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Articles and opinion from the INSTRUMENTAL webzine

Fresh Tracks – Observing “Vows”

The Band That Uses Ideas As A Map

In 2012, the future sound of American music has never before been so difficult to map. So many contemporary ideas, already deeply rooted and expressed in post 9/11 anxieties, are precocious, experimental and daring.

The first indication that new directions would be intuitive, exploratory and unexpected came with bands like Explosions in the Sky. Later on, the sound of Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses and Vampire Weekend floated pleasantly across the Atlantic to UK where listeners were startled to hear utterly non-generic pop music.

There are delightful variations upon popular themes for sure, but it is the spirit of adventure that is attractive. In the hands of the Young Americans contemporary music is being steered away from the formulaic and returned to a love of form. It dares once more to be different.

Vows are from New Jersey and they are emblematic of this current, highly reflective thinking. They are essentially a duo who are part of a wider collective that coalesces and dissolves as needs and wants arise. They also use thin disguises in the shape of improbable pseudonyms. It’s as if the act of expression requires the individual identity to be sublimated and suppressed in order for their bravely honest work to be more clearly visible.

Vows

The tunes feature hypnotic repeating figures and sweeping musical gestures that suggest  enormous, humbling landscapes dominated by awe-inspiring forests and mountains. It also hints that we might be a little lost in the world whenever we become aware of our own smallness. The songs are carefully structured and arranged to feel as if the moments of surprise are spontaneous. That is adroit. So too is the rather daring use of discord here and there. Brian Wilson’s famous meanderings into those deep dark woods took him to the brink of ridicule. Here, his legacy is a creative world where bands like Vows don’t feel the need for permission to play as they feel and compose as they see fit.

This music is an altogether different take on Americana but it rightfully takes its place alongside more conventional forms. In the future though, this music will inevitably become a convention in itself and be marked out as being as quintessentially American as Hank Williams or The Beach Boys. Vows are part of that evolution and only they have any clue where it will take them. They are holding the map.

In January 2011, New Jersey natives James Hencken and Jeff Pupa got together to form Vows.  Their debut album of songs, Winter’s Grave, was self-recorded and self-produced, and released for free digital download in April 2011. Vows was born as a recording project between Pupa (aka Bone Blanket) and Hencken (aka Nillo) in a conscious attempt to deviate from the acoustic singer/songwriter template for creating new material.

The two experimented by layering synth, organs, and piano tracks interleaved with ambient guitar sounds to create something more akin to an environment for the song. They also used different techniques for miking and recording each drum individually so that an empowered percussion enjoys an elevated role above mere backbeat.

By the end of  2011 they had been joined by longtime friends and active recording artists’ Sabeel Azam – lead guitar, backup vocals; Scott Soffer – bass; and Ryan Ward – drums, percussion, backup vocals.  Pupa is the principal vocalist and plays guitar while Hencken plays keyboards, synth, and supplemental percussion. “We had to translate this album Winter’s Grave from this unforeseen ‘no-expectations’ little project into a band, and we went with the people we grew up playing music with.  We had no idea it would become such an evolving and organic experience in sound”, continues Pupa.

Vows are now consolidated as a touring band and they have pledged to further embrace variation and innovation in their live performances. That statement of intent, straight from the band’s bio, tells you that the audience will be part of the journey too. Go see the cartographers at their craft.

The Curator, June 2012

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The Curator’s Office – The Discreet Charm of Brooklyn

Americans have always been sensitive to any erosion of the hard-won civil and personal rights enshrined in the Constitution of The United States of America. Whenever something challenges those tenets of lifeliberty and justice for all there have often been two prominent forces rising to meet the threat. One is the intelligentsia who seek to amplify and apply the rigour of the law, and the other is the voice of the nation’s youth.

The Young Americans who are making new music for today do not seem to be overtly politicised but they do seem to be concerned about something. It could be the phenomenon that is touching all of us everywhere and all of the time. Is it the prospect of living in a world that is always on, always awake and constantly online? Is it the concern that the machine is managing us and not, as it should be, the other way around?

The dichotomy of socialized technology is that you are never alone with Twitter but you can never get a minute’s peace from adfomation with no message other than “buy” or “sell”. Your Facebook friends are fun, but are they holding you prisoner in front of your device when you could be outside lying under a tree? Hell, you might even be able to write a new song.

The web has the capacity to bring us together in unprecedented ways but is it also keeping us apart? The heart of the dichotomy is this; socialized technology gives the individual the opportunity to be a presence in the world – visible, accessible and contactable. It also leaves us exposed, vulnerable and ultimately revealed as even smaller still in The Grand Scheme of Things.

There is no attempt to make musical connections between the Young Americans featured here. If anything is discoverable here then it is that diversity of form is prevalent and a widespread acceptance that contemporary music in America is a family affair. The genres are kissing cousins not distant neighbours. What is evident is that these young writers and players share a common cause when they seek to make direct contact and communicate freely with their audiences. A like or a link will not suffice. They know that modernity means a joined-up world but it will only keep us apart if we forget to say share real thoughts, concerns worries and emotions.

A significant number of new artists are musically trained and come to their craft with an educated mindset. Others are self-taught while many are still negotiating the learning curve that, in truth, never really has an end point. There are players here who have been around the block already and they bring their worldliness to bear on a creative spark that can never be crushed.

What I like about all of them is they make music with an understanding of how it is going to be heard. They come prepared and disinclined to experiment on your time. When you have bought your ticket you are ready to listen. They are making sure that they are ready to play.

