Thursday 27 February 2014

Past mastery: Daemonia Nymphe, Seventh Harmonic, Jo Quail

Brilliant evening at the Lexington (near King's Cross, London) last week. Three acts on the bill who sound very different from each other, but who are clearly kindred spirits, and whose music fit together so snugly - the whole gig had a real sense of form to it.

The first artist was cellist Jo Quail, and regular readers of the blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know I'm a fan - whereas the middle act Seventh Harmonic, and top of the bill Daemonia Nymphe, were both complete unknown quantities to me.

Jo's set was one of her most driven, and arresting yet. After one stately track, 'The Falconer', from her first solo record - it was straight into the tunes from the forthcoming new album, with the fireworks of 'Laurus', its rattling percussive bow strikes and circling melody lines. New listeners were suitably awestruck - much like the friend I'd brought along, Jon, who in uncharacteristically ruthless mood, yelled at me "I'M GOING TO GET A RECORD!" and sprinted to the merch stand more or less as Jo's final notes of the evening were still ebbing away. 

As she explained from the stage, Jo trails and develops new pieces in live performance before recording them. So, those of us who'd seen her a few times before could listen out for - and look forward to - these unreleased tracks from previous gigs. However, there was still a surprise in store, as Jo played a brand new track, still 'in draft'. 'DD' (its working title) currently has a more sinister feel overall, with a grinding riff looming over a haunted melody. What felt remarkable on the one hearing is the variety of volume and dynamics Jo achieved with just cello and loop station, and the contrast of loudness/lightness only made the track more addictively unsettling. Can't wait to hear how it progresses.

Seventh Harmonic took the stage next. As far as these 'dark folk' genres are concerned, I would guess that the closest fit for this group is 'neoclassical'... although, as I think I've mentioned before, I'm a bit uncomfortable describing any fiercely original musicians as 'neo'-anything - as if they're picking up some kind of sonic baton.

In fact, one of the things I really liked about this group was how fresh they sounded. We're all familiar with how mainstream acts sometimes 'appropriate' classical music for added pomp or gravitas, but this is worlds away from that. Instead, Seventh Harmonic made me think of what classical musicians might create if they found themselves transformed into a rock band.

Using a heady concoction of pounding percussion, electric bass (sometimes bowed), violin and mezzo-soprano vocal, the songs conjured up an orchestral mix of drone and groove, the sweep of several miniature symphonies. Completing the package were the brilliant visuals, elemental images that enhanced the music's timeless quality. A guest spot from Jo Q on the track 'Winter', brought the set to a thrilling close - and showed an inspiring sense of community between the musicians as the Harmonics gathered supportively round Jo (seated and static behind her acoustic, rather than electric, cello), playing as much to each other as to us. Gorgeous stuff. I'm seeing them live again in a few months' time. I'll have picked up some of their records by then, and arm myself for even closer listening.

Daemonia Nymphe also create songs of brilliant immediacy and impact, but from very different building blocks. The band are Greek, and they have constructed a whole universe based on the arts of ancient Greece - that includes not just as inspiration for their music or subject matter, but their entire aesthetic - with onstage dance, and all the performers in costumes and masks designed to evoke the atmosphere of, say, the Delphic theatre.

In the absence of recorded music from that time, the group have realised their version of it in an impressively authentic way - taking their cues from the rhythms of ancient Greek poetry and lyrics (Sappho, for example) and playing them on historic, traditional instruments. I also warmed to the way the operatic female vocals were set against the half-spoken, half-chanted male vocals - it really brought to mind for me the interplay between actors and chorus that you find in ancient Greek drama, and acknowledged the fact that we have little to go on when it comes to conjuring up 'tunes' from several millennia ago. It seemed to me that they have successfully created a kind of missing link between that recitative style that we might imagine being delivered to music by the ancient performers, and the 'traditional' music of more modern times.

Because that is how it felt to me - alternative folk in its most accurate sense - the folk music of Greece that 'could have been'. The songs are often short and sharp - they work as earworms, they could be learned and passed on (if you have the language), they make you want to dance. Pipes and percussion provide the necessary links with more familiar 'folk musics' and help you find the common listening ground.

All three of these acts deserve more of your time.

Daemonia Nymphe are providing the music for a production of 'Medea' at the Riverside Studios, London during March, and on 23 March are playing their latest record, 'Psychostasia' live at the same venue. Find details at the Riverside website here.

