NewMusicMondays – 26 October 2020

Following on from last week’s This Is The Kit track, first up this week is Rozi Plain, one of Kate Stables’s regulator collaborators, usually on bass and adding backing vocals, but here transplanted to the Isle of Eigg. Here, Johnny Lynch’s Lost Map Records’s V I S I T ▲ T I O N S project sets musicians up for a week at a time in St. Franny’s Bothan, literally garden shed-cum-accommodation-cum-recording studio, and where isolation and inspiring scenery allows musicians to work their magic in a bit of peace. In return, this brings life, and a bit of welcome diversified income, to Eigg – or, at least, it did, that is until Covid-19 appeared. Johnny, a musician himself with Pictish Trail, knows the sort of space that musicians want and whose own music is also about isolation and making sense of isolation.

Rozi, formerly a Lost Map artist until Memphis Industries came a-calling, visited the project at the start of 2020; and the results of her collaboration with Gerard Black and Jamie Whitby-Coles, who also regularly drums with This Is The Kit, were released at the start of October as the third and final part of V I S I T ▲ T I O N S series 2. You can hear all about the trip in the Lost Map podcast and read it on the (very funny) blog (where you can also of course buy the recordings). You can expect ‘woozy, groovy instrumentals and songs’, based on Rozi’s ‘gently hypnotic, slightly askew’ songs in which ‘dreamy guitars, soft analogue synths, floaty drums and percussion collide’. The whole takes on the flavour of ‘Disappear in the air, once was there, nothing there‘, leaving a cosy feeling inside and the vapours of hot chocolate, as well as a bit of wonderment as to whether you just heard what you thought you did and which all ends just a bit too soon: like waking up from a dream.

As a taster for the whole thing – both V I S I T ▲ T I O N S and Eigg itself on a misty, winter’s day, low-lying cloud and all, and including getting the ferry there, here’s ‘Beiggy’:

Saturday was the third and final RSD ‘drop’ for 2020 (other than a ‘Black Friday’ special coming next month) – Record Store Day itself practising some social distancing. I do have a mini-haul (thank you, Tracy!) which is working its way up and out to me as I type, so my second track this week is inspired by the first drop, back at the end of August (and also secured by Tracy).

Both Rozi and This Is The Kit are regulars on Marc Riley’s show on 6Music and I picked up on Cherry Ghost – a vehicle for singer-songwriter Simon Aldred – via the same source, expressly a couple of knock-out sessions live on the programme. Sadly, Simon decided to pack it all in to become a teacher (and songwriter) after the last of these sessions, but Heavenly Recordings released a live Cherry Ghost double album for RSD 1 recorded in 2015 at the label’s regular Hebden Bridge weekender at the town’s legendary Trades Club – as it turns out, the band’s farewell ‘big band’ performance, the radio sessions being acoustic, just keys and guitar.

Heavenly were due to have another weekender, celebrating its 30th anniversary, in April but this was cancelled by the pandemic. Cherry Ghost were on the bill, after a four/five-year hiatus – reinvigorated, it seems, by a songwriting partnership between Simon and Liam Gallagher, whose wife-to-be, Debbie Gwyther, is a big fan.

Live at the Trades Club Hebden Bridge has, so far, been a genuine RSD release and not available elsewhere – clicking the link for the release at Heavenly just takes you back to the RSD website – and (entirely rightly) there’s none of it on YouTube; but I did find an audience-shot video of Simon doing ‘Mathematics’, solo, on stage at Niamos in Hulme, Manchester, in early March this year, apparently as part of a live interview and gig event:

‘Mathematics’ – the first Cherry Ghost single – is a typical Aldred lyric: an artist trying to live his best life as a poet and romantic but for whom hard reality – ‘cold mathematics’ – has become a call which is increasingly impossible to ignore. Heart-breakingly tender, and achingly played and sung in Simon’s high-register voice, it may well (have) be(en) autobiographical: either way, it’s great to see him back on stage again, even if this is not his major calling these days. Talent this good needs a stage.

