Thursday 26 July 2012

Janice Whaley

Those of you who keep an eye (probably from a safe distance) on the music, photos etc that I place on Facebook, Twitter and the like will probably know the name Janice Whaley already. If I keep posting her songs - and I do - it's because I think she's genuinely extraordinary. And now I have a blog, I can go into more detail about why. (Mu-ha-ha, *twirls moustache*, *ties wife to railway line*...)

I won't include too much biographical detail here, because Janice has written and blogged extensively - and fascinatingly - about how she got started on her highly individual way of making music. Suffice to say, that when she decided to give it a try, she was armed with two key weapons: a gorgeous and heroically versatile voice, along with a devillish way with a laptop home studio.

The voice is crucial, because Janice's speciality is 'a cappella' - that is, music performed without instruments. Some of you may think of barber-shop quartets, others human beatboxes. This is something else entirely. Giving full reign to her genius for electronica, Janice bends, shapes, loops and layers her voice into an orchestra - to the point where, even though you KNOW the sounds you're hearing are all vocals, you just can't quite believe it.

Rewind. The catalyst that turned Janice from the singer in her head to a real-world recording artist was basically a Really Big Idea: The Smiths Project. The Smiths were and are her favourite band; it's impossible to tire of their music. Luckily. At the start of 2010, Janice set herself the target of recording every Smiths song by the end of the year - blogging as she went. The backstory was gripping enough (hours of painstaking labour at the laptop while trying not to let her three-year old boy out of her sight; getting laid off work - making valuable time available while taking precious funds away) - but without trivialising the hair-raising times Janice went through, none of that was as riveting or addictive as the music. Particularly since she did it. The achievement is staggering. 71 songs. 1,300 hours of work, building songs with up to 50 layers of vocals. I need a lie-down just thinking about it.

'The Hand That Rocks The Cradle':

If you are a Smiths fan, you can get even more out of The Smiths Project by listening to it in order. Although she always had a number of songs on the go at any one time, Janice 'released' them more or less in the same sequence as the band did first time round. All the elements were fully-formed from the outset - but you might feel that the emphasis early on is on the sheer beauty of the voice, gliding across the massed backing vocals to create something otherworldly from The Smiths' classic realism. But as the number of songs builds up, the sense of adventure and mounting confidence grow, audibly, into real virtuosity. I've linked to a couple more selections here - one for creating such a great groove, the other simply for putting such versatility on display: the audio equivalent of saying, 'THAT is how we do that.'

'Shoplifters Of The World Unite':

'A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours'

But you need to listen - and if I'm honest, buy - the whole thing. How are you going to manage without the other 68 tracks? See - you can't.

With that Herculean task completed, Janice moved on to her debut album of originals. Building funds - and a fan base - through Kickstarter, she e-mailed some preview tracks to those of us who had decided to pledge some money to back the album. Nothing in the Smiths Project had quite prepared me for what I received. The approach was largely the same - some sampled piano now featured but essentially the tracks were still constructed from just Janice's voice. But one thing you couldn't have necessarily foreseen from an opening gambit of 71 covers - we clearly had a born songwriter on our hands as well.

'Patchwork Life' is made up of songs based on real incidents and events in Janice's life, and the artwork is created from a series of embroidered graphics Janice designed for each track. The universe of her own music is in fact a world away from that of The Smiths. Most of the songs stretch out for 5, 6, 7 minutes, building layer upon layer, constantly shifting, keeping (with a few exceptions) to a steady pace. As if saying 'other influences are available', the album manages to remind this listener of all of the following, at once: 'glitch' electronica, dance/trip-hop, minimalist classical music, the '4AD sound'; vocally, Janice has already been compared to Kate Bush, but I think that sensuality is also blended with a frank, assertive quality (not to mention a harmonic gift) that I hear in the late Kirsty MacColl. (And what better combination?)

'It's Not You, It's Me':

But for all that, 'Patchwork Life' doesn't really sound like anything or anyone else. Its influences are important - no-one creates in a true bubble - but it leaves them behind. Every single track is spell-binding - and I chose that word carefully, to mean that each song can stop you in your tracks and entrance you. Nobody else out there, as far as I know, is putting together records quite like this. So, all I can do is keep telling people about her.

