Cambridgeshire 3, Berlin & Sacramento 1

I love a link, which is surprising as I was so bad at them when presenting The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105. Maybe not bad, just oblivious to the more obvious ones but all over the more obscure connections between tracks and bands I’d played. Some of the more obvious ones were pointed out to me after the show ie ‘I really like the way you connected those three songs, what with the link between the bands names’ someone once said as I nodded in agreement, wondering what the hell they were on about. It took me an age, looking through show playlists, before I found tracks by Trick Bird, Trick Mammoth and Mammoth Penguins following each other. I had no idea.

Anyway, here’s a link back to the previous blog, where I mentioned a band called Adventure of Salvador, who I happened to see at The Blue Moon in Cambridge last year, or was it the year before- gigging activity seems such a blurry memory these days. Supporting AoS that night was a Cambridge based band called Moonstrips, an invigorating four piece featuring guitar, bass, drums and saxophone. They’ve just released an album which, allegedly, will be their last, which is a crying shame as it’s a cracking album. Unusual in that it’s a mix of live tracks (with embellishments!) and recordings during lockdown (presumably remote from each other), it hangs surprisingly well together and perfectly captures the energy of the band live. ‘Fugue State’ is a belting opener, quickly getting into its garage psych stride. ‘God Loves Everybody’s Band’ turns the dial down a touch with a funky opening before the guitar shakes things up leading into an extended instrumental break which wouldn’t look out of place on a King Crimson album. When I first heard the band, the slightly deranged psych/prog of Gong sprung to mind and though the next track isn’t the best example of that sonically, the songs title- ‘Unseen Hands Threw Eggs at Agnes’- could be a nod to that band. If anything, it sounds more like Psychedelic Furs than Gong. Title track ‘It Was a Different World When We Started’ was presumably recorded during lockdown given its title (though I’m probably wrong, as I frequently am), recounting how things have changed in the five years since the band got together. Starting off like Love and with a great chorus, to me it highlights further the three (or is it four?) P’s that influence the band- Psychedelia, Prog and Post Punk. Not that Love were remotely Post Punk, or Prog for that matter. ‘In My Place’ is a 90 second blast of energy while ‘Look Ma, I’m a Revolutionary’ is a seven minute epic that starts relatively sedately with fuzzy bass before unleashing a guitar’n’sax assault on the senses coupled with a manic rhythm section and frantic vocals. The Buzzcocks are covered on ‘ESP’ with a breathless, relentless sax riff- no wonder saxophonist Barney is asked if he’s ready at the start of the song. The band are given time to breathe on closing track ‘How Soon is No’, news bulletins over a lone piano giving it an atmospheric opening, with the subject matter of the bulletins adding weight to the track. A half whispered vocal and rather spectral guitar add to the effect, closing the album in a poignant and understated way given what has come before. Hopefully, it won’t be the last we hear from the band. The album is out now, available through their Bandcamp page.

Another link…

Singing backing vocals on the above album’s title track was one Naomi Randall, another Cambridgeshire based artist. For the last seven years, she’s been working on her new album, which was actually released in the period between me pausing The Smelly Flowerpot and starting this series of blogs. It only seems fair I should write a review, seeing as I didn’t get chance to play any tracks on the show. ‘Tepid On My Trippin Heels’ is the name of the album, the title apparently inspired by a friends suggestion to write a follow up hot on the heels of her previous album in 2013, the tepid referring to the seven year gap. Clawing back my memories of school, if I were to draw a Venn Diagram featuring a set of musicians including Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Vashti Bunyan, sitting in the middle and sharing some commonality with all of those artists would be Naomi Randall. Which isn’t to say she hasn’t got her own voice and sound. Throughout the album, her soothing and beguiling vocals illicit many emotions- the joy of ‘Fond and Fancy’, suffering on the rather hymnal ‘Devil’s Fountain’, sadness on the incredibly moving ‘For a While’ etc. Though many of the tracks are based around an acoustic strum and that voice, this is so much more than just a folk album. There are many facets to the songs which only reveal themselves on repeated listens. The faint, distant harmonies that lend an other-wordly feel are a feature, as are the guitar effects that gently swoop in and out of songs- imagine a super chilled Robert Fripp bleeding through from the room next door. There are other ambient sounds at play and some delightfully flighty keyboards which add a pastoral psychedelia to proceedings. It’s the kind of album that floats deliciously by, time standing still during its 37 minutes or so. If finishing the album on the beautiful but sad ‘For a While’ isn’t your thing, then heed the smart advice of Naomi on her website and go straight back to the more joyful and uplifting first track, ‘Fond and Fancy’. Of course, it means you’re then trapped in a perfect circle of her music, but if time has stood still, what’s the problem? Buy the album now through the link below.

Another Cambridge area band that has contributed to the Cambridge Calling series of charity compilations (as have Moonstrips- I must sort a fifth volume so we can include Naomi, assuming she’d be happy to contribute) are The Sound of Pop Art, a band based around the uber stylish Chris Free and Sara Onyett. Both have been on the local music scene for some time, Chris previously with The Users and Sara with The Cherry Orchard. The Sound of Pop Art have just released their fifth album, ‘To Dream the Most Fabulous Dream’- for future reference and because I’m a slow typist, let’s call it TDTMFD by TSOPA. Previous albums have often featured guest vocalists, including Tony Jenkins, who must hold the current record for the number of mentions in my blogs. On this album, Chris and Sara share vocal duties, and a confident and effective job they do too. Musically, the album expands on their template of upbeat sunshine pop by adding more soul, a hint of jazz and funk and the odd dash of cinematic soundscape. The songs are certainly their best to date and keeping the vocals in house adds more coherence to the album- it’s more their sound than it’s ever been.

