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On Oldfield

April 15, 2014

After all this time, someone let Mike Oldfield write songs with actual lyrics.

On the bright side, this track is the best thing I’ve heard him do in years.

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The Kathryn Tickell Band – Signs/Phil The Greek (90s – 47)

April 9, 2014

It must be nigh on 15 to 20 years since I heard either track, both coming from the 1993 album Signs. Tonight I set out to find them, and find them I did.

Kathryn Tickell plays the Northumbrian pipes. I had used to think bagpipes boring but when I first heard these tracks on release, I was in the middle of my Mike Oldfield rage. This meant I had heard Paddy Moloney on the uilleann pipes guesting on Oldfield’s albums. Moloney added a flurry of folk to a rock setting – a typical Oldfield sleight of hand – which for me recast the pipes a marching instrument to one of great subtlety and range. Already with an appreciation of folk – Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero soundtrack had started that – Oldfield taught me folk could be the basis of something new, different. The folk I was interested had to have a sense of otherness, unexpectedness – this an interest in, for instance, folk rock ala Steeleye Span.

Then one night Robyn Johnston on Radio National’s The Planet spun these two tracks by The Kathryn Tickell Band.

Signs is a cover of Prefab Sprout’s When Love Breaks Down, mixed with another tune called The First Time. At the time I wasn’t familiar with the Prefab track (though I was not long for buying that band’s From Langley Park to Memphis album on cassette) but I obviously recognised a well-written tune when I heard it. Hearing Tickell now, being more than familiar with McAloon, Smith and co’s original, I’m even more impressed with what she has pulled off. Replicating McAloon’s vocals lines is hard enough for an aspiring cover singer – to successfully gain something of McAloon’s fragility on pipes is startling.

Phil The Greek – medley of Fill The Tankard and The Greek Tune – is harder to place, and of the two tracks is the one which flashing into my memory whenever I see Tickell’s name every few years. The slow, droning build-up of Fill The Tankard – textured and subtle – again recalled Oldfield, but I would later link with other artists like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra or ambient electronica producers. The Greek Song provides energetic relief, but the incessant circling of Fill The Tankard was another little step down the path of fascination in variation and repetition which would go haywire when I eventually heard drum n bass.

So here they are on the incredibly hard to find Signs album. Enjoy

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Brothers and Systems – Trace Elements (90s – 48)

April 8, 2014

X-Cat: meaning ex-catalogue. These CDs were in the 2UNE catalogue, but were considered by several year’s worth of station managers to be too obscure (Karen Rameriz – this was country Australia), weird (Philip Glass’ Low Symphony) or just plain unlistenably bad to sit with in the drawers under proper categories like Rock, or Australian, or Dance. So they were stowed away in the back of the station, a shelf of their own, unloved.

Until I turned up searching for the obscure and weird for my radio show. (The unlistenably bad really was bad…)

One of the albums I found was by Brothers and Systems’ album Transcontinental Weekend. Even now I can’t tell you anything about them. In fact I can’t remember anything about the album except this closing track, which I semi-regularly used to close my radio show.

With only a hazy idea of hip hop, funk and sampling I was quite taken. The cool organs, snatches of sax and jangly percussion matched the sort of the jazz I liked at the time – funky but bits of synth in: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, or maybe 90s John McLaughlin. Less of the boring acoustic stuff, this had sounded futuristic to me.

Of course, Trace Elements is not jazz, rather jazzy, thrown together in a studio in 1992 by a man on a computer (really, this is all I know). Yet to hear Paul’s Boutique, Loaded or any other sample based tunes flying around, this instead became my introduction to studio wizardry in which bpm wasn’t as important as style, sample selection, cheek and a little humour. In 1997 I was very much in a drum n bass and ambient house zone. But Brothers and Systems linked jazz, hip hop and funk together, helping me to see connections I hadn’t yet cared about. Of this I am forever been grateful.

The radio station’s X-Cat was eventually placed in the centre of the room, and we were told anything left in two days would be donated elsewhere or thrown out. The station had run out of storage space. I couldn’t let this track go, so I rescued the album. It is safe, though admittedly it is now sitting in my own X-Cat – a cardboard box in storage. One day it will be free again.

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Jean Michel Jarre – Calypso part 3 (live) – (90s – 49)

April 3, 2014

This video – indeed the entire Paris concert but this closer in particular – still gives me goosebumps. Wow. The ending is so tight my body used to tense up until the final musical release. The giant puppet costumes, the fireworks, the light show, the steel drums! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better concert video.

This was played one afternoon on the ABC. In the early 90s the ABC used to play arts documentaries every Sunday afternoon, and I would always consult the TV guide to see what was one. Somewhere in the midst of “boring adult art” – classical music, opera, some but not all visual art – there were gems of culture which hadn’t reached Gilgandra – and that week they listed this concert. Come the afternoon Peter Ross was typically dignified, though with a glint in his eye and a hint of a smile, as he introduced it to the audience, while I was ready at the video player to press record.

I knew Jarre. I was a kid who grew up with electronic music. There it was on the TV and movie soundtrack: Beverley Hills Cop, Fletch, anything Vangelis or Jan Hammer scored. It was there on TV adverts. Into this mix was Oxygene, one of those electronic tracks which one heard even if you never heard electronic tracks.

When my mum bought our first CD player in the cusp of the decade, her first purchase was a four-disc compilation of cheap knock-offs of famous electronic tracks: Popcorn, Genetic Engineering, Axel F, Crockett’s Theme, Chi Mi; even Tubular Bells gets mangled into something synthy. This put names to half-remembered memories while introducing me to new tunes (Genetic Engineering being of the most fondly remembered).

