ANDY GRIFFITHS – Big Red Monster (Musician Records MR011)

Big Red MonsterThe Big Red Monster of the title is probably the rusting old tractor on the back cover but even Andy Griffiths isn’t quite sure. This is Andy’s third album of original songs, gentle and thoughtful with the laid-back support of a fine group of musicians including Rick Foot, Natasha Pattinson, Glen Hughes, John Budgen and Sally Barker.

The opening song, ‘Yesterday When’, is an exercise in nostalgia of the sort that every songwriter essays at some time, nice but undemanding. However, Andy quickly picks up the power with ‘The Liquorice Field’, a story of the young farm-hand and the girl from the big house. I set out looking for the history of liquorice growing in Britain, hoping that the fenlands from which Andy hails were its source, only to find that it hasn’t been grown commercially here for over a century and, as the song implies, only in Yorkshire. The reference to liquorice, however, gives the song a unique twist.

Nostalgia returns with ‘Lighthouse Keeper’ and ‘Tyneham Valley’, the memories of a young child displaced during the last war when the village was taken over by the army – another excellent song. My favourite track is probably ‘Any Day Now’ if only for its opening line: “I can’t remember getting arrested”. I suspect that it’s largely metaphorical but I’m not sure. Then again, ‘Sake Of My Heart’ is a description of alcoholism filled with clever wordplay and an air of mystery which, on reflection, is the best writing. Actually, Andy is adept at the art of oblique writing – I’ll figure out ‘Occasional Tables’ one day.

Twice through and I’m really getting into Big Red Monster. It’s beautifully played and there is something haunting in these songs that draws the listener back.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.andygriffiths.net

‘The Liquorice Field’:

KEITH JAMES – Tenderness Claws (Hurdy Gurdy HGA2926)

Tenderness ClawsOn his web site, Keith James describes his career as esoteric and secretive, but he has actually attracted a good deal of respect for his sensitive interpretations of the songs of Nick Drake, John Martyn and Leonard Cohen, and his musical settings of his own poetry and that of well-loved writers like Lorca and Dylan Thomas. His new CD, Tenderness Claws, is almost entirely focused on settings of poetry: it’s the first time I’ve actually heard his work, but it’s finely crafted and played, exquisitely produced (mostly by Branwen Munn) and engineered, and repays close attention.

There can be a degree of implicit tension between the intentions of the poet and the composer when a poem is set to music. Housman took exception to the omission by Vaughan Williams of two of the verses from Is My Team Ploughing? Vaughan Williams responded that ‘the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense.’ (And made it clear that there were lines in the missing verses that he felt were best forgotten.)

Phil Ochs, though probably mostly remembered nowadays as a ‘protest’ singer, also composed several excellent settings to poems by Poe, Noyes and others. In his liner notes to I Ain’t Marching Any More he offered – if my memory doesn’t fail me – a sort of apology to John Jerome Rooney for his substantial changes to The Men Behind The Guns. (We’ll never know what Rooney would have thought about it).

Keith James clearly believes it appropriate that what Ochs called ‘the discipline of music’ should sometimes modify and shed a different light on an existing poem as it develops into a song. And the success of the settings here entirely justifies that belief.

Here’s the track-by-track summary:

  1. ‘Tyger Tyger’ is Keith’s setting of William Blake’s poem. This is the oldest poem set here, and the form is unequivocally strophic, by contrast with the freeform nature of the work of the ‘beat’ poets also represented here. However, it could be said that Blake’s writing was often a long way ahead of its time, and the arrangement is unequivocally modern, and in no way clashes with the more recent verse here. I particularly like Sarah Vilensky’s vocal work here.
  2. Although the insert and booklet state ‘All music composed by Keith James’, ‘White Room’ is actually the melody that Jack Bruce put to Pete Brown’s words on Cream’s Wheels Of Fire Though I remember the original with nostalgia, Keith’s is really rather a good version, benefiting from significantly more light and shade. The arrangement accentuates the dislocated tone of the lyric better than the in-yer-face wah-wah of Cream’s version – perhaps we’re just too accustomed now to the sound of frequency filtering to remember its impact in the 1960s – and Keith’s understated vocal compares well to Bruce’s.
  3. ‘Andalucia’ is based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca with which I’m not familiar. It combines a rhythmic arrangement that recalls flamenco, though the percussion and some of the changes hint at Latin America. Keith’s vocal delivery, though, is all his own.
  4. ‘A Process In The Weather Of The Heart’ slightly rearranges the poem by Dylan Thomas, but still feels through-composed. I don’t know what Dylan would have thought, but it works for me.
  5. ‘Decorated Cardboard Human Shapes’ sets one of Keith’s own poems, combining a wide range of haunting aural effects with a compulsive percussion track.
  6. ‘Daydreams For Ginsberg’ is set to an abbreviated version of Jack Kerouac’s poem. It works very well.
  7. ‘The Mask’ is based on Lorca’s Danza De La Muerte (Dance of Death). This time the poem, though significantly shortened, is left in Spanish, apart from the couplet that begins and ends this setting. As with ‘Andalucia’, the guitar is steeped in flamenco feel, but Rick Foot’s bowed double bass adds quite a different dimension. Beautiful.
  8. ‘Blue Angel’ sets a poem by Allen Ginsberg to guitar arpeggios that give the setting a slightly folk-y feel.
  9. ‘Lizard On The Wall’ is a guitar-driven setting of Keith’s own slightly surreal words, punctuated by gentle flamenco-tinged clapping. I like it a lot.
  10. ‘A Third Place…’ sets another of Keith’s own poems, hinting at a tragic backstory. In some way I can’t quite define, it makes me think of Brel.

