Ivor Cutler’s Not Dead

A interesting meeting with Welsh writer John Evans leads to a study of the merits of spoken and unspoken poetry and back eventually (for reasons of Tangents-type musical analysis) to a recent release by a band who defy logical comparisons like no other I’ve come across in recent years. It was by mistake that I ventured into Evans’ Pontypridd lair last Monday night and was suitably piqued to follow the threads back, through Basil Cheesman Bunting, to Flipron’s October release Biscuits For Cerberus.

Though hailing from Bristol, Flipron’s outlandish singer/songwriter Jesse Budd has the brazen air of a poet of Bunting-like, old North-East aural traditions, and, marry this to his uncanny ability to arouse the senses and conjure a magical musical surrealism, and I think I really have something to shout from the Tangents rooftops about. Which I’ll embark on doing shortly.

Also on the Tiny Dog label comes a release from a band it was a pleasure to discover at the fine End of the Road festival at Somerset’s Larmer Tree Gardens at the end of summer. At the Gardens early on that first Friday night, the Car’s Dave Langdon called from afar with a pedal steel to die for, and falling into their back catalogue over recent weeks has been an absolute pleasure. While their Family Matters set and an impressive new release from Isobel Campbell (yes, ex of Belle and Sebastian) has soundtracked many a recent day of rural dreaming, Cardiff’s The Loves and Los Campesinos! have provided alternately raucous and pure pop thrills.

The Loves Xs and Os/She’ll Break Your Heart Again EP is an exquisite taster for a new LP to be released early next year on Fortuna Pop, while Los Campesinos!’ Hold On Now, Youngster demo does shimmering, twisting guitar stimulation and adrenalised vocals as well as you’d hope of anyone who mentions off-kilter Americans Built to Spill and Glasgow’s criminally overlooked Life Without Buildings as influences.   

More psychopathic indie thrills come in the barbedly-twee form of Cherryade’s The Bobby McGees, who’s Yes, Please! EP delivers fantastically on the promise of song titles including ‘Ivor Cutler is Dead’ and ‘Albert Camus/Audrey Tautou’. Need I say more? But first: To a land of beguilement and cartoon dimensions!  

Flipron – Biscuits for Cerberus (Tiny Dog Records)

If you’re talking about original and inspiring acts to emerge from the 2006 outdoor summer fandangos, then Flipron and their three-headed dog emblem (representative of the infamous guard dog of Hades), must be up there at the top of the list. With an irresistible sense of the bizarre, their ramshackle Cadillac cruised the summer pastures picking up new admirers galore, and with Norfolk‘s Tiny Dog Records putting out a second LP and airplay promised on major alternative stations, they’re steering into eerily popular realms.

The baroque imagery of Flipron’s lead man Jesse Budd is by no means a thing of the people, yet has the character and potential to connect with the masses in the crazy style of someone like Chuck Jones. Budd is a fascinatingly impish character, claiming to have acquired his sense of the surreal and exotic from times spent broke and perusing the cardboard record boxes of London’s second-hand stores, and this certainly stands up when you try to pin down just where a band like this could have come from, musical influence-wise.

The song notes that comprise the press pack are fully representative of Budd’s mind, which should by all means be rapped in chains at London’s penitentiary for crimes against linear thinking. “I was reading about Cerberus, the multi-headed, snake-tailed guard dog of Hades, and learned that, far from being a savage, ferocious beast all the time, he was actually really friendly to you when you arrived, freshly dead,” is just one nugget from his explanatory song notes, in which the extent of the enjoyment he takes at getting inside the heads of antiquated mythical figures and weaving tales of unlikely modern morality shines through.

The notes for ‘Ball and Chain’ (actually a quaint little number about potent regret) quote renowned Throckley poet Basil Bunting while elaborating on Budd’s further hope of recording an instrumental version to sell to a nouveau-burlesque stripper, and the song itself is a feast of Roy Smeck-esque steel-guitar and piano quirks further tuned to evocative lunacy by a plastic plant tub being dropped on a stone floor in imitation of the medieval restraining implement.

And oh, how Budd speaks – like a raconteur at the most outlandish party in town. His delivery in pen, speech and song is at the same time archly imaginative and low-down grimy, like the late Ivor Cutler speaking through the medium of Noddy Holder. But oh how he plays. Flipron’s live shows are notable for the way Budd does “multi-instrumentalist” like a musical Durga, playing on electric lap steel, piano, acoustic and Hawaiian steel guitars, electric sitar, banjulele, mandolin and accordion with consummate ease, and Biscuits For Cerberus is a damn fine recorded representation of the live experience.

