Album: CAROLINE DOCTOROW – Another Country: The Songs of Mimi and Richard Farina (Narrow Lane Records 2008)


Let’s be frank here. Tribute albums aren’t normally much cop. They rarely add much to the originals. Sometimes, though, there are writers who have been virtually lost in the cracks of history. Richard Farina is one such figure. His recorded ouevre ran to just two LPs with his wife Mimi (née Baez) before his untimely death in a motorbike accident in April 1966 aged just 29.

In terms of the number of published songs, there aren’t much more than a couple of dozen. But among them are some of the greatest of the era. There is a fine line between treating the songs with the respect they deserve and treating them as holy artefacts to be revered rather than interpreted. It’s a line that singer-songwriter Caroline Doctorow treads with the skill of a beam-balancing gymnast. The original recordings often had a fairly bare instrumentation of dulcimer and autoharp. Doctorow’s arrangements are much more expansive, but are never overly decorative. It leads to an album that sounds thoroughly modern, not like an archaeological project.

Doctorow’s voice has a pleasing country-ish lilt to it, like a less-accented Emmylou Harris. Multi-instrumentalist Pete Kennedy also deserves particular praise for the way that he subtly fills the spaces behind Doctorow’s voice and guitar. A few of these songs have been covered fairly extensively before. Kendra Smith did a good version of “Bold Marauder” some years ago (my first exposure to Farina’s work), but my favourite ever was Sandy Denny’s magical reading of “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” on her Sandy album. It’s a song that seems as old as folk music itself. The version here isn’t quite as extraordinary as Denny’s, but still has that same slightly unsettling spiritual air and is one of the album’s highlights.

Other songs that shine in this setting include “Reno Nevada” with its Calexico-like Tex-Mex arrangement, the beautiful, chilling “Birmingham Sunday” and the glassy, cyclical “Reflections in a Crystal Wind”. “Another Country” is superb, too. It has a tune that will be familiar to Byrds’ fans since they lifted it wholesale for “Space Odyssey”.

There are a few guest turns (Nanci Griffith, John Sebastian and Happy Traum all make a couple of appearances), but Another Country is ultimately about the songs. The covers don’t necessarily trump the originals (although some are at least as good), but they show them in a new light. Ultimately, you need know nothing of Richard Farina to enjoy the album. The songs, and Caroline Doctorow’s sympathetic treatment of them, stand up for themselves. So, to go back to my opening statement: Every sweeping generalisation has its exceptions. Another Country is a small triumph on its own merits, and a hugely enjoyable listen.

1 Bold Marauder 4:37
2 Raven Girl 4:57
3 Children of Darkness 4:07
4 Reflections in a Crystal Wind 3:25
5 Sell-Out Agitation Waltz 3:05
6 Another Country 4:04
7 Hard-Lovin’ Loser 4:19
8 Birmingham Sunday 4:15
9 Reno Nevada 3:49
10 The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood 5:02
11 Morgan The Pirate 5:08
12 Mainline Prosperity Blues 6:22
13 Celebration for a Grey Day 0:31



Album: QUINTA – My Sister, Boudicca (Tartaruga TTRCD003 2009)


Tartaruga isn’t the most prolific of labels, but every release is lavish in both packaging and content (the above scan is from the promo – the real thing comes in a hand crafted card sleeve, stitched, silk-screened and with an insert). The label has an arts and crafts ethos, with each CD being designed as an work of art in itself. Previous releases by Bleeding Heart Narrative and Brassica have had musical content to match.

Third up is My Sister, Boudicca by Quinta (so named by her classics teacher dad because she was the fifth of five siblings). It’s a record of quite stunning grace and beauty, but also wildly inventive and playful. All self-played, you can tell that she loves exploring sound, and the objects that make it. No two tracks share the same instrumentation, but there’s never a feeling of clutter or that anything is not intrinsic to the piece. Organ, violin, viola, clarinet, musical saw, accordion, various toys and a variety of percussion are all used, but everything fits perfectly.

