folk

Howling at the Moon: Matt Berry’s Kill the Wolf Reviewed

matt berry kill the wolf

There are few surprises here from Matt Berry on his latest solo outing. Kill the Wolf picks up precisely where Witchazel left off two years ago, plunging listeners right back into the dreamy and psychedelic world of ‘60s prog-folk where he last led us. However, far from regurgitating the songs and style of Witchazel, Berry offers new explorations into his finely honed and lovingly constructed retro-verse, deftly combining gentle folk-pop with more brooding, atmospheric prog-like meanderings. His intentions are crystal clear with opening song “Gather Up”, an archaic sounding chant using lute and a women’s choir to join him in imparting an almost eerie sense of displacement in time. That, and the lyrics listing a multitude of herbs and plants that wouldn’t be out of place in a witch’s arsenal, combine to set the stage for Berry’s mystical sonic journey into some very satisfying and unusual pop. “Devil Inside Me” offers an upbeat contrast from the prior track, with gently thumping percussion, subtle electronic flourishes, and another backing choir. Lyrically, he speaks literally about duality and the haunting asynchronicity between his inner and outer selves. The music reflects this, jumping from melancholy self-pity to major key smooth lightness, broken up with an electric violin solo that rocks in a way only a violin solo in the middle of prog-folk song can – that is, satisfyingly.

“Fallen Angel” continues gently through lilting and airy verses, moving into a madrigal-like refrain. “Medicine” is where we first really connect back to Witchazel’s easy pop charm: the guitars gleam and sparkle and there is a choir featured again, cavorting with Berry in metaphorical sunlit pastures. It’s a fully enveloping, warm autumn day in song form, completely surrendering to curiosity, new experiences, and unrestrained pleasure. All of a sudden, we are thrown right back into the rabbit hole of self-doubt and darkness with “Wolf Quartet”, a woodwind instrumental that suggests the come down after a psychedelic drug trip. The reference to polyphonic madrigals is revisited at the beginning of “Solstice”, the album’s centrepiece. Berry’s vocal line is interspersed with the opening bell figure, both repeating themselves as washes of sound gradually bury them and then stop altogether. The second part begins like a reprieve of sun breaking through clouds, but it too is quickly dispersed by that haunting line, this time augmented with unsettling ornamentation and played by woodwind and keyboard. Following some progressively driving instrumental sections, an electric guitar solo is unleashed on this moody scene, capped off by Berry’s lyrics about the shortening daylight. The song indeed has the same claustrophobic feeling as the rapidly shortening days of autumn and of yule: there is less time to accommodate the same daily tasks, but more importantly it’s a pagan pact between nature and humankind to renew light and agricultural abundance for the coming spring. This reference to pagan spirituality is depicted perfectly in Berry’s capable hands.

“October Sun” is light and pleasant on the surface, with some lovely finger-picked guitar, but its lyrics depict a darker scene. Biblical themes become apparent with lines such as “Michael, Peter, Mark, and John/Please forgive me for I have done you wrong/I sense evil, I fear it here today/Like a bad dream that never goes away”, likely also a reference to the Black Paternoster. “The Signs” delves into groovy ‘60s pop without a trace of the psych and folk influences so prevalent elsewhere on Kill the Wolf. It even has a short saxophone solo that I don’t hate and don’t mind calling groovy…again. “Knock Knock” has a languid, laid back strut to it that strangely complements the strings used for accent and atmosphere. Pagan rituals are again the subject in “Bonfire”, which instructs the villager to “clear the field, make a circle/a gift to those for watching over/marks the end of October”. Something’s going to happen, he admits it (albeit with tongue in cheek): “there’ll be smoke, and lots of magic”. That’s taken up with “Village Dance”, following closely on the heels of “Bonfire”. Reprising the musical figure from “October Sun”, Berry leads us into a kind of saturnalia festival, a beautiful and joyful time of hope and promise, led by strings, chiming bells, and warm voices. Finally “Farewell Summer Sun” brings the album’s disparate elements together: after some instrumental intervals, Berry’s sonorous voice returns, once more with choir, along with folky guitar and soft percussion. The lyrics tie up the pagan winter festival themes of looking to nature for social and material promise in a time of winter scarcity, comparing the wait for the next summer sun to waiting for a lover who will return from a journey. The tune is mellow and soothing, calming relying on nature to provide what is needed as well as accepting the inevitable change of the seasons and cyclical nature of life.

A very subtle, textured, multi-layered, and engaging album, Kill the Wolf effectively expresses its themes of pagan spirituality, reliance on nature, dualities of good and evil in everyone, and the joy of new experiences equally in both its music and words. Berry’s ever-impressive musicianship (and versatility!) mean that he can fully pull off such a specifically themed album as this one, full of references foreign to much of the mainstream pop climate. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable on a surface level, either: he’s an incredible pop songwriter as well as a canny stylist. Basically, you can get as much out of Kill the Wolf as you want, or as much as you’re willing to put in, perhaps. It’s more rewarding with more time and energy, but it’s a fantastic pop piece any way you devour it.