‘New Wave NRG’ is a great upbeat opener with a slice of Ernie Isley style guitar that gives the song its momentum and some lovely harmonies, a feature of the album. It’s a song I first heard when Chris and Sara played it live on air in the Smelly Flowerpot studio a couple of years ago. ‘Buddah Rocks’ has a harder, funkier edge with added trumpet solo while Velvet Nights is a smooth charmer of a song which sways its hips at you, enticing you into the midnight air. There’s a hint of hazy jazz at the start of the ‘The Day Never Happened’ which, combined with the ‘Get Carter’ style backing, is grittily exotic in a New Orleans via Newcastle upon Tyne kind of way. Though there are no guest vocalists, there are some notable appearances by guest musicians adding splashes of colour to proceedings, including some lovely slide guitar on ‘Kingfisher’, the aforementioned trumpet plus flute and theremin. Chris has developed a singing style that is both joyfully enthusiastic and effortlessly laidback at the same time, a perfect fit for the music. There’s much to enjoy on this album, apart from what’s been mentioned above, there’s the odd unexpected sojourn into folk territory and acid jazz. The album is available to download now via their Bandcamp page.

And last but not least, the latest opus from Anton Barbeau, a double cd called ‘Manbird’. Shortly before I paused The Smelly Flowerpot, I’d had some communication with Anton with a view to interviewing him for the show. Sadly that didn’t happen, though I’d like to think it may still happen in the future. Anton has been releasing his own brand of psychedelic pop for the best part of thirty years without showing any signs of his talent or song writing abilities diminishing. If anything, after a half dozen listens, I’d say it’s as good if not better than anything he’s previously released. If not exactly a concept album, it certainly has strong themes running through it, looking back at the places he’s lived and the memories he has, though often using ornithological analogies. This is one of the reasons he is a songwriter apart from many of his contemporaries- things are not always quite as they seem, his world view a little skew-whiff compared to many, making his lyrics and musical settings that more interesting. He’s often been likened to other singular talents such as Syd Barrett, David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, XTC etc, though I’d also throw in ‘Something/Anything’ era Todd Rundgren into the fray as well. Perhaps, unfairly, his uniqueness is also part of the reason he isn’t recognised as widely as some- he’s just a little bit too different for mass acceptance. Still, that’s their loss.

Anyway, on to the album itself. Title track ‘Manbird’ throws you off track immediately, opening with a pitter patter drum and some spiritual humming before the song proper starts. It’s catchy as hell and appears to focus on how, despite the urge to travel the world over, theirs always something that ties us to home, or is it the nest?  There are more flights back and forth on ‘Across the Drama Pond’ with memories of ‘tight black jeans’, growing a ‘hip hot Billy Gibbons beard’ and declaring ‘I’m finally Brian Wilson weird’ all driven along by a choppy rhythm guitar. Airports feature again in ‘Memory Tone’ and ‘Fear of Flying’, the former has what reminds me of a Genesis synth solo (unexpected even by Anton’s standards) while the latter has an effective rising chorus and fuzzy bass. ‘Savage Beak’ is a fuzzy guitar, synth and manic vocal delight with what is described as ‘Invisible Krishna’, and look out for the soaring lead and ‘twang guitars’ on ‘Chicken’. ‘Featherweight’ is quite the opposite- a frantic blast of drums, guitars and vocals while ‘Cowboy John Meets Greensleeves’ is precisely that and couldn’t possibly be described any better than by its title. The feathery titles continue on the rest of CD1 as does the musical invention- ‘Beak’ for example is a lush instrumental featuring the mass vocals of ‘The Beak Singers’ while ‘Dainty Beak’ could be a paean to Mama Bird. Or maybe not.

One thing worth noting about the album is that, despite it being engineered in several cities over two continents (including Anton’s original hometown and current city of residence), while musical contributions have been recorded at various musicians homes and ‘sent…through the air’, this kind of fits in with a lot of the albums themes- where is home, where do I belong, where am I going.

I don’t suppose its coincidence that the first track on CD 2 is called ‘Coming Home’ while track two ‘Don’t Knock the Mockingbird’, with it’s George Harrison like lead guitar could be about trying to hold on to the innocence of youth. Sticking with The Beatles link, there’s more than a hint of their playful inventiveness on ‘Flying on the Ground is Alright’. Throughout the album there are nods and references to other musicians and literary figures- some obvious, some not so- but I’ll let you go down that particular rabbit hole yourself. I’ll just say that ‘My Other Life’ has one possible lyrical reference to Steve Hillage, though I may be reading too much into this. Anton has that effect on you. As with ‘Auslanderbeak’, another instrumental with an Eastern European (Turkish?) influence. Auslander is German (Anton currently lives in Berlin) for foreigner. This section of the album is the most inventive, taking in Krautrock and the epic ‘Birds of North America’, which deals with the, erm,  pecking order of nations. ‘Space Force’ closes the album in true Anton fashion.  Oblique lyrics that intrigue and a classic pop song (at least in a parallel universe) which has a stop-start-stop-start-stop finish, almost like it doesn’t want to go home. Perhaps because it doesn’t know where home is. You can buy the album at the link below. I’m off now, I need to listen to this again.

I’ll be back again soon- there’s a stack of singles and EPs crying out for my attention…


Author: Smelly Flowerpot

Just a bloke that finds life far more bearable with music. And macadmias. And laughter.

3 thoughts on “Cambridgeshire 3, Berlin & Sacramento 1”

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