Here is Janice's official website, where you can read, watch, listen and BUY to your heart's content.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Fugue, that was close

Back to the Proms, although not the Royal Albert Hall this time - instead Cadogan Hall for a Saturday matinee. This was a performance of wig-on-legs J S Bach's 'Art of Fugue', in a new arrangement for a chamber ensemble of about 15 players - here, the Academy of Ancient Music.

The 'Art of Fugue' itself is a bit of a weird one. It consists of about 20 - *consults Wikipedia* - 19 pieces which together represent a kind of masterpiece of relentless experimentation. Bach apparently took a central idea and pushed it through as many variations and complexities as it could cope with. The short sections become increasingly intricate - not in the sense of adding more players, necessarily - more about that below - but in the dazzling, and dizzying, ways the various themes shift and intertwine.

The bloke who did the arrangement, Mahan Esfahani, was 'directing from the harpsichord'. Thrills! Sadly, this didn't involve any precarious balancing or stuntwork, but was quite exciting nonetheless as he would polish off a spectacular trill of notes then leap to his feet to point at people. Excellent work.

And it was only as the performance progressed that you realised what he'd achieved. The 'Art of Fugue' is one of classical music's enigmas. Its manuscript shows the melodies quite clearly but there is no recorded instrumentation. In other words, no-one knows what it's supposed to be played on. The best guess appears to be a solo keyboard of some description (Bach has form on this - 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'), and here I really do recommend the Wikipedia entry if you like classical music, and thorny conundrums. Assuming it's all true - and I can't help but think that manic internet saboteurs aren't going to make a beeline for the 'Art of Fugue' entry - there is a really compelling case for the 'solo keyboard' argument: simply that it's possible. (Most of Bach's pieces intended for an ensemble can't be transcribed to keyboard. Case rests, m'lud. Nice wig you have there.)

The entry also includes a huge list of recordings, showing the sheer range of instrumentation people have used to tackle the suite. You'd expect piano, organ and harpsichord. But perhaps not saxophone quartet (twice!) or an electronica version. Even Laibach have had a go!

Actually, someone making the electronica link doesn't surprise me at all. This kind of Bach has that strange quality of seeming infinitely melodic without really presenting the listener with what you'd call A Tune (textbook electronica, and I say this as a fan). The truth is there are lots and lots of tunes, mostly going on at once. It's sublime, pleasant and life-affirming, but also quite demanding and strange, because the bit of your brain that can't relax is constantly trying to process what's happening. I caught myself with a furrowed brow and a grin, simultaneously, more than once.

Esfahani had decided to orchestrate the pieces with a real variety of instruments and use them in different configurations. Very clever indeed. I think you'd have to be quite a connossieur to listen to this piece (about 75 minutes without an interval, as I became particularly aware, following a pre-concert pint of Doom Bar) played straight through on a single instrument, but as we were treated to extraordinary varieties in light and shade, it all felt much more accessible.

Particularly pleasing - given how demanding the piece must be - was the amount of smiling on stage. The players positively beamed at each other throughout, and almost started chuckling at the good bits. They're also, for want of a better word, athletes.

1) The first violinist played an especially impressive flourish with - honest - a rather suave shimmy at the hips, and then a rather less suave tiny bounce on tiptoe. More of this sort of thing.

2) For 'authenticity' (pah!), the period versions of cellos (proper name: 'viola da gamba') don't have spikes. Viola de gambists - possibly not the right term, that - have to bend their ankles rickets-style and cradle the instument between their legs with no support from the floor. This is cruelty. The spike has been invented! Let's not pretend it hasn't been. Restore the spike! It's like when you peel a price sticker off a nice new CD, and gunk gets left behind. The removable sticker HAS BEEN INVENTED! Why use non-removable stickers now?! Where was I?

3) One gambist played by bowing 'underarm'. Not easy to describe - think of the way a drummer holds the sticks when doing a roll, rather than just playing a pattern. (I tried Googling 'bowing underarm' and got a YouTube video of someone's armpit and a website headlined 'Yes There Is A Bra For You' - so whatever this technique is, it's got a different name.) This guy was expending some physical effort in sawing across his strings like that. It looked really awkward, which makes me think that there must be a technical reason for it. I will try and find out.

