Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: The Haunted Highway by Martin Stephenson

Martin arrived yesterday, and so, later, did Rob Ayling with a box full of the Haunted Highway, the latest album by Martin Stephenson and The Daintees. This album has been a long time coming, having to fit in with Martin's hectic touring schedule by Jason Howe at The Premises Studio, and the stems then travelled to Aidrie to be mixed at Beetroot Studios. And now, here is is. Let me talk you through it....
The personnel apart from Martin are John Steel on guitars, bass and keyboards, Kate Stephenson on drums and vocals, and additional vocals by Alex Smith, with some additional acoustic guitar from Stuart MacLeod, who mixed it. Martin produced the album, and it is the latest in a long line of productions for his Barbaraville label, but more of that later.
The album features two instrumentals, Johnny Red and Mahina. Mahina is a surfing track that rides the guitar feedback and conjures up urban landscapes as the drums drive it along. Both this and Johnny Red, the1960s- flavoured garage band track, show off the musicianship of this band, which has honed its skills through both a substantial touring background, and long-distance e-recording.
Of course, the songs are the heart of the album, and Martin is in fine voice, sometimes sounding like Jim Reeves on the more country style songs (Haunted Highway, which is a country-gospel song that lives in Nashville and has the potential to be covered by many different voices: you hear me, Nashville?), and sometimes calling on his inner Chet Baker as on the sublimely beautiful and intimate Wishing Stone which highlights the flow of his fingerpicking (and is actually my personal favourite as a track). Hobo Trains is a spiritual take on West Coast rock that features a rockin' drum solo from Kate and energetic backing vocals from Alex.
There is so much to sing along to here: Let Your True Love Show, a reggae song with a lovely vocal that is probably the singalongest song on the album; Backhouse Tipping, which reminds me of card sharps and snooker sharks; Stanstead Ground with its relaxed groove. The inner cowboy is channelled by Black Eyed Rose, where John Steel's twanging guitar calls on the spirit of Ennio Morricone and Hank Marvin simultaneously. The last song on the album, Ride, is an anthemic song that will transfer to the football terraces with ease (need a new song, Newcastle United?); actually, maybe this one is the catchiest one?
The band are playing tonight at The Borderline where we will be selling preview copies of the album. I will be playing too and so will El Cid, Martin's daughters band that also features Rupert Hughes, son of Hurrah, another Kitchenware band.
Inside the package is a compilation CD of tracks by all the artists Martin has produced over the last couple of years, the result of months of work mixing, editing, planning and arranging. Listeners will find this to be full of gems, and to be reviewed at a later date.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Slits Documentary

A documentary about The Slits is under way, and this morning I did an interview for it with a gentleman named Bill. He has found a remarkable number of people to speak to: Tessa, Viv and Palmolive, Dr No, Steve Beresford, Gina, and farther afield, Budgie in Berlin.
Strange to be in the office at work, with a shiny nose (dammit, why didn't I bring the ancient face powder that I sometimes wear on stage?); things got remarkably philosophical for a Friday morning in a greige office with the occasional accompaniment of distant drumming students who had to be muted for the occasion.
If you do interviews like this, you explain things to yourself in the process. Or maybe not if you do hundreds of the bloody things and you learn to repeat your angle in many variations of the same theme.
This morning's self revelation was the idea of being born noisy, with arms and legs flailing free, and the purpose of one's upbringing as a girl being to subdue the movement of the arms and legs, scrunch you up, put a hand over that noisy mouth, and pack you into a box to put on a shelf until a husband comes along.
This is what it felt like to me to be brought up in the 1970s. And then along came punk and The Slits who flung their arms and legs around and shouted at the tops of their voices. What a liberation! I hate to say this but punk was much more liberating than women's liberation for my generation. It was amazing to be able to SHOUT at last, fling your arms around, be a noisy tomboy and Not Care.
Just before I left Geordieland for the Deep South, which I knew to be full of what I called 'innitawfuls', a Geordie man who I didn't even know except by sight came up to me and told me I'd become all shouty and American. So apart from the fact that McMum was American anyway, I suppose I must have been about ready for punk when it happened. Yes, I was.
During the filming I worried about my facial shine, and I worried about saying incriminating things or plastic things that could be stretched to mean something I didn't believe in. I am still smarting from being misrepresented at a talk that I did a few weeks ago, where what I said didn't fit in with what the organisers expected me to say so they made it look as though I'd been really stupid, or as one woman said, 'naive'.
But Bill seemed like a decent guy and we talked a lot about what other people he'd spoken to had said, in particular about the nasty violence that lived under the punk umbrella. Thank God the music was so brilliant; yes there was some ear-bleeding noise but there were some brilliant songs amongst all that noise, and most of all it was a world of fabulous ideas and experimentation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pins and Needles

