Sunday, 25 October 2009

Here We Go Magic - Here We Go Magic

Vivacious with its African tribal grooves, hypnotic in its looped electronics, experimental in its use of sound and something of a sidestep in career terms, Luke Temple, previously branded with the singer-songwriter iron, put Here We Go Magic together in what’s described as two-month stream-of-consciousness period at his Brooklyn home. It’s proved a productive and worthwhile excursion.

Temple hits the ground running with the brightly up-tempo world music of ‘Only Pieces’, follows it with the quite delightfully engaging ‘Fangela’ but then wanders around a little, hitting the target here and just missing it there. To be fair, that’s how creative ground is broken; it’s certainly worth noting that these four-track deliberations have a depth to them that matches the album’s more contemplative moods.

Unlike the title of the richly meshed acoustic guitar and programmed backbeat ‘Tunnelvision’, this is an imaginative recording, made by someone prepared to push at his artistic envelope. Temple’s occasional straying into ambient noise territory works less well than when he’s finding ways to enhance his song-writing craft, the afore-mentioned ‘Fangela’, the album’s highpoint, is fundamentally a genuinely lovely song given an electronica makeover, but overall it’s a good stretching of creative legs.

Luke Temple Official Website

Martin Gordon - Time Gentlemen Please

There’s a hint of what’s going on in this album when you find it described as the fifth and final instalment of a trilogy. The old jokes are still the, err, oldest. But then, Martin Gordon has previous form in the whimsical tradition including membership of Sparks for Kimono My House and with those tongue-in-cheek punks, Radio Stars.

This ‘Mammal Trilogy’, then. A witty and relevant overview of the human condition, a ‘State of the Nation’ address beamed direct from the snug of the Last Chance Saloon? Well, it would love to think so, but it’s a curiously unengaging and flat affair that tries too hard at scoring in the cleverness stakes without leaving you with an appropriate sense of substance. The songs seem like the foundations for a right-on social commentary musical – but one that closed after a couple of weeks of sparsely-attended off-West End performances.

No marks for the stodgy progressive-rock interpretation of ‘I Feel Fine’, but kudos for the genuinely amusing ‘Houston We Gotta Drinking Problem’ (‘I’ve got the right stuff / The only problem is I haven’t got enough’) and big smiles generated by the infectious ‘Talulah Does The Hula From Hawaii’. The verdict, though? Underwhelming.

Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart - Bloodlines

In the days before punk, there lived this lumbering beast known as ‘the concept album’, and we children of the punk revolution looked upon its form and recoiled in horror at its excesses, little realising that our own beloved LPs were concept albums themselves, even if their themes were of urban decay and the futility of everyday life. And because of this, for many years, the concept album became a hateful creature, disowned and unwanted, reviled for its cumbersome nature – and yet it was a slumbering animal and not an extinct one. For one day there would come a time when it would reawaken, its history celebrated once more and its children raised up and praised where once they would be taken to a cold and barren place and left to die.

As if by magic, here’s one of those children of the 70s concept album, the second CD from Spirits Burning & Bridget Wishart, following up their successful and highly praised collaboration Earth Born with this set of 15 songs based on figures from history and characters of legend, all, as Bridget says, “people who fascinated us, who had a good story to tell.”

If you’re at all familiar with the work of Don Falcone’s Spirits Burning ensemble, you’ll understand the form. It’s a gathering of the noted and the less well known faces of the spacerock scene, contributing across the Internet and producing music that covers many of the different strands of what we collectively describe as ‘spacerock’ though it leans one moment towards progressive, another time to jazz or folk, sometimes being avant-garde and other instances being full of melody. Bloodlines, for me, veers mostly towards a progressive tone but with some really engaging hooks and even though I felt it lacking in some of the sheer jest that characterised the best bits of Earth Born, it feels more fully-formed and possessing of more depth than its predecessor overall.

The problem with writing songs about historical figures is that you run the risk of coming across a bit lecturing or, as I noted with Walking Wounded’s ‘Evolution’ track a couple of months back, akin to a Year Six educational sing-along. Don and Bridget have most certainly avoided the later problem by creating a rich and multi-layered collection but the other issue does raise its head occasionally. ‘Cleopatra’, one of the most immediately catchy and enjoyable pieces on the record, in and of itself a really rollicking ride, relates the rise and fall of the Egyptian Queen and her liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. It’s one of those tracks that instantly makes you want to hit the play button and listen to again, and yet its reliance on a literal retelling of Cleopatra’s story makes the lyrics just feel a little more textbook than heartfelt.