The music is as varied and original as the instruments used to make it. Approximately half vocal pieces and half instrumentals, the underlying theme is a mixture of gentle humour and wistful nostalgia. Quinta’s singing voice has a slightly wobbly purity to it that reminds me of Shirley Collins or Virginia Astley. On the album’s title song, it’s multi-tracked to stunning effect. On “James and the Ocean” there is a folkish air that is redolent of the pastoral adaptations of A E Housman’s poems by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Elsewhere, the spirits of Steve Reich, múm, and Rachel’s are evoked, but only ever in a tangential fashion.

The album lacks any stand out tracks only because the standard is so uniformly high. “Supernova” is slightly spooky, an organ led piece with some space-age effects, while “Reading to Me” features accordion, viola, saw and someone (her mum?) reading a cake recipe, with odd asides. “In America” is the nearest thing to a straight pop tune (it has drums and everything), but still has an off-kilter melancholy about it. Things end with “At the Top of Bear Hill”, a symphony for toy instruments that includes swanee whistle, recorder, whistling, hand claps, bird song and other stuff I couldn’t identify. It may sound twee, but isn’t. It has a sweet charm – something that the whole album possesses in spades.

My Sister, Boudicca is a beautiful, witty and original record that delights from beginning to end. It’ll be issued on April 13th as a limited edition of 200 hard copies, although a download will also be available.

01 They Come, The Burning
02 James And The Ocean
03 Two Dead Birds
04 My Sister, Boudicca
05 Reading To Me
06 The Finest Riddle
07 Supernova
08 Sunday’s Child
09 In America
10 The Ballad Of The Ice Dancer
11 At The Top Of Bear Hill


A Few Forthcoming Releases (April 2009)

Some stuff out soon. Dates can go up and down and sometimes disappear altogether. Don’t blame me.

6th Apr
BLACK DOG – Further Vexations (Soma)
BOB MOULD – Life and Times (ADA)
CRYSTAL ANTLERS – Tentacles (Touch & Go)
DOVES – Kingdom of Rust (EMI)
FLOWERS OF HELL – Come Hell or High Water (Benbecula)
JON HASSELL – Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (ECM)
MARISSA NADLER – Little Hells (Kemado)
NEIL YOUNG – Fork in the Road (Reprise)

13th Apr
BILL CALLAHAN – Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle (Drag City)
MONKS – Black Monk Time remaster (Repertoire)
PREFUSE 73 – Everything She Touched Turned Ampexian (Warp)
QUINTA – My Sister Boudicca (Tartaruga)
SKYTREE – Windings of the Dragon Track (Herb)

20th Apr
BJÖRK – Voltaic (One Little Indian)
BOXCUTTER – Arecibo Message (Planet Mu)
CAMERA OBSCURA – My Maudlin Career (4AD)
HANDSOME FAMILY – Honey Moon (Loose)
HECQ – Steeltongued (Hymen)
JOHN ZORN – Alhambra Love Songs (Tzadik)
PILLOWDRIVER – Sleeping Pills (12K)
SPUNK – Kantarell (Rune Grammofon)
TONIKOM – The Sniper’s Veil (Hymen)

27th Apr
BELL ORCHESTRE – As Seen Through Windows (Arts & Crafts)
BOB DYLAN – Together Through Life (Columbia)
HAROLD BUDD / CLIVE WRIGHT – Candylion (Darla)
KINGBASTARD – Tied Up to Machines (Herb)
SWEET TRIP – You Will Never Know Why (Darla)
VARIOUS – The Complete Goldwax Singles Vol 1 1962-66 (Ace)
WOODEN SHJIPS – Dos (Holy Mountain)

4th May
JOHN FOXX & ROBIN GUTHRIE – Mirrorball (Metamatic)
OUR BROTHER THE NATIVE – Sacred Psalms (Fat Cat)
ST VINCENT – Actor (4AD)
TARA JANE O’NEIL – A Ways Away (K)

11th May
FLUNK – This Is What You Get (Beatservice)
LAURENT GARNIER – Tales of a Kleptomaniac (F Communications)

18th May
A HAWK AND A HACKSAW – Délivrance (Leaf)
CLUES – Clues (Constellation)
ELFIN SADDLE – Ringing For The Begin Again (Constellation)
JARVIS COCKER – Further Complications (Rough Trade)
MY BLOODY VALENTINE – Isn’t Anything / Loveless remasters (Sony)
MY LATEST NOVEL – Deaths and Entrances (Bella Union)
NATHAN FAKE – Hard Islands (Border Community)
TORI AMOS – Abnormally Attracted to Sin (Universal)

25th May
CHRIST. – Live (Benbecula)

8th Jun
SONIC YOUTH – The Eternal (Matador)

22nd Jun
DINOSAUR JR – Farm (Jagjaguwar)
TORTOISE – Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey)

The M M & M 1000 – part 22

Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Rounding up H.

JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE – Hey Joe / Stone Free (Polydor 56139 1966)
This must have sounded like it was beamed in from another planet when it appeared just at the very end of 1966.

EDDIE HOLMAN – Hey There Lonely Girl / It’s All in the Game (ABC 1120 1969)
Some five years after it was released in the US this was a big British hit – the only one Holman had. It was a popular last-dance slowie on the northern soul scene, marked out by Eddie’s incredible falsetto.

SAM & DAVE – Hold On I’m Coming / I Got Everything I Need (Stax 189 1966)
It must be my dirty mind, but I always read a meaning into the title which really isn’t there :) Mind you, the blaring horns and the muscular rhythm section combined with Sam Moore and Dave Prater’s breathless vocals have more than a touch of the orgasmic about them, so perhaps I can be forgiven.

DEAD KENNEDYS – Holiday in Cambodia / Police Truck (IRS 9016 1980)
There’s no doubt in my mind that this was the band’s finest three minutes. East Bay Ray’s guitar sound is edge-of-your-seat gripping, and the track has a velocity that sends it hurtling into the heart of darkness. It’s also one of Biafra’s most furious lyrics, both eloquent and dripping with bitter sarcasm. Is he really advocating that complacent rich kids should be sent to be dealt with by the Khmer Rouge? Not really – it’s an angry tirade at pretend-to-care, look-how-ethnic-I-am-darling, deeply rotten Western pseudo-liberalism.

ESTHER PHILLIPS – Home is Where the Hatred Is / Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone (Kudu 904 1972)
This is just as angry, but the fury is turned inward. When Gil Scott-Heron wrote this, it was a leap of imagination to put himself in the junkie’s shoes. His own crack nightmare was many years off. Esther Phillips had lived the life, though. She’d had an up and down career, starting when barely into her teens with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. She’d known spells of being addicted to booze, pills and heroin. And that experience told in her reading of “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”. The pain, hurt, desperation and self-hatred are all there in her voice. To my mind, it’s one of the very greatest soul vocal performances.

SIMON & GARFUNKEL – Homeward Bound / Leaves That Are Green (Columbia 43551 1966)
Widnes in Cheshire’s one claim to fame is that this was written at the railway station during Paul Simon’s year spent playing the folk clubs up and down the UK. It’s a beautiful meditation on homesickness.

SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES – Hong Kong Garden / Voices (Polydor 2059052 1978)
Great riffs, great tune. The lyrics are cringeworthy. Every hackneyed stereotype about the Chinese is trotted out – chop suey, prostitution, pollution, junks, rice and Confucius. It reaches its nadir with the couplet “Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise / A race of bodies small in size”. It was a different era – we sometimes forget how much we’ve moved on from the seventies. At the time, nobody batted an eyelid. Still, like I said, great riffs, great tune.

ANIMALS – House of the Rising Sun / Talkin’ ‘Bout You (EMI Columbia 7301 1964)
The song’s original protagonist was a prostitute and the titular house a brothel. It doesn’t really make sense to sing it from a male perspective, even allowing for the lyrical alterations to make it appear to be about a gambling addict. Still, you can’t fault Eric Burdon’s gritty delivery, nor the inspired organ work of Alan Price.

FALL – How I Wrote Elastic Man / City Hobgoblins (Rough Trade 48 1980)
I never quite understood why it’s called Elastic Man when MES is clearly singing “plastic man”. Don’t suppose it matters. Actually asking that would make me one of the targets of Smith’s ire. It’s a classic Fall song. He’s always at his best when he has something to grumble about. In this instance, it’s journalists and fans asking dumb-ass questions about how he writes his songs and what they’re about.

