Tag Archives: Robyn Hitchcock

Fear of Folk exhibit A: Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones

Confession: I have a difficult relationship with folk music.

Actually, come to think of it, writing as somebody who likes to regard himself as curious and open-minded with catholic tastes in music and a secret conviction that the number of tracks on one’s ipod is an index to one’s worth as a human being, there are loads of genres I don’t get on with. I think both opera and heavy metal are overwrought and silly, that both jazz and electronica are self-indulgent and irritatingly structureless, that most pre-1900 classical should be confined to the soundtracks of Jane Austen adaptations and that progressive rock is about as fit for public consumption as most other bedroom activities of teenage boys. It seems that if it’s not under four minutes long with verses, choruses and hooks and a beats-per-minute rate of not less than 100 I’m not interested. Basically, I’m a pop song Stalinist.

I have however of late being making a few inroads into alien territory. I’m fine with country and Americana now, having been eased in via brilliant modern singers and songwriters like Neko Case, Laura Cantrell and Caitlin Rose, and since last year I wouldn’t be without my beloved Have Moicy! And I really ought to be able to handle some traditional English folk by now. I mean, it’s got forms and structures that I should be able to relate to, it’s generally pretty stripped down and played on acoustic guitars, which I’ve always got on better with than their electric, effects-swamped counterparts and there are many transparently brilliant people working in the area, like Richard Thompson and Eliza Carthy. But I’ve never really got to grips with it. I think more than anything it’s the wholesome organic authentic vibe of the genre that puts me off, rather than anything specific in the music – I seem to have no problem enjoying folk songs when they’re delivered in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by ironists like Robyn Hitchcock or The Decemberists.

Anyway, this year I’ve taken the plunge and bought a ticket to the Cambridge Folk Festival, one of the most prestigious events of its type in Europe, which I’ve never been to despite living within stumbling distance for the last twenty years. So in order to get the most out of it I’ve embarked on a short acclimatisation course which involves digging out and listening to music by some of the acts that will be playing. All of which leads me finally to the point of this post, namely to talk about Penguin Eggs, the 1981 album by Nic Jones, who will be making his first major appearance for some considerable time at the festival this year.

Jones was a highly respected guitar and fiddle player much in demand as a session player with four previous solo albums under his belt by the time that he recorded Penguin Eggs, but it’s this record that he’s best known for. It contains nine, mostly traditional, folk songs that are presented elegantly and unfussily – for the bulk of the album, the odd backing vocal, accordion or recorder apart, there’s little or nothing to distract you from Jones’s clear, unmannered vocals and really quite extraordinarily adept guitar playing, which carries these songs as effectively as if he’d hired a full danceband. The guitar seems to fulfil both rhythmic and melodic functions effortlessly, with clipped and perfectly accented chord patterns forming the backing for fluid and lyrical runs of notes. I’ve got no idea how he was able to play like this, but there’s no hint of any studio trickery. The songs are pretty good, too, typically stories of rural or nautical misadventure set to sturdy and attractive tunes. After a couple of plays I found I was actually getting a bit obsessed with this record, and it turns out that I’m not the only one to rate it highly: in 2001 it was voted second-best folk album of all time by listeners of the Mike Harding radio show, and its opening song Canadee-i-o has been covered by Bob Dylan. Noted cultural connoisseur Stewart Lee is also a fan.

Nic Jones’s career was brought to a tragic and abrupt conclusion in 1982 when he was involved in a car accident that left with him with brain damage and permanant problems with physical co-ordination, although he’s still able to play the guitar. He’s only recently started giving a few short stage performances, which makes his appearance on the Folk Festival bill a pretty big deal. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago, but I’m very glad I discovered Penguin Eggs. Maybe folk ain’t as queer as I thought.

