Sunday, 18 June 2017

My Friend The Chocolate Cake - The Revival Meeting

I've talked before in these columns about favourite music becoming infused with memories and associations for certain times in our lives. You may remember the My Friend The Chocolate Cake song "I've got a Plan" from their 1994 album "Brood"?  For me it immediately conjures up fond memories of family road trips with my partner and our two little ones, all singing along to the car's cassette player. It's another one for that playlist to help fight off dementia!

So it is always with great anticipation that I receive David Bridie, Helen Mountfort and their friends' new releases. It's like rediscovering that favourite old coat at the back of the wardrobe and finding that it still fits and feels great. It might be a little bit daggy but hey - who cares?

"The Revival Meeting" is MFTCC's eighth studio album in twenty eight years - and it feels very grown up, at times joyful, at others wistful - but without being sentimental, even when dealing with "Jim's Refrain", a tribute to the band's sadly departed and much missed original mandolin player Andrew Carswell who passed away recently. It's a sublimely beautiful piece of music.

As with previous MFTCC albums, there is a mix of songs and instrumentals, both extroverted and introverted, uptempo and laid back. The subject matters explored range from the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart to the Pacific, with "love and small noises and futility and travelling and vague notions of justice and dying" in between, according to Bridie's idiosyncratic notes.

From the album's title and the opener "Poke Along Slowly" the listener can immediately get that this is a bunch of really good old friends getting together in a cosy shack out in the country and exchanging creative juices, fuelled by nice food and wine and bonhomie. In "Another Year" one can sense a touch of yearning for times past, but forward-looking tracks such as "Are The Kids Alright" take us on a journey into a hopeful future with a certain amount of youthful, almost punky energy.

The contemplative tune "Busojaras" takes us into Eastern European territory, courtesy the evocative violin parts contributed by Hope Csuturos. "Easter Parade" is another great uptempo, celebratory Bridie song. There's a very welcome Pump Organ-led reworking of David's movie soundtrack song "Satellite Boy". Towards the end "The Fire Turns To Embers" takes us on a very introspective journey once more.

There are fifteen tracks all up - with no fillers - so this recording session in the Victorian countryside was indeed a very fruitful reunion. Given David Bridie's love of things Papuan, MFTCC albums often feature a little detour into jaunty PNG stringband sounds - this time around it's the quite lovely and catchy "Stori Rabaul". They save the best till last though: "Jim's Refrain" rounds the album off beautifully.

Apart from Bridie on vocals and keyboards, Mountfort on her cello, and Csuturos on violin, the other musicians on this incarnation are Greg Patten (drums) and Dean Addison (double bass) and Andrew Richardson (guitar / mandolin). Watch out for this supremely talented bunch of musicians travelling around the country to promote this fine album. There are quite a few potential ear-worm tunes here, but only time will tell whether any tracks from this one will conjure up life in 2017 in future years!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

May Bellbottom CDs of the Month

Terraforming in Analogue Space - Various Artists

Framed to celebrate 15 years and 100 releases by IRL Records, the label's founders have brought together a retrospective double album of great tracks by their top shelf artistes such as Tinariwen, Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara, Xaos, Dub Colossus, LoJo and the Malawi Mouse Boys. These in themselves would make for an outstanding release. But these tracks have also been handed over to various talented music producers for a second CD of highly imaginative remixes that take these pieces of music to whole new realms.

The opening track - Oualahila by Tinariwen - highlights the Touareg group's trademark chants and pulsing guitars of the original but the Transglobal Underground remix brings beats and rhythms to the fore to drive the sound along beautifully. The Malawi Mouse Boys are another case in point - their original sounds are very analogue - to the extent of being created on makeshift instruments made from recycled materials, accompanied by glorious East African harmonies. These have been enhanced by an unexpected drum and bass production that creates something altogether different.

Similarly, Albert Kuvezin's Central Asian Throat singing brought something very special to the original Dub Colossus track "A Voice Has Power" - and the Insentisi Remix revisits the track and enhances it with whole new layers of ambience, understated beats and harmonies. If you like dancehall, drum and bass, dubstep and ambient, this is definitely one for you to
check out.

Shine a Light (Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad) - Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

You may have seen Billy Bragg popping up in the Australian media recently - he's been in the country to play at Bluesfest and to spruik this 2016 release. It was recorded in situ on a Trans American railroad journey with his old friend and producer Joe Henry. On it, they revisit classic songs about the US railroad by the likes of Hank Williams, Leadbelly, the Carter Family, Glen Campbell and others and have come up with sensitive, touching modern-day accoustic versions of their own.