The songs, by and large, contain melodies that stick up for themselves regardless of instrumentation or stylistic flourishes. There is structure and dynamic within considered arrangements. They understand the need to avoid cliché and know a side-step from a two-step. Some of them can even write good intros – an under-rated skill in itself. They also read other writers and take inspiration from literature to create an astonishingly well-lettered, urbane lyricism.

Young Americans on INSTRUMENTAL will introduce you to music from a big country that is not so large that new friends can’t be found. This music, of course, is not the slightest bit representative of current (all) American music everywhere. My good woman is not The Time Traveller’s Wife and I have no psychic powers. However, I think that there is a common desire and very real need to engage in a conversation with their listeners. They are candid about the things that they are thinking and feeling, and there is recurring theme of reassurance. It’s not The Times They Are A-Changing they are rattling out, but the more affirmative and collectively delivered message of Let’s Work Together.

It’s interesting too that some of the most intimate sounds are either associated with or coming out of a suburb of the nation’s loudest city, New York. I have cherry-picked a few artists who have badged Brooklyn as a hotspot of musical activity. They are indicative of the way that musical ideas and direction are no longer governed by uniform fashion or slavish adherence to form. They play what they like for people who listen to whatever they please. It’s a meeting of the minds that is going to flummox the majors when it comes to plucking the superstars of tomorrow from all of this merry fragmentation. In the meantime, go see a band, buy their CD, be a fan. These days, the distance between the listener and the player really is that small.

Barkhouse are a young three-piece outfit from the heart and soul of Brooklyn. They line up as: Will De Zengotita on guitar and vocals; Jay Mort on bass, keys and vocals; and Olmo Tighe on drums. They are tight like family, not least because Will and Olmo are cousins and Mort is a childhood chum.

This is a band very much at the beginning but it’s plain from the recently released bandcamp EP that school has been out for some time now. They play regularly on the burgeoning Brooklyn scene and their songs have a solid, brownstone core and an uncommonly warm rock’n’roll heart. Barkhouse know how to use minor keys to create a soulful feelgood feel that is quite distinct from the vogue-ish  fatalism of folk and the drowned sorrows of country.

Barkhouse

Will is doing something confidently courageous by fronting up on guitar and lead vocal the way he does. He’s taking responsibility for the songs and I think that self-assurance grows from the knowledge that he’s among friends both on and off stage.

The Aviation Orange are a guitar/synth/percussion-pop ensemble from Brooklyn who have strength in numbers and in songs. They are interested in layers of sounds that take the prehistoric twiddling of 1980’s effeteness to a witty and sophisticated new level.

Perhaps unwittingly, they also help to further validate the art of electronic song as a mature discipline. If electronica is a much broader church than it was when Kraftwerk droned down Der Autobahn then it may be because the congregation can now join in on the chorus.

The Aviation Orange are: Mike Nesci on guitar and vocals; Cherie Hannouche on keys and vocals; Alex Beninato on guitar and vocals; Kate Rogers on bass and vocals and Josh Harris on drums. I like them immensely and their calling card tune Radio earned several upward arrow clicks on the volume-o-meter.

Beast Make Bomb are dynamite in a small package from Brooklyn but there’s nothing sinister about them. In fact, they are guilty only of rockin’ in the free world in the most honest and forthright way. I first noticed them in a video diary from SXSW on the Re-Think Pop Music site. The performance was hi-energy, rip-this-joint, get down and get with it, beer-drinking loudness and a great song too. You need a bit of attitude to play this way but who would have thought it possible in Brooklyn? Or am I being naïve?

The current Beast Make Bomb line-up is: Glenn Van Dyke on lead guitar (the truffle thief); Ceci G on guitar and vocals and attitude (the one with the tangled hair); Sam Goldfine on bass (the one with the smarts) and Hartley Lewis on drums (the one that likes giraffes). Now, I could tell you a thing or two about giraffes but that will have to wait for another time.

The Yes Way look like slackers. They have a slacker type name and a slacker approach to biographical detail. So far, I have gleaned that red lights bother them, that they like The Mets and that four years is their idea of lead-in time. But really, theirs is not lazy music. It underscores what I have been saying all along about a duty of care to the listener. Their song is for you and in order for it to deserve your attention it does not come as a dashed-off signature. Their core strength is that they are a singer’s band. The songs are like telephone calls from the soul and compel you to listen.

It’s guitar-led music with a cause and several effects. The playing is understated in accompaniment but it roars through the open gaps in the narrative whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The rhythm section could easily idle along in a 4/4/ if they chose to – but they don’t. Some of this music has come out of jamming for hours I think. It’s an expensive investment in time and effort but the dividends are delicious.

The Yes Way are: Nick Burleigh on guitar; Aaron Mendelsohn on guitar & lead vocals; Jesse Bilotta on drums and vocals; Ian Mellencamp on bass & vocals; Josh Rouah on keys & vocals.

The Yes Way

The Curator, June 2012

STORY+ BERKLEE

Berklee on STORY+

Berklee. It’s one of those names that you know is important but you don’t quite know why you know that.

I can tell you that, “Berklee College of Music is a nonprofit, coeducational institution of higher learning incorporated under the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The college is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and authorized under federal law to enroll non-immigrant students and to train veterans under the G.I. Bill of Rights.” That might help.

Furthermore, I can tell you how to get there too. The campus is clustered aroundMassachusetts Avenue in Boston about four blocks from the Charles River. However, if I tell you that Berklee is a world-renowned centre of learning for students of contemporary music covering everything from folk to rock to roots to jazz and hip-hop then that would be more instructive. In fact, it is the further education pathway into the music industry and its ambition and achievements are breathtaking.

