Tag Archives: UK

[163] Martin Carthy with Dave Swarbrick – Byker Hill

27 May

Sometimes, no matter how many times you listen to an album, it makes absolutely no impression.

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That’s what has happened to me here, with the pretty period instrumentation and the admittedly accomplished vocals passing me by entirely despite a dozen and more plays.  I start up Spotify, I hear the first notes, and some time later I realize that the album has ended and once again I have failed to notice.

This has happened on occasion with bands I love where, on revisiting an album years later, I discover what it was I had missed – P.H.U.Q. by The Wildhearts was a complete bust for me when it first came out but recently revealed as a minor masterpiece.

Of course there are other albums which were a disappointment on first listen that have not fared any better with age.  I’m looking at you, Subhuman Race by Skid Row, although a better example might be GnR’s Chinese Democracy which left me with this same *shrug* feeling (rather than the disgust which led to Subhuman Race being the first and to date only album I have ever returned to the store for being terrible . . .)

So why am I reaching back twenty-plus years to discus hard rock near hits and clean misses in this post?  Is it possible that I have almost literally (in the original literal sense of the word) nothing to say about Byker Hill?

In the immortal words of the narrator from Hong Kong Phooey, “Could be.”

I would bet on the Chinese Democracy scenario being closer to the likely truth than P.H.U.Q. this time.  Except that I really can’t foresee a future where I even remember the name Martin Carthy long enough to give this record another spin.

What’s next?

Next Week: Cartolo – Cartolo

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 163 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 163 = 13%)
Recommend? No. (136 of 163 = 83%)

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[162] Elliott Carter – Symphonia

20 May

Symphonia is a conversation between the various instruments which is difficult to comprehend but impossible to ignore.

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It is clear that there is an energetic and fascinating debate going on here, which happens to be in a language that the listener does not speak.  This in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the bright and inventive piece.

As that listener I sit back and enjoy the discussion, wondering what the topic might be, grinning as one performer or another scores a telling point.

I find myself in the same mental state that I visit when watching some of my very favorite plays by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett.  The call and response, the back and forth has that same wonderful rhythm as well as the absurd yet aesthetically pleasing meaninglessness which somehow sounds important or profound.

All that is missing is Beckett’s philosophizing and Pinter’s vulgarity . . .

[Long pause.]

I am reminded once again at the universal nature of music, especially instrumental music – how it is used to communicate feeling, idea, occasion.  Even when, as here, it is not understood intellectually it can still be felt viscerally, intuitively.

In instrumentation and execution, this Modern Classical piece is at times indistinguishable from experiential Jazz.  For some reason this pleases me greatly.

Next Week:  Martin Carthy with Dave Swarbrick – Byker Hill

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 162 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 162 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (136 of 162 = 84%)

[149] Kate Bush – The Kick Inside

19 Feb

Oh, that voice.  It has always been present in my life, and it has always done something to me.

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Kate Bush had a powerful effect on the boys of my generation.  Even into our 40s, my friends and I still find ourselves captivated by a Kate Bush video, a potent combination of hormones and nostalgia ensuring our complete attention.

Kate Bush was certainly a part of my childhood, her singles playing on the radio, on Top Of The Pops, on early MTV.  But The Kick Inside came out just a little too early for it to have had a great influence on my musical education – indeed I believe it was the only Kate Bush album I was not thoroughly familiar with before exploring it for the blog.  The Hounds of Love is likely my favorite, although The Red Shoes and the wonderful compilation, The Whole Story, certainly received more play over the years.

And when I was ready, finally prepared to really engage with the themes and emotions explored by Kate Bush, it was Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes which opened my eyes, blew my mind, shaped my world.

While I was pleased to see Kate Bush on om Moon’s list, it always bothers me that it appears that she makes the cut at the expense of Tori Amos – the only mention of Tori in the hundreds and hundreds of pages of the book is as a “Next Stop” footnote to The Kick Inside.

I understand Tori claims never to have heard Kate before recording her debut album, but whether or not you believe that has little to do with the powerful effect of her raw yet still cultured musicality.

While I have little doubt that a Kate Bush album makes my top 1,000, Tori Amos makes my top 100 at the very least.