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Robyn Hitchcock plays I Often Dream Of Trains, The Lexington, London 2/4/12

The Word magazine has in recent times established a fine tradition of putting on intimate yet usually fully attended shows featuring talented and well seasoned performers in an excellently equipped room above The Lexington pub in Islington (or alternatively, as a one-off, aboard a pleasure steamer going up and down the Thames). Having finally realised that this venue is only stumbling distance from Kings Cross station, and thus viable as a weeknight evening out, I attended my first Word In Your Ear gig last night: Word editor Mark Ellen’s old mate Robyn Hitchcock revisiting his 1984 masterpiece I Often Dream Of Trains. As it happens this is one of my desert island albums, probably, so it seemed rude not to turn up.

Support act for the evening was Bristol outfit Phantom Limb, whose subtle and multi-layered blend of country and soul probably warrants more focused and dedicated attention than I was able to give in this environment. They’re a six piece band who play mid-tempo for the main part with plenty of space for Yolanda Quartey’s powerful yet controlled vocals to stand out. Guitars are often used for textures and fills rather than to propel the songs along, with the playing on the upright bass much more prominent than that of the drummer. They do raise the pace here and there, even if they never do anything so vulgar as rocking out, and are clearly pretty talented players. I didn’t pick out much in the way of hooks or distinctive lyrics but maybe these songs are growers and need repeated listens to bed in.

For the main event Hitchcock had also assembled a six piece, though for the most part only a few of them are on stage at any one time. This is unexpected: one of the main reasons the Trains album stands out as so distinctive and out of time is its stripped down, echoey, almost skeletal nature, with most of the songs being carried by Hitchcock alone, with just his acoustic guitar, piano or multi-tracked vocals as accompaniment. But in contrast to when he’s tackling an album by somebody else (such as Captain Beefheart’s Clear Spot last year, which was delivered with remarkable verisimilitude), RH displays a refreshing willingness to try new approaches to his old material – as he says in one song introduction, the album’s changed, but not as much as he has.

So instead of a straight, respectfully faithful, runthrough, we get a bit of a re-mix. Some tracks are dropped (Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl, This Must Be The Day, Heartfull Of Leaves) while others are promoted from out-take or CD-only status (Winter Love, I Used To Say I Love You, Mother Church, My Favourite Buildings). Stalwart Hitchcock sideman Tim Keegan and Terry Edwards are on hand to handle acoustic guitar duties (Keegan) and sax, keyboard, trumpet and shaker (Edwards), along with cellist Jenny Adejayan and backing singers Jen Macro and Lucy Parnell. The performance doesn’t disappoint, and any changes made to arrangements generally enhance the songs: Cathedral is stunningly beautiful, with Hitchcock and Keegan picking out delicate harmonising patterns on their acoustics, the cello underscores the plaintive Flavour Of Night most effectively, and even my least favourite track on the album, the cod country and western Sleeping Knights Of Jesus becomes something of a delight with the addition of sweet backing vocals. The highlights are the two purely acapella oddities Uncorrected Personality Traits and Furry Green Atom Bowl, which are simultaneously hysterically funny and technically highly impressive. The intricate and idiosyncratic harmonies of these two must have taken some rehearsing. Only on the solo title track does Hitchcock stumble a bit, possibly because he’s played it so often (certainly as part of pretty much every show I’ve seen him do over the last 15 years) that he’s finally losing interest in it. Otherwise, this set was a triumph, and I’m properly happy to have finally witnessed these peculiarly fragile and interior songs live at last.

But that’s not all. After a short break Hitchcock comes out again to play some songs by artists who have been a particular influence on him (“If I’m the plant, these songs are the nutrients” he deadpans). If anything, these renditions are even more impressive than what went before – you’d expect RH to be able to busk his way adequately through a Syd Barrett tune, even if it is an interesting choice (Waving My Arms In The Air/I Never Lied To You), but it takes real talent to pull off Nick Drake’s fiddly picking on River Man, or re-cast The Doors’ The Crystal Ship convincingly for acoustic guitar. I’ve got no idea how RH manages to sing in tune and time at the same time as executing this delicate finger picking but he seems to have no trouble. The other songwriters represented include Bryan Ferry, The Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson, Lou Reed (not a Velvet Underground song surprisingly, but the ultra-morbid The Bed, from Berlin), The Beatles (more startling multi-part harmonies on the dauntingly complicated Because, with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside one of the singers this time) and David Bowie, whose Quicksand closed the show. No complaints at all, other than wishing they’d done Life On Mars, and you couldn’t have wished for a better sound mix or more respectful and appreciative audience (nobody in the room talking during the quiet bits? When does that ever happen?) Brilliant gig, and plenty of time for the last train home. I shall come here again.

