John Howard – Across The Door Sill review

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Last year John Howard released his Night Mail album (in my top five of LPs of last year) to much acclaim. With the ultra talented Gare Du Nord team as his own mini ‘Wrecking Crew’ Howard recorded a collection of tunes rooted in late 60s and early 70s pop, full of killer hooks, sassy lyrics and unexpected, and rather delightful, instrumental interludes.

Yet anyone expecting something similar from his new album Across The Door Sill is in for a serious shock. GDN’s Ian Button may be on production duties, but this is largely a solo album with the man and his piano recorded in his home studio

Also it only boast five songs, and just one, Pigs ‘n’ Pies, comes in at under five minutes.

Not surprisingly then Across The Door Sill is an album that takes a bit of getting used to. The opener Who Cares meanders in for a minute or so before Howard’s stunning vocal (he sounds consistently amazing on the album) takes over. It seems to float by like an extended version of one of the more ambitious, but still very ‘easy style’ tunes that Scott Walker placed on his late 60s album.

To be honest, like much of the album it takes about four plays to sink in. After that it starts to wheel you into the point where it becomes ever so addictive.

If anything track two Outward is even more prosaic. It drifts in slowly with a golden vocal accompanied by a gently, tinkling piano. Yet the sheer beauty of the vocal and the melody carries it through. Outward might just be one of the best songs Howard has ever written. I’d love to hear a shorter punchier version though.

Pigs ‘n’ Pies is the nearest Door Sill gets to the Night Mail album bearing the usual Howard hallmarks of a big chorus, unexpected time and chord changes in the verse, and a stunning vocal.

But for me it is the grand finale that makes this album special. Stretching Out might extend to almost ten minutes, but it flashes by in what seems like three. It gently builds to a glorious climax when, after about six minutes, Howard’s double tracked vocal takes over. It really is quite sublime.

Taken as a whole this a fascinating, beautiful, yet ultimately rather challenging album. You have to be prepared to invest a little time to get the best from it. I find myself a little conflicted by it. I would love to hear a three minute edited version of Outward but at the same time I really could listen to a twenty minute version of Stretching out.

Buy the CD/Vinyl/Mp3s here.

French 60s Ye Ye girls Dimanche Matin playlist

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Coffee sans Lait. Check. (Vegan) Croissant. Check. Francoise Hardy gently coo-ing in your ear. Check. There probably isn’t a better way to spend a quiet Sunday morning than being serenaded by the Ye Ye girls while you chomp on a continental breakfast.

It is funny but so many of the most well known Ye Ye tracks are, well, a tad shouty. But for me the French language, and accent is at its most devastating in pop music, when whispered above a gentle melange of strings, keyboards and Macca-style bass.

Which means that L’Anamour, the wonderful cover of Gainsbourg classic rendered on this wonderful 60s pop Sunday playlist by Ms Hardy, one of the best pop songs ever. But after my extensive research – check out this book – I discovered that a lot of French filles did wonderful things with ballads.

France Gall has loads especially on her oddly psych 68 album and the folky singles and LPs that bookended the late sixties and early 70s. Francoise has albums worth of this stuff. And then there’s the more obscure stuff like Veronique Sanson – both sides of her late 60s single are wonderful – and Joanna Shimkus who I know zip all about.

And even more fun are the French language versions of English classics. Scott Walker fans check out La Musique by Nicoletta while Marie Laforet makes a Dylan classic her own.

Dubious inclusions here are Sandie Shaw, who released loads of French language recordings in the 60s and Claudine Longet, singing in, err, English, though she was born in France and has a real way with Franglais.

Finally, underneath is IMO quite possibly the best French 60s pop record not on Spotify. Victoire Scott – 4eme Dimension. You pay €300 for it now in Parisian record shops. And it is probably worth every Euro.

There’s more fun French pop stuff here.

The playlist is here

Erik Voeks – So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away CD review

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A decade or so ago Erik Voeks issued Sandbox, a rather impressive beast of a power pop album that is well worth tracking down

Since then Erik has kept a lot lower profile, though in recent years he has been issuing some rather ace digital singles including the ultra catchy She Loved Her Jangle Pop which has found its way onto the Sugarbush Records comp Twelve String High.

