Sunday, 16 June 2013

Outsider Lounge Music - Captain Luke and Cool John Ferguson

Provenance: Saw an excellent documentary on the Music Maker Relief Foundation about the work they do helping musicians from the American South. From paying utilities bills to getting the performers back on stage, they do a lot of good work. They're nice people to boot - so go help them out!

Review: I first caught sight of the charismatic Captain Luke in the superb documentary Toot Blues, profiled as one of a group of musicians who have been assisted by the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Amidst a slew of great performances, a real stand out for me was the Captain's rendition of 'Rainy Night in Georgia'. The fact that this CD contained another Tony Joe White number, the immortal 'Polk Salad Annie', helped to swing my decision to make the purchase.

There is always a sense of trepidation when approaching an album such as this. What if it's terrible? Perhaps even worse, what if I'm only left with the traces and fragments of the artist's talent, hints at the man's former gifts peering through sporadically as a faded palimpsest? After all, Captain Luke was in his mid-seventies when this was recorded, a time when most people are well into their retirement. In addition, it seems especially cruel to criticise such a worthy endeavour - buying an album from the foundation isn't about generating royalties or exposure, but it could mean an extra bag of groceries for somebody who's fallen on hard times.

Thank goodness, then, that 'Outsider Lounge Music' not only comes up to snuff but exceeds all expectations. From front to back this album is an utter joy. The foundations of this recording are rock-solid, from the immaculate song selection to the unfussy production, but there are two stand-out elements that really make the album shine.

The first is Captain Luke himself, or rather his wonderful, warm baritone, full of personality and an understated authority. Although he performs admirably on jaunty numbers such as 'Old Black Buck' (a Captain Luke composition) and 'Put On Your Red Dress', it's on the ballads where he really sparkles. Luke is nothing less than a master at tackling the slower numbers, his voice tinged with tenderness, sadness and regret. Nowhere is this better exhibited than on the aforementioned 'Rainy Night in Georgia' and the doleful 'Still Water', a song redolent of lonely Southern nights.

The second factor that pushes this album into the higher echelons is the masteful guitar playing of Cool John Ferguson. The listener is left with the impression that Ferguson can play pretty much anything he's minded to. He brings a welcome jazz sensibility to the slower numbers, evoking George  Benson and Wes Montgomery amongst others. When the tempo rises, Ferguson demonstrates a busy picking style underscored with impeccable technique and inventiveness. Although ostensibly accompaniment to Luke, on 'Polk Salad Annie' its the singer who anchors the song, Ferguson scurrying around the vocal with some breakneck bluesy improvisation.

'Outsider Lounge Music' is a potent brew of soul, blues and jazz, performed with evident vim and relish. A fine achievement for anyone, but it's almost disgustingly good considering that Captain Luke was crafting this fine testimony at a time where most others are content to trade on former glories.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Solid Air - John Martyn

Provenance: My parents heard a documentary about John Martyn on the radio and bought the album. I loved it and bought it for my wife. Now it's been subsumed into the collection.

Review: I feel something almost akin to shame when I reflect on the fact that I hadn't heard of John Martyn until the age of 26. It's very possible that I glossed over his name in an article or two but to my discredit I paid absolutely no heed.

As a teenager, I spent far too much time listening to Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and (whisper it) Yngwie Malmsteen. Unless you could rattle off half a million notes on guitar with your fucking tongue or something, I didn't want to know. We all do stupid things when we're young, and mine was listen to shred. Even worse, I would then hold everything else through the prism of shred. Neil Young was a whiner with a band who couldn't play. Roy Orbison was some blind guy that sounded like he was crying all the time. John Martyn didn't exist.

It's all behind me now, though the odd Satch album gets a spin when I'm feeling particularly masochistic. Solid Air, on the other hand, is played on an almost weekly basis.

I was hooked within twenty seconds of pressing play, not least of all because of the extraordinary singing. It managed to be both alluring and alienating, the natural warmth of Martyn's voice undercut by the slurred drawl which renders every other word incomprehensible. The music was no less compelling, a woozy combination of folk and jazz, electric piano riding over finger-picked guitar to glorious effect. One of the real stars of the album is Danny Thompson, whose elastic double-bass playing provides a languid counterpoint to Martyn's flurrying, cascading arepeggios.

Why pick out individual songs? "Over the Hill" is a carefree strummer featuring spiky rhythm mandolin from the great Richard Thompson. "I'd Rather Be the Devil" is a thrilling deconstruction of the haunting Skip James classic, Martyn's Echoplexed guitar spinning notes off into the cosmos. Meanwhile, "Go Down Easy" is a heavy-lidded, seductive slice of minimalism and "May You Never" is sweet without crossing the line into saccharine (though Eric Clapton managed the dubious achievement of rendering it both sickly and soulless. Nice job, Slowhand).

