over the hill - john martyn (1948 - 2009)

john martyn died yesterday. he made a lot of records. some of them contain some of the warmest, gutsiest and beautiful music i've ever heard. others aren't very good, and some aren't even half as good as those. i saw jm play live a lot. some gigs were brilliant, but most were indifferent with fleeting moments of greatness; some were just awful. but even if the gig was crap at least you took some comfort from the fact that he was still alive. he was by all accounts a pain in the arse to have to deal with (a self mythologising stoner drunk; unpredictable, occasionally violent, but posessed of an irresistible boyish charm). but he still made those bloody gorgeous records that seemed to fill my ears with warm honey (not literally, you understand. don't try it at home). those records that i've been listening to since the Britannia Music Club sent me a copy of 'one world' by mistake when i was fifteen.

the last time i saw him i left before the end of the gig. it was the first time i'd ever done that in all those years. it's probably a bit sentimental to say it but i wish i hadn't done that now.

i was going to write more but i think my friend colin's post does the job a bit better...goodnight john, and thanks for the music, you mad old bastard.

sex, lies and super eight

many moons back i worked for a small video studio where we shot test commercials, corporate videos and the occasional low budget telly programme. during quiet periods when we weren't at the beck and call of the usual coked up idiots that formed our client base, my colleague matt (possibly one of the funniest, most beautiful blokes i have ever had the pleasure of knowing) and i would experiment endlessly with lighting, super 8 cameras and whatever we could get our hands on. matt was friends with a bloke called ben, who was in a band called miranda sex garden, who were signed to mute records. we ended up producing a very low budget electronic press kit (ie a video) for them, and as a result got the gig of making a promo video for their forthcoming single.

ben, matt and i met several times, drank a lot, talked a lot of bollocks and mapped out a storyboard and budget on the back of a few beermats. ben was to direct; i was director of photography and matt was also on camera.

upon seeing our budget the record company brought in a producer, which was probably a wise decision, though she only turned up for one of the shooting days and then spent most of the day on her phone. this is what producers do. she did raise her eyebrows when two of ben's mates turned up to roll around naked on the floor. other than that we were left alone. apart from the one studio day (which was unbelievably chaotic) we filmed guerilla style, trespassing all over the place. we even got my then four year old daughter holly to appear - her fee of a tube of smarties (or two) helped keep the budget to within manageable limits.

i'm still amazed that we got away with it to be honest (though i guess that if mute were prepared to release what is essentially a huge slab of atonal wailing as a single, then i probably shouldn't be). i also served as offline editor and remember mute supremo daniel miller turning up to view the results. he seemed to love it.

i'd almost forgotten about the whole thing till i came across it recently via the wonders of youtube. them were the days.

homemade software - bring earplugs

over the last few months i've been 'hanging' (as i believe the young people say these days) with my friend conor (aka CJC). conor makes very nicely crafted electronic music and is clever enough to write his own software patches. we've had a few sessions where i noodle away on the double bass or lap steel or whatever while he processes the noodles through a bewilderng array of filters of his own design. the results are sometimes swooningly gorgeous sonic cathedrals of sound; at others they can erupt into massive swathes of distended, earsplitting noise. as conor says, "homemade software - bring earplugs". this is as good a tagline as any for when we get to do gigs.

what has happened apart from a few moments of temporary deafness and possible monitor damage is that we're gradually evolving a way of making music that is really new to me. while i'm used to shoving instruments through loads of boxes or processing them into submission with software, i'm not used to someone else doing it to what i'm playing while i play. conor's treatments coax weird ghost frequencies from the bass; the gentlest of bow strokes produce sighing, angelic choirs; plucked harmonics are mutated into the kind of ethnic percussion you might find on the planet tharg. it's actually more like two people playing the same instrument, only one of them is redesigning the instrument while it's being played. knd of digital (as in fingers) meets digital (as in zeros and ones)...

what helps is that conor's as much a musician as he is an engineer; what it actually sounds like is as important to him as the elegance of his code. which is pretty much why it works. and probably why the sounds are often so lovely.

there'll be more from us soon. have your earplugs handy.

albums of 2008 pt 2

matana roberts - chicago project
strangely my love for this record was given a huge boost by a stunningly ill informed and wrongheaded review which brought into focus just why it's so good. ms roberts is an alto saxophonist and member of the legendary AACM who's managed to evolve a supple, open and beautifully crafted music that owes much to certain jazz traditions but doen't just ape them. neither though does it feel the need for novelty that screws up so much so much contemporary 'jazz', particularly as far as the rhythm section are concerned. when there are so few female jazz players about it's always tempting to read their music in gender terms, but i'm going to resist that. the music resists it too.

brian redeems himself. nearly.

my love for brian eno has been sorely tested of late. while i could understand his work wth u2 (just about), his recent assocations with coldplay, dido, jools holland and jason donovan (!) have been hard to swallow. now i know he's got a mortgage and kids and everything, but still...

but his recent appearance on the bbc's question time almost made up for that. anyone who gives jack straw a good verbal kicking is ok in my book...

albums of 2008 pt1

er, slightly late to the party, but nothng new there. here's my first stab at the usual end o' year list type thing.

Rachel Unthank and The Winterset - The Bairns

it wasn't so long ago that folk was a four letter word. nowadays it seems to be used to describe anyone who has an acoustic guitar, is a bit sensitive and doesn't use autotuning on their vocals. and it covers a multitude of sins. just take a look at the list of artists on last.fm tagged as 'folk'. er, jack johnson? nelly furtado?

to me the word suggests some kind of connection with 'tradition' (i'm being Eurocentric here - American folk is a different thing altogether). so in my possibly slightly warped and definitely simplistic view, nick drake isn't folk, while billy bragg is. whatever, the unthank sisters most definitely are folk by anyone's reckoning (except maybe the most hardcore of purists). ok, so they cover robert wyatt and will oldham (more on that later) and replace the guitar with piano, but they tick all the right boxes; songs sung in regional accents, directly and simply. songs about having your true love press ganged into nelson's navy, lost maidenhood, dying children, domestic violence and getting pissed.


but it's their cover of wyatt's 'sea song' that really does it for me and where they show how good they really are. the original is so perfect and so much wyatt's song that it resists interpretation by anyone else. in fact, tears for fears had the gall to try it back in the eighties. i'm not exaggerating too much when i say that they didn't so much cover it as stunned it with a brick, nailed it to the floor and then repeatedly sodomised it. but the unthanks' treatment of it is sublime; unforced, exquisitely arranged (particularly the violin part, which references a lot of wyatt's vocal improvising on the original) and becky unthank's vocal is equally wondrous. and she's only 20. sheesh.

the rest of the album is just as good. the closing. almost ambient collage of lullabies punctuated with abstract deep space piano is so gorgeous it's almost hard to listen to it. as mr wyatt says..."They are like the morning dew that hasn't steamed off yet, they are fresh and new and I really don't think they know how good they are".

stump - buffalo

they don't write them like this anymore...especially for james.

youtube/last.fm mashup

geek warning...

just come across this, which offers last.fm users a youtube stream based on their listening habits. i got emmylou harris, ornette coleman, jolie holland, can and francoise hardy plus a very nice clip of cassandra wilson and david murray in the studio. so far so good. and then i got nirvana's 'smells like teen spirit'. now maybe there are a couple of plays for kurt and his chums lurking on my playlist. but there is certainly no fucking razorlight, who came up next with some song with 'wire' in the title. when the ukulele orchestra of great britain turned up doing the nirvana tune soon after i remembered that youtube can't differentiate between artist names and track titles (the fab pop combos wire and spirit feature heavily in my playlist). doh. so, er, if someone could sort that out and maybe find some way of maybe scrobbling video plays or adding clips to your youtube profile...anyway, it's worth a peep, innit.


been listening to a lot of mingus of late. monday marks the 30th anniversary of his death, so i've decided to listen to nowt else on that day.

take that, bill drummond.