The Volga Sturgeon Face E.P. – Nathan Hall and the Sinister Locals

Nathan Hall claims to create music which ‘mixes psychedelia with baroque touches’ and that’s as good a description of this debut EP from the Soft Hearted Scientists front man’s other band as any.

Beginning with the pop psych of ‘Everybody’s Burning Effigies’, a wonderfully upbeat XTC-like slice of 60s tinged loveliness, the EP slides gracefully into the more musically mellow ‘Song for the Flowers’.  ‘Like a Setting Sun’ adds some orchestration and has a bit of a Peter Gabriel feel to it, before the record comes to an end with ‘Catacombs of Camden Town’, back in XTC (and Genesis) territory.

It’s a short listen, but a rewarding one, and the ideal way to discover whether you like Hall’s work (or are wrong, and don’t!)

If you only listen to one track, listen to this

(digital only)

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Traditional Melodies Decomposed by Aïr – Aïr

This is the kind of thing Bandcamp seems designed for to me.  Mellow, laid back layers of Krautrock influenced improvisations by four Finns – plus a cover of a Guru Guru song!

Aïr apparently started life as a noise duo, but morphed into a quartet in the late 90s, and put out this collection of four tracks recorded in 1999 in early 2017.

There’s a bit of everything in here.  Chilled freeform psych guitar lines meander up to  noisy garage freakout on ‘Multiple Mirages of a Nomad’, someone plays digeridoo on the more experimental live track ‘Kula Ring’, the cover of Guru Guru’s ‘Next Time See You at the Dalai Lhama’ is solidly enjoyable and ‘Camel Hair’ is a proper extended guitar work out, ending in feedback and effects pedal antics.

Nothing massively original, then, but well worth seeking out and spending a few quid on…

If you only listen to one track listen to this

(digital only)


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Under Blankets – Caught In The Wake Forever

I drive along a winding country road every weekday, going to and from work.  Last December, I ended up stuck in traffic on that road in the dark, inching painfully slowly forward, with snow falling and thick flakes being caught in the headlights.  ‘Under Blankets’ was playing. It was a perfect moment.

It’s a 40 minute long ambient piece of gentle swells and lulls, slow and soft, all rounded edges and muffled tones, and perfectly suited to a certain mood.  Fraser McGowan, who is Caught in the Wake Forever (and also Small Town Boredom whose wonderful  ‘Autumn Might Have Hope’ I have bought twice on vinyl)) is the finest crafter of melancholy (in its most positive sense) music working today.  All of his releases are worth a listen, but this is a lovely, tranquil place to start.

(digital only – cd sold out long ago)

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1001 Albums you should hear Pt 1

A few years ago, this book came out, listing the best or most influential or something 1001 albums of all time.  It’s almost certainly full of rubbish, misses out all sorts of left-field greatness and about as much objective use as a chocolate teapot, but even so – I thought I’d give them all one listen each, five at a time…

Obviously, if it gets too rubbish, I’ll give up and listen to something else – but I do love a list…

1001 – In The Wee Small Hours – Frank Sinatra (1955)

In the Wee Small Hours

I’m not a Sinatra fan.  Best to get that out of the way at the start.  That big band, bloke dressed like a waiter strolling about the stage with a mic held loosely in his hands is – along with very violent shouty grime rap – about the only sort of music I’ve never been able to engage with, and so I’ve tended to give Ol’ Blue Eyes a body swerve.

Which goes to show what a grade one twat I can be. 

Because this is fantastic.  This isn’t an old bald guy belting out ‘New York, New York’, this is a proper torch singer, bleeding all over a chunk of vinyl.  This is smoky bars and whisky, too many cigarettes and too many women walking out the door.  This is a revelation

‘Why can’t we be friends?’ Sinatra sings on the finest track on the album – oh, we can, Frank, we can now!

1000 – Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley (1956)

Perversely, I love Elvis, but I’ve never really cared for this, his début album.

Don’t get me wrong, the voice is there from day one, but the early days of rock and roll more than any other musical period I can think of suffer now from a lack of being there – it’s impossible to grasp the impact this sound had on contemporary ears.  Take something like ‘One Sided Love Affair’;  presumably it blew listeners away in 1956, but to me it’s a pretty dull and formulaic slab of pedestrian rock and roll, full of scatty sounding piano and exaggerated vocals, or ‘I Got a  Woman’, which is allegedly a classic but which seems to be so because it’s a white guy doing Ray Charles.  And Christ but I hate ‘Tutti Frutti’.