After taking this opportunity to rant at what appears to me a near unforgivable omission, I return to the album and the artist of the day, and find that I have many vivid and varied memories of listening to Kate Bush:

– My first love (long ago and far away away) once included “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” on a mix tape for me, as I was flying away from her, perhaps forever.  Twenty years later the song still has the power to make me blush and smile and sigh.

– I liked “Wuthering Heights” from the first time I heard it, on the radio back when I still listened to the radio, but it wasn’t until I studied the novel in High School – I devoured it while home sick one week, getting a jump on the assigned reading – that the true genius of the composition was revealed.  It sounds like the book reads, lyrical and awkward and cold.  The song always reminds me of my warm, dusty, dizzy teenaged sickbed.

– As an older teen, I would often sleepover with a couple of friends on Saturday nights, and after a few drinks, The Hounds of Love would be one of a small roster of records which would play once the lights were out and we could concentrate on the pure music on the way to sleep.  We were all terrified by the shrieking musical gymnastics of “Waking The Witch” and this fear was a delicious part of the ritual.  The strings still drag shivers down my spine today.

– I can’t hear her Christmas single, “December Will Be Magic Again” without  recalling one of my most favorite misheard lyrics:  instead of “I’ve come to sparkle the dark up” (a wonderful line in its own right), I initially heard, as did other friends, “I’ve discovered a Womble . . .”

But enough asides!  What about The Kick Inside?

The vocals are appropriately haunting and powerful, palpably intelligent and moving, every word enunciated beyond clarity, often distorted or affected in order to achieve the perfect tone.  And the lyrics are equally innovative and memorable.

Famous for her ballads, it is Bush’s uptempos which always surprise me, with her exquisitely complex rhythms, odd percussion and staccato delivery across an absurd number of octaves.  The instrumentation is all so unusual for Pop, yet perfect for the mood and timbre Bush is reaching for with each delightful track.

Once more my love of all things sax is fully indulged, with solos and flourishes, and even a song named for the instrument.

Since The Kick Inside does not sound like anything else of its time, it has aged very well – it is timeless rather than dated, not tied to the Disco or Rock sounds so associated with the popular music of 1978.

And who knows – without The Kick Inside, perhaps I never have the opportunity to hear Little Earthquakes, Into The Pink, Boys For Pele and beyond.

Next Week: William Byrd – Harpsichord Music

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 149 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes.  (21 of 149 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (124 of 149 = 83%)

Kate Bush, Pop, 1970s, UK, Recommended, Memories

[142] Tim Buckley – Dream Letter: Live in London, 1968

25 Dec

At the crossroads of Folk and Rock, Tim Buckley uses his voice more as instrument than lyric delivery system.

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In this long and winding live recording, Buckley whines and wails in unfettered and unapologetic sweeps, showing astounding vocal range and control.  It is quite fascinating to hear the things he makes his voice do.

Unfortunately – despite its unique character, its originality and style – I find that this aspect of the album quickly fades into the background, along with the rest of the music.  As impressive as the tone and talent on display from all on hand may be, I find myself constantly tuning out.

Nothing here holds my attention once the novelty of Buckley’s voice falls to familiarity.

It is a shame, because I really want to enjoy this.  There is certainly nothing wrong, nothing I dislike to be heard.  But it seems odd to recommend a recording as indispensable when I consistently forget all about it even while it is playing.

It is, I fear, perhaps a reflection of the songwriting aesthetic that it is only when a snippet cover of the hugely familiar “You Keep Me Hanging On” reaches my ears that I notice there is music on at all . . .

Maybe the studio albums are tighter, more engaging than Dream Letter.  But it is far more likely that in walking such a tightrope between Folk and Rock, Buckley has watered down both, served neither.

Which makes me sad.

Next Week: Buckwheat Zydeco – Buckwheat’s Zydeco Party

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 142 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 142 = 14%)
Recommend? No. (117 of 142 = 82%)

[139] Anton Bruckner – Symphony No 7 in E Major

4 Dec

After a slow and steady build, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s recording of Anton Bruckner’s most famous work reveals a bright and uplifting composition – nuanced, layered and wonderful.