Seventh Harmonic live here on the web, and the next gig of theirs I know about is on 4 May, supporting Rosa Crux at the Garage, London.

Jo Quail is also on that 4 May bill, and her website is here.

And all three have Facebook pages with more information.

(The image is the flier for the concert, and I couldn't see an image/picture credit for it - if anyone would like to supply this so I can add it, that'd be great. Thanks!)

Monday 17 February 2014

Sister of mercy: Barb Jungr sings Cohen and Dylan

In my previous post, rounding up some cover versions I've been obsessing over, I ended with Barb Jungr's version of Leonard Cohen's 'Who by Fire', and mentioned I was about to go and see her in concert. That gig was a few nights ago now, and I'm still reeling.

If you look for Barb Jungr's CDs in a record shop (after successfully looking for a record shop, obviously), you'll normally find them in the jazz section. That's probably the closest genre match for what she does, but to be honest it only hints at a fraction of her scope. While a superb songwriter (the tracks on her previous album 'Stockport to Memphis', co-written with Simon Wallace, are complete stand-outs - seek out the title track and 'Urban Fox'), it's perhaps her ability to get under the skin of other people's songs and fully inhabit them that makes her truly remarkable. Particularly songs written and performed by men.

Again, regular readers of the blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) may recall from last time that I speculated about this a bit. The men we're discussing are not, for the most part, the dim and distant figures of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. They're David Byrne, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen or Tom Waits. And for this gig and latest record, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. I think when functioning at their best, these blokes all find a sort of meeting point between steel and sensitivity, and that's the space Barb Jungr also occupies. I listen to her genuinely taking ownership of these tunes (without assuming any kind of masculinity or androgyny, by the way) and their lyrics in particular, as if unleashing something the men could only get some of the way towards expressing.

Cohen and Dylan - particularly the latter, with a full album ('Every Grain of Sand') and follow-up compilation  ('Man in the Long Black Coat') to himself already - have featured in the Barb catalogue before. However, as she explains from the stage, the new album 'Hard Rain' has a concept running through it; it assembles tracks from both BD and LC (who get roughly half the album each - and it's also worth pointing out that three of the LC tracks are co-writes with musical collaborator Sharon Robinson) that deal with protest and politics.

It's tempting to think of Cohen and Dylan in terms of their likenesses - their 'acquired taste' voices, their reputation as poets (or, to some, would-be poets). But to hear the same, chamber-jazz band (only piano and double bass behind the voice) devote an evening to just the two of them actually enhances their differences, certainly lyrically - Dylan's savage bitterness with Cohen's dark humour - and partly musically, too. Overall, I got the impression that Dylan rocks where Cohen swings - but that's not to say the show doesn't keep you guessing, with a roof-destroying rendition of 'The Future', and an amused lilt for 'Things Have Changed'.

The most brilliant effect of the arrangements is to provide an appropriately stark setting for such stark subject matter. Barb lightens the mood between tracks with effortless witty introductions and anecdotes, and acknowledges head on that it might have been a strange decision on her part to bring a group of songs like this together. But, in fact - it's a stroke of complete genius. The jazz/cabaret instrumentation might prepare you for lush, soothing music, or a night of chanson, and to bring lyrics from the folk/rock world of searing anger and precision satire into that soundworld makes each performance newly surprising, shocking and even cathartic.

I'll pick two songs for special mention, both (coincidentally) by Dylan. Against a rolling piano figure, Barb again suggested that they were about to embark on something slightly foolhardy, and began to sing 'Blowin' in the Wind'. They then spent the next four minutes or so rescuing the track from over-familiarity. One of those songs where people actually know less of the lyric than they think they do, Barb's crystal-clear vocal focuses the listener on every word, and real credit and an endless supply of drinks have to go to Simon Wallace for his piano arrangement, which - unlike the original - actually suggests recurring, self-perpetuating, almost wistful breeze, the cycle of us never learning.

And maybe the most stunning, most chilling performance of the evening arrived with 'Masters of War'. Slowed to a near standstill, this was beautifully sung but with real agony - the ruthless lyric thankfully intact. As I touched on before, hearing these words in a woman's voice - particularly one so accurate, with such clear diction, yet so emotionally varied and moving - made it impossible not to think of the mother/wife/girlfriend view of the needless sacrifice of so many young men. Something Dylan might have considered, but could never have felt.

