Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Kick Inside - Kate Bush

Provenance: Ever since I was young I loved 'Wuthering Heights'. My parents had it on a CD compilation of 1970s hits, and along with cuts by ELO, CCS and the Tom Robinson Band, I would play 'Wuthering Heights' incessantly. Even at a tender age I could detect there was something a bit off-kilter about it.

Did I get The Kick Inside before I went to university? Odds are that I did, because our student bar had a video juke box containing about three songs (seemingly), one of which was 'Wuthering Heights'. It was on all the time, and began to drive me nuts. However, I did make a friend through a shared appreciation of Kate Bush, and I was able to introduce her work to a housemate who became an ardent fan.

Anyway, it was a bit of an anomalous purchase for me around that time, as I was busy having my brain smashed to cottage cheese by the likes of Judas Priest and Dio.

Review: A perfect album. I can't fault it. The worst thing you can do if you're not already familiar with The Kick Inside is to stop reading this bilge and give it a play. Nothing I can say can do this magical platter justice. Even when reviewing the most workmanlike collection I am nagged by the sense that writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture, a suspicion only heightened by playing through this album.

What could one possibly object to? I've been met with naysayers in the past who don't like the high register Bush sings in throughout much of The Kick Inside. I find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of Bush's execution here, however; the sheer ease with which she soars up to the most dizzying heights only serves to bolster an overall sense of ethereality. Here is a voice that celebrates the sensual, the weird and the uncanny elements of life with an almost explosive joy. It's the same breezy virtuosity one feels that they see in sporting performances like those of Simone Biles or Ronaldinho, when the seemingly impossible is delivered with all the thrust and playfulness of a person revelling in their own ability.

Oh, I also think the saxophone sounds a bit blatty and high in the mix on 'The Saxophone Song'. That's all.

How, though, can you gainsay the quality evident in the floaty, woozy opener 'Moving' (dedicated to Bush's dance teacher, the late Lindsay Kemp), and the herky-jerky carnival ride that is 'Kite'? How does one wrap their head around the fact that Bush wrote 'The Man with the Child In His Eyes', an achingly beautiful song pregnant with quiet mystery, at the age of thirteen? Without wishing to dwell on age too much, it's worth remembering that Bush hadn't even reached twenty when The Kick Inside was released. I barely knew how to put two chords together at that age; meanwhile, Bush was creating miniature masterpieces and name-checking freakin' Gurdjieff.

One aspect of The Kick Inside that might put off some listeners is that it's a very self-contained universe. Which doesn't mean that it leaves no room for interpretation; Bush's allusiveness and readiness with esoteric subjects compels the listener to fill in the gaps. However, everything feels like it exists within the world of this album, and has little relationship with a tangible world of things. In much the same way that HP Lovecraft's or Emily Dickinson's writing seemed a step or two away from regular human experience, so Bush sounds like she's singing into existence a Neverland realm. Personally, I find this aspect of Bush's work utterly addictive, but I can see how it may also seem obtuse.

Another thing; this is definitely music for the head, and not for the hips. In fact, the only people who can dance to the music on The Kick Inside are drunk goth girls and Kate Bush herself. Stylistically, it shares with Carole King's Tapestry (another triumph, incidentally) both earnestness and intimacy, and if you strip away some of the more maximalist flourishes of Bush's work, a solid piano-led pop sensibility; but where King's articulated experiences are somewhat more earthbound and recognisable, Bush zags towards cerebral and arcane subjects. What of this pop-sensibility? It's probably closer to the baroque pop of a band like the Zombies, and a dash proggier by my reckoning, but Bush's keen ear for a quirky - but catchy - melody results in an album laden with vocal hooks. A favourite of mine are Bush's interpolations in the chorus of 'Oh To Be In Love', which skims over the top of the music in a way reminiscent of Ry Cooder's sublime guitar work on Captain Beefheart's 'Abba Zabba'.

I don't have much else to say. Just buy this, or virtually any of Bush's other albums, because even when the quality is uneven, there's something interesting there. But first, do yourself a favour; dim the lights, light some candles, run a bath, bust out that family-size mint Aero you've been saving and soundtrack your self-care with The Kick Inside.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

A Capella - Todd Rundgren

Provenance: My brother bought this for me as part of a three-album set of Todd Rundgren's Warner Brothers releases.

Having dwelt a fair bit on some pretty straightforward classic rock releases, I asked my brother what I should review next. His suggestion was A Capella, which certainly fits the bill of being a wee bit left-field, because...

Review: ...every sound on this album was created using Todd Rundgren's own voice. It's not entirely free of instrumentation - the liner notes of this release note the use of the Emulator sampling keyboard, which was deployed to manipulate those sounds into chords or percussive noises. On the other hand, this was put together back in 1984 and used entirely analogue recording techniques.

