Kyle Carey – The Art of Forgetting

Refreshing in its simplicity, straightforwardness and sense of unhurried calm, Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting acts like a balm for our 24/7, shortened attention span times. Devoid of folktronica frills and 21st-century studio frippery, it’s like something from a bygone time, when singers could just sing and instruments could just be themselves and bands knew the difference between playing too much and just enough. Carey’s voice is front and centre throughout, a voice that is pure and clean, tremulous when it needs to be but never weak, strong and from the gut when called for, playful and plaintive, joyous and sorrowful, always emotional and a thing of beauty.

While nominally ‘folk’ music, Carey and her band keep complacency at bay throughout The Art of Forgetting by delivering a synthesis of Celtic, Americana and Appalachian musical forms, which makes for what she describes as unique ‘Gaelic Americana.’ And although this sometimes results in a bit of genre hopping – opening track ‘The Art or Forgetting’ conjures a sea-shanty vibe, ‘Siubhail a Ruin’ has an almost-cabaret/jazz feel, ‘Tell Me Love’ is like a heartbreaking piece of mountain music, ‘Sios Dhan an Abhainn’ is a Gaelic-language cover of the Americana traditional ‘As I Went Down to the River to Pray’ that combines Americana and Celtic influences with the kind-of mournful horns befitting a New Orleans funeral procession – Carey’s dedication to acoustic instrumentation and the band’s relaxed, unhurried playing create a though-line and sense of wholeness that is truly mesmerising.

If you’re like me and your idea of folk music has been tainted by the monotonous mumblings of bearded and bespectacled folkies, or by the droning ramblings of earnest singer-songwriters, or the cry-into-your-beer despondency delivered by lovers of murder ballads and protest songs, then you need to open your heart and embrace Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting. I did, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 11/4/2018)

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Knife in the Water: Plays One Sound and Others

It’s a shame that it’s currently somewhat unfashionable for odd or unusual bands and artists to use country music as the foundation for their sound (that is, unless they’re operating within the genre). From bands like The Grateful Dead and The United States of America back in the sixties and seventies all the way through to bandKITWs like Low and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in the nineties and noughties, country has proven time and time again that it is a truly fertile bedrock upon which unique musical explorations can be erected. But nowadays, country tends to be a style avoided by bands and artists interested in hybridised musical forms, and is instead contained within its own generic pigeonholes.

This contemporary avoidance makes the rerelease of Knife in the Water’s Plays One Sound and Others all the more interesting and all the more enjoyable.

Originally released in 1998, Plays One Sound and Others is both an archetypal product of its time and a thoroughly convincing demonstration that the dictates of country are a fitting framework for those looking to push the musical envelope, rather than a style to be avoided. Featuring such stereotypical instruments of the genre as brushed drums, pedal-steel guitars, steel-string acoustic guitars, pianos and organs, it uses this instrumentation not to help us drown our sorrows in true country-style but to instead create stark musical spaces that vacillate between introspection and expansiveness, between loneliness and community, between an almost-ambient quietness and a kind-of barely restrained intensity, without ever being overtly loud or aggressive.

Title track ‘One Sound’ sets the template for the remainder of the album, its hushed vocals and softly-plucked guitar contrasting with washes of organ and heavily layered droning guitars that are almost Velvet Underground-esque in their density. ‘Seat of Pity’ is like a ballad from a land where Ketamine is part of people’s daily diets, so fragile and tenuous is its form and Knife in the Water’s playing. ‘Norma’ is an almost-haunted duet, the dual voices supported by a single gossamer-thin guitar line and pedal steel wails sad enough to break your heart. And closing track ‘Careening’ is simply perfect, moving from a barely audible whispered vocal and gentle accompanying guitar to a full-band drone over the course of almost ten minutes, and doing so at such a glacial pace that you’re barely aware of this progression until it overwhelms you.

If you’ve got even a tiny bit of room in your life for what might be called ‘alternative’ country music, then you need this record in your collection.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 22/3/2017)

Banana: Live

Frank Zappa once asked if humour belongs in music, and I’d like to ask the same thing regarding whimsy. Is there a place foBr it in ‘quality’ Western music? Can a piece of music be simultaneously serious and whimsical, or playful, or childlike, or naïf? Or must something be po-faced and sober to be considered for elevation to such rarified airs? These are age-old questions, applicable not only to Western music, but also to the fine arts, literature, cinema and television. In their search for art that is ‘serious’ rather than merely ‘entertaining,’ many people will forgive a lot of stylistic approaches that might not always seem an obvious fit: Deliberate offensiveness, weirdness, overt intensity, violence, pain, trauma, abrasiveness, confrontation, and so on. And yet, of all of these, humour and whimsy seem to be the two approaches that many people won’t forgive, as if their sheer presence is anathema to seriousness.