If you can access the iPlayer in the next week, give this a go. Even if you're not big on classical music, consider it if you like riffs, mantras or patterns in your listening choices. You might get hooked.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Sally Timms

Scuttling around in my music den, digging out unjustly-neglected CDs and conjuring up playlists - you have to understand that even though I'm 39 years old elsewhere on Earth, in here I'm about 15 - usually results in my stumbling across an album or two that I'm horrified I haven't played for so long.

Tonight I've been looking for tunes to recommend to a friend who has a fantastic voice. Don't get me wrong. I'd be quite prepared to push Public Image Ltd, Billy Bragg, or a healthy selection of grindcore in her direction - I have quite a thing for 'extreme'/'intense' vocalists, but that's for another time (and another post). I felt like I needed a more sensible starting point. Who, I began asking myself, are the great voices in my collection? And are any relatively, if you'll excuse the pun, unsung?

I've ended up with several names to include, and I could happily write about any of them. Opinions would no doubt differ wildly over whether they are obscure or not, and in what context. (Let alone whether or not they are 'great voices'. I think they all are.) Mark Eitzel? Both Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance? Chhom Nimol of Dengue Fever? Even one of my personal faves, Gary Brooker of Procol Harum?

But the very first name that popped into my head - and I think the one most deserving of being more widely known - is Sally Timms. Perhaps you are most likely to have come across her as a member of the Mekons, that most unusual of bands - a punk outfit from Leeds (formed in the late 70s), now resident and still active in Chicago, and always sounding like the precise - and unique - collision of punk and alt-country you might imagine that geographical mix could produce. The Mekons share lead vocals between themselves like sweets, but the Timms tracks on each album tend to stand out purely because the world stops when she sings. Pitching a voice of such purity against the bite, whirr and jangle of the band's sound is the key to their genius. Try 'Ghosts of American Astronauts'.

She has a parallel solo career, but it is the dictionary definition of 'low key'. To my knowledge, her last album came out in 2004. The one before that, 'Cowboy Sally's Twilight Laments...for Lost Buckaroos', as the name 'might' suggest, is a country album.

Nothing very 'alt' about it - there's no need. The arrangements are largely gentle and always sensitive, ensuring That Voice is the centre of attention at all times. This track, 'Cancion Para Mi Padre', is one of my desert-island songs. If the chorus doesn't make you sigh with pleasure, I will sit you down, make you a cup of tea, then pity you*. (*offer you a biscuit)

I have two Sally Timms memories. The first time I saw the Mekons, they had just published a lovely hardback book of lyrics. Although I've never really been that good at approaching my idols, I decided that since the band seldom play the UK, this would probably be my only chance for years to gather their signatures in the book. Sally was sitting at the merchandise stand when I bought my copy - she not only signed it, she started yelling around for the others to come and do likewise. (Although I had to track down the odd Mekon after the set, I got hold of all the signatures and I cherish the book to this day.)

The second time I saw the Mekons, they weren't quite as 'on form'. They still made a great noise, but couldn't live up to the 'crack unit', top-of-their-game performance they gave the night they signed my book. (Not that I'm claiming any credit.) Launching into a Timms track, she gave the band about a minute before turning round from the microphone and silencing them. She explained to them - her voice still audible to us through the mic - that it was too loud. The audience want to hear the song properly. Play it more quietly. So they did.

Here is a bonus track of Sally Timms singing a duet with fellow Mekon Jon Langford. It's called 'I Picked Up The Pieces', and is a perfect musical expression of rough and smooth.

Monday 16 July 2012

State of grace

Fortunately, the forecast was good, as this was my second outdoor gig in the space of a week - and at the first, the weather had not been kind. This time, though, in Hyde Park for Paul Simon's Graceland anniversary concert, it all looked much more promising.

For a start, I was with some great pals. Secondly, I had managed to get a Graceland T-shirt in XXL size. It is surprisingly hard for the larger gentleman to find robust garments at rock concerts, so I was overjoyed. Having got home and unfolded it, I see the irony is that you could probably fit an entire Paul Simon inside one of these, but there we are: it will do me very well.

