Saturday, 3 December 2016

Steeleye Span - Dodgy Bastards, album review

Rocking the Child Ballads and More

I saw Steeleye Span once in their starter years, at The Gaumont Theatre in Ipswich, early 70s, where I saw many brilliant emerging bands, and it was as I recall an excellent gig, their folkrock very much an exemplary encapsulation of the time when Pentangle had set the bar so high yet SS established their own excellence.

I haven’t followed their career, especially of late when they have, apparently, been most active and productive, but this November release is absolutely stonking: folk progrock played with such energy and creativity. Maddie Prior is still providing the most distinctive, powerful vocal, and the addition of Jessica May Stuart adds another fine vocal but more importantly her violin which delivers throughout some of the sweetest layers of sound as well as stunning solos as in The Gardener, to name just one. The title track is a brilliant instrumental ensemble performance, seeped in obvious folk tropes, but more crucially Rock – the drumming just a thumping roll of heaviness.

There is glorious, pretty folk like second All Things Are Quite Silent, its lyrics of sorrow and woe the template for this plaintive folk core, both melodically and poetically, Stuart’s violin sweeping through with empathetic ache; third Johnnie Armstrong with its milk-white steed and other references [the storytelling stereotypes so welcoming, most songs taken from the work of 19th century American scholar Francis James Child and his collection of English and Scottish Ballads] presenting the band in rousing voice and lovely harmonising; seventh Cromwell’s Skull combining pretty harmonies, pretty violin and a gorgeous guitar solo, and a ten minute closer that presents in tandem The Lofty Tall Ships and Shallow Brown, showcasing the two obvious styles of firstly rock and then folk, the latter with Prior in exquisite voice as well as soothing atmospheric instrumentals of bass, guitar and violin.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Kurt Elling - The Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas, album review

Christmas Considerations

On the one hand, I despise like so many others the relentless pre-December celebration of Christmas, primarily an outrageous October start to the commercial enterprise focused on prising us out of our money, the once TV subliminals totally usurped by the contemporary in-your-face temptation to acquire anything and everything advertised as the insistent norm of possession at this festive time. On the other, I do love when December arrives.

I like especially Christmas music/songs. Radio play of ‘classic’ hits [Slade et al] also begins too early, but today has opened the aural doors to my now unimpaired-by-principled-resistance listening appreciation and I have enjoyed an early morning breakfast sampling. The industry has also for years mass-produced established musical stars’ Christmas albums, from bands and solo singers [think Motown] to genres like Country and Soul – you can recall millions. Increasingly, this has been variously gift-wrapped in the poles of the turgidly repetitive to the genuinely adventurous, the latter often intentionally paradoxical: though I can’t think of an exact illustration [!] but, for example, a raw punk Christmas carols collection. You know what I mean.

Joy to the world then to have this Kurt Elling Christmas album, a jazz manoeuver into the festive oeuvre that has credibility in the sublime vocal as well as musical arrangements of the American singer. More than this, Elling’s rationale for the album makes eminent sense when he expresses it so sensibly: In the Western world, whether you’re a Christian or not, Christmas has some kind of seasonal relevance to you. You can’t really escape the holiday – even if it’s just coming at you on television … For me, the holiday comes enriched with a lot of beautiful personal memories. It also comes freighted with the knowledge that millions of other people around the world carry their own such memories; and not all those memories are of happy occasions. So it was daunting to take on something with so much history and resonance. I hope that with this material I found a sweet spot.

One of the sweetest spots is Elling’s covering of the beautiful Christmas melody We Three Kings. This has a rolling piano to introduce a choric start and then into its melodic line, this harmonised in his signature way, and next guitarist John McLean adds his own jazzy lines. Elling’s baritone brings forward individual narrative lines interspersed with a chorus as the song progresses.

Another sweetly emotive rendition is of the 1951 Hutson and Albert carol Some Children See Him, contemporised also by James Taylor, and though Elling cannot supplant its heavy Christian referencing – not that he wants too – his phrasing seems to bring out its poetry much more, and Jim Gailloreto on soprano sax adds his own poetic jazz verses.