Matt Berry – Medicine

Matt Berry – Solstice

Matt Berry – Farewell Summer Sun

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Myxomatosis #11: Summer in Me

Apologies for the lateness by over a week – I’ve been on some much appreciated holidays. On the bright side, you’ll be getting another mix from Laura this coming weekend as well. MP3s raining down everywhere.

Since I’m in a relatively relaxed state of mind (I’m not sure I can ever be completely relaxed – it may require something like the twenty T3s I took after I got my wisdom teeth out a couple of weeks ago), I’ve decided to make a compilation of some breezy, summery tracks. In a way, it’s a complement to Laura’s last mix. What says summer to me? Genres like twee, indiepop, ambient, chamber pop, folk, yé yé, and its Japanese off-shoot shibuya kei. They’re gentle and soothing, and you can imagine yourself swinging in a hammock, swimming in soft focus 60s film reels, or perhaps riding an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket through a European city whilst wearing a cardigan. Ahh…I feel dozy and shambolic just thinking about it.

You get some 60s cool courtesy of Margo Guryan; an underrated glam ballad from John Howard; neo-yé-yé from Coeur de pirate; light, sometimes trippy shibuya kei stylings from Flipper’s Guitar, Dimitri From Paris, and Hong Kong in the 60s; twinkling indiepop from Richard Hawley’s old band Treebound Story and from Stevie Jackson’s solo work away from Belle & Sebastian; dreamy folk by Breathe Owl Breathe and Nick Drake; the chamber pop whimsy of Owen Pallett; and apparently the most calming song in the world by Marconi Union. And of course, quite a bit more.

Download Myxotmatosis #11 here.

Take a Picture – Margo Guryan

You Can Take a Heart, But You Cannot Make It Beat – Hong Kong in the 60s

Summer Beauty 1990 – Flipper’s Guitar

Watercolours Into the Ocean – Destroyer

The Flame – John Howard

Ava – Coeur de pirate

Swimming in the Heart of Jane – Treebound Story

Dead Man’s Fall – Stevie Jackson

E is For Estranged – Owen Pallett

Reveries – Dimitri From Paris

Champagne Coast – Blood Orange

Swimming – Breathe Owl Breathe

No One Likes a Nihilist – The Most Serene Republic

English Electric Lightning – The Wild Swans

Summer In Me – Gentle Despite

Smiling in Slow Motion – Daniel Land and the Modern Painters

Empties – Rob Britton

Sunday – Nick Drake

Stand Where A Fruit Tree Drops the Things It Doesn’t Need – Snowblink

Weightless – Marconi Union

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Many Poetic Returns: Parts One Through Three of Jack Hayter’s The Sisters of St. Anthony Single Series

Jack Hayter The Sisters of St Anthony

In this post-everything digital age of endless archives and curation, is it possible still to lose things? Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and it is to him that lo-fi folk musician Jack Hayter turns for his subscription series of monthly singles The Sisters of St. Anthony. To look at him in a perhaps more positive manner, St. Anthony really becomes representative of memory. He aids you in remembering where those lost things are, he is meant to help you recover things. And these wistful, often visceral, emotions suit Hayter well. His vocals are a bit broken and worn, and since his first release on Audio Antihero, the wonky, wonderful Sucky Tart EP, he has been pushing the boundaries of folk sounds to continue telling acoustic tales of the sublime mundanity of life. Whilst his first solo album, Practical Wireless released on Absolutely Kosher Records in 2002, was a study in fragility and gentle melody (including a stunning cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl Another Planet”), this latest subscription series (or time release capsule of an album) picks up further cues from the ragged edges of Sucky Tart and the fusion of folk and electronic elements found in his work with Dollboy. And of course, Hayter’s knack for storytelling emphasizes the most human of inclinations: remembering in order to make sense of the world and your place in it, recovering in order to recover.

The first song in the series is “The Shackleton,” which is both about a Cold War airplane named after the ill-fated (and let’s face it, ill-pated) explorer Ernest Shackleton, and about the loss of Hayter’s girlfriend from adolescence. Hayter writes of the connection between the distinctive drone of the aircraft and his memories:

…their sound, more than anything, reminds me of being 15…out in the woods with Sally at 4 a.m., with the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction and the wrath of her parents.

It begins with sliding synth noises, but quickly moves into the softness of a nostalgic raconteur. Eventually the song melts into adolescent confessional as Hayter gives a beautiful, plaintive voice to the tragic yet funny machinations of teenagers’ inner dramas; his voice curls and keens like gales trapped in the husks of empty buildings over the lines, “Graham has dumped me/God, I’m so sad/Sure he’s alright for a laugh/Though he’s a bit of a twat.” The musical motif of this section returns as Sally makes a similar, yet poignantly different confession at fifty years old. Cold War tensions and paranoia add a layer of both “Heroes”-like romantic desperation and the bittersweet sadness of unfulfilled futures. (For more beautiful themes of haunting and the Cold War uncanny, track down Dollboy’s instrumental Ghost Stations.)

The second track, “Farewell Jezebel,” starts off with some spare acoustic guitar as Hayter introduces the titular character in a stance of illicit defiance. After the cheeky little line, “We’ve all been had/But no one ever had us quite like you,” the song kicks into a rambling, sunny tribute to a very human character. She may have vomited in her handbag, but she also lived beyond the pithy, “respectful” clichés of memorialization. Hayter’s brilliantly detailed, visually narrative lyrics demonstrate the limits of polite, socially accepted acts of remembrance; as he sings, “No one writes upon a gravestone anything of use.”

