Josephine Foster, This Coming Gladness

Absolutely gorgeous album of radiant psychedelic folk from the extraordinarily talented Foster.  Recent work by Foster’s spiritual cousin Marissa Nadler has traced an arc from the overtly folkish stylings of her first two records to the sun- and acid-drenched touches of her third, Bird on the Water.  Foster, it seems, is on a parallel journey; having started out as a straight-up folk singer, she has gradually widened her vision to bring in the harder edges of electric guitar and drums, to mesmerising effect.

None of this is new, of course.  Folk rock was arguably invented in 1965, when Columbia producer Tom Wilson took Simon & Garfunkel’s filigree folk song “The Sound of Silence” and revamped it by adding electric lead guitar and percussion.  In the same year Dylan plugged in for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival, ushering in a period of anti-rock turbulence among the folkie crowd that would culminate a year later in the infamous cry of “Judas!”  What Foster and Nadler are doing, however, is closer in spirit to the two essential late ‘60s Fairport Convention LPs Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief.  The genius of Fairport was to make the traditional sound thrillingly modern and the modern soberingly traditional; it’s a feat shared by This Coming Gladness, which despite the fact that its ten songs are all composed by Foster, nevertheless imparts that deliciously disconcerting blend of the ancient and the contemporary.

Foster’s gifted fellow musicians, Victor Herrero on lead guitar and Alex Neilson on drums, are essential to the mood of sustained melancholy that grips the record.  Herrero’s guitar work is unfailingly direct, with languid drawn-out lines that occasionally erupt into choppy, acidic riffing.  Neilson, meanwhile, is a revelation.  He’s done plenty of great work with such people as Will Oldham, Ben Chasny, Jandek and David Tibet, but I’ve never before heard him being given as much space to lend his quiet authority to the music as he gets here.  Focusing largely on tom-toms and cymbals, Neilson’s percussive attack is rolling and druggy: a telling counterpoint to the grim sense of psychedelic disquiet imparted by Foster’s soprano.

That voice inhabits these songs with a tender, voluptuous grace.  Opener “The Garden of Earthly Delights” sets the tone perfectly with its sinister pull and extended vocal cadences; here and indeed throughout the record, there’s a kind of fascinated surprise that imparts an intimate and immediate quality reminiscent of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  “Waltz of Green” starts out as a courtly love story, Foster picking off notes from her harp like rose petals; the entry of Neilson and Herrero, though, sends the song spinning out of the tradition and towards the bleakly solipsistic.  Elsewhere, “Second Sight” sounds like a prayer of blazing contrition:

“All my fears fade like fire
drenched in the drippings of my eyes
Almighty Lord, lord of love
bless us as we walk in our darkest hour”

Her outward poise flecked with human vulnerability, Josephine Foster has created a work that radiates unfashionable optimism in the face of uncertainty and loss.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)

Nancy Wallace, Old Stories

I’m beginning to think there must be a factory somewhere churning out sensitive female folk singer/songwriters.  Some wily entrepreneur must have spotted a gap in the market and stepped up production accordingly.  Unfortunately, this means that for every Marissa Nadler, Mary Hampton or Josephine Foster that rolls off the production line, you will occasionally get a product of substandard quality – and that is what Nancy Wallace’s début album is, much as it pains me to say so.

Oddly enough, the name that kept occurring to me when listening to Old Stories was one that is never mentioned in avant circles, that of Radio 2-friendly singer and songwriter Dido.  Now I will happily admit to a sneaking admiration for Dido’s homespun tales of love, friendship and loyalty, sung with a warmth and sensitivity that are all too rare in pop music.  Nancy Wallace, on the other hand, seems to me to be striving for, but falling short of, the kind of closeness and simple intimacy that is so affecting in Dido’s work.  Case in point, “The Way You Lie”, in which Wallace prosaically sings “You’ve sewn your heart into my sleeve, I’ll never be alone.”  The acoustic guitar, violin and accordion accompaniment is pleasant enough,  but one never feels drawn into or affected by the song.  Wallace’s voice is simply too plain and unmemorable, and the emotions she conveys too unremarkable, to make any kind of lasting impression.  “I’ve plenty here to put my mind to, while I’m waiting for your love”, she muses pallidly on “Waiting”; well, it doesn’t sound much like it.