Beneath this Burning Shoreline, Cherry Ghost’s second album released originally in 2010, was due a first-time-out-on-vinyl release under the original RSD plans although this was dropped after the pandemic hit and the album ended up being almost sneaked out in the middle of June, the date to which Record Store Day, as a single entity, was initially postponed. You can still pick it up via bandcamp, of course – but you will need to hurry if it’s the physical product you’re after: there’s less than a handful of copies left. And good job, too.

NewMusicMondays – 19 October

I’ve been a fan of Monophonics’s throwback psychedelic soul for some time. Their album It’s Only Us, released in the spring and just as lockdown was kicking in, was a significant updating of the sound for the modern era with eight stunning slices of soul prompted along by driving bass, mournful horns, insistent strings and dreamy keys, all topped off by Kelly Finnigan’s burningly honest vocal. And now, nine month later, Colemine Records have released a re-made version of the title track with just Finnigan’s vocal and piano, keys grounding the vocal line and acting as the rhythm, and highlighting the searing lyric.

Hopefully this is indeed a teaser – an acoustic version of the whole album really would be something else. ‘It’s Only Us (Acoustic)’ is available for the ridiculous price of $1 – a floor for whatever you can spare (euros and pounds accepted too) – over on the Monophonics’ bandcamp page.

Also appearing in my inbox last seek courtesy of an e-mail from bandcamp – yes, these things are sometimes read! – is This Is The Kit, a band centred on Kate Stables’s guitar and indeed banjo, and insightful songwriting and astonishingly pure vocal, but which also features a rolling number of musicians who Kate can round up on any particular day for a session. Here, with Kate stuck in Lyon, she managed to recruit bass and drums, as well as horns, to record a video for the single release of ‘Was Magician’, ahead of the album release of Off Off On, out on Friday this week.

‘Was Magician’ is typically Kate – gently mesmerising and with real hypnotic power as the band, driven by the horn section, builds during the song. Beguiling and bewitching. Like with the Monophonics, ‘Was Magician’ is available on Kate’s bandcamp for the ludicrously cheap price of $1 (or so).

The drowning reported yesterday of someone seeking to cross the Channel in the search for safety and a home struck me in the lack of humanity in the tone of the reporting: ‘The authorities later confirmed the body of a man in a lifejacket, found on a beach near Calais at 08:00 BST, was that of a migrant.‘ While accepting that reputable news organisations do tend to give names where possible, and that this is too early to give a name to people whose identity documents are necessarily obscured, or left behind, I couldn’t help but think of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’. Guthrie’s song has been recorded by dozens of strong artists, but the version by Sweet Honey In The Rock (in the 1980s) was the first I heard; and the one that still captures best the pain and the heartbreak of people, and their families, caught up in desperate situations.

Myth versus logic in the time of Covid-19

This is the text of my summer 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

With Covid-19 now back on the rise, including out here on the islands, and shutdowns once again becoming a reality for many of us, it’s timely to re-visit the themes of the column, originally written at the back end of May. The column looked at the conspiracy theories over 5G masts, while pointing out that fear over technological developments is not a new phenomenon.

Few have any living memory of times as extraordinary as the ones we are living in under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

I don’t know whether the post-World War I flu epidemic of 1918 brought about any particular conspiracy theories, although I suspect that the more unusual the surrounding events, the stranger the theories that gain circulation.

In the early weeks of the pandemic and lockdown, one such theory directly connected 5G mobile technology to the spread of COVID-19.

This led to attacks on mobile mast installations – idiotically, but poignantly, ones that had no 5G capability – and also to the harassment of telecoms workers who were going about their jobs.

It was therefore good to see Scotland’s First Minister take the time to praise telecoms workers as key workers.

The contribution that Prospect members are making right across the UK to ensure that people can stay connected and working has been a major factor in slowing the spread of the virus and, in the process, helping our wellbeing to hold up.

Uneasy relationship

Interestingly the telephone has always been a bit of a bellwether for our relationship with technology.

