In a bumper album review post, Ian Preece makes a case for recent albums by Laura Cannell, Josephine Foster, Damien Jurado and Hjalte Ross.
I like Iklectik. It’s a bit like Café Oto, but by the banks of the Thames and with more of a garden-centre vibe: communal workshop spaces, a timber yard and wooden picnic benches outside where you can drink chilled pale ale between acts. Just two beers and I accosted Philip Jeck on his way to the Scandi-style toilet hut to tell him how great his records are (particularly the Dansette-opus Live in Liverpool) at a Touch records evening there last year. Recently Lea Bertucci played: sparse, holy, pure saxophone squiggles and tones over ambient tape-loops with a suitably beautiful cosmic backdrop of constellations of pink, green and blue nebulae. You could apply the same epithets – pure, holy, dissonant – to Laura Cannell, the saxophone replaced by violin and recorder. Strangely enough, only a couple of weeks after New York sound artist Bertucci channelled a kind of John Coltrane-like cosmic melancholy, Suffolk violinist Cannell launched her new record The Sky Untuned in the Iklectik space, also with accompanying Harmonices Mundi-like visuals (courtesy of Laura Spark/Dr Sparkophogus). At one point she stepped into the crowd, a bit like Roland Kirk raising holy hell blowing through two recorders at the same time, ‘Organum’ blasting from the back of the room while fiery goblets of hot plasma (projected over the vacant microphones and wall) detached themselves from the surface of the sun. The basis of The Sky Untuned is the music of the spheres, or, rather, the fact that the churning universe is constantly making music, not all of it audible by humans. Cannell, with her reedy pipes and raw, resonating overbowed violin, is a pretty good conduit. Where ‘Organum’ has a glorious infectious sped-up melody – composed by tonsured 12th century raver Pérotin; you can imagine things getting out of hand, Parisians necking Grenache and lobbing meat around the environs of Notre Dame on a major feast day – there’s a second, mellower double-recorder track on The Sky Untuned: ‘Landmark’, which was composed after listening to field recordings assembled for Jennifer Lucy Allen’s foghorn research project; beautiful dulcet recorder tones penetrating a lonesome thick mist.
Where Simultaneous Flight Movement was raw and startling, and the twists and turns of the cassette Hunter Huntress Hawker signalled furious violin strokes one moment, passages of ennui the next, The Sky Untuned feels at times slightly looser and softer somehow. ‘Striking the Lost Bells’ is a threnody for the bells of Dunwich which disappeared beneath the waves in the famous storm surge and cliff erosion of 1287. Inspired by the ‘craggy landscape and brittle fresh air of Norway’, ‘Untethered’ is terrific, the melody walking an ecstatically high line, Laura incessantly sawing away and plunging down through the chords, smoke coming out of the overbowed violin. Actually, Cannell played ‘Untethered’ live with a normal bow. The overbowed technique, she told Jack Chuter of Attn Magazine, ‘opens up many more possibilities – and I love the rasping and unexpected chord combinations’. There’s nowhere near enough rasping in modern music. The hairs of the bow scraping the strings, with the stick scuffling below, sometimes catching the body, lend a great let’s-rip-all-this-from-the-conservatoire-and-do-a-string-of-nights-live-at-Max’s-Kansas-City feel to proceedings. When ‘Untethered’ really takes off it could be John Cale attacking his viola on ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’, or some of the more joyous moments of Henry Flynt. Once you zone in and clock the infinite pleasures of The Sky Untuned the well seems bottomless for solo violin – the soft carpet of lush drones that form ‘Transient Thresholds’ could almost have been written for quiet mornings around this time of year, when twigs, buds and blossom seem to have almost overnight transformed into a haze of green; the epic ‘Flaming Torches’ formed a bed of drone for Mira Callix’s Tower of London installation Beyond the Deepening Shadow – but I can’t help thinking one day I’d love to see Laura Cannell in a band, adding light and shade to the guitar lines of a 21st century Sterling Morrison and Lou Reed; or channelling those unheard celestial vibes through the vinyl crackle and ambient dust motes of a Philip Jeck or Alva Noto.
Not unlike viola player Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh who, live at a spruced up St Luke’s church near Old Street the other night, ornamented Josephine Foster’s songs from Faithful Fairy Harmony – an unbelievably beautiful record of rich harmonies and deep melodies that somehow seems to evoke both a patina of dusty barrooms from the 1920s, trail songs and a gloriously stoned desert-picnic vibe from the 1960s. Foster grew up in Colorado, but now lives in Cádiz, having spent a winter in a semi-abandoned village in the Spanish countryside, the silence punctured by (she told Clive Bell in The Wire) occasional ‘goats’ bells, donkey brays and the church bell announcing the passing of another old neighbour every day or so’. Her album setting Emily Dickinson’s poems to music, Graphic as a Star; 2008’s This Coming Gladness, and recent hushed masterpieces like I’m a Dreamer and No More Lamps in the Morning are all essentials. All the Leaves are Gone – slightly more Jefferson Airplane – is a classic too. ‘Challenger’, from the new LP Faithful Fairy Harmony, a song about the 1986 space shuttle disaster, has become an anthem (in our kitchen at least). There’s a shift through the gears that happens a couple of times on ‘Lord of Love’ that I’ll never tire of as long as there’s still music in the world. On stage at St Luke’s, Foster fiddled with her autoharp like she was about to shell some peas in a colander. I just love the contrast of her down-homeness, almost Quaker(ish) demeanour and quiet piano – and the quavering vaguely operatic voice scanning the heavens for fiery angels, moonbeams, starry skies and some sort of divine reassurance ‘may our planet safely fly’ (all bolstered live, too, by Trembling Bell Alex Neilson’s subtly applied brush strokes).