Wallace’s major error, however, is to include three traditional ballads on the album alongside the six songs of her own.  These three tracks fatally expose the weaknesses in her own songwriting, even as they tell a different story of her talents as a singer.  The press release for this album blithely states that “[the] traditional songs sit happily alongside Nancy’s original compositions with a flow so effortless you forget which is which.”  This claim is so craven and misleading, even by the normal standards of press releases, that one almost overlooks the fact that Wallace’s readings of “I Live Not Where I Love”, “The True Lover’s Farewell” and “The Drowned Lover” are steeped in the kind of blood and longing that the likes of Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny staked out and made their own in the 60s and 70s.  Wallace’s voice on these songs hits a perfect note of tragic stillness and inevitability (“this grave that I lie in is my new married bed”, as she darkly intones on “The Drowned Lover”), while the acoustic arrangements revel in their starkness and simplicity.

If Nancy Wallace had made a whole album of traditional songs, I would probably at this point be hailing her as a new heroine of English folk music.  As it is, I’m left frustrated by the redundancy of most of this record.  I only wish Wallace hadn’t so seriously diluted the impact of her undoubted interpretative gifts by setting her own, sadly inferior musings alongside those desolate old stories from the past.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 18, 2009)

Benjamin Wetherill, Laura; Hollowbody, Inside the Wolves

It’s not all acoustic female singer-songwriters from me in this issue of The Sound Projector (see reviews of Josephine Foster and Nancy Wallace elsewhere in these pages).  The boys are here as well, on a mission to prove that they can be just as sensitive and emotionally aware as their female counterparts.  I have no idea if there are such things as distinctively male and female approaches to songcraft, but both the Benjamin Wetherill and Hollowbody albums give strong indications of the rewards and pitfalls of this kind of music.

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Ruby Ruby Ruby, The Shadow of Your Smile

Ruby Ruby Ruby are more or less a vehicle for experimental German singer Margareth Kammerer, who came to the attention of Sound Projector readers back in issue 13 with her début album To Be an Animal of Real Flesh.  That venture was an ambitious and successful reinterpretation of several modernist poems as song lyrics, with Kammerer’s solo acoustic readings framed by various remixers’ efforts to present them in a more oblique fashion.  Since then, Kammerer has been involved in The Magic ID, a song-based project with Berlin improviser Christof Kurzmann, and also formed Ruby Ruby Ruby to pay homage to Billie Holiday and other jazz singers.  This appears to have been a one-off project, there being no indication that the group (consisting of Derek Shirley and Steve Heather alongside Kammerer) has done anything else or is planning to work together again.  Although the album was recorded in 2007, it only saw release in 2009; kudos, then, to Ignaz Schick of Zarek Records for persevering with it and seeing it through to this eventual release.

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Tom James Scott, School and Rivers; Music For One, The Red Thumb

Two very different approaches to the acoustic guitar.  Both albums are purely instrumental, yet they come from contrasting schools of thought and as a result exist in considerably differing soundworlds.  The Tom James Scott record emerges from the (art) school of minimalist composition, right down to the Morton Feldman quotation on the sleeve.  Scott clearly believes that the impact of his music comes as much from the spaces between the notes as from the notes themselves.  As a result, much of the time on the record’s five long tracks is given over to silence, with the listener often left wondering when the next note is going to come along.  At times, the effect is unintentionally comic, as for example on the opening title piece “School and Rivers”, which put me in mind of nothing so much as a broken musical box weakly trying to play a tune.  The timbre of the guitar is tinny, while the event horizon is severely circumscribed; you keep waiting for something interesting to happen, but it never arrives.  A tuba emerges at intervals, sounding surprisingly puny for such a physical instrument.