The final track of this first quarter of singles is “Sweet JD.” It begins with droplets of electronic sounds over sporadic glitchy percussion and other spasms of instrumentation. As Hayter intones “I’m always missing the beat,” the rhythms and sounds scatter about him like an overturned bag of marbles or a fistful of released balloons. Like an infinitely impossible cowlick, bleeps of synths spring up in unexpected places, yet they complement the soaring chorus of “Sweet John Donne loves you,” which references Donne’s poem of imminent loss, “Stay, O Sweet.” Halfway through the track, Hayter recites ghostly snippets of other Donne quotes about mortality and seizing life as the electronics spider over his voice, nearly choking it. By the time his voice comes back in for the final chorus, the music has risen into a jubilant hymn of love and affirmation of life in spite of all that threatens it.

These first three songs from the series are quite varied stylistically, but they all coax a meaningful presence out of absence, and build moving musical vignettes of retrospect and anticipated spectres. I look forward to the rest of the monthly installments. Is it still possible to lose things? Yes, but Jack Hayter reminds you that loss and forgetfulness can be valuable, too. Thoughts may escape you, but the dearth is necessary as some of the most important thoughts often come back to you as poetry.

Subscribe to the single series at the Audio Antihero Bandcamp page.

I Stole the Cutty Sark – Jack Hayter

Au Lion D’Or – Jack Hayter

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Life and Death Made Strange and Wonderful: Band of Holy Joy’s How to Kill a Butterfly Reviewed

BOHJ - How to Kill a Butterfly

I first became aware of London-based Band of Holy Joy when frontman/BOHJ constant, Johny Brown, did guest vocals and lyrics on Vanilla Swingers’ debut album. I then managed to track down three albums (More Favourite Fairy Tales; Manic, Magic, Majestic; Positively Spooked) and an EP (The Big Ship Sails) out of their twenty-seven-year-spanning discography. With its long and fluid roster of former band members over the years, Band of Holy Joy have been described as a parallel, inverse version of The Fall; where Mike E. Smith’s project seems like an endless subtraction and whittling of art into ever sharper shapes, Brown’s band has thrived on its own fluid democracy and expansive creativity. The current line-up for the latest album, How to Kill a Butterfly, includes Andy Astles, Christopher Brierley, William J. Lewington, James Stephen Finn, and Inga Tillere. This album also features backing vocals from members of Jonny Cola and the A-Grades and Something Beginning with L, and Jon Clayton on cello. There’s something arcane and mystical about Band of Holy Joy; their music is the perfect accompaniment to psychogeographic perambulations, following urban ley lines all the way out to the humming countryside. This record is filled with tales of flight and death. And it is one of the most uplifting records I’ve ever heard.

The album package is exquisitely designed as a blood-crimson book containing ghostly images which radiate through technical scientific diagrams of anatomy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’m reminded of almanacs like Aristotle’s Masterpiece, popular manuals that hybridized folk alchemy with early modern science, gleefully displaying monstrously impossible children. This record, too, is often concerned with birth and sex, which seem to flirt and meld with the headiness of mortality. See the tango-inflected track “Between a Nightingale’s Song and Now”: “Starstruck and killed by the life we loved/The sport of death in every spurt of come.” Brown introduces the liner booklet with a mini-essay of sorts. He shifts back and forth, alternating between optimal instructions for killing butterflies and for making records; both are delicate procedures. How best do you preserve fragile, colourful insects? How best do you preserve ephemeral sound? This record becomes an answer, straddling that line between expiration and beauty, an aural wunderkammer. After all, the wunderkammer is a displayed collection of natural, curious specimens, essentially a chamber of aesthetic deaths. Brown concludes his essay by writing: “We’ve killed a butterfly and made a new artifact…talk about visceral tangibility opposing archaic practices.” He manages to pin down the intangibility of music and its tension with the beauty of the well-crafted object.

After an introduction of eddying wind, Brown pleads for an emotional thaw and baptism in the opening song “Go Break the Ice.” As the violin accelerates into a counter-wind of sorts, Brown’s idiosyncratic quaver leans precariously close to overwrought, but continually catches itself in a gripping performance of otherworldliness. His vocals pitch into diaphragm-heaving bellows on “Oh What a Thing This Heart of Man” as he bids us to “strike out now.” Despite the bewildering disappointment probed within the lyrics, the swelling musical backdrop and the pronouncement of “You’re either with life or it’s against you” imbue the song with conviction. This internal mapping is a breathtaking maneuver through the baroque curls of brain matter and their inexplicable machinations. The album starts to become something akin to a life manual.

