Monday 30 November 2015

The Ballad of John and Barb

As I write this, some 24 hours after the event, I'm still on a kind of Fabs-induced high after going with Mrs Specs to see 'Come Together', an intimate cabaret performance of Beatles songs by Barb Jungr and John McDaniel. To hear musicians of this calibre dip into such a rich catalogue would automatically guarantee two hours of pure pleasure. But in fact the evening soon reveals itself as something unique. With almost every number, the duo had me - while simultaneously revelling in every familiar verse and melody - completely re-calibrating how I think and feel about the Beatles. What were these two people doing to make me react to music that - to be honest - I regard almost as part of my eardrums by now, in such a way that it was like hearing it completely afresh?

Well - I wasn't quite as surprised by this as you might expect, because I've been to see Barb Jungr live a few times now. I'm absolutely convinced she is one of the finest interpretative singers of our time. She's a jazz singer, for sure - a versatile voice capable of heart-rending tenderness and forthright assertion, a terrific improviser, often working in a small acoustic band context - but that description doesn't give anything like a full picture of her activities. Most known perhaps for her matchless recordings of Bob Dylan (and more recently Leonard Cohen) songs, she has also devoted projects to Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, French chanson, alongside albums featuring a variety of well-chosen covers (and some brilliant original songs woven in along the way). In particular, she seems to specialise in recording songs normally associated with men - somehow channeling the strength yet mining the latent sensitivity in the material. In this respect, the Beatles are ready-made for the Jungr treatment, in all their restless, thorny, fuzzy masculinity.

John McDaniel is a celebrated arranger (he's served as music director on eight Broadway musicals) who invited Barb J to teach at his cabaret conference in the US ... After discovering they were both Fab Fans, they gave a one-off gala performance of a Beatles medley, which then grew into this show.

(Can't find a credit for the fantastic double portrait!)

As a partnership, they're made for each other - certainly in this repertoire. Barb J grew up with Beatlemania going on, more or less, down the road. She's giving the insider view, re-living it, explaining the direct impact it had on her and her friends. John McD found the Beatles a little later on (as cabaret veterans, they get enormous comic mileage from this slight age gap) and took a more detached line - not just from being light years away in the US, but also, it's implied, with some possible herbal assistance. As such, he has the entire band in his head and hands, and treats the songs with respect, but not undue reverence. In his skilful and endlessly creative playing, you can hear the arranger at work, condensing all that melodic invention into his accompaniment - and you honestly don't miss the group sound. The treatments vary, so you can't nail him down to one approach: for a track like 'Mother Nature's Son', he's able to replicate the signature, circular hook in the middle of the overall sound, while for another - say, 'Back in the USSR' - everything is re-tooled - in this case, the original's surf rock is ground down into a swaggering, bluesy showstopper.

Meanwhile, Barb J's gift for reinventing the familiar was in glorious evidence throughout. I was particularly struck by her performance of 'Fool on the Hill', sung with such wandered delicacy that the character came fully to life. Filling in her own back story and experiences between tunes gave 'For No One' a genuinely arresting context - with the soft but brisk original seemingly meant to show McCartney at his most contradictory, she gave the song a real edge: reflecting the female emancipation of the time, we heard a kind of disdainful understanding between the two women - the one singing, the one in the song - as the latter casts off her lover.

There are so many reasons to love this show. (One purely personal one is the remarkable hit-rate for my personal favourites: 'Mother Nature's Son', 'Things We Said Today', 'In My Life', 'Hello Goodbye'... *sigh*.)

I loved the fact that some of the more neglected corners of the canon were brought into the spotlight: 'White Album' fans were very well served - we also heard a spine-tingling 'I Will', and even 'Piggies' made a cameo appearance - and it was great to hear the 'Magical Mystery Tour' tracks - I would never have predicted those.

I loved the unabashed ambition of the selections. 'Eleanor Rigby', stripped of its hyperactive string quartet and under dimmed lights, was stark and shattering. The duo used both of their voices to thrilling effect on, of all things, the 'Abbey Road' side 2 medley. And I will never forget the version of 'Long and Winding Road' - quite a divisive tune because of the different opinions about whether the whole 'Let it Be' record should've had the full-on Phil Spector production job or not; somehow all that extra oomph and power found its way not so much into the piano, but the voice, with Barb J delivering a vocal so strong and overwhelming we could've been in a stadium, let alone a studio.

