This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
BLOWZABELLA Strange News Blowzabella 3
Photo: Lieve Boussauw
Celebrating 35 influential years of instrumental diversity, musical unruliness, cultural bravura and an unremittingly colourful sense of adventure, Blowzabella produce a brand new album that satisfyingly reflects all those attributes. Flying English bagpipes, fiddles a-go-go, that wonderfully eccentric hurdy gurdy drone, Jo Freya pitching in with her sax and clarinet, Andy Cutting’s inimitable accordeon and Barn Stradling’s dextrous bass work giving the glorious cacophony of ideas, melodies and instruments a coherent root.
In many ways, this album marks a return to their early years as a rampaging dance outfit with benefits, except that now they are far superior instrumentally and there’s more – but not total – order to the chaos. Happily there’s no dilution of imagination or intent, and when they let rip in full Gallic splendour on rousing tunes like Cotillon and Malique, with its intriguing divergence into jazz, you can only marvel at the exhilarating confusion of it all. Whether an Andy Cutting schottische, a Gregory Jolivet waltz, a Jon Swayne mazurka or a Paul James step-dance tune, they make a splendid racket that lifts the soul and electrifies the feet. When it all comes together in perfect instrumental harmony as it does on the beautiful tune set The Muffler/Bhaskar’s, the effect is enthralling.
Back when it all began, of course, they had no singer and now the potent counterpoint to the instrumental ingenuity is the singing of Jo Freya, bringing an almost sedate Englishness to traditional songs like All Things Are Quite Silent, Searching For Lambs and The Blacksmith (the Strange News of the title) which is topped off with a lively instrumental treatment of Lovely Joan. The air of studied gentility amid the blazing colour and intense rhythms around her is one of the most engaging characteristics of this uplifting album.
There was nothing like Blowzabella when they started all those years ago… and there’s nothing like them still.
OMAR SOULEYMAN Wenu Wenu Ribbon Music RBN029CD
Photo: Crimson Glow Photography
11th May 2010 will forever be seared into my memory. Tempted by the possibility of the ultimate extreme world music noise terror gig – a double bill of Omar Souleyman and Konono No.1 – I’d taken a hundred mile motorway drive. As we emerged staggering and ear-battered into the spring night at the end of the gig, I turned on the car radio to discover that while we’d been inside, Nick Clegg had done the deal to sell the soul of a once great political party: we now had an unelected Tory government in all but name.
Well, things are far worse elsewhere of course, and I’ve been wondering recently what had happened to Syria’s dabke legend as his country fell apart and the weddings, parties and anything market must have almost entirely vanished. Seems, according to a recent interview in the Independent, that he’s relocated to Turkey, saying that “There is really no more music in Syria. The darkness of war has taken over. I do not perform in Syria any longer and for the time being I will not do so. It is not the right time for that.”
Much has been made of how this album, produced by the UK’s Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, embraces “cutting-edge dancefloor sounds”, but actually there’s nothing new or invasive here at all: it’s exactly what we heard him do three years ago, except much better recorded than any of his previous albums. Those had all been atmospheric lifts from his hundreds of Syrian cassettes or live tour recordings since Sublime Frequencies’ championing of him put him in front of audiences from a church in Brighton to Glastonbury. Really, the synth kick drum is beefed up a little and there’s more clarity – both to great advantagee – but that’s about it. OK, there’s actually a rather good slower number, Mamal Jamar, almost an anthemic ballad in this context, but it’s otherwise just Omar in glorious full flight.
“Just”? The minimalist information on this slim package tells us that it was recorded in Brooklyn and is entirely the work of Omar and his trusty live sidekick Rizan Sa’id. The latter is clearly a genius: as I mentioned when reviewing Omar’s last album Haflat Gharbia, he’s up there with his couple of Korgs producing a rhythm section pounding out authentic-sounding dafs and darbukas, pretty convincing high-speed electric quanuns, mizmars and saz, or occasionally a full Arabic orchestra. And Omar sings. Or rants. Or howls, as Omars are supposed to do. It is the single most energising musical jolt this side of early ‘50s Howling Wolf in Memphis.
So big congratulations and compliments to Kieran Hebden for not turning this into a “cutting edge dancefloor” outing, but simply doing what the best producers should: making the artist sound the best they possibly can at what they do, not turning them into something they aren’t. “It is the best sound I have ever had,” says Omar. That’s exactly what Nick Gold did with Buena Vista Social Club, and if Omar gets to sell 8 million albums we’ll all be very happy.
• www.ribbonmusic.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
LAL WATERSON Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning Fledg’ling FLED3095
Photo: Dave Peabody
Even now – maybe especially now fifteen years after her cruelly untimely death – the voice and songs of Lal Waterson seem to emanate from a different universe entirely. There’s a wild freshness that mirrors nature and earthy environment but follows no conventional sense of structure melodically, lyrically or even in terms of vocal phrasing. Lal’s music was so intuitively individual and rarefied it’s small wonder that, while many have tried, few outside her immediate family have ever successfully got to grips with the mesmerising mystery of her songs.
That mystery is well preserved even as so many different layers and dimensions are revealed on this extraordinary CD and hardback book. The relative primitiveness of these home demos – mostly with the most rudimentary guitar accompaniment that sometimes seems to bear little relationship to her songs – would damn most artists. With Lal, however, you instinctively want to get as close as you can to the nub of her inspiration and, while elaborate arrangements and sophisticated production never came remotely into play on her studio recordings, hearing her music stripped to its barest bones, sounding so vulnerable and intimate, adds plenty to its dark beauty.