SMITHS – How Soon Is Now / Well I wonder (Rough Trade 176 1985)
The Smiths always put some of their finest songs on the B sides of singles. This originally appeared (along with “Please, Please, Please”) on the flip of the twelve inch of “William It Was Really Nothing”. Both tunes were miles better than the A side. Sense prevailed, and it was issued as a single in its own right. The reverb-heavy guitar work owes quite a bit to Can’s “I Want More”. Fabulous tune, though – probably the only time that the Smiths got close to disco heaven.

MARVELETTES – The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game / I Think I Can Change You (Tamla 54143 1967)
Brilliant as they were, the Motown girl groups weren’t really known for making sexy records. This changed that. It’s got a sensual, almost cool-jazz groove, and lead singer Wanda Young sounds every inch the predatory femme fatale. The twist, of course, being that she gets ensnared in a trap of her own making.

MILLIE JACKSON – Hurts So Good / Love Doctor (Spring 139 1973)
There were plenty of instances in soul music where the standard role of deceit and heartbreak was turned on its head. “The Dark End of the Street” tells of an adulterous affair, and Clarence Carter virtually made a career out of songs about sneaking around cheating. But women were never allowed to directly take the bad girl role. Millie Jackson changed that. Her classic concept album Caught Up deals with a menage a troi from the points of view of both the wronged wife and the mistress. “Hurts So Good” doesn’t deal directly with adultery (although it’s alluded to), but the heroine is clearly ill-treated, but seems to feel the sex is worth it.

JAMES – Hymn From a Village / If Things Were Perfect (Factory 119 1985)
I’ve never really been a fan, but James’ second single is a great piece of rough-edged, folkish indie. It has an anthemic quality like their later records, but combined with an endearing, shambling quality.

More soon

Gig: MONO (Glasgow Stereo, 23/3/09)

Okay, so it’s a formula – but then so were the classic songs of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Japanese quartet Mono do adhere to a rough template. Start gently, contemplative; build gracefully (or sometimes explode unexpectedly); and climax in a crescendo of noise. They’re not alone in doing so, either – it’s become a guitar-based, instrumental post-rock cliché. What they do have that sets them apart is a strong gift for melody. This never deserts them, even when they are in the heart of the maelstrom. As sheets of white noise engulf everything, there is always some gorgeous tune at its centre.

The last time I saw the band was at ATP in Minehead last year. They had the unenviable task of playing the first afternoon, when everybody was settling in, reacquainting themselves with old friends and generally jabbering away excitedly. In the cavernous upper bar, they got somewhat lost in all the hubbub. Playing a club like Stereo, packed to the rafters and with an atmosphere akin to a steam room, they were in their element. Even if the quiet sections were often almost overwhelmed by the venue’s noisy air con.

The new album, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, is a work on a huge scale. It’s fully orchestrated and has a tendency towards bombast. When I reviewed it, I thought it huge fun, but possibly not the sort of record that would continue to reward repeated plays. A month or so on, it still sounds exhilarating. I did wonder, though, how it would translate live, sans orchestra. As it turned out, exceptionally well.

Tonight’s set began with the first four tracks of the record and ended with its closer, with just a couple of old tunes chucked in for good measure. It sounded absolutely brilliant. The quiet bits lost none of their grace and subtlety, and the climaxes were colossal. They played for ninety minutes, but it seemed like half that. Wearing a critical hat, it could be argued that every tune signposted its direction, but I tossed my critical hat away about five minutes in and surrendered myself gleefully to the feast of aural delights. This was a band who were absolutely at ease with what they do best and who were in stunning form. The Lionel Messi’s of post-rock, perhaps.

Instal 09. Day Three (Glasgow Arches, 22/3/09)

I have to admit to feeling pretty deflated on the way home on Saturday night. Was it me, or was this year’s Instal really as dreary as it seemed? I embarked on Sunday’s proceedings several rungs down on the ladder of expectation. Fortunately, the evening went some way towards redressing the inspiration / desperation balance.

