It’s all about Cambridge Part 2 (and other stuff)

Following on from the previous blog covering lots of local releases, here’s part 2 of ‘It’s all about Cambridge’ with a couple of reviews from further afield, just to show there is a high standard of music outside the area as well as in.

Starting with Haverhill’s finest, and inventors of shed punk, the Umbrella Assassins are back with the second in a trilogy of EPs going out under the title of Kings of Fruit. I’ve watched this trio blossom over the last few years, honing their song writing and heading off into new, experimental territory without losing the vigour and energy that are key to their sound. The latest trio of tracks finds our loveable bandmates ‘in the waiting room of purgatory, trying to atone for their sins.’ I can only assume their sins involve not releasing enough records and not buying me a pint, but I’m sure I can forgive them for that. Opener ‘Trophic Cascade’ has a great fuzzy opening which stretches into an ominous riff and an angry, threatening vocal. ‘Missed the Bus’ is a blast of garage rock with a hint of The Ramones, featuring the joint lead vocals of Steve and Bunge with Garry banging away on the piano. ‘Up in the Early Morning’ is the surprise track, sounding to these ears like an edgier Creedence Clearwater Revival, perhaps more Fenland Rock than Swamp Rock, more River Colne than the Mississippi. It’s another great addition to their ever-growing canon of work.

One of my favourite interviews on The Smelly Flowerpot was one conducted over Zoom in the middle of last year’s pandemic with Martin, Chris and Barbara, collectively known as Tribes of Europe. I could honestly talk with them for hours about what they’ve done over the years and what they’re doing now. I don’t suppose there’s many bands that count members of anarcho-punk band The Poison Girls and 80’s soul band The Vernons among their number. The latest single is another slice of timeless, classic soul pop with a hint of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The song is powered along by a thrusting cello and a keyboard sound that seems to come from the 60s and early 80s simultaneously. Add in a great lead vocal (a la Dusty), heavenly backing vocals with nods to The Ronettes, some spacey vibes and a story relating to a schoolgirl crush on another girl and you have four minutes that pack in more than most bands can manage in a full album. It’s called ‘Rosalind’ and it’s an exuberant and joyful listen.

Another artist who soaks up his influences and re-imagines them is Chris Free of The Sound of Pop Art. Chris has worked under various band guises in the past, but I believe his new EP is his first solo outing. Where TSOPA’s music generally has a summery feel to it, this has more of an autumnal feel, though with the seasons currently as they are it could be late summer or early winter, who knows. There’s some great twangy guitar and cool crooning on the lazy swinging opener ‘Mad Affair’, while the instrumental ‘Reflections’ could be the soundtrack to an imagined 60s TV show about a down at heel private eye in Cambridge with a cover of running a punt hire shop by the river (if it hasn’t already been done). There’s a change of pace with ‘Rosemary Jane’, which sounds like one of those sing-a-long 60s pop song with lots of ‘ooohs’ and aaahs’ that never seem to age.  That the guitar sounds like peak George Harrison adds to that notion. The pace is upped again with the new wavey ‘What’s it Like?’, which is something of a throwback to the kind of music Chris produced with previous band ‘The Users’. More urgent than the previous tracks, asking a series of questions to an unknown companion who obviously lives a different life to the questioner. It’s a wonderfully varied EP which allows Chris to stretch out and explore different sounds from TSOPA. In terms of scope and feel, it charts similar musical territory as the great Vic Godard.

Tony Jenkins must be one of the busiest musicians around Cambridge. Apart from his work with Lizard Brain and collaboration with Victorian Tin leader Christian Gustaffson, as Kammahav, he’s also the singer in his own band, The New Fools (the name taken from a line in a Bob Dylan song), who have been pretty prolific over the last few years. Introductions out of the way, I can now tell you The New Fools have a new single out called ‘Murry Wilson’. Bizarrely, due to various circumstances, this is actually half of the band with Christian helping out. It’s pure indie pop with bouncing bass, chiming guitars and Tony’s pleading vocal and lyrics, which often reference other artists and songs- indeed, Murry Wilson was the father of the Wilson brothers who gained worldwide fame as The Beach Boys. As it’s over a month since this was released, we must be due another release featuring Tony soon…