Live, the debut album from American instrumental six-piece Banana, comes close to being the perfect fusion between these two incredibly disparate stylistic approaches. Its blend of restrained sobriety and freewheeling playfulness will convert any chin-stroker believing that whimsy and seriousness can’t exist side-by-side.

Led by multi-instrumentalist Josiah Steinbrick and featuring members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Warpaint, Bananautilize instruments common to modern classical music, post-rock, South East Asian ceremonial performances and exotica in the creation of their hybrid sound. Chiming vibes and gentle pianos sit comfortably alongside honking saxophones and squeaky clarinets; single-string guitar lines, regimented percussion and cold synthesizer backgrounds sit comfortably alongside cascading gongs, woody marimbas and plucked rinky-dink banjos – it’s as if Tortoise or The Steve Reich Ensemble are jamming with The United States of America, or Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn during the time they were recording the soundtrack to Ravenous. Tightly controlled repetitive patterns predominate, the type of patterns especially common to modern classical and post-rock. And yet their rigidity is often disturbed by messy saxophones and clarinets honking and squeaking over the top of them as they search for melodies and freedom; or by an over-the-top amplification of these tropes through multi-layered showers of gongs, chimes, vibes and marimbas, resulting in a sheet of sound that resembles rain or a waterfall more than anything you would normally think of as music; or by sudden moments of self-aware dagginess or just plain silliness.

The ultimate impression is of something deadly serious that is constantly winking at itself, and constantly undercutting its own lofty ambitions and puncturing its own hubris. Each and every time I listen to it, I can’t but help smile…

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 22/3/2017)

Amadou Binta Konté and Tidiane Thiam: Waande Kadde

When you hear or read the phrase ‘desert blues,’ particular associations immediately come to mind: Heat and dust and a certain lazy lethargy. However, despite the last of these of associations, much desert blues is produced by groups larger than a typical Western band, or by solo artists accompanied by such groups. It’s not uncommon for these groups to feature ABKthree or even four stringed instruments, two or three pieces of percussion and a couple of voices. The end result is a sound that is perhaps best described as full: The atmosphere conjured might be so languid as to almost be narcotic, but there is often a sense of urgency underlying it, a relaxed intensity propelled by the breadth of sound and multi-layered rhythms.

Waande Kadde by Amadou Binta Konté and Tidiane Thiam upsets this metaphorical applecart.

While it is technically a recorded improvisational meeting between Konté and Thiam – the former a lifelong fisherman from rural Northern Senegal, the latter an artist and folklorist from that region’s capital – it deserves so much more than this dry description. It is a meeting of two different generations, of rural and urban, of traditional and contemporary, of African and Western instrumentation (Konté plays the hoddu, the traditional 4 or 5-string ‘guitar’ of Western Africa; Thiam an acoustic Western-style guitar). Konté and Tidiane themselves describe their sound as “an ode to the sleepy landscape” of Waande Kadde – Konté’s riverbank village in Northern Senegal, where the recording took place – and this is perhaps the perfect phrase for what they created. More so than any other desert blues I’ve heard, their record truly reflects the calmness and sparseness of the parched desert plains.

Gone are the pulsing percussive undertones, the layers of polyrhythms and the call-and-response vocals typical of so much desert blues. Instead, Waande Kadde is an extremely relaxed and respectful meeting of two kindred musical spirits united in their tribute to a land that they love, one full of breath and space. Konté’s hoddu and Tidiane’s guitar unhurriedly weave long major-key riffs, their respective instruments coming together and then drifting apart and then beginning the process again, each repetition of the riff subtly different than the last, their interplay constantly changing, creating a hypnotic atmosphere both sedate and soothing, an atmosphere that clears your mind and untethers you from the earth and sets your mind drifting.

