Secret Songs
Recent Listening September 2004
I was quite excited by the idea of New Music New York 1979: from the Kitchen archives, which Orange Mountain Music have just released. But then it arrived and I looked at the list of names ­ Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Jon Gibson, Gordon Mumma, Michael Nyman, Pauline Oliveros, Philip Niblock Tony Conrad, Charlemagne Palestine, Steve Reich and others ­ and thought ‘Here we go again. I know all this stuff.’ But of course, I don’t, so when I finally got round to listening to it, I found a wealth of proto-minimalism and avant-garde classical music new to my ears. Even when I know the studio recordings of the work, these of course are live, often raw, versions.

Tom Johnson’s ‘Secret Songs’ [there are three of them] I find especially intriguing. They’re vaguely tuneful, melodic even, but are either glossolia or abstract vocal outings. At times I think I’ve heard him saying something, then the moment’s gone, the sound flickers and shifts and the songs move on. The only other work I’ve found even vaguely similar is some of Sheila Chandra’s sung drum patterns on her Real World CDs. My other favourite is David Behrman’s ‘Touch Tones’, a synthesizer and electronic circuitry piece which I guess kind of predates sampling… It’s careful and considered music which focuses on changes in harmonics and timbres. I find it very beautiful.

I was sceptical too about Spring Heel Jack’s The Sweetness of the Water, principally because I’m suspicious of the way they’ve abandoned their drum’n’bass roots and hitched a ride on the free jazz/improvisation/out-rock circuit. All too often the actual duo who make up Spring Heel Jack have seemed irrelevant to the musicians they’ve brought together on stage or in the studio. On this new CD, however, they’ve come of age and take centre stage in an intriguing set of seven tracks, which I imagine these have all been carefully edited and produced after improvised sessions. ‘Lata’, the third track, is just stunning, with Evan Parker ‘s saxophones over John Coxon’s guitar, samples and electronics and Ashley Wales’ samples and electronics. A deceptively simple loop ­ distant voices, some music ­ underpins the whole short piece. Brevity and restraint seem the order of the day throughout: gone ­ thankfully ­ are the wigouts and noisefests of previous outings.

This kind of care and attention to detail is evident, too, on Stan Tracey and Evan Parker’s suspensions and anticipations, ‘a sequence of eight duos, two piano solos and one tenor saxophone solo’ out on psi Records. However ‘free’ Tracey gets at times, his piano playing is rooted in melody, so this abstract music is still tuneful and accessible; and Parker is restrained and joyous throughout. It’s wonderfully recorded, varied and exciting improvised music.

I wish I could say the same about Bill Frisell’s Unspeakable, but for me it lives up to its name. It seems the days of Frisell’s exciting guitar playing are long gone, not even Hal Willner and his samples can ignite this self-contented and placid music, which relies on mood and echo for effect. In fact it’s snooze music ­ never has an eight piece band made so little noise or caused so few ripples of sound. One to leave on the shelf while you search for a secondhand copy of Power Tools, the trio record that proves Frisell has musical muscle when he wants it.

Also very quiet, but a lot more interesting, is Lies Damned Lies’ Last Place on the Map, a CD from 2002 which I’ve only just got hold of. Here they shake off the Talk Talk influences of their last CD and produce a masterpiece. Although seemingly smooth and polished, and very produced, these songs are full of layered and intriguing sounds ­ quirky synthesizers, electric guitars wailing low in the mix, glorious piano and acoustic guitar ­ which slowly reveal themselves after many listens. ‘Waking Up’ is a song of love after despair; ‘At the Centre’ a cheerful lament for the dead with faint memories of my favourite Bruce Cockburn track ‘Feast of Fools’; ‘Mr Smith’ a warmhearted musical portrait’; and ‘After the Rain’ another love song tinged with regret and loss. It’s intelligent and moody quiet rock of the highest order, and has been on almost constant soundsystem rotation here.

And lastly, The Libertines ­ a total surprise to myself. I heard them last week in the record shop and asked the young assistant who was playing. She told me in no uncertain terms that I should know as their CD was number 1 in the charts. Like I read or listen to them! Anyway, at times reminscent of The Jam but more often of The Only Ones, it’s another enjoyable 80s-retro band to place alongside Franz Ferdinand and Dogs Die In Hot Cars. In fact it’s better than that. Their tortured awkward songs really are quite special, their honesty and self-confession startling and new.

© 2004 Rupert Loydell