Enter Spain’s Hanky Panky Records, who have pulled together a thirteen track collection of Voeks’ recent songs – and very good it is too.

So The Wind Won’t Blow It Away begins in epic style as every power pop album should with GML2C’s meaty guitar riffs and crashing drums. It gives way to the already mentioned She Loved Her Jangle Pop, which to these ears sounds like Matthew Sweet in his prime.

Other highlight include Being In Love With You, which starts quietly enough before turning into a very Beatley melodic tune and Grey Rain Town (a title possibly nicked from The Byrds classic Eight Miles High) which, appropriately enough takes things in a Kinkys/Madness style direction. Then there’s Remember You which is a rather odd slice of psychedelia, kind of like Tomorrow Never Knows with the beats three times as fast and Blue Water – the album’s instant pop classic.

So, it is great to have Erik back. Maybe he shouldn’t leave it quite so long next time.

Buy it here.

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The Hangabouts – Illustrated Bird vinyl review

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hangaboutsSugarbush is building an enviable reputation for giving a second life to minor power pop classics by offering them up in pristine heavyweight coloured vinyl. So we have had the first two Pugwash albums (especially the second Almanac which sounds like the best album Oasis never made), the wonderful second 8×8 album (a Beach Boys/Beatles mash up which is totally essential) and now this from Detroit’s Hangabouts.

Illustrated Bird originally arrived back in 2014 to generally very positive reviews. But I have sneaky feeling that the vinyl version will be the making of it.

This is power pop, but not the late 70s crashing guitar variety. The Hangabouts write subtle intelligent Beatley tunes, and in their melodicism and their down to earth lyrics they recall the brilliant Fountains of Wayne.

Opener Roman Forum is a gentle Big Star-esque called which is followed by the full McCartney (or maybe ELO or The Divine Comedy) of November.

Pretty much every track is a minor gem. From the bitter strum-along along of She Hates You (think FOW again) through to unorthodox chord and time changes of Missing In Action.

My favorite could well be the album’s finale, Go To Sleep, a gentle lullaby embellished by some alluring Mellotron-esque keyboards. Though the title track, which channels Eliot Smith pushes it close.

So if you are missing the FOW and have spun Chris Collingwood’s solo Look Park album to death then this should be next on your wants list.

Buy it here

Shadow Kabinet – Nostalgia For The Future and Kabinet Of Kuriosity reviews

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If you have never heard The Shadow Kabinet’s epic album Smiling Worlds Apart I suggest you do it pronto. Especially if you love The Beatles. For with tracks like Tabla Motown (a quirky sitar driven instrumental) Office Life (Lovely Rita style pop) and the title track (think Harrison’s droney psych), multi-instrumentalist Steve Somerset, for he is The Shadow Kabinet, created a Sgt Pepper in miniature. And very good it is too.

Now an astonishing seven years on and Somerset is back with the third SK album Nostalgia For The Future. Having made his Fabs’ inspired pop masterpiece Somerset has fast forwarded a decade or so with Nostalgia and many of the tracks sound like they have their roots in the 70s as opposed to the 60s vibe of his earlier albums.

Sure there’s a smidgen of psych, especially in the album’s opener – the title track – and its Lennon-esque finale Let It Go, but in between the music’s inspiration hovers somewhere between 73-76. So you have Dust Descends Into Light – a droney slice of Wish You Were Here era Floyd complete with Gilmour-esque guitar and Ladder To The Moon, whose jazzy interludes and odd instrumentation recall Peter Frampton. The album’s opening single Angelville even has a whiff of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Games about it.

In some respects then Nostalgia doesn’t connect quite as quickly as its predecessor, but give it time. It really gets under your skin and stays there.

Somerset’s songwriting has blossomed too. There are some great off the wall lyrics, such as Have We Got Max On Board which imagines how a world war was temporarily postponed so the world’s inhabitants wouldn’t miss the final of the X-Factor. Or the story of a girl who falls out of her window in Camden in the intriguing Ladder To the Moon.

