Caught by the River

Lockdown Listening

Ian Preece | 12th May 2020

Ian Preece recommends soundtracks for spice cupboard exploration, athletic kitchen workouts and general banishment of the blues.

I started out with Stuart Staples’ soundtrack to Claire Denis’ The High Life, then a retrospective of the early works of Rafael Anton Irisarri and Thomas Köner, followed by Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Leyfðu Ljósinu (Icleandic for Allow the Light) – but however stunningly good these records, such low-lit gloomy ambience is perhaps just a little too on the nose for the current apocalypse. So my lockdown re-evaluation of a lost classic a day is now journeying through reggae, dub, soul, long-buried Moondog and free jazz. Though when you’re standing on a chair, straining to reach the back of the spice cupboard where you know there are some mustard seeds purchased around 2008 – so didn’t buy any just now on your fortnightly trip to Tesco’s even though they’re needed for an experimental carrot dish – having Kenneth Terroade’s ‘savagely tender’ ‘Blessing’ (Ronnie Beer’s screaming sax; Francois Tusques hammering the piano; from the fine 2001 JazzActuel boxset put together by Byron Coley and Thurston Moore) blasting across the kitchen isn’t always totally Zen. Here’s three new mellow tips:

James Elkington, Ever-Roving Eye (Paradise of Bachelors)

At first I thought Ever-Roving Eye sounded a bit more 1970s than the breezier but moodier folk/pop of Wintres Wonder, Elkington’s 2017 solo LP – a bit more Pentangle; less It Don’t Bother Me. But in truth the albums are not so dissimilar. There’s the same clean, jazzy brio to the production (Mark Greenberg, once of ace Chicago outfit the Coctails, whose Windy City sound Elkington has faint traces of too). And the touchstones of the English guitarist resident in Chicago remain the same: the verses of ‘Carousel’ have the ring of Scott 2 or 3; there’s the ghost of nimble-fingered Bert Jansch on the terrific instrumental ‘Rendelsham Way’; and knottier, more up-tempo tracks like ‘Nowhere Time’ and ‘Sleeping Me Awake’ will hold great appeal not only for fans of The Smiths, Orange Juice and Edwyn Collins’ 1990s solo albums on the lookout for some plusher, more seasoned present-day song-craft in this vein but also William Tyler headz entranced by a kind of gritty, weatherbeaten 21st century American guitar sound (there’s something of Jake Xerxes Fussell’s ‘Push Boat’, Tyler on bobbing pump organ, about ‘Sleeping Me Awake’). That said, the grain and twists and turns of the guitars mesh pleasingly like Johnny Marr’s might. Tom Pinnock in Uncut suggests that perhaps 20 years in exile in Chicago has allowed Elkington to ‘distil the essence’ of a British sound – it’s a good point, Elkington is a bit like a musical David Peace, bringing clarity and focus, trapping a certain 1960s-to-1980s British folk/rock/pop guitar(ness) in amber. But this is a transatlantic fusion: there’s occasionally a faint Scott Walker (esque) arch poise to the delivery, and the lyrics are oblique and tenebrous, but Elkington’s manner is softer – like label mate Xerxes Fussell the vocal is prominent in the mix but somehow beautifully natural and understated too. I love the shuffle of Spencer Tweedy’s drums. And there are rich, soft brushstrokes everywhere – Paul von Mertens’ lovely thruttely woodwind interludes on ‘Leopards Lay Down’ and the closing ‘Much Master’; the shimmering peal and thrum of guitar notes, a kind of prelude to the opening ‘Nowhere Time’; the plucked cello or bass that pulls up ‘Rendelsham Way’. ‘Late Jim’s Lament’ is a total groove, almost-flamenco flare-ups laid over a super-warm, infectious bassline – you can see it rolling over the credits of some soulful HBO drama. The title track is a similarly constructed earworm – propelled along by Tweedy Jnr’s lithe skinwork – Simon Scott’s feathery drumming on James Blackshaw’s terrific Summoning Suns also springs to mind. But, of course, like all the greats, James Elkington sounds like no one other than James Elkington. Hopefully he’ll be back supporting Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg at King’s Place in September.

