The Earth With Her Crowns, the latest album from Laura Cannell, is out today on Brawl Records. Cally Callomon reviews.
“Oooh he’s making it up as he goes along”
(John Cleese in The Life Of Brian)
In the mid 1970s at Watford Art School, our head of course, one Hansjorg Meyer, would use his office as a headquarters for his flourishing and adventurous book and art publishing company. After hours, I’d hear the cacophony (with the accent on cac) blasting out of his office from where hours of untutored ‘improvised’ Dieter Roth music would shriek.
At much the same time we were blessed by two visiting tutors: Brian Eno and Gavin Bryars who would hastily assemble ‘scratch orchestras’: un-schooled art school students to play pre-ordained cacaphones unbridled by compass or a thirst for pop stardom. I learned that this was called ‘improvisation’
I recorded these performances and age has not been kind to any appreciation of them today.
A few years before that I immersed myself in the utter beauty of Amon Düül II’s Chamsin Soundtrack – (‘The Marilyn Monroe Memorial Church’) and got to know – during lengthy headphone/bedroom playbacks – every squeak, parp and scratch, thinking that the sub-title of ‘improv’ simply meant it was an improved version.
Now to the early 1980s and various trips to the Morgan Library in New York, where I spied an original hand-written manuscript laid out by J.S. Bach and wondered at the almost illegible squiggles on staves: the very sheet he used to create such masterpieces.
Thank you for your patience.
How does any of this relate to this fine new album by Laura Cannell? The sleeve note proclaims these ten tracks to be ‘improvised’, but what I hear is a lifetime of experience and talent guiding fingers and voice to write songs that come from somewhere, not out of nowhere.
Did Bach improvise his squiggles? Informed by a previous mishap or disliked piece did he, in fact ‘improve’ on his new manuscript and jot down a new iteration of an old masterpiece? Was this not all ‘improvisation’?
Similarly, I ask if the years of Cannell’s experience and talents has not, in fact, cleverly guided these pieces to become anything but the horrors that may be feared by made-up-on-the-spot music.
I’ve always liked the idea of Laura Cannell, and lord knows Caught by the River have been firm supporters of her work through the years, but I’ve always stopped after that single link to a YouTube clip and felt left outside of it all. The answer is one of context. Whilst sat in front of a screen, head submerged in other things, websites gloating at me, clickbait beckoning, one can be forgiven (please) to not ‘getting’ some music because it is me that is in the wrong place. This, then, may be cause enough for no extracts or soundbites from music of this kind to be uploaded to any website ever.
This album is the first full-length Cannell album I have. It came on vinyl, therefore it requires more effort than a simple mouse-click in order to play. It demands concentration and repeated listening. When one does – when I apply myself fully to it -I hear far more than I would have before when in mere glance-mode.
On the recorder piece ‘A Space For Dreaming’ the ghosts of Popol Vuh haunt, a place for intense and quiet contemplation In The Gardens Of Pharoa, Fans of The Wake and such Folc will hear the direct line between ‘We Used To Keep Bees In There’ and the ground trodden so well by the Third Ear Band. As the album progresses one experiences as much light and shade as found on many a popular music album, and these songs are blessed by being free of that ‘top line’ melody anchor so beloved by today’s ambitious popsters. The album was created within a significant space in London, the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, but such detail, though important to creator, is superfluous to the appreciation. If this was recorded in a bath tub I’d still be there.
The album deserves and benefits from repeated playing and concentrated listening. These current climes may be just the right time for such discipline. Just as we read how crazy it would be to offload anything on your public today (and I start up a tiny book publishing concern), Laura dumps an album onto our decks, one that is amply suited to this time of stopping. A time to stop and listen and a time to stop and take note. It also has the advantage of being very beautiful.
I warrant few readers are sitting at home twiddling thumbs. Many I know have seldom been busier, more distracted. The Earth With Her Crowns is the grounding we all need, not just in today’s uncertainty but especially at a time when we are assaulted by the thems-that-know (but ought to know better). They could learn a great deal by stopping and thinking and Cannell gives you the time and space to do just that. Ignore the science, this is music for our time: essential listening.