And I loved the rapport. With the pair riffing on the 'chatty Brit / mild-mannered American' contrast, John McD was often in fits of laughter, seemingly flummoxed at what Barb J might say next (sample exchange - from memory, of course, so apologies if slightly awry: "He is improving his English." / "I'm making progress." / *eye-roll* "Well, yes, or prow-gress, as we correctly say it.") - but of course, they are utterly relaxed with each other and act as if they had been mutual artistic foils for years.

Sadly, the London run has ended (we were at the last of four nights), but I am sure that this show has a lot of life left in it yet. And with a canon as vast as the Beatles' legacy, one dares hope for a sequel. I certainly hope that somewhere along the way they record an album of their favourites - yes, the songs are fantastic to begin with, but what Barb and John brought to them has permanent value. One of the concerts of the year.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Sea passage: 'Morgen und Abend'

Warning! As I post this, tickets are still available for the final two performances of 'Morgen und Abend' on Wednesday 25 and Saturday 28 November. It's also being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 5 December. So, if you would like to see or hear the opera knowing as little about it as possible, please stop reading here, with my blessing, and by all means come back later. Otherwise, onwards!


Very exciting evening for me. My first visit to a brand new, contemporary production on the Royal Opera House's main stage. I'm more used to seeing the magnificently modern at the English National Opera's Coliseum (wonderful new works from Julian Anderson and John Adams) ... or on a smaller-scale, some new chamber opera at the ROH's studio space, the Linbury. And I'm still smarting a little from getting into serious opera-going not long after George Benjamin' extraordinary 'Written on Skin' played there. So, this did feel like a bit of a special occasion. Would the work itself live up to my good mood?

'Morgen und Abend' is a new opera from composer George Freidrich Haas, with a libretto by Jon Fosse (based on his own novel). It's a compact 90 minutes in a single act, and the synopsis is essentially a one-liner: Johannes enters the world, then leaves it. The ROH website offers more clues: we are to see Johannes's birth, we know he will work as a fisherman. Then, when much older, he begins to see figures from the past and discovers that, like them, he has now died.

First things first: I loved the score. To people who lean towards the extreme "it's modern, so probably hasn't got any tunes" viewpoint: you're quite right. Stay away - this isn't really aimed at you. However, if you accept that a great deal of contemporary classical music is exploratory - looking for new sounds, chords, even notes - finding new ways for music to work - then get a ticket. Haas marshals huge forces here - I hope you can make out from my hasty, fuzzy photo the extra arrays of instruments ranged along the sides - and conductor Michael Boder does a brilliant job with the dynamics, making every jolt count. From ripple to wave, keening wind noise, to explosive drum-storms: Haas manages to make the orchestra embody its own character - the sea, the unstoppable, cyclic pulse that shapes and underpins these characters' lives. It's a perfect extra piece of symbolism (on top of the 'morning/evening' journey), the constant ebb and flow of the sound, mirroring the push and pull into, and out of, life.

The structure of the piece also intrigues - to the point where some have decided it isn't an opera at all. The opening third is arguably the most challenging section, as while you are still getting used to Haas's soundworld, the lone figure on stage is actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. He plays Olai, Johannes's father, anxiously waiting on news of his son's birth, the labour progressing behind a closed door. Olai's part is entirely spoken, part realistic monologue, part a kind of heightened poetry - with the added flavour of a primal-scream passage where he seems to be empathising through some kind of birth-memory of his own. At first, I freely admit, I had no idea what to make of it, until I locked into the rhythms of Brandauer's speech and how Haas had written the 'quiet/LOUD' accompaniment around him as closely as if he was singing.

(The two superb production photos here are by Clive Barda, taken from the ROH website.)

But why a speaking role at all? I think it ties into the opera's sense of limbo/displacement (brought out fully in the staging - which I'll come onto next). Brandauer is Austrian, yet delivers his dialogue in English, obviously accented. The singing parts, however, are in German. At the point where Olai effectively hands the opera over to the other characters, he speaks in English to the midwife, singing her replies in German - signifying that whatever's happening here, wherever this is, it's not 'reality'. (I was also interested to read that this was a co-commission from the Royal Opera and Deutsche Oper Berlin, so it feels very appropriate that both languages are incorporated to good, useful dramatic effect.) I also think that Olai's soliloquy acts as a modern take on an overture - as his meditations on birth and death appear to be borne out in how we see the rest of the opera unfold.

