You may wonder, of course, ‘what summer?’, if you’re living in the British Isles, or in the rest of Western Europe; so let’s just take ‘summer’ in its sense of a calendar season….wait…the sun’s just peeped through the mottled clouds over Hammersmith. There – gone again.
I’m astonished at how my listening habits have changed since I finally yielded to MySpace; in that, I must one of several million people who’ve found a new lease of musical life, explorers left to roam in a huge, and expanding terra incognita without a chart or a compass; we’re just travelling from crossroad to crossroad, following our noses, leaves on the wind. A leads us to Q which leads us to a letter in another alphabet.
This is how I came across Mari Persen’s ‘Sweetheart’ a few months ago, Hamlet Hansen’s ‘Lucky’, Jann Halexander’s ‘A Table’, Mr and Mrs Muffins’s ‘Magic Cloud’, The Dreamers, and – following the recommendation of my most erudite friend Chris Evans - the music of Brian Campeau, of which I hope I’ll have much more to say in the future. It’s a jungle out there, and I love it.
And there’s eMusic, of course, a slightly more structured universe, but in which it is also possible to dip more or less at random. More or less only, of course. But I doubt whether I would have spent much time on Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys Street Band’ (ha! Take that, Brucie boy) three-track mini-album (on Drag City), had it not been for an ecstatic fan review posted on that website. Dare I say it? I prefer this ‘live in the studio’ recording to ‘Ys’; or, rather, any slight reservation I might have had about her before listening to this new recording (which has completely slipped under the radar in the media) has now disappeared. One song, in particular, ‘Colleen’, I have become obsessed with; the subject matter (reincarnation, womanhood, memory) will make a few people shudder; it would make my skin crawl too, were it not for the divine Joanna. A good indication of how good, how tremendously good she is is that many find her music, her lyrics and her voice unbearable. Bravo, I say. There can never be a consensus about her work, as there is, say, about Radiohead, who do ‘challenging’ music that doesn’t challenge anything in the least – to me, a pure cypher of assumed existential pain, and, as such, totally worthless.
But let’s go back to Joanna, and to ‘Colleen’, which I had assumed to be a version of a very old Irish tune, as it had so much ‘weight’ about it, and the kind of architecture you marvel at (in most cases) in melodies that have been shaped and refined over a very long time: think of ‘The Captain’s Apprentice’, for example. But no, Joanna wrote ‘Colleen’, with all its arresting rythmic, harmonic and melodic shifts, supported by an exceptional band. My hat goes off to you, and my heart too, miss Newsom.
I must also spend some time banging the drum for an album which, for no other reason than most reviewers are tone-deaf, has received ‘mixed’ reviews: The High Llamas’s Can Cladders. En passant, I’m of the opinion that Sean doesn’t do himself any favours by favouring such obliqueness in his titles and his lyrics; not that I mind it that much. In the Llamas universe, words evoke more than they mean; so it’d be a mistake to look in his songs for what they do not even try to convey; they are invocations of spaces, skies and travels. Most songwriters spend their time navel-gazing, with predictable results. Sean lifts his eyes and counts the clouds, or closes them and dreams of wagons on the Plains. Or so I think: ‘cladding’is the process by which cans are hermetically sealed. The Llamas are nothing if not playful.
What surprised me the most when I finally gave the record the time it deserved is how unlike its predecessors it is – despite the repeated accusations of ‘yawn – he’s doing the same thing all over again’ in the press (and even among some sympathisers). What Sean is accused of is of not dumping his organ, his piano, his banjo and his strings section in the bin to record with a group of sufi drummers, Tuareg guitarists and the like, or ‘re-invent’ himself as a hip-hop something or other. In short, his sin is to be true to himself, something that he’s very good at. Yes, he’s been ploughing the same field for a while. But that field is vast; many kinds of weeds and flowers can grow on it; and my feeling is that he’s found a few new species with Can Cladders; they please the eye and delight the palate like very little else you can find on the market these days. Some of the tunes posess the power of instant remanence that ‘Nomads’ and ‘Painters Paint’ had in the past; ‘Rollin’’ is an irresistible example of that; others are delicious bric-a-bracs of sounds and harmonies (‘Honeytrop’), which are as close to The Free Design’s most inspired moments (‘Bubbles’, ‘Kites Are Fun’) as anything I’ve heard since, well, I last played The Free Design on my stereo. Can Cladders makes me smile with heart, mouth and soul – that’ll do nicely for this rotten summer. Auden’s sea was ‘dolphin-grey’; the greyness of London skies makes me think of other animals, none of them particularly pleasant. I’d better give ‘Colleen’ another spin, hadn’t I?
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