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Felicia Atkinson, La La La

Here’s an oddity – a slight (only 30 minutes), scrappy album that somehow contrives to hang together better than many more polished, outwardly ‘conceptual’ works.  Felicia Atkinson recorded short vocal and instrumental pieces at home, then subjected them to editing and post-production with collaborator Sylvain Chauveau.  The results are tentative and fragmentary, calling attention to their own provisional status with frequent jarring edits and buckets of tape hiss.  Yet the record possesses a rickety charm that contributes to its being far more than the sum of its parts, thanks in large part to Atkinson’s beautifully intimate-sounding voice and the inspired touches of instrumental colour that span the songs.

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Letter to The Wire, May 2010

No thanks to David Toop for making me wade through a page of dense verbiage about the new Fenn O’Berg album (Soundcheck, The Wire 313) in search of a steer as to whether or not it’s worth acquiring, only to give me the metaphorical finger with the lofty payoff “I am not about to expend a lot of silly adjectives on a track-by-track description, like some halfwit blogger.” Well, excuse me but I like silly adjectives; why else would I subscribe to The Wire? Plus, I was under the impression that it was the reviewer’s responsibility to make some effort to describe the music under review in terms that might resonate with potentially interested parties. Toop’s abdication of that responsibility on the grounds that “if you want to find out what something sounds like you can do so easily enough” beggars belief. I could buy the album, I guess, but by that logic I would need to buy every album listed in the pages of The Wire each month; isn’t that where reviews come in? Anyway, I look forward to seeing future Toop reviews in the form of empty white space where considered value judgements used to reside, with, of course, his reviewer’s fee returned uncashed.

Short Cuts 4: FM Einheit, Peter Brötzmann/Full Blast, Terry Riley, Naked Lunch

The fourth in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of recent concerts I haven’t got the time or the energy to write more about.

FM Einheit, Vienna Fluc Wanne, 5 October 2010

Enjoyable evening of metal-bashing and whatnot from the ex-Einstürzende Neubauten man. Einheit had kitted out the venue with long metal coils suspended from the ceiling, and played them with mallets and hand drills to the accompaniment of backing tapes. He also made the already dusty atmosphere of the Fluc Wanne even murkier by pulverising concrete blocks into rubble. It was all very industrial, but I can’t help feeling that the moment for this kind of thing has come and gone. Neubauten didn’t replace him, after all. Plus, it wasn’t Mufti’s fault but this concert had the most annoying audience member I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, a bloke down the front who insisted on dancing – dancing, I tell you – and shouting incomprehensibly throughout the entire set.

Full Blast, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 18 October 2010

The incomparable Peter Brötzmann returned to Vienna for the first time in a year, this time with his Swiss rhythm section of Marino Pliakas on bass guitar and Michael Wertmüller on drums. The trio was augmented on this occasion by the ubiquitous Ken Vandermark on reeds, plus an additional trumpeter and percussionist. Unusually, the first half of this evening was devoted to a composed piece by Wertmüller, who conducted energetically from his drumkit. It was something of a surprise to see music stands onstage at a Brötzmann gig; he didn’t have one himself, of course, but all the others did.

It was “as you were” after the interval, as the sextet launched into a furious, raging improv. Great to see Peter end the set by jumping into the air on the last note, just like Springsteen with his guitar. Except for a blistering duet with Brötzmann in the second half, I felt Vandermark struggled to make his presence felt in this context.

Terry Riley, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 23 October 2010

A grave disappointment, this. I went along on the basis of Riley’s peerless reputation as a minimalist composer, rightfully gained from his seminal works In C and A Rainbow In Curved Air. But on this occasion Riley proposed a series of shortish, dreary piano pieces, with meandering and soporific accompaniment from Talvin Singh on tabla and George Brooks on saxophone. I’m out.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 30 October 2010

This was the first time I’ve seen Naked Lunch do a proper show of their own, rather than play the Universalove soundtrack. It was a superb, engrossing performance. Oliver Welter prowled the stage intently, his haunting voice tracing patterns of love and loss around the emotionally dissonant forces unleashed by the music. There’s a troubling, volatile core to this group; the songs obey many of the rules of alt.rock, yet they contrive to keep the listener off balance with their jagged, restless qualities.