If you can see this programme live, go. Hear these impeccable arrangements for the first time on stage - the experience will take you by the scruff of the neck and shake you up, but you will leave utterly elated. Then buy the disc at the shows - support the artists directly, it's self-released. That said - if you can't get to a gig, buy the CD anyway. It's like discovering a treasure map in a familiar location, leading you to whatever gold you've yet to find there.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Hard copy: 10 covers

Here are some covers!

Inside those sleeves (-ish - and a few more besides) are the tracks I'm including in this blog entry. A bit of a transitional post, in fact, as I'm kicking off with the artist I wrote about last time, and I'm closing with the one I'm 99.9% sure I'll be featuring next.

This array of videos I've assembled here is a direct result of an idle evening when a song I hadn't listened to for ages - the fourth track below - popped into my head and wouldn't leave. As I was in the room with all the CDs and the laptop, I spent a happy if slightly frantic hour or two obsessing about cover versions in general, trawling YouTube and driving myself slightly hatstand. Why did Erasure drop the 7/4 (or 7/8??) time signature in 'Solsbury Hill' - couldn't their synth computer thing work it out? Which version of 'Our Lips are Sealed' do I really prefer? And so on.

I am drawn to cover versions for some reason. I don't mean I like them all, obviously, but I like the idea. However accustomed you become to any musician's signature writing style, or the atmosphere of their own material - if they suddenly choose a song to cover, the chances are you're going to learn something new about them. For example, here's Sieben (Sheffield singer and violinist Matt Howden - read about his marvellous new record here) - taking on Joy Division's 'Transmission'. There's a terrific studio version of this on Matt's previous album 'No Less Than All', but if you're new to his work, start with this footage of him performing it live. You'll see that everything is done with the violin and a loop station.

I suppose I'd always felt you basically do a cover in one of two ways - you 'enjoy yourself' and simply try and record a version that's very close to the original, or you make more of a radical artistic statement and turn the song into something that pretty much sounds like one of your own. At face value, Matt is doing the latter here by conjuring up 'Transmission' with just fiddle and voice - that's the Sieben M.O.

But I also noticed how Matt's looping technique seems to do two things at once: like the original, it allows the song to build, even though there's only one of him. But the fact that he can loop it at all highlights the song's underlying precision and structure, whereas I associate the original - where the guitar and bass seem to change all the time - almost with blind panic. It struck me that there might be a third kind of cover version where the new approach 'unlocks' something that's always been there and makes you hear it properly, as if for the first time.

So, with THAT - time to rattle on. I admire the way this reggae covers band, Easy Star All-Stars, tackle entire albums at a time, even if I think it sometimes puts people off unnecessary because it feels so 'novelty'. Home in on their version of Radiohead's 'Airbag', though, and suddenly that nightmare of distorted guitar slots so neatly into a dub echo that you may need a second listen before you fully take in Horace Andy's sublime vocal.

Espers - the remarkable 'freak folk' act - must have gravitated towards Blue Oyster Cult because of the hidden, spooked terror, which they draw out in their trademark, distorted acoustic style.

For all that, I'm very attracted to the thought that someone can examine a Jethro Tull track and decide it's not prog ENOUGH. The original 'Living in the Past' is rather airy, and over in about three minutes. Midge Ure adds one of those massive, chunky 80s beats (it was the 80s, so understandable), and a completely new, grindingly addictive outro. It even has Level 42's Mark King on bass, who plays like he's just been released into society, but he still doesn't upset the track - in fact, it just sounds like he's casually soloing, while everyone else sticks rigidly to formula. And it keeps the original's funny time signature, Erasure, so think on.

(What should be fifth? Oh! I know!)

Two in one go here, when I think the artists performing the covers discovered new things about themselves. Emmylou Harris, courtesy of her work on the gorgeous 'Wrecking Ball' album with Daniel Lanois, found a liking for atmospheric groove some distance away from her (still beautiful) 'straight' country records. To that end, she formed a rock band, Spyboy, to tour the album and this is how a song by the McGarrigle sisters turned out. Some years later, T-Bone Burnett created a similar ambience for the Robert Plant & Alison Krauss album 'Raising Sand' - which all parties concerned seemed to agree they're unable to repeat. Krauss may be in the Emmylou role, but Plant is the revelation, delivering performances of such calm stateliness that in a way I'm almost grateful that at least his hair is still rebelling against the system. (If you track down the original of 'Killing the Blues' by Rowland Salley, you'll notice that Plant could easily have followed the writer's lead and let rip with the vocal. He just doesn't.)