Recorded in plush sleeping cars or in the cavernous halls and waiting rooms of the great stations, there is an ambience that gives real atmosphere. Half-way through "The L and N Don't Stop Here Anymore" there is the echoing noise of massive doors opening and closing in the background which only serves to enhance the recording.

Joe Henry's voice is a revelation to me, and Bragg himself is visiting whole new registers and sounding better with age. After four days crossing the country, they pulled into Los Angeles at 4:30am, recording their final song in Union Station accompanied by the first chirpings of the dawn chorus.

AIM - M.I.A.

M.I.A., AKA Mathangi Arulpragasam, has stated that this CD release - her fifth - is to be her last full album. If that's the case, it's a worthy last will and testament. It brings us her usual totally unique combo of global beats and hiphop: Brought up in Columbo and London, her family were asylum seekers from Sri Lanka. Her youthful urban London patois is delivered in rhymes that are always quirky, amusing and arresting - sometimes with an almost child-like sing-song delivery that makes for real ear-worm material.

A compassionate understanding of what it is to be a refugee always shines through. "Borders" is the standout track for me but there is much to like about this release, and various tracks have featured regularly on Local Global Show playlists these last few months. Unusual collaborations, from Anoushka Shankar ("Go Off") to One Direction's Zayn Malik ( "Freedun" ) make for a diverse range. The badge on the CD booklet proudly states "MIA - Uniting People since 2003" and one can only hope that, even if this is her last full album, she continues to do so into the future.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Ewan McLennan & George Monbiot: "Breaking The Spell of Loneliness"

You might have read articles by George Monbiot on the Guardian website. He is strident and thought-provoking on all things environmental, political and social and, while I don't always find myself agreeing with him, I do often enjoy having my preconceived ideas challenged by his incisive writing.

 In 2014 he contributed an article "The Age of Loneliness is killing us" that went viral, big-time. In a manifesto that resonated with people all over the planet, he wrote that "the religion of our time is a celebration of extreme individualism and universal competition". The resulting loneliness, he argued, is a deadly condition that kills as many people as smoking or obesity.

The Guardian and several book publishers wanted more but Monbiot realised he would be researching and writing at his computer in a solitary endeavour for several years and, in a light bulb moment, surmised that music, which brings people together and unites us, would be a much better vehicle to develop these concepts. With this in mind, George wrote some lyrics and given that, as he says himself, there are international treaties to prevent him from singing, he shared his ideas with critically acclaimed Scottish folk singer Ewan McLennan.

After an exciting collaboration via email, this wonderful project took shape. McLennan had carte blanche to do as he wished with the words - some he kept, and some he re-wrote - and his softly understated Scottish brogue lends them a certain earthiness and poignancy. His sparse arrangements feature harmonium, cello, fiddle and banjo to accompany his own fine vocal, guitar and harmonica work to great effect. Each song wrestles with a different issue. "The Child Inside" addresses the fact that a child's area in which they free-range, either on their own or with their friends, has shrunk by 90% in just one generation. For many urban children, any connection with nature is now all but lost.

"Reclaim the Street" is an anthemic celebration of a street party bringing a neighbourhood of strangers together for the first time. "I'm Coming Home" is the voice of a migrant yearning to return home. "These Four Walls" explores those brief moments of connection at checkouts for those elderly folk who are otherwise isolated all day with only the TV for company. “In the aisles, as I wonder, I practice my lines. ‘Did you see the news’ and ‘The weather’s been fine’ But the checkouts have gone and the tills can talk. So I count my change and home I walk.”

 For me, the standout is the opener, "Such A Thing As Society": The neo-liberal story we are told we have to live by is that we are selfish, brutal, venally competitive, nasty individuals and yet in reality our capacities for cooperation and altruism are staggering - quite unique in the animal kingdom. "It my friend is the time-honoured lie - there is such a thing as society, it keeps us from losing our minds, it's working and living and laughing together that makes us humankind". The set is perfectly rounded out by a rousing pedal steel guitar-accompanied version of the Pete Seeger classic "We Shall Overcome".

If you would like to explore more and have access to SBS On Demand, you can watch the BBC Doco that was inspired by Monbiot's original article: "The Age of Loneliness" - well worth a watch!

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Kefaya "Radio International"

Kefaya have variously been described as "internationalist music", "guerrilla jazz" and "global protest music". They are a loose collective from London that was started in 2011 by guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and pianist Al MacSween and has grown over the years through their international travels to collaborate with renowned performers from the worlds of Flamenco, Indian classical and Arabic music. They take their name from the Arabic word for "Enough" which became the catch cry for a movement for change in Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising.