Naomi Randall’s ‘Trippin on my Tepid Heels’ was one of my favourite albums of last year and she has a new EP out called ‘Very Nearly Nocturnes and Gnomic Verse’. And yes, it’s another release of rare beauty. Five tracks loosely connected by themes relating to the process of going to sleep. As you might expect given the EPs title and theme, the songs have a similar dreamy, psych folk feel to last year’s album though the tracks are more focussed this time round. The acoustic guitar or piano led songs have gorgeous, hazy, woozy backing vocals with wind instruments floating in on the ether, sometimes drifting serenely by and other times gently threatening to overpower the song. Even the introduction of electric guitar is subtly done so as not to disturb the equilibrium. The lead vocals are often multi tracked with lines overlapping each other, the overall effect giving the impression of drifting in and out of consciousness. Or as if some nocturnal siren is gently beckoning you to into an inviting and warm but dark void where all is peaceful and calm, clearing your mind of all the days clutter in the process. You can resist for only so long before you become intoxicated and its musical charm wraps itself around you and pulls you in. The lyrics compliment the feeling, with lines inviting you to a ‘land unconscious’, eulogizing about the heart singing when dreaming of dawn or the notion of keeping sleep in a jar. And what’s wrong with that?

I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but Cambridge Calling Volume 5 is still available on all the usual platforms, as well as German Shepherd Records Bandcamp page, with all proceeds going to a local charity. By an amazing coincidence, all the above artists have appeared on one of the Cambridge Calling Volumes, showing the diversity and strength in depth of the music scene in the area. Coincidences come thick and fast on this blog as Collars, who appear on Volume 5, have a new EP out. It’s almost as if this has all been planned. ‘Everything Present 1’ features five glorious slices of idiosyncratic indie pop by a duo who have managed to forge a distinctive sound and image in the short time they’ve been together. Kane plays guitar and drums (simultaneously when playing live, on a specially adapted kit) while Danielle sings and plays keyboards. There are changes of tempo and tone aplenty, ‘Jeremiah’ being a prime example, shifting effortlessly from indie piano ballad to something that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Postcard Records compilation with its quirky, funky guitar. ‘Gemini’ does a similar thing with its shift from indie folk tinged opening to it’s fast paced, sing along outro. The final track features what sounds like a ukulele, toy keyboard sound and another catchy chorus. An excellent debut release.

And now, completely unrelated to Cambridge, there’s something wonderful and sad from Santa Sprees, a new album called ‘Fanfare for Tonsils’. Wonderful because any new music from this Anglo-Japanese husband and wife duo is a sheer delight, but sad because one half of the duo, Anthony Dolphin, was diagnosed with cancer late last year. Following a rather gloomy looking prognosis, Anthony accordingly took this as a sign to continue their singular musical quest anew, hence the latest (but hopefully not the last) opus, rolling out at 34 tracks. Far better writers than I have described at length what the Santa Sprees music is like so, rather than write a standard review, I’m going to throw a few phrases together that sprung to mind when listening to the album… Unfiltered but expertly channelled. Banishing banality from pop. Surreally real and really surreal, like Lewis Carroll wrestling with Tom Waits. Wobbly and warbly. Taking the worms eye view while everyone is taking the birds eye view. Precisely shambolic/shambolically precise. Four sides of a triangle. Post Avant Spectral Psych. Dark humour with a big wet sponge and a side order of cough candy. Tickles and tortures all the sweet spots. Sometimes jerky and disoriented, sometimes precise and thought provoking. Foot tapping and makes me smile. Life and death through a kaleidoscope. Poetic and poignant, heart breaking and liberating. Do yourselves a favour and dive into this, or any other, Santa Sprees album for a refreshingly different take on life and death.

