Sunday 28 June 2015

New romantics: 'A Poet's Love' at St John's Smith Square

As I type, I'm still in a kind of euphoric recovery mode from 'A Poet's Love'. This was a tour de force by a brilliant gathering of singers and musicians to celebrate primarily the music of Schumann - but with some well-chosen Mendelssohn woven in to draw parallels and associations between two such apparently different composers.

The celebratory feel was amplified by the intensity of the event - taking possession of St John's Smith Square for just over a day, the collective performed five concerts: one on the Friday evening, with four making up an 'all-dayer' on the Saturday. And what a collective.

Pianist Anna Tilbrook and tenor James Gilchrist are widely renowned in their own right, of course, but I was most familiar with their ongoing song partnership - in particular their great recordings of the Schubert cycles. I was very pleased to pick up a flyer announcing a forthcoming Schumann recording - and, appropriately enough, the duo performed three major Schumann sequences: the two 'Liederkreis' sets (Op 24 and Op 39), and 'Dichterliebe', which, in English, gave the festival its title.

The duo seem to have that level of telepathy that makes voice and piano equal partners. JG handled the lightning switches of emotion between the often short, 'over-before-you-know-it' songs with ease. I was consciously impressed, over and over, at the masterful control of sound - he could sing, at times, so quietly yet clearly... yet all married to expansive gestures and facial expressions to play the mood changes out for us visually as well. AT - with only the occasional darting look in JG's direction - accompanied in perfect sync with the changes in dynamic, without compromising her own tone: a case in point is the 'outro' to 'Dichterliebe', an extended epilogue of real beauty and sensitivity, performed by AT at the top of her game after a full day's performance (I'll come back to this). JG even got to champion Mendelssohn as a songwriter, and the evidence of the ones they chose to perform on the Saturday morning, I'll definitely be investigating further.

In a stroke of whatever the recital equivalent is of 'dream casting', Carolyn Sampson joined the team for Saturday afternoon. This meant we could be treated to a gorgeous complete rendition of 'Myrthen', the set of songs Schumann assembled for wife-to-be Clara, for male and female voice. With words from a variety of poets, the sequence places the singers in several different personae, both humorous and heartfelt.

It's hard to believe that CS is still a 'new' art song performer, with barely a year of voice/piano recitals behind her. Suddenly opening up this new repertoire, and bringing all her gliding Baroque precision and operatic range of emotion to it - I think we can expect a future 'second career' of recordings and performances that are not just technically excellent but seasoned with her engaging approach and a sprinkling of unpredictable 'oomph'. (I wrote more about her 'debut album' with Joseph Middleton, 'Fleurs', here. You are strongly advised to get it.) It's certainly hard to imagine any other singers quite so adept at conveying a sense of joy and mischief - not just in the artist's obvious delight in singing the songs, but 'in character', too.

As a result, one of the undoubted highlights was the first song of the penultimate concert, Schumann's 'Tanzlied' - a 'dance song'. Although we knew this to be a duet, Anna T took the stage and opening bow alone. Cue our momentary confusion. After the first notes were struck, CS appeared and ran to the piano to start the duet, with JG's hopeless admirer trailing after her. The pair conducted the comic 'business' expertly, deploying some nifty moves while alternating verses. A deft programming touch also meant that CS and AT performed as a duo and we got to hear four Schumann selections from 'Fleurs' - and then, all too soon, CS was gone.

One of Anna Tilbrook's other roles is pianist in the group Ensemble Elata, and - in various permutations - they formed the core band for the event's chamber performances. We heard glorious performances of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio (Op 49) and Schumann's Piano Quintet (Op 44) rounded off the final concert in triumph.

But what particularly appealed, on a weekend where it was proving possible to almost feel drunk on the virtuosity, was the team spirit and invention on display. The uplifting finale to Friday's concert was Mendelssohn's Octet - composed when Felix was a mere teen - and the group's double bass player Alix Scott re-arranged one of the cello parts for her to perform on the larger instrument. As a result, we got an exuberant, still fast-moving version with this fantastic, driving 'bottom end'. Likewise, the excellent cellist Louisa Tuck (whose playing I know best from her folk double-life as a member of Kathryn Tickell's ace band, the Side!) rearranged Schumann's oboe romances so she could perform them in duo with Anna T.