I’m doing this a disservice, though, I know.  Historical importance aside,  even to my 21st century ears, there’s some gold on here – the best ever version of ‘Blue Moon’, the proto-Elvis balladry of ‘I Love You Because’, which has some great guitar work holding it up, and, most of all, ‘I’m Trying to Get to You’, which – slowed down, admittedly – Sinatra could have covered without shame on ‘In the Wee Small Hours’.

For me, Elvis achieved greatness in the sixties, after returning from the Army, but there are moments, even as early as this, when I can hear the brilliance to come.  Just not all the time.

Tragic Songs of Life – The Louvin Brothers (1956)

Tragic Songs of Life - The Louvin Brother

Sure, they sound like the Everley Brothers (not the worst thing ever, to be clear, but not exactly dangerous), but don’t be fooled – if Nick Cave had been recording in 1956, this is the album he’d have put out.  Murders, suicides, God, serial killers and dead soldiers – all of Cave’s familiar obsessions are here.

To be honest, the fact that Gram Parsons loved them is literally the only thing I know about the Louvin Brothers, but a glance at the cover of this album and then the title would have had me picking it up in a record shop.

I doubt I’d have played it all that much, though.  At their best – on ‘Knoxville Girl’, say. or ‘Katie Dear’ – they’re certainly listenable enough, but generally speaking even a ‘Murder Ballads’ lp from 1956 is still pretty tame stuff.  

The Wildest! – Louis Prima (1956)

The Wildest - Louis Prima

The notes for this claim that jazz fans have called Prima a poor man’s Duke Ellington, and – having about as much knowledge of jazz as I do of quantum mechanics – I’ve no idea if that’s true, but if he is, then Ellington must be amazing!

Because this is brilliant from beginning to end – the most FUN record I can remember hearing.  The title’s no exaggeration – it’s wild, bouncy and exuberant, never letting up for even a second, full of mad horn playing,scat singing, laughter and great tunes.  I’d never heard any Prima before now – but I hope there’s more as good as this…

This is Fats – Fats Domino (1956)

It’s fine, maybe even good.  It’s Fats Domino and it’s not ‘Blueberry Hill’, so that’s a positive.  And ‘Valley of Tears’s sounds a tiny bit different from the others, so that’s also a good thing.

Eh..and that’s it.  Harmless enough, pleasant enough, never likely ever to be played again by me…

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Bellow the Surface – Shae Bird

Not my usual kind of thing really, but I heard ‘If I Followed my Heart’ somewhere, and was delighted to discover there was an entire album of the same kind of clever, witty guitar pop from the same artist.

The album is perhaps best summed up by Bird‘s description on their Bandcamp page:

‘content warnings: gun, sexual assault, being trapped, losing the will to live (cheerful ukulele context)’

It genuinely does contain all of those elements, plus a smattering of more than decent guitar and violin playing and some killer melodies.  Like a cheery sounding Joni Mitchell singing some especially cutting Leonard Cohen lyrics, this is a surprising and often moving record (‘Smile’ is a particularly extreme example) which really deserves a physical release.

While you’re waiting for that, you could do far worse than picking up the download.

If you only listen to one track, listen to this

(digital only)

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A House, Floating In The Middle Of A Lake – Erik Kramer

This was just about the first thing I stumbled across on Bandcamp.  I was drawn in by the album name, I have to admit, before I even got to the music but having started it streaming through my crappy laptop speakers (before I spent a bit of money to upgrade everything) I was instantly captivated and it remains an album I go back to again and again.

I knew I was going to love this music the second that the gentle guitar of opening track ‘Other Spaces’ was interrupted by a police car siren in the background.  Kramer stops, the car passes by, and he begins again from where he left off, a happy accident which somehow only adds to the track, marking the point at which pastoral folk begins to descend/ascend into something more abstract and less easily defined, and the track moves towards an ambient drone, full of subtlety.

And the whole album follows that (non) pattern – nothing is exactly what it seems, everything is in flux and liable to change.  Stand outs include ‘Grass Burning in the Palm’ where Kramer adds his own voice to birdsong, saxaphone, hollow, echoing drums and what sounds like xylophone to create a fascinating soundscape, and some wonderful guitar playing on ‘For Bruce Langhorne’ – but there’s not a failure on here.

If you only listen to one track, listen to this

(digital only – there was a cassette, apparently, but annoyingly I missed out on it!)

