Rab Noakes – I’m Walking Here (2015)

Good lord! Two current albums in two weeks! Though whether I’m getting with it (or whatever the analogous contemporary phrase is) or not is another matter.

Noakes is 68 this year and has made a record that is full of old-fashioned touches. The production and the performances are authentically retro. Noakes stayed away from click tracks and had the basic tracks recorded “live in studio” with the musicians all in the same room and some unavoidable but organic “bleed” between the instruments. – and the tempos not rigid It’s even mixed in mono.

Noakes talks a lot about “twenty first century skiffle” and the record has that feel to it too – not overly sophisticated, enthusiastic.

It’s a double album – twenty six tracks. And seven more available for free download from his web site. He also gets marks for a splendid set of sleeve notes that provide useful information and some extra insights into the songs. These are not included with what you buy from iTunes but, again, are a free download. So the distribution is bang up to date (there IS a physical copy available) but the product, though newly recorded, has the sound and feel of something a lot older. Or maybe it deals in timeless virtues.

I’ve long believed that a person and a guitar can serve up perfectly acceptable, complete, even powerful musical performances and several tracks here fit that bill. Mostly on the second disc (if you buy actual discs) which is mostly what Noakes will not permit to be called “covers”. I’m on his side here – one can perform songs that somebody else wrote and still be creative and expressing something of yourself (consider Martin Carthy whose long career is nearly all “covers” and yet is indisputably rich in creativity and originality). Some of the performances here are terrific – vivid and engaging. Notably his performance of the unjustly obscure “Guernsey Kitchen Porter”. And he takes on, and very well too, one of the most important pieces of the British 1950s Skiffle revival, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”. More up to date are Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” and Beck’s “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”.

Good songs transcend eras and genres and lend themselves to interpretation (and that’s what Noakes does with them, these are not “covers”) and to rediscovery. And Noakes has a good ear for a song. And he places his own stamp upon them. His version of Gillian Welch’s “That’s The Way The Whole Thing Ends” is different from but a match for the original (and that’s a complement, in case you were wondering. The original was one of the best things on a marvellous record).

The first disc is all his. These songs exist at the intersection of folk and late 50s pop, though every so often the now suddenly jumps out. So “Where Dead Voices Gather” name checks some obscure old country artists whose music the young Noakes learned to love, but “One Dog Barks” seems aimed squarely at the modern world of social media and the way we often repeat things as if they’re gospel without considering their virtue nor their veracity.

Stylistically it’s mostly of a pleasingly retro piece. Nearly always the foundation is acoustic guitar using a vocabulary of blues, country and rockabilly. There’s some electric (overdubbed by Noakes) with a nicely old fashioned overdriven amplifier tone. On the opening “Slipping Away” there’s a very musical and also reverential detail – blues licks played on a piccolo. Early on in the history of the blues it was performed on instruments other than the guitar, the fife being one. These solos are simultaneously novel and nerdily satisfying and entirely effective.

All this gushing! There is a problem though, one that’s all too common with double albums. Which is that they nearly always could have been distilled down to a potent regular length album. I’m Walking Here fares better than most because of the strength of the material and the consistency of the performances, but it could still shed some weight. There’s a pair of instrumentals that are little more than doodles and run out of steam quickly. They’re out of place on this otherwise solidly crafted album. A couple of the “covers” grow old more rapidly than the surrounding tracks.

But this may be nitpicking, because even with this handful of excisions – or without them – you’re still left with an album that offers sustained entertainment and satisfaction. Noakes seems to be having more than expected late success with this album and it’s entirely deserved.

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Tom Robinson – Only The Now (2015)

Robinson’s been quiet for a long time in terms of touring and record releases. His last album of new material was back in 1996. Since then he’s played infrequent gigs, been an award winning radio presenter and raised a family. Now, in the year in which he qualifies for a bus pass, he has released a very good record and will hit the road again.

Robinson’s always had a political edge to his art, and the “single” (if we can still call it that) from this album is a stirring, angry and very up to date protest song “The Mighty Sword of Justice” inspired by a cut in legal aid. In interviews Robinson has said that it costs a hundred and fifty pounds to plead guilty, nearly five times that to plead innocent. The point is not new – “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor” – but the details in the lyrics (and all the references are British) bring it bang up to date. Robinson is joined by Billy Bragg, who writes and sings one verse, another outspoken performer. The performance is terriffic. It’s an old-fashioned protest song, easy to sing, feels good to sing, and it’ll stick in the mind far better than a pamphlet.