Of course Oxygene and Equinox were on the discs. What surprised me was subsequently finding out my aunt – seemingly so old and conservative – had both the original Jarre albums on cassette. These I borrowed and a fascination with his work ensued.

After this came the Paris concert on the ABC, who then played the Spanish concert a year or so later. I was ready again with the video player. I dubbed both onto cassette and would listening to them at night with the light off.

Once I hit Uni my then best friend was a fan and lent me the Hong Kong concert; he then went out for ages with a girl whose dedication to the work of Jarre was far more intense than the height of my cooling interest in Mike Oldfield. If Jarre recorded it, I heard it. And if the two of them didn’t have them the radio station did. It’s where I heard Laurie Anderson and Adrian Belew guest on Zoolook.

One of the pair lent me the Waiting for Cousteau album, from whence the Calyspo suite came. It was good but not as good as the live version. Partially it was a visual thing.
Steel drums are meant to be seen. Watch the massed band with Jarre, grinning and swaying.

I first heard steel drums on Seseme Street in my youngest days, where some kids on the street were taught to make a steel drum from an old metal barrel. It sounded exotic, exciting. I was not yet at school. They have long fascinated me. Years later I heard the Beatles “She’s Leaving Home” covered on the steel drums, more recently Katzenjammer’s celebrated cover of “Cars”. For me steel drums were always fun to listen to; seeing them with Jarre was confirmation they were fun to play – the shared energy, the wall of sound.

Add in Jarre’s typical swirly sound samples and pulsing beat and this for me is his finest moment. Other songs might be more emotional, deeper, but none match the energy and joy of these seven minutes.

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Greetings

March 13, 2014

I’ve noticed an increase in traffic to this blog. Hello! I’m assuming this is in part due to my participation in Freaky Trigger’s wonderful Pop World Cup, where I am managing Cote D’Ivoire.

This blog is a scratch-pad about music in an attempt to keep my hand in the process of writing. It’s made up of short jottings thrown down in those moments small children allow. I used to regularly review music for small publications and ‘zines, and have produced and presented music programs on three different radio stations in Australia. None of my work has been for the big names or the notable, but I enjoyed it and wish to return in due course once family duties and day job allow.

Most of the entries on these blogs are jotting around a loose concept. The first was my selection of 100 tracks from the Noughties, and I’m currently halfway through the Nineties – the decade which takes me neatly from the start of high school to my first post-University job. The list isn’t groundbreaking, but it does allow me to explore the head space I was in when I first heard these tracks.

I am very interested in the serendipitous way people’s music tastes evolve: snatches of radio, half-heard tracks in a shop which nag the ear, recommendations from friends and mixtapes. I was never a strict adherent of the charts after the late 80s, though I heard as much pop as anyone. However my main interests were in music were wide. I grew up in a small country town, pre-internet, with one commercial radio station and three government stations liable to play (unexpectedly but with little wider context) a Klaus Schulze, Pat Metheny or a concerto for bagpipes and jazz orchestra as much as Sting and Dire Straits. Thus my lists are an attempt to rationalise the way I stumbled across music as chance encounters, rather than mechanically ticking off a discography or adhering to a chart.

So welcome to my little project. I apologise for any grammatical mistakes; as I said these are just jottings between screams and story books. You may also like to have a look at some archival writings from my better writing days.

And remember to vote for Cote D’Ivoire in the Pop World Cup!

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Speedy J – Patterns (90s – 50)

January 24, 2014

Novamute was Mute Record’s electronic dark side. I discovered a label compilation in the 2UNE studio not long after both it and I arrived. My knowledge of techno and house was from the pop charts, plus the ambient side from the Digital Dream radio show. But the unrepentant shards of noise and dread-laden drones were new to me – savage and dire. The nearest I’d heard was from the Industrial bands of the previous decade, but they had sounded dated thanks to the earlier synthesisers and recording techniques. By the 90s electronica could create anything, the Novamute roster sounded crisp and wild at the same time.

While the tracks by Luke Slater, Plaskticman and Emmanuuel Top made an impression, it was Speedy J’s unrepentant remix of Patterns which shook my world. The juxtaposition of the atmospheric symphonic sweeps and the sudden explosions of noise gave me an appreciation collisions of sounds were as effective as those intricately intertwined. Not the darkest track on the compilation, but surely the most memorable.

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XTC – The Disappointed (90s – 51)

December 31, 2013

Nineties’ XTC was dominated by… nothing. Silence. For most of the decade they were in conflict with Virgin Records. Otherwise the decade is merely topped and tailed by two records: 1992′s Nonsuch and 1999′s Apple Venus.

It was the failure of Virgin to release Wrapped in Grey from the former record which created the conflict – effectively a strike against their contract until it ceased. This is a pity as Nonsuch was as finer a sculptured as and XTC created in the last half of the Eighties.

The most known track off Nonsuch is the wonderful Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead, a typical Andy Partridge’s third person protagonist. But Patridge is often at his best when he wears the narrator’s cloak. Thus it is on the classically pop The Disappointed.

Classic too is Partridge’s trick of blurring a concept or emotion with a character or mob: Scarecrow People, Snowman, Toys. Like all such anthropomorphism it is to prove a point.

The mind eye can see the grey Disappointed shuffling, empty, vacant-eyed, a Tom Waits marching band announcing their jerky procession down the street. The narrator, once disbelieving has had his mask removed and discovers he is not merely one of their number but their king and spokesman. Has be been placed their by the misery masses, finally understanding their pain or is there a hint he still conceited, believing his is the heart-break against all must be judged?

Either way this is another variation on the idea no matter how you feel there are always others just like you.

And all this against a subtly nagging guitar line, not quite mournful, but never dominating. This is arguably XTC’s last great pop song.

Oh, and doesn’t Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory suit their medieval get-ups.

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