And by the way, am I really the only non-Austrian who thinks Naked Lunch are great? Apart from the growing pile of unread and uncommented-upon reviews on this blog, I’ve never seen a single word written about them in English.

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Vienna Blue Tomato & Martinschlössl, 3-5 November 2010

I nearly fell off my chair when I read the announcement of these dates. On both previous occasions when I’ve seen the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet it’s been at Porgy & Bess, the kind of spacious venue where you might expect this huge free jazz aggregation to play. But the tiny stage of the Blue Tomato, and the local Gasthaus Martinschlössl? Some mistake surely?

There was no mistake, of course. The first two of these nights saw the Tentet perform in various subgroups, while the last night saw the whole shebang come together for the kind of all-out aural assault in which this group specializes. The idea of subgroups made good sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly, these breakout groups are kind of fundamental to the ways of the Tentet, with their gigs flowing freely between full-on blats and quieter duo/trio sections. And secondly, there was no way that all eleven [sic] members of the Tentet were going to fit on the stage of the Tomato anyway.

Having said that, I did feel that the first night at the Blue Tomato could have got off to a more rip-roaring start. The first group on was the Brass Choir, consisting of Johannes Bauer and Jeb Bishop (both on trombone), Joe McPhee on a little trumpet (a pocket trumpet, apparently) and Per-Åke Holmlander on tuba. This was heavy going, with Bauer throwing his usual self-satisfied poses and a comparative lack of timbral variation adding to the monotony. The set dragged on for much too long, but things perked up soon after when Sonore (Brötzmann’s reeds trio with Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson) took to the stage. Of course, lack of timbral variation is something you could equally well accuse Sonore of; but in their case it hardly matters when the music is as deliriously joyful and bouncy as this. McPhee re-emerged on sax to round off the evening, accompanied by the all-guns-blazing cello of Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang’s rippling, surging percussion work.

The second night kicked off with Sonore sans Brötzmann, a wild and lusty duo in which Gustafsson and Vandermark gave full vent to the sheer physicality of their playing. It was dizzying stuff, and there was to be little respite as the great Paal Nilssen-Love sat down behind the kit, on this occasion across the stage from Jeb Bishop. Having developed a dislike for the trombone I didn’t particularly expect to enjoy this set, but Bishop convinced me with his flowing and disciplined approach to the instrument, the antithesis of Bauer’s tiresome flights of self-indulgence. Nilssen-Love, needless to say, was formidable.

I opted to skip the trio of Bauer, Holmlander and Lonberg-Holm in favour of some much-needed fresh air outside, and was able to exchange a few words with Brötzmann, who was also outside, smoking his way through an enormous cigar. Returning indoors, the saxophonist lined up his quartet with McPhee, Zerang and double bass player Kent Kessler, a group that has played together on many occasions but which I had never had the pleasure of catching before. It was a storming finale, the four of them perfectly attuned to each other as only great improvisers can be.

The appearance by the entire Tentet the following night at Martinschlössl was an extraordinary experience, and without a doubt one of my concerts of the year. I had never been to this joint before, and had little idea of what to expect; what I certainly had not banked on was the hall being filled with long wooden tables and the stage being barely big enough to contain the group (indeed, I believe it was specially extended for the occasion). What was even more unbelievable was the capacity audience, many of whom I had never seen before at places like the Blue Tomato or Porgy & Bess. As on so many previous occasions, I marvelled at the way normal people in Vienna – not trendies or hipsters, nor weirdy-beardy jazzers – turn out in their hundreds to listen to this loud, wordless, ecstatic music. There was even a girl of about ten in the audience, who seemed to be having a great time even though she did spend most of the evening with her hands over her ears.

As for the Tentet themselves, the thing that struck me was how badass they are. For all their smiles and outwardly friendly demeanour, these guys are a gang, and once they get onstage they mean business and are not to be f*cked with. Their music is like a juggernaut, destroying everything in its path with its blistering, volcanic energy. They are, as my son is fond of saying, deadly serious, and seriously deadly.