Berklee was founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk (b. 1908) on the principle that one way to prepare students for productive careers in music could be through the study and practice of contemporary music, or jazz as it was known at the time. In 2012, it’s all ART, and popular music no longer has to justify itself to a sniffy academia. But it wasn’t always so.

Lawrence Berk with students

Berk was born and raised in Boston’s West End and was playing professionally as a pianist in dance orchestras by the time he was 13. Nevertheless this wasn’t a full-time occupation and he continued in school until he graduated from MIT with a degree in architectural engineering in 1932. However, there were few engineering jobs available during the Great Depression and he moved to New York City, where he became a staff arranger at NBC. He later studied with music theorist and teacher, Joseph Schillinger. When World War II broke out, he returned to Boston to work as a mechanical engineer at Raytheon.

After Schillinger died in 1943, Berk became one of 12 authorized teachers of theSchillinger System. He began teaching part-time on Saturdays with three students, but eventually quit his job at Raytheon to teach music full time. In 1945, he purchased a three-story building at 284 Newbury Street in Boston and opened Schillinger House.

Under his direction, enrolment in the first nine years increased tenfold, the curriculum expanded to include music education, and alumni began appearing in nationally famous orchestras led by people like  Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. This is probably the first incarnation of Berk’s perceptive take on the fluidity of popular music. Jazz  that you could dance to marked the first post war-wave of youth-driven popular culture. The kids couldn’t get enough of that stuff, and Kenton’s tune The Peanut Vendor was a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  They listened to it, danced to it and revered it. Many of them wanted to take up instruments and play it too. Berk was tapping into the Zeitgeist and not for the last time either.

In 1954, he changed the name of the institution to the Berklee School of Music, after his son, Lee Eliot Berk in order to give it a unique identity quite distinct from the musical establishment. It was an inclusive institution for inclusive music. He consolidated the faculty with  some heavy hitters from the jazz fraternity such as trumpeter Herb Pomeroy (1956), saxophonist Charlie Mariano (1957), drummerAlan Dawson (1957), and reed player John LaPorta (1962)  to the faculty. He wasn’t a man to waste a minute and as early as 1957, he instituted an innovative LP and score series, Jazz in the Classroom, featuring recordings of big band arrangements and performances by the school’s best students, packaged with copies of the arrangements.

He wasn’t one for standing still either and in 1962 the school established the first college-level instrumental major in guitar. Rock ‘n’ Roll had been King for a while but this initiative was taken just as the Beatles were emerging over the horizon and things would never be the same. Prescience or just good fortune? You decide – but don’t take all day about it. This is what Lee Eliot Berk had to say on the subject, “Once we began accepting electric guitar as a principal instrument in 1967, it opened the door to the whole electronic revolution”.

In 1966, Berklee awarded its first bachelor of music degrees and moved into larger quarters at 1140 Boylston St. Under Berk’s leadership, the school offered the first college-level courses in rock and pop music and composing forcommercials. By 1970, it had become the Berklee College of Music where other curriculum firsts included an electric bass guitar major (1973), and the creation of a jazz-rock fusion ensemble (1974). Berklee’s synergy with the ascendant musical forms of the moment seems now to be something akin to clairvoyance. The early 1970’s marked the beginning of the short reign of heavy riffing prog-rock outfits prefaced by Cream whose bassist Jack Bruce re-wrote the book on rock bass. In the mid-1970’s west coast rock flourished and racked up the sales. But it was Weather ReportIan Carr’s NucleusThe Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever whose influence was far-reaching in the continuing affair between Rock technology and the source code that is at the core of Jazz.

Berk’s final major expansion of college facilities took place in 1976 with the establishment of the Berklee Performance Center. This 1227-seater auditorium is located on Massachusetts Avenue where an adjoining building is used for additional classrooms, rehearsal facilities and the college library. The venue is the former Fenway Theatre, a movie palace built in 1915, which has been thoroughly converted for use as an auditorium.

Naturally, it hosts an incredible variety of artists and performers, not least those from the student cadre. But it isn’t simply a concert hall conveniently attached to a college. “We see the Performance Center as a giant classroom where people can learn about performing and the technical side of presenting a show,” says Rob Rose VP for Special Programmes. The Performance Center was funded through a 25-year government bond issue to the value of $7m which the college finished paying back a few years ago.

After he retired in 1978, Lawrence Berk served as chancellor until his death in 1995. His son, Lee Eliot Berk (b.1942) succeeded him as president of the college in 1979 and the college entered a new phase of expansion and innovation.

Under the younger Berk’s leadership, further diversified its curriculum to create new majors, including Film Scoring, Music Production and Engineering, Music Synthesis, Songwriting, Music Business/Management, and Music Therapy.

Lee Berk graduated from Brown University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Boston University in 1967. From there he worked closely with his father first serving as bursar and supervisor of the Private Study Division. He continued to realize the vision of his father by expanding the size of Berklee’s urban campus and widening the curricular offerings in the areas of music technology, music business, and music therapy.

He made his mark early on when his book Legal Protection for the Creative Musician, won the prestigious Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP in 1971 for best book in music. It is a not only a core text but it is also a marker for a sea-change in relationships between artists and the an industry that has a poor reputation for playing fair. Artists who got royally ripped off probably did not read this book. The effort to educate musicians in the business of music continued under Lee Berk’s tutelage and as early as 1992 the Music Business/Management major became available.