The main support act of the night was Alison Krauss & Union Station. If I had been them (*deluded expert face*) I might have played a few faster numbers earlier on in the set - it's a big crowd to manage - but they won everyone over anyway, simply by being such fantastic musicians. When Krauss performs with Union Station, it's a bit more democratic than you might expect, and Dan Tyminski, her co-leader/singer, steals most of the glory. They perform 'Man of Constant Sorrow' from 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (DT is the 'real' vocalist for George Clooney's character), and Tyminski even gets his festival moment as he sings a lyric banishing the rain, and the sun emerges at that exact moment to bathe the stage in bright light.

Paul Simon himself - well ... is it too early to think this was one of the best gigs I've ever seen? I'm always a bit wary of that short-memory elation, but the thing is, these songs are not new. I've lived with most of them for many years, and seen Simon perform a lot of them live already, just the once. (In Wembley Arena on the Born at the Right Time tour. I'm not sure Wembley Arena counts. It's like saying you've seen someone live, in an empty factory, with a blindfold on, wearing ear muffs, in a nightmare from which you cannot escape.)

Justly or otherwise (and maybe more from interview than performance), I had formed a certain impression of Paul Simon. As much as I love his music, and I REALLY love his music, beyond reason where some songs are concerned - I'd decided he had two slightly dodgy character traits: no sense of humour (at least, not outside his often witty lyrics), and an aloof, egotistical air. Well, I might have been wrong then and I'm certainly wrong now. This was a different bloke. 1: He was having a brilliant time - which meant we did, too. 2: He was a heroically generous host.

The gig was packed with special guests. Jimmy Cliff - bit of a wild card but it worked - came on to sing extraordinarily powerful versions of his big hits and duet on 'Mother and Child Reunion'. Then, as the Graceland material emerged and the original band took the stage, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela each got to perform some of their own material among the Paul Simon numbers.

While the chance to hear more or less all of Graceland live was the 'selling point' of the gig, the album was broken up and dotted about a genuinely hits-packed set. I can't imagine anyone with the slightest interest in Simon leaving this gig disappointed. We got to hear a gorgeous version of my favourite, 'Hearts and Bones'. But we got to hear your favourite, as well. 'Me and Julio', 'The Obvious Child', '50 Ways', 'Slip Slidin' Away'... even the encores conjured up 'The Sound of Silence' (solo, acoustic), 'The Boxer', 'Late in the Evening' and 'Still Crazy'. I could've cried.

Although extra points to the woman next to me (NOT one of my party) who chose the precise moment after the lyric 'no-one dared disturb the sound of silence' to blow her nose loudly into my left ear. If there's one thing that song doesn't need - especially unplugged - it's a monumental 'PAARRP!' between verses. Just goes to show though, that however left-field your attempt, you can't improve on perfection.

Sunday 15 July 2012

I could have sat there all night

Now this is civilised. I do like the Proms. Classical music is where the missus and I probably share the most common ground, so we always try and get to a few concerts in this spectacular series. And Mrs Specs particularly likes the Royal Albert Hall, because it has seats. Frankly, after the Anna Calvi gig on Thursday, I'm just happy to be inside.

The Proms has cast its net fairly wide in recent years to include jazz, world and soundtrack music alongside the more usual repertoire. Particularly successful have been the John Wilson concerts. Wilson is a conductor with his own orchestra - greedy - who has made musicals his speciality, and his 'MGM' Prom was massively popular, living on in CD and DVD format. (Notable given that Prom performances are rarely released officially - apparently it's to do with thorny rights/payment issues. Personally, I wish they'd overcome this and do what you sometimes find at gigs - the opportunity to buy a CD of what you just heard on the way out - that would be fantastic. Ah well.)

So, although this was only 'Prom 2' in the season, it was a John Wilson night - an entire performance of 'My Fair Lady'. I do like the musical, although technically I am chumming Mrs Specs along, who adores it. I hadn't seen one of these 'semi-staged' evenings before, and wondered how it would work. Answer: brilliantly.

I confess that I'd not come across the singer playing Eliza before (Annalene Beachey), but they had gone for some old-school star power to support her: Anthony Andrews as Higgins and Alun Armstrong as Alfred, for a start. They were all superb. Higgins must be a nightmare to play. 1: He's a bastard. 2: You have to overcome the fact that everyone who watched the film wants to punch Rex Harrison in the face. And, probably most important, 3: How do you actually do it? Sing it? Speak it? His part seems written to be somewhere in between. Andrews handled this really well, channelling Harrison's exasperation and rudery but adding some proper, actual notes amid the bellowing.