Thony Shorby Nyenwi, Sweet Funk Music (Jet Records)

Some of the more athletic workouts in our kitchen at the moment are being soundtracked to Thony Shorby Nyenwi’s Sweet Funk Music, a long buried gem of Nigerian afrobeat from 1978, just reissued on the French Jet label. The opening track, ‘Call a Spade a Spade’, is the bomb: a totally infectious fusing of The Clash with wah-wah guitar – or as if ‘Fools Gold’ was recorded in Lagos a decade early. Drizzle over 70s Farfisa organ and you’ve got a dancefloor monster – even an old carthorse like me can latch onto the groove. The rest of the LP is pretty great too; the guitar grooves are relentless (in a good way). On the second side ‘No Long Show’ and ‘People of the World’ sound like rougher festival jams and, after a drawn-out opening, ‘Love of Parents’ suddenly blooms into life with yet more radiant guitar. But it’s side one that’s the real winner: ‘Call a Spade . . .’ is followed by the wistful vibe of ‘Married Life’, complete with excellent electric piano and drum break in the middle. ‘Forgiveness’ is a spaced-out, lower-key reprise of ‘. . . Spade’. Information on Thony Shorby is hard to come by (online at least). The slightly rough and ready English translation on the Bandcamp page talks of the band ‘rocking out sweet reggae tunes and smooth funk’ and of the listener ‘becoming swallowed by the holy cloud emerging from the speakers’. Amen to that.

Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)

I read a description of Jeff Parker somewhere as ‘J Dilla meets Wes Montgomery’. I wish I could have hit upon something so succinct in my book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels. I didn’t. But I did travel to Chicago and interview Scott McNiece of International Anthem records, who talked warmly of Parker’s roots in the Windy City and the guitarist’s modus operandi: beautifully chilled and slow. For many Parker is perhaps best known as a guitarist in Tortoise. But he’s been releasing a gorgeous body of work since the mid-nineties: the early Chicago Underground records with Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor, and some pretty dope solo LPs too. (One of my most life-affirming moments remains stumbling across a bin stacked with mint Delmark vinyl LPs in a small backstreet record shop in Ljubljana. All reasonably priced, I bought three or four, including Parker’s excellent, lyrical Bright Light in Winte. Like-Coping is another beauty.) Parker lives in LA now, but after playing some gigs Scott had put on in Chicago, including the session that led to Makaya McCraven’s In the Moment, the natural, organic flow of things resulted in The New Breed and now Suite for Max Brown coming out on International Anthem. The New Breed is a chilled wash of jazzy breakbeats and ambient sax, guitar lines and hip-hop beats; the neon of parking lots and late-night grocery stores reflected in puddles on the rainy sidewalk. It was named after the hip clothing store Jeff’s dad ran in the seventies, presumably as a sideline or forerunner to his teaching career. Suite for Max Brown is more languid still, and is dedicated to Maxine Parker-Phillips (née Brown) – Jeff’s mum. Again, the fresh-as-morning sound, spacious grooves, bright guitar and chilled alto-sax (the title track) and the ringing tones and fuzzy reverb of ‘Fusion Swirl’ are irresistible. Jeff and his bass guitarist, long-haired dude Paul Bryan, programme the beats and fiddle with the knobs and sequencers, glockenspiel and Korg analogue synth – the field of sound is rich and awesome; it’s the equivalent of a wide-angled lens in Technicolor; it’s like they’ve set up in your front room. The version of Joe Henderson’s ‘Gnarciss’ is a joyful cut in the vein of Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings, and the slow jam ‘Build a Nest’ is a kind of anthem for these times (‘Build a nest/and watch the world go by slow’ sings Jeff’s daughter Ruby). But it’s the slower, heavy swells and shimmer of the more elegiac ‘After the Rain’ (a reworking of John Coltrane), and the super-chilled soft shuffle of ‘3 for L’ that are lodged in my head at the moment. Like Slight Freedom in 2017, album of the year already. 

Other tips to keep the blues away: Cornershop’s England is a Garden (especially the closing track ‘The Holy Name’, featuring the dinner ladies and parents of the Betty Layward primary school in Stoke Newington; on Ample Play records); King Tubby’s Prophecies of Dub, The Prophets/Yabby You (Pressure Sounds); Land, Air & Sea, Clem Leek (Y E N); The Goddess is Dancing, DK (Good Morning Tapes).


Ian’s book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels is out now, published by Omnibus, and is available here, priced £22.99. You can read an extract on Clay Pipe Music here