More reviews in a couple of weeks, but first a rarity on these pages of late for a variety of reasons- a gig review. Yes, a real, live, sitting down watching people play on stage kind of review. Another rarity- a Sunday afternoon gig review. A new initiative from those wonderful people at The Hunter Club in Bury St Edmunds and new(ish) kids on the block, Delicate Management, this was their first (of many, I hope) Sunday afternoon events. I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d stumbled into the final of some alternative folk version of The Voice, such was the quality of singing on offer from the four acts who played. Opener Josie Edie May is a mere twenty years old, though her song writing has the maturity, confidence and intelligence of a seasoned writer. A set split into two, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar before switching to piano, was as impressive for the playing and lyrical content as it was for her singing, which at times has a breathy style, with little rises and falls, similar to Lisa Hanigan. Though there’s no music released to date, I hear there’s enough songs written to fill several albums once she gets in the studio. Well worth looking out for.

Second up at The Hunter Club was Elly Tree, someone I know to be a few years older than Josie (not that age is a consideration when it comes to making great music), largely because our pre and post gig chats covered the likes of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden, Dusty Springfield and The Fall. Now there’s a thought- Dusty fronting The Fall in a great gig in the sky. Or The Fall covering ‘Son of a Preacher Man’. Sadly, we’ll never know. I believe Elly Tree normally perform as a three piece, but for this performance it was just Elly and her baritone ukulele. Each track was performed with the glee and passion of an artist in their element after an enforced pause in performing. The playing was varied, everything from gentle picking to energetic, punky strum was drawn from her trusty uke while the voice had that same unbridled joy for singing that could be heard every time Mama Cass Elliot sang. The between song banter was humorous and interesting, covering such song subjects as neurological abnormalities and making a coat from the velvety petals of wallflowers. I now need to check out their studio releases.

Following Elly was Belinda Gillett, someone I first heard on a streamed performance last year to raise money for The Hunter Club. It’s fair to say, I was blown away by her voice, to the extent I thought she couldn’t be performing live as it was so perfectly pitched and effortless. I duly tracked down some recordings to listen to and further live performances on YouTube, which served to show just how special she is. Generally, she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar but, due to an incident involving a Doberman while out jogging, she has a broken elbow and was unable to play guitar. With minimal time to rehearse, up stepped Matt Carter aka Matt Reaction to support Belinda on acoustic. Fortunately, Matt being something of an uber fan, this didn’t present an unsurmountable challenge. As mentioned, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that wonderful voice comes from such a relaxed and effortless performance. The range is incredible- when she lowers to a near whisper, it’s the only sound you want to hear in the room but when she fully releases, there is no space in the room for any other sound, such is its emotive power as it reaches out and fills every corner. I can only liken it to a large church organ given full throttle in small room. Visually she’s quite enchanting too, losing herself in the performance while the hand that’s free and not strapped up, having no guitar to strum, weaves little shapes and patterns in the air or plays imaginary guitar in unison with the strum of Matt. Her EP from earlier this year highlights every aspect of that voice and word is there’s an album in the pipeline too. I’m not overstating things when I say, for this reviewer, her voice is up there with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Emmylou Harris.

Last on stage at a perfectly reasonable hour of 4.30pm (plenty of time to get home and make the kids tea- Sunday afternoon gigs are the way forward) were Elizabeth and Jameson, featuring the harmonies, violin, accordion and guitar of Hannah and Griff. Musically, they bring elements of country, folk and bluegrass to the mix, these backing the rich, Welsh tones of Griff and the sweater voiced Hannah, who compliment each other perfectly. The vocal interplay reminded me at times of another great husband/wife duo, My Darling Clementine. They played several tracks from their recent album, which I was delighted to hear had a theme running through it, being based on stories, characters and life in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. They engaged with the audience well, recounting tales about the background to the songs, and sung and played beautifully, dotting the originals with a couple of unexpected covers (Bowie’s ‘As the World Falls Down’ from Labyrinth and The Beatle’s ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’), involving some willing audience participation. This was top quality song writing performed by artists at the top of their game.

All in all, not too shabby a way to spend a Sunday afternoon. For more info on what’s on at The Hunter Club, including The Bury Sound Final and their 10th Anniversary all day celebration, go to the link below. More reviews in a couple of weeks or so. X

More Music Reviews for November 2020

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