There’s also a rant about a banker who got a life line from the government without extending any leniency to his clients, and a portrayal of a suicide bomber. Strong stuff, very current yet also par for the course for Robinson.

But the dominant mood on this album is poignant remembrance, a thread which leads to a superb, dreamy cover of John Lennon’s “In My Life” with a guest vocal and marvellous guitar arrangement by Martin Carthy, another senior figure of British music. This pairing may seem incongruous given their histories – punk and pop for Robinson whilst Carthy is a giant of English folk song – but the two have worked together previously and in the seventies the often vocally political folk movement found much common ground with the politically vocal punk and two-tone movements. So Carthy and Robinson is not as unlikely a pairing as may be thought, and a very effective one.

Rounding off an assembly of elder statsmen, not to mention the plain elderly, is actor Ian McKellan who can’t sing and doesn’t try to. He provides the voice of God on “Holy Smoke” (about using pages from the Bible to roll a joint) but adds rather less to “One Way Street” though, as he gets to recite, “the fact that someone’s older doesn’t always make them wrong.”

“Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall” could be biographical or auto-biographical, deals with the joint problems of depression and suicide (Robinson is a long time activist in these fields), and has a gorgeously heart-breaking chorus.

Robinson closes the album with the fond, hopeful title track which seems directed towards his wife and children yet also has a more universal appeal.

Gerry Diver’s production makes the most of the songs without overwhelming them, and juxtaposes contemporary touches with a retro – but not contrived – sound. Robinson’s voice audibly has some miles on it, but it only aids the sincerity of his delivery. The song writing is strong – even the minor tracks offer interest.

List all these attributes and it’s clear that this is a fine album, with many genuinely moving movements and near perfect pop thrills on “Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Cry Out”.

What’s not to like here? Even if you have no great history with Robinson (I don’t) this is an appealing, high quality record and one of the best new things you will hear this year – even if you’re not on the wrong side of forty.

King Crimson – Discipline (1981)

Early prog rockers King Crimson released an unexpected come back album in 1981. The band had broken up years ago and kingpin Robert Fripp had pursued other ventures rather than keep the band going. It’s not even clear that Fripp wanted this to be a KING CRIMSON record, though adopting that name maybe did give the press more of a story to work with.

Fripp had been busy after the band ground to a halt in the mid 70s, working with Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, David Bowie and several other artists. This work would have had him crossing paths with bass/stick player Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew.

Belew had worked with Talking Heads, Bowie and Frank Zappa. Levin had been a key member of Peter Gabriel’s band as well as a in demand session player. Original Crimson drummer Bill Bruford had stayed active too, working with players like Allan Holdsworth who represented a second wave of cerebral, high-tech progressive rock music.

Fripp had some ideas that needed a band to execute them. He extended invitations to Bruford and then Belew. He hadn’t realised that Levin was available, but when that was clarified the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

I think it’s the fact that they’d all been so busy that makes this album so successful. Instead of picking up more or less where King Crimson had stopped, they bought all this experience and their enthusiasm for contemporary styles with them. So the album is far from what King Crimson had done previously and thoroughly contemporary with the most obvious reference being Talking Heads – though that band had nowhere near the musical firepower that Fripp’s new outfit could unleash.

I’m not big on prog rock, often finding it tedious and pretentious (or tediously pretentious) but here King Crimson – as they eventually agreed to call themslves – manage to cover all the prog rock bases, remain nerdily clever AND conjure up engaging, attention getting performances. And nothing gets diluted – unlike their contemporaries Asia who couldn’t find a way to combine craft and appeal and simply dumbed everything down to bland, boring stadium rock.

Belew rather than Fripp may be the key here. A lot of critics liken him vocally to David Byrne. I think that means he sings like a white American without blues/soul/gospel affections. He doesn’t have Byrne’s gasping delivery, and his range and control are wider.

Belew’s guitar style with it’s array of rather non-guitar sounds, use of feedback and whammy bar tricks is some way removed from Fripp’s trademark speed and accuracy, but it turns out to be brilliantly complementary (since Fripp recruited Belew we can give him credit for foreseeing this outcome), and his vocals give the ear a peg to hang on.