The band explores northern mapping on songs such as “These Men Underground” and “Northern.” The former contains the oscillation between pensive, staid verses of grim industry and an incredible girl-group-style chorus that is pure elation of temporary escape, the rush of release—even if it’s as doomed as transplanted wings on a man’s shoulder blades. The latter is a similar alternation of wistful, slow verses and a psychedelic 60s go-go party of a chorus as Brown meditates on migrating away from the north:

I catch the light sometime
A dirty blush of cloud
Over the drifting of the crowd
History and ambition fuel an endless fire
Of famine migration sadness and desire

Granted, Brown is originally from Newcastle-on-Tyne, which may account for the recurring theme, but the concept of “the north” remains a fascinating one. So many countries, including my own, have varying ideas of what “the north” means, but it is often still consolidated into one location of preconceived notions, assumptions, and otherness, the cultural differences wrought from arbitrary geography. Where does “the north” begin? Perhaps for Canada it is the tree line. Perhaps for England it is the northernmost band of the M25. For Brown, “the north” is an industrial north, proud and pining, dirty and damp, grey and grand.

For “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs,” “The Repentant,” and “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” Brown recites free verse over undulating soundscapes. In fact, these songs are reminiscent of the band’s weekly Radio Joy podcasts in which there are often spoken elements and readings backed and embraced by esoteric music and found sounds; dream narrowcasts, nocturnal transmissions. “The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs” lovingly documents a seven-year-old’s nascent understanding of new life and the compulsion to collect and curate it, often extinguishing it in the process. The world-weariness of age sets in on “The Repentant,” which takes comfort and relief in the knowledge we are temporary. The song’s narrator literally embodies the excess and putrescence of humanity with brittle bones that could be as easily crushed as an eggshell. The music shambles with street energy and city friction; an entire urban procession of observation and surveillance is present: protestors, tourists, students, police. The last sentiment of the song is a provocative, but fortifying perspective on what it means to be humane:

You clamour now to save the planet. But I say this…maybe the planet will do ok without us. Maybe the planet is going to be fine. Maybe the planet doesn’t need our saving. Maybe this planet can get as polluted with as many chemicals as it can ingest. Maybe the planet will continue in all its very mutations. Does it matter? Not to me. What matters to me…and what I think it all boils down to…at the end our days, having lived through all our ways, and with the memories that have stayed, deep down inside, what matters to me, surely, is how we treat each other.

The final track, “A Clear Night. A Shooting Star. A Song for Boo,” picks up on this sense of hope. It sounds like a crystalline call of dying and newborn stars pulsing out of deep space. The staccato melody also seems to mimic the precise flow of electricity and binary code. As Brown mesmerizes with his instructions on how to take back the silence, the song becomes an alternative, self-help relaxation recording in which you need to lance the chemicals boiling in your appliances and to pull the plug on their electrical support. He entreats you to baptize yourself in the quietude. The album comes full-circle as it ends with the sound of wind, now solicitous where before it was lonely.

How to Kill a Butterfly is raw, and honest, and sweet even when grotesque and surreal, like butterflies nibbling on the carcasses of piranhas. It doesn’t profess an irritating hippy-crusty-traveler ethos, nor does it pander to some middle-class, “back to the land,” pastoral utopia. It is folk music informed by the city. You can feel the powdery and fractal spectrum of sound, iridescent in your ear. This record is life made strange and wonderful. In it, we are all time travelers and space travelers, tenuous collections of coal dust, road dust, stardust, butterfly dust.

Purchase How to Kill a Butterfly at the Band of Holy Joy shop.

These Men Underground – Band of Holy Joy

The Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs – Band of Holy Joy

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I Might Die Without These Words Having Left My Mouth: Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny’s Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose Reviewed

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Beth Jeans Houghton says that her music is “not bloody folk.”  That’s cool with me; she can be a petulant artiste if she feels like it.  Even though her eagerly anticipated first proper LP with band The Hooves of Destiny, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, is sprinkled with the melodic sensibility of good indie pop and the glitter of glam rock, it is based primarily in the traditions of folk.  I certainly find the comparisons between her and singer-songwriters like Laura Marling to be a bit misguided and personally see her work as being more similar to that of Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, but again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tendencies and patterns to her sound.  Let’s put it like this: I am not usually very inclined to listen to or really appreciate much folk music, but Yours Truly grabbed me and held me from my first listen and I’m happy to say that I have yet to be released from Houghton’s musical and artistic grip.  That could be read as hyperbole to some, but such is the beauty and freshness of this record, I feel.

Still based in her native Newcastle, Houghton is a visual mishmash in her ever-changing wigs and bizarre, often circus-like wardrobe.  The songs on Yours Truly are reminiscent of being under the big top too, all swirling horns and pulsating piano.  Houghton originally surfaced in 2009 with the alternative folk Hot Toast EP and then quietly fell under the radar for a while, resurfacing now with an album that reflects the years of work evidently gone into it.  Even as she’s cavorted with the likes of American freak folksters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom as well as London band Tunng, Houghton’s continually keen to shirk those pesky classifications that lump her in with the rest of this nu-folk scene.  I don’t blame her at all, actually; Yours Truly is the most transcendent album I’ve heard in, well… a long time.  It deserves its own moment.

