It’s all about Cambridge (part 1)

Sometimes I just need a little nudge, a reminder of why I listen to, and occasionally write about, music. I received an almighty nudge recently in the shape of a very first (and well overdue) ‘Best of’ from the much-missed Jackie Leven, compiled and released by Night School Records.

To say he’s one of my favourite artists is an understatement. His music has had a profound effect on me over the years, some of which you’ll get a feel for in a previous blog titled ‘I took a train out of Leeds…’. His music, lyrics, playing and singing convey emotions, images and stories that not only touch, but dig deep into the human psyche like few other artists I’ve come across. It’s a brave man that sits down and tries to put together a ‘Best of’ that fits on one vinyl album, but Michael Kasparis has done a very good job of it. There are many obvious contenders for inclusion from Jackie’s vast canon of work, but the trick here has been to include some of the lesser-known tracks among the more well known, giving them a fresh perspective in a different setting. Every song on this release makes the grade and I’ll warrant you could take the same approach half a dozen times and come up with a number of ‘Best of’ releases that are all of the highest quality.

The time for re-discovering (or just discovering in most people’s cases) the music of Jackie Leven is well overdue. This year is the tenth anniversary of his passing and, apart from this release, there’s a tribute album imminent, featuring many great artists covering his songs (not an easy task according to some of those musicians), and also a special edition of one of his (many) classic albums, ‘The Mystery of Love is Greater than the Mystery of Death. I look forward to it all eagerly.

https://jackieleven.bandcamp.com/album/straight-outta-caledonia-the-songs-of-jackie-leven

So, with thanks to Jackie for the nudge and while I have the laptop open, it’s about time I wrote a few words about some of the other wonderful releases that have come my way since the last blog. I make no excuses for including many releases from the Cambridge area, especially as they’ve been associated with the Cambridge Calling series of Charity compilations over the last few years (don’t forget Volume 5 is still available, link below).

https://germanshepherdrecords.bandcamp.com/album/cambridge-calling-volume-5

Keltrix were on the first volume of Cambridge Calling and they have a new album out called ‘Herstory’, available on vinyl, cd and download. I’ve followed Keri and Sharon for a few years now, even writing a review of a previous release for the short-lived on-line relaunch of Sounds magazine. The new release is the culmination of years of combining elements of folk, electronic music, beats, dance music and Sharon’s soaring, swooping violin with the distinctive and impassioned singing of Keri. This release also throws in some majestic guitar work from Jay Williams. Lyrically it’s very personal and powerful, dealing with some pretty dark stuff, often defiantly as though it’s part of the healing process, showing a strength to overcome and be the better for it. Perhaps also to serve as a warning to others. The first few seconds of the opening track remind me of ‘Me and a Gun’ by Tori Amos, which deals with similarly dark subject matter. Even in the more tender sounding passages, such as the opening to ‘Trapped Behind Black Glass’, there’s a jolt to the senses when Keri sings ‘It’s the aftermath of aftermaths, but did you have the last laugh?’ before, shortly after, the song breaks into something akin to an Irish jig/darkwave mash up. It’s a heady, muscular and at times compassionate album. When people talk of Mercury Music Prizes nominations, this is the sort of inventive music that should be considered.

https://keltrixband.bandcamp.com/album/herstory-2

Inventive could be the middle, invisible name for Lizard Brain who have released a new album since my last blog. As with the previous release, it’s a mind bogglingly rich, cross genre melange which is aptly called ‘Confection’. Don’t be sucked in by the title though- it’s not all sweet and sticky. Some tracks are harder boiled, even a little disorienting and unsettling. Some of the sugar-coated confections cover what are probably their most politically direct lyrics, a statement on some of the more unsavoury happenings in the country and a dig at those involved as well as a reflection on the strange year that 20/21 has been. Similar to the likes of 10cc and Teenage Fan Club in that each member of the band is an excellent songwriter in their own right, they all bring different things to the mix, brought about by the music they are individually influenced by, be it ambient, electronic, dance, indie, prog, blues or just an eye and ear for classic pop. The addition of spoken word fragments adds to the quiet power of some songs while the playing and production is excellent throughout. I eagerly await whatever comes next out of their studio on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens.

https://lizard-brain.bandcamp.com/album/confection

Ember Rev are another local band I’ve enjoyed and supported during my stint on Cambridge 105 Radio. While they’ve been on a pandemic enforced hiatus, frontman Dan Ecclestone has released his debut solo effort. Initially recorded at the piano, Dan realised the songs would be difficult to tailor as Ember Rev songs so set about creating the album using Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit of Eden’ as a broad template. Similar to that album, the instrumentation is generally sparse. There are short periods of silence which allow notes and chords to drift away before returning. There are also short swells and bursts of additional instrumentation which punctuate the otherwise stately pace of the songs. Percussion is kept to a minimum and is complimentary of the music rather than driving it, while the strings are graceful and elegant without being overpowering. Dan uses his voice well, at times speaking the words in a poetic style, other times singing smoothly while occasionally there’s a cracked quality that adds an emotional edge, especially on the relatively strident ‘King of Land of Skies and Sea’. ‘This Uphill River’ is as near as he gets to an Ember Rev track, the piano bursting out at breakneck pace with the most densely instrumented passages coming during it’s near four minutes. To get a better feel for each track and its composition, it’s well worth reading Dan’s notes on the Bandcamp page for the release. He says it far better than I…