On the other hand, one of the most successful tracks on the album, ‘Rocket to the End of the Line’, actually eschews its otherwise encompassing themes, and is noted as being about how ‘the last of the human race need to leave Earth and let nature take over and restore balance’ with Steve Swindells joining Bridget on vocals and lyric-writing – with Bridget returning to a snatch of lyrics that she used on some of her last outings with Hawkwind. This is a smart and sassy seven-minute number that really moves along well, propelled with some nice bass from Toby Marks (of Banco de Gaia) and chug-a-chug guitar from Keith Hill alongside Steve’s piano and synth. The lovely ‘Heavens Hide’, with Bridget’s breathlessly whispering vocals counterpointing a mix of acoustic and bass guitar (the later provided by Van Der Graaf Generator’s Nic Potter – a first appearance coup for Spirits Burning), also resurrects some of her Hawkwind lyrics, this time the words better known as the ‘Seventh Star’ coda to ‘Night of the Hawks’.

‘Lady Jane’ is a thoughtful and pastoral piece that in a similar way to ‘Cleopatra’ is heavy on the historical information, but which really draws you into its quiet dignity whilst delivering a highly satisfying and elegant track. ‘Mother of the Dragon’ is a classic example of what’s great about the range of musicians that Falcone gathers to his projects – here there’s some unexpected and totally absorbing trumpet from Max Wynter juxtaposed with Steve Bemand’s electric guitar in a track that manages to be both minimalist and yet busy at the same time. Then there’s the despair of Alexandra, the last Empress of Russia, ‘Czaritsa’, with Simon House’s violins embellishing, with compellingly evocative Eastern European tones, the well-realised lyrical imagery of Russian soldiers dying on the front line whilst Alexandra herself battles an unwinnable war against her son’s haemophilia.

So the concept album isn’t dead, and on Bloodlines it’s used to great effect and perhaps that’s because the songs aren’t afraid to stray from their initial brief at times, and because the myriad of musicians (I’ve not mentioned them all here, there’s far too many, but many familiar Spirits Burning contributors are on duty again here) who each bring their own unique interpretations to the work. This enables Don and Bridget to capture their chosen concept so that it binds the songs together without the album ever dipping into dull ‘sameness’, since around each corner is another unexpected but sympathetic instrument or effect that gives the work a successful range of aural emotions and in the end delivers a very absorbing whole.

Spirits Burning Myspace

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Krankschaft - The Flame Red Superstar

Twenty-one years after his untimely death, the act of remembering Robert Calvert seems to be turning into something of a cottage industry. We had the memorial gig down in Herne Bay last year, the excellent reissues of Captain Lockheed and Lucky Leif & The Longships a couple of years ago from Eclectic Discs (and I understand that label’s successor, Esoteric Records will be soon be reissuing the Lockheed package again), and their Hawkwind reissue label Atomhenge kicking off with a reissue of Freq (which I was privileged to be asked to provide liner notes for). Voiceprint Records have been making a lot of archive recordings available (though it has to be noted, not all to the standard of their double-disc release of Robert Calvert & The Maximum Effect Live At Carlisle which I reviewed in Record Collector recently) and Chris Purdon tells me he’s still planning and working on his massive volume of Robert’s collected writings. And, of course, the reissues of the classic Hawkwind albums Astounding Sounds Amazing Music, Quark, Strangeness & Charm, Hawklords and PXR5, along with the ‘new’ live album Hawklords Live 1978, have meant that Calvert’s legacy has been picked over, dissected and re-evaluated across large swathes of the glossy music press in recent months – even if that’s meant a lot of trotting out of familiar ‘Mad Bob’ stories in place of a more justified, if perhaps less commercially appealing for the music magazines, serious look at a highly mercurial but none-the-less extremely intelligent body of work.

I’m not sure if this then means that Robert Calvert’s work is becoming noticed again outside of the die-hard Hawkwind community, in fact I suspect that it simply means that the already converted are being given the opportunity to gather more examples of his output and see the development of his ideas and preoccupations as a wider picture than previously, particularly with the amount of previously unheard Charisma-era Hawkwind archive recordings now being included with the Atomhenge reissues. And, honestly, though we’d all like to see Bob’s work gaining a wider recognition, you still have to arrive at the conclusion that this particular cottage industry is simply working to feed the appetites of a small band of the dedicated, rather than informing those whose own musical education has been built from the output of those who themselves were in some way informed by Calvert’s work.

