Wednesday, 26 April 2017
Finger Plucked Beauty
This is a beautiful folk album by Ben Chasny as Six Organs of Admittance. Whilst mainly gentle fare [rather than other band Comets of Fire psychedelic rock], it is the finger-plucked guitar playing that stands to the gorgeous fore, especially instrumental Reservoir that rolls down from a repeated single high note in one of the simplest but soothing melodic lines. Another superb instrumental is the acoustic duet Around the Axis between Chasny and Ryley Walker, reminding of Jansch and Renbourn.
There is some fuzz and other rock on the excellent Taken by Ascent, if you want a bit of this as well. And why not.
Tuesday, 25 April 2017
In opening track Dreams Don’t Come True, which begins as a ‘demo’ then morphs to a hit record, Angaleena Presley defines the reality behind stardom and other seemingly attainable aspirations, the ones which hang around the darkest corner of your mind, and is a melancholic yet sweetly performed song accentuating the pathos in the easy failures, even when pursued in righteous defiance, I flipped the bird to them whores in high school, an apt line as it precedes the following song titled High School where a similar portrait of real life continues when a schoolgirl pregnancy is portrayed for all its tragedy, boys don’t want the mom to be, they want the prom queen. It is a universal: growing up can bring you down.
These ‘classic’ but freshly composed and played songs bring a common sense to the otherwise escapist narratives of Country [C&W/American] life. This is obviously furthered in third song Country where knowing the back of a hand and a bible are further monuments of endured and hopeful life torn down for their nonsense of casual acceptance.
Wrangled tackles the surprising persistence, it seems, of a society still defining a woman’s role where Presley namechecks, for example, girls in the magazines, cherry pie, ironing shirts, and what the bible says as well as other archaic expectations of cultural behaviour still thriving today. And this is again a sweetly composed and performed song, plaintive and yet defiant, the satire biting, as it should, if you listen.
There are many other ‘meaningful’ songs on this album, and all are graced with consummate musicality, Presley clearly a rising and worthy star [though reading informed reviews out there we are shown it hasn’t been and isn’t an easy journey for Presley to break through mainstream expectations, and perhaps the gender expectations she so consistently challenges in her lyrics]. I will in closing mention one more track, however: Cheer Up Little Darling is another sweet tune, speaking of a gentle defiance this time, but notable for a spoken intro – a snatch of the lyrics from this song that he co-wrote – from her friend and mentor Guy Clark, sadly passed. She has been in good company, and it shows.
Monday, 24 April 2017
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & Martyn Brabbins - Howard Skempton 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', album review
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is probably the most famous narrative [lyrical] poem in the English language. And it is the narrative thread which makes it so compelling: the storytelling – that double ruse of the mariner haranguing the wedding guests with his tale and then we as readers also listening. It is a melodramatic story highlighted by their horror at its contents and then further illumined by our engagement with the poetic reverie.
And how do we best hear/receive this? A seemingly rhetorical question – of course, we read it! At the time of composition and contemporary readership it is Coleridge’s art which demanded attention, and that naturally still applies today. The tale is itself captivating – though not wholly original in the sense of someone having undertaken an ‘epic’ journey and testing – and its rendition is made notable by the quality, even hyperbole of poetic expression. It really is this straightforward. That such poetic language excites and generates the seeing of our imagining is the essence of its implicit oral tradition as well as ballad-like written narration.
An external source of further inspiration would by the images drawn for the text by Gustave Doré some eighty years after Coleridge wrote his poem. These make a vivid imaginative accompaniment to any reading. There is a wealth of recorded readings that can also be easily accessed: by Orson Wells, by Richard Burton, by Ian McKellen. Burton, for example, accentuates the rhythms and rhyme in the poetry, treating it very much as the written piece it is; Wells recites his piece within the opening context of peaceful bird song and an organ’s playing, until a bell tolls, and this is framed within a wonderful animation by experimental film maker Larry Jordan.
So where does the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & Martyn Brabbins - Howard Skempton, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner sit as another medium for listening to this great poem? First and foremost – and paradoxically – it isn’t the music. Certainly not in any melodic sense. This is mood music, paired back orchestral accompaniments to mirror the language of the storytelling and its own shifts in mood and emotion. For example, in Part I at the point the mariner begins to actually relate his tale
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong….
the hitherto lightly neutral score is shifted to the brooding tone of cello/strings, this again shifting to a more sustained strain and the oscillating vocal of Roderick Williams with
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by….
This continues throughout, not surprisingly, and it would be pointless [and protracted] to plot all of that in a review.
Part II begins with a stark piano strike, but then moves immediately into those string strains, the piano rising and falling with the vocal recitation. Where the vocal itself mimics a shift in mood is, for example, in a poetic focus, as in the alliterative stanza of
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into the silent sea
and Williams’ baritone rises to quite a pretty tonal pitch – compared with, to be precise, what is otherwise the absolute clarity of the baritone as a more singsong narration.
This rise and fall continues through Part III, horns joining, and strings plucked to advance the pace. And from here, as a listener, I am not entirely enthralled by the music, but Williams’ enunciation across the lexical richness of Coleridge’s language does continue to engage for that precision [and the trills he manages in simple, monosyllabic words like free].
The cello [or similar] returns in Part IV to map out the horrid observations of the slimy things, horns mournful across lines like
Lay dead like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
And I am plotting now!
Premiered live in Birmingham and London early in December of 2015, this 2017 premier recording adds another layer to the performances of this amazingly enduring story. I prefer the narration of Orson Wells as a straight comparison [with or without the animation] but this is because I am not a huge fan of the operatic, though I would stress this solo vocal and chamber ensemble allows the focus on the ‘spoken’ poetry, and therefore the poetry itself, to reign. As it should.