Each track on the CD is effectively prefaced by a spoken word snippet from various radio stations around the world, and from different moments in history. Themes of equality and liberation are woven throughout. The opening Ethio Jazz infused track "Indignados" is a cracker, taking inspiration from the Spanish movement of the same name and letting rip with some wild saxophone riffs along the way. On "Intifada" ( with fabulous Oud solo, massed chanting voices, and the sound of choppers overhead) one can easily imagine oneself in the midst of the Palestinian struggle for a secure homeland.

"Bella Ciao" is a brilliantly upbeat, ska version of the classic Italian anti-fascist anthem. "New Routes" references the problems of so many refugees and migrants arriving in such overwhelming numbers in places like Lampedusa and could easily have been recorded in Kingston, Jamaica. It layers the beautiful Italian Solento vocals of Alessia Tondo over some seriously heavyweight dub reggae. "Manush" (featuring Deborshee Batacharjee) and "Symphony" (featuring the soaring vocals of Nicki Wells) both take us to the heart of ethnic and economic struggles on the Indian sub-continent, through sublime sounds that Nitin Sawhney would have been proud of creating (Sawhney himself describes Kefaya as  "a unique voice" and Wells has lent her voice to his music in the past)

"Protesta Flamenca" revisits Spain with some classy flamenco guitar and plaintive Gypsy vocals to pull on our heart strings, and "Whistleblower" brings a touch of sinister electronica (Edward Snowden's exploits come to mind as the possible inspiration) and dubstep beats to finish the set with a flourish. As a debut release, they don't come much stronger than this.

In the face of recent dispiriting political developments worldwide, many of us could easily feel somewhat dejected about the lack of a future for our offspring. But if we wish to gain some inspiration, and to feel reconnected to the ongoing global struggle for peace, tolerance, equality and justice for all, we can invest in a copy of "Radio International".

Friday, 28 October 2016

"A Bit Na Ta" George Telek, David Bridie & The Musicians of Gunantuna

"A BIT NA TA (The source of the sea)" is a stunning new project developed through the Wantok Musik Foundation as part of a Queensland GOMA Exhibition of the Modern Art of PNG  - "No1 Neighbour" (on until early 2017)

Visitors to the installation in Brisbane are immersed in a 30-minute sequence of songs and atmospheric sounds accompanied by five video projections. It is a Tolai response to change in East New Britain Province between 1875 and 1975 and captures key events that have shaped that century around Rabaul from the perspective of the local peoples. The songs tell of how the area’s history intersects with major world events including two devastating World Wars, the processes of colonisation and political self-determination, with cataclysmic volcanic eruptions along the way.

Tolai musician George Telek and his Australian collaborator of thirty years David Bridie have reconnected with the energy and excitement of Not Drowning,Waving & Telek's groundbreaking 1990 release "Tabaran". Their expansive Papuan soundscapes conjure up images of rainforest meeting sea, of waters lapping in mangroves with broody volcanoes looming in the near distance. It's probably the sweetness of the ukelele, but the whole project seems infused with the scent of frangipani and coconuts.

As Bridie observes in an interview for the Exhibition: "Music is everywhere; men sing on the road side, women sing working their gardens, kids sing on the beach. . . music underpins ceremony . . . every village has a string band . . . birds, frog and insect sounds are symphonic at night". The ambient sounds give way to the log drums and chants of a singsing - all bark shields, dancing crowds, spears a-waving, bodies adorned with feather head-dresses and crazy birdlike masks and costumes.

Then there's the Missionary-inspired stringband-accompanied harmonies. Several new uplifting choral songs from Anslom, Moab, Amidal & Gilnata Stringbands were recorded in makeshift island studios by Bridie and Co over a six week period. My favourite is "Jack Emanuel", which tells the story of how in 1971, Australia's District Commissioner was murdered at Kabaira Bay by the Baining over a land dispute. PNG was shocked into grief and disbelief and 10000 people attended Emanuel’s funeral.  

In addition, the Matupit John Wesley Lotu choir and a group of Tolai elders contribute a range of customary songs which fully situate the project within a Tolai cultural and historical context. Two beautiful old women, Bung Marum and Revie Kinkin sing an ‘Apinpidik’ which takes us back to the 1960s and says “nau meri i laik sanap wantaim ol man” (Its time for women to stand up and be equal to men)

All of this is interspersed beautifully with that growling, prowling, ominous fed back John Phillips / NDW electric guitar which heightens and changes the dramatic effect so well. If this CD is anything to go by, the "No1 Neighbour" exhibition will be well worth a trip to Brisbane just to immerse oneself in this sense of "plis" of Blanche Bay, Rabaul.


