music is pleasant enough, and restful in a trivial kind of way, but I can’t imagine why I would ever want to hear it again.

It’s the sheer lack of ambition and commitment evident in this release that I object to. The music sounds deliberately hemmed in and circumscribed, and makes no effort to break out of its self-imposed isolation. In fact Jones makes a positive virtue of this solipsism, from his facetious alias to the liberal use of ambient sound effects picked up by the recording (passing cars, a knock at the door). These were presumably left in to emphasise the music’s one-take, off-the-cuff informality, but they just end up reminding the listener of the pitifully small horizons of Jones’s worldview.

What Jones fails to grasp is that in attempting to express himself in terms of raw, unmediated spontaneity, he is actually adopting a pose – and one, moreover, that is as studied and cynical as any other pose. These ten short pieces, with their gently strummed and plucked melodies, exhibit a general air of fleeting indifference; they would be perfect as incidental music for a British film of the summery, breeze-through-the-hair kind. As a CD in its own right, though, I actually find The Peeper and Chin Chin quite insulting in its insouciance.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Sara Lowes, Tomorrows Laughter

Pleasant but fairly inessential six-song EP from young Manchester songstress. Sara Lowes has played as a session musician with the likes of the Earlies and Micah P. Hinson, but this is her debut solo recording. The songs are a mix of straight-up pop/rock and lovelorn ballads, characterised by Lowes’ strong voice and confident piano playing. It’s good to hear a set of pop songs with piano rather than guitar as the lead instrument. It lends them a warmth and richness that are nicely set off by the vocals of Lowes, who sounds rather like Kate Bush without the drama and mystery.

The two slow songs, “Uniform Days” and “Evening Prayer,” are the undoubted standouts here. On the former, Lowes sings witty couplets like “I could do with you being here, if only to comment on my choice of career,” and infuses them with painful regret. The song is carried along on a floaty cloud of piano and flute, bolstered by swirling cello lines. The latter’s slipping piano riff contributes to a sense of wistful nostalgia that is quite lovely, even though the song outstays its welcome at over five minutes.

The remaining songs are perkier and slighter, and they too tend to drag on for longer than they should. Awkwardly structured and bitty, they flit between piano, electric guitar, brass and Hammond organ without raising much interest in this listener.

The artwork for this release, by the way, is dire: a big man-in-the-moon face sitting on some kind of wagon, with sun rays, tower blocks and and circus-style lettering all jostling for attention. Truly horrible. Whether the lack of an apostrophe in the ‘Tomorrows’ of the title is by accident or design, it’s still inexcusable. And “thank you” is two words, not one as printed several times in the credits.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Sharron Kraus & Christian Kiefer, The Black Dove/ Sharron Kraus, Beautiful Twisted/Sharron Kraus, Right Wantonly A-Mumming

Three albums and a varied set of collaborations from English folk singer Sharron Kraus. There’s something very earthy and striking about this lady. She plays acoustic guitar and banjo with immense fluidity, and her singing voice is unnervingly pure and sinister. Surrounding herself with other fine singers and musicians, she writes songs that sit neatly and proudly within the folk tradition. But as well as being a reverent keeper of the flame, Kraus is not averse – especially in the album with Christian Kiefer – to sidestepping the conventions of the genre. It’s this tension between the ease with which she inhabits the form, and the sly ways in which she stakes out her place within it, that makes the first two of these albums in particular so attractive.

The pick of the bunch, and the one I keep returning to, is The Black Dove, Kraus’s collaboration with Christian Kiefer. I know nothing of Kiefer except that he is from California, which kind of makes sense in the context of this record, a near-perfect blend of English folk and American alt.rock tropes. Where Kraus sounds cold, wintry and forbidding, Kiefer’s contributions are all dust and expanse; the combination is unusual, distinctive and highly effective. There’s some kind of concept to the record, revolving around a ghost’s presence in the mind of a former lover. Best not to try and unravel it, however, and focus instead on the spooky atmospheres Kraus and Kiefer create together.