The same musical themes and motifs crop up throughout the songs, giving their ‘jam’ the feeling of some kind of spontaneously born whole that Konté and Tidiane were merely channelling. And it truly feels like a jam, like two old friends meeting up and sharing themselves without the need for words – this is due, of course, to its peaceful and becalmed atmosphere, but also to the fact that Konté’s children can often be heard in the background. They laugh and cry out happily, apparently curious to see what their dad is up to. They sometimes join in, clapping along or stomping their feet. And despite the improvisational nature of their jam, because Konté and Thiam are so in tune with each other’s playing, and because they both draw upon “the same folkloric base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger,” it feels like they have been playing these songs their whole lives, and will continue to do so until they die.

It is a truly beautiful record.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 22/3/2017)

Seabuckthorn: I Could See The Smoke

If you could only use two words to describe Seabuckthorn’s I Could See the Smoke – the latest EP from U.K. solo acoustic guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Andy Cartwright – they would be subdued and tension: The sSBTongs within aren’t brash, over-the-top, booming, in-your-face, raucous, ear-splitting or any of a thousand other clichés used to describe loud music. But they aren’t bland or boring either, and they don’t tend to get lost in the background or disappear on the wind. They are tense, urgent and infused with a sense of foreboding, which is sometimes approached with melancholy resignation and sometimes with a kind-of simmering anger.

Some may find I Could See the Smoke demanding, so held-back and patient is Seabuckthorn’s playing, layering and arranging, while some will find this a positive. In an overstimulated and oversaturated world that runs 24/7, we could do with more art that forces us to slow down, and we could do with more music that forces us to listen and listen carefully, to be still, to pay attention, to be one with the gradually unfolding layers of sound.

Primarily utilising a variety of heavily textured 12-string acoustic guitars, a resonator guitar and a mix of percussion, Cartwright combines this instrumentation with a production style that is murky, dense and at-times dirty, whereby the studio effectively becomes an instrument unto itself. The percussion often sinks to the bottom of the mix, a swampy and barely-distinguishable beat that nonetheless gives momentum to the music above; guitars become unrecognisable, the very core of their sound morphed and transmogrified, sometimes resembling a violin or viola, sometimes a harp, sometimes a melodica, sometimes a cello, sometimes a bagpipe; ghost voices float across the top of everything, eerie wails and moans that only accentuate the pervading sense of foreboding, existing on the edge of audibility, their origins hard to pin down, perhaps an acoustic guitar feeding back or a manipulated swell of reverb or the slow fade-out of a delay.

With all of these devices at his disposal, Seabuckthorn weaves dense soundscapes built on softly swelling drones, slowly building layers and subtly shifting repetition. They are extremely accomplished examples of this sub-genre, micro-genre, call-it-what-you-will, and as mentioned are tense and urgent with a depth of feeling that is often quite moving. However, what is truly remarkable and what distinguishes him is that he seemingly has a keen appreciation for brevity and a specific aural vision that doesn’t require a rambling exploration – his songs are concise without ever feeling rushed, with all bar one hovering around the three-and-a-half minute mark. This is a true rarity in this field; the norm as practised by what you would call his contemporaries – Dirty Three, Jackie-O-Motherfucker, Low, Barn Owl, Voice of the Seven Woods, Western Skies Motel – is to stretch out their explorations of tension and restraint, to make full use of time to the point that it sometimes becomes indulgent, to incorporate a sense of languid laziness into their musical visions.

All of these terms apply to Seabuckthorn’s music (apart from indulgent), the only real difference being that he seems to have cut off the fat, if you will. But what a difference that makes – by condensing the sprawl typical of this kind of music without sacrificing its intent and integrity, he has brought fresh life to it and allowed us to hear it in a brand new way. And for that, we should thank him.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 24/1/2017)

 

MME Chandelier: Post Coital Tristesse

There aren’t many shades of grey when it comes to post-rock – it tends to be either fascinating, intricate and transcendental, or indulgent, pretentious and boring. Sure, the line between the two sometimes blurs, but you normally know within two or three tracks whether the record you’re listening to is going to move you or make you cringe. This debut from Mme. Chandelier – the aMClter-ego of Anthony Sahyoun, guitar player with the Lebanese post-rock quarter Kinematic – falls into the former category, and also pushes the envelope of the sub-genre, taking a deconstructionist approach to the layered repetition and almost mathematical structures that are post-rock’s hallmarks.