In more playful mood, Little Drummer Boy gets another Elling signature stroke, here the scatting of its lyric and especially of the onomatopoeic Pa rum pum pum pum/Ra pum pum pum/Ra pum pum pum, drummer Kendrick Scott ‘smackin’ some skin’ in this perfect encapsulation.

Elling’s selection of traditional Christmas songs as well as newer ones [for example Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas] is extended by his setting of Kenneth Patchen’s poem The Snow is Deep on the Ground to music, conveying perhaps the most stereotypical jazz inflections [phrasing over melody], and this is merged first with the A.R. Ammons’ poem Winter Scene

There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves

and then secondly – so the third segment of this poetic amalgam – lyrics from the Manhattan Transfer song Snowfall: such a literate selection and structuring.

The penultimate song is Hathaway’s funkyish number, and the album closes on a sweet title track duet between Kurt and his daughter Luiza, with accompaniment by Jill Kaeding on cello, and the childlike desires of its imaginings, which reside unashamedly in the Christmas dream, are ones we can accept for the range of considering that has preceded them.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Le Wolves - Le Wolves, album review

The Growl of the Present

Retro is no dirty word to this reviewer, steeped in nostalgia as I am and with a ghostly steam of the past rising from my aural appreciation like dew in the morning sun – and clearly not averse either to the extended metaphor – but I am nonetheless equally enamoured when contemporary bands bring a fresh brushstroke to Rock’s ancient paintwork.

Fresno California band Le Wolves do just that with this eponymous release, their ‘good shags’ Rock and Roll a track to track burn-up of wheel spun punkrock, lots of screeching in the guitars, drums bombarding, and vocals surrounded by screams and an apparent chorus of echoing shouts including coughs – well you would have to. There are two longish songs, Wizardry is one at four minutes like the other, and this is quite delicate, in a comparative way with more control in the screeching guitar work and shouted chorus – even the drums slow to a steady beat for more screeching guitar to sway above – and the vocal is sweetly progfolkrock until there is a speeded up return to the song’s core line. This is actually quite a complex song cycle, in the rock basics scheme of things. But the screams keep it symptomatic. Great stuff.

Hit Me Slow Like an Overdose follows this, and the burn-up is back on fire, the vocal hollowed out to a background scatter so that the instruments drive it all, punk rhythms, pounding bass and those pummelling drums. Way Back Home then arrives on the same bullet train merging punk and psychedelia, a brief guitar solo of sublime fuzziness. The rest is the same wildness, though Juanita, the other four-minuter, is lightened with a trebled bass and bird-like guitar riffs, though there is still some screeching. What an excellent rousing early evening's listen this has been

Can be heard here.

Pool [and Billiards] Music 2

Monday, 28 November 2016

Stone Machine - Rock Ain't Dead, album review

Legion of Riffing Rockers

I know a reviewer/writer should avoid falling prey to omphaloskepsis, but I do occasionally check out what I have previously said about bands, and I have to say, in the enthusing vernacular of the day, I think I 'nail/smashed it' when hitherto describing Stone Machine as producing ….trousers-driven rock. Tight fitting, and you can read the rest of my assessments here.

This 2014 release – I always seem to be a little behind with them, not that it matters – is more of the same from these honorary contemporary members of LORR. It is a genuine fusion of AC/DC, Free, Led Zep and, interestingly, similar to the fine appropriations of the same by a band like The Answer until their latest, reviewed here, that seems to have taken a tangent.

It’s all here: the chugger Sad to Say; the acoustic, plaintive ballad Mr Blues [a suitably tilted platitude], and pretty damn fine; a slide-sassy Sky’s Gonna Cry; the pump and pomp of the title track; stereo guitar shifts across speakers and a great riff with Sugar Mama; even more sublime riffing on Black Moon Creepin’ [with some Black S in there too with its blues], and closer Angels and Devils that reminds of Black Crowes at their generic LORR best.