I could listen to the lady known as Helen McCookerybook chat about music all day long. Having spent a lifetime singing, writing and lecturing music as well as producing books and films about the subject, she has a depth of knowledge and a wealth of stories to tell in a manner that just brims with bright eyed enthusiasm and unbridled joy. I’ve been witness to this on The Smelly Flowerpot on Cambridge 105 Radio as Helen has twice been my guest. In many ways, the same could be said about much of the music she’s produced, first with The Chefs then with Helen and the Horns and finally through her solo career. It’s great to see that carried through on the 6 track EP she’s released along with Robert Rotifer on the Gare du Nord label. A quick word on the label, which was started around 6 years ago by a small number of musicians wanting to find an outlet for their music. That group has grown over the years with collaborations and sharing of talents resulting in some high-quality music released under a range of different names. Robert Rotifer is one of those musicians. Originally from Austria, he’s worked with some great artists over the years and is also a journalist and radio presenter. A well as some dextrous guitar playing, he adds a cool, rich voice that dovetails nicely with Helen’s warm and joyful tones. Singing some lines in German, they come across delightfully like a teutonic Serge Gainsbourg and an anglicized Doris Day. I often hear the phrase ‘deceptively simple’ mentioned when it comes to music, but this is almost the opposite, whatever that might be called. On initial hearing they sound like beautifully uncomplicated, acoustic driven ditties, but repeated listening reveals those little intricacies, flourishes and moments of aural pleasure that ultimately leave you feeling great pleasure at having made their acquaintance. The EP is by McCookerybook and Rotifer and is, appropriately, called ‘Equal Parts’.
Chris Jack is the guitarist for a noisy, fuzzy, psych garage trio called The Routes that have been on the go for many years in Japan, though he still maintains plenty of links with musicians back in the UK. One such link is Bryan Styles, who plays percussion and glockenspiel on this debut solo album from Chris called ‘Miles to Go’. Just to complete the connection, I first met Bryan when he played those same instruments in the Smelly Flowerpot studio in what was the first session I ever hosted on the show, by the Plantman. You may be forgiven for thinking ‘glockenspiel’ and ‘psych garage’ don’t often go together in the same sentence. That’s partly because a) they’re actually in two different sentences and, b) the solo album is anything but psych garage. It’s an altogether more muted, personal and introspective affair. The guitars are quietly strummed with a de-fuzzed lead guitar gently pushing proceedings along. Light and shade are provided by Bryan’s percussion and the likes of vibraphone, melodeon and organ played by Chris. The restrained vocals are largely in the first person, giving the impression we’re listening in on the private, inner most thoughts of the writer. Minimalist, melodic and spontaneous sounding, it’s an intimate and revealing album.
When Rob Clarke sent over his latest release with the Wooltones, and as I was shamefully not familiar with his music, I did a quick google search and was impressed to come across a Bandcamp page with 25 releases on it. And that’s just the Wooltones stuff- it would appear there’s plenty more Rob related music out there. The new release, ‘Putting the L in Wootones’ is what I like to call a dirty, old fashioned record. It’s all about capturing the vibe with a batch of quality 60’s influenced garage, psych and Mersey beat infused songs. There’s a loose, carefree groove and the faint whiff of west coast hippiness about the songs which, dodgy knees allowing, makes me want to sit cross legged on the floor, nodding away and losing myself in the moment. Some authentic guitar playing (everything from a ‘screwdriver in the speaker’ fuzz to a Byrdsian jangle), effective interludes from a fired-up organ and (on ‘Love and Haight’) a bit of ‘Pearl and Dean’ ba-ba-baas add variety and there’s much fun to be had spotting the references to the era in the lyrics. It’s a heady, hazy delight from start to finish.
Eil Marchini was a resident of Cambridge when he contributed a song to the first Cambridge Calling charity compilation. Since then he’s spent plenty of time travelling before landing in the place of his birth, Italy, while managing to squeeze in a session on The Smelly Flowerpot along the way. ‘Just Looking for Waves’ is his new album, following on quickly from last years ‘Lost in the Universe’. While travelling, he would play his guitar and sing to anyone willing to listen but, as is apparent on this album, he also took the time to soak up all that his senses could take in. This all feeds in to the album, both musically and lyrically. Influences ranging from freak folk to pastoral psychedelia to blues abound, with a hint of mysticism. He handles a variety of playing styles with aplomb, whether it’s a folky strum, some electric blues or slide guitar. It’s generally a more stripped back affair than the previous album, which serves to highlight the quality of song writing whilst encouraging a little more invention, especially with his singing which ranges from warmly enveloping to coolly detached, all in a style of his own. There are some gently intrusive sound effects and backing vocals, the odd keyboard that laps at your toes like a welcoming wave, what may well be a didgeridoo, percussion that almost apologetically nudges its way into view and some whistling. I’m a sucker for whistling on a record. The album closes with a rather disarming version of ‘Castles Made of Sand’ by Jimi Hendrix, which may or may not feature some Cicadas.
