Saturday, 16 December 2017

It's just not cricket, no wait it is...

I started listening to radio seriously in about 1978. Lots of things were to blame for moving me on from basic Radio 1. "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" introduced Radio 4, and a bout of Chickenpox, particularly nasty as a teenager, left me twiddling the dial in May. So I discovered cricket, or more exactly cricket commentary.

I don't do sport really, I have no interest in Football or Rugby, but the lyrical description of this game that seems to seep into whoever is on air at Test Match Special is as enticing as any music. Now I'm not the first to mention this, but it has coloured my radio and podcast listening. Over time I have got a bit more interested in the game, learnt the fielding positions and so on. Quick aside; I was finally put off any real interest in sport by a rainy school games lesson when we were all sat on the floor and shown fielding positions rather than playing. You weren't allowed to wear glasses for games so I couldn't see a thing. I asked to go back for them, was told no put up with it, and decided on the spot to give up on anything "taught" like that.

I do a lot of miles in the course of business and Audiobooks help the motorway slide by easier. I listen to music books, as you may have noticed in previous pieces, but I seem to have a fair few cricket books as well. No surprise that cricket commentators are good Audiobook narrators but it seems that the game is just ideally suited to spoken word. All this was prompted by Henry Blofeld's memoirs appearing on Audible recently. It turns out to be a good listen, and Henry to have a clear sense of his role on air. Jonathan Agnew is far and away the best at the Cricket Audiobook. His anthology of cricket writing is a good place to start, but not all at one sitting at 19 hours long. He has also done an excellent tribute to Brian Johnson which mixes anecdote with history, although I could care less if I never heard their "Leg Over" incident again.

In common with most high paid "professional" sportsmen cricketers have a greatly inflated sense of their own importance. As I write this in December 2017, the England team have all had to be grounded because they can't have a drink without headbutting each other. Consequently I have avoided autobiographies of players, partly because they have a tendancy to be written too close to their careers to have any perspective, be a least a little self serving and frankly pretty dull. I would recommend however Jonny Bairstow's memoir "A Clear Blue Sky", the positive tone of a book that could have turned into a rant about his early tragedies makes for an incisive story.

Cricket podcasts? The BBC's "Stumped" is the best, the rest tend to be attempts to replicate the natural tone of Test Match Special and come across as forced. Someone more interested in the game than the narration may tell you different...

Then there is "The Duckworth Lewis Method". As well as the cricket version of the offside rule, it is a project from Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh of the excellent Pugwash. The history is here and I would say that even if you don't like cricket at all, the mix of gentle whimsical lyrics and E.L.O.pastiches is irresistable. Get the albums, both of them, you won't regret it. They have also been taken to heart by the Cricket world, even appearing on TMS..

I didn't know Pugwash before the DLM albums, but don't wait, their new album "Silverlake" is as good as anything they have done. Also get their compilation A Rose In A Garden Of Weeds as a way into their beguiling catchy songs. Try "What Are You Like" from the new album

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Artist Choice: Karen Lawrence

"It was 1994:'s Karen Lawrence who gave the others the choice of being second best or giving up" (Geoff Barton in Sounds)

Every so often a great album or a truly talented artist spends their entire career toiling away just below the awareness of all but a lucky few who find them. One such is Karen Lawrence. She has produced some good music, one genuinely great album, wrote a platinum hit record and seems to have been on the receiving end of more music industry rubbish than most.

She started out in a band called L.A. Jets. Hard to find much about them online (swamped by the football team), but the one video I can find shows a mid 70s pop rock band with no distinguishing features. After round one of music industry hassles most of the L.A. Jets popped up again as 1994: (the colon is meant to be there) and had money and attention lavished on them, including producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith), by A&M records. The result in my view is the best hard rock album of the 70's, if you don't believe me, then critic Geoff Barton called it "The best female fronted record of all time". Available as a brilliant expanded edition from Rock Candy Records if you have even a passing interest in loud rock music you need to hear this album. Nine perfectly formed songs with Karen's voice competing with Steve Schiff's soloing and Bill Rhodes inventive solid bass playing for top billing. Still one of my most played albums. I found 1994: thanks to an article in Sounds by Mr Barton highlighting then recent, 1979, US import albums*. He was talking about the follow up 'Please Stand By' but was so fulsome in his praise of the debut that I had to have it. £1.99 in the same cut out bin that I found Bruford's One Of A Kind in, quite a day that!