However, it is the affinity with innovations in music production and recording technology that has helped make Berklee what it is today. The on-site campus technology has a three-year replacement cycle so state-of-the-art comes as standard.

Berklee, in contrast to many other music colleges and conservatories, became technologically sophisticated from the outset and it is this distinction that has given the college such a strong identity. The move into technology alongside Berk Jr’s ability to forge working business partnerships has been the making of Berklee as the college of the music industry.

The strong business ethic and the astute management protocols don’t tell the whole story of Berklee though. It was born out of a passion for popular music and that a genuine desire to offer educational support and direction to aspirations of gifted young talent. That continues today with a strong commitment to outreach local and international outreach programmes. Every year, talented youngsters from the Boston area are identified and funds are raised to give them scholarships to summer programmes and many of them have matriculated into the college.

The college also offers a Music Therapy major based on research indicating that music therapy had been a recognized discipline since World War II. However, it is the Berklee of 2012 that finds itself eminently resourced to allow students using technology to create new avenues of exploration in music therapy. The courses have only been running for about seven years but they are already delivering tangible results. There have been especially gratifying achievements among students working closely with cancer and Alzheimer’s patients, and young people with learning disabilities.

If Berklee still sounds a bit elitist to you then I think it may be a matter of asking what is not provided in music education elsewhere. Berklee began with a vision, a plan, and people who cared. It made it’s own luck. That good fortune is being delivered back to all of us in the form of musical riches from the recent past, the vibrant present and the highly promising future.

The Curator, June 2012

Story+ The 78 Project

The Spirit of Radio: Re-visited or Re-ignited?

More than seventy years have now passed since musicologist and social historian Alan Lomax made his first field recording of American folk song. Between 1934 and 1936 he and his father, the noted folklorist John Avery Lomax, recorded thousands of spontaneous performances from every corner of North America and the Afro-Carribean communities of Haiti and The Bahamas. They used equipment which was at that time state-of-the-art. The used a single microphone to record songs of the common folk straight onto a lacquer-coated aluminium disc onto a Presto portable recorder. This innovation, large and unwieldy by today’s standards, was introduced in 1934 and by 1936 it was being used extensively by the NBC and CBS radio networks for their recorded output.

The result of the Lomax initiative, and those of subsequent recording expeditions, is a massive archive of priceless musical treasures and a matchless historical record of the birth and evolution of popular music. Lomax used the best available recording tools at every opportunity and he did not hesitate to upgrade to tape and film to make field recordings. However, it those early lacquer discs that remain iconic and emblematic as the source code for contemporary popular music.

Alan Lomax went on to study for a degree in philosophy at the University of Texas and conducted many of his later field trips with his wife Elizabeth. He was an academic and an aesthete whose skill and dedication were quickly recognised with his appointment to Assistant in Charge of  The Archive of American Folk Song. He collated and curated his life’s work for the benefit of all, and those records are rightly homed, housed and protected in the institutions of government and the vaults of academia. The whole world now enjoys free access to the archive since its digitization and subsequent availability online at Cultural Equity.

The 78 Project emulates the methodology of those early 1930’s field recordings to re-visit the spirit of Lomax’s original enterprise. He once said, “The main point of my activity is to put sound technology at the disposal of The Folk, to bring channels of communication to all sorts of artists and areas”. Today, artists are more than capable of finding the technology themselves and they can make recordings on devices that fit comfortably into a coat pocket. So why bother to carry a museum piece weighing in excess of 130 pounds (58 kilos) from place to place to record music that could just as easily be captured instantaneously on a hand-held digital recorder?

Well, the 78 Project is offering something rare and wonderful. It’s the chance to bring a song alive as if heard for the first time; essential, electric and in the moment. It’s the most fundamental tenet of performance – one singer, one song and one take. The proposition is the brainchild of film maker Alex Steyermark and writer/producer/ performer Lavinia Jones-Wright. It is a musical and historical adventure, a film documentary and a re-creation of on of the earliest chapters in the history of recorded song. They are taking a Presto recorder out into the field once more to record established performers and breakthrough artists as they re-define some striking tunes old and new alike.

This might seem at first glance to be a bit of an indulgent wheeze at a time when everyone is caught in the dazzling beam of light emanating from the iclouds overhead. But look down and regard what they are doing more closely and you will see that they are not merely constructing reproduction furniture. These new/old field recordings are a freshly observed witness to the creative spark. The artists involved and the songs they perform appear like suddenly found objects, stumbled upon, held up to the light and revealing patterns of refracted colours that seem to be both peculiar and familiar.

Every new incarnation of recording technology has altered the human voice further and distanced he listener farther still from the original performance. Contemporary listening experiences are characterized by a shimmering sheen of clean sound that is cut and polished by the diamond edge of digitization. The distance between the Presto and the iPad is planetary in proportion but close enough, in principle, for rock ‘n’ roll. Imagine the stylus cutting into the lacquer as the disc revolves and song spins out and then consider the burn to disc icon on your computer screen.

Songs are sung in a single space in time but recordings are etched in the memory. Similarly, you can have as many attempts as you like to get your fresh tracks down. The computer will even correct you if you are hung over or if you’re pretty but you really can’t sing. Little wonder then that the immediacy of live performance remains to this day a sharp and bitter acid test of true ability.

This is what the 78 Project is delivering back to us. It’s making us remember the essence of popular song. It begins with the storyteller’s gift amplified through song and his or her act of standing up and filling the room with soul and wit and art.