The British Medical Journal reported – in 1889 – on concerns that spending long periods on the telephone could cause ‘nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness and neuralgic pains’.  

Radio broadcasting, which was developed in the early 1900s and shares a common technological root with modern cell phones, was thought to cause sickness. Coming up to date, apart from our cellphones, there is similar noise about our home Wi-Fi and smart meters.

Many do not understand the technology we rely on, and which has become central to how we organise and live in our world. This has led us to develop an uneasy and unsettled relationship with something whose ubiquitous invisibility makes it an easy target when things go wrong. There is a lot more work to do to settle that relationship and ensure emerging technologies work for people. One such organisation doing good work in this field is the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Furthermore, with mobile technology continually evolving – 3G in the 2000s, 4G in the 2010s, 5G now and 6G already being spoken about – there is always room to find new grounds for conspiracy or a fresh angle.

The less easy the relationship, the more easy it is to distrust something – not least at a time of a generalised lack of trust.

Prospect members know there is indeed no magic about mobile technology. It is more a case of ‘observation and logic’, as Ramesh cutely puts it in the end-of-year school show at the close of series two of BBC drama The A Word (which I have been catching up with during the lockdown). Both are qualities in short supply during the pandemic.

The increasingly tortuous way we use language doesn’t help. It is evident that viruses cannot spread over radio waves; they spread by human contact.

Both government guidance and a statement from the four mobile operators have declared: ‘There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus’. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough to persuade either the conspiracy theorists or those vulnerable to their theories.

Meanwhile, especially for those working from home more than usual, it is good to remind ourselves to unplug outside working hours. Giving ourselves downtime is valuable for our own mental health and helps our colleagues do the same.

Stay safe – and do encourage anyone you know who is not a union member to join one.

NewMusicMondays – 12 October

The first of two tracks this week is Rose City Band’s ‘Wildflowers’, the last track on their second, June 2020, album Summerlong. I heard this on Iggy Pop’s Friday night show, sandwiched in typical Iggy style between some Khruangbin, who I’ve covered before in this series, and a stomping gospel-hall worksong recorded at the end of the 1950s by folklorist Alan Lomax.

Rose City Band is essentially the side-project work of one man, Ripley Johnson, who plays all the instruments other than the drums. Johnson’s role on the project was intended originally to be obscured and the album was released with deliberately little promotion as a means of allowing the music to speak and setting it free of expectation. With references listed as the Byrds and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, and country rock, psychedelia and Krautrock in general, the sound is easy to describe but a bit less easy to pin down precisely. In a more modern vein, I’m picking up echoes of Adam Granduciel’s work in The War on Drugs, in its mellifluously fluid guitar lines allied to a muscular rhythm. See what you think here:

You can pick up Summerlong at Rose City Band’s bandcamp.

The man has a beard to be admired, too.

Second up this week is Diana Jones, whose new album Song To A Refugee was released at the back end of last month. I’ve been a fan for a while of her country-folk approach and the honesty, authenticity and grounded nature of her songwriting, imbued with feminism as well as a genuine feel for environmental issues, social justice and the dispossessed. I saw her live, twice, the first time at Perth’s Southern Fried in 2009 and the second at the wonderful Union Chapel in Islington after which she graciously signed my CD and poster. The new album, her sixth, seeks to give voice to asylum seekers, and from it I’ve picked ‘We Believe You’, recorded after the album was initially complete, and whose lyrics are inspired by the need for greater humanitarian regard for people forced to move by war, fire, famine and brutality to leave everything behind and undertake journeys which are themselves brutalising:

If you can tell a person by the company they keep, Diana’s gentle guitar and rich, distinctive vocal line is augmented here by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and the 85-year-old Peggy Seeger – none of them particularly easy to harmonise alongside – yet the track manages to bring together the spirit and the fire of all of them.

Diana Jones is not on bandcamp, so you’ll need to pick up Song To A Refugee from a record shop near you or, otherwise, from the usual chains or streamers via this link. She has a UK tour lined up for November, according to her website, though I suspect these are no longer going ahead. If not, they will no doubt be re-arranged and, when they are, do get along and support an original, genuine talent the warmth of whose live show will leave you in your seat thinking that she’s singing only to you.