The power of the festival was cumulative, so that by the time the final notes were ringing around the church it was like being full to the brim with beautiful music, played not only with skill but with love, too. I think it was clear to players and audience alike that we were all having a terrific time. As the performers all took the stage in various combinations and relationships, it felt like a classical 'supergroup' was being assembled before our eyes and ears, just for this single explosive collaboration. Amid all this, it is worth singling out Anna Tilbrook's contribution - across all five concerts (so essentially, a week's worth of gigs in two days), that included four song cycles, two sets of stand-alone lieder, and seven chamber performances - she played on everything (except the Octet). She displayed no lapse in stamina whatsoever and closed the extravaganza as sensitively and expressively as she had begun... In fact, her consistency and sympathetic underpin to all the chopping and changing around her was a highly effective point of continuity for the audience and it feels right to regard her as the glue that held the event together.

We belatedly realised that we had missed a similar Schubert event last year. But I hope 'A Poet's Love' will still be followed by many more festivals like this. It was superb value for money (you could get a 'season ticket' if you were planning to see all five concerts), a stunning venue - which we're now determined to support more often - and a chance to see some of the finest performers of this music push the standard concert format into something extraordinary.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Try to remain calm: rock and restraint

The latest Belle and Sebastian album was released in January this year. Thanks to the excellent Juliet Harris's marvellous 'Indie Wonderland' radio show (all relevant links below!), the first track I heard from it was the epic 'Play for Today', tucked away well into what, in old money, would be side two. Have a listen.

Like any self-respecting seven-minute anthem, you might expect it to build and build into a glorious, euphoric, climax - after all, that's what their much-earlier effort 'Lazy Line Painter Jane' - also a duet with a female singer outside the band - did so effectively. But things have changed, not least the guest's approach: Dee Dee Penny (whose main project is Dum Dum Girls) does not set the song ablaze with her roar, like Monica Queen. In fact, throughout, the two leads remain sublimely unruffled, delicately intoning the tune - and it's a strong melody - as if the words are just occurring to them.

What actually happens: the track does not build up with them, but behind them. The group stay reined in for the duration and never truly go for broke. The drums use a selection of fills, that repeat here and there, but never settle into a proper 'beat' with a regular snare. Brilliantly, the outro starts little more than half way through, as backing vocals - "Author! Author!" - begin in the distance but then gradually move forward in the mix, as if creeping up on the front couple. Then - just past the six-minute mark as Dee Dee casually emphasises her independence, the bass kicks in, just underlining the sonic threat, until the song closes.

I love this kind of attention to detail, the placing of particular sounds so they help tell the song's story, and it got me musing about 'restraint'. Not all kinds of restraint, of course: musicians can dial their sound down simply by deciding to record with just voice and acoustic guitar, say - sometimes this ends up being (ironically) self-indulgent, other times quite lovely. But that's not really what I mean here. I'm more interested in those situations where groups may well have a dizzying array of forces at their disposal - does a certain amount of decorum about how they deploy those forces lead to excellent work? I think I have ten more examples:

Elvis Costello & the Attractions: 'Beyond Belief'
Even for a Costello song, this is all about the lyrics, one stinging wordplay following another. But the Attractions were one of the finest backing bands ever - giving this track the feel of a coiled spring, again largely through the brilliant work of master drummer Pete Thomas, who seems to do everything except fall into a regular beat.

Roxy Music: 'Mother of Pearl'
This starts off like it might be one of the least restrained records ever. One and a half minutes of mayhem - possibly the remnants of another song re-shaped, who knows? - suddenly grinds to a halt. A lilting hook then begins, and never fundamentally changes for the rest of the song. What makes the song indelible - as if it wasn't catchy enough - is the time it takes to gently flesh itself out. Partly this is due to a really skilful turn from drummer Paul Thompson (spotting a theme here?) Listen to what he's doing at 1:45, and then at around 4.30 - without you really noticing, he's made more of a 'tattoo' from the rhythm and almost single-handedly turned the song funky (something that works through the friction with the unchanging anti-funk of Ferry's vocals and Manzanera's sheets of guitar). Also listen out for the once-only sound effects: Zarathustra's imperious claps, the favourita's castanets, the throwaway kisses... all fleeting moments, unlaboured, unrepeated.

