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!