Nobody made me want to throw things this evening, but neither Seymour Wright nor the duo of Sean Meehan and Taki Unami exactly set the pulse racing. Both acts definitely fell into this year’s themed trap of doing very little for a very long time. Wright is a saxophonist. In the spirit of Instal, of course, he did everything but play the damn thing. He blew whistles through the mouthpiece, rubbed it against his trousers and rattled it against a battery operated fan amongst other fairly pointless activities. I didn’t even understand what Meehan and Unami were actually doing. Meehan had a snare drum and a couple of cymbals which he seemed to barely touch. Unami had a laptop and some trays of what looked like dried rice. He clapped every now and then. The trays rattled every now and then. Er, that’s it.

To be fair, they were the low points of a night on which standards were fairly high. Rolf Julius used field recordings of crickets, birds and pond life, and then mixed them and rerecorded them and remixed them etc etc. The result was a gentle, but continually changing sound that seemed to snake around the room. Sometimes it sounded pastoral, sometimes alien – a sort of avant-garde chill out music.

Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide‘s set was divided into three parts. Sachiko fiddled with some contact mics for a while, gleefully creating a series of snap, crackles and pops – like an amlified bowl of Rice Krispies. Otomo played a strange looking pair of pianos, somehow hooking them up to a guitar amp, causing oscillating feedback of various pitches. It was interesting, but I’d like to have heard it used in a more musical way. The pair then played their improv piece “Filament”, a duet for turntable with no records and sampler with no samples. It was a spacious piece, full of longeurs and near silence, punctuated by static crackle, feedback squeals, and the beautiful, rhythmic sound of needle on turntable.

I ventured in the small Studio Theatre on a couple of occasions this evening. Fraser Burnett, Jean-Philippe Gross and Grant Smith created an enjoyable and rhythmic scree of noise using a trio of mixers. Neil Davidson and Hannah Eliul on guitar and clarinet respectively created some delightful improvised music, let down only by vocalist Ben Knight who seemed to be convinced he was an extra on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Back to the main hall, and possibly the best two sets of the entire festival. Gross reappeared with Jérôme Noetinger, seated at opposite sides of a table situated in the middle of the arch. It was covered in all manner of electronic gizmos with cables and wires sprouting in all directions. They proceeded to create a maelstrom of electronic noise. Sometimes it was intense and dense as Merzbow, sometimes it used extremes of pitch like Pan Sonic, and sometimes it almost purred like a contented cat – albeit one with a very short temper. It was visceral and physical and rather wonderful.

The final set of the festival brought back memories of Maryanne Amacher’s extraordinary 2006 performance, in which she produced frequencies of sound that seemed impossibly loud, and also seemed to emanate from inside your head, but yet allowed you to have normal volume conversations at the same time. This time Jean-Luc Guionnet and Taku Unami somehow tuned in to the frequencies of the actual building. Using speakers set around the room, and the sort of sub bass frequencies that would have your average dubstepper gazing slackjawed in amazement, they produced a deep, rumbling barrage of noise. It wasn’t constant in pitch and tone, but oscillated, making the very fabric of the building seem to vibrate. At one point, my skeleton seemed to be jingling around in my body! The volume was high, but not excessively so – this wasn’t a performance that left your ears ringing afterwards. It was all done using frequencies of sound. Quite an experience.

It has to be said that the highlights this year weren’t plentiful. Sunday was the best day by far. There was too much stuff that seemed to lead up blind alleys, and not a great deal that felt inspiring. When the outer limits of what could be considered music are being explored, it’s always going to be hit and miss whether the results are enervating, excruciating or exciting. It’s the possibilities that keep me coming year after year. Even when the festival is below par, there is always something magical to take away from it.

Instal 09. Day Two (Glasgow Arches, 21/3/09)

To the Arches then.

One thing that has struck me, having been coming to Instal since its second year in 2002, is the festival’s move away from what can broadly be described as traditional music making towards a more conceptual sound art that is more interested in process than in form. By traditional music making, I don’t mean mainstream – but certainly using accepted instrumentation to produce forms that are recognisably musical to the untutored ear. The likes of Jandek, Loren Connors, Carsten Nicolai, Keiji Haino and Ryoji Ikeda couldn’t be described as mainstream artists by any stretch of the imagination, but they use musical forms that are not so very far from more commercially minded music to twist new shapes and sounds.

