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.


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 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.