Opener “Sweet Tooth Bird” hits all at once: the snare drum and horns in combination sound a bit like a marching band, but Houghton’s voice tempers that rigorous sensibility with its languorous huskiness.  The fast-paced clip established on this song doesn’t take a real break for the rest of the album, instead waning moderately on less frenetic tracks, but otherwise “Sweet Tooth Bird” is an energetic and accurate indicator of what’s to come.  Here Houghton sings about a bird she’s shot and killed.  That, along with a passage of soaring piano topped with dementedly warped vocals, lends a surreal sense of unease to the song.  The beautiful “Humble Digs” trundles along steadily with the aid of some well-placed banjo, but where the track really stands out as special is halfway through when the banjo subsides to make way for a stately procession of horns and choir.  It’s an unexpected touch that comes out of nowhere, but it is exactly moments like this where Houghton’s songcraft rises above that of her peers.  Her voice deftly lifts out of the phrase with a charming little bend, and the folk perfection of the verses continues, this time with added strings and vocal harmonies for emotional emphasis.  “Dodecahedron” opens with the surreal line “Last night I dreamt of dodecahedrons/My eyes were bleeding with crimson sight,” delivered liltingly atop a subdued, syncopated background of bells and horns.  The song becomes more powerful, however, when Houghton stops singing words and stuns with a baroque-pop vocal figure that fades away to sparse drum beats.  Again a chorus joins her for the second to last line, her voice harmonizing high above the earthy voices below.

“Atlas” picks up the pace again with a rousing drum figure and keeps up that pace, excepting a couple of places where Houghton sadly sings “Ride swift through the houses like blood rides through me, red wine and whiskey are no good for me/Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been, your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me.”  “Nightswimmer” is accented by ethereal harmonies and skittering drums, meanwhile the lyrics are about how love is like drowning, exemplified with the words “You’re only my only love/And I can’t keep my head up above.”  There’s also an intermittent little fluttering flourish in the background that ends the song on a mystical note.  “Liliputt” begins deceptively softly with haunting voice and ukulele, but soon quickens and gallops away on an achingly beautiful string line.  The pause midway through for the refrain “These hooves have had their day/If I stay I won’t survive” is disarming in its intimacy, but it resurfaces at the end of song with a different lyric and wreaks emotional havoc all over again.  So far I haven’t been able to listen to it without tearing up.  I’ve also embedded the video below, partially to give a glimpse of Houghton’s visual aesthetic and partially to share another song from this incredible album.  I also love the idea that in it she’s apparently being haunted by figures from classic paintings.

“Veins” begins languidly with a warm soul groove that suits Houghton’s voice perfectly.  Suddenly it morphs into frantic indie pop powered by forceful piano stabs and multitracked harmonies.  The final line “nothing’s ever going to be the same” is carried out by a lively violin melody.  “Carousel” seems to be named for the revolving, circling quality of its music.  Indeed, it is the sound of a funhouse, complete with a maniacal, mechanical cackle that abruptly stops as if a door’s been shut and hollow metallic bells and chimes.  This is complemented with an ornate violin and piano interlude that soothes away the spookiness.

Going back on my previous assertion, I do think there is some validity to Houghton’s being compared to Laura Marling.  I prefer to think of Houghton’s sound, however, as being influenced by artists like Shara Worden and Alison Goldfrapp as much as by Marling.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, to be sure.  Anyway, reductive comparisons don’t do Houghton many favours – she’s an emerging artist in her own right and her particular combination of musical styles and distinctive presentation definitely make her one to watch.  All told, this is an album to burrow into, to discover and rediscover, to dance to and cry to.  I can all but guarantee that Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose will reappear at the end of the year on this blog, by then worn in and comfortable but no less magical.

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Humble Digs

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Dodecahedron

Buy Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose from Houghton’s website here.

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I Will Be the Sun: My Brightest Diamond’s All Things Will Unwind Reviewed

My Brightest Diamond is the solo project of Shara Worden, whose voice has graced such albums as Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and The Age of Adz, The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love (as the fairy queen), David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love (on the track “Seven Years”), and many other projects besides.  This, her third LP as My Brightest Diamond (following 2006’s Bring Me the Workhorse and 2008’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth) finds Worden exploring her quirky singer-songwriter side instead of the more rock-leaning territory traversed on her first two albums.  Her music spans many genres and tones despite the general overarching patterns found on those albums, and All Things Will Unwind is no different.  These songs, led by string arrangements, unusual phrasing, and charming wordplay, often approach the level of experimentation that musicians such as Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom have become known for.  Worden, like Apple and Newsom, has a hugely expressive and distinctive instrument in her voice and uses it in conjunction with the instrumentation (here provided by chamber ensemble yMusic) to magical, mystical effect.

Opening track “We Added It Up” in particular reminds me of Fiona Apple’s more chamber pop moments, like the title track (and opener) of  2005’s Extraordinary Machine.  The two songs share a bouncy cabaret feel, accentuated with string flourishes, although “We Added It Up” remains firmly in a much folkier realm, using acoustic guitar in addition to yMusic’s strings.  Worden’s voice floats brightly on top, telling of contrasts in love (“If I was charge, then you were cash/ If I was toast, you were the match”) that end up cancelling each other out (“We added it up to zero”).  The instrumentation suddenly stops for the refrain of “love binds the world” and it becomes clear that Worden isn’t using the word zero to mean nothingness or worthlessness; rather ‘zero’ is used to convey a kind of functional neutrality, the way that two strong, opposing personalities in love can cancel out the potential for chaos by balancing each other.  Perhaps this sentiment becomes too clichéd in its deconstruction, but I think that’s the point of this song that initially seems rather inscrutable.  Complication – the actual complexity of the relationship – is present in the tune’s structure and delivery.