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I instantly enjoy this sound, this leisurely exploration of a melody like a sunrise.  The quality of the production and performance gives the intimacy of a concert hall through the precise wonder of hi-tech speakers or headphones.

The tempo is consistent and comforting throughout, allowing the listener to fall through the musical page and picture the personal imagery so strongly suggested by these sweeping strokes of sound.  Everything here is vibrant and lively, crisp and precise without ever losing all the joy and spontaneity you could ever wish for in a symphony.

It breathes.

Moon describes some of what is heard here as “ominous”, but the word I prefer (also used by Moon) is “thoughtful.”

Brucker allows the music and musicians the time and space to build and grow and explore, never hurrying, never stalling.  It is quite a feat, and worthy of your listening time.

Next Week:  Jeff Buckley – Grace

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 139 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 139 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (115 of 139 = 83%)

[129] Benjamin Britten – Peter Grimes

25 Sep

It is not the fault of Tom Moon or Benjamin Britten than when I saw that I was to listen to an English Opera, my expectations were set way out of tune with reality.

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I grew up listening to English Light Operetta courtesy of my Grandpa’s passion for all things Gilbert and Sullivan.  My first visits to the theater were for amateur dramatics, touring and D’Oyly Carte productions of The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and eventually the entire canon.

(I always took perverse pleasure in the fact that our local AmDram troop was called the Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society – acronym, SODS . . .)

Some of the earliest songs I sang, many of the earliest lyrics I memorized were these clever and catchy period pieces – unmistakable English (even when ostensibly set in Japan!) and as entertaining as they are musically well-crafted.  So I was excited to further explore “English Opera.”

I was very quickly disappointed.

The melodies and flat and dense, likely very appropriate to the dour subject matter but far from enjoyable.  And the plummy, hammy performances which so enhance the absurdity of a G&S show is grating when the subject matter is played straight.

I tried and tried, but wanted to stop listening halfway through every single time I hit “play”.

Would this engage me in a theater?  There appears to be enough of a plot here to hold interest, and I’ve never been put off by dark stories and the absence of a happy ending.  But as a purely audial experience I was left unengaged and frustrated.

Again, the fault here is as likely mine as the composer’s, the performers’, or Tom Moon’s.  I was just expecting something else, hoping for something to build upon a genre with which I have fond and intimate familiarity.  Instead I am left longing for the oxymoron of sophisticated slapstick, for patter songs and pretty tunes.

I’m off to listen to Trial By Jury . . .

Next Week – Big Bill Broonzy – The Young Big Bill Broonzy, 1928-1935

Owned before blogging? No. (11 of 129 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (19 of 129 = 15%)
Recommend? No. (105 of 129 = 81%)

[121] David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

31 Jul

Never mind 1,000 recordings, Ziggy easily makes my all time Top 10.

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I once sang in a band (briefly) called The Diamond Dogs, so it should come as no surprise that David Bowie is one of my all time favorites, from his wierd-folk beginnings, through his metamorphosis into rock god, his asides into industrial metal, his consistent reimaginings and his always enormous reinvention.

And it all began for me with Ziggy . . .

The whole thing is flawless, at once creating a specific mood and and an entire world, exactly as a concept album should.  Each track is a complete story song in its own right, and at the same time advances the larger Bouroughs-esque novel of sci fi rock and roll fame.

I recall spending hours pouring over the images painted by the words on the opener, “Five Years”, each phrase a vignette worthy of comparison with the best Beatles equivalents (think an apocalyptic “Penny Lane”.)  The details of disaster are sketchy, but the emotion and the unspecified dread was as recognizable when I discovered it in the late-late 80s as it must have been in the early 70s.  I am certain that it still moves new listeners today.

And I have always been a fan of meta, so the shout out,

“I don’t think you knew you were in this song”

resonates long and loud.

As a vocalist, I can’t help but notice that some of the phrasing here is Sinatra-esque.  It all sounds simple and straightforward, but is often surprisingly difficult to sing along with.  Although the Chairman of the Board never screamed in pain the way the Thin White Duke does as this opener comes to and end.