The Maxon House 2011 CD: tasting notes

So this is my hundredth post, and I was thinking I should use it for something suitably pompous like a list of films of the year or new acts to watch out for in 2012 or a testing Christmas quiz but in the end I figured that I don’t really possess anything like the necessary acumen for any of those. Here instead is something different but no less self-indulgent. Every year at this time my house compiles a CD for distribution among friends that contains recent tracks we particularly like and one or two older songs that relate to gigs we’ve been to or other significant events. People sometimes ask us about the tracks and artists, so here as a public service are some tasting notes, together with a few links.

1. The Agitator: Get Ready. Used to be known as the famous poet Derek Meins who had a nice line in filthy acoustic songs about Sigmund Freud. Has now given up the guitars in favour of urgent agit-prop beats and soulful bellowing.

2. Poly Styrene: I Love Ur Sneakers. RIP. Damn shame. But a brilliant, unapologetically right-on, album to go out on.

3. The Go! Team: Buy Nothing Day. Catchiest track of the year. You can almost hear the bright primary colours, a physical response is compulsory.

4. PJ Harvey: The Glorious Land. From the startlingly great Let England Shake. Went to see her at Ally Pally in July.

5. Real Estate: It’s Real. Deceptively smooth and tuneful indie guitar band from New Jersey. This is from their second album Days, which is so mellow and relaxing and free of dissonance it’s actually quite sinister.

6. Wire: Clay. All these postpunk conceptual outfits keep ploughing on. Didn’t rate the new Gang Of Four album much, but this is well up to par.

7. Half Man Half Biscuit: Excavating Rita. This may be the most commercial sounding track they’ve ever done, ironic given the subject matter. From the splendid 90 Bisodol (Crimond).

8. Joan As Police Woman: The Magic. Terribly awkward alias for Joan Wasser, who was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend you know. This rather slinky track from the album The Deep Field.

9. Blancmange: The Western. Yes, even Blancmange have a new album out. This is pleasingly similar to Living On The Ceiling. Let’s party like it’s 1982.

10. Eliza Newman: Eyjafjallajökull. Jolly ditty celebrating the holiday-complicating Icelandic volcano.

11. Zoey Van Goey: You Told The Drunks I Knew Karate. I know nothing about this. But I do like the title…right, just looked them up. They’re from Glasgow.

12. Robyn Hitchcock: Dismal City. From the stopgap album Tromsø, Kaptein, which is actually a much better collection than either of his last two official releases. Saw him doing Captain Beefheart in June. Here he sounds more like The Kinks.

13. The Low Anthem: Boeing 737. This lot are ironically named, I’m guessing, as most of the tracks on their Smart Flesh album are so quiet they make the Cowboy Junkies sound like Motorhead. This one’s nicely bombastic though.

14. Anna Calvi: Blackout. My single of the year, I think. Sweeping, lush, widescreen, those sort of adjectives.

15. C.W.Stoneking: Don’t Go Dancin’ Down The Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Seen him three times this year. He does an enthralling rambly surreal intro to this when he does it live, involving a Hoodoo doctor and a prophesy that he’ll die in an eight sided room.

16. The Decemberists: This Is Why We Fight. From the best REM album in twenty years.

17. Alex Turner: Piledriver Waltz: From the soundtrack of the quirky, self-conscious, but still very likeable Submarine. Later re-done by The Arctic Monkeys but I prefer this one. Just looked him up as well, turns out we have the same birthday.