Another beautiful album from last year is Damien Jurado’s The Horizon Just Laughed. I’d go as far to say one of the weatherbeaten Seattle singer-songwriter’s best: sad songs and beautiful melodies, quietly railing at a world being parcelled up and sold off ‘where people never look you in the eye/And there is no need to talk/And the sidewalks they walk for you/I know everything and yet no one at all’. There are strings, fabulous Wurlitzer organ fills, a lower key but still beautiful faded-soul aura left over from Jurado’s hook-ups with the sadly late Richard Swift – and what I now realise might be a conflicted love letter of sorts to ‘The Last Great Washington State’. I really hate the phrase ‘to own’ – it’s so now, and Trumpian – but Jurado is so distinctive a singer he could make ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ seem like it was written in a parking lot off the interstate near Spokane; all his records come smeared with the view from behind worn-out windscreen wipers in the rainy Pacific northwest, or are set in small towns with clapboard picture houses that double as the church hall and community centre. Now he’s gone and moved to sunny LA and released a short, quick, beautiful acoustic album, a sort of stray cats’ home of abandoned songs and forgotten sketches freshly recorded in California. The production is stripped back and smooth; gone are the ‘thundering drums and psychedelic arrangements’ (which I rather liked) of recent albums. But In the Shape of a Storm still couldn’t be anybody else. The pace is slower, circa And Now That I’m in Your Shadow – and songs like ‘Newspaper Gown’ and ‘Hands on the Table’ feel like they could be soulmates of ‘Tether’ or ‘Matinee’ from the sepia-toned Where Shall You Take Me? There’s still a 1960s soul ache to ‘Throw Me Now Your Arms’ and ‘Where You Want Me to Be’; and ‘Silver Ball’, I’m guessing, might have been an offcut from Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son – not just because of the title (‘Silver Malcolm’, ‘Silver Timothy’ and ‘Silver Donna’ were all bangers from that album) but there’s also a sprinkling of Swiftian silver echo dust (along with Josh Gordon’s ‘high-strung guitar’). The songs are oblique snapshots of lives in motion, often all at sea, buttressed by the changing currents of life, a long way from the safety of the shore or shelter from the storm – but, as with Josephine Foster, Jurado infuses the everyday with a cinematic glow, and is constantly looking heavenwards – or, as he would put it, ‘Crossing over Wenatchee and into outer space’ – for some kind of solace. As Richard Swift said of Brothers and Sisters . . . ‘These songs are groovy, weird, interesting – and you can sing along to them.’
The Horizon Just Laughed and In the Shape of a Storm are Jurado’s 17th and 18th albums (and there are almost as many EPs and demos/alternate-take sides). Every home and cabin needs this body of work. Starting out at the other end – in a changed world but with another smoothly produced and beautifully arranged (first) LP – is Danish singer/guitarist Hjalte Ross. It takes about 2 seconds before you find a reference to Nick Drake when you type in Ross’s name online – something that’s probably not helped by the fact that producer John Wood engineered Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon (and also worked with Nico, Sandy Denny, John Martyn and all the Island records 1970s crowd bar Bob Marley by the looks of it). Ross sought him out for advice; Wood was so bowled over by the songs he agreed to produce the album while staying in the Ross homestead in rural Denmark, ‘nice dinners and lots of wine’ supplied by Hjalte’s parents. I love the rich woody sound, and Steven Turner’s arrangements are in the classic Robert Kirby mould: lots of space, an unhurried feel, and fantastic bassy strings, especially on the instrumental ‘Company of a Camel’ and ‘Come By’, which swells beautifully – in fact that, and the closing ‘Jesus and the Useless’ remind me more of a slightly sullen but winning Bill Ryder-Jones. There’s a bit of a Sibylle Baier vibe throughout, just a waft of James Yorkston and the Fence Collective on the breeze of Embody’s title track, but the record is way more than the sum its parts or influences – percussive instrumental ‘Cabobay’ simmers away, all meandering transverse flute and bass clarinet. There’s an interview on the Dansk website where Hjalte wrestles with such existential problems of this age as ‘having an opinion’ and ‘knowing everything’ – ‘I don’t want to be a know-it-all,’ he says, pointing out the LP is just based around his experiences. ‘I don’t know anything.’ Socrates, I think (I was 50 before I realised that). He also reveals a very healthy deep distrust of social media for one so young. Wise words.
Lea Bertucci’s ‘Metal Aether’ is on NNA Tapes; Laura Cannell’s ‘The Sky Untuned’ is on Brawl Records; Josephine Foster’s ‘Faithful Fairy Harmony’ is on Fire; Damien Jurado’s ‘The Horizon Just Laughed’ is on Secretly Canadian, ‘In The Shape of a Storm’ on Loose; Hjalte Ross’s ‘Embody’ is released on Wouldn’t Waste Records.