Paul Simon: 'The Cool, Cool River'
As much I love 'Graceland', world music undercurrents lie beneath much of Simon's work and I think on several of his other records they're more successfully integrated: in particular 'The Rhythm of the Saints', which I still suspect has suffered in the public eye having to follow directly after the Big One. This track is a superb example of Simon just relying on little more than the rhythm to buoy up his trademark half-spoken vocals - even with the time-signature changes, the tickering hi-hat sometimes provides our only aural bridge from one bit of the song to the next; then, when at 3.30 or so, we get a blast of brass - almost everything else drops away - and the 'release' is over in seconds as the track fades. Bold in its bare bones.

Pixies: 'Silver'
Noise-monsters Pixies were/are not known for holding back, but on this song they tone down the screaming violence for a spacious eerieness. Significantly, this is the only track on the 'Doolittle' album with any input from Kim Deal, who liked a massive tune and a big riff with the best of them (she wrote one of their most tuneful classics, 'Gigantic'), but who must also have brought out this vein of more subtle darkness - I think you can draw a direct line between this track, for example, and the one-of-a-kind first Breeders album, 'Pod'. The production is a major factor here, too - it allows you to hear how little they play. Twice in the track they let loose a double volley of distorted notes, only to cut them dead on the following beat. As much as I love(d) them (today's Pixies are different, really, even when Kim came back and then went again), I wish they'd explored this avenue a bit further.

Ride: 'Sennen'
'Shoegaze', meanwhile, was restrained in one way (less ego, fewer solos) but staggeringly windy in others - by all means surrender to the elusive perfection of the epic chord... but that way leads to Kevin Shields and his seemingly-pathological quest to nail My Bloody Valentine's sound. (For the record, I like both 'Loveless' and the comeback album 'mbv', but to those of us with normal ears, surely 22 months - not years - could have separated them?) Ride had a swooping, swooning feel before they went on a more retro route (I was recently trying to describe this and came up with "VWROOOSSSHH!" - which possibly needs work). This terrific EP track - now handily available as a bonus on the first album - has a lovely "wait for it!" structure. At 30 seconds or so, you hear the song's key ear-worm - which, in true shoegaze style, is a layered chord with a slight 'turn' in the notes to suggest a hook, culminating in that off-beat strike. This is now nicely set up to be a regular figure, or even a wordless chorus. Instead: nothing. A verse. Then another verse. Then a third verse of sorts - or is it a chorus of some kind. Or what? Then, just after three minutes, it clicks: the final syllable of the lyric is written to chime in perfectly with the original hook, which plays the song out (and the end arrives faster than you might expect). An understated example of how to play one's cards close to one's chest - I almost always play this twice, just to keep hearing that hook a little longer.

Peter Gabriel: 'Only Us'
I sometimes wonder if 'Us' suffers in the way I've already described for 'Rhythm of the Saints'. It directly followed 'So' - although, this being PG, years later - but although it's a weirder and more mature affair, it imitates the earlier album's formula ('Steam', as a kind of 'Sledgehammer'-lite, and the more successful and utterly gorgeous duet, 'Blood of Eden', with Sinead O'Connor stepping in for 'Don't Give Up's Kate Bush). The strange corners of the album have their rewards, though. This track ticks my 'restraint' boxes, partly because I think it's one of the most unhurried songs I've ever heard - but also, for this peculiarity: for around the first four minutes, consider how hard it is to really hear anyone playing anything. I can detect a bit of bass. But the whole atmosphere of the track is abstract, layers of long, disconnected notes that are somehow perfectly harmonious. I can't work out how a musician - someone who knows scales, chords, etc - can start fashioning a song along these lines with barely any melody or propulsion and still make it catchy and addictive. Happy for it to stay that way!