Later work includes Rip and Tear a cracking solo album still available digitally, and blues band Blue By Nature, and since 2000 silence. Seek her out and wonder why, like Kim Edgar in my recent post you haven't heard her before.

The sleeve notes for the Rock Candy reissues give the 1994: story as well as anywhere, and make an extra reason for buying them.

A very informative interview with Karen is here

* If anyone ever comes across this article online let me know, I discovered the band Storm there as well and would love to re read it as I'm sure other gems are waiting to be unearthed.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Steely Dan - Ultimate Music Guide

From previous posts you will have worked out that I'm quite keen on Steely Dan, so I was pleased to see Uncut add them to their Ultimate Music Guide series. These magazines are a great way of getting started with an artist, I have bought several, The Byrds, Van Morrison, & The Beach Boys issues all sent me off to the record shop.

With the Steely Dan one I have better insider knowledge and while it is very good, certainly making anything I could write to advise you where to start redundant, there are gaps...

The first is that as far as I can see nowhere does the song F.M. get a mention. It won awards and was released in various versions which surely gives it trainspotter appeal.

Number two nit-pick is the Hoops McCann Band. Named after a character in "Glamour Profession" (Steely Dan fans love this stuff) their "Plays the Music Of Steely Dan" album is a Jazz-lite set of covers. Not a musical sensation but part of the lore. And lore is one of the important things about Becker and Fagen. Bard College, Jay & The Americans, Chevy Chase, Muswellbrook... If you don't know what I'm talking about then catch up with Brian Sweet's excellent Biography called "Reelin' In the Years" (what else). If you ever see his other book "Complete Guide to the Music of Steely Dan" for less than ridiculous Amazon prices grab it. As a supplement to the interviews in the Ultimate Music Guide get Barney Hoskyns' "Major Dudes: A Steely Dan Companion". There is a small overlap of interviews, but not enough to matter.

Something else that is of interest to the train spotter in me are Steely Dan covers.

Woody Herman's "Chick, Donald, Walter & Woodrow" marries a suite from Chick Corea with five Steely Dan songs, far more effective big band Dan than Hoops McCann.

Herbie Hancock covered 'Your Gold Teeth II' on "The New Standard", an album by the way that is high up on the list of best Jazz albums of recent years.

"The Nightfly" has attracted its share of easy listening covers. Mel Torme took on 'The Goodbye Look' and 'Walk Between the Raindrops' on his Reunion album with Marty Paich, (whose son David covered Bodhisattva with Toto), and the Four Freshmen had a stab at Maxine and I.G.Y.

Best covers? The Pointer Sisters' take on Dirty Work clearly influenced Steely Dan's own live arrangement of recent years.

 Wilco's version of 'Any Major Dude' is good as is 'King Of The World' from Joe Jackson. Oddly Waylon Jennings managed a not bad rendition of 'Do It Again'..

Buy the Steely Dan Ultimate Music Guide, if you are a fan or not. Becker and Fagen make good copy whatever your opinion of their music. Personally I love it and am patiently waiting for Donald to get his finger out and release some better live albums and proper expanded editions of the albums.


My dwindling opinion of Donald Fagen took another hit this week with the headline "Steely Dan Singer Donald Fagen Sues Bandmate Walter Becker's Estate". While it's hardly the first unseemly scrap for control of a band name, Yes do it every second Thursday after all, the comments in my obituary of Walter Becker stand.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Kim Edgar - A name you should know.

Out there in the world there are hundreds, thousands of people quietly making a living from music sitting off the radar as far as the average music lover is concerned.

Last year Kim Edgar visited us in Crianlarich. here she is in the bar at The Ben More promoting her show. Sadly I didn't get to see her play, (drinks to serve, plates to clear) but I did investigate her albums, and found gold.

You may think you can classify her music by looking at the website and have parceled her off as folky singer/songwriter, true up to a point but each of her albums has a definite character and, most unusual in today's musical climate, show her writing and performing maturing and evolving.