Keith’s voice has a fragility that might not be to everyone’s taste, but is entirely suited to the material here, and I can see (or hear) why it would be suited to the songs of Nick Drake, for instance. But then his settings here of his own poems make for compositions that stand very well on their own, even in the company of the other writers represented here. Highly recommended.

David Harley

Artist’s website: keith-james.com

‘The Mask’ – live on the radio:

SINGLES BAR 21

A round-up of recent EPs and singles

Singles Bar 21In the wake of his criminally underrated album Rain Machine, RICK FOOT returns with a six-track EP, Songs Of Idiocy & Expedience. It’s pared down even from the minimalism of the album and Rick says that the songs were arranged with an eye to live performance. It is amazing what you can do with just voice, double bass and a bit a technology. Rick double-tracks himself and throws in some percussive noises on ‘Your House: Full Of Twigs’.

Rick’s voice is laid back and sounds despairing at times and there is a political dimension to several songs. The opener, ‘Whoever You Vote For’ leads inexorably to the tag-line “the government still gets in” and ‘Your House’ is, I think, about a collapsing or collapsed society. Rick’s lyrics are often witty and sometimes quite surreal so ‘Potato’ and ‘House Of Cows’ require further study. The idiocy comes in ‘Lincolnshire Poachers’ but I won’t spoil it by telling you the story. Just go out and buy Rick’s records.

http://www.rickfoot.com/songs-of-idiocy.html

Singles Bar 21Anglo-Welsh trio THE TRIALS OF CATO formed in Beirut but now they are back home with an eponymous EP. They sound thoroughly traditional and it’s only when you start to listen carefully that you realise that these are original songs. ‘Matthew VanDyke’ has the rolling feel of an eighteenth century sea song but like the origins of the band it’s centred on the tragedy of the Middle East. ‘Reynard And The Goose’ is a conversation between the titular creatures – think ‘The False Knight On The Road’ – and is very clever. ‘Fighting Jack’ takes us back to the army and back to the war zones while ‘Aberdaron’ is sung in Welsh and paired with ‘The Shaskeen Jig’. There is so much potential here – we should hear more from The Trials of Cato before too long.

www.thetrialsofcato.com

At first JOE MARTIN sounds American but the subtlety of his lyrics suggest otherwise – he’s really based in Leeds. He’s supported on Small World by Andy Leggett on double bass and Henry Senior on pedal steel. ‘Denver’ is pure Americana as is ‘When The Time Is Right’. The former has a lovely wistful lyric with a clever closing line that suggests that he’s not totally subsumed into the genre but can also look in from the outside. Joe’s acoustic guitar playing is clever without being flashy and his voice, and indeed his songs, are front and centre.

http://www.joemartinmusic.com/

‘Trouble’ is the new digital-only single from the rather wonderful Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter ANNIE KEATING. A smooth country blues, ‘Trouble’ follows on from Annie’s recent album, Trick Star, and heralds her upcoming UK tour. It settles quickly into its groove with a simple bass line echoing her acoustic guitar decorated with restrained slide guitar.

http://www.anniekeating.com/

Falkirk band THE NICKAJACK MEN make their recording debut with an EP, Wasting Away. They fall somewhere in the alt-rock/country field but the best track here is probably the nearly-folky ‘Marilyn’ with some really nice echoey vocals by Lewis White and the slow bluesy ‘Erb’ is pretty good, too. Twin guitars and keyboards give The Nickajack Men a full, rich sound over the bass and drums of Jamie Burns and Matthew McAlister. An excellent debut.