So far more than a dozen recordings have been made with artist such as Justin Townes Earle, Richard Thompson, Roseanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw, Amy La Vere, The Mynabirds and Vandaveer. However, the producers seem to be gathered up in the momentum of the enterprise, and one recording date seems to lead inevitably and naturally to others. It may be a project that never really ends because it is a constant programme of capitalizing on any opportunity to capture in an eye-blink the truly human voice.

Is that how it happened before with Alan Lomax? Did he record some farm hand as he sang for him the most spine tingling field song, only to be told afterwards that this was nothing. He should hear the man’s father singing. Now that is a voice from God.

The Spirit of Radio and the Art of Recording go hand in glove. What we seek from radio is the vitality of the moment and what we  hope for in a recording is a keepsake of that ephemeral experience. Many, many contemporary artists, it seems, are seeking out the singular thing that gives their music enduring life. Some call it analogue, others call it valve sound. But everyone is reassuringly keen to ensure that the humanity prevails in the new cycle of popular song of the digital era.

This summer the 78 Project hits the road to continue the recording series in cities across the U.S. including, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, and Los Angeles among many others.  It will be present at music and film festival such as Philadelphia Folk Festival 17-18 August, All Tomorrow’s Parties in Asbury Park 9-23 September, and DOC NYC 8-15 November. There they will demonstrate the recording technique for live audiences and screen the project videos. More importantly, the musical journey continues into (as yet) undiscovered country where the unpredictable is the only thing that can be expected.

The Curator, June 2012

videos by MusicFog and The 78Project

Images: public domain and courtesy of The 78 Project

 

THE 78 PROJECT WEBSITE

Fresh Tracks – Last Breath

Fresh Air Feelings

The theme of INSTRUMENTAL in June 2012 is The Spirit of Radio and Last Breath are a young band from Blackpool who understand perfectly what that means. Their fanbase is, I suspect, quite young and they are clearly on the same wavelength. We know, you know and they know that everywhere you go the kids wanna rock.

Last Breath are a four-piece melodic rock band from sunny Blackpool and they are one of a number of acts currently signed to Aspire Music Management. They started back in 2003 primarily as a covers band playing songs from bands like Metallica, Nickelback and 3 Doors Down, but they have clearly worked hard to develop their own style. Since then they have demonstrated a neat and imaginative aptitude for writing, producing and performing their own bold brand of power pop.

This is a band who know their way around good tunes and don’t mind belting them out live. They’ve already won a local Battle of the Bands competition, but it’s not difficult to imagine them conquering new ground sooner rather than later.

They are tight and harmonic in the studio but a little brasher live. This is a hard-working, let-your-hair-down Friday Night Band who get on with it while you have a good time. They’ll be there for you on Saturday morning too. They’ve got those sing-along-in-the-shower hooks that stick in your head all day.

The striking thing about their songs and performances is how obviously radio friendly they are. If I was in the car driving along the sunny esplanade and this song It’s My Time came on, the windows would come down a little more and the volume would go up. And there’s nothing quite like a breath of fresh air, is there?

The band are gigging regulars on the local scene in the North west of England and their self-produced original songs have been getting airplay on supportive FM Rock internet stations.

Other acts on the Aspire roster include M.A.D.I.S.O.NPete Into OrbitBud RogersColin Heppell and  Swidenbank. They are all featured on our Storify sites FRESH TRACKS and INSTRUMENTAL where you will find even more great radio-friendly melodic rock. It’s almost as if there’s a flag flying that everyone else but mainstream radio can see.

However, all this will change in the very near future when a shift takes place from mainstream to internet radio and the bands and their fans become owners of their own franchises. If artists can build a fanbase through solid gigging, social networking and web marketing, the next logical step is to curate their own material (and the influential music that they love) on streaming radio stations. It’s going to be more work for someone but you know that you will be heard by those who want to listen to your song.

The Curator June 2012

The Curator’s Office – The Spirit of Radio

Radio Off/RadioOn?

“I’m in love with the radio on,

it helps me from being alone late at night,

It helps me from being lonely late at night,

I don’t feel so bad now in the car

Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on,

like the roadrunnerThat’s right”

can you feel it out in Needham now?


out on route 128 by the power lines

it’s so exciting there at night
with the pine trees in the dark


it’s so cold here in the dark
 with 50,000 watts of power

we go by faster miles an hour with the radio on”

Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers (1975)

Jonathan Richman, who knew a thing or two about  THE SPIRIT OF RADIO,  wrote Radio On around 1970, when he began performing it in public, aged 19. Former bandmate John Felice recalled that as teenagers he and Richman “used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.”

When I was young, around thirteen or so, I received a birthday present that would be my most treasured possession. Very quickly it became my closest friend and intimate; a reassuring voice throughout the perplexities of adolescence. It was only a cheap transistor radio but, through its single earphone, I heard nothing less than the essence of existence. The radio, embedded beneath the pillow and muted through soft down, with it’s signal fading in and fading out, told me everything that I had long suspected was true. There was life going on out there; beyond my moonlit bedroom walls, down the streets, past the shops and far from my town. Life was elsewhere. “Is there anyone out there?” my young inner-self asked. The spirit of radio entered my room and whispered in my ear through crackling transistors and thin wires. Yes there is, and you know, we’ve been waiting patiently for you (and just for you) to tune in.