Anyone with a hankering for rhythm or melody – two standard building blocks of music – would have found very little to grab hold of tonight. The themes, if there were any, were explorations of pitch, timbre and process. This is all well and good, but it makes for an intellectual experience that can be dry, lacking heart, soul and emotional connection. And frankly it can be tedious.

Two of tonight’s more successful conceptual pieces were provided Tetsuo Kogawa and Nikos Veliotis. Kogawa used four radios, three transistors, his hands and a few glass slides to manipulate radio waves. The resultant sound was a symphony of pitch and crackle. But by having a close up camera on what he was doing projected on to a screen, we could observe a fascinating process, even if the sound wasn’t particularly musical in any accepted sense. Veliotis’s “Cello Powder” consisted of the playback of a CD of looped cello drones that he’d recorded, while he and an assistant destroyed the instrument he used using an axe, electric saw, wood chipper and finally food blender to turn it into sawdust. This was then put into jars, and each CD would be sold with an accompanying jar holding part of the cello. A power failure half way through didn’t help, but although the drones were fairly captivating, the visual element of watching wood chips being ground to powder did get a bit boring after a while.

Drones are good. I like my drones. They do seem to have become totally ubiquitous in experimental music making, to the point of being about as experimental and avant-garde as a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song. Used in conjunction with other elements, drones have a contemplative power. Used on their own, there has to be something other than empty pitch to make them interesting. Veliotis’s use of drone at least had other things going on, even if they were merely visual. Rad Malfatti and Klaus Filip used trombone and laptop and very low volume to produce a 40 odd minute piece that went precisely nowhere. Michael Pisaro‘s “An Unrhymed Chord” used twelve musicians, grouped in three quartets, on instruments as varied as trombone, guitar, laptop, sax, cello and piano, to produce a long, quiet drone that altered only as the various players came in and out. The piano (which obviously is incapable of producing long, sustained notes) occasionally chimed in with a single note repeated at intervals. This went on for over an hour, with a five minute pause of silence in the middle. Why oh why does everything always have to be so damn long? Is there special merits given for testing the listener’s patience? Is it some kind of statement against the attention deficient pace of modern life?

There were two vocal pieces tonight. I cannot begin to describe how much I hated Steve McCaffrey‘s “Carnival”. The concept was cut up poetry, with every symbol, punctuation mark and string of random consonants and vowels vocalised. Technically, it was good. But as a piece it just sounded like a random spiel of gutteral noises and occasional phrases (some done in ridiculous comedy accents) – like a four year old with severe Tourette’s. Horrible. I thought I would hate Joan La Barbara‘s wordless vocalising, too. I’m not a fan of vocal gymnastics, and scat singing makes me want to fill my ears with concrete. And I didn’t really enjoy her first few pieces that explored single pitch and circular singing (ie singing whilst inhaling as well as exhaling) although they were done well. Her “Conversations” used made up language but done in a sing-song conversational style in a variety of voices and accents that was both dazzlingly skillful, but also witty and charming. Her final piece “Rothko”, accompanied by a CD of droning bowed piano and multi-tracks of her own voice, was dark and mesmerising, much like the artist’s ouevre itself. It was easily the best thing on offer tonight.

Things finished with Tamio Shiraishi, Mico and Fritz Welch – a trio using sax, percussion, vocal spasms and piano to create a random improv soup of noise and clatter. At least it had energy, but I can’t say I was that thrilled by it. There were also performances running in the small Studio Theatre at the venue, which often ran concurrently with the main stuff. I missed most of them – perhaps I missed some of the best stuff. I did catch five minutes of Smack Insecten – a sonic stew using a myriad of mixers to create a symphony of feedback. That sounded like it might have been fun.

So, disappointment is a fact of life with Instal. But it’s usually counterbalanced by some things that are genuinely eye-opening, and often breathtaking. Two thirds in, the disappointment / revelation scales are heavily tipped towards the former. I did leave tonight with a sense of “why did I bother?” Joan La Barbara was the only artist whom I felt widened my horizons as to what music could be, but also managed to make a connection deeper than a purely intellectual appreciation.