NewMusicMondays – 5 October 2020

October is Black History Month, celebrating the social, cultural, economic, and political progress made by Britain’s Black community. On the back of the long-standing Black Lives Matter campaign, and especially with reference to this summer’s events here and in the US, there probably has never been a more important month in the 33-year history of the celebration.

First track up this week is from 2018, but found its way to my ears via a compilation put out last month by Belgium’s underground sound system Rebel Up! in support of Black Lives Matters and individual various (inter)national NGOs, anti-racism advocacy groups and organisations of black initiative in several countries around in Europe and in south America. Belgium, with its own history of African colonialism, has been vocal in support of Black Lives Matter and with many musicians from African countries finding their home there, the potential for cultural collaboration has been significant.

Ayuune Sule is from Bolgatanga, in northern Ghana (which ought to perk up a few British ears), and he plays a two-string lute called a kologo. He has a warm soulful voice and his established musicianship has clearly taught him the importance of what not to play in building a song. Hear him here on ‘How To Get There’, accompanied by little more than the insistent rhythm pumped out on his kologo, judicious handclaps, a faint hint of a tambourine and gorgeous, but restrained, backing vocals:

Here on #WorldTeachersDay, the song celebrates the importance of staying in school as the answer to the question posed in the title whether you want to be a president, teacher, lawyer or even just a daddy. Ayuune Sule’s album – also featuring the intriguing ‘What A Man Can Do, A Woman Can Do More Better’ (with a little more electronica) – can be picked up via Crevette Records, his label; while the RebelUp! compilation – where you can hear all 28 tracks, including ‘How To Get There’ – is available via their bandcamp page where you can also choose which black initiative you want to support.

My second track this week is a familiar one from the 1990s given a fresh treatment. Sade’s Diamond Life was indeed one of the Sounds of the 80s, but ‘No Ordinary Love’ came from the band’s 1992 album, Love Deluxe. By that point, the sound had palled a little for me and, anyway, I was more interested in seeking thrills from the guitars and horns in Congolese soukous. Consequently, with Sade’s ‘smooth jazz’ sound somewhat washing over me, I rather missed out on ‘No Ordinary Love’, in particular what is a quite extraordinary lyric.

No such opportunity on the version by Birmingham, Alabama’s St. Paul and the Broken Bones where there is no hiding place from the emotional power of the words. ‘No Ordinary Love’ was cut over the summer by four of the band’s usual contingent of eight and was performed and engineered by the band working entirely remotely. It changes the dynamic completely to hear the song sung by a man, and Paul Janeway, vocalist with St. Paul and the Broken Bones, compels you to listen to every single word as his pained and tortured vocal, alternatively broken and halting, and then more gruffly assertive, makes its anguished, broken-hearted way through his desperate plea to his lover. You’ll believe a man can cry.

‘No Ordinary Love’ – part of Quarantine Covers, a four-track EP of cover songs – was released on Friday. There’s no YouTube video, so you’ll have to make do with catching up with it via the band’s bandcamp. Please do. It’s not an easy listen – Paul (who has a tough life behind him, growing up as a liberal in a red household in a southern US state) leaves nothing behind in his cry to be heard and not to disappear, invisible. It’s a wringer.

Book review: Before the coffee gets cold

Having recently finished David Mitchell’s weighty tale about rising musicians looking for their own creative avenue towards Utopia, I was looking for something a little lighter; and Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before The Coffee Gets Cold, published in 2015 and now available in an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot, was the intriguing wild card in an established chain’s long-established buy-one-get-one-half-price offer.