It was only pop music but we were meant for each other. Therein lies the dichotomy of radio. It is broadcast to the many for the benefit of the individual. It enters your home, sits down, makes itself comfortable and relates to you the speak of the worldwide parish. It’s a voice that you can trust and it tells you things you want to know. You hang upon its every word. It’s a comfort whenever you feel that burden of too much knowledge and not enough information. It understands you. Out there, in the pine trees and the dark, you’ll never be lonely with the radio on. You’ll never be sad while your favourite songs blanket you in their unconditional love and affection. It’s only pop music, but the best of it comes straight from the heart.

Since that birthday, I’ve seen pop music diversify and grow exponentially alongside various incarnations of the personal delivery system. What began with clandestine listening beneath the covers developed into the brazen Walkman, and quickly evolved into the soundtrack to your life in an electronic capsule. What do you need the radio for? Surely it’s redundant now that you set your own choices and need only listen to your own inner voice for advice and affirmation?

The radio in 2012 is for the herd who safely graze in fields of Golden Oldies and munch mindlessly on the doomed shoots of stunted micro-celebrity. That isn’t radio: it’s what’s left over when the spirit of radio has been crushed and violated. In the UK, broadcast radio isn’t fit for purpose. It serves no one except salary men and women and has deserted its duty of care to its public. Nevertheless, I do believe that radio is not dead yet, I think that it’s only sleeping.

The advent of internet radio has to some extent filled the void left by old school broadcasting, but it is no panacea for a deep malaise. It’s transmitting from the basement where it’s confined by space and the limits of its resources. It has created and amplified a kind of niche radio that is merely a conversation between an educated janitor and a gaggle of attentive sophomores.

Down there, among the pipes, the wires and the ducting are powerful generators, but only the mere spark of radio. You need to feel 50,000 watts of power not marvel at bit rates. That is powered as much by human feeling as it by electricity. It is only when we harness that power in order to reach out, to share and to empathise that radio truly flickers into life. It’s light is bright and you glow inside with the comforting knowledge that you are not the only one who thinks this way, sees this way and really hears those songs that way. Far from it.

The cult of puddle-deep celebrity has threatened to suffocate radio. The DJ will never be the star no matter how far he talks over the intro. There have always been prating fools hogging the mic, but broadcasters who were born into the medium are still around. Some of them are elderly, but they are young at heart and they know that popular songs are more than just idle ditties. They know that songs are the connective tissue of popular culture, personal identity, memory and love. These soft-spoken confidantes are singular people who talk comfortably to the masses as if talking to a neighbour over the garden fence. They sit alone and talk to the air in blind faith that they will always have words to say that people will want to hear. That’s why we listen to the radio. Somebody, somewhere knows you and wants to take care of you. You’ll never be lonely with the radio on.

Now that communication devices and attendant software are attempting to govern our lives, you may feel that you will be fortunate to have any time to yourself at all. Social media and its associative algorithms are now so pervasive and invasive that privacy itself may yet become a subscription service. There is no need either to go in search of the found object. Now, all you need to do is scroll down the never-ending playlist until you find your genre profile and choose Your Data. The most searching question you need ask now is, “Are my eyes really brown?”

Little wonder that it feels like something is missing. I’ll tell you what it is.

When you are young and the world is a mystery, everything you hear is a surprise and every new (old) song is born anew by the fresh hearing of it. You hear voices talking to you in ways that you never heard before, but you understand every word that is being said or sung. Every note has meaning and hidden secrets that one day you are destined to discover. At first, you don’t want to share any of this with anyone, least of all Ma and Pa. Later, you realise that this new-found information is part of a flowing river that gathers up everything and pours it out into the world ocean. Before you know it you are out in that world yourself; raw, exposed, and often all at sea.

What would you give then to slip beneath a blanket with only a tiny radio for company and a single ear-piece connecting you to a still, steady voice of calm? Isn’t it only human to hear such a voice intone that perennially humane phrase, “For all those of you out there tonight…”?

I think it is that voice that is missing from they way we hear songs now, and a contributing factor to the decaying signal coming from radio. I cannot say whether it will be ever be properly recovered. Today, we can find anything, anywhere and at anytime. Perhaps that is one reason why we are not so able to stumble upon the startlingly unexpected. We are no longer exploring the airwaves simply for the sake of travelling. We are not meeting anyone on the way who can be a guide and a host across unfamiliar topography. There is no dial to turn on an Apple Mac, and no means of serendipitous navigation.

Once, when I was young, the radio was my Good Companion, and I can remember well the fork in the road where we were forced to part company. Perhaps, we will meet again someday, but somehow I doubt that. I think the best that we can hope for now is that we will always crave that companionship. It is more likely that we will construct a sort of ersatz radio experience using audio samples, and referencing timeless phraseology to give us the flavour of radio.

It might be that local internet stations can yet achieve cult status through electronic word of mouth. However, I foresee that we will choose our fellow travellers from amongst our own closest peers; broadcasting all-night radio to our grandchildren with letters and songs and stories to keep them up at bedtime and lull them to safe sleep. It will be a part of their education that truly cannot be found in books.

Until then, the glowing screen of the ipod beneath the blankets will remain a poor substitute for a human voice introducing the most wonderful song you never heard before. A voice that made you feel as if you were the first person on the planet ever to hear it.

(video by heraldstreet)

The Curator, June 2012

FRESH TRACKS – Sean Taylor

Sean Taylor is a 28 year old singer/songwriter from Kilburn in North-West London who has just released his fifth CD, Love Against Death to warm praise from the likes of Bob Harris and Mike Harding. The album marks  something of a watershed moment for Sean in his development as an artist and is largely the result of the songwriter’s itch to spread his wings. Now, people are making comparisons between Sean’s music and that of the late great John Martyn, so it’s clear that for many critics he’s already taken flight.