Of course, a capella performances are nothing new. The phrase 'capella' derives from the Italian 'chapel', and so the root of unaccompanied singing in western tradition is linked to sacred choral performance. This gives me a good excuse to embed the following video, which I regard as rather remarkable:

In African-American traditions there is, of course, gospel; its own overt religiousness hardly proving a barrier to becoming popular, both in the past and epitomised by modern ensembles such as Sweet Honey in the Rock. (NB - for a provocative take on the origins of gospel, jazz musician and academic Willie Ruff has got you covered, claiming that its roots can be found in Hebridean line-singing.)

Cutting across ethnic lines, although again beginning in African-American communities, the doo-wop explosion of the middle of the 20th century began with corner singing, though instrumentation was often added in the studio. Typically, doo-wop groups would feature a lead tenor taking the melody, a bass voice to provide rhythmic underpinning, and a combination of high tenor leading down to baritone to fill out the backing sound, going 'top to bottom' in range. Hit up groups such as the Orioles, the Moonglows and early Drifters if you want a taste. I haven't even gotten onto barbershop quartets, floor singing in folk music, field hollers, or non-Anglo ensembles such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo - but the world of vocal performance is rich and varied.

However, what Todd Rundgren has done here feels almost ridiculous. My first reaction, when my brother told me about the concept behind A Capella, was "why go to all the bother?". Especially if you're going to mash and twist your vocals through a series of electronics just to produce the desired effect. On reflection, I have an inkling that it was precisely this ability to manipulate sound in such a way that appealed to Rundgren; that, and the sheer challenge of creating such a weird album. For someone who has genre-hopped his entire career, it does seem of a piece.

The best thing about A Capella is how damn fun it is. Opener 'Blue Orpheus' is absolutely stunning; the audacity to produce something that sounds so startlingly odd still has me laughing every time I hit play. I can't easily describe it; perhaps like a cut from Yes' 90125 album, if Trevor Horn made the band ditch their instruments. It's all the more remarkable that it has such a strong melodic sense, the lead vocal soaring over a backing more multi-layered than anything Queen or 10cc ever managed to conjure up.

Indeed, even after repeated listens, the sounds leaping from the speakers can still surprise; the chorus to anti-war paean 'Johnny Jingo', on its last pass, is overwhelming in its immensity. The effect is dimmed a little on the ballad 'Pretending to Care' and the only cover in the collection, if only because it's are the kind of song one can imagine performed on piano in a nightclub or cocktail lounge; low-key, and only a slight shuffle away from being sung unaccompanied. Nonetheless, the curtain of wordless 'oohs' and 'aahs' Rundgren stitches together to recreate what might've been a lush string arrangement is killer.

My personal favourite on A Capella is 'Hodja', a dizzying admixture of doo-wop and gospel, its meticulous creation shot through with a lively sense of spontaneity thanks to some delightful scat singing. Some of the joints on this piece are pretty tough to categorise - 'Lost Horizon' is Sensual World era Kate Bush meeting So's Peter Gabriel crossed with the shiny white soul romanticism of Hall & Oates. Meanwhile, 'Something To Fall Back On' sounds like one of Kenny Loggins' dancier numbers, if he had the Bee Gees backing him up. I'm at a complete loss as to how Rundgren was able to recreate the organ on this track, given the technical limitations he was dealing with at the time (though, of course, actually at the time, Rundgren probably found the Emulator to be an incredible, labour-saving piece of kit).

As each track unrolls, one can't help but be awed at Rundgren's facility and expertise, even if the song doesn't quite strike home. I'm not overly keen on either the Bloody Mary fable 'Lockjaw' or 'Miracle in the Bazaar' and its cod-Orientalism but these are rare moments of filler, and in fairness 'Lockjaw' did sound like fun to put together (but - if it was just a few notches less goofy it could easily have been a cut from a late-era Tom Waits cut). 'Honest Work' is a touching and poignant folk ballad, that's the 'straightest' thing on A Capella and I can't figure out whether it would benefit from a more maximalist approach or whether it would ruin the sentiment. The confection ends on a high, the bouncy, joyous 'Mighty Love' (originally by the Detroit Spinners, the only cover here) taking us home with gospel-inflected soul power.

What a peculiar artefact A Capella is. It certainly stands out as unique in my collection, if only because nobody else that I rate would be bonkers enough to put in the Stakhanovite effort. In any other hands this would be 'experimental' (=unlistenable) but Rundgren has too keen a pop ear to fall into that trap. A dazzling, baffling testament to a singular and restless genius, I can't recommend A Capella enough.