What’s really impressive about Bob’s legacy is the devotion that he inspired in the musicians he met along the way of his all too brief career. That shines through in a couple of releases that have come from Dead Fred and Steve Pond, whose set at Herne Bay I regretfully only caught a part of, and who I believe will be performing at the forthcoming Hawklords all-dayer at the 229 Club in London (29th November, tickets on sale now) as part of a reformed Inner City Unit line-up. I’d already had sense of the level of respect and admiration, and exasperation, for Calvert that Steve retains, having worked with Bob as part of Inner City Unit and The Maximum Effect, when I gained his insights for Sonic Assassins a few years back.

Steve and Fred have already released their own version of the same 1986 Carlisle gig that Voiceprint have released (indeed, it was previously available as a free download), and I planned to give that a full write-up on this blog, as it’s a release that has been widely welcomed and appreciated and is the best version of the show available. I’ll still endeavour to get to that in the near future, but I wanted to write about their latest CD which they very kindly sent over this week because for them, this release is the fulfilment of a long held dream to play on Robert’s songs in a studio context. Having worked with them on the road in 1986, at the legendary Queen Elizabeth Hall show and the subsequent tour, Calvert had actually contacted them to enquire whether they’d consider working with him on his next studio album. As they note on their website, ‘Sadly, Bob died before this could happen, and we’ve spent 20 years wondering what it would have sounded like.’ But whilst they rightly feel that this album goes someway to answering their own question, they’ve eschewed the route of using Bob’s spoken-word recitals – a method of posthumous collaboration that’s been used by Dave Brock both for Hawkwind and his Brock/Calvert Project, and by Don Falcone in Spirits Burning – instead turning to his 1980s solo albums for songs to cover and reinterpret. This actually turns out to be a far superior way of honouring Robert Calvert’s memory since they’ve delivered a highly impressive album both from the content of the CD and the surrounding package.

To make comment on the package itself, it comes with a roughly A2-sized poster with an extension of the album cover image on one side, and notes on the track selection on the other – and poignantly also contains a reproduction of the relevant parts of the letter that Robert wrote to Fred enquiring the possibility of them working together on his next album whilst regretfully noting that he’d never record another album without an advance – and suggesting that meant that most likely he’d never record another album.

Of the 13 songs that they’ve chosen to work with, we know that some have not previously been really fleshed out in a studio context, having derived from the minimalist Freq album. Perhaps that’s why they’ve opted to practically cover this mini-album in full (omitting ‘The Cool Courage of the Bomb Squad Officers’), building-up the songs to a degree, but still keeping their fundamental sparseness as well so that they deliver what could well be a good representation of how Robert himself might have realised these songs had Freq been created with more resource. ‘Acid Rain’, for instance, is still a slow and downbeat number with a vocal delivery that’s close to how Bob presented it, though punctuated with a rather more accentuated tones, whilst Steve’s guitar lines are quietly embellishing in the background to unobtrusively bring something new to the song.

Moving away from Freq, the absolute highlight of this selection actually doesn’t follow the pattern of the original version even though it holds tight to, and even develops, the song’s melancholy wistfulness. ‘The Greenfly and the Rose’ is a delicate piano-piece that’s thoughtful and moving – and just simply beautiful. Impressed as I was with the album as a whole, I can’t think of any better reason for buying this CD than to hear this gorgeous piece. Turns out that this is a first take, almost a busk on the theme of the song – its fractured brittleness most certainly doesn’t sound that way.

But they’ve done a sterling job right throughout this record, taking their cue from Robert’s own versions, or the way that they’ve previously worked out some of these songs in a live environment, but really taking them a step on. That’s a completely valid approach – we know from archive interviews with Robert that all his work post-Hawkwind was done on a shoestring with minimal finance and therefore highly constricting resources. Ironically, that’s somewhat less of an issue today so that Steve and Fred have been able to get more from less, as it were, and have therefore been able to expand the range of the material whilst still remaining faithful to the original vision. If you’ve even the most passing of interest in Robert Calvert’s work, this honourable and enjoyable album is a must have.

Krankschaft Official Website