Let’s return to Kilburn for a moment though and a time of  entrenched political dogma and financial opportunism during the Thatcher years. That’s where his roots are and he’s not shy about his left-leaning politics; nor does he hide his deep affection for one of London’s most stubbornly uncool enclaves.

Indeed, there is a warm paean to home on the album in the shape of “Kilburn” that is heartfelt as it is observant. It suggests that all that is good about England can to be found just as readily in the inner city as it is imagined in a pastoral idyll. It’s this strong sense of knowing where you’re from and who you are that is the stamp of the accomplished storyteller.

The recurring theme of Love Against Death is the proposal that the choices we make are simple enough when they are distilled within a compassionate rationale. The record deals with the essential distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate, wealth and poverty.

These are not political absolutes but they are the best reply to far right cadres that would have us subscribe blindly to a perverse and inverted morality. It’s our circumstances that make things complicated because we often feel powerless in the face of force. That’s why the inclusion of  ”Sixteen Tons” is such a wry and witty barb, containing a touch of bitterness that replaces the laconic resignation of the original.

Sean made the right decision going to Austin TX to record this album. It’s a work that’s been fashioned in the spiritual home of the music he clearly loves. His previous records have been tender and slightly introspective, whereas this one sees him working out in more muscular settings.

This is where we leave  the ghost of John Martyn standing in the station. Sean is more at home, I suspect, in a boxcar travelling across Oklahoma in a SXSW direction. The old bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Hooker are travelling companions, but  JJ Cale is also bumming along for the ride  as  a carefree Cassady to Sean’s well-read Kerouac.

However, it’s Sean’s deceptively easy way with a gentle ballad that really grabs the ear. There have been great songs on each of his albums that demonstrate that this is not a newly acquired skill. “Hold On To Your Love” from his Calcutta Grove collection is mature and measured, and the achievement is repeated here with “Hymn”, “Absinthe Grove” and “Cassady”.

Sean is a seasoned performer with an unassuming and engaging manner who does not demand anything of his audience, but instead simply offers up friendly invitation to join in the conversation. He’s developed a bookish way with lyrics and a firm line on issues of the day so it’s going to be an intelligent discourse.

You can catch Sean Taylor this summer at the Ashley, Crawley, Maverick and Burton Agnes festivals and full details about gigs and all things Sean Taylor can be found on his website SEAN TAYLOR SONGS.

Sean Taylor “Perfect Candlelight” music video on Storify FRESH TRACKS

From: The Curator, May 2012. INSTRUMENTAL

STORY+ Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle

The Country Boy Takes on the  Big City…and Wins

Justin Townes Earle bizzaroiloveyou

Justin Townes Earle probably doesn’t know this yet, but he’s about to become one of the most influential artists of his generation. I don’t mean to imply that he is about to become globally famous or filthy rich. That is in the hands and pockets of others. No, what I mean is that he has taken his own craft by the scruff of the neck and shaken it up good. The result is that he is producing roots, rock and pop music bagged up and ready to go in a complete package. He will attract a diverse congregation gathered together in an inclusive church that hears and gives praise to the song and the human spirit that gives it soul. He will have them eating out of his hand.

There have been tentative outings on record with two, frankly uneven, first albums and a self-funded EP. They contain the sound of a raw, new talent seeking direction. Then came Harlem River Blues and something of a catharsis. Earle seemed to realize that as long as he had the songs, he didn’t need to worry about direction. He could go any way he wanted to and his listeners would still follow.

In case you don’t know, Harlem River Blues was without doubt the unspoken triumph of 2010. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone wanted to know his name, even if the New York Stock Exchange didn’t lose any sleep over its sales figures. Only this time it really was his name they were interested in. It’s a short album but it’s very,very sweet indeed. The title track is a suicide ballad made over as a burning act of deliverance. It manages to contain gospel, pop, country blues and rock n roll and pumps along like a tugboat on the Hudson. Listen out especially for “Workin’ for the MTA”. It seems for all the world like a bit of Woody on the side, but it is in fact a beautifully structured urban folk song for our times.

The release of his new album, Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, is as uncompromising as it’s title. Don’t expect Harlem River Blues 2 because you’re not going to get it. What you will receive is metropolitan music from a player who is a deep listener too. An urbane Memphis sound dominates but you can’t take Nashville out of the boy. The inflections remain and the fact that he is now a New Yorker also permeates the delivery. It’s as if Southside Johnny had spent time with his country cousins and decided that the Jukes needed a more mellow tone. Perhaps recording in North Carolina also helped to temper the newly found toughness with his more characteristic tenderness. Certainly, The record is a bold move, but it will pay dividends if Earle’s eclecticism pushes him into the arms of a much, much wider audience.

The scrawny kid who once got fired from the band is now master of his own fate. The boy is now a man and his outward gaze to the world is steady, clear, assertive and firm. One thing though that really marks him out as a representative voice is the way he lays his troubles out before us all so that we can share and identify. He’s not looking for sympathy, he’s offering empathy. That is the at the heart of gospel and very near to the roots of all popular music. It lies at the very heart of soul and anyone who offers healing through music will never want for friends.