While the lyrics are often inspired and the arrangements ambitious it is the melodies that carry this excellent album. The title track may be Somerset’s best ever though Honey Glow Afternoon – a gorgeous slice of folk pop – runs it very close.

If you have ever loved Pugwash, XTC, The Orgone Box or any number of McCartney influenced US power poppers then you’ll adore this.

Get it here.

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And if like me you can’t get enough if it Steve has rounded up some odds and sods recorded around the same time as Nostalgia, and indeed a few years before, on a CD collection called The Kabinet of Kuriosity. It’s an eclectic mix from the opening glam rock paen to Steve’s favourite north London football team, Arsenal Song, through to the Oasis-flecked psych of the excellent Scatterbrain. Along the way you get Kinks style strum-alongs like Dear Majesty, Sounds a Pound and Mutual Misery Society and a fake Bond song in Devil May Care. Best of all though is Victim of Love which has a whiff of T Rex in their bongos-driven heyday and The Acid Test delightful Beatley psych. Another gem.

Get it here.

The Silence of Snow – Mark Farrelly on his play which chronicles the life of Patrick Hamilton

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In Hangover Square, The Slaves of Solitude and Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky Patrick Hamilton wrote three of the most engrossing novels of the mid 20th century. If you have never read them now really is an incredibly prescient time to do so, for Hamilton wrote about the lives of ordinary people, mainly Londoners, in times of great uncertainty and change, not unlike today.

I am sure though that anyone who reads them will be very aware that in order to assume the role the arch chronicler of the characters that inhabit mid-century pubs, boarding houses and tea rooms, Hamilton must have, coughs, lived a little himself.

It is an existence that is dissected in both Nigel Jones’ excellent Hamilton biography (Through A Glass Darkly) and the wonderful play The Silence of Snow which will be staged in London twice in the coming month.

It is the story of hugely gifted man who peaked a little too soon and spent the rest of his life never quite managing the comedown. For a while he was among the most celebrated novelists and playwrights of his day. Yet he was dead at just 58, the victim of the obsessions which coloured most of the best of his work.

Mark Farrelly’s play The Silence of Snow celebrates the author’s life by taking the audience of a journey that focuses on his passions, his mishaps and his addictions seen through the prism of a stint in an electro-therapy clinic where he sought to treat his alcohol addiction.

From comic escapades with unattainable women (invariably prostitutes) through to mythical drinking sessions with Fitzrovia’s most celebrated neer do wells (to saying nothing of the plots of his novels which in many ways were autobiographical) Farrelly has some incredible source material.

Yet the intensity which which he plays Hamilton, and the subtlety of the script which asks so many questions about the nature of fame, passion and whether Hamilton ultimately gave his life for his art, makes The Silence of Snow an absolute must see.

I first saw the play two year ago and it inspired me to find out so much more about Hamilton’s life.

Mark kindly agreed to answer my questions about Patrick, the play and his plans.

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“The great problem with life is that you can get from one end of it to the other without ever feeling that another human being ever truly knew you. Perhaps it’s as well that they don’t”.

– Patrick Hamilton (1904 – 1962) in The Silence of Snow

Where did your passion for Patrick Hamilton come from?

I read Nigel Jones’ excellent Hamilton biography (Through A Glass Darkly) by chance in 2011. Of course the story-maker in me recognised a great dramatisable yarn. But I also saw Patrick’s life and fiction as a potent metaphor for all kinds of current and urgent dangers: relying on the ego too greatly, falling for people who are incapable of loving, not healing your childhood damage, hiding from pain by pursuing hollow things like ‘fame’, and being afraid to show your vulnerability. Needless (or possibly needful) to say, I had marched into many of those emotional booby-traps myself, and was seeking a surer path.

Which is your favourite of his novels and why?