On “Escape Routes” Worden explores the idea of monogamy, and not in a sceptical, cautious way.  No, “Escape Routes” is concerned with the giddy excitement associated with the initial stages of lifelong commitment (“Oh to exercise the act of falling in love with you over and over and over/ Let’s close off all our escape routes/ Let’s not put it off tonight”).  At the same time, the verses of the song acknowledge that love and its expression is necessarily imperfect (“It takes a lifetime to learn how to love”), yet looks forward to the different phases this monogamous relationship will inevitably go through (“It starts with a flicker that bursts into flame/ Then it fades to an ember with fights/ And with fingers pointing out blame”).  This enthusiasm for commitment is accompanied by twisty, turn-y string lines that evoke the unrestrained head-over-heels quality of love… but with a hint of trepidation.  Lyrically no anxiety is present, but the repetitive falling figures in the music and the use of minor keys lend a sense of unease that works to complicate this paean to monogamous love, suggesting that maybe “closing off all our escape routes” is not the wisest decision.

Things get weird on “Ding Dang,” on which Worden is backed by a sparse, eccentric blend of percussion and dissonant violin, all working in a seemingly meandering, non-linear way.  The lyrics that go along with this music are, appropriately, about unexpected change and being thrown off an established trajectory.  Worden’s delivery on this song is particularly earthy and folk-y, due to the use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, and her emphasis on unusual words and phrasing.  She ends the song on an especially surreal, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-ish note with the lyric “All things are not as they appear/ That which was far has become near/ With a twist or two you’re grinning ear to ear.”

Worden’s words become a bit preachy on “There’s a Rat” and “High Low Middle.”  On the former, she addresses “Bankers, lawyers, thieves/ Guv’nors, mayors, police” and takes them to task for taking advantage of (presumably working-class) artists like Worden and other underprivileged communities.  She continues this lyrical theme on the latter song, tackling wealth disparity between the rich and poor (“Are you fat or are you eating up your hat”) and criticizing the self-conscious effort of some middle-class people not to appear too well-off (“Keep yourself low, but not too low”).  This is not to say that the stance she takes on both songs isn’t right on, but the lyrics are overly literal, rendered (surprisingly, considering the subtlety and nuance of the rest of the album) artlessly.

All Things Will Unwind is a challenging album, overflowing with lyrical and musical ideas and demanding close and careful listening.  It’s probably quite a polarizing album, precisely because it requires a bit of patience and reflection to understand and appreciate.  It’s definitely not as immediate as My Brightest Diamond’s previous work.  But like the best in challenging music and art, All Things Will Unwind is ultimately a very rewarding album as well.  Despite a couple missteps, Worden’s ambition and creativity continue to serve her well, as All Things Will Unwind is unlike anything else I’ve heard this year and unlike anything else she’s released: all the better for it.

My Brightest Diamond – We Added it Up

My Brightest Diamond – Escape Routes

My Brightest Diamond – Everything is in Line

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Influence on the Influences: An Interview with Frank Turner

Frank Turner

After listening to Frank Turner’s latest record, England Keep My Bones, earlier this year, I recognized themes from his first three albums, including carpe diem, restlessness, freedom, and memory; however, this time, there was also the obvious connotations of home, nation, history, and place. While Turner’s work is very often earnest narrative taken from his lived experience, these new songs are about being rooted to a particular space and time in a larger context of England. He sings of waterways and the sea, which seem to intersect and limn the psyche of Great Britain. Water serves as artery and barrier; it can provide freedom of mobility and circulation, but also inward-turning isolation. It is constant and ancient, but also erosive and ephemeral, a signifer for both life and death.

To me, Turner has always reflected and refracted his North American influences, whether they’re drawing on Springsteenesque anthems or American punk and hardcore. I, myself, have been the antithesis, growing up in the middle of Canada with anglophilic tendencies and a passion for British bands; whenever I visit Britain, I feel like it’s home. Yet at the same time, I’m probably recognizably Canadian to both other Canadians and non-Canadians. Turner’s English identity still clearly bleeds through. I know this because I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be as apt to enjoy his music without it. This record seems to highlight the tension between perpetual motion and stable identity. Where is home in a globalized world? As a practicing global citizen, Turner explores this issue in a no-nonsense, grassroots way. By turning to nation and homeland to establish some kind of grounded roots, Turner reveals his own conception of English identity, which is partly influenced by past mythmaking, and partly influenced by his own storytelling. Though there is an apparent human comfort in tribal recognition, there is also a need to pursue and push beyond frontiers to find and fetishize difference. In “If Ever I Stray,” Turner asks to be doused in the English Channel to remind him of who he is, while the chorus of “Peggy Sang the Blues” begins with “It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go.” The record seems to say that we can choose our identity even as we are constantly shaped by comparison and contrast.

