Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Tiger Moth Tales - The Depths of Winter

Peter Jones has been something of a phenomenon since he appeared on the Progressive music scene just about 3 years ago, with his debut album, Cocoon. This delightful, nostalgic collection of reflections on childhood was an unexpected delight, and has remained a favourite of mine ever since. Since then Peter's skills and charm and whimsy have been seen again in Story Tellers, in his many covers of Genesis songs for charity, and in his contributions to the work of Red Bazaar, Barock Project and Colin Tench. He has become much in demand as a singer and multi-instrumentalist.

There is a certain quirkiness to Peter's music that is endearing, and his sense of humour is bright and, for many, enlivens his broadcasting on Progzilla. But an ever increasing number of fans have been waiting in eager anticipation for some new material from Peter, and now, at last, the wait is over, with the release of The Depths of Winter. And with this album there's both a sense of continuity and one of change and progress.

There is a subtle difference to the music on this release. This is a more 'serious' album, in that the subject matter is less frivolous (so to speak), and there is a subtlety and maturity to the compositions that shows clear progression from the earlier albums. There is still the great narrative songs that have thrilled listeners in the past: The Ballad of Longshanks John and The Tears of Frigga; there are some subtle and stirring instrumental pieces: Winter is Coming, Sleigh Ride, and Winter's End; and there is inspiration from varied sources: Wilfred Owen's war poetry (Exposure), the loss of a loved one (Take the Memory), the Scandinavian concept of Hygge, and even the simple desire to survive the coming cold (Winter Maker). But there's perhaps hidden meaning in some of the songs: Migration is billed as a song about an animal separated from the group while on the move, but could quite easily, for me, be a song about those seeking refuge and asylum from more human circumstances.

Musically Peter continues to draw his inspiration from the formative years of Progressive Rock, and there are clear echoes of Genesis in some of the music, as well as hints of more contemporary influences, such as Big Big Train, and classical sources too. Peter is not afraid of challenging time signatures and a breadth of instrumentation, both played by himself and by others. But for a collection of songs that draw their influence from the cold of winter, this is warm album: it delights the heart and renews ones faith in humanity - it is almost the aural equivalent of flagon of mulled wine in front of a roaring fire!

If you are familiar with Peter's work, this album will, I hope, continue to delight and inspire you. If his work is new to you, listen and be prepared to be wowed and warmed.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Forty Years On... Neil Young - American Stars 'n Bars

My appreciation of Neil Young's music predates this album by a few years. Being an unrepentant hippie in my early teens, I'd immersed myself in the Woodstock ethos, and in the music from the film soundtrack, and through that had discovered Crosby, Stills & Nash and their occasional inclusion of a fourth member - Neil Young. This led me to 'After The Goldrush' and 'Harvest', albums which I still value to this day, and also to the compilation 'Decade', a triple album which sadly my pocket money just wouldn't stretch to.

But earlier that year (1977) came 'American Stars 'n Bars', which I could stretch to, on cassette. It's a strange album in some ways, but a good one nonetheless. The cover depicts Young lying, presumably drunk, on a bar-room floor near a spittoon and a lady of, shall we say, negotiable affection, with the night sky above him.

The music is an interesting mix of Young's different styles. 'The Old Country Waltz' fits into the 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' school of depressing maudlin songs, with fiddle and slide guitar to ramp up the feeling of woe in another 'my girl's left me' outpouring. 'Saddle Up The Palomino' is a little rockier, with a memorable electric riff to open with, but continues the country feel. 'Hey Babe' is jollier and more acoustic, but still with Young's distinctive nasal whine - not a criticism, just an observation! 'Hold Back The Tears' takes us back to 'O woe is me' territory, which his voice seems to suit, but this is a song with a hopeful edge - 'Just around the next corner may be waiting your true love' he sings. Side One ends with 'Bite The Bullet', a hard, simple rocker to lift the mood a little. For a Canadian he does the Southern rock thing quite well!