I have just discovered that live Christmas trees shower needles on to the floor at an alarming rate. The little feller has been out in the yard waiting for the Right Time to come in to be decorated; today was the day, and I snipped it out of its sausage skin net to liberate the fuzzy branches. They sprung outwards and started the needle shower immediately. I wound the tinsel round it; needles fell off it. I wound the lights round it; more needles fell off. Every decoration prompted a spiny torrent until the rug was completely hidden.
The vacuum cleaner gobbled the lot in one go, but the occasional sly needle slips off it when I'm not looking. Will it be bald by Christmas?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Delilah

The year has been sweet and sour, dark and light.
I asked Samson what to do.
'Well, Delilah cut off my dreadlocks and now I am different; I am no longer a raging bull'.
I thought about bulls and China shops.
There is a different way to be, I thought.
You don't have to be stuck where you are, defined by other people's kaleidoscopes into an unrecognisable blob in the mirror.
So I cut off my hair.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Literary Joke

What did the writer of 'Wuthering Heights' use as a dictionary when she was lost for words?
A Brontesaurus.

The Saturday Urban Walk

What a beautiful sunny frosty morning it was! On a day like this it's a crime to stay indoors, and I decided to have a walk through town. By the time I got to Warren Street the tubes began to get crushed with Christmas Shoppers so I got off and started to walk.
The camera on my iPhone has stuck on 'Video' and won't budge. I would have liked to photograph the vintage tiles in The Dairy Cafe, with their kitsch portraits of Friesian cows and grass. I delighted in the shabbiness of the cafe, which the men in suits will plan to steam-roller into oblivion once they realise it's there, in order to erect a monument to fashion branding, or an outlet for a cafe chain.
Left, right, I walked, I turned, and found myself in Marylebone High Street, where I once found a fantastic oddly-shaped checked dress in the Oxfam shop that I wore until it became threadbare.
The Conran Shop was packed, and I listened to the floorboards creak under the weight of well-heels.
I popped into Divertimenti and marvelled at the different pastel colours it's possible to buy an Aga in. I went into the Oxfam Shop but my checked dress wasn't there. I had bought it about ten years go, you see.
I went into the Scandi shop and thought about Norway; there were lots of elves and lost of wholesome wooden toys. I was tempted by the Moomintroll scissors, but left them in their safety case.
I stopped for a coffee in a Lebanese cafe (what superb coffee!) and headed for John Lewis's perfume department where a French gentleman tried to persuade me to buy some very expensive perfume, but I settled for a hearty squirt from the sample bottle on each of my wrists.
I walked down across Carnaby Street and through Soho, bouncing though the crowds like a ball in a bagatelle game. Berwick Street is being 'done up' so I imagine the stalls won't be able to afford the rent hike that Westminster Council will introduce. Hooray Henries and their Hurray Wendies will take the place of the horde of 'straight' gay stall holders who used to sell weeping whole cartwheels of Brie and tin bowls of grapes and red peppers; sourdough bread and organic pheasant will be on sale instead to service the bankers that now inhabit the once-seedy upstairses.
Soho used to be a scary place but also a mind-your-own business place. Oddly, going out at night in Soho felt a lot safer than going out in somewhere like Kilburn, which was full of drunks looking for a fight or an argument with anyone, whether male or female. Soho had trannies and sex workers and embarrassed clients who would do anything to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
I didn't go to the comic book shop today, but carried on to Covent Garden. The Dover Bookshop seems to have gone. What a pity! I liked browsing through their peculiar and quirky titles. There are upmarket vintage shops there now. Covent Garden is still interesting, just. High-end fashion shops are starting to cluster in the area but confident little shops like The Natural Shoe Store and Les Nereides, which sells mad French ear-rings, send semaphore support signals to shops like Stanford Maps that seem bewildered still to be there. Should I carry on to Charing Cross, and perhaps cross over the river to Waterloo? I scanned the entrance to Leicester Square tube station; it was reassuringly empty of travellers.
Time to go back for a cup of rosy lea before the crowds decided to head home.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Greetings


Holly Golightly at The Lexington

I've got some of Holly's CDs but I've never seen her live so I was delighted to take the opportunity to see this 'homecoming' gig at The Lexington on Wednesday, a rare UK outing because she's now located across the big deep pond.
The Lexington somehow feels like home to me, and I do hope it escapes the dreadful fate that is inflicting so many of London's music venues (the 12 Bar has just succumbed to the Tory axe) as the city is culturally cleansed of anything that doesn't wear a dark suit and smell of money.