Of the acting performers, the evening belonged to Beachey, though, who has a beautiful voice - even when she is still in flower-girl mode, Eliza's songs are delicate ('Wouldn't It Be Loverly?') and difficult ('Just You Wait') from the off. And an undisputed highlight (not musical at all) is Eliza's telling of the grisly story about her aunt's demise in her newly-acquired perfect pronunciation. It's a few still minutes of sublime black comedy and you could have heard a pin drop between laughs.

Because this is a Prom, there are no sets. The actor-singers (while costumed in character) are doing all this in front of the orchestra, who are right there on stage with them. I loved this. For a start, a Proms audience are partly there to give it up for the orchestra anyway, and when it was all over, the roars from the crowd were every bit as loud when just the players were taking their bows. It also meant we were treated to the scores for the film, written for a much bigger orchestra than the more 'chamber' style of the original musical score.

Have a listen on iPlayer.

Part 1
Part 2

Saturday 14 July 2012

Spider-Man: actually Amazing

Disclaimer: I have always loved Spider-Man - ever since childhood, he's been my favourite superhero. It's the particular fault, I think, of the 'original' cartoon, which I now know was made in the late 60s - so I must've caught it on Saturday morning repeats or something. I've never forgotten how the skies were coloured in vivid greens, yellows and purples as he careered through them on his web. (Now on DVD, too! - helpfully illustrated below, for those unfamiliar with 'DVDs'.)

So when a Spider-Man film comes out, I go with a mix of glee (and that's real glee - something more than 'excitement' but less than 'total stupidity') and fear they might have ruined it. This has only happened once, with 'Spider-Man 3' - not only a crushing disappointment after the brilliant second instalment, but also a perplexingly messy and daft piece of work. I was really taken by surprise. Like most people, surely, I tend to go to films I'm expecting to like, so I rarely come out of the cinema thinking, 'God, that was AWFUL.' But 'S-M 3' felt as if they'd sent the director out for a fag and quickly made the film while he wasn't looking.

Fortunately, the new one, which Mrs Specs and I went to see last night, is much more the ticket. Trying to have a grown-up opinion alongside my default setting of sitting there thinking 'WOOOAAH! ACE!', I was impressed by the way it seemed to nail what it clearly thinks is the 'new audience' - that is, savvy and in some cases soppy teens. The high school romance element - while not how I remember my teenage years (did girls turn me down because I ... you know.... used complete sentences... and... *shrug*) - is nicely handled and actually makes a welcome breather from the newspaper subplot the stories have always had in the past. ('How do you get so many pictures of Spider-Man, Peter?' Gah!) Mind you, I'm sure that's coming in the sequels.

When Spidey finally suits up, we get some genuinely spine-tingling set pieces of 'web action' (if there's actually a website for that, I don't want to know) which I felt imitated the jerky, disorientating action I loved so much from the cartoons far better than the Raimi films. We even get a kind of 'Spideycam' at points, as if we were swinging between the buildings ourselves. In funny glasses. Sitting down. But you get the idea.

Inevitably, since they have to tell us again how it all began, there's a lot to pack in, which means some of the character development is faster than lightning. Peter and Gwen seem to become an item more or less by telepathy (again, that could have come in handy back in the day). And I particularly enjoyed the police captain realising that Spidey is one of the good guys by telling him, 'I was wrong - this city does need you', as if suddenly noticing that the cops hadn't yet got around to setting up their own Giant Lizard Unit.

Now, Spider-people, make another one before someone decides to change it all again.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Anna Calvi

I'll be clear right from the start - everything that was happening on the Somerset House stage was brilliant. I loved the gothic country of the support, Cold Specks. Not afraid to leave a little space in the sound - often a good sign. I was moved to get their CD at the 'merch' stand. (Before it washed away.)

And Calvi herself (understand I'm not an unbiased, detached observer) was simply splendid. Against all the odds - and I've already hinted at the 'odds' - the sound mix was superb, and if anything her vocals were stronger and guitar playing more dazzling and idiosyncratic than when I saw her last at Shepherd's Bush Empire. Even the projections - fire, planets, eclipses, on a huge screen behind the band - were spot on, adding to the aching smoulder Calvi specialises in generating.

