Monday 26 November 2018

30-day song challenge: part 2

Here's the second part of my playlist, inspired by the popular meme that asks 'players' to post a song every day for a month, based on certain prompts. It does feel a bit like a thought experiment at times, as you can't simply post 'faves' - you have to dredge up certain memories, associations and even emotions.

But I'm actually quite pleased with the set of tracks I ended up with, and would happily listen to the playlist through.

If you like to watch the YouTube videos (or simply don't have or like using Spotify), then songs 16 to 30 are below, and you can find songs 1 to 15 in 'part 1', here. If you are happy using Spotify, a playlist of all 30 tracks appears at the end of this post.

Hope you enjoy the tunes. (Classically-inclined readers - I haven't catered to you this time round, but watch this space!)


A song that's a classic favourite

Ultravox: 'Vienna'

One of my first 'favourite' bands. This - with hindsight - is such an impressively strange song, with its crashing-together of mournful strings and brittle early synth rhythms. Warning: big spider in video. Made me feel like singing, 'This means nothing to meeeeee….AAARRRGH! Big spi-deeeeeer!'

A song you'll sing a duet with someone on karaoke

Simon & Garfunkel: 'The Boxer'

Remembering a friend from student days (no longer in touch, sadly) - summer evenings, mates in back gardens, guitars out … him teaching me the harmony parts to the S&G songbook.

A song from the year you were born

Roxy Music: 'Psalm'

The 'Stranded' album, when Roxy really were stranded in a way, between the 'Eno era' and the sleek outfit they would become. Defiantly odd throughout - for me, their finest hour.

A song that makes you think about life

Billy Bragg: 'Brickbat'

BB always sang about struggle - political and personal - but this disarming track saw him examine his contentment. Frank and tender.

A song that has many meanings for you

Jo Quail: 'Gold'

Instrumentals encourage interpretation, and JQ's music (best heard on headphones, in darkness) seems to prompt an infinite range of images and emotions: for me, here, anything from a conflict between urban and pastoral, to the musical expression of a body clock. Rich, resonant.

A song you like with a person's name in the title

The Handsome Family: 'Tesla's Hotel Room'

One of the HF's classic short stories in song: witty, poignant, transcendent.

A song that moves you forward

Jon & Vangelis: 'I'll Find My Way Home'

A song that, when I was a kid, just made me cheerful and feel somehow supported: under the surface, it was also drawing me imperceptibly towards both prog and electronica.

A song you think everybody should listen to

Dead Can Dance: 'Rakim'

It's a cliché to say no-one really sounds like DCD, but it's partly true because no-one really does what they do. I push this song at people, saying 'Look! Look how much care and intricacy there is in this track! And it's live! And they make entire albums like this!'

A song by a band you wish were still together

Talking Heads: '(Nothing But) Flowers'

Actually, I sort of don't wish this, because they'd probably kill each other.

A song you like by an artist no longer living

David Bowie: 'Queen Bitch'

But his music is so alive. This is pure adrenalin.

A song that makes you want to fall in love

Martha Wainwright: 'Far Away'

One of rock's most yearning, alluring voices, singing this: 'I have no children, I have no husband, I have no reason to be alive, oh, give me one.' I am quite unmanned.

A song that breaks your heart

Richard Thompson: 'The Ghost of You Walks'

...but in a good way. I think this is one of the finest songs ever written.

A song by an artist whose voice you love

Sally Timms: 'Cancion Para Mi Padre'

One of our greatest singers, her recordings (solo and with the Mekons) are so precious - she simply sounds lovely, equal parts purity and intimacy.

A song you remember from your childhood

Eurythmics: 'Love is a Stranger'

'Sweet Dreams' wasn't the scary one - this was.

A song that reminds you of yourself

Sieben: 'Ogham Inside the Night'

This is quite an old track now, and Matt Howden (the man behind the 'Sieben' pseudonym) has tackled many different styles and subjects since, while staying true to his voice, violin and loops template. But this is one of the first songs of his I heard, and I was instantly hooked. The track exhibits such facility and fascination with language, alongside a determination to marry the ancient and modern. It seems to represent in music and lyrics much of what I aspire to be as a listener and writer.


Here is the playlist in handy Spotify format!

Monday 19 November 2018

30-day song challenge: part 1

Perhaps inevitably, I am a complete sucker for those internet challenges that get you to list or recommend music, films or books in some form or another... But I also find that life gets in the way and I can't keep up with the (usually) daily pace.

This latest 'game' - mostly prevalent on Facebook as far as I can tell - asks for a song a day, for a month, generated by certain prompts. So, rather than trying to come up with some kind of 'Top 30', the meme probes deeper into your psyche, to see what you might pick to fit the 'clues'.

Instead of attempting to post every day, I decided to do this one through the blog. So, here are my first 15 choices: I hope you enjoy them. Part 2 (hopefully with a Spotify version, if I can find all the tracks) to follow very soon.


A song you like with a colour in the title

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: 'Green Shirt'

One of those classic EC songs that the Attractions somehow make both poppy and eerie.

A song you like with a number in the title

Kate Bush: 'Experiment IV'

A genuinely terrifying SF tale wrapped up in an amazing song. That 'missing' drum beat can really get to you.

A song that reminds you of summertime

Texas: 'Faith'

An explosion of slide-guitar joy, speaking of stadiums and accidentally discovering support bands.

A song that reminds you of someone you'd rather forget

Elvis Presley: '(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame'

Marie was not an old flame, or anything even like it. I still shudder anytime I'm reminded of her, though.

A song that needs to be played loud

Led Zeppelin: 'When the Levee Breaks'

Scientifically impossible to play this quietly, surely.