Debut "Butterflies and Broken Glass" appeared in 2008 and drew the inevitable, lazy, comparisons with Sandi Thom and Amy MacDonald. Kim's songwriting was more assured and the arrangements less obvious than either of those relentlessly commercial artists. A review said "very moving, literate, allusive and expressively sung", and they were right, another review clearly written by some who had listened on fast forward described it as slick folk pop, no!

Album two "The Ornate Lie" in 2012 was a step forward particularly musically. Extra bite to the songs, a bigger production, and a more confident performance overall. The Tori Amos influence was more overt this time, but a perceptive review spotted signs of Aimee Mann as well.  

Most recently "Stories Untold" from 2016, is less ornate. Simpler arrangements, more folk, less Tori. Some of the songs, particularly 'Significant Other Deceased' remind me of Cara Dillon. It sounds like Kim has wanted to focus the listener on the lyrics, which have again taken a step forward. Try 'Well Worn' and especially 'Things Crack, Then Shatter' an affecting song simply sung and played.

As well as her solo work Kim plays, mostly in Germany, with the band Cara operating more in the Irish music world, does sessions, workshops, and directs choirs. So overall she is making a living (as far as I can see) playing her music, and finding an audience. In 2017 that is an achievement. The inevitable stripped down, keyboard & guitar live shows are part of life (Over The Rhine make the same compromise). She reminds me of Nerina Pallot in some ways, although she is 6 albums into her career has gone the big label route a couple of times, and had closer brushes with the "big time". But Nerina seems from the outside at least to have made more effort to satisfy commercial demands and her albums are less consistent and only intermittently hit the highs routine in Kim's music.

I've talked before about the difficulties of making a living in music, Kim has a good website, has the Social Media firing and gets good reviews for albums and live work. But you haven't heard of her and you should. Kim Edgar is a major talent, the equal and better of anyone in her field. As a fan I would like her to be heard widely and receive the rewards her music deserves (try Bandcamp Kim). This may of course not be what Kim wants.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Artist Choice; Bill Nelson

I'm gutted, Bill Nelson played an album launch show for his "Songs for Ghosts" album at the end of October and I couldn't go. There is the risk that every show might be his last, and having made it to the last two I was keen to get there.

The history from Be Bop Deluxe, through Red Noise and the solo decades is accurate enough on Wikipedia to get the picture, although for recent years it breaks down rather. As I write this Bill has a brilliant new website just launched. You should go there to understand the breadth and depth of his music and also to have a tour round the forum. This is far and away the best on the interwebs with a genuine community feel, and regular contributions from the object of our affection himself.

My Nelsonic journey started with the Be Bop De Luxe single "Japan" I doubt Bill would choose this as a point of entry to his work, but there you are...

When "Drastic Plastic" came along in 1978 I was undecided, the easier stuff was fine, but it took until the release of the Futurist Manifesto box set to really give this the attention it deserves. I'm not particularly a fan of Be Bop De Luxe, but as a stepping stone to the good stuff "Drastic Plastic" does it for me.

The good stuff being "Sound On Sound" by a group he called Red Noise. If you have any leanings towards the best 'Post Punk' or end of the 70s music you need to hear this. It's one of those albums that should be heard as an album. No substandard songs at all. Also responsible for a causing a lifetime of pain for others, as it is the album where I first took notice of fretless bass, still a work in progress.

In a story you may have heard before on the blog, I drifted with Bill in the mid 80s, vaguely aware of his new stuff and playing his old regularly. I reconnected in 2012 with "Joy Through Amplification" when it was reviewed in Classic Rock. Vortexion Dream is now one of my favourite Nelson songs. Sadly you will have to wait for it to appear as a download as the CD is sold out.

Bill presses typically 500 cds which by and large sell out quickly, sadly often appearing on EBay at inflated prices fairly soon after. There are some great albums still available in his back catalogue at ridiculous prices, my choices would be "Fantasmatron" & "Signals From Realms Of Light". One of the joys of Bill Nelson's music is its diversity and if you are new I would have a happy hour browsing through the soundclips and reading the wonderful notes that accompany each entry. Some of his best work is being slowly re-released through Bandcamp. The three volume Dreamers Companion series is a good introduction to Bill's recent work, but you will be buying the complete albums as well.

A recent innovation was a live album of last year's show. "Tripping The Light Fantastic" currently on heavy rotation on the iPod, I hope there is one of this year's performance. This is Bill at the launch of the Blip! album in 2013.