With its evocation of history and memory, England Keep My Bones is also about time, and by extension, mortality. And this is a mortality unmediated by religion. Instead, Turner derives redemption, rebirth, and salvation from other humans and their art. His is a belief in action today and personal responsibility, which is a system I can get behind. In “Rivers,” Turner requests that he is buried in English seas, and in “One Foot Before the Other,” he asks for his ashes to be dumped in the London drinking supply. Even in death, it seems Turner would like to keep moving.

I had an opportunity to conduct a phone interview with him last month ahead of his North American tour. In my mission to elicit answers I hadn’t already read or heard before, I may have erred on the side of pretentious. Or perhaps it’s a lesson in why some people are artists and some people are critics. Or why some people do and some people observe.

FAHH: I’m Larissa, and I’m calling you from Winnipeg, which is home of The Weakerthans and Propagandhi, as you probably know.

Frank Turner: You know what, I had a long drive today across island and we literally, me and my tour manager, listened to the entire Weakerthans back catalogue songs start to finish. I’m in a Winnipeg frame of mind today.

FAHH: Okay, great. I also want to thank you for a brilliant gig last October. I was at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto…

Frank Turner: Oh yeah, you know what, there’s honestly no lie saying this to you now, without it sounding like I’m kissing your ass, that was literally pretty much my gig of 2010. That’s how gigs go for me. Do you know what I mean, that’s how perfect gigs go.

FAHH: It seemed like a perfect gig. And somehow I ended up with the signed drumhead – I don’t know how, but…

Frank Turner: Oh, you got the signed drumhead? Okay, nice one.

FAHH: My first question is to do with the last album, England Keep My Bones. As I was listening to it, a whole bunch of different themes came up for me, but I was wondering what does home actually mean to you?

Frank Turner: Well, that’s a good question. It’s been quite awhile since I had my own place. And I did have, for a couple years, some stuff in the corner of an upstairs room in my mum’s place. But actually not so long ago–last year–my mum moved house and put all my shit into storage without actually telling me she was doing that. So, from a strict point of view, a technical point of view, I don’t really have a home. I’m certainly legally of no fixed abode and all this kind of thing. But I think the thing about that, though, is that fact, and the fact that I travel a lot for my living means that my psychological conception of home reverts to being something actually more abstract, and essentially being England, which I think is one of the main reasons why this record came out the way it did…y’know, with the preoccupation with English national identity.

FAHH: And so, to follow from that, how useful is nation as an idea or a definition of identity, do you think?

Frank Turner: Well, I don’t know. When I was younger, when I was a teenage leftist–it sounds like a song title–I spent many years subscribing to the idea that nationalism is completely constructed, and it’s artificial and all that kind of thing. And I’m not sure I’d call myself a nationalist, but at the same time, the older I get, the more conscious of being English I become. And that’s a neutral statement. It’s not to say it’s good to be English or bad to be English or anything like that, it’s just more and more a kind of plain fact of life to me. And so, I don’t really know whether it’s kind of useful as a concept or anything like that, but it just seems to be part of my reality as time goes by.

FAHH: Okay, how does the inclusion of American culture, especially in this album–you mention Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Patty Hearst…you have a gospel choir featured–how does that complicate your identity or complicate English identity?

Frank Turner: Well, here’s the thing. I think rock ‘n roll is essentially an American art form, certainly in its genesis. I mean, I’m sure there’s lots of people at this point who would start shouting about The Beatles or something like that, but to me, it’s an American art form. And certainly my own taste in music has been predominately American or Canadian when I was growing up. But I think one of the things I sort of want to do is, not just with this album, but generally, is kind of be an influence on the influences and pay tribute to my influences. But not sort of slavishly copying the form of what they do, but just starting with it. I guess what I’m trying to say is Springsteen sings with enormous moving passion about New Jersey, and I want to be influenced by that, not by writing a song about New Jersey, but writing in the same way about the places where I’m from. And so in a way, I guess I’m sort of anglicizing the American music that I love.

FAHH: England Keep My Bones seems particularly tied to water metaphors, including rivers and oceans, and even your latest video for the b-side “Sailor’s Boots” had its use of the ocean as well. Was that actually Holy Island or…that looked like Holy Island to me, but…

Frank Turner: The video?

FAHH: Yeah.

Frank Turner: No, actually that was a place called Bamburgh Castle, which is in the Northeast. [Interviewer’s Note: Since Holy Island is only 16 miles away from Bamburgh, I feel a little less of a geographical nitwit.]

I have to say I was really annoyed about the problems with that video because basically, with that song, it was going to be a video that involved me being in water in some way or other, right? And then, y’know, the treatment came through with the chair and the water and I was happy with it. But when I okayed having that video treatment, in my mind, I was, like, obviously we’re going to be shooting this in, like, the Caribbean, you know what I mean? Somewhere where the water is warm. And then because my tour schedule being what it was, not only were we not in the warm, not only were we in England, but we were in the northeast. We were almost in Scotland, absolutely fucking freezing in that water. And I sat there thinking to myself, “What the fuck? Whose idea was this?”

So, it’s funny – there are a lot of water metaphors on the record, but that wasn’t something that I sort of consciously decided to do. And I can’t really say that I have any particular insightful, psychological comment on why I’ve been using a lot of water metaphors recently, but there it is.

FAHH: Also, the latest album begins with “Eulogy,” and many of the songs I would say on both this album and on your past albums deal with memorialization and needing to be remembered. Why is memorialization important to you, do you think?