Working with a limited pallet – guitars, pedals, 3 analog synthesizers and an analog drum-machine – Mme. Chandelier has crafted a cohesive long-player that explores textures, loops and soundscapes in a seemingly organic way. The tracks bleed into each other, influence each other, acting as part of a whole rather than parts unto themselves, acting more like movements of an extended suite rather than individual songs. Unless paying extremely close attention, it’s difficult to distinguish the point where one track ends and the next begins, a factor that makes Post-Coital Tristesse so much more than just another navel-gazing exploration of time and space.

‘B’ is almost an introduction to the album, rather than a song proper – a single shimmering guitar line slowly builds into layers of looped lines as synthesisers gently pulse in the background, as if heralding the rise of a crystalline sun. Without so much as a moment of silence, a lone note sustained beyond nature’s capabilities and a start-stop electronic beat connect the track to ‘Minimal Potato,’ which soon resolves into an exemplary piece of math-rock, layers of guitars repeating short blocky phrases again and again before giving way to jerky drums and a pulsing synthesizer, which undergo more and more treatment until they mix and become an artificial wail with a vague bass-and-snare beat somewhere underneath it. A sudden stop and ‘Triangle’ begins, a wobbly melody line warbling away over a stuttering beat and chunky guitar chords ringing out like they’ve been played on an autoharp, every instrument becoming wobblier and more out of phase the longer they go on, the sound quality degrading until the song resembles a murkier version of grime.

And on it goes, with Mme. Chandelier leading us on a beautiful and surprising journey that feeds our brains with nourishment and feeds our ears with candy. To say any more would spoil the frequent and wonderful surprises in store.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 24/1/2017)

Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues

Blues aficionados, lovers of HBcountry and collectors of the rare and obscure should rejoice – World Music Network have just released a new addition to their fantastic Rough Guide series: The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues. Covering a period of time and genre of music that has been severely overlooked for an appalling amount of time, this newest compilation will change your perception of the differences between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music from the 1920s and 1930s – an era that might also be called the Country Blues years. It does this by gathering together a weighty collection of rare singles and b-sides from this era, each one featuring a white country-musician of the time either showing the influence of the blues upon their particular style of country, or abandoning the strictures of their chosen genre and turning their hand to the kind of rough acoustic blues exemplified by artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller and Son House et al.

To roughly adapt Screaming Jay Hawkins’ famous phrase, The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues is black music by white people.

Roy Harvey and Jess Johnson’s ‘Guitar Rag’ is an uptempo jig, the combination of finger-picked banjo and bluesy slide perfectly encapsulating the meeting of the two musical forms. Dock Boggs’ ‘Down South Blues’ combines spiky banjo lines and Boggs’ deep, strained and nasal phrasing, the end result sounding like a primitively countrified Howlin’ Wolf. Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel #8)’ evokes the same kind of lonesome spaces as artists like Charley Patton or Bukka White, only the ones Rodgers sings about are out west rather than in the delta. Darby and Tarlton’s ‘Slow Wicked Blues’ is blues through and through, perhaps the bluesiest song of the album, the kind of devil-baiting blues they used to play down at the crossroads. It is, however, challenged by Larry Hensley’s ‘Match Box Blues,’ the deep-blues feeling of Hensley’s subdued slide-guitar and plaintive voice accentuated by the rhythmic hiss of record-dust or wear caught in the transfer, as if it were a copy of a copy of a copy of a long lost recording.

And so it on goes: 25 tracks in all, running for over 75 minutes in total, each track more interesting than the last.

It quickly becomes apparent that The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues isn’t intended as a gimmick or a document of a quirky phase of music that was perhaps best left forgotten – after all, the phrase white-man’s blues is often still used in a derogatory manner. Instead, this compilation highlights the influence and universality of the blues, and the cross-pollination that occurred between it and other forms of guitar-based music taking shape in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Within its tracks you’ll hear ragtime, lightning quick finger-picking, western-swing, cowboy yodeling, mournful ballads, sad songs of heartbreak and loneliness. At times, you would swear that that’s Leadbelly singing that prison song, or Son House singing that solo croon full of sorrow, or Lightnin’ Hopkins finger-picking next to a blazing fire in the middle of the western plains.

The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues shows that the blues belongs to everyone and speaks to everyone – man and woman, black and white, anywhere and everywhere.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 24/1/2017)