Crowded House: 'Catherine Wheels'
A much-loved band who nevertheless revel in strangeness and unpredictability: even Crowded House's most-adored tunes that have 'connected' with millions - 'Don't Dream it's Over', 'Weather with You' - have a certain clipped detachment to them that it's difficult not to link with Neil Finn's occasional attempts to self-sabotage or fix things that don't always appear to be broken. 'Together Alone' is one of my all-time favourite albums, partly for sentimental reasons (it got me through my finals, and then a couple of years later was the tape I found in the glove compartment, the first time my wife-to-be gave me a lift). Mostly, though, it's the manic White-Album variety-pack track-listing, with their crunchiest rockers ('In My Command', 'Locked Out') next to yearning pop ('Distant Sun') and their loveliest slow tunes ('Private Universe')... all cloaked in a very new production for them, somehow deeper and warmer, more natural and without some of the earlier work's 'cleanliness'. This particular song - several times - pulls back from where you think it might take you. Never rising above a whisper - when the chorus could've easily been fashioned into an anthem - the first verse and chorus fall away, minor, taking you back to the start. Then second time round, the chorus leads into the quietest choral section you've ever (just about) heard - is this the start of a build up? No: more like a new song, with the snaking bass leading you into an entirely new section. Even when there are hints of bounce in the ensuing instrumental, it simply steps aside for a second 'new' verse, before the final fade. Although the various sections 'conclude', they can't be said to truly 'resolve': and this gives the song which, at face value, is simply gentle and beautiful, an unshakable sense of tension - you don't know where it's going, or when ... and why do I feel this way when it's so lovely?

Four Tet: 'This Unfolds'
This has the 'unhurried' feel I get from 'Only Us', but channelled through electronics. As far away from any kind of techno, or even dance, feel - this is head(phones) music. One thing at a time. The beat is your security. For the first two minutes the circling guitar-sound allows you to settle - then it takes a more or less inaudible back seat, as the 'chime' tune takes over. Stunningly, this tune doesn't just start - it coalesces. You can't hear all the pieces at once, until gradually, all the constituent parts are there. Once that's locked, he plays with the beat, removing it, dampening it, not to return until six or minutes are up. You have one continuity thread to follow for most of the tune, but what that might be keeps changing. You don't truly hear the whole 'picture' until the final minute - upon which it all falls away apart from the chime, almost immediately. Machine precision but with the soulfulness of a shy, careful human.

Kate Bush: 'How To Be Invisible'
I'll try not to say too much about this track, as I think it weaves a certain spell. Presumably no-one is more aware of Kate Bush's 'trademarks' than Kate Bush (in summary: she likes to 'let rip' a bit vocally, and her most active period was in parallel with the 80s of big synthy productions) - to me, this song seems to react against those traits deliberately. A confident high note or too appears at the start, and they resurface for a rally near the end. But listen how, over a sly, unfussy backing track, most of this is in Bush's lower register, at times more of a breath. Much of the tune is on a note or two, with even the odd venture up the scale carried out in a muted murmur, the melody seemingly written to suggest her receding, as the title suggests, into the track. Often the song wins: a drum obscuring a syllable, one drop-dead cut, and a final assertive rise from the guitar.

(Handsome Family photo copyright Jason Creps, from the band's website.)

The Handsome Family: 'The Bottomless Hole'
To finish, some terror. The Handsome Family are a married couple, Brett and Rennie Sparks, who - in the songwriting at least - have almost a total division of labour: Rennie writes the words, Brett sets them to music. Rennie, however, is an accomplished short-story writer as well as lyricist, and fashions darkly eerie tales to create a kind of 'Handsome Family Universe' where both Roald Dahl and H.P. Lovecraft would be equally at home. Brett gives these chillers a slow-cooked folk/country setting, underlining the feeling that these fearful stories could have been around forever, awaiting discovery - were it not for the unsettling modern details Rennie sometimes includes. What gives the songs much of their power, however, and the reason they are in this list - is their detachment. A seemingly throwaway line at the start - 'My name I don't remember...' - is gone in seconds, until you suddenly think - 'What would lead to THAT? How's this going to end?' When you eventually realise what's going on - it's not so much what the title gives away, as how the protagonist discovers it - it's an authentically spooky moment that would work purely in a story - let alone the fact it's a song. Sonically, the track refuses to make a fuss, its steady but unrelenting pace crying out doom without giving way. In fact, Handsome Family songs almost never 'build' - no matter what horrors lie within, the music is purely there as an anchor for the words and Brett's voice to work their magic, with an authentic nod to the back-to-basics delivery of old-time ballads. There is one sound effect: it's all you need for the spell to be total. Listen out for it.