Back to precision. Nick Drake's 'Cello Song' clearly involves an immediate, key decision for anyone thinking about covering it, but fortunately one of The Books (now sadly defunct, it seems) is a cellist. Nice vocal by cover version colossus Jose Gonzalez, too. But for me, the clincher is the how the track pays tribute to Drake's supernaturally perfect finger-picking... by processing the guitar sound, somehow implying there's a machine-like, robotic element to the pattern. I love the slight subversiveness of that, given how acoustic/authentic we feel the original to be. I'm not a great lover of the term 'folktronica' but I think it genuinely fits here, because the artists learned the song from another.

This is one of my favourite videos of all time. Anna Calvi's whole approach is obviously a marriage of indelible image (the male flamenco outfits in bright red and black), roof-elevating vocals from such a small frame, and virtuoso electric guitar. In this early cover, there's no colour and no voice; everything but the last element is stripped away. And to deprive a Leonard Cohen song of its lyrics is a brave way to unearth the complex melodies he sometimes buries.

More Cohen to finish. In jazz, covers occupy such a different place from rock, and interpretation of - or improvisation on - familiar tunes are often central to the enterprise. Barb Jungr, I believe, is one of the finest interpretative singers around today. The bands she assembles around her are always immaculate, but it's ultimately all about the voice. Specialising in songs that began life with a male vocal (her album 'The Men I Love' is subtitled the New American Songbook and has her performing songs by, among others, David Byrne, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen), she has a particular affinity with Bob Dylan and the forthcoming album 'Hard Rain' is a selection of Dylan and Cohen tracks. There is nothing 'masculine' about her voice - I think it's more to do with the sometimes bruised, sometimes belligerent determination in the tracks chosen - they are a great match for her measured delivery and fearsomely precise diction. I'd go as far as to say that she communicates equality and strength as she makes these songs her own. This preview clip is Cohen's 'Who by Fire'. I'm seeing her live (again) this weekend, performing this record, and I'll report back.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Spark ascending: Sieben

It's very gratifying to find that a musician you've followed - with unchecked enthusiasm - for something like a decade can make a record that still feels like a total surprise, still sheds new light on their craft, and still comfortably qualifies for the description 'masterpiece'. So it proves with the new Sieben album, 'Each Divine Spark'.

For those yet to discover him: Matt Howden is a vocalist and violin player, who records albums of his own songs and performs live as Sieben. (He tends to put his real name to other types of project - more about those at the end.) Using a loop pedal, he builds his music as much as writes it, creating layers of sound - percussion, basslines, hooks, solos - with just the violin. Live, as you might imagine, this is as captivating to watch as well as hear, as he feeds the machinery with beats (sometimes lamping the side of the fiddle, or brushing it to give a scratching, shuffling sound like an alien shaker) and melodies until they swarm in the air around him as he sings.

While this might seem a restrictive set-up, the limitations seem to fuel Matt's creativity and propel him to mine variations on his approach with seemingly endless invention. Each record tends to be a reaction against the previous one - not necessarily trying to do 'the opposite', but always pushing in a different direction. Where 'Each Divine Spark' slightly bucks the trend is that to a longtime listener, it actually combines some of the most adventurous and magnetic elements of the previous records and even then, it adds something brand new to the template. Whereas if you come to this record never having heard a note of Sieben before - great news: it's the perfect entry point - dive in.

Most of the tracks begin with plucked notes that, as a rule, set a measured, restrained pace... before each one bursts into life with a different sonic manoeuvre. 'She is There' introduces a hyperactive, syncopated rhythm suggesting anxiety waiting to be calmed by the gliding vocals; 'The National Anthem of Somewhere' uses the notes to form the basis of the slinkiest of riffs; 'Jigsaw Chainsaw' distorts them into menacing fuzz; 'Written in Fire' surrounds them with pounding, whipcrack percussive hits. I could go on like this, just discussing the first 30 seconds of every song. The overall effect is to give the album, despite its impressive variety of tone, a sense of unity. Wherever one track leaves you, you are set back down at more or less the place you started, wondering where the next one will take you.