The Curator 2012 INSTRUMENTAL

CURATOR’S OFFICE -Until I Die

The popular music that we hear when we are very young and throughout our formative years leaves an indelible mark on our sub-conscious. It is an essence of memory just like the smell of coal-tar soap, or the first taste of mint ice cream. The songs that accompanied us through our early lives sit on the outer rim of recollection and their orbit shifts and dips around and under our radar. Get distracted by life and it might be ten years before you hear one of your favourite tunes again.

Now that we have arrived at a musical place that is easily one hundred years distant from it’s point of departure (or Roots), we find that there is no journey to be completed. There is only a circular celebration of what it means to be human, to be alive and to know love and frailty.

The Beach Boys are fifty years young this year, but for many they remain eternally youthful, encased in the amber glow of an endless summer. The wraparound harmonies of songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “God Only Knows” mark out a time and a place where innocence is a plausible condition. The good time buzz of “I Get Around” alludes to an untroubled suburban idyll where the keys to personal freedom came with a Little Deuce Coupe. Much later,this fantasy world was re-visited and referenced in “Disney Girls”, theBruce Johnston song on the 1971 album Surf’s Up. It was a reminder that the pull of improbable perfection is strong. It’s difficult to leave your little home town to explore the hostile, dangerous and paranoid world beyond the county line.

 

Around about 1966/67, Brian Wilson’s Smile project signaled an intention to move on; not in one or two new directions but several, and all at once. Half the band couldn’t keep up and neither could large sections of their hitherto loyal audience.

The infamous feuds that followed arose from the tension between formulaic success and risky experimentation. It’s difficult to spend all day in the lab when your friends want you to come out and play in the sun all summer long – forever.

In the end stalemate prevailed and Smile was shelved until re-incarnated by Wilson in the 1990’s. For long time fans this was only mildly interesting because Smile had leached out in the recordings issued between 1968 and 1971.  However, the sophistication, eccentricity and complexity of the Smile ideas sat uneasily alongside the twangy, easy-going familiarity of their doo-wop brand. This is most evident on the 1969 album 20/20 where “Cabinessence”, a refugee from the Smile sessions, leans awkwardly against the likes of pleasing chart hits like “I Can hear Music” and “Breakaway”.

By 1971, the spectre of Smile had become too firmly ensconced in the room and too pervasive to ignore, despite all of Mike Love’s arguments to the contrary. Wilson sought collaborators outside The Beach Boys family where strangers evidently weren’t all that welcome. Van Dyke Park’s name is synonymous with Surf’s Up, and he almost became the fall guy when it came to sharing out blame for the band’s internal dysfunction.

What emerged from the conflict though, is an album that almost a coda to the end of a shared experience and a vindication of Brian Wilson’s vision. It was time to be realistic. Innocence was a thing of the past, the present was complicated and the future was uncertain. Real life had broken into the daydream world of surfin’, cars and girls, and was further consternated by Wilson’s creative imperatives. It was time to grow up; for boys to become men.

Surf’s Up is the same crossroads we all reach at some point in our lives. In Brian Wilson’s case it is the place where he caught the bus while the others waved mournfully goodbye as it pulled out of view. Some of them kept in touch, but there was no going back now because that meant staying in one place in a creative cul-de-sac. The (Official) Beach Boys continued to tour and make records, but they were merely tour guides in a museum of nostalgia. Wilson took the future with him and made some wonderful music. Nevertheless, Surf’s Up suggests that it would have been better still if the rest of his band had joined him there.

The Beach Boy’s history suggests that a great band is more than the sum of its parts and that pop music can transcend its perceived limitations. Between 1968 and 1972 they released a series of disjointed albums; Smiley Smile, Friends, Wild Honey, 20/20, Sunflower and Surf’s Up. Some of them produced big hit songs but concealed within them is a truly great body of work. These recordings contain ideas and songs that retrospectively sealed their reputation as influential, iconic and profound contributors to the evolution of popular music.

That was Wilson’s ambition for Smile, the ghost in the studio that wouldn’t leave and the last traces of its disturbing presence can be heard on the Surf’s Up album. It’s an eerie, uneasy, yet uplifting sound that stirs the soul and beckons you to follow. It is also music of the mind that emerges mysteriously through strange changes and ethereal voices.

Ever since then, Brian Wilson’s work has been marked by the unexpected, the inventive and downright challenging. He has established himself as the curator of a collection of some startling musical ideas and he has used them to reconstitute the pop song in an altered state, with dazzling results. In recent years, they have been on display in his live shows where he also covers the Beach Boys legacy from the a capella doo-wop beginnings to the big psychedelic finish with Good Vibrations.

On The Beach Boys’ recent reunion tour, featuring Wilson on stage with his former band mates for the first time since 1966, all the exhibits were duly catalogued. However, to the best of my knowledge, the title track from Surf’s Up has never featured in anyone’s set list. It probably never will because it might invite that ghost back into the room again. Better to say Happy 50th Birthday Beach Boys and let it pass. If you’re going to celebrate you need party music and it’s a natural thing to want to polish up your most golden of oldies.

But what goes around comes around and Wilson’s more astonishing ideas remain out there in constant circulation. Our fond memories are other people’s amazing discoveries, and a musical memory is a living thing that can be acquired, loved and nurtured by others. More than that, it can be re-made into a new memory for someone else. That is Brian Wilson’s outstanding contribution to popular music; to absorb the best of the past and remake into something utterly, astoundingly new.

Personally, I cannot tell you how much I loved, and still love 20/20. I loved it so much that it seems like a faithless betrayal to love another, Surf’s Up, even more. One thing is certain. These songs have been with me all my life, and they will be Until I Die.

The Curator, May 2012. INSTRUMENTAL