Monday 25 May 2020

Shelf life: more sifting in the Room Into Which You Must Never Look

I've been fortunate enough to keep working my full-time job from home during the outbreak - so while I'm acutely bereft by the total absence of the live music scene, I haven't had quite as many newly-empty lockdown hours to fill as I might have expected.

However, some of the downtime has been spent embarking on the long overdue 'Sifting' - first mentioned in this earlier post - where, after 35 years of buying too many records, I now have to sort through them all and decide what can go.

Of course, what I've ended up doing a lot of the time is coming across stuff I definitely want to keep. The Room Into Which You Must Never Look had reached a level of disorganisation such that, I knew there would be CDs that perhaps might only be a few years old but that I could easily have overlooked since absolutely caning them on initial purchase.

So it has proved. Below are some typical examples - not forgotten, because I still closely follow all the artists concerned, where applicable - but certainly neglected.


Stile Antico - 'Music for Compline'

My memory for timespans is horrendous, and I still think of myself as a classical music rookie of sorts, only immersing myself in it hook, line and sinker in the early 2010s. However, Mrs Specs had already instilled her love of choral music in me before that, and Stile Antico were one of the first ensembles we discovered together. We've tried to keep up with their releases since, which made me realise with some degree of shame that their still-startling debut, 'Music for Compline', had gathered a little dust. The dust is gone now.

(Byrd - 'Nunc dimittis')

Various Artists (compiled by DJ Muro) - 'Super Funky Afro Breaks'

Through some great record shops (in particular Sounds of the Universe in London's Soho district), I was able to hear fantastic compilations of hard-to-find soul, funk and African/Latin recordings, often edited into euphoric mixes by DJs who sounded like fictional characters. The mysterious 'Muro' is behind this one. The YouTube video I've included below is in fact the WHOLE mix, which I wouldn't normally do - but the CD now appears to be quite hard to find and potentially expensive. Oh well, better hang onto it, then.

Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Aribert Reimann: 'Lieder'

Another recording that I think might be quite hard to find now (although perhaps not scarce, as I got it quite cheaply second-hand). DFD takes a long tour - 3 discs long - around a dizzying array of 'other' lieder composers who rarely occupy the spotlight now but who make for a fascination, if motley, crew. The example below is intriguing, a slow-burn treatment of Goethe's 'An den Mond' by Pfitzner, in marked contrast to Schubert's repeat visits.

(Pfitzner - 'An den Mond')

Ruby Blue - 'Down from Above'

A battered old CD surviving from just before I went to university and sustaining me for some years thereafter - a folk-rock band that never quite made it... stumbling after losing key songwriter and vocalist Rebecca Pidgeon - who went to the US to pursue a joint singing/acting career. I put it on and the serene harmonies immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, just as they had 30 years earlier.

('Stand Together')

Baltic Fleet - 'The Dear One'

A one-man band (Paul Fleming from Warrington, UK) making a thrilling brew of electronica, ambient and driving rock. Three albums into his career, and I simply couldn't remember where I had shelved the third one. Until, of course, the Sifting.

('Swallow Falls')

Anthony Braxton - '23 Standards (Quartet) 2003'

Perhaps the most famous modern jazz group to take a few minutes of any given standard and use them as a launchpad for truly epic improvisation was the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio. Being a fan of that band, I was fascinated to read about this project from Anthony Braxton - who, up till that point, I'd assumed has focused almost exclusively on free jazz (track names that look like equation and chemical formulae - that sort of thing). Over several years, the enterprise stretched across three 4CD sets - some 13-14 hours of live music. A stroke of genius was making the quartet sax, guitar, bass and drums. Guitarist Kevin O'Neil seems especially telepathic, and while he has the chordal instrument, his sensitivity and lightness of touch - in place of a bulkier sound like a piano - still help the music to feel spacious, unmoored. The full set is a worthwhile commitment, and a joy to re-discover.

('Countdown' - a John Coltrane cover)

Ian Bostridge & Xuefei Yang - 'Songs from our Ancestors'

And on the subject of guitar... Xuefei Yang has such a beautiful sound (and has been making some lovely recordings during lockdown), but - unless I'm way off beam here - her CD catalogue seems to disappear quite fast, with certain recent releases not even making it onto a physical format. As it happens, this CD is a gorgeous object - the debut release from Globe Music (the record label established by Shakespeare's Globe to record artists who perform in their new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse space). This is an inspired partnership, choosing repertoire perfectly suited to both.