And hooks… Boy do they have them! Even when they’re indulging in polyrhythms (which is much of the time) and Belew’s delivering his frequently smart ass lyrics they consistently grab attention with intriguing licks and riffs and a great command of musical tension.

Belew is a nerd’s delight with the alphabetical lyric on the opening “Elephant Talk”and the anagrammatic nonsene of “Thela Hun Ginjeet”, but he manages to convince with would could easily become gimmicky smart ass word games. He also delivers the gorgeous ballad “Matte Kudasai”- something that Byrne wouldn’t be up to.

Their considerable skills allow them to play with deadly precision on the fast “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (in case you’re wondering, it’s an anagram for “Heat In The Jungle” ) and “Frame by Frame” or the stop start “Indiscipline”. But they are also completely successful on the slower, simpler (for them) “Matte Kudasai” and the dreamy instrumental “The Sheltering Sky” (which has Fripp deploying his “Frippertronics” system and sounnding a lot like John Martyn). Several times they achieve the effect that Fripp apparently was looking for – a blending of the rhythmic and harmonic, something like an Indonesian gamelan band, only with guitars rather than with primitive xylophones.

This album is one of the most successful examples of “prog rock”. Their technical skills are on full display; they are often intellectual; they eat odd time signatures for breakfast and they do all of this without falling into the traps that lie in wait for all prog rockers: being overblown and too smart for their own good. It’s an impressive and also thoroughly satisfying listening experience.

The Imagined Village – Empire and Love (2010)

The Imagined Village are a concept more than a band. The idea is a reimagining of English folk song in a modern, multi-cultural setting. I’d thought that this was part of the response in the English folk movement to then BNP leader Nick Griffin’s attempt to co-opt folk song as a tool for his racist ideology, but in fact the band pre-dates what became the Folk Against Facism movement. The line up has always been dynamic, changing from album to album.

I found this a more satisfying album than Bending the Dark and I suspect that is to do with the greater involvement of Martin Carthy. For a start he brings better material for them to work with, and his brilliant and idiosyncratic guitar playing integrates very well with the electronica and the Asian instruments. Carthy is a major figure in the last 50 years of English folk, but he’s never been precious about the music that he adores and hasn’t made museum pieces of it. He’s often pared old songs down to find a new truth in them or updated them to highlight a timeless truth. So it is here with the opening song, “My Son John” which dates back to the Napoleonic wars. He takes the essence of the song – an unsympathetic, disbelieving welcome for a solider returned home from war with his legs missing – and updates it for the modern era with references to Afghanistan. Sonically the song is updated with electronica effects and taken out of an exclusively Olde English setting by Sheema Mukherjee’s sitar and Asian percussion.

It’s entirely successful and a great example of what Imagined Village aim to do.

Also prominent on this record is Chris Wood, not the flute player from Traffic but a multi-instrumentalist and considerable songwriter who is one of the most politically motivated artists currently operating in English folk. He shares with Carthy a gift for taking odd time signatures and making them sound natural and easy. He’s also a singer of some distinction.

The two combine to great effect on the best known song here – “Scarborough Fair”. You might think it sounds superficially like Simon and Garfunkel’s version, but in fact Paul Simon based that famous recording on Carthy’s own arrangement which is reprised here with subtle shifts in the timing and a masterful vocal by Wood over Carthy’s guitar.

Carthy also offers another of his most iconic songs – “Byker Hill” – again with clever timing and with effective contemporary enhancements of his arrangement.

Most of the time they rework and reinvigorate traditional songs, but there are two songs that stand out by virtue of being rather obviously more contemporary but which still fit well into the overall arc of the album. Eliza Carthy performs the song “Space Girl” which though decidedly untraditional was written by Ewan MacColl (for a stage show). Eliza’s dad delivers another star turn with a droll, slowed down and stripped down performance of the most unlikely song here – Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize”.

The album is full of fine singing and playing and the multi-culturalism and modern electronic effects seem to complement the essential Englishness of the songs and performances and do nothing to dilute it. Which, I think, is the point – honoring and presenting your culture doesn’t have to be an exclusive and unwelcoming business.

Not what the BNP imagined at all.