But... For those of you who don't know, Somerset House is a very attractive pile on the north bank of the Thames. The current buildings go back to the late 18th century, and now contain an arts complex (including the celebrated Courtauld Gallery). In summer, it acts as a venue for its yearly series of concerts in its quadrangle. In other words, it's outside. The big bit without a roof. En plein air.

In July, this shouldn't be a problem, but this hasn't been one of your 'drier' Julys. (Julies?) I walked as quickly as possible along the Strand towards the venue - all by myself, incidentally. (Mrs Specs rarely goes to any kind of concert without seating. If she turned up somewhere to find there was no roof either, we'd probably be looking at the 'full Lady Bracknell'.) So, with no distracting conversation to make, I couldn't help but notice that I was turning slowly into a wet rag, from what seemed like the inside out. My dismal cagoule - in which I look like Kenny from South Park trapped in a black and white film set in a post-apocalyptic future - seemed simply to be helping the rain pour down my neck in a more efficient, scooping motion. And I hadn't even got there yet.

I'm a tireless crowd-watcher at gigs I attend on my own, and after all these years, I still get surprised by some of the 'mass behaviour' I see. For example, I wore a coat with a hood. 90% of the folk there dressed for a summer jaunt, but carried ENORMOUS umbrellas. So by the time the gig was in full swing, hundreds of brollies were up and no-one could see anything. Not just me, for once (I'm only vertical up to a certain point) - pretty much everyone there was just staring full face into a vast expanse of fabric. And yet, no-one seemed to mind.

The rain just got heavier and heavier. I was eyeing the dry ice and wondering about climbing inside it. The hardcore Calvinists seemed oblivious, and were probably keeping themselves relatively dry as they all huddled nearer the stage, brollies still aloft. A good many times, Calvi launched into songs that were so riveting and powerful that I almost forgot I should be fishing some armbands out of the rucksack. I can't really pay her a higher compliment.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Testing, testing ...

Looks like I'm not the first person to have a blog. It all seems to have been going on for some time. But for me, this is very new, because my words are suddenly homeless.

My favourite magazine, 'The Word', is closing this month. It had a very loyal fanbase (more of whom in a minute), who have written and blogged about the closure extensively, and though I belong to that fanbase, I don't feel especially well-equipped to write about the magazine's passing. Some people really lived and breathed it, while I occasionally inhaled.

I orbited the mag's universe, if you like; thanks to its terrific podcast, it had its fair share of in-jokes and references, and I was completely into all of that. More importantly, the forum/blog/what-you-will element of its website resulted in an online community that spilled out into the real world (when so often the internet provides a hiding place for people who want to escape it). Some of us have met up and made lasting, and what I hope will be lifelong, friendships. If you go to the website - - and have a root around, you'll see what I mean.

But I would like to thank the mag for making me write for fun again. I am a writer by trade, but financial, technical, business stuff. I still enjoy it very much (my nerd sensors are tweaked into life by 'plain Englishing' anything thorny and complex), but it's light on sex scenes and car chases.

The Word site had special areas for we ordinary punters not only to just blog about anything that took our fancy, but also post reviews of gigs, albums and books that we'd enjoyed. I started to get into this and reviewed most of the gigs I went to. The Word benefited from the process, because it would publish some of the contributions, and I made it into print a few times. It's difficult to describe the thrill of opening up a fresh copy of the magazine and seeing one of your reviews in there - or for that matter, seeing a post you'd really enjoyed on the site get the recognition it deserved.

Now the magazine has gone, my chances of re-living that thrill are diminished, but it was heartening to see just how many folk who post regularly to the site have always felt compelled to blog, write and record their cultural lives. The 'forum' or 'channel' may disappear, but the thinking and writing go on.

I would like to try and do the same. I am keen on music and photography, so that's what I'm most likely to blog about, although you may also encounter anguished descriptions of the occasional injury sustained during hoovering. Gig reviews are likely to feature heavily - and unless I get so drenched that my entire set of bodily faculties fail, I'll start with what I think of Anna Calvi at Somerset House tomorrow night.