Side Two is a different kettle of fish altogether from Side One, with 2 longer songs bookended by two shorter ones. I must confess, too, that forty years on I still chuckle to myself at the opening line of 'Star of Bethlehem' and how my teenage mind reacted to 'Ain't it hard when you wake up in the morning...' (I'm a bad man...) The song itself is a simple acoustic song, with the bonus of an appearance by Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. 'Will To Love' is the only song that features Young on his own, and is a dreamy, ethereal song with acoustic guitars and occasional piano that always gives me the impression of being recorded around a campfire somewhere in the middle of nowhere. This is, for me, serious chill-out music. 'Like a Hurricane' on the other hand is solid electric guitar-led rock that Neil Young does best, on a par with 'Southern Man' or 'Cortex The Killer'. This was the first song I'd heard from the album, probably on Alan Freeman's show one Saturday afternoon, and it sold me on the album. Simple, but powerful, as is the album closer, 'Homegrown', in a different way. And any drug references are purely coincidental...

It's albums like this one that continue to convince me that 1977 was a classic year for the kind of music that has accompanied my life for the ensuing forty years. There is a permanence, a longevity, a timelessness about this, and all the albums I've been revisiting over the last 6 months. 1977 was a key year for me personally, but also musically in forging tastes that have stayed with me, but have developed over those years.

I can't believe it's been 40 years, though!

Friday, 3 November 2017

Forty Years On... Yes - Going For The One

I think I was aware of Yes before this album was released, but I just didn't 'get' them. I have vivid memories of 'Relayer' being passed round in school with hushed tones, as we tried to work out what the cover was about, but never got to hear the music until much later. But 'Going For The One' was different, and drew the attention of this 16 year-old for a number of reasons.

One was the sleeve, which was produced not by Roger Dean, as much of the band's earlier work had been, but by Hipgnosis, which gave it a much more contemporary edge rather than the other-worldly, dreamy slant that Dean's artwork did, and still does.

The other was the fact that, unusually for the sort of albums I listened to, it had spawned a hit single: indeed, that very act was usually a sign that the band had 'sold out', 'gone commercial', and were therefore no longer worthy of my attention. But in this instance, maybe, I thought, the record buying public had finally seen the light!

What I loved, and still love, about this, the band's 8th studio album, is that it is an album of contrasts. The opening title track, 'Going For The One', is an out-and-out rocker with a strong beat throughout and some soaring steel guitar work from Steve Howe, but still with an interesting contrapuntal tussle between the drums and bass, and between the main and backing vocals. 'Turn of the Century', however, takes the mood into a much quieter frame, with no drums, and some quite sublime acoustic guitar. This song of love and loss is quite simply beautiful, in the best narrative tradition, and builds to a subtle crescendo after the instrumental section which is mind-blowing in its power and emotion. Side One closes with 'Parallels', with stirring organ chords and pulsating bass giving way (but not too much) to singing guitar. This is another upbeat song, and was for me my favourite on the album for a while, possibly simply for its life and joy, which are there in abundance - before the subtlety of other songs made an impact on me.

Side Two begins with the hit single - their first and highest in the UK, reaching number 7 - 'Wondrous Stories'. It was this song that had drawn me to the album, but how different it is to the rest of the collection! This is almost a folk song, with none of the strut and swagger of Going for the One or Parallels, and none of the subtle beauty of Turn of the Century. Yes, it was a good song, but not the strongest on the album, and perhaps a fitting single, proving that they had not sold out as I'd possibly feared. The album then concludes with 'Awaken', one of the most accomplished songs that the band had ever, and would ever, produce - they've certainly not surpassed it since, in my opinion. I said earlier that Parallels was my early pick on the album, mainly because I just didn't 'get' Awaken for a while. It is deep, complex, obtuse at times; Jon Anderson's mystical lyrics do take some time to coalesce (maybe not as long as those on Tales From Topographic Oceans) and that may be what took my time, but eventually... oh boy! A truly symphonic piece, with changes of tempo and texture, and all the band playing at their virtuosic best throughout.

This album has stood the test of time like few others. For me it still has the ability to entice and thrill and delight and bewilder as it did 40 years ago. I'm not sure whether Yes have produced such a complete album in the 40 years since this was released: this is certainly in my Top 3 of their albums, and probably my Top 5 of all time.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Forty Years On... Weather Report - Heavy Weather

At the start of this series I mentioned my discovery of the jazzier side of music through Phil Collins' involvement with Brand X, but 1977 also saw the arrival of a classic of the genre: Weather Report's seventh studio album, 'Heavy Weather'. The band had been through some line-up changes over the years, with the constant presence of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, but now they were graced by the genius that was Jaco Pastorius on bass, alongside Alex Acuña on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion.