* * *
If you can, listen to Juliet Harris's 'Indie Wonderland' show for 2 hours each week of superb tunes - it's a great mix of 'indie greats' back from Peel days, alongside loads of new stuff that I know I'd never get to find out about otherwise.

Home station is Barricade Radio, where Juliet broadcasts the show live from 8-10pm on Wednesday evenings. If you can't listen live, there are two ways to catch up: each show is archived:

(Also worth pointing out that both sites allow you to catch up with Juliet's fortnightly 'Saturday Soulcial' show, too. Wordsmiths among you will note the type of music it features!)

Warmly recommended.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Full circle: the new Sieben EP, 'Lietuva'

Cause for celebration! This week sees the release of the first brand new Sieben recordings since the majestic 'Each Divine Spark' album, which saw the light of day in early 2014. Veteran perusers of the Specs blog may recognise the Sieben alias - or the man behind the mask, Matt Howden - as one of my very favourite musicians. A listen to the new material (and let's face it, all the old material as well) should explain why.

For the uninitiated: Matt H writes more or less all his songs for just his voice, violin and loop station. Revelling in the apparent restrictions of the set-up, he creates rhythm tracks by striking the side of the fiddle, or rubbing his stubble against it for a 'shaker' sound; he applies a certain range of effects to the violin to widen the tone; and he even bends and shapes his voice by singing into the violin's pick-up and running it through the circuitry. Watching this live is beyond impressive, as he literally 'plays' the violin on all sides, careering about the stage in constant motion, and (once seen, never forgotten) to psyche himself up or intensify the energy, he whirls his bow around in a blur, on his fingertip.

However, all of that would still only go so far if the songs themselves were not of such consistently high quality. If the tools of his trade suggest a man who likes a challenge, this is all the more evident in his writing. Often I try to sum this up by saying Matt never makes the same album twice - and each new project seems to be a reaction or response to the previous one. He's clearly on an artistic journey - but more like an orienteer, checking in at any number of disparate points within his field. He has made folkish concept albums with deeply researched and thought-through lyrics (examples include a full mystery-play narrative and a suite of songs adopting flower-names into a kind of new dialect), then simply turned those approaches on their heads with a series of sharper, at times sinister records, more inward-looking (sometimes ruthlessly so), pared-down, amping up the industrial elements and constantly shifting the balance between the earthen, wood-and-gut 'organic' noise of the fiddle with the metal and electricity at his feet.

'Each Divine Spark' was almost certainly Matt's crowning achievement to date, marrying the intensity of the music with a new sense of space in the production, walking a tightrope between mellow and menacing, intimate and intricate. So where does the new 'Lietuva' EP take him? The answer: further out, further forward.

A digital-only release (at least for now), 'Lietuva' is almost its own new format. It has two major lead tracks, epic and commanding - in old money, they would probably be a 12" double-A-side. Supporting these are two shorter 'B-sides', which I'll come back to. So as EPs go, it's nourishing and substantial - at half an hour, as long as many an album.

'Lietuva' is the native word for Lithuania - home to the Menuo Juodaragis alternative music festival. Of the two main songs, 'Black Moon Rise Again' was written especially for performance at the festival and 'Užupis' inspired by the trip itself. Each lasting around 10 minutes, as Matt explains in his own blog, the new tracks are deliberately fashioned on a grand scale, aiming to draw the listener into a specific soundworld. The results are astoundingly successful.

Since 'Each Divine Spark', the Sieben sonic arsenal has increased. The trusty loop station has been updated and it's audibly clear that Matt now has access to a wider orchestral palette and range of effects. Some of the best qualities of that album remain: the 3D breadth of sound that seems to make the music move towards and around you, rather than just 'at' you; the increasingly confident vocals; an almost gypsy/jazz tone to some of the violin lines.

But here these characteristics are deployed to wholly different ends. The EP mirrors the tracks' creation, as 'Black Moon' unfolds as a kind of preparation ritual. Pacey, pounding, the track is unabashedly mantric and uses its repetition of the title to build and build into a near-frenzy. A hint of what's to come appears in a searing, cello-like hook that threatens to spiral out of control as the song nears its climax.

