A little Bluegrass

I’m treating this blog at arms length at the moment, sorry about that. Time pressures and the like have sapped the enthusiasm somewhat, but that’s not to say I don’t still have music to share. In the absence of words, here is a new song worth repeating while I plan the next step.

I love Chris Thile.

D.D Dumbo – Walrus


For a blog that tries to spend it’s pages looking back at the songs missed and albums unknown, it’s a strange thing to talk of the future. I prefer looking back and seeing how it all fits together; the tiny locks that bind music and pleasure across the spectrum. It’s easier than being met with crushing disappointment. But then I remember how critical we need to be of our dependence on nostalgia and the rose-tint; the training wheels that we refuse to abandon. Looking back only provides satisfaction if we use it to locate our present, using the cushion of history as thrust and not support. D.D Dumbo‘s ‘Walrus’ is the future in it’s most literal sense, the single released in advance of the album to whet appetites. Through it he gives us only the loosest of context which allows the piece to stand distinct and defined. A throbbing slab of looped guitar and post-funk rhythms produced with joyous idiosyncrasy and written with expression at it’s core. The incredibly brief descending horns at 1:16 never return, and why should they? An expressive flourish quickly followed by the cod-folk 12-string guitar break. Unique and fulfilling. To me this is one of those points where experiences past are forcing the work forward into the new. There is no genre wallowing or explicit influence. It is a sum. A brilliant sum. One with space for extension as both songs released from the upcoming Utopia Defeated (released 7th October 2016) hint at a continuous audio thread and blending between the pieces. I get my hopes up and look ahead. A strange thing indeed.

Todd Terje – Delorean Dynamite

My plan for most of this week was to talk about the beautiful fusion between high minimalist temporal theory and pop music found in Zammuto’s ‘My Dog’s Eyes‘. I likely still will at some point, but I’ve had an excitingly lax week and can’t really be bothered to write the 1000 words needed to do it justice. Instead, let’s fall back on modern nostalgia. That kind of cultural experience that looks wholly backwards in an attempt to say something relevant. Nostalgia is a blight on society, a physical wrench of cowardly ideas running away from reality. We try and build these perfect little impressions of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s because they seem so cool. Cool, in the way that social injustice and egotistical excess are cool. The 80s weren’t cool (a hateful word at the best of times) but the musical reaction to it was. A reaction that could only honestly have happened in that decade. Attempts to ape it now can appear hollow in comparison. That said, modern nostalgia can be done right if we take it purely on musical presentation; strip it of cool and accept it’s authenticity. Assume it is actually 30 years old and not 2. At least then I can enjoy it for what it is, a solid lump of awesomely disposable white boy disco. I mean that in an incredibly affectionate way. Well played Terje. Well played.

Salem Al Fakir – Part Of It

It’s a millenial thing, this idea that everything should just appear to you when you want it. The commercialised (or should I say, ‘advertised’) world is beside itself with bending to our whims and needs; a constant stream of content delivered on demand. Demand. That’s a dangerous word. Bad things happen when you build the world around what you perceive ‘demand’ to be. There is arguably little proportionate demand for opera or the British new complexity movement; but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t vital, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be part of our perceptual whole. Yet in a saddening swirl of misfortune, orientating towards a specific demand has bottomed out the music industry. The demand for free music post-Napster is insatiable, equalled only by the desire to have everything instantly accessible all the time. It’s so numbing. Get me not wrong, I am a huge fan of Spotify and how it has allowed us to control over the way we discover music (of which it proportionally pays far higher than radio); but it still puts me in a quandry. I miss the romance. I miss the struggle. Having to order a CD into Longplayer in Tunbridge Wells and waiting the weeks for it to arrive. The sheer thrill of delayed returns as much a part of it as anything. Yesterday, in the midst of a white Rioja haze, I got the romance back.

Salem Al Fakir is a Swedish multi-instrumentalist and has the distinction (shared with Veronica Maggio) of being the first artist I really, truly got into once I landed in Scandinavia. He has no box and veers wildly between folk, jazz, pure-pop, electronic experimentalism and orchestral soundscapes. I felt an immediate kinship. Yet my experience was wholly through the prism of my lovely Wes’ Swedish Spotify account and a couple of iTunes purchases she made as a teenager. The moment we decided on sharing my paid account (tied to a British card) and closing her free one, I lost access to Salem. Initially I was a little despondent that his output wasn’t available internationally, I had a demand that was failing to be fulfilled. Nowadays I think it was a pretty smart move; to buy Ignore This (the parent album for ‘Part Of It’) I had to go through the arduous process of changing my country from the UK to Sweden through iTunes which involved not only inputting new payment details but also changing my address on three separate pages. The struggle made my appreciation of the final result so, so much better because I had wanted it so badly. Ignore This now has a story. That said, without a quality of music there would be no point in any of this. Something Salem knows all to clearly.

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Quality enough for a royal wedding, for example.

Wes never owned ‘Part Of It’. It was only once I settled and explored her Swedish Spotify that I was able to start filling in the blanks of her collection. You know those moments when music is bubbling in the background, providing a happysad soundtrack to your life as you imagine unknown voyeurs marveling at how John Hughes your life is. You know when your mind then locks into some little grain of audio sand and you have to drop everything to actually focus on what you are listening to. That. That happened in the middle of making dinner. I had to stop as my brain processed what was going on. On the surface ‘Part Of It’ is just a modal synth-led bit of expressive electro-pop. 3 minutes 46 of pleasant sounds and funky beats. Simple. But listen to those beats; listen to the 3 competing textural layers, listen to how off-kilter the bass drum spasms, listen to how the 4 beat is implied instead of voiced. The whole construction presents a slow, languid pulse beneath the frenetic clothes of drum hits. Listen to the meticulous synth arrangement; 80s string chords, subtle choir hints and bright melodic accents supporting both the drums and the euphoric chorus melody. It’s like looking into the watch mechanism and only seeing two hands spin round. This sheer amount of complexity behind the music gave it an edge that I couldn’t resist.

Then you have the lyrics.

The best art juxtaposes. It makes you think. This beautiful, beautiful music. This infectiously singable euphoria is about domestic abuse. After setting the scene of a victim weighing up escape (“I dare you to take a step outside/get on up, get on up/the train is going that way”, “I dare you to take a step outside/so afraid, so afraid/of opposite directions”), Salem drops all metaphor and pretence. “How does it feel when you beat your wife?”. The harmonic support, so pleasing and kind, does nothing to soften the blow. The ‘it’ that we don’t want to be a part of takes on a myriad of connotations. It could be the victim wanting the suffering to end. It could be Salem speaking from an experience he may have witnessed. It could even be us, the voyeur, shocked at the scene but still turning our backs, fingers in ears, singing pleasant melodies to ignore the horror.

This is the best music. Take it on whichever level you like but be aware that there is depth if you peer under the surface. I am personally gutted that Salem has retired from solo work, it truly is some of the best I have ever heard. If you get the chance to listen to or, better yet, buy any of his albums, I thoroughly recommend it.

Alien Ant Farm (on midweek buzz induced nostalgia)

Guilty pleasure simply doesn’t exist. If you feel guilty in enjoying something it is merely a sign that you are straining against your nature and uncomfortably fitting into the box that life has dumped you in. Would acknowledging that make you happy? I am myself; all inclusive, a one off. We all are. I’m utterly different from my closest allies and trusted companions, something worth remembering. We are all different from each other so why pretend that we have to fit into someone else’s perceived idea of how we should act. There is no guilt, there is merely pleasure. Shame is absent. When I was younger I loved the new alternative metal; a genre which before my eyes contracted and commercialised into the bastard tongue “Nu” variety. Nu-metal, I see it making you shudder. Be patient.

Where will Perry’s arrow murmur? I honestly don’t know right now, I’ve got a midweek buzz on that’s positively balmy. This post was started with a mind to showcase Downer’s impeccably 00s ‘Last Time‘; a band that released an album on Roadrunner Records before completely disappearing. No Spotify, no iTunes, very little Youtube. The saddest of fates in this digital age. This was followed with a full on succumbing to Alien Ant Farm, a much maligned band who gave by far an away the most nuanced record of this badly remembered age. I should come back to it… I don’t know, maybe throw a leaf into the wind and see where it lands. Linkin Park. They’ll do. Actually, sod that, I DO want to talk Alien Ant Farm. A band that suffered the excesses of nu-metal worse than most: disturbingly talented yet stage hogging 6-stringed bass player, quietly jazz influenced drummer and extended 9th obsessed guitarist. Add a sublimely unhinged 80s cover and Bingo! But they musically stick in my head more than most. Don’t get me wrong, I proudly like Limp Bizkit more, but that’s likely because they were around longer. But put 3 Dollar against ANThology and I think AAF pips it. It’s the sheer tonal variety and positive sheen that wins out.

An album review to follow. In the meantime, here’s a taster to lock your teeth in.

Rusangano Family – Let the Dead Bury the Dead

Regular readers will no doubt have noticed the stark gap in post frequency these past months. Put simply, the vote to leave the EU coupled with a need to finish arranging a job lot of music for my sister’s wedding increased my stress levels exponentially and, frankly, I thought about throwing the whole Appraisal away. Follow any minor level artist or writer and you will no doubt come across a post or two about the struggle in creating, the struggle in being heard and appreciated. It is draining and demeaning and I’d had enough. The dust won’t settle on all this for a long time yet, but to give up now would only damage myself. This year won’t beat me so easily. Through it all my Spotify Discover Playlist has been a consistent rock; within this rock the occasional gem; of those gems there have been one or two flawless stones of quality able to drag me out of my funk, able to raise a comment. Of those: Rusangano Family – Let the Dead Bury the Dead.

When I was younger I used to have an incredibly snobbish attitude to lyrics; they were always secondary after melodies and chords. It’s probably why I let Limp Bizkit fuel my adolescence for so long. Through this I accidentally developed a numbness towards rappers as their art was built into the rhymes and rhythms in a way that I couldn’t comprehend. Unfortunately, unless it had a stellar backing track I just wouldn’t bother. What wasted years those were. I have so much to learn and so much to hear. But Let the Dead Bury the Dead is an album I am utterly grateful to Spotify for adding to my education. The flat-out poetry held within these incredible pockets of groove puts the aggression and null-sum words of my previous experience to shame. These are MCs with a life experience and pools of imagery to draw upon that dwarfs anything I could ever know. ‘Heathrow‘ deals forcefully, elegantly but incisively with racial profiling and the “predicament of the new slaves”; a kicker at the end asking us to “let it sink”. Here too can we see a masterful use of the album format as the intense climax we just experienced flows into the soothing and aptly named instrumental ‘We All Need A Break Sometimes‘; time slows down and I can contemplate the grenade just lobbed.

The nigh on perfect interplay between the mynameisjOhn’s exceptional beats and MuRli and God Knows’ wordplay is a running theme throughout this album. ‘Blabber Mouth‘ detailing the familiar familial disappointment in choosing an artistic path when they could have been “the Irish Obama”; documented over a classic, brassy soul groove. The stark text on lost cultural connections in ‘Losing My French‘ brought into sharp relief when laid on it’s languid piano ostinato; “when a home becomes just a property”, a heartbreaking concept. Of all these, ‘Isn’t Dinner Nice‘ stands tall amongst giants. The text, greatly enhanced by Denise Chaila’s delivery, should be compulsive listening, detailing as it does the experience of being a woman and the contempt shown by men and boys. I can’t even put it into words the shame, sadness and anger this subject raises in me; the phrase “boys will be boys” delivered with such nuanced defeat that I break. All this contrasted with a beautiful romantic groove; an echo chamber of strings magnifying the poem’s power. “Sure, he’s only a man”.

This album is fertile. Living. It is the product of cultures not colliding but intertwining. Experience and talent combined by location and fed by circumstance. There were never any rules at the beginning, something Rusangano Family instinctively know and something they use to highlight social issues we’d otherwise ignore. It’s almost subtle the way subjects are presented, ideas danced around before you realise that they’ve actually been fencing you in; forcing you to confront the disquieting truths. Simply incredible.

Click to visit Rusangano Family’s website

Click to like them on the Facebook here.

Click to follow them on Twitter here.

Click to listen on Soundcloud here.

Europe is Awesome!: Spectral Display (The Netherlands)

So my plan to write a very long positive cultural case for staying in the European Union is currently swimming around a diatribe against the British Government for their shameful slashing of the arts budget and disregard for artists in general. If I’m honest, it’s not the best fun to read. So while I try and find balance and a reason to stop grinding my personal axe, I thought it best to highlight how Britain is so blatantly obviously European by showcasing some brilliant tunes from across the continent. The arts are unique in that they ignore boundaries; cross-pollinating over seas and conflicts until the whole act of creation itself follows the same geographical impulse. We British are made strong by Europe. We lead and follow cultural developments whilst maintaining a personality firmly our own. The same can be said of every country in the Union; our cultures are never lost, they are clearly enhanced and strengthened. I know this. I live this. My life in Sweden is full of “well that couldn’t sound anymore Swedish if it turned out to be about Midsommar” moments about songs which, with a language change, would rule Radio 1. This is what I think I’ll try and get across as the days to this flawed plebiscite draw near. Where better to start than the 80s and Amsterdam’s own Spectral Display.

Spotify introduced me to this absolute gem of an album though I do remember MIA covering the joyous ‘It Takes A Muscle [To Fall In Love]‘ way back in 2010. New Wave was a wonderful movement full of surprisingly forward thinking song constructions that root themselves firmly to the popular spectrum. Spectral Display is no different. A wonderfully bonkers, synth-led groove of an album, dripping with unease and chaste joy. Moments of Eurythmics, Gary Newman, OMD etc. are all present, yet there is that slight, unexpected phrasing in the vocal that lifts it away from British influence toward something a little more Dutch. ‘You Don’t Know How Much I Love You’, other than coalescing my current feelings towards both Britain and the EU, broods and emotes in effortless waves of pulsing synths. It never overstretches itself but conveys a considerable heft for such a simple piece. A beautiful album, a funky album, an album worth re-visiting. European electronica at it’s finest.

To reiterate: Culture knows no boundaries. Hopefully this will become abundantly clear as the days draw on but at the very least it should show we are no different than our family over the Channel and beyond. We belong together because we are the same people, merely seen from different perspectives. I don’t have the words to explain my anger at accusations otherwise.

I am listening to: Mini Mansions – Death is a Girl

Yes, I know. I’ve been slack. I continue to be slack. The pressures of PhD proposals, wedding compositions and collaborations has put the Appraisal on the backburner a little. Sorry about that. As a stop-gap here’s a cracker of a tune. Just don’t watch the live version, it doesn’t translate well.