Has to be Hangover Square. I really empathise with George Harvey Bone, and was once in an obsessive romantic mess like him. So as I turned each page I thought “There but for the grace of God went I”. It’s also startling – startling – how much humour and heart Patrick leavens this ultra-bleak story with. The way your sympathy is engendered for this man who is “battered silly by life”…unforgettable.

Why do you think he fell so out of fashion? And why do you think he undergoing such a revival now?

He fell out of fashion because every powerful artist does, from Charles Dickens to David Bowie. They spear something so viscerally true about their times, that after a while we all slope away in semi-contempt, feeling we’ve heard it all. Then, like a regretful ex-lover, we return, recognising that the artist had something necessary to say for all time, not just their own life times. There’s a line in Coward’s Hay Fever: “David’s been a good husband…but he’s wearing a bit thin now”. That’s what happens to artists over time, and if they’re any good (as Patrick assuredly is), we eventually come back to them. I think people are turning to Patrick at the moment because in a society so atomised, cold and disconnected, he’s your man. He gets it. For instance, look at how Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky ends: Ella quietly crying to herself. No love. No prospects. Alone. Like we all are.

Where did you get the idea for the play from? And why did you choose the electric convulsion therapy sessions as the backdrop for the monologues?

I’d wanted to make a solo play since being a teenager. I love the supreme test it presents: to hold an audience’s attention for one hour with absolutely no safety net. I also love telling a story directly to an audience’s faces, because I don’t believe in the ‘fourth wall’ in theatre, and think it’s a mistake that reveals much about our absurd determination not to communicate deeply with each other. The play is set in an electro-therapy clinic for several reasons. Firstly, it actually happened like that. Secondly, it illustrates how far gone Patrick became with booze. Thirdly, it creates a wonderful tension to hear a man speaking to you with little time left – just moments from a treatment that could destroy his brain. During the play, the lights occasionally dim to indicate that someone in the next room is having ‘The Treatment’…and of course dimming lights is my homage to Patrick’s play Gaslight.

What were your key sources for the play? Nigel Jones’s biography? His brother’s work?

Yes, both of those, and a deep-read of everything Patrick wrote. I took quite a lot of words in the script from Patrick’s fiction, but also from his beautiful letters to his brother Bruce…they reveal a lyrical, optimistic side to Patrick that you see less often in his novels. I also took some inspiration from watching Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. I loved the effortless flow of the piece, and thus tried to create a play that moves along with kinetic energy and rhythm – until the final moments when it all goes very silent. Hence the title: “The silence of snow” was a phrase Patrick’s wife used to describe the sudden, shocking emptiness in their house on the afternoon he died in 1962. He was 58 and had drunk himself dead on three bottles of whisky a day. Spoiler alert!

Are there any insights into his character that you have gleaned through playing him? Do you think he was ever really happy? Or did the alcohol utterly extinguish any joy he had in his life?

He was rarely happy because he was trying to grasp happiness outside of himself – in fame, money, whisky and tortured affairs. That’s a mug’s game, but he couldn’t get a grip. In that sense I have simple pity for him. He also had a very dark shadow side (we all do), which is why he was able to simultaneously write such vulnerable, decent characters, and such manipulative monsters: he was both in his time. It’s also worth remembering that his twenties were a blast! Massively rich and famous at 25, a critical and commercial success (phew!) and full of hope. It all started to sour after he was almost killed by a drunk driver in his late twenties. A cruel twist. He also struggled to adapt to not being the zeitgeist king of his early days. We all would. He chose alcohol as an anaesthetic, and my job in playing him is to elicit our understanding and sympathy for this…watching this once-great man destroy himself until he can barely speak.

Will the play be staged later in the year/next year?

The upcoming performances at the Arts Theatre, and The Bridge House in Penge, will bring me to 60 overall performances. I honestly only expected to do Edinburgh in 2014 and hopefully a short run in London after that. But on it goes, and I feel very lucky indeed that it’s having such a long life. Some great reviews have helped. I’m sure there will be some more next year. It’s just me and a wooden chair, so it travels well!

Do you think we will see revivals of Patrick’s highly acclaimed and very successful plays Rope and Gaslight? Or are they too much period pieces?