Having researched industrial relations in Japanese companies in the UK, and even learned a few words of Japanese, and spent a week in Japan as part of a union delegation, this was a choice that ticked an evident number of boxes; on top of which was the book’s prime offer, in marketing terms: ‘If you could go back, who would you want to meet?’ For the Funiculi Funicula cafe (the name reflects a Neapolitan song which has a role in Japanese anime) is no ordinary coffee house: according to an urban legend, it is able to transport people across time – provided they observe a number of protocols and rules (this is Japan). One of these is that they have to return before their coffee goes cold; and another is that the present cannot be changed. As Kawaguchi comments, this means that his characters have to face their reality and that the story is more than just a dream.

Four people – all women – take up the challenge in this short book (of a shade over 200 pages) and its four chapters tell the story of each, although many of the same characters appear in all of the four stories. Or rather, four acts, this being originally a play (and then a film), with the characters on stage for long periods before each evolving to take their turn in the spotlight. As such, much of the tale’s work takes place in dialogue while the descriptive detail tends towards establishing stage directions while setting very careful and highly elaborate scenery and a charged atmosphere appropriate to the cafe’s own history (dating back 140 years to the end of the Edo period) as well as its own, contemporary, legend. Thus, we hear the bell ringing as customers enter the subterranean cafe almost as a familiar character; clocks on the wall idiosyncratically tell different times; and the decoration is sepia-toned: at once classical and reinforcing of the importance of the events that take place within its walls. There is, of course, also a neat nod to Japanese attention to ceremony within the pouring of the coffee for the travellers – only by Kazu, who helps to run the cafe, and with the same mantras and routines accompanying each person’s journey. Both the cafe’s setting, as well as those who inhabit it, leap off the page at the reader.

The four people who travel – a young woman looking to change the course of a conversation with a boyfriend; a nurse seeking to secure the delivery of a personal letter she knows her husband living with advancing Alzheimer’s has written her; a woman trying to escape her destiny seeks one more conversation with her sister, on whom the load has otherwise fallen; and a pregnant mother seeking to meet the daughter she never knew – are all clearly looking for something and with successively more intense levels of emotion: and this is where the book really works. The tales all set highly believable, increasingly tragedic situations for their characters to inhabit and, while the sentimentality and romanticism of the stories is evidently strong (this is Japan), the author/playwright’s skill in relating them means that he never descends into corny mawkishness or nostalgia. There is both a tenderness and a kindness to the tales and we all need more of both.

The book’s translation is perhaps not quite fluent: the text has a tendency to stop and start rather than flow naturally, although this might also reflect the differences in the natural skill sets of authors and playwrights; and, while clearly also within the traditions of minimalism, it also appears excessively formal although the culture differences between 2014 Japan and 2014 Glasgow, for example, means that we shouldn’t read too much into that. Conversely, that means that it does sit somewhat oddly out of its form and original context and this rather impedes the delivery of the message. Some of the events require the reader to suspend not only reality but also overlook some of the weaknesses in the plotting.

The major criticism that could be levelled, however, is of the book’s gender-based differences: the men tend to be strong, silent types while the women, the travellers, are the ones who engage therefore in more of the sentimentality and romance of the theme. That would be a fair enough point, although there is also the practicality that the theatre troupe for whom the play was written had more women than men. Furthermore, I think the author is seeking to engage more in highlighting the emotional maturity required to understand both ourselves and, equally importantly, the others with whom we share at least parts of our lives. That’s of course not a preserve only of women – but none of the novel’s male characters, while themselves nuanced, have the maturity required to deliver the depths of such a message. In a short work with relatively few characters, this means that it is women who are called upon to deliver the insights that the author wants to get across. There’s power and strength conveyed in that, too.

At the same time, this provides an interesting study of the ability of the author – a man – to write convincing women characters while nonetheless delivering the insights and the messages that he has developed as a man.

Whether or not the urban legend about the cafe’s mystical powers is true is an open question, but the takeaway message is that we frequently have powers to change our futures, even if we are denied the opportunity to change our presents, provided that we understand both ourselves and the motivations and desires of others; and where we have the courage and the heart to change things. That’s an eternal message, perhaps, but it’s not one whose message has ever been lost however frequent the re-telling; and here we have a book whose premise delivers an interesting, and thoughtful, twist on precisely how to get that across.