Kraus sings lead on five tracks and contributes backing vocals elsewhere. Her voice has something of the chilly calm of Shirley Collins but is higher-pitched and purer, while her acoustic guitar and recorder playing evoke Thunder Perfect Mind-era Current 93. And the comparisons don’t end there, since Kraus shares David Tibet’s attachment to the notion of a beguiling simplicity as the still centre of a vast cosmic catastrophe:

“The blackest crow shall soon turn to white
If ever I prove false to you,
bright day shall turn to night”

(“The Blackest Crow”)

What makes the album really special, though, are the interventions of Kiefer, which turn the album’s apocalyptic folk starkness back in on itself. Kiefer takes breathy, autumnal lead vocals on four tracks, and with his slouching alt.rock brings a sense of widescreen purpose to counterbalance Kraus’s deep, willed melancholy. On the epic “Mourning,” for example, Kraus icily relates how “when you jumped, my spirit fell and was dashed on the rocks with you” as the song lurches violently towards a convulsive instrumental coda.

The other two albums in this batch contain plenty of fine moments, but never quite succeed in capturing the sense of restless energy that makes The Black Dove so rewarding. Kraus’s 2002 début, Beautiful Twisted, lives up to its title with a collection of original songs that play folk simplicity off against vivid, often death-obsessed lyrics. It’s fairly chilling to hear Kraus intone a line like “the bodies from the cellar are rising up again” (“The River’s Daughter”) against a backdrop of eerie banjo and violin. The unexpected incest payoff of “Twins” and the nasty spell of “Death Jig” pile on the terror, while the lilting and delightful “Moonbathing” offers up some much needed light relief. “Godstow,” however, is just too stiff and inert for words, while Kraus’s words risk bathos on “Cold-Hearted Devil” (“you’re not much fun”) and “Song of the Unfree” (“where this story begins and where it ends”).

Although there are limits to my tolerance of Beautiful Twisted‘s relentlessly sombre subject matter, Kraus’s achingly pure and poignant delivery lends the album a certain cobwebby beauty. Right Wantonly A-Mumming, unfortunately, feels slight and inessential by comparison. As Kraus explains in her sleevenote, her aim with this album was to write songs that celebrated the seasons and would sit comfortably alongside traditional songs of a similar hue. Nine of the fourteen tracks are Kraus originals, and in fact it’s their uncomplicated fidelity to the folk tradition that nonplusses me somewhat. You hope, in a contemporary folk record, to hear something a little more acute than “wonders do unfold, as the new year succeeds the old.” Unlike recent work by Marissa Nadler and Mary Hampton, there is no sense here of a modernist sensibility at work. Appropriately enough for a record that brings in meat-and-potatoes folk club stalwarts Jon Boden and John Spiers to play on it, the overall mood here is one of stodgy worthiness. Yes, Kraus comes across as a serious and committed artist, and the album is a perfectly realised invocation to the cyclicality of the seasons; but the songs sound like they could have been performed at any time in the past 200 years. Clearly that was the intention, but the sense of listening to a history lesson set to music is unfortunately inescapable.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Pita, Get Out

In 1999 or thereabouts, Ed Pinsent and I interviewed Peter Rehberg at his home in Vienna. (The resulting article appeared in The Sound Projector 8, long sold out but downloadable from the SP website.) Back in those days, Rehberg and the like-minded souls whose music he released on the label he co-founded, Mego (Fennesz, Farmers Manual, etc) were seen by some as the vanguard of a new revolution in electronic music, eschewing the analogue synthesiser in favour of using digital music software to create and manipulate sounds which they recorded straight to hard disc. Their ‘instrument’ of choice was the Apple Macintosh, which had already revolutionised the ease of use of the personal computer. Since the mid-90s, a clutch of Vienna-based artists had been making a global impression, with the scene initially coalescing around the clubby, downtempo vibes of Kruder & Dorfmeister, Patrick Pulsinger and Erdem Tunakan. As the 90s wore on, the Mego crew emerged with a harder-edged, glitchy sound that could be heard on a regular basis at the Rhiz bar, Vienna’s new temple to electronic music.