(Schubert - 'Ständchen')

Genesis - 'Genesis'

When I last wrote about the 'Sifting', I mentioned that I had quite a few Genesis records. In fact, more than I realised. For a day or two, I kept finding them - in fact, a couple of albums I thought I'd already passed on, then regretted doing so. This self-titled release, with the still-quite proggy 'Duke'/'Abacab' era one side of it and the stadium-conquering 'Invisible Touch' pop years the other. Side 1 mostly points to the past, and for me is one of the strongest 20 minutes the band ever recorded: there's an entrapment theme throughout - the shocking, intense 'Mama', the deceptively-wracked lyrics in the loping 'That's All', and the ghost story 'Home by the Sea'. To my mind, Side 2 loses its way a little and the atmosphere evaporates. An oddball LP, as if the band are on a bridge, and they're either going to turn back, or cross it.

('Home by the Sea' / 'Second Home by the Sea')

Dengue Fever - 'Venus on Earth' / Various Artists - 'Electric Cambodia'

This was the first album I owned by Dengue Fever - I suspect because it came out on Peter Gabriel's Real World label and made it into more shops and music papers. An LA band who fell in love with 60s Cambodian guitar music... to the point where they recruited a Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, to help get the sound just right. More recently, they put together a compilation of some of the tracks that influenced them (one of the older tracks comes first, below). The shimmering, winding 'Seeing Hands' is a genuinely hypnotic record, right up to its last half-minute or so where the tension is held as long as possible until it resolves.

(Pan Ron - 'Don't Speak', followed by Dengue Fever - 'Seeing Hands')

Barbara Bonney, Antonio Pappano - 'Diamonds in the Snow'

This is probably one of the finest recital albums I own - bright, shining renditions of Nordic art song. It's also one of the few CDs I've accidentally bought several times. (I think that most record collectors, myself included, generally try and avoid this sort of thing.) But the 'Sifting' tells no lies and admits no hiding place. I comfort myself with the thought that every time I've come across it in a second-hand shop, I must have panicked at the possibility I might not have it after all, and picked it up. The keeping copy will stay prominent, visible on the shelf now.

(Stenhammar - 'The Tryst')

Various Artists - 'Reich: Remixed'

Fascinated to re-discover this snapshot in time - perhaps it's easy with hindsight to see obvious crossover links between the 'minimalist' composers and rock music, but at the time I was just gathering snippets of information. Some bloke (Glass) had written symphonies based on Bowie's music - really? And now they were doing classical remixes? I was already aware of Four Tet, though - the alter-ego of the ceaselessly inventive electronica musician Kieran Hebden - and fell very readily for his take on Reich's 'Drumming'.

Wolves in the Throne Room - 'Two Hunters'

All the metal is on the very highest shelves, as it's the type of music I listen to that Mrs Specs likes the least - so she's not bothered whether it's hard to find, let alone reach, or not. So, in order to go through the CDs, I need to use a set of steps that look like they might have been constructed as part of a school project or during a Blue Peter episode, and the teetering jeopardy obviously adds an appropriately 'metal' thrill to proceedings. One doesn't realise, I suspect, how important the layout of even quite a small room can be. Some of my metal CDs were genuinely hidden - or, if you prefer, OCCULT! - because I was double-shelving in various places. So I went to them more rarely than I would have predicted - I must have defaulted regularly to something both noisy and nearby. Pleasure to blast the ear-drums again with US band Wolves in the Throne Room, who bring an epic elegance to their splendid roar.

(I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots)

Brian Eno - 'The Ship'

I have absolutely no idea how many records Brian Eno has put out, but I do think sometimes that - thanks to his pioneering experiments with ambient and automated music - it's very easy to think of him as half-musician, half-boffin, and forget about some of his earlier eccentric, yet tune-packed albums from the years after his departure from Roxy Music. So, when 'The Ship' came out - apparently inspired by his impulse to flex his deepening singing voice - it was like a precise collision between the 'soundscape' feel of his ambient work.... and songs. The title track, below, is the entire first half of the album - or 'side', as geriatrics like me call it - and it really is like someone has fashioned an anthem out of sonar, for the depths of the ocean.

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