The staging is sparse, everything a kind of off-white - not quite heavenly. The props are essentially symbolic - a door (isolated - there is no room set either side of it), a few chairs, the bed, the fishing boat. There is no attempt to disguise the revolving wheel on the main stage, as almost imperceptibly the appropriate piece for the action taking place glides glacially to the front. The characters are also dressed from head to toe in the same colouring, so that they can at times appear little more than outlines against the background. A piercing bright light moves from right to left around the vertical perimeter of the stage, so on one level, we do move from morning (sun in the east) to evening (west), but at the same time, it cause the shadows and light to fall differently on the set and characters, and finally - the eye of the afterlife, if you like, it's coming to us all! - it turns its gaze on the audience.

It seems to me that this is an opera of ideas. I liked the fact that I was not only sitting there appreciating, I was also 'on my mettle', so to speak, my mind fizzing with 'mirroring' touches that I'm still thinking about days later. Because the mysteries of birth and death are unknowable - is death a return to the same state? - both are behind the closed door. We see the limbo element but Johannes is born behind the door, and once he has passed to the other side of the portal, his daughter cannot see or go through the door after him. Whereas Johannes's final move into actual death, led from this mid-space by his late friend Peter, is obscured from our vision by the blinding light.

The midwife at Johannes's birth and Johannes's daughter are sung by the same soprano (a lovely performance from Sarah Wegener, making both characters quite distinct), bringing him into life and watching him leave it. Olai's near-reluctance to go and see his new-born son - he's been so worried and seemingly can't quite believe he's a dad - is echoed in the uncertain tussle Johannes goes through in his initial resistance to confront his death, providing a link between father and son, who never actually share the stage. Importantly, we never see these characters' ongoing daily lives (it's morning and, not to, evening), but these economic connections can convey a wealth of storytelling. I also liked the way the surtitles were projected onto the staging, again making more of the English/German mix, but also lending a thought-bubble quality to what the characters were singing - given that we are almost certainly in Johannes's fading mind.

Baritone Christoph Pohl is outstanding in the central role. I found the subversion of voice types appealing: Pohl's tone still conveying Johannes's confusion and uncertainty while retaining the robust quality of a man of the sea. The comforting contralto of Helena Rasker as Erna, J's late wife but in fact only a spirit angel of mercy, along with tenor Will Hartmann giving a finely-nuanced and finally 'anti-heroic' performance as J's eventually stern, unstoppable guide into death.

I would broadly recommend this to anyone open to a bit of a mental and musical challenge - in fact, if you like a range of music outside the classical world - say, ambient/electronica - you can hear Haas achieve equally fascinating results here with an orchestra. Give it a try. A workout for the mind as well as the ears.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Norse codes: the new Sieben EP

Matt Howden - who mostly records as Sieben - is one of the most restlessly creative musicians currently working. His ongoing project, 'The Old Magic', is shaping up to be his most successful fusion of past and present so far ... a perfect expression of his uncanny ability to look backwards while only ever moving forwards. Time to explain.

Or first, to rewind. I've followed Matt / Sieben for a number of years now, so if you drop in on the Specs blog regularly, he may well be familiar to you. But just in case, here are a few key points... The Sieben sound is generally made up of just vocal and violin, layered and looped. So, automatically built into every track is a kind of electric (forwards)/acoustic (backwards) tension. The loops enhance and sustain this, inevitably lending each song the flavours of chant and ritual, ideal meeting points of catchiness and stateliness.

However, this seemingly limited set-up works more as a springboard than a straitjacket, as typically, most Sieben albums kick against the one that went before - not in a spirit of rejection, but finding new routes, new angles. Clearly showing an affinity for pagan/naturalistic 'dark folk' themes (I first discovered Sieben on a neofolk compilation), while inhabiting a strikingly original genre of one, MH produced a series of increasingly confident 'concept' albums involving a new lusty language based on plant names ('Sex and Wildflowers'), the ancient Ogham alphabet fused with both music and nature ('Ogham Inside the Night'), through to a full musical mystery play ('High Broad Field'). Songs were often long and luxurious, the loops building up in organic fashion, as if they were somehow dramatising the natural themes in the lyrics. Then - a complete break, as the personal focus of 'Desire Rites' with its wracked internal drama brought ruthlessly pared-down lyrics and layering time. Matt also took the opportunity to record some older Sieben material in this more streamlined form for the retrospective album 'As They Should Sound' - still a superb starting point for newcomers and a fascinating exercise for what, with hindsight, now seems a regular Sieben motif of never feeling that any song is necessarily finished. More of this later.