Intermission: Talking of Cicadas got me thinking of other animals that make appearances on records. There has to be dozens of records featuring birds twittering away, but I’m not sure many have based the melody on the cooing of a Pigeon, as Rosie Abbott did on ‘Wood Pigeon Translation’ from her debut album. There’s a horse on ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ by The Avalanches which I love to impersonate, though I neigh about as well as I sing to be honest. Brian Wilson’s dogs were called Banana and Louie and apparently can be heard at the end of ‘Caroline No’ by The Beach Boys, though my hearing is probably damaged by too much Led Zep as a kid to pick this up. Maybe only other dogs can hear it? There’s plenty of sheep going baa on, surprisingly, ‘Sheep’ by Pink Floyd. It’s debatable whether there’s the sound of sheep yawning on the record as well. The only Fish I’ve heard on a record was that geezer out of Marillion, but I suppose it’s difficult recording the sound of an actual fish, unless you count whales, which would clearly be cheating. Let me know if you’re aware of any other unusual animal appearances in song. And no, Rat Scabies isn’t allowed
Back to the reviews…
Matthew Hopkins is not a bloke, but a band comprising of Anne, Max and Julia (I think- if I’m wrong, Bob will let me know). They’re only a few singles into their recording career, but are already making waves. Apparently, the two female members of the band have been friends since meeting at Catholic school, later being converted to the power of music by the cult known as The Fall. Various musical adventures ensued before completing the current trio with Max (Anne’s son) stepping up to the drum stool. Latest single ‘Girl’ opens with a classic drum/bass intro before post punk guitars crash in followed quickly by an impassioned vocal which poses questions around inequality by breaking down generally accepted stereotypes. There’s some striking lyrics which re-inforce this: ‘Oh I don’t know, Oh I suppose, a radish cut into a rose’ and ‘a battery of flattery and a hem beneath the skirt, will hurry up my buttercup, if you smile you are a flirt’. Hopefully there’ll be a full album from them soon.
Another act just a few singles in to their career are Tribes of Europe and Barbara Stretch- and yes, they’ve also contributed an excellent track to the Cambridge Calling series of charity compilations. Tribes of Europe are a vehicle for the talents of Martin Elsey, someone who is channelling years of soaking up music from a variety of genres into a writing a series of classic pop songs. Of course, it helps that he has the wonderful, soulful voice of Barbara Stretch (who was once a member of The Vernons) and the wizard production talents of Chris Taylor to call upon in these matters. On the new single, ‘Let the Big Beats Save Your Southern Soul’ there’s also the added bonus of the Ely Fallen Angels choir, headed by Max Taylor (son of Barbara and Chris), adding some inventive and authentic harmonies. The song itself is a barnstorming paean to the classic Northern Soul music of the 60s and 70s, though it’s clever and original enough to rise above being just a tribute. The fuzzy toned, Ernie Isley guitar, vibraphone, pinpoint accurate beat, driving bass, aforementioned harmonies and sheer enthusiasm on display, not to mention a fabulous lead vocal, all make this a modern take on a classic style. Thankfully, it’s a smidge under three minutes in length- my limbs wouldn’t last the pace if it was any longer.
The two members of The Auster Boys, Bob Auster North (music) and Bob Auster South (lyrics/vocals), first met in Northampton in 1982 and, inspired by a shared love of The Fall and American novelist Paul Auster started writing together. Though their paths diverged over the years, they have written many pieces, including the 11 minute ‘Direction Finder’ which is released on German Shepherd Records on December 4th. Musically the piece is an at times unsettling mix of various beats, ambient noise and electronica which skitters along under the spoken lyrics. It serves as a kind of musical travelogue and History lesson as the narrator takes us on a journey around the hidden and forgotten areas of Northampton, with a slight diversion that takes in bones sticking out of cliffs on the Suffolk coast. Lost villages, grumpy farmers, Radar and the refusal of the ancient kingdom of Mercia to take the Danegeld are all covered in what is a fascinating and original piece. Their willingness to come up with thought provoking and challenging music that tends to ignore normal song writing strictures should be admired. While we wait for the link to the new release, due on Friday December 4th, here’s their most recent album…
Final one for this blog, and something that cheers me every time it happens, is a new album by the musical gardener, Matt Randall aka Plantman. I heard about this one literally days after Bryan Styles had sent over the Chris Jacks album (see above), so there was a nice bit of serendipity there, especially as Bryan plays on many Plantman releases and also visited the studio with Matt on that very first Smelly Flowerpot session (still one of my favourites). ‘Days of the Rocks’ follows the template of many of Plantman’s releases in that there’s a misty eyed beauty to the music and singing that absolutely floors me every time. The difference here is that the songs are perhaps a little catchier, at times almost upbeat and, dare I say, poppy. OK, let me get this out of the way now, as Plantman and THIS word often go in the same sentence for me. Melancholia- much of the music elicits feelings of melancholia in me, but an oddly uplifting feeling at the same time. Victor Hugo was once quoted as saying melancholia was the happiness of being sad, and that best describes what I feel when listening to Plantman music- it makes me immensely happy to hear something that can squeeze the emotions so intensely. There are several local musicians who help out on the album, a kind of cooperative who help and contribute to each other’s music- in my head I call it the Sound of Southend. Apart from singing and playing guitar, Matt adds keyboards, drums, bass, piano and melodica while Leighton Jennings (Ghost Music) adds drums, former Beat Glider bandmate Adam Radmall flies over from Japan to add bass and drums and there’s some lovely backing vocals from Melodie Group’s Michelle Bappoo and Roy Thirlwall (who also vocalises the last track). While the melodies are gorgeous and naturally flowing, Matt’s voice has a gently persuasive, misty eyed quality that, allied with the music, makes the whole thing irresistible. The nearest comparison I can come up with is the more mellow moments of The Go Betweens. Many of the lyrics have a conversational feel, as though reminiscing with someone close, remembering the good and bad, which gives the whole album an intimate, personal feel. There should also be a mention for the art work which, as with previous Plantman releases, was done by Amy-Adele Seymour and perfectly complements the warmth of the music.
Just as an aside, I’ve just read Matt’s blurb on the release on Bandcamp and uncannily, much of it mirrors what I felt when writing this review. Rather than change anything out of fear of being called a fraud, I’ve left it as it is- my honest appraisal of a wonderfully honest album. Cheers, and enjoy. x