18. Magazine: A Song From Under The Floorboards. Should have been one from their new album really,  but none of the new songs are a patch on this. Saw them live in November.

19. Bonus track. My current favourite songwriter doing a cover, karaoke style.

If you’re interested I think most of these should be on Spotify, or you can contact me for a CD. And, er, Merry Christmas.

Robyn Hitchcock plays Captain Beefheart, The Relentless Garage 3/6/2011

Robyn Hitchcock is obviously a musician who enjoys a challenge. As a tribute to the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, last night he went on stage at The Garage in Highbury with his band and played the whole of the good Captain’s Clear Spot album, originally released in 1972. If you’ve made your mind up to have a crack at Beefheart, and at the same time try not to alienate too many casual listeners, then Clear Spot is an excellent choice of text, being both Van Vliet’s most conventionally funky album and one of his most accessible, but you’re still setting the bar pretty high here – the tricky and intricate guitar parts and the many abrupt changes in tempo make this a collection of songs you’re not going to be able to busk your way through without serious preparation. If anyone’s going to be able to manage it though it should be Hitchcock. He’s got good form on wilfully esoteric and lurchingly abrasive rock music, as anyone who’s familiar with the early Soft Boys recordings can testify, and he’s got a good track record on covering classic material, having previously tackled The White Album, Hunky Dory and Dylan’s 1966 Albert Hall repertoire.

Support was provided by East Anglian saxophone legend Terry Edwards, who had allowed himself to be roped in by Hitchcock for guitar duties in the main band on condition that he could play an acoustic set made up of a few cover versions first. It was an enjoyably eclectic selection: a few jazz standards gently crooned, Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Doctor, The Beatles’ relatively rarely heard You Won’t See Me and, in honour to the late Alex Chilton, Give Me Another Chance by my beloved Big Star. He finished with an idiosyncratic take on I’ll Go Crazy by James Brown, which afforded him the opportunity to switch rapidly between guitar and sax in entertaining fashion.

We then got an unexpected one song interlude featuring Hitchcock, cellist Jenny Adejayan and two backing singers which had been put in, Hitchcock explained, as a “commercial” for his new album Tromso, Kaptein (so new, in fact, that it hadn’t been released in time for the merchandise stall to be able to stock it. I’ve got a copy though, via mail order from the US (/smug)). The song was Old Man Weather and it sounded lovely, and was also the only chance we had this evening to enjoy Hitchcock’s beguiling acoustic fingerpicking style.

For the main event Hitchcock was joined by Edwards on stratocaster and Adejayan again on cello, with Paul Noble on bass and Stephen Irvine on drums. Edwards looked kind of nervous, but the rest of the band seemed game and after some typically deadpan quips about how there’d be a break halfway through to simulate the record being turned over Hitchcock led the musicians fearlessly into Low Yo Yo Stuff. And after recovering from the shock of the sudden increase in volume after the generally mellow opening acts I have to say they sounded pretty impressive. Tight, accurate, with the parts interlocking as they should, and the singer delivering a really quite uncanny impression of Beefheart’s growly and sometimes impossibly deep voice. Hitchcock produced a harmonica for Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man and again reproduced the part more or less perfectly, and the brass parts on the record were delivered very convincingly on the cello, which sounds bizarre but somehow seemed to work. The openings of some of the songs were slightly tentative and fumbled but once the musicians had established the mutant groove things generally worked out OK. Hitchcock was often singing and playing what are essentially lead guitar parts at the same time, which is a very difficult trick to pull off and one that Van Vliet never had to attempt, so he deserves a lot of credit for his musicianship. The only track to actually fall apart was the closing Golden Birdies, for which a roadie had to hold a crib sheet up for Edwards, although it was Hitchcock himself who was the cause of the errors due to his inadvertent transposing of some of the lyrics. The crowd didn’t mind though, and the band came back for a stomp through Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do and Electricity from Safe As Milk as an encore. A short and sweet set, but a hard task successfully achieved – I’ll look forward to Hitchcock attempting Trout Mask Replica some time.