Most of the songs here are already familiar to devotees in some shape or form – The Scarecrow, Never The Same, Evon Our Darling (rather than Evona Darling as it was titled on the Shining Bright album), Shady Lady, Red Wine And Promises, Song For Thirza and Black Horse (one of the standout tracks on the new Lisa Knapp album with Marry Waterson guesting) are all popular favourites, but the stark informality of these recordings dating back to the early ’70s and beyond offer a very different flavour and a deeper understanding of them. To Make You Stay, one of the less celebrated Bright Phoebus tracks (a line from which gives this set its title) seems to have acquired an extra layer of pathos and desperation in its sparseness.
Rare gems are also secreted within. Some classic Mike Waterson accompanying whooping on Shine, a shuddering piano arrangement of Anna Dixie, a bravura vocal performance on May Butterfly, a nod to the Beatles on Marvellous Companion and a beautiful, long-forgotten McGarrigle-esque song, Once In A Blue Moon, full of sumptuous harmonies with daughter Marry.
The project is curated by Marry and the beautifully produced book she’s put the CD inside isn’t merely a gorgeous artefact full of portraits, drawings, oil paintings, photographs and Lal’s handwritten lyrics, it offers genuine insight into the creative mind behind the songs. Not through long, garbled explanations of the songs – clarity was never the point with Lal, and slightly irritatingly there’s actually very little information about the circumstances of individual tracks – but through a loving portrait of a multi-dimensional artist whose paintings, poetry and weaving were clearly as important to her as the music.
In a sense they are they are all part of the same creative process and the way the book presents illustrations alongside Lal’s scribbled words – crossings-out and all – is reminiscent of the way Woody Guthrie’s work has sometimes appeared.
The whole thing is very precious and profoundly moving.
• www.thebeesknees.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
JOSEPH KABASELE Le Grand Kallé: His Life And Music Sterns STCD3058-59
Much reverenced as the founding father of modern Congolese pop music, Joseph Kabasele with this handsome compendium finally gets the serious release he merits. There are two CDs of songs – many taken from shellac and vinyl, not available for decades – with 104 pages of authoritative and entertaining text from compiler Ken Braun to tell the story of Congolese pop music and Le Grand Kallé’s great contribution to it.
The music covers the ’50s and the ’60s, but the roots are deeper. Braun takes up the story with slavery, which took Africans disproportionately from the Congo region to the Americas. Although usually prohibited from playing it, they brought music with them – people with different languages and culture thrown in with each other, hearing and exchanging new things, and also picking up from European modes. Resulting hybrids in the US include jazz and blues. In Cuba there was son, which, when reimported into Africa, largely by sailors, rang a deep and resonant bell all over the continent. It was their own music come back, with a new lick of paint.
This was the music that fired Kabasele, who was both a trained musician and a lover of local music. He put it all together with his band African Jazz. They called it rumba, though it was not that close to Cuban rumba. Other bands tried to follow, but Kallé was the classiest. He was the first.
As time went by, you can hear his rumba Congolaise taking on more and more of a real local flavour. Though not as gutsy as say Franco – it became more powerful, heady and soulful, and it lost some of the ever-cheery nite-spot veneer. But at first, it remained as true as the musicians could make it to the Latin model. Lyrics were often sung in a kind of imitation fake Spanish. Nite-spot veneer was very much the thing. You can hear it all here – the quality of the brass playing, the sophisticated charm of the piano, the smooth harmonising of the singers – including such future luminaries as Rochereau – and in the guitar. The arrival of the electric guitar was a great enabler – now we had guitar solos that could be heard louder than the brass, in all their rippling glory, principally from Dr Nico.
By the late ’60s Kallé’s musical career was coming to a close, though he lived until 1983. But his legacy, cited by every rumba star from Franco and Rochereau down, remained intact. Joseph Kabasele left his mark, and here it is.
• www.sternsmusic.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
AND THE REST… The albums - good, adequate and plain bad - which didn't get the full-length treatment, contributed individually by a selection of our various reviewers cowering under the cloak of collective anonymity. For example…
Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition) (Cooking Vinyl COOKCD596)
A remastering of Bragg’s seminal 17-minute debut rallying cry from 1983 partnered with a galvanising live rendition of the album from his June 2013 London Union Chapel encore. As visceral, relevant and energising at it ever was. cookingvinyl.com
Nando Citarella & Tamburi Del Vesuvio: Carosonando (Alfa Music AFMCD163)
An album of very pleasant, very accessible Italian MOR pop folk offers lots of variety. A good Neapolitan-style voice is heard in front of a well-arranged orchestra but it does little to challenge the ears or stimulate interest. www.felmay.it
The Gotthard Sisters: Compass (Own label, no cat no)
Three fiddling sisters sporting more blonde hair than a bleachers’ convention, The Gotthard Sisters pack a musical punch within their modus operandi. Compass has zestful tunes and sprightly dance steps with coyly ambient vocal interludes. Sweet, noteworthy and exceedingly worthwhile. www.gotthardsisters.com
Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby: Cluck Old Hen (Skaggs Family 69805042)
An odd pairing, captured live in concert with Hornsby joining Skaggs and his band to mix his own songs with bluegrass standards. It works remarkably well as Hornsby’s piano, voice and songs fit the genre well. www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down