Compare "I Always Knew You Would Find Me" here, on Tripping... & on "Plectrajet" for Bill's seemingly endless inventiveness over the same theme. He seems to be on a sort of stream of consciousness never ending recording session, with one album merging into the next, but with each still retaining a sense of completeness and individuality. And that is for me a lot of the appeal of Bill's music, while it is all undeniably him, with a clear definable style, you never know quite what you are going to get. Recent albums have shifted from Special Metal, one of his most 'rock' albums for a long time, to "All That I Remember" an instrumental reflection on his early life. The homespun quality of his work, warm & giving while remaining the work of a consumate professional, is another appeal in the age of the airbrushed, protooled to death recording.

Recommendations? I have 32 solo albums plus Red Noise & Be Bop De Luxe on the iPod so how to narrow it down. The albums mentioned above are all good starting points. Bill himself often mentions "The Alchemical Adventures of Sailor Bill" as a favourite. I'll admit I took a while with this one but persevering paid dividends and I agree it is one of his best and that I think is one of the big rewards of listening to Bill Nelson, for every "Special Metal" that is an instant win, there are two "Sailor Bills" that demands something in return for giving up their charms. By the time they have worked their way in to your soul you will have made friends for life. So, my advice, read the store page, visit the forum, and immerse yourself in some of the most thoughtful, considered music you can buy.

My next purchases will be the Trilogy of "Silvertone Fountains", "Illuminated at Dusk", and "Mazda Kaleidoscope" before one of them sells out. I'm feeling brave so will post this blog to the Dreamsville Forum and invite other people's reflections on the appeal of Bill. I'm sure there will be far more eloquent explanations than mine. Find it here.

Bill Nelson is one of those artists who people have "heard of" but who remains just off the radar for many. This is going to become a theme for the next few blog posts. Next time, Kim Edgar. Who?

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Labelled with Prog

My audiobook recently has been "The Show That Never Ends - The Rise and Fall Of Prog Rock" by David Weigel. While it focuses on the stories of the 70's heavyweights there are also diversions into other parts of Progworld which have pointed me towards yet more overlooked music.

Looking through the genre tab of the iPod it turns out I have quite a bit of stuff labelled "Progressive Rock". Seems strange for someone whose music tastes formed at the end of the 70's and the early 80's. Then there's the Prog Magazine Readers group on Facebook which spends most of its time arguing about what is or isn't "Prog". So what's it all about (Alfie)?

To set my stall out I don't like ELP, not too fussed about Pink Floyd (for me the Collection of Great Dance Songs compilation is all the Floyd you need) and I can take or leave most Genesis. I've nothing against the early/mid 70s, I just wasn't there...

King Crimson: My interest in Crimson starts in 1981, in fact I saw the band while it was still called Discipline at Moles Club in Bath on their first gig. The inventiveness of the trio of 80s albums still amazes me. Live they were constantly challenging, listen to any of the downloads at DGM Live, better, listen to them all. From there right up to the current 8 man band revisiting and rewriting earlier incarnations it's the sound of boundaries and envelopes being pushed. Nothing has ever got close to King Crimson. They are the musical equivalent of flicking away a lit cigarette without looking to see where it lands.


Camel: Much gentler stuff, and a different kind of inventive. If you like Gilmour's guitar but not Waters' polemics then try Camel. A much sparkier prospect live where the Jazz & Blues inflections that can sound twee on record catch fire and Andy Latimer's guitar work has space to stretch out.

Renaissance: I know, not very radical whats with the orchestras and all. Forget Northern Lights, it's Betty Thatcher-Newsinger's lyrics sung by Annie Haslam and earlier by Jane Relf that make Renaissance's best albums worth your attention.

Procol Harum: Again ignore the hit and go for the live stuff. I got properly interested when BBC4 showed their Live at Union Chapel, and it's a good place to start.

David Weigel's definition of Prog drifts towards Jazz Rock, Electronic and AOR. Consequently people like Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield and John Wetton get a fair covering. His look at 80s "Neo Prog" doesn't go much further than Marillion, and the more recent revival, or perhaps that should be reappraisal, concentrates on Porcupine Tree, which is fair enough given Steven Wilson's ubiquity. It stops short of his recent chart shaking "To the Bone" album, which itself has generated some "is it Prog?" debate. Personally I think the place to start with Wilson's work is "Hand Cannot Erase".