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Five Best Ambient Tracks on Bandcamp

It’s actually not all that tempting to write something about each of these ambient masterpieces, because ambient (or drone or classical or experimental or however else you personally choose to label such music) as a positive listening experience depends on the listener’s mood and what they hope to get out of it, as much as on the artist’s intentions, and so it all tends to get a bit pretentious really quickly.  I’d be talking about ‘washes of sound like warm water on your hands after a walk on a winter’s day’and ‘the echo of distant galaxies sliding across one another to dissolution’ before you could click Play on the first track.

So, instead, here they are – my current favourite five ambient/drone/call it what you will tracks on bandcamp.

Stars of the Lid – Dopamine Clouds over Craven Cottage

Rameses III – When the Phone goes Dead

Tim Hecker – Obsidian Counterpoint

David Colohan – Arc of a Snowfall III

Caught in the Wake Forever – To Wild Flowers Forgotten

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What would this record have sounded like if John Cale had had some setback and Cinzia La Fauci and Alberto Scotti had taken his place? – Various

Bandcamp is positively littered with this kind of thing; huge, sprawling collections of themed cover versions by bands you’ve largely never heard of.  The themes range from the tentative (single band efforts which are effectively just ‘stuff the band can actually play’ – though this set by Bournemouth based band Chuter is really good) to the pretty damn ambitious (there’s a great 45 track collection of Pearls Before Swine covers out there with not a single duplicate – or bad – track). 

This Stooges covers collection falls somewhere in between those two stools.  Crucially, though, the quality is great, and the approaches taken pleasingly varied (odd that more than a fifth of the running order is taken up by versions of ‘Ann’ though – it’s not exactly the most obvious Stooges cover).  There are relatively straight-forward garage/noise covers, of course – including, predictably but enjoyably enough, ‘1969’ and ‘I Wanna be Your Dog’ – but also experimental soundscapes (‘We Will Fall’) complete with what sounds like someone taking a hacksaw to a violin. Nouvelle Vague-tinged euro electronica (‘No Fun’), and all sorts of heavy, bone weary twists on the Stooges tale.

Oh, and most importantly, the fabulous Frank Chickens do a cover of ‘Not Right’, so – frankly – there’s no reason not to own this, right now.

If you only listen to one track, listen to this

(Digital and compact disc)

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Time Shifts – 62 Miles From Space

Obviously (says me, a middle aged man with a huge record collection), physical artifacts are generally to be preferred to streaming and downloads, but in the case of ‘Time Shifts’, I’ll make an exception.

Not, I hasten to add, because their four track debut EP is rubbish (far from it, it’s great), but because the download from the always reliable Mega Dodo Records contains two extra tracks in addition to the four dream-like slices of keyboard magic on the vinyl, and every bit of 62 Miles from Space’s output is worth savouring.

Combining late 60s synth sounds with carefully positioned vocals on some tracks (check out the title track below), and Kraftwerk-infused electronica on others, the oddly named 62 Miles from Space (a ‘virtual’ band created by two talented Moscow-based guys who collaborate entirely via the internet) have created a short collection of songs which deserves to be more widely heard.

If you only listen to one track, listen to this:

(digital and vinyl editions)

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After the Fall Outtakes – Dodson and Fogg

Dodson and Fogg is Chris Wade, a one man music industry all of his own, who seems to release a new album every month or so.  Unbelievably, given this fairly constant output, he’s yet to release anything not worth listening to, if what you like to listen to is pretty gentle prog/folk rock.

That said, and with typical perversity, my favourite of his many releases is this, a collection of outtakes from the album, After the Fall.  I should admit up front that I do like random collections of songs; sets stitched together from scraps left on the cutting room floor are often, I find, full of interest and lost promise, even when there’s nothing wrong with the parent release. And this outtakes album is the perfect example…

For one thing, it starts with ‘The Charge’, which  I assumed for months was actually a cover of an instrumental section from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.  It’s not, but it should be – if ever a song was screaming out for Justin Hayward to start singing over it, this is it.  From there, it’s on to a series of minor gems with Wake’s vocals to the fore, none of which – to my ears anyway – sound in any way weaker than the tracks on the album they failed to make.  Particular highlights include the more jazzy ‘The Stars are out Tonight’, the psych folk of ‘Out on the Fields’ and the infectious ‘It’s Not Real’.

Oh, and the final track, ‘Richard Burton Hiding in a cave’ appears to exist purely to allow Wake to do his Burton impersonation, but he can be forgiven that, given how good the rest is .

If you only listen to one track listen to this

(digital, and the page mentions a cd, but there’s no indication of how to buy it – possibly it’s sold out)

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