Gaslight is having a major revival early next year. Gaslight and Rope are certainly not period pieces, in the sense that they speak to us right now. They are full of terrifying, pungent insights into the seemingly limitless ways that human beings will torture the ones they love. They are also supremely well structured. Is there a better, more shocking stage thriller than Rope? None that I’m aware of. Go see!

What is next for Mark Farrelly?

I’m about to present two new plays I’ve written. One is called Howerd’s End, a two-hander exploring Frankie Howerd’s personal and professional life, to mark his centenary in March next year. We are planning to open that at the Greenwich Theatre in the spring. The other play is another solo, but one set in the near future and not dealing with a known public figure. It’s called Groundswell and is about what happens when a new anti-nuclear Prime Minister takes office – and then a nuclear bomb goes off in London. How’s that for a change of creative gear?

The Silence of Snow is at the Arts Theatre, central London, on Monday 14th November at 8pm:

https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/the-silence-of-snow:-the-life-of-patrick-hamilton/

…and at The Bridge House, Penge, on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November:

http://www.bhtheatre.com/whatson/view/index.php?permalink=friday-18th–saturday-19th-november-2016—8pm–the-silence-of-snow

The play is published as Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays, available from markfarrelly.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MarkFarrellyUK

Mark Brend’s debut novel Undercliff – Jesus Freaks, weird happenings and more

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covehithe_beach1Long time Popjunkie readers, coughs, both of you, will know that I have a bit of thing for a mid 80s band called The Palace of Light. Their Scott Walker influenced dramatic pop tunes stood out at a time when the prevailing musical trends were electronic pop or Smithsy lo-fi indie, both of which I found lacking a little, well ambition.

So I was really pleased to find out from Mark Brend of the band that their that lone album is getting a reissue – with bonus tracks too – in the not too distant future. There will be more on that very soon. Part of the story is in this post on the band they morphed into Mabel Joy.

Mark also has another project on the go, his debut novel Undercliff, which he is currently selling through the ultra smart book funding site Unbound – check out these two great projects while you are at it – The Riddle of the Sands and Ruth and Martin’s album club.

Both Mark and I grew up listening to a lot of Christian Rock Music, which back then was less of the saccharine AOR pop that features on contemporary US Gospel radio stations and more influenced, if anything by the psychedelia of the late 60s and the hippies that followed that movement.

Growing up in church environment I remember many Christian hippies who would turn up for the evening service in cheesecloth shirts and sandals touting a Bible in in one hand and a copy of Led Zeppelin 3 (or the God-bothering equivalent) in the other.

Those born again hippies – many of whom were battling their own drug or alcohol-related demons – are the inspiration for Mark’s new book. As Mark explains it is a period of history that is very much overlooked. It is also Mark’s first stab at fiction, he is arguably best known for his highly acclaimed book about the birth of electronic music The Sound of Tomorrow.

Here then Mark talks about Undercliff and the strange movement that is at its heart.

When did you start writing the book? What inspired you to write fiction?

I started in 2009 but broke off for a while to write Sound of Tomorrow, my book about early electronic music. I wouldn’t say any one thing inspired me, but I’ve always been interested in how the church tried to interact with the hippy counter culture. Often when the church tries to engage with a cultural movement it does so in a rather awkward, tame, too-late-in-the-game way, and though that is true of the hippie counter-culture there were people who pursued radical alternative agendas from a Christian perspective, that went beyond a half-baked attempt to ‘christianise’ ideas that were then current.

And in the village in Devon where much of the book is set there was – for some time – a large derelict house, and I found myself imagining a past for it.

Have there been many other novels that have talked about the ‘Jesus Freaks’ from the early 70s? If not why not? There were so many great characters?

I feel there must have been but I don’t know of any. I deliberately avoided seeking them out, if indeed they are out there. Now I’ve finished mine I’d be interested to hear about any, so please let me know …

I think it is a part of history not well known outside a certain generation and certain type of church goer, which might account for why so little is written about the period. Chances are if you were in evangelical and charismatic church circles in the late 60s/70s you would have come across music or books that grew out of the Jesus People movement, but then evangelical and charismatic circles were small, and tended not to connect with mainstream culture. Also, you’re only really talking about a few years – approximately 1967 to the early 70s. It all came and went very quickly.