Seemingly freed and fired up by this, subsequent Sieben albums have mixed the ingredients in different proportions, with the concise, yet more mellow 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' followed by the raging, industrial 'No Less Than All'. As the lyric techniques have been honed to give shorter, sharper messages, so the sonic experiments have become more prominent. The most recent full-length album 'Each Divine Spark' was an extraordinary production achievement, its 'live in the studio' recording placing some of Matt' finest work to date in a warm, 3D space - no mean feat when parts of songs have to auto-replicate to build the structure. But, perhaps sensing a summit of sorts, Matt has evolved Sieben yet again.

The sound is, once again, expanding. I think that two important changes have happened at once. There is new kit at Sieben's feet, giving access to a fully orchestral - and beyond - range of timbres and pitches. At the same time, nursing the idea of retreating from physical releases and working in the digital EP format, Matt has reawakened the more ritualistic elements of his songwriting. With no format restriction on what he puts out, he is exploring what happens when you push the chord sequences for nine or ten minutes: what emerges, what changes, what disappears. What makes near-repetition so potent (it is never 'just' repetition)?

The first fruit of this new direction was the mighty 'Lietuva' EP, which in 'U┼żupis' had one of the most breathtaking Sieben tracks to date: a brilliant lyrical idea (a tribute to the self-declared artistic republic in Latvia) wedded to a newly-panoramic production bursting with fiddle-generated bass and sheets of strings.

Imagine my delight, then, to find that the new 'Norse' EP takes everything I loved about 'Lietuva' and whacks it up to 11. Even greater strides are taken here - and in one case, at bone-rattling speed. Nestling in the 'B-side' position is 'Ready for Rebellion' - a hyperactive, frenetic track with short sharp strokes pushing the beat - which at times really does feel ready to rebel itself - towards a keening violin hook around the three-minute mark which weaves the pounding bass and jittery bow together. The purity of this one element provides an effective contrast to the provocative, pushy vocal, distorted to match its anarchic aims. As the revolution gains control, a dirtier, fuzzier mirror version of the 'clean' hook moves gradually forward in the mix to take over. You couldn't ask for a more cleverly-realised, or relentless, musical depiction of a coup from the inside.

But the headline track is almost certainly 'The Old Magic'. There is so much content in these ten minutes that it's hard to know where to start. It retains in its opening moments some of the ethnic, almost gypsy feel of parts of 'Lietuva', but this time the bass line comes in early after a minute and shakes the foundations of your eardrums. Lyrically, the song resurrects Norse nature words, which - amid this new wall-of-Sieben-sound environment - sends a lightning-rod connection back to the older pagan concepts, delighting this long-toothed fan. But as always with MH, this isn't just a 'call-back' - in fact, his skill at the choice and placing of relatively sparse lyrics just gets more refined and artful with each release. For example - depending on where you are in the chorus, the voice refers to 'the old magic words' - the arcane Norse dialect - or simply 'the old magic' - the beliefs conjured up by the ritualistic, circular music. Also, the words and music should 'whirl, unfurl' ... with a vocal leap on the word 'unfurl' that actually opens the melody out - as if the lyric is instructing the tune. (At the same time, this exhortation in the chorus to physically revive these spells places the track in an esteemed company of Sieben songs that talk about music-making itself as something to be wrought, constructed - go find them, scattered across the canon!)

As the track develops through its early section - winningly, very little of it sounds much like the instrument being used to play it - we can almost hear the actual elements. There's a wailing behind the percussion, a disturbance of the equilibrium. Then, approaching the three-minute mark, the signature violin arrives with a dissonant, woozy attack that somehow sounds exactly right, resolving just at the turn of each loop, throwing the song slightly off-centre and making it necessary to go round again. Across the remainder of the track, the various loops intensify, somehow magnifying to make the distinct layers move 'closer' to each other - and to you, the listener. By the time the song ends, you can't be exactly sure how it was done. This is Matt's old magic.