https://danecclestone.bandcamp.com/album/hidden-music

And now for something completely different. The latest album by a duo known as Jaymotts, called ‘Jamboree’. The band themselves describe it as ‘50mins+ of pure funk rock ditties crafted to bring about much fun and smiles’, which I personally feel is somewhat underselling themselves. Yep, there’s fifteen tracks and there’s funkiness aplenty, alongside their witty lyrics, but listening to it I’m struck by just how clever it all is and how they absorb so many influences while maintaining their own identity. Listening for the first time, I was hearing echoes of Frank Zappa, Ian Dury, Talking Heads, Squeeze, Flight of the Conchords and even Kid Creole and the Coconuts. The lyrics are shot through with humour, sometimes a little surreal and eccentric, other times more grounded and earthy. The funky groove is varied and never dull, but most certainly danceable. If this could be translated into a live show, I’d imagine they’d be a hot and sweaty hoot to watch.

https://jaymotts.bandcamp.com/album/jamboree

‘Ghost Fruit’ is the latest EP (maybe more of a mini LP?) from Tape Runs Out, another band that have been a fixture on the Smelly Flowerpot show over the years. I hear they’ve been signed to a new label, with a new single imminent and album planned for release next year. If it’s anything near as good as this, it’ll be worth watching out for. They have a distinctive sound of their own, tracks often starting with a single instrument that instantly creates a groove or base over which other instruments are layered. Aside from guitar, bass and drums, an array of keyboards are utilised along with the likes of violin and hammered dulcimer, creating a sound that can sway effortlessly from quietly ethereal to dense and stirring. Often buried down in the mix is Liam’s hushed and dreamy vocal, providing a counterpoint to the beautifully constructed and insistent music. Each EP they’ve released has been a progression from its predecessor, which bodes well for the new album.

https://taperunsout.bandcamp.com/album/ghost-fruit-ep

Last of the Cambridge Calling contributees, for now, is ‘World of Carp’ by Model Village. I’ve been a huge fan of indie pop since the early 80’s when hearing the C86 tape and this band take the best bits of indie pop, add a bit of folk, some delightful harmonies, nods to classic pop, infectious tunes and a poise that can only come from being passionate students of the genre. Among the stirring, upbeat ditties there’s the odd aching ballad, all sung with confidence and relish by Lily Rose, taking the vocal duties on the full album for the first time. Her voice reminds me a little of another doyen of the local music scene, Emma Kupa, in that she reaches the heart of the song and conveys it’s meaning expertly. There’s plenty to chew over lyrically as well, wrestling with daily issues encountered by a (guessing here) bunch of 30 somethings. OK, maybe 40 at a push, though it applies to people as old as me too. At times it’s done with an honesty and resignation that getting older means inevitable change, though there’s a droll wit present that indicates this band and its members won’t go down without a scrap or, indeed, the audacity to continue to do the things they loved when younger. More power to them, though I may pass at getting into a drinking session with the band, especially at my advanced age.

https://modelvillage.bandcamp.com/album/world-of-carp

This links us nicely to one Cambridge area band in this blog that haven’t featured on a Cambridge Calling Volume, the magnificent Fuzzy Lights. The link to Model Village is, of course, Dan Carney, who plays on both. Fuzzy Lights were one of the first local bands I played on The Smelly Flowerpot, my interest being piqued by a review which described one of their tracks as ‘rolling in like the mist off the Fens’. Anyway, rolling on a few years, they have a new album out called ‘Burials’. Dan actually opens proceedings on the new album with a wandering bass line that counters the clear, refined vocal from Rachel Watkin. This being Fuzzy Lights, it’s not long before the slowly evolving track erupts in a fuzzy, frenzied guitar solo before the various instruments subside, leaving us back where we started with bass and vocal. Despite being a strong opener, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the epic 10 minute ‘Songbird’ with its relentless drive and heavy power chords framing the quieter moments featuring vocal and picked guitar working hand in hand. The potent instrumental outro with bursts of violin is invigorating to say the least. I’d imagine if Led Zeppelin and Sandy Denny were around to collaborate again, it might just sound a little like this. There are moments of relative mellowness, as with the more traditional ‘Haraldskaer Woman’ and the trippy folk of ‘The Graveyard Song’, though the latter also morphs into a psychedelic band jam. There’s plenty more variety throughout the album, the guitars moving from chiming and spectral to heavily distorted with several stops between. The power of the quiet passages is often enhanced by the louder ones. I’ve been listening to this for a couple of months and rate it the best Fuzzy Lights album to date, which is saying something.

https://fuzzylights.bandcamp.com/album/burials

The above has only scratched at the surface of what I wanted to write about so, life and finding the ability to fold space allowing, there’ll be another blog soon(ish) featuring new music from the likes of Naomi Randall, Umbrella Assassins, Santa Sprees, Chris Free and Tribes of Europe among others. In the meantime, be nice to each other and buy shed loads of music- it’s good for the heart and soul.

Author: Smelly Flowerpot

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

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