A song that makes you want to dance

A-ha: 'Riding the Crest'

I think it's the rumbling synthy bass during the verse that gives my feet a mind of their own (which is a very accurate description of my 'dancing' in any case).

A song to drive to

Clutch: 'Gullah'

I genuinely think this band write the best riffs of any group currently working today.

A song about drugs or alcohol

Uncle Tupelo: 'Whiskey Bottle'

Arguably the first 'alternative country' band; definitely one of the finest.

A song that makes you happy

Broken Bells: 'After the Disco'

James Mercer of the Shins collaborating with Danger Mouse is such a glorious meeting of minds: JM's wistful melancholy fronting DM's laidback beats - I love that it sounds like the euphoria and the comedown simultaneously. Every section of the song sounds like a chorus. Perfection.

A song that makes you sad

Nick Drake: 'Cello Song'

What could have been.

A song you never get tired of

Belle and Sebastian: 'Play for Today'

It's a good seven minutes, and I'll still happily play it on repeat over and over. Not a second is wasted, especially as the backing singers ("Author! Author!") creep up on the lead vocalists in the outro.

A song from your preteen years

Fine Young Cannibals: 'Johnny Come Home'

Unforgettable hook in this chorus. Regularly comes to my mind, all these years later.

A song you like from the 70s

Joni Mitchell: 'Carey'


A song you'd love to be played at your wedding

Sailor: 'A Glass of Champagne'

Bit late to be choosing wedding songs! - but if we'd had a first dance, we'd have flung ourselves round like goons to this.

A song you like that's a cover by another artist

Emmylou Harris: 'Goodbye'

From the mighty 'Wrecking Ball' album, where EH stepped outside country into spacey, ethereal rock surroundings and utterly transformed a particular batch of songs in the process. This was originally a Steve Earle track.

To be continued...

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Two worlds: Jo Quail’s ‘Exsolve’

The latest brilliant release from cellist-composer Jo Quail is an album that speaks of mirrors, doubles and opposites. Always an artist that convinces equally whether one views her music as avant-garde classical or underground electronica, ‘Exsolve’ is Jo’s most perfect expression yet of how to create pieces that somehow inhabit, yet defy genre at the same time.

I’m sure this is also what makes her music such a pleasure to write about – as I have done frequently, including CD liner notes. Jo builds her compositions around electric cello, fed into a loop station that she simultaneously operates like a second instrument – allowing her to play almost all her material live, solo, standing (her feet dancing across the pedals as she creates layer upon layer of rhythm and melody).

But from first note to last, ‘Exsolve’ thrives on creative tension, looking inward and examining head-on this marriage of ancient/acoustic and modern/electronic. As instrumentals so often do, Jo’s music always becomes ‘visual’ for me, provoking images, memories even, in my mind. Water is a recurring motif in earlier JQ track titles, and here I inescapably thought of Turner’s ship caught in the Snow Storm. Throughout, it felt like something was breaking through, a kind of sonic or atmospheric disruption – depending on your personal tastes, this could be as menacing as Cthulhu or as exhilarating as a cloudburst.

New tunings and new sounds help to make this a classic ‘headphones’ record, as Jo explores distortion and percussive techniques to conjure a military drum tattoo or a doom-laden bass riff from her cello. When listening, you really are surrounded: the music closes in, each of the three lengthy tracks building not necessarily in volume, but in presence, intensity ('Exsolve' was produced by Chris Fielding and mastered by James Griffiths: plaudits to them for the album's fearsome clarity).

Another creative pair of ‘opposites’ the album reflects is the personal with the collaborative. For such a self-sufficient performer, Jo has always featured guests on her albums and sought to programme live events with full bands or classical performers. ‘Exsolve’ welcomes three visitors, who play a crucial role on one piece each. Dan Capp and Nik Sampson both contribute heroically exciting guitar parts, while Lucie Dehli adds her supernaturally fluid vocalese in an unforgettable cameo. But while these guest appearances gesture towards extreme metal and even jazz, they blend perfectly into the array of unearthly sounds already coming from the cello.

(Photo by Simon Kallas, taken from JQ's website.)

Classical and metal really are ‘twinned’ here, in a way quite distinct from, say, hard rock bands using orchestras or string sections for added bombast (not that there’s a problem with that!). Album by album, Jo has been assembling tracks more like parts of suites or sequences, and ‘Exsolve’ – with its three ‘movements’ that are both coherent stand-alone pieces, but which all contribute and develop towards a key central idea – can almost feel like a concerto for cello and studio. In this respect, it’s a genuinely avant-garde classical achievement. Yet, at the same time, it reaches a powerful heaviness borne of thunderous riffs and insistent hooks. In other words, it rocks.

If ‘Exsolve’ tells me a story, it’s of these two genres almost struggling for supremacy within Jo’s music. The balance shifts this way and that. The insistent, cyclic guitar that takes control of ‘Forge’ gives way to the acoustic ‘Of Two Forms’ section. The dancing pizzicato of ‘Mandrel Cantus’ breaks into atonal soloing, distorted cello riffs and a final guitar explosion – but then its steady comedown progression dissolves into the chiming, Pärt-like coda. Finally, however, ‘Causleen’s Wheel’ brings matters to a head, its keening melody and agitated reel leading to a seismic shift and temporary sonic limbo, before the finale crashes through. No guitars this time: the cello supplies the heaviness, the electricity, and ultimately the full force of the wordless vocal is unleashed, resolving the conflict and bringing equilibrium with a triumphant, euphoric female battle cry.

A fascinating and beautiful listen, as always. And especially here, addictive, cathartic.

(Video edit of 'Mandrel Cantus', filmed by Simon Kallas and Michael Fletcher.)


Jo releases her music independently, so you can buy physical and/or digital versions of 'Exsolve' - along with all her earlier work - directly from Bandcamp. Dive in here.