Through Matt's blog, we now learn that the 'Norse' EP is the second of three - which, together, will in fact be issued as a physical album (he couldn't stay away!) with the overall title 'The Old Magic'. This is fantastic news for so many reasons. For a start, it's typical of Sieben's 'innovation from restriction' ethos that dabbling in individual EPs has unleashed enough creative energy to conjure up a fascinating new concept and record an hour-long album made up solely of epic 12"-length tracks. Also, I'm an old-fashioned chap and I think this music deserves the physical existence Matt writes about - not to mention the opportunity to showcase the lyrics and Martin Bedford's striking and sympathetic artwork.

Making the EPs even more desirable are the re-workings of older Sieben tracks, given a new lease of life on the upgraded machinery - again, a good example of post-'As They Should Sound' Matt giving his past a kick up the future. This time round, we're treated to companion tracks 'Loki' and 'Loki Rides Again', bending the new space and clarity to gentler ends, and giving MH's increasingly confident vocals a chance to shine.


I strongly suggest you buy this EP - along with as much other Sieben music as you can lay your hands on - and the best place to start is the Bandcamp page. The main artist website for chapter and verse on Sieben (and Matt's other musical adventures) is here.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Duo tones: The Disappointment Choir

Opening disclaimer: this band consists of two friends of mine, Katy and Bob. So can this genuinely be a truly impartial post about their new EP? Answer: yes, because in total opposition to their name, the pair's music has never failed me yet. Plus, I do admit to a level of bias towards things I believe are excellent.

'To the Lake' is the second 'full' release from The Disappointment Choir, following their superb debut album 'Polar Ships'. I did arch an eyebrow on first seeing that this was an EP - "please sir and madam, can we have some more?" - but it's a non-stingy five tracks ... and the good news is that it has the ideas of at least twice that many.

For those of you yet to hear the DC, they're like-- like ... well, there's the thing. Their sound is a thrilling patchwork of different elements that make you think of all sorts of pop and rock precedents without being slavishly similar to much else at all. 'To the Lake' - even more so than its predecessor - gives the impression that the DC were challenged to make a chart-conquering pop record using only an indie toolbox, and succeeded. (Well, they may not actually conquer any charts, but you could of course help to change that...)

Being pop and indie all in one go helps to give their music a lovely tension. Lead track 'Need Someone' has some 'power ballad piano' immediately thrown off-kilter by the stop-start jerky rhythm. And while synthesised instruments play a huge role, the acoustic guitar - even when picked - cuts through the mix like a knife, chiming amid the electronic grinds and bubbles of 'Aimee' and punctuating the opening wash of 'Skin in It' with an almost Latin bounce.

As on 'Polar Ships', the vocals are crucial, distinctive. There is no 'blend' as such when they harmonise - instead, you have two strikingly different voices which complement each other but, in fact, don't mix. There's also a reversal of genetic stereotypes as, if anything, Bob's mournful croon takes the more diffident role against Katy's more deliberate, yet still sensitive tone: they swap the lead melody between themselves, so it's possible to focus on one voice and then the other and realise that both are singing something interesting. Certainly the vocals on 'To the Lake' have an extra oomph to them - perhaps a gain in confidence from 'Polar Ships' - but one of the nice 'indie' touches is that both B and K sound closely recorded, and quite unruffled, whatever the sonic mayhem surrounding them.

A final apparent contradiction that I think is vital to the record's success is that, on the one hand, the tunes themselves are positively anthemic: 'Aimee', 'Need Someone' and even the slower 'Centre of the World' have the kind of circular, land-just-where-you-want-them-to vocal melodies that stay with you far longer than the track time. Yet the arrangements have a kind of geeky (compliment) intricacy to them, busy but everything in its place. Just keeping track of what the percussion's doing can constantly wrong-foot the careful listener: recalling the old drummer joke that a drum machine is better because "you only have to punch the instructions into it once", I certainly feel like the DC must've taken trusty third member 'Bob's laptop' out for a pint or two to cajole it into assembling these arrangements. The extremely delicate pulse on 'Centre of the World' is a masterclass of restraint, of knowing when not to let rip. Even when some rug is cut - normally courtesy of a Bob guitar solo - it's never excessive, always performs a service to the track.

So - a pop synth duo with indie guitars. A great pair of voices held delicately in check. Memorably concise tunes over complex electronica beats. And all this in five tracks. I refer the band to my previous question: can we have some more?

(You can buy 'To the Lake' and 'Polar Ships' at extraordinarily pocket-friendly prices at the DC's Bandcamp page. If you like the band photo on 'To the Lake' *cough* then by all means go for the limited CD version!)