John Mitchell, the other name to conjure with in modern Prog circles, has a very definite sound that he brings to his albums with Frost*, Lonely Robot and his production work, particularly Kim Seviour's excellent "Recovery Is Learning" album. Kim was previously singer with Touchstone, who highlight much of the problem with current Prog leaning music. Talented musicians, decent production, but hit and miss material, making most albums a struggle. Mitchell and Wilson have the songwriting skills to move beyond the banal to something with some lyrical bite and most importantly a tune. You see why I'm not keen on ELP now.

A few recommendations some from slightly outside the Prog box, that I think are "progressive" within a fairly traditional rock music format.

Elbow. As I suggested in my live review in March, Elbow have many of the qualifications for Progressive-ness, better live than on record, songs that can be the stuff of epics, and a comfort with the fact that they re good at what they do.
Try: "Live at Jodrell Bank", "Build a Rocket Boys" and "Little Fictions"

Steeleye Span "Wintersmith" with Terry Pratchett. I'm not a massive Pratchett fan (although try The Long Earth written with Stephen Baxter), but this rendering of his stories hits the spot. Chris Tsangrides production toughens up the sound without losing the organic, folk based feel. Get the deluxe edition with extra tracks and live material.
"The Dark Morris Song" "Crown of Ice" and "The Good Witch" for a flavour of the album

Robert Fripp / Andrew Keeling / David Singleton: The Wine of Silence. Fripp's soundscapes orchestrated by Andrew Keeling and produced by David Singleton are a thing of beauty. Probably more accurately seen as modern classical music, nevertheless meets the definition of progressive as something challenging and involving. Don't try it, just buy it.

Yes: The best of the "proper" Prog bands for me. Rick Wakeman describes their studio albums as "sterile" and by and large he's right. Despite a tendency (mostly Steve Howe I gather) to repeat the recorded works the same every night, right down to the solos, Yes can be a great live band, or at least before they turned into their own tribute band.
Try Keys To Ascension, very close to the best of live from a time when they were playing at their best. The only song missing is Southside of The Sky. Also try Live from the House of Blues, and the best studio album Going For The One.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

In praise of Bruce Brodeen

Unless you inhabit the corner of the musical jungle that calls itself Power Pop, you may be unfamiliar with Bruce Brodeen. In 1994 he started a record company called Not Lame. If ever there was a well named label that was it. I came across one of his compilations in Revolver Records a few years later and got on the mailing list. I'm still there, despite Not Lame shutting up in 2010 and Bruce moving onto a portal site called Pop Geek Heaven.

Now however Bruce has hung up his jangly guitar and joined the grown up world. His big contribution for me was promoting the notion of music curation. I have talked about this before on the blog and given the speed with which the digital world is overwhelming what has gone before there will inevitably be a lot of music left behind that one day is lost forever. Thanks to Bruce the world will still have The Shazam, The Mockingbirds and many other proud purveyors of guitar pop. 150 compilation cds later he has just released his last.

If you haven't caught up with the world of Power Pop then the starting point is "Shake Some Action:  The Ultimate Power Pop Guide" by John M Borack. The best music lists book bar none. Best of luck finding one, they do come up on E-Bay occasionally, the good news however is that a new edition is due out in 2018. However a google will give you an idea of some of the music recommended.

For music the DIY series are a good starting point and come up second hand regularly
DIY: Teenage Kicks - UK Pop 1 (1976-1979)
DIY: Starry Eyes - UK Pop 2 (1978-79)
DIY: Come Out and Play - American Power Pop (1975-78)
DIY: Shake It Up - American Power Pop 2 (1978-80)

If you find any of the the Rhino Poptopia series on sale grab them

The best intro to Not Lame's catalogue is "Six Years of Power Pop!" available digitally.

Not only was Bruce a great promoter of the music but also of writers. Another book recommendation is "A Brief History of Jazz Rock" by  Pop Geek Heaven contributor Mike Baron which takes an oblique and unique view of another niche.

So thank you Bruce Brodeen for 20 years of great music, and for introducing me to musical archaeology, I will keep digging but it won't be the same without you.