However, I'm currently minded to think that track 2, 'Užupis', could be the very best thing Matt has released to date. Užupis is a historically artistic/bohemian district of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, that declared itself a republic in 1997 (a similar enterprise of sorts to Copenhagen's Christiana). The track begins at a slower tempo than 'Black Moon' but it's no less deliberate - and with more room to breathe, there's more time to notice the intricate genius of the song's jigsaw construction.

The first hook has a kind of revolving, zig-zag melody over a steady pulse, as an opening verse sets the scene "on the other side of the river" (the English translation of the name Užupis, which is really separated from the capital by the river Vilnia). Each line finishes so that every other 'zig-zag' is still audible. Then the vocal retreats for the time being, and the instrumental elements of the track start to weave their spell. Newly-minted percussion sounds underline the world/ethnic feel of the violin until at last - in a real 'punch the air' moment - a vast bassline comes in. So cavernous it could almost be a Siebenised take on a doom riff, it lurches between notes in such a way that it mirrors - without getting in the way of - the original hook. Listening to the various elements of the track weave around each other, it reminded me of how some of the most arresting Sieben music isn't just about 'building up' the layers - getting louder or more insistent - but also building down or through, fleshing out. Abstract channels of strings fill the centre, vibrating then stabbing.

More vocals arrive, and the range and confidence I spoke of earlier is firmly in evidence. One chant, taken from the republic motto - 'Don't fight / Don't win / Don't surrender' - layers vocals sung on the same notes but (I think) an octave apart to give a real gravitas to the words (a bit like Peter Gabriel sometimes does, if searching for a reference point). And the matching of lyrics to tune is, well, matchless: details that really signify excellence, such as singing the actual name of the district across long, welcoming notes that merge into the backing, or writing the phrase "our unimportance" at a point in the melody where it can be half-spoken, half thrown away.

The track fizzes with ideas. The flag of Užupis is a circle in the palm of a hand - another phrase repeated in the lyrics - and a perfect image for the looping, cyclical nature of Sieben music. (This places 'Užupis' in a loose tradition of Howden tracks that reference his own writing - seek out 'Build You a Song', 'As They Should Sound', for example, or 'Song of Strings' from his brilliant Rasp collaboration with cellist Jo Quail.) For a brief spell near the end of the track, the different vocal tracks interlock so that Matt is singing a 'round' with himself.

The song - and EP overall, in fact - seem also to bring to life something about how this music is performed and received. Certainly there is a bedrock of love for non-mainstream, 'below-radar' artists (whether folk, metal or electronica) in mainland and possibly Eastern Europe in particular - one can only imagine how they might have reason to embrace art that flourishes underground. But Užupis's 'double independence' is a fitting metaphor for Matt's work (and others like him) as he operates apart not only from pop/rock normality but also, with this EP, conventional song formats. Like the city state, the only rules are no rules. Even the Black Moon, a term used by both astronomers and astrologers/occultists, resonates with the organic/electronic tension in the music.

Even while you're in recovery mode from 'Užupis', the EP goes on. Another apparent contradiction Matt willingly embraces is a 'back to the future' attitude to his earlier material. If he thinks an old song will work in his current style, he's unafraid to give it another airing - and veteran Sieben fans will recall how past songs sometimes reappear on later albums in new clothes. He even released a terrific retrospective (also titled 'As They Should Sound') with covers of his own tracks honed to razor-sharp bitesize renditions, a bit like opening a box of sieben-inch singles. So to round the package off, two ghosts from the past are run through the new kit and given a colossal sonic boost.

You can listen to the EP and buy direct from Matt on the Sieben Bandcamp page. You could use some of the other streaming/download services, but I recommend you take the Bandcamp route because for your paltry £4 (or more) you get high-quality downloads - which are an absolute must for music crafted to this level - and lots of amazing artwork into the (literal) bargain.

I am biased, but with very good reason. I can't recommend this highly enough. This is an artist whose music I've loved for years, and yet he never stops surprising or delighting me, or re-affirming how original and precious his music is. (And while you're at Bandcamp, you should check out and buy 'Each Divine Spark' as well. You'll see what I mean.)