Further highlights on the album include the shimmering, organ-ised ‘Youth Shall Never Beat Old Age In A Race’, the cuttingly redemptive, clarinet-speckled ‘Big & Clever’, the crazy-scientist-sensual ‘Flatpack Bride of Possibilities’ and the rolling King Herod pastiche ‘Bring Me The Head Of John The Baptist’; not to forget the evocative lament to ‘The Man Who Was Eaten By A Pie’, the enchanted ode to love and death that is ‘Mingers In Paradise’, and the triumphant mongrel-anthem ‘Dogboy Vs Monsters’, on all of which the music adopts a life of its own behind Budd’s shtick like sounds from a spectral band in a spooky Scooby haven.

Its DiY cod UK tropicalia at the same time subtly hilarious and divertingly skilful, Biscuits for Cerberus is a work that bridges the gap between Half Man Half Biscuit and the comic-book surreal in the true spirit of musical and literary lunacy. Bunting would surely approve.

Magic Car – Family Matters (Tiny Dog Records)

Of course you can’t follow something like Flipron with more of the same, because that’d be a cosmic impossibility, but on the same Tiny Dog label comes what, in its light, could be termed a “come down” release by fine a Nottingham retinue called Magic Car.

The Car purvey a tremulous Country sound that you feel has to have come from the classic Midwest, when in fact it springs from the heart of a Nottingham poet we should have embraced long ago. Having in the light of this new release had the opportunity to check out their modest back-catalogue, 2002’s European Punks debut was a long-drawn out but beautifully languorous affair in collaboration with roots-rocking two-piece Scott 4; an album followed in the same year by something of an avant-bucolic beauty entitled Yellow Main Sequence. Their third LP, Family Matters, is a similar serenade to all that’s great about the music they love, Smeeton increasingly coming across as something of a lost gem.

Taking place half way between the alt pop realms of Yo La Tengo and the vintage Country space of Laura Cantrell, the songs on Family Matters are just beautiful, ebbing as they do from fragile, subtle romanticism to broken-down, lonely blues with a swagger of soul that emerges from the East Midlands like an exotic ghost. Of course, I’m yet to see a ghost that's not exotic, but Magic Car really conjure that rare thing that is UK Country Magic with startling aplomb.

Surely few can manoeuvre the pedal steel like the Car’s Dave Langdon, possibly the UK’s answer to John Graboff? Langdon’s sounds on Family Matters come across like calls from the distant past, the trademark intertwining voices of Smeeton and co-singer Hazel Atkinson like profound and distant memories. Atkinson’s voice is a particular, accomplished revolution here, throughout the album coaxing and getting coaxed by Magic Car’s sparkling retinue of instrumentalists in a stirring display of true band interaction.

To dissect Smeeton further would be to say he’s one-part alt indie visionary, another old Country standard bearer, and among the flotsam of middle-aged men who’ve tried their darnest to live and breathe Country, he stands tall. In the track ‘Baltimore’ he’s rendered a subtle masterpiece of twinkling guitar emotion and lyrical sentiment that could have been written by Willie Nelson after a sojourn in Sherwood Forest (not such an unthinkable scenario, as he’s surely due to disappear into the woods like an aged mystic). ‘Seventeen’ is similar, though sung by Atkinson, and shot to the stars with a teary-eyed nostalgia, while ‘Gold Wing Queen’ plays in luxurious wide-screen, its sublime storyline of a female biker shooting through a lyrical landscape animated by weeping pedal steel, languorous percussion and Atkinson’s sensual backing, whispering feminine profundity into Smeeton’s aching delivery. Another of the tracks, ‘White Knuckle Ride’ floats out on Smeeton’s harmonica and spreads itself out like a vast steppe of shimmering beauty, and, generally, from the first pedal steel cry of ‘The Biker’s Lament’ to the final bluegrass melodies of an unnamed bonus track, the whole thing resounds with fiery-eyed and emotional grace.

There’s a geographical distance between Magic Car and the place they need to be that makes their music ache with creativity, because it absolutely has to. Its misty-eyed sentimentality at a push evokes Clint Eastwood’s terrific Wild West homage Bronco Billy. Epitomising this, the title track, lilting, broken, and fuelled by gospel grace without the choir, beckons you to hold on to that hope, whatever it is, to reach out and grab it, no matter how far away you are. What I didn’t know I certainly wouldn’t have missed, but it’s been a real pleasure getting acquainted with this rare gem of a band.