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Linsey Pollak & Lizzie O'Keefe - "Dangerous Song"

"Once upon a time there was a planet called Earth. During many millions of years a rich, complex and beautiful ecosystem developed with an incredible variety of lifeforms. Over time one of the animal species in this ecosystem became dominant and their impact on the planet was so massive that many of the other species could no longer survive and became extinct. We take up the story during this extinction period, but the story is not told with words, as words have fallen on too many deaf ears for too long and people have stopped listening."

This is a very timely, very important, deeply immersive work of truly inspired art. The live performance involves colourful images (still and moving) being projected onto a black box theatre containing a musician and a singer, both dressed in black, The musician uses Live Looping and a midi wind controller where breath, lip pressure and fingering control real animal call samples, the voices and sounds of a sonic Ark of endangered and extinct species. Thus a cast of hundreds is conjured up, among them the Kauai Oo and the Mexican Wolf, a Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo and a Blue Throated Macaw, a Ring Tailed Lemur and a Tasmanian Devil, a Blakiston’s Fish Owl, whales of varying shapes and sizes, a host of frogs and toads and the odd gibbon or two

The piece is part structured and part very much improvised. It combines the human voice with these sounds of endangered and extinct animals The human and the animal morph into one The singer weaves her voice through the musical landscapes and seascapes. This is ambient music in it's truest sense - when I listen at home with the doors and windows open, the sounds of the Australian bush outside seem to meld with the recorded music. Our dog jumped up and barked at one point, thinking the house was being invaded by strange wildlife

At it's core, "Dangerous Song" gives voice to a deep, deep sadness, distress and horror at what we humans are doing to the ecosystem we rely on for our existence. But the voice runs us through a gamut of emotions: From this deep sadness to the tender yearning of a Balkan Gypsy, and on to the operatic, ecstatic sounds of embodiment, a celebratory calling out to the void - together with the echoes back from the rainforest wilderness: "I am alive!" "So am I!"

 The musician is Linsey Pollak, the singer Lizzie O'Keefe. Hopefully this Maleny-based duo and their fantastic technical and artistic support team will be able to bring their show to Bello one day soon. Ultimately, this piece is by Gaia itself: It is an inter-species, inter-being choral work, and these beings are singing for their very lives. If their calls don’t affect us then nothing will. More info: 


Saturday, 30 July 2016

Warsaw Village Band "Sun Celebration"

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the absorption of the countries of Eastern Europe into the Western Capitalist fold, the various anarcho-punk members of the Warsaw Village Band came together with a manifesto to explore Poland's cultural traditions and make them relevant again: To "create a new cultural proposition for the youth in an alternative way to contemporary show-biz".

With that in mind they have gone from their first CD "People's Spring" of 18 years ago to this, their seventh album "Sun Celebration" and along the way they have successfully fused their traditional sounds (dulcimer, fiddles, hurdy-gurdy, frame drum and abrasive choral female vocals) with modern-day electronica, instrumentation and production values. One of their releases along the way was even a reggae / dub remix album ("Uprooting") of many of the WVB classic tracks thus far, which worked surprisingly well.

On the last CD ("Nord") the band paid tribute to the traditions of the frozen tundra to their North. This time they have presented us with a package that refers to certain universal dualities, with the two discs being labelled "Sun" and "Moon".  "Sun Celebration" paints a picture of a musical journey around the Earth, following the Sun and breaking down cultural, religious and ethnic boundaries as we go.

For this excursion, WVB have enlisted the support of some truly luminous talents. Featuring on the stunning openers "Fly My Voice" and "Midsummer Rain Song", as well as "Viburnum Orchard" later in the piece, is avant-garde Galician musician Mercedes Peon. With her arresting voice, breath, electronics, Galician bagpipes and percussion, this is a match made in heaven. Then there is Kayhan Kalhor, the Kemanche genius from Iran, on "Bride's Wreath" and "Perkun's Fire", the latter also featuring the Indian Saranghi legend Ustad Liaquat Ali Khan, who lends his soaring vocals to "She's Been at Kupala" and more Saranghi to two Lullabies on the Moon CD.

Add in some scratches and electronics from DJ Feel-X ("legendary wizard of the gramophone"), some tabla and harmonium from the Dhoad Gyspsies of Rajasthan and some of the WVB's trademark punk-jazz double bass, trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as some accomplished production over a three year period from Studio AS One in Warsaw, and this extraordinary package is complete. It's been a few years between drinks, but well worth the wait. Let's just hope that their travels following the Sun - and promoting this fine album - bring them to Australia in the not-too-distant future!