The other thing, of course, is the Jesus People or Jesus Freaks or whatever term you choose were in no way a unified movement – there were just different groups of people pursuing faith in a vaguely hippie-ish context – some with great integrity, others less so …

What do you think of the Christian music scene from that era? A lot of record collectors seemed to have recently discovered many long lost gems? Any favourite albums?

As with any form of music and any period, there is good and bad. Many of the Christian albums of the time were recorded on minuscule budgets and suffer accordingly. The Sheep’s Lonesome Stone – a rock opera – comes to mind. By some accounts they sounded something like Jefferson Airplane live, and they were big enough to play the Rainbow in London, yet their recordings sound very lumpy I think. The recordings re-released a few years back as the Christ Tree, which were borne out of the Trees Community are excellent psych folk – not unlike a more extreme mid-period Incredible Strong Band. It’s slightly different in that it was released on a major label, but Bill Fay’s second album, Time Of The Last Persecution is – to my ears – an all-time classic, regardless of any faith angle. Similarly Judee Sill’s two albums – major label releases but very much borne out of the Christian/hippie crossover.

It’s worth noting that Greenbelt festival (which is an arts festival with Christian roots) was borne out of this whole period, too. I think The Sheep played at the very first one.

Do you think it is hard for non-religious people to listen to some of this music?

Most Christian rock music is given short shrift by non-religious people, and very often with good reason. There’s a prevailing view that it is a poor copy of out-of-date styles manipulated for evangelical purposes – and that’s often the case. But there is prejudice against it too too, and I think that once records get so far removed from their original context that people can approach them simply as cultural artefacts you can see there is some good stuff there as well as bad – the feelings of uncomfortableness that non-beleivers often experience when hearing people singing about God and faith are diminished with time and distance from the culture that spawned the music.

Is Vine (the rather odd church movement in the novel) based on a real life group? Is there an autobiographical element to the story at all?

The Vine isn’t based on any real life group and the novel is in no way autobiographical. Having said that, when I first became involved in church circles in the very late 70s there was still a residue of this sort of post-hippie culture about – lots of long hair, cheesecloth, beards and folky music, when the rest of the world was already well past punk. I knew someone who’d lived in a Christian hippy commune until she went to university. I recall once meeting a man who claimed to have been involved with Hawkwind but had since renounced all rock music as coming from the devil, and instead embraced a rather lame folky style – I don’t recall his name so can’t check his story now. So you could say I have a vague once-removed connection with the era and culture, if not the story itself.

Is there a moral/Christian basis to the book? Or is that just the backdrop to the story?

Undercliff is just a story. But most of the main characters are people with some kind of Christian faith or spiritual agenda, corrupted or otherwise, and their motivations and beliefs drive the story.

Was it conceived as a novel from the start or did you always intend it to be a multimedia experience?

Definitely a novel first, but – without giving too much away – there’s a fictional band in the story and a cassette album, which got me thinking about doing some music for the book.

What is the key influence on the music that you have created? Will it be available in other formats?

Well, I haven’t created it yet – it is at the planning/writing stage. It will draw on what I think of as a choral folk style, with lots of acoustic instruments, and one section of extreme atonal musique concrete. It’ll be available only as a limited edition cassette and download for subscribers to special editions of the book. I guess at some point in the future it might get a separate release, but I’m not planning anything.

You have written non-fiction books in the past. Was it hard to make the jump to fiction?

Not really, no. It’s a different discipline obviously, but when writing any sort of book you’ve got to spend a long time in a room on your own, and I was already used to that. Whether I’ve made the transition successfully is for the readers to judge, though.

And you can judge for yourself by pledging for a copy, or any of the other goodies on the Undercliff Unbound page here.

And btw here is the best Christian pop song ever, which weirdly enough doesn’t mention God, Jesus or anything spiritual at all.