Isobel Campbell - Milkwhite Sheets (V2)

To another pastoral release, and Isobel Campbell’s follow-up to last years acclaimed co-album with Queens of the Stone Age’s Mark Lanegan would be more at home on a minor like Tiny Dog than the alternative major V2, if of course she hadn’t already earned her status as quintessential indie pin-up during her time with our foremost popsters, Belle and Sebastian. Something of a departure for her after the Lanegan effort and more in line with the dreamy, twisting pop of her Gentle Waves albums, Milkwhite Sheets ventures deep into Campbell’s personal psyche, and could be said to be an old-fashioned dream-journey into self-exploratory realms, careful in retaining all of the winsome and ambiguous charm that has characterised her output over the years, while adding the kind of mystic flourishes of the very best of the current alt folk hegemony. 

Milkwhite Sheets speaks in that same, strangely antiquated language of Banhart’s “freak folk” while at the same time abounding with pop sentiments, and anyone lucky enough to have got themselves a copy of Josephine Foster’s recent genre classic Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You will drool at the thought of that type of high art folk shot through the beatifying gun of pop. The landscape of Milkwhite Sheets is bleak and expansive, like the black and white images of Bergman’s Faro coastline, but Campbell’s gift is such that no matter how deep she goes into moods and pastoral dreams, her songs emerge with an iridescent glow.
The traditional songs here are portrayed with unceasing care in the manner of last year’s essential Espers covers set, The Weed Tree, complimenting the immaculately shaded ambiguity of Campbell’s original pieces as they go. ‘Willow’s Song’ (a version of which appeared in this year’s lamentable Wicker Man remake) and ‘Are You Going To Leave Me?’ are distinguished by twisting vocals as light as air, winding themselves around mandolin, flute and spectral percussion as the songs build to spendidly-wrought, tumultuous climaxes. Other standards like ‘Hori Horo’ and ‘Reynardine’ are strikingly beautiful in a more conventional manner, shimmering with acoustic guitar flourishes and picturesque singing, like they’ve come directly out of a Hermann Hesse fairy tale.
Of Campbell’s own originals, ‘Cachel Wood’ captures what would be the quintessentially pastoral sound with utter wonder, while ‘Beggar, Wiseman or Thief’ is a modern folk tale to behold, flickering away in its misty-eyed world until you too become a part of the haze.
Whether assimilated or original, the whole feeling of Milkwhite Sheets suggests that Campbell has embarked on her journey back through time on the back of the sweetest of dreams, and her lone voice in the standout-spectacular song poem ‘Loving Hannah’ is an emblem of her utter conviction. While her old band continue to excel in literary-inflected modern pop, she’s obviously too immersed in the fascination of her own musical realisation to go with them. An album of searching grace and innocence, this is the voice of ancient souls portrayed through the medium of a true indie heroine.

The Loves – Xs and Os EP (Fortuna Pop)

From Scotland and Nottingham, Tiny Dog and V2 to the burgeoning Cardiff alt pop scene, and a brilliant, sweeping musical alternative to anything of ancient meaning comes in the form of Cardiff’s The Loves, who’s epically dooh—whopping new EP on Fortuna Pop takes you tripping the indie light fantastic.

I saw The Loves late last year when supporting Darren Hayman in their hometown’s Clwb Ifor Bach, and from back then, remember singer Simon having the awkward, drowsy cool of a spaceman who’s just returned from a heady venture to the stars. Backed that night by a keyboardist with the camp vivacity of an American soft porn star (in particular, I’m told, that distinguished blond from numerous pictures who’s titles are irrelevant) and a dreamy brunette on co-lead vocals, his band were utterly, fun-time fantastic.

Straddling the borders between indie and rock ‘n’ roll with a fuzzy, loved-up glee, ‘Xs and Os’ is the undisputed bubblegum Daddy here, but the EP throws up an accompanying trio of gems to die for. The retro rock ‘n’ roll fun of the ‘She’ll Break Your Heart Again’ evokes abstract images of The Beatles being fed through The Monkeys’ pure Pop machine, while the Country ebb of ‘My Sweet Drunken Blues For You’ fulfils the most perverse dreams of a spaghetti-Bob Dylan. The cover of Brazilian psychedelic crusaders Os Mutantes’ ‘Nao Va Se Perder Pro Ai’ meanwhile bounces with brilliant, obscurants’ glee.

Possessing that quintessential, multi-faceted indie curiosity, The Loves are pure Pop poetry in motion. Embrace them now, if it’s the last thing you do.