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Jandek, Vienna B72, 14 October 2009

Several months of planning went into this, the first ever Jandek concert in central Europe, and I’m pleased to report that it was a great success. On a personal level, it was also a huge honour and a privilege to be able to bring Jandek to Vienna; after three years of concert-going there as a more or less passive consumer, it felt great to be a witness to something that I myself had helped to bring about.

Once Jandek himself was on board, the key task was to find the right backing musicians. This wasn’t so much of a challenge, in fact. Both Eric Arn and Didi Kern were well known to me; regulars on the thriving Vienna avant-rock/improv scene, they had proven time after time that they could not only play beautifully but could also adapt their respective styles to meet whatever needs the moment required, in the purest spirit of improvisation.

For me, one of the most exciting moments of the whole evening came before the group had even played a note. As I led Jandek from the backstage area through the audience and towards the stage, the audience moved aside to let him through; and there was a sudden sense of reverent expectation as this tall, striking figure, dressed all in black and with his ever-present Stetson pulled down low over his face, walked slowly and deliberately onto the stage.

The next ninety minutes passed in something of a blur, as Jandek, Arn and Kern proceeded to lay down some of the most tense, daring and original rock music I have ever heard. Having only met for the first time that day, the three of them made a virtue of their lack of familiarity with each other, playing with an awesome blend of looseness, openness and sheer narrative conviction. Arn, it seemed to me, was pretty much writing his own bass player’s rulebook as he went along. More often seen as lead guitarist with his own group Primordial Undermind, he transferred many of the extended techniques he brings into play with them – bottleneck slide, endless vertiginous runs up and down the full length of the neck – to the bass, with savagely entertaining results. (He also joined Jandek on lead guitar for one song, which sounded particularly brutal to these ears.) Kern, meanwhile, lit up the room with his questing, vital and ceaselessly inventive percussion. It’s always a pleasure to encounter a drummer who actually plays the kit, investing it with light, shade and myriad variations of timbre. Chris Cutler does it, Paal Nilssen-Love does it, and there can be little doubt that Didi Kern does it too.

As for Jandek himself, he gave as little away as you might expect. The last time I saw him, at St Giles Church in London in 2005, I came away with the distinct impression that I had seen a ghost, so evanescent and fleeting was his presence. For all that he played in Vienna with far greater aggression, there was still something eerie and spectral about his performance. More or less alternating between dirge-like vocal excursions and full-on instrumental freakouts, Jandek’s guitar work oddly sparkled, with the tones from his black Godin ringing and cavernous. Four new songs were played; I can’t quote any of the lyrics I’m afraid, but the vocals were pleading and anguished, set off against the deathly walk of the bass and drums.

Dark, turbulent and troubling, then. A concert like none I had ever experienced before, but all in a day’s work for Jandek.

Lovely photos of the evening by David Murobi here.

Short Cuts: Naked Lunch, Der Blutharsch, Damo Suzuki, Volcano The Bear

No major concerts to report, but I wanted to give a brief flavour of a few things I’ve seen recently.

Naked Lunch/Universalove, Vienna Arena, 22 August

I think this was the only cold, wet day in the whole of August, so of course it had to be the day on which I chose to attend an open-air concert. Once again Naked Lunch were superb; see here and here for longer reviews of this engrossing film/music experience.

Der Blutharsch, London Camden Underworld, 18 September

Fine performance of dark psychedelic rock from Albin Julius and friends.

Damo Suzuki/Mord, Vienna Arena, 22 September

The former Can man continues on his never-ending tour, picking up “sound carriers” wherever he goes. I actually found this to be mostly uninteresting, lacking in variation and Suzuki’s vocals ultimately tiresome.

Volcano The Bear, Vienna Rhiz, 6 October

Very uneven concert of experimental rock and improv. Some beautiful piano-led instrumental moments, but the vocals and lyrics were largely mannered and inconsequential. And by the end it was clear that the duo had run out of ideas, which for an improvising ensemble is rather worrying.