What drew me, and I have no doubt many others, to this album was the opening track and single, 'Birdland'. A wonderful, up-beat, joyful tune, penned by Zawinul to celebrate the NY club of the same name where he met so many jazz legends, with bass, saxophone & keys interplaying with each other throughout. A true classic! Next is 'A Remark You Made', a slower offering, but one with such depth and romance, and Pastorius's fretless bass really singing alongside Shorter's tenor sax, before ending with almost birdsong from the keys. Then comes Pastorius's composition, 'Teen Town', a short but lively tune, bass-heavy, but melodic, where Pastorius takes over the drum stool as well as the bass. Side One closes with Shorter's 'Harlequin', which is a wonderfully gentle ensemble piece with no-one dominating and each demonstrating their individual talents. There are points in this song that draw me to the Brand X sound quite a bit, despite the sax.

Side Two begins with a slightly different feel, with a percussion & vocal duet between Acuña & Badrena - 'Rumba Mama' - with a strong Latin rhythm to it, which was recorded live in Montreux in 1976: pleasant enough. Then 'Palladium', which almost explodes with its staccato opening, before settling down to a syncopated rhythm on bass under a more conventional sax tune, and the added treat of steel drums included near the end by Jaco. 'The Juggler' is a more ponderous tune, but not in a bad way, with the music building in layers throughout and having an engaging waltz time to it. The album ends with 'Havona', with skittering bass, staccato drums & keys and lilting saxophones - possibly the 'jazziest' tune on the album, and more reminders for me of Brand X.

Over the intervening years, since I first encountered this band and this album, my appreciation of the world of jazz and fusion music has grown, and listening again to it makes me appreciate even more the depth that this album has. It's been said many times, but this is a timeless classic, to my mind, and repays revisiting regularly!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Forty Years On... Steely Dan - Aja

There was always someone at school who had a more adventurous record collection than others. Back in the day, when vinyl was the only real medium for the serious music listener, albums would appear in school bags to be exchanged or to be played in the common room (which gives you an idea of the sort of school I attended), but would usually be the standard fare of Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Genesis or Yes, and that, for me, was a wonderful way to acquaint myself with something new - especially on a limited budget. But every now and then something different would appear: Gentle Giant, ELP and, on occasion, Steely Dan.

I'd heard some of their material before: Reelin' in the Years, Do It Again and Haitian Divorce had been played on the radio, (the latter being a minor hit in the UK) but in 1977 something a little more interesting, different, came along when someone produced their copy of Aja. The cover, in contrast to the colourful jumble of 'Can't Buy A Thrill', was stark and enigmatic. Almost completely black, save for a the red and white stripe of the edge of a kimono, part of a girl's face, and the album title in red and band name in white, it kind of drew you in, wanting to know what secret was hidden inside.

What was inside was something very different from what I was otherwise listening to (see other posts in this series). 'Black Cow', the opener, is a kind of minimalist slow funk, whereas the title track, 'Aja' has a Latin edge to it, but again quite slow and languid: more of an end-of-the-night song rather than heat-of-the-moment, and that Latin edge soon gives way to some great jazz in the form of Wayne Shorter on saxophone. 'Deacon Blues', possibly the first song I'd heard on the album, has a more New York vibe to it, a little more upbeat, and quite sunny - this song puts a smile on my face every time I hear it! Some might say definitely not the  'rock' I was used to, but great music nonetheless.

Side two opens with 'Peg', a dance tune (of the day), funky and rocky, with some great vocal harmonies and even a guitar solo. 'Home At Last' has almost a reggae feel alongside the jazzier elements, with some cool horns and passing classical reference lyrically to the Sirens, and a great little guitar solo from Becker. 'I Got The News' is a jumpy, stuttering little song, but none too shabby for that, again with a funky vibe. Michael MacDonald's backing vocals stand out, as do Becker's short guitar solos again. The album closes with 'Josie', which opens with some ominous guitar work, before the funk steps in again. This is a tune with class and style, drawing an album of similar quality to a close.

In the 40 years since this album's release I've become acquainted with the full range of Steely Dan's work, much of which is outstanding material. But this album is one I return to again and again for its sheer class, beauty and style. It can lift my heart on the darkest days, and had I known back in those halcyon days just how iconic an album it would be perhaps I would have paid it just a little more attention.