Something very special is also going on with the songwriting. Matt has now honed his lyrics to the point where each song is concise - a few of the tracks only need around four, six, eight lines - but rich in arresting poetic imagery that mixes the matter-of-fact with the magical. Doomed Hollywood icon Clara Bow sleeps "in a silver screen eiderdown", while 'Afterglow' speaks of rain as "the cold melody of pain". Words clash into new compound coinages: "smack-front", "dream-sift", "lift-melt". Perhaps the power in the words is one of the reasons why the vocals might well be the best Matt has ever recorded. Confident, close to the mic, here he seems to be putting his voice - always a persuasive, full-bodied thing - through its paces more than before, with the vocal lines covering a greater range and rising to the challenge every time. And as if not to be outdone, the looped violin lines are intricate, even playful - and sometimes there's a jazz/gypsy feel in the solos that seems new to me. It brilliantly offsets the stately rhythms and subtle intensity, even menace, present in some of the tracks. The whole record carries a kind of 'danger cabaret' feel - it doesn't ever quite attack, but - as befits an album of loops - it's coiled throughout, ready to spring.

Two tracks currently stand out for me at the moment (on my... er... nth listen). "A Firebug Nature" is one of the most patient tracks I've ever heard, with a minute's sparse beats leading to keening violin harmonies, and ultimately the voice literally soars above them, along a faster air-current of melody, like the "Icarus wings" it is singing about. Finally, the song fleshes out in layers, not on top, but underneath, as the beat doubles time with you barely noticing, and finally one of the jazzy riffs I was mentioning loops in ascending runs to the song's close. And "In This Place", featuring cellist Jo Quail (another favourite of mine, as anyone vaguely familiar with this blog will probably recall), is a brilliantly constructed mood piece which gently teases the listener's expectations. They duet beautifully in the early part of the song - then from around the two-minute mark the violin and cello begin a call-and-response section with a twist. Beneath the vocals, the violin begins a looped melody, while the cello appears to answer 'live' (the guest players added their parts later), dovetailing in with something different every time, making the track somehow feel both hypnotically repetitive and telepathically improvised. Then as the song develops, the violin breaks out of the repetition too and another gorgeous duet forms the outro. I've seen Matt and Jo perform together live (read more here), so I was already aware of their shared intuition or how 'in sync' they are musically - but that doesn't make it any less inspiring to hear it captured.

Finally, the album possesses a major secret weapon that I'd be remiss not to mention: the production. Recorded near-live in a unique underground Sheffield studio (I don't mean it's for obscure scenesters - it is literally under the ground), the acoustics are a perfect match for Matt's ambitions. We are used to albums giving us loud & soft, and left & right, but this music sounds '3D', with parts moving forward or receding, the voice up close, the percussion chattering around you, the violin layers placing you in the middle of a string ensemble. It's a perfect 'headphones' album. The sense of space is almost tangible (and I know that's a contradiction in terms) - listen in the dark, and you feel like you could reach out into the sound.

We're talking 'first among equals' here, but this is surely the best Sieben record so far. There is something really determined about it: not a word or note wasted; every song like a miniature expression of what Matt is capable of; precision-tooled to lock the looped arrangements together more intricately than ever, but confident enough to solo freely and still mess with the formula, all these albums in. Brave, brilliant work.

* * *
There are quite a few ways to buy 'Each Divine Spark'. You can find the digital version on iTunes, Amazon and so on, as usual, but then I would counsel that, whatever your sound quality preferences, you are missing out on some particularly fine artwork by Martin Bedford (like this) which feels very much part of the whole artistic enterprise. With that in mind, the best place to get the CD is the Sieben website (shop here). Dark Vinyl, as the name suggests, are doing a vinyl version, which can be pre-ordered here: I've linked you to the 'marbled vinyl' edition, which is slightly more limited than the black. Don't tarry, though - there's only 100 of the former and 150 of the latter.

Where next?
You may notice on the Sieben website that there are quite a few other albums, and it's a rewarding back catalogue. I mentioned above that Matt generally takes each record in a different direction from the previous one, so the golden rule is to work backwards. 'No Less Than All', the previous record, is full of fantastic driving beats and ratchets up the intense and hyperactive side. Then, before that, 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' has slightly less full-on rhythms - more of a pulse, a groove - and is perhaps more achingly melodic. And so on. 'As They Should Sound' is a great retrospective with old Sieben tracks re-recorded in a more streamlined, restrained style, and will give you a good idea of where you might want to go next with the older stuff. And if you fancy trying some of his instrumental or soundtrack work, investigate the albums released under his own name... or the more industrial side project he has with Polish band Job Karma, called 7JK. In short: prepare to manage your addiction.