I'm hardly flirting with originality by proclaiming this one of the defining albums of the British folk scene, if not British popular music. It's sublime, and nothing else sounds like it. What else is there to say? Buy it.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Fear No Evil - Grim Reaper

Provenance: I saw the video of the title track being torn apart on Beavis and Butthead. I knew right away that I needed the album.
Review: Aside from NWOBHM die-hards who may have bought this the first time around, I imagine the majority of people alert to the charms of Grim Reaper were introduced via Mike Judge's finest creation to date. As a way of announcing yourself it was hard to beat.

You see, the video to 'Fear No Evil' was truly something to behold. Amazingly, given that the budget for recording the album must have been no more than six or seven quid, Grim Reaper somehow sourced an amphibious landing craft for the opening shot. Sailing up what appears to be the Aylesbury stretch of the Grand Union Canal at 4am in the morning, you half expect to see some poor carp angler hunched over his keepnet as the heavy metal juggernaut chugs past.

Grim Reaper then reach their destination (a warehouse) where a man in a bad Hallowe'en mask has captured about eight spotty headbangers (i.e., Grim Reaper's entire fan base) and put them to work grinding corn. The band, taking umbrage at this ghoulish welfare-to-work scheme, set about liberating the callow youths using the power of metal alone. The only real shame is that GR didn't don any masks or hoods themselves as they are spectacularly unsuited for the video medium, least of all the wonderfully-monikered lead-screamer Steve Grimmett.

So, what of the music? It's...fantastic. Genuinely. The only misstep, musically speaking, is the laboured and unfunny introduction to 'Final Scream'. Not only does it jar by trying to introduce a note of humour, it also kills the momentum stone dead. The rest of the album, until that point, had been nothing more than some of the most wild-eyed, hysterical metal committed to tape. The intro to 'Final Scream' brings it all stuttering to a halt and the track, one of the album's weakest, never quite reclaims the lost territory.

If it seems like I'm labouring the point, it's because the rest of the album is so endearingly insane. Grimmett sounds like Rob Halford after electro-shock therapy; I can't make any useful comparison in terms of tone, however, because whilst Halford regularly dips into his rich mid-range Grimmett seems to be on a personal crusade to belt out every note as if it were his last. Even through the rickety production, the power of the Grimmet pipes is evident, as is guitarist Nick Bowcott's dexterity. How do they fare on the ballads? There are no ballads.

That's not to say that it isn't derivative; it is. Almost every heavy metal cliche in the book is ticked off, then revisited again - and again - but it's done with such aplomb and sincerity that you want to believe that thunder will roar, that fights will be carried to the end that what you're hearing is genuine, one-hundred percent proof red hot rock 'n' roll. As you can probably tell, the lyrics could've easily been written in crayon - nobody is going to confuse the Grimmett/Bowcott partnership with Lennon/McCartney or David/Bacharach in a hurry, but nor would they wish to.

Glorious stuff. Grim Reaper were never in the first rank, or even second rank of British metal bands. It doesn't matter; this is one of those albums where you can hear the sweat pouring out of the speakers. So, are we left with nothing more than a quixotic triumph of perspiration over inspiration? Not a chance; this is fine, fine metal music made with passion and, dare I say it, love.

Welcome to Swinetunes


A while ago my partner suggested that I should do something with my album collection. I chose to ignore 'throw it in the trash' and instead plumped for reviewing every CD I own. I have no idea quite how many CDs I have, nor am I of a disposition to care. All I know is that month on month the number grows whilst our apartment remains the same size.

Here are a few caveats:

  • I make no claims to be a great writer. The reflections here are mine alone, or relate to the things   that are important to me. If I go off on a seemingly irrelevant tangent, please deal with it or go somewhere else
  • I won't try and psychoanalyse every last semibreve or inhalation of air. Sometimes I will talk about individual tracks, sometimes I may focus on the album as a whole
  • Four star album? An eight out of ten? I can't think of a more asinine way to describe music, save for writing about it. This blog will probably contain enough stupid without me ascribing a star rating to an album
  • I'm pretty lazy, so don't be dismayed if I don't add anything for a while. I'm probably asleep or watching University Challenge
What do I want out of this? Fundamentally, I want to enthuse people about music. I'm not solely talking about the music I love (though that would be great), but for readers to think of music as more than just a statement or something to be traded off as cultural capital. Sit back and enjoy, or bang your head furiously - I'll be doing one or the other.