As soon as Holly hit the stage her easy persona radiated over the crowd, who all started smiling as a reflex; they knew that they were going to enjoy this, right from the start.
How to describe her voice? At times it was positively Partonesque and at other times, I thought of Edith Piaf doing boogie-woogie, although there was none of that Piaf wobble: it was more the dedication to the song that came through the singing. Holly is a songster, that old-fashioned idea of the collector and disseminator of songs that should be heard and often aren't. I could hear a lot of blues influences in the music although she's not a hollerer; she sings as though she's speaking to us and we feel like we're her pals, and her love for her material whether covers or not transmits perfectly clearly through this sparkling PA system (hello Serge- you're a great sound engineer!).
In the song 'Your Love is Mine', the audience sang backing vocals, carolling away and encouraged by Holly's smile and the band, who definitely know how to groove. The set list became a prop; it could quite possibly have been a blank sheet of paper. It was picked up and discarded, flapping into the dark and then flapping back up again: 'We've got the words, we've got the pedals, we've got it all going on!', she joked to her guitarist. The most challenging song was 'My Love Is', performed just with voice and double bass. It was absolutely beautiful and brought a tear to my eye.
Just beautiful.
I had to leave before the end but I left with a lot of thoughts in my head about the young people I teach grappling with the concept of authenticity in music. I've had a whole term of it, and we still explore, quibble, argue, examine, excavate....
As I walked up the road, the word 'genuine' appeared in my head, and that's the best way to describe Holly and her band The Brokeoffs. I hear they are in the studio recording a new album. Great playing from all of them; I was inspired and this morning I woke up and wrote a blues song!
http://damagedgoods.co.uk/bands/holly-golightly
http://www.hollygolightly.com/

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Virous

Today, nursing a headache and sore throat. Tomorrow, mini-review of the Holly Golightly gig at The Lexington last night.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Oslo

Thank you to the University of the East for enabling me to go to the Art of Record Production Conference in Oslo!
Oslo was a little foggy and the temperature was below zero a lot of the time but the atmosphere of the conference itself was warm and extremely friendly. It's a unique blend of people- not only from the academic community but also producers, engineers and artists, all approaching record production from different angles and genres.
One highlight was attending a presentation that included a Beyonce song as an example, and a member of the audience saying 'Well yes, I engineered that track and...'.
Wow.
I also went to sessions on copyright (an oblique interest) and sound/genre (ditto) and wore out an entire pencil with scribbling notes and observations all the way through.
Although I didn't have a paper to present because much of the summer was spent in Edinburgh or travelling between Edinburgh and London, I wanted to go to hear what Susan Rogers had to say. Susan engineered a lot of Prince's material in the 1980s and she was really interesting. There were other people that I had some great conversations with (more to come on that later) and a lot of very interesting talk about the influence that, for instance, Mobile Phone playback is having on mixing.
Visiting a city for a conference is weird because you see lots of conference and not much city, although we did take a bit of time out to visit a Christmas market that sold things made of reindeer skin, manned by a genuine Lapp shopkeeper, and the lovely clapboard houses seen from the train out to the University of Oslo made me want to live there!
The Norwegians were great hosts which meant I didn't get a chance to run through my horrible vocabulary of Norwegian swear words, learned at Bellingham International Camp when I was 17. Never mind; that's not much to complain about.
The food was yummy too.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Wallace Collection

I had a lovely morning with Caroline at The Wallace Collection yesterday
Our favourite painting was of a Dutch woman in a stylish cap who was making lace, by Caspar Netscher. On the floor in the painting were two discarded mussel shells, symbolising the fact that she had not been allowed to come out of her shell and was making lace as a means to control her. The gallery assistant, Zeta, told us that the painting had been presented at auction twice and nobody had wanted to buy it.
There were other paintings by the same artist- some of women playing musical instruments.
Dutch interiors are fascinating glimpses into the history of homes, a history that is all too often hidden or forgotten.
The Wallace Collection is fabulous; just a glimpse of those rococo frames makes me really happy before I've even looked at the paintings, and they even have special clock-winding events!
Oh yes- and The Laughing Cavalier lives there, too.
http://www.wallacecollection.org/

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Covent Garden Conversation

A couple of weeks ago Offsprog Two was in Covent Garden when she saw two members of Pussy Riot shopping in Rokit. She texted me to tell me, and then again to say that she had gone up to them to tell them that her Mum had contributed a drawing to the 'Let's Start a Pussy Riot' book. They said 'Tell your Mum thank-you'. What a lovely exchange; how I wish I had been there too. I still think they are up there with Malala as the bravest young women on Earth.