Los Campesinos! – Hold On Now, Youngster (Demo)

Another of a number of promising new bands appearing on the Cardiff scene in the way that The Loves would have done back in the day (another to look out for off the top of my head are the crazy indie/folk amalgam The Threat-Mantics), Los Campesinos! rock it to artier, more turbulent constellations.

Catching the eye on their website with influences including heroic art-punk crusaders Life Without Buildings and the somewhat less esoteric Built to Spill, Los Campesinos! excel in a similarly accomplished “angularity”, in which their songs comes across as fresh, impulsive and trail-blazingly fantastic.

Not bestowed of the entrancing and stream-of-consciousness lyrical element of their heroes LWB and their whirling dervish singer Sue Tompkins, Campesinos! share the load around their six members to great effect. Though gritty and localised, lead singer Gareth’s vocals never stray into the prosaically abrasive style of, say, Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner, instead having a beguiling and sunny kind of eloquence that compliments Campesinos!’ impulsive Pop sound well. The bands’ lyrics could easily get lost in their manic guitar tempos, but on closer inspection they add another fantastic edge. Gareth’s pun-tastic and archly wistful observation in ‘It Started With A Mixx’, which goes something like: “Trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop / Some crappy artwork that took way-way too long to draw / Hand-written track-listing re-started every time the pen smudges / Encoded title doesn’t give away as much as it should”) is almost up to the standard of Half Man Half Biscuit, while on ‘Death to Los Campesinos!’ and ‘Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks’ he’s joined on lead-vocals by lady-singer Aleksandra to weave new threads of drool-worthy magic into the scattergun sound.

‘Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks’ also briefly dances to succinct violin riffs, and this is one of numerous decorative flourishes that make Hold On Now, Youngster an absolutely stand-out demo. Another comes at the back end of lead track ‘You! Me! Dancing!’, Gareth’s wistful monologue just audible behind the adrenalised guitar rush, glowing with a brilliantly defiant self-affirmation.

Los Campesinos! have a truly alternative sound that makes a first release proper a mouth-watering prospect. Put your house on them making a classic any time soon. 

The Bobby McGees – Yes Please! (Cherryade Music)

Take The Loves and Los Campesinos! and maroon them in the Scottish Highlands and you might get something close to the sound purveyed by The Bobby McGees. Although based in Brighton, there’s something dreamily, curmudgeonly Scottish about the McGees, in particular co-singer Jimmy’s voice, and their songs speak of loneliness, love and poetry with an irresistible outsider edge.

Pictured in typical live show regalia of jumble sale sailor chic on the press release, you get a sense of their manic potential, but it’s the song titles that invite you further in to their defiant, sheltered world, where doubts and hope rule like Clown-Prince and Princess. In ‘Ivor Cutler is Dead’, singers Jimmy (boy) and El (girl) exchange blushing sentiments like the most unlikely and affectionate lovers in the world, taking the listener deep into their psyche of wonder and hope, while the quaint cinema and literary references in ‘Albert Camus/Audrey Tautou’ (reprise: “Let’s spend a weekend in that place I know well / in the centre of Paris, there’s this tiny hotel / It’s run by this couple – Jules and Jim / If they’ve got a space I’m sure they’ll fit us in”) will set hearts fluttering the bona fide indie world over.

Completing a nucleus of enchanting indie/folk set-pieces, ‘Genki Sudo By Fliping Triangle’ speaks in terrific honesty about nervous undercurrents in a new relationship, Jimmy and El emoting their tentative feelings while pals appear on the edges with pearls of dis-wisdom, and this seems to inspire a turn towards darker thoughts, with ‘Billy and Tracy’ revealing slightly more psychopathic personal fears and elaborating on ideas for revenge should one of them be on the receiving end of a “dumping”.

Yes Please! developing like an small-scale tragicomedy, the lovers now turn against the exterior world with vintage outsiders’ bite. ‘Molly’s Lips’ sees the now-embattled duo unleash a torrent of bad feelings towards old pals to a terrifically incongruous banjo rhythm, and with the same insane banjo skip and a sparkling accordion riff, ‘Morrissy Said To Tori’ defiantly tells the whole world to take a hike, in not so polite terms.

An intrepid feast of extreme indie sentiments, Yes Please! will have you dancing defiantly deep into the night, and looking over your shoulder come morning. Put The Bobby McGees down in suitably accentuated character on this month’s Must-Hear list along with these other nuggets and you won’t go far wrong. Basil Bunting and Ivor Cutler would surely agree.          

© 2006 Neil Jones