Frank Turner: Again, good question, but I’m not sure I have a short and sharp and ready answer to it. I mean, I think that certainly on this record in particular there’s a theme of mortality, essentially. And obviously not only “Glory Hallelujah,” but also “One Foot Before the Other,” for me those are songs about…they’re both atheist songs, let’s put it that way. And I don’t personally have to believe in any sort of life from the hereafter or any of that kind of thing. And so, being I hope a kind of a questioning, curious and perceptive mind, it sort of raises the question of what does get remembered when you pass on and what are the motivations for actions in life and all of those kinds of things. And all of that then throws up the idea of memorialization, and what sort of marks do we leave behind when we die? And I don’t have much more to say on the subject in an interview sort of context because, in a way, I think for me it’s kind of a central question of the art I make, and if I could distill it down into a few sentences in an interview, then I wouldn’t need to be writing songs about it.

FAHH: Right, okay. That’s fair enough.

Frank Turner: Hopefully that didn’t come out as a massive cop-out.

FAHH: No, no, no…I know you’re a libertarian, or you’ve called yourself a libertarian. Would you also say you’re a humanist? Like, do you believe in humans and their progress, and that we are progressing?

Frank Turner: Hmmm…hmmm…good question. Y’know what, funnily enough, there was a moment in time when one of the working titles for the album was actually Humanism, but then I have to say that thereafter I did a lot more reading up on, like, the sort of official philosophy of humanism per se and came across some stuff that I was less comfortable with. Let’s put it that way.

I don’t know…I certainly think human beings are generally wonderful individual creatures. I’m not sure how much I subscribe to their sort of ideas of…the word “progress” makes me uncomfortable in politics, let’s put it that way. I think that it’s kind of like people declaring that they’re the good guy before going into a fight. Kind of like, “Really? Surely that would be self-evident from your actions.” Just whenever people announce that they’re on the side of progress it’s a bit…it makes me kind of suspicious, I don’t know if you know what I mean. It’s just kind of like, “Ah, yeah, really, okay, so you’ll be the judge of what constitutes progress as well, will you?”

FAHH: Exactly…

Frank Turner: I think history, particularly twentieth-century history, is littered with people who declare themselves on the side of progress but end up killing millions of people, so I’m uncomfortable about that word, let’s put it that way.

FAHH: That makes sense to me. You’re a self-confessed history nerd, so I was wondering which historical period interests you the most?

Frank Turner: Oh, well, what a question. Where to start…when I was studying history, my main kind of period that I studied and was really obsessed with for a long while was Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Y’know, everything from the Treaty of Berlin through ‘til the end of the Second World War. I have to say that recently my historical obsession at the moment is actually with the Old West. The kind of period between the end of the Civil War and sort of the formation of the final States in the early 1900s. And you know I’m man enough to admit it that it was the TV show Deadwood that kind of got me really thinking about it. But yeah, I’ve got a lot of interest in that place and time in history.

FAHH: I was also wondering how you came to be involved in Faber’s Wasteland iPad app. I’d read that you did something for that, and I was wondering…

Frank Turner: Have you seen that?

FAHH: Yeah.

Frank Turner: Okay, because this is the thing… I don’t really know all that many people that have iPads…

FAHH: Well, I actually haven’t seen it because I don’t own an iPad, so…

Frank Turner: Oh, right, okay, some guy got in touch with me and kind of spotted the fact that there are a fair few T.S. Eliot references in my lyrics, and more so in Million Dead than in what I do now, but I’m a big T.S. Eliot fan. And so he asked if I would be interested in making some comments about The Wasteland and I said “Hell, yes.”

FAHH: I guess my last question will be…since a couple of your favourite bands, Propagandhi and The Weakerthans, are from Winnipeg, I was just wondering what their music conveys to you about Winnipeg, what Winnipeg is, or what you get a sense of…

Frank Turner: That’s a good question. I think…I feel that that’s a question more directed at The Weakerthans and Propagandhi in a way. I dunno, it’s funny I’ve been toying with…well, in fact maybe you can advise me on this, but I’ve been toying with the merits of doing a cover of the song “One Great City” in the Winnipeg show coming up, and…

FAHH: Oh, good…that would be great.

Frank Turner: Y’know it’s a fantastic song, but it’s just kind of like if somebody from Winnipeg stands up and sings that song with the chorus of “I hate Winnipeg,” that’s one thing, but if it’s coming from England, I’m not sure whether the joke still would work – if you know what I mean. So anyway, we’ll see. I dunno…I’ve been growing up and listening to bands from Winnipeg that I love. It’s kind of been this mystical, faraway city that’s full of awesome bands.

FAHH: Interesting…

Frank Turner: But then I’ve been to Winnipeg once in my life and I had an absolutely fantastic couple of days, so it’s got form, it’s got a track record for me as being a good place from my own experience.

FAHH: I’ll be seeing that show when you get here in October. Thanks a lot, Frank.

Frank Turner: Okay cool. Thank you. I will see you in Winnipeg.

Frank Turner will be playing at the West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg on October 22.

Eulogy – Frank Turner

One Foot Before the Other – Frank Turner

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