https://www.facebook.com/thenickajackmen/

MARIA KELLY releases her first EP in download-only format. The Things I Should follows three singles all produced by Matt Harries. The second track ‘Far Below’ reveals a hidden strength in her voice as the arrangement cranks up the pressure. In contrast ‘Where’s The Worth’ is more delicate with lots of strings and a spare drum arrangement while ‘Pretend’ takes a more folk-pop direction.

http://www.abadgeoffriendship.com/artists/maria-kelly

RICK FOOT – Rain Machine (Mockturtle MOCKCD005)

Rain MachineRick Foot, erstwhile musical partner of Keith James and member of Jon Boden’s Remnant Kings, brings to four the number of double bass players – I’m not counting Chopper’s cello – to step out of the shadows where they are usually kept and go it alone with a solo album. Now, you might be expecting improvisational jazz or a “solo” project with umpteen musicians and a girl singer up front but you’d be wrong on both counts. There is one guest musician, guitarist Arnie Cottrell, who appears on two tracks but otherwise Rick is on his own. True, his music is based on double-bass and cello but he is accompanying his own songs here and, while there is an acceptable quota of weirdness – ‘Aren’t You Glad’ springs to mind – there are no extended flights of fancy.

On Rain Machine Rick Foot emerges as a singer-songwriter with a light but characterful voice and an original turn of phrase. True, some of his songs are as dark as the CD cover – ‘The End Of The World Was Last Thursday’ is a twenty second vignette that might give you a hint. The opening track, ‘Broke The Weather’, is a song I’d have on a permanent loop if I was in danger of feeling too happy and ‘Start Again’ reminds me inexplicably of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ or rather the way it would have turned out had Holly come from Brighton, West Sussex. The best line of all comes in the chorus of ‘Everything Turns Beige’ where he sings “we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at Wetherspoons”, summing up the theme of the album as a catalogue of the insanities of modern life.

Rick says that he has been honing some of these songs for several years and the ease of his performance supports that. There are a few studio tricks such as the reverse tape on ‘When It Rains’, some minimal percussion and odd noises (I’m assuming that Rick is responsible for the bleating sheep) and you couldn’t exactly call Rain Machine straightforward but it is as simple as it can be given the ingredients and it’s damn good. It will be up there as one of my albums of the year.

Dai Jeffries

Click to listen at CDBaby

Source: ♫ Rain Machine – Rick Foot. Listen @cdbaby

Artist’s website: www.rickfoot.com

THE LOST ART – The Lost Art (own label)

TheLostArtI’m beginning to think that this will be a year when a whole lot of musical rules are going to be broken. Actually The Lost Art was released before Christmas but I’m not one to let facts get in the way of a good theory.

The Lost Art are Gordo Francis and Greg Hooper, two music teachers from Oxford who played as a covers band before deciding to write their own material. What they write is genre-defying to say the least. The album opens with the ethereal harmonies of ‘Equals’, due to be a single. I wasn’t taken at first, particularly when the band joined in with strings and indie drums, but by the third play I was beginning to recognise what a clever song it is. It’s followed by ‘Floating Away’, a hippyish title that disguises a gently jazzy song.

Both Gordo and Greg sing and play guitar and there is nothing on the album package or the duo’s website to identify them and their Facebook page doesn’t go out of its way to help, so: the one with the proper beard, who may be Greg, has a vertiginous vocal range, not unlike Martin Stephenson in some ways, and capable of an extraordinary near-falsetto on ‘Kicking The Habit’ and the one who wears the flat cap (who may be Gordo) has a more conventional tenor but their voices blend exceptionally well. They alternate lead roles; a feature of ‘Equals’ which is essentially a duologue.

They are augmented by violin and viola: Judith Hooper and Aliye Cornish and percussion by Tim Hooper (I’m seeing a pattern here) with Rick Foot on double bass. Together they are capable of switching from rock (topped out with a doo-wop ending) to the doomy piano-based ‘High And Mighty’. The production by Pete Hutchings is excellent as the intensity of the sound ebbs and flows.

Where The Lost Art appear on the genre spectrum, I really wouldn’t like to say, but the final track, ‘Distant Friends’ continues a telling line: “When did nostalgia take over your life?” This feels like new ground for all of us.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website: http://www.thelostartduo.com/

‘Equals’ – the official video: