Caught by the River

Ian Preece's Bumper Record Review

Ian Preece | 4th April 2017

Ian Preece gives his verdict on 50 by Michael Chapman (Paradise of Bachelors), Abul Mogard/Maurizio Bianchi’s Split 12″ (Ecstactic), and What in the Natural World by Jake Xerxes Fussell (Paradise of Bachelors):

Youth, beauty, speed, and getting it all pretty much down on the first or second album – yeah, I know all the arguments about that, but these last couple of months the two records I can’t leave alone are by a 76-year-old guitarist from Hull who dresses a bit like a binman, and a retired Serbian steel factory worker who’s currently releasing some of the most crushingly beautiful ambient sounds around. Those two ‒ and the ancient-sounding, sun-ripened country blues and folk vignettes of (the considerably younger) Jake Xerxes Fussell, on his new LP What in the Natural World, to be released at the end of March.

Michael Chapman and Steve Gunn

Caught by the River readers at Port Eliot last summer will know all about Michael Chapman after his terrific Friday night set, flowing superbly between James Blackshaw and Ryley Walker. I knew Chapman possessed sixties/seventies folk-rock roots, and that he’d experienced a kind of second coming with the release of an avant-noise LP with Thurston Moore, The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock, but, hearing one of the regular DJs at London’s Vinyl Therapy spin ‘The Polar Bear’ (from the LP of the same name) recently blew my mind: the sound coming from the speakers seemed to buckle and warp, the air was sucked in and out of the room; it sounded more like a Tod Dockstader or Daphne Oram experiment with electronic pulses than country rock.

50, the new record, ‘dedicated to all those who didn’t make it this far’, is something else again. I managed to weave opener ‘A Spanish Incident’ ‒ with its terrifically infectious guitar and banjo groove ‒ into a DJ set for a mate’s 50th birthday recently, and it sounded just fantastic loud in a bar; more than holding its own in the company of Grooverider’s ‘Fools Gold’ and the Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’. ‘Sometimes You Drive’, the second track on 50, seems similarly preoccupied with impending environmental apocalypse: trees on fire, a red sky, dead fish, rising floodwater. Where, in ‘A Spanish Incident’, a scorched land fries beneath a burning sun, and only lizards survive, here, the abandoned north of England, with water pouring into Carlisle homes, darkens Chapman’s horizon. (Chapman was actually born in Hunslet, Leeds, spent time as a photography and art teacher in the seventies in Hull ‒ from where he’d travel down to places like London to play gigs with the likes of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn and Mike Cooper – and remains a Northerner through and through.) The pace eases up with ‘The Mallard’, a mangled tale of disappeared steam trains and lost love, which, along with a few other tracks, has another of Chapman’s muckers from the sixties, Bridget St John, on backing vocals, providing counterpoint to the gruff Yorkshireman. By ‘Memphis in Winter’, Steve Gunn’s moody and atmospheric production allied to Chapman’s growl-cum-partial rap brings to mind Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash. Thus far on 50 Chapman, baseball cap wedged down on his head, has interrupted his slightly doomy semi-spoken monologues with dismissive snorts here and there, elsewhere a weary sigh. But here Gunn’s plangent guitar rolls along ‒ in the manner of ‘Ancient Jules’ from his own Eyes on the Line, or ‘Drifter’ from Way Out Weather ‒ before opening out and careening away onto some desolate and scorched landscape. File alongside Cash, Gunn, Nick Cave or Neil Young.

If I’m ever driving across the barren winter fields of the Black Dirt region of southern Orange County, west of New York (where 50 was recorded) it’s ‘The Prospector’ I’ll have blaring out of the car stereo, with its forlorn riffs and tales of whisky-drinking teachers and ruddy-faced farmers coming in from the cold. It kicks off in a sort of hopeful key, but by the end the guitars are blazing like fields of burning corn. And I absolutely love the last two tracks: banjo-led hoedown ‘Money Trouble’ ‒ with its singalong chorus: ‘it’s only money, money trouble’ ‒ is another glass of red wine for the road, a final laugh before the whole thing comes crashing down; while James Elkington’s guitar on ‘That Time of Night’ mainlines the ruefulness just as on his and Nathan Salsburg’s cover of ‘Reel Around the Fountain’. ‘That Time of Night’, like one or two others, is an old Chapman number reconditioned – everything’s a nightmare at 4 a.m., when all of your dreams are in tatters, but you’ve got this far, so that has to count for something.

Chapman doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and is content to remain apart from the crowd – when not touring to pay the bills, he’s happy retreating to the sanity of his secluded Northumberland farmhouse with his wife Anju, some nice bottles of red wine, his Jimmy Giuffre records and Camus novels. As befits a man of such impeccable taste, on 50 he’s teamed up with some fine American underground luminaries (not only Gunn and Elkington on guitar, but also banjo player and drummer Nathan Bowles and Brooklyn-based synth-artist Jimy SeiTang of Stygian Stride/Rhyton) to produce a fine record that sits somewhere between Blood on the Tracks and Peace Trail.

Abul Mogard spent much of his working life on a production line in a steel plant in Belgrade. Boring and repetitive work, he has confessed in interviews, but, on retirement, he still felt a strong sense of dislocation, loss and emptiness, and soon set about replicating some of the sounds and atmospheres of factory life with a few self-built electronic instruments and his favoured collection of Farfisa organs. He started releasing a handful of alluring, limited edition cassettes around 2012, all of which are now long gone, before a selection of tracks was collected on last year’s stunning double LP Works. Some listeners might think Mogard has rendered the doom and alienation of an industrial setting a little too faithfully on darker numbers like ‘Despite Faith’ and ‘Drooping Off’, but elsewhere there are moments of high-grade, finely calibrated beauty (‘The Purpose of Peace’, ‘Staring at the Sweeps of the Desert’) and aching sadness (‘Desires are Reminiscences by Now’), as well as the irresistible cavernous boom and shuffle of ‘Tumbling Relentless Heaps’, an ambient-techno deceleration and relocation of Basil Kirchin’s ‘Lunch-Hour Pops’ to a grimy steelworks on the banks of the Danube.

And now comes a split 12” on purple translucent wax, also from the Ecstatic label. On one side Italian industrial artist Maurizio Bianchi sets about removing paint with a strip-gun inside a vast echoing concrete pipe, with what sounds like a set of radios broadcasting some warped concerto in the background over the rhythm of a distant jackhammer – all of which is strangely listenable; on the other, Abul Mogard immerses us in a soothing bath of slowly building Serge Modular Moog and layers of Farfisa organ. ‘All This has Passed For Ever’ lasts 16 minutes. I haven’t heard such a beautiful side of vinyl this year; I’m not sure I’ve heard such a beautiful record in this vein since first exposure to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops all those years ago.

Bursts of spring sunshine, showers of biblical intensity . . . perfect for planting sweet potatoes, as I’m sure Jake Xerxes Fussell knows. At the moment I can’t get enough of them (mashed, with spring onions and gravy). This is probably because I’ve had ‘Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine’ going round my head these past few weeks (especially the gloriously high, hanging ‘everrrrr’ of that line). It’s a cover of a track from the late seventies by undiscovered peanut farmer and Georgia bluesman Jimmy Lee Williams. Xerxes Fussell has spoken of the serene, droning, syncopated quality to a lot of southwest Georgia guitar playing – something he grew up with, following his folklorist dad Fred on field recording trips around the region. Fussell Senior often worked with George Mitchell (who ‘did work similar to the Lomaxes, but with a level of candour and self-awareness that they often lacked,’ Derek Taylor, Dusted) and ‘ . . . Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine’ was a song young Jake Xerxes caught at an early age – now it’s something he’s worked into a second, terrific record of adaptations of southern country blues gems.

Jeff, of this parish, turned me onto Jake XF, and on the first side of his debut LP there’s a run of three tracks that capture it all: the hollerin’, the sweetness, the brutality and sadness of life in the South (if you happen to be a cotton picker or peanut farmer, that is). ‘Let Me Lose’ has a terrific deep groove that tips over into a full-blown stomp – the Barrett household were known to burst into impromptu choruses of ‘ducks in the millpond, geese flyin’ over . . . if I lose my money, let me lose . . .’ and ‘Raggy Levy . . . Oho! Do Raggy Levy/Oh Boy, just ragged as a jaybird’ (a cover of the Georgia Sea Island Singers’ staple) back in 2015 when the record came out. The third track in that sequence, ‘Star Girl’, JXF’s adaptation of an old Virginia folk song from the 1930s, is a lovelorn tale of heartbreak and broken vows leading to an early grave, the sort of thing that fills the desolate prairies of Dust-to-Digital compilations like I Listen to the Wind That Obliterates My Traces or Mississippi records’ Fight on Your Time Ain’t Long. ‘Jump for Joy’, the opening track on the new record, What in the Natural World, picks up exactly where ‘Star Girl’ left off. It’s a modern treatment of an old Sid Kuller, Paul Francis Webster and Duke Ellington number from 1941, but here the unadorned mournful guitar beneath starry heavens brings to mind Woody Guthrie or, rather, Wilco and Billy Bragg’s albums of Guthrie covers. What seems pretty certain is that now she’s entered the gates of heaven, and is implored to jump for joy (‘don’t you grieve, little Eve/all the hounds I do believe/have been killed, ain’t ya thrilled?/ jump for joy’), a life of toil in the cotton fields has been exchanged, at some price, for everlasting peace.

There’s more grief on ‘Furniture Man’, a heartbreaking tale of a poor fella standing around while his piano, furniture, frying pan and even the bed-ticks are repossessed. He sings the song, an adaptation of the Lil McLintock’s Depression era ‘Furniture Man’, in part to his wife, who is ‘long gone’, and in part to the furniture man himself (‘take your time, Mr Brown’ — and remember to look yourself in the mirror – my mirror ‒ when you get back to the store).

Jake Xerxes Fussell’s voice is as huge as a thunderhead, as clear as a mountain stream on this LP. But it’s completely unadorned and unaffected. It’s rich, woody and sonorous; it fills the room and sits nicely above his own acoustic and electric guitars and the plaintive steel strings of Nathan Golub. From the moment he cuts into the beautiful unfurling guitar and lolloping gait of the opening to ‘Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine’ – ‘They say there’s silver in the Pinnacle Mountain/Nuggets found in the river below’ – you kind of know it’s not going to end well (farmsteads left abandoned, crops perished in the flight to the beautiful but treacherous Blue Ridge mountains), and you sense it’s not only the secret of the mountains that ends up buried in the ground.

On the second side of the record ‘Canyoneers’ similarly ponders what drives a man to risk a lonely death as a river rat, navigating the perilous falls of the Colorado River, lying at night on a rocky beach hearing the mournful cries of drowned men of the rapids from down the years (answer: dust and ruined corn, I guess, in 1938 when the first cruises passed through the Grand Canyon). ‘Billy Button’ also ponders the winds of fate at a similar, untroubled pace, and has an opening refrain (‘hogmeat/I’ve got plenty’) which will be bellowed in our kitchen for a while ‒ another seeming tale of hardship and forlorn hope of the promised land. (In fact, I spent a good while trying to figure out exactly what this song was about, only to later read in the press release of ‘an odd nonsense verse with its likely roots in medicine shows and minstrelsy’.) There’s a couple of Anglo-Celtic inflected folk numbers too. Nathan Salsburg actually plays a beautiful acoustic guitar on ‘Pinnacle Silver Mountain Mine’ but it’s the seafaring tales of ‘St Brendan’s Isle’ ‒ burning seas, sailors feasting on dragon flesh, saints walking on water ‒ that, musically at least, most closely resembles ‘Coll Mackensie’ from Salsburg’s own Hard for to Win and Can’t Be Won. If I’m honest, I care less for the ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, a poem by Idris Davies set amidst a Welsh mining disaster and the failure of the 1926 strike. Nothing wrong with that sentiment, and the poem’s condemnation of corrupt, avaricious mine owners: it’s more the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ nursery-rhyme arrangement, originally performed by Pete Seeger ‒ as well as the certainty that this is the track Jools Holland will pick to play boogie-woogie piano to. Daft and possibly stupid to say, but somehow those instantly familiar melodies bind everything too closely to these shores; I want to escape to the raging rivers that cut through the Blue Ridge mountains, to panning for silver and ‘pastures groovy’, and the sweet beauty of those acoustic and steel guitars. I’m sure it’ll sound fine in the tap rooms of this fair isle on his forthcoming tour, though.

Initially, I had another slight grumble: William Tyler’s organ is missing on this record. I’ve been nodding along, head bobbing, stoned as a pigeon, to Tyler’s burbling Farfisa on ‘Push Boat’ and ‘Pork and Beans’ from JXF’s debut for a while now. But the absence is understandable: What in the Natural World is slightly more ‘Star Girl’ than ‘Pork and Beans’; less of a country rocker and more of sparse, poignant, and darkly absurd record. And still, there are great musicians on here too: Salsburg and Golub, as mentioned; Nathan Bowles, who is clearly becoming the Paradise of Bachelors’ in-house drummer and banjo player (see 50 above), who also features on piano and melodica; Casey Toll on bass; and the super-cool Joan Shelley, who sings backing vocals on the last track, ‘Lowe Bonnie’, a tale of a buccaneering hunting boy being welcomed in by his old true love, before a burning fire and a cup of white chocolate tea. He tells her he can’t stay the night, however, as he loves another, which doesn’t stop him ‘sitting on her lap . . . kissing her so sweet’. She takes the opportunity to plunge the blade in. Lowe Bonnie’s hunting days brandishing his broadsword are over.

I love how, in the sleevenotes, Fussell studiously notes all the variations and associated folk songs as distinct from the main version he’s adapted, even when that’s the sort of thing that leads to a severe wallet-battering (the Georgia Crackers and Loy Clingman look worthy of further investigation; The George Mitchell Collection, Volumes 1—45 is winking at me). I’m a man of the analogue world, but it’s almost worth joining this new thing called Facebook just to check out the fine gallery of American paintings, naturalistic and modern, that Xerxes Fussell includes by his posts: breathtaking images of railways, fields, light, sky and, sometimes, cities. In the meantime, I’m off to plant some sweet potatoes and find me a copy of Jimmy Lee Williams’s Hoot Your Belly.


On Sunday 30 April, we’re bringing Jake Xerxes Fussell – along with fellow country guitar stylist Daniel Bachman – to Centrespace Gallery, Bristol, in partnership with our lovely pals Friendly Records. More info/ tickets here.

Michael Chapman will be among performers taking to our stage at The Good Life Experience in September. See more of our lineup/buy tickets here. Our readers can get 10% off tickets using code CBTR.

Previous Ian Preece posts on Caught by the River