If this powerful and nuanced opening wasn’t notice enough that this is not just Rock and Roll (or even genocide) the next number is the smooth and mellow “Soul Love”, perhaps Bowie’s first flirtation with the Motown sound he would claim for real on Young Americans.  His vocals, just affected enough to catch the ear, almost veering into parody, always just keep enough reality to avoid ridicule.

It is a tightrope he has now walked with stunning balance for decades.

The sax meanders and the vocals build in intensity, and the words are poetry as backing singers moan gently behind, until the guitars finally crunch to open “Moonage Daydream”.

“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe.”

How can you focus on anything else while Bowie (Ziggy) preaches here?  The great secret behind Bowie is that he never set out to become, nor ever considered himself a rock star.  He is a performance artist, and Ziggy is his most memorable (if not his most enduring) persona.

Ironically, it is the Rock God persona of the Heroes / Young American eras which people believe to be “the real David Bowie.”

Yet still the leash is on, the power and prowess of Mick Ronson and the rest of the Spiders still harnessed, controlled, straining to let loose.  This can be clearly heard in the outro solo of “Moonage Daydream”, only for the next track “Starman” to revert to a gentle if insistent acoustic vibe.

Did I say Top 10?  Try top 3.

The snippets of conversations between young kids discovering the alien “waiting in the sky” that make up the verses are painfully true – I could and can vividly image my friends and I reacting exactly this way if our very own ET had come along.

Yet still the brakes are on as Ziggy starts to wail “It Ain’t Easy”.  For a pillar of Rock radio, this is so much more controlled and restrained than (for example) Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic or AC/DC’s Back In Black.

Which is when we reach my favorite Bowie song – “Lady Stardust” – a perfect tiny story of “darkness and disgrace.”   The guitars are replaced with a piano lead, much the way that Queen would often do in years to come, and the lyrics are front and center in this, perhaps the height of Ziggy’s rise before the fall.

The acoustic demo that can be found on later reissues is even more immediate and raw.  It was discovering recordings like as a teen these that made me want to (even need to) sing.

More meta – “Star” is a wonderful piece of that performance art that Bowie so embraces – a rock star imagining that he is not, wishing that he was.  And here at last the pace is hard and heavy, driving towards a big rock n roll climax . . .

Instead the song morphs into a mellow chilled-out final verse.

“Hang On To Yourself” – name checked in The Bangles oversold and underrated album,  Everything – picks up the pace again, grinding and grooving and grinning until I find it impossible not to tap along.  I also find it nearly impossible to stop a grin from filling my face as this one plays.

And now the crunching majesty of that chord, leading into that riff and the title track.

The star himself, “Ziggy Stardust” appears.

Lyrically the song is a perfect telling of the archetypal internal journey of every star and wannabe (while hinting at the specific events in the life of Jimi Hendrix, as Bad Company would later in “Shooting Star, another favorite.”)

I am struck at this point at how much tension and power has been built up through the first nine tracks as they drive purposefully but with that unexpected restraint.  It seems all that energy is released in the opening notes of “Suffragette City”, like a pebble from a slingshot, and the kid gloves come epically, wonderfully off.

At least, that’s how I hear it in my head.  In reality, the groove and restraint is still there.  The explosion is one of attitude rather than volume.  The rhythm is so tight, every piano stab so precise and purposeful, the guitar solo so briefly, beautifully sketched.

I think of the many bands I have heard cover this song live in concert (including The Diamond Dogs so very long ago, and Marc Rentzer with Kreb’s and the Maynard G’s just this year) and realize this track would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the album were only mediocre.

There is nothing at all mediocre about what has already occurred, and the final track ensures a perfect score.  “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” predates Grunge by two full decades and does it better than the Seattle scene ever came close to.

With “. . . Suicide” as coda to the prelude of “Five Years” the story has a concrete and satisfying arc.

Ziggy is more than Rock, or Pop.  It is Art.

Next Week: The Boys of The Lough – Live at Passim

Owned before blogging? Yes. (11 of 121 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (19 of 121 = 16%)
Recommend? Yes. (100 of 121 = 83%)

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