Tickling Our Fancy 087: Kahil El’ Zabar & David Murray, Above The Tree, Scarlet’s Well, Etienne de la Sayette…

June 10, 2020

REVIEWS ROUNDUP/Dominic Valvona





As of writing this latest roundup of new music recommendations and curios, the lockdown restrictions that many of us in the UK have been under are erratically and confusingly being lifted (to some degree). Still, anxiety and uncertainty reigns, as the music industry (I’m thinking more the venues, small scale enterprises, self-made and the diy) is left pretty much high and dry with little in the way of finical help, or even solutions to the inevitable problems of a post-Covid, isolationist society.

Live music being the biggest casualty of this lockdown, it is indeed pretty worrying that one of the only revenue streams left open to artists to make any real money from is now so endangered. As we have all seen for ourselves or heard from an abundance of artists and labels, the so-called savior of streaming has been anything but beneficial for the majority of artists. And can hardly count as revenue at all – unless you are Kanye West or Justin Bieber.

We will of course need time however to see how physical sales will fare; though I bet many out there have baulked at buying vinyl, CDs, anguishing over the spread of the virus. Records stores have been forced to close down and move online of course, which may also affect sales: the browser in particular will be affected, as will many of us who enjoyed not only looking for records but just the company and chat with the shop owner, the chance of coming across something by chance or being recommended something. Spontaneity has gone out the window in that respect.

With all that in mind, I ask you to do what you can in supporting new music and the artists featured in this roundup. You can of course purchase many on Bandcamp and similar sites.

 

As ever this selection is an eclectic gander at artists and bands from around the world, cosmos and beyond. Bringing us beautiful, evocative bluegrass rooted traverses, Kentuckian born and imbued Myles Cochran delivers a new subtly unveiling EP of ambient and guitar experiments, My Own Devices; sonic navigator Alex Norelli, under the Fierro Ex Machina nom de plume, conjures up an album of heavy electro-acoustic imaginings; and painter/musician Marco Bernacchia, aka Above The Tree, produces a vivid soundtrack of ambiguous folkloric and synthesized mystery on the new album King Above. In the Techno field of experimentation, the ever-prolific Sad Man is at it again with another album; this time in lockdown and going for the kicks. Also, Etienne de la Sayette unleashes another pleasant polygenesis album of African and South East Asian grooves.

In the reissues in-tray this month, I have a special treat for fans of The Monochrome Set’s stalwart vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Bid and his noughties project of surrealist and eccentric escapism, Scarlet’s Well. Join me as I run through a new decade spanning collection of songs from the catalogue. I also run through the recent reissue of the Indonesian music legend and maverick Harry Roesli’s ambitious 1975 psych-soul-pop-funk-gamelan opus, ‘Titik Api’.

Headlining this latest roundup, two titans of the contemporary and spiritual jazz scene, Kahil El’ Zabar and David Murray, join forces once more to lay down a righteous transportive performance on the ancestral with a modern pulse communion Spirit Groove.


LEAD REVIEW




Kahil El’ Zabar’s ‘Spirit Groove Ft. David Murray’
(Spiritmuse) LP/12th June 2020


Praise be to the healing arts of those contemporary jazz luminaries Kahil El’ Zabar and David Murray. If ever there was a time when we all needed calm and a spiritual deliverance it’s right now. A service, a quasi-liturgy of spiritual jazz, the two American titans of their experimental forms have drawn on a wealth of providence and influences to once more join forces through El’ Zabar’s “spirit groove” of connectivity.

As a harmonious bedfellow to the Chicago drummer/percussionist’s lauded (especially be me) Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, this righteous groove communion with the tenor sax and bass clarinet maestro Murray “intends to move you nakedly with a deep sense of dance on a Mind/Body/Spirit level.” And what a groove it is; a disarming rhythmic set of performances with a poignant, timely message, or, as El’ Zabar himself puts it, “This is the moment to rekindle the notion of social relevance within the legacy of jazz as an improvised people’s movement for social change.”

The creative partners enact this change (or at least attempt it) by channeling both the ancients and jazz greats they’ve both been lucky enough to share stages with over the last fifty years. El’ Zabar for his part, learning the craft through the Chicago hothouse known as the School of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and by playing with or supporting such greats as Eddie Harris, Cannonball Adderley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Archie Shepp (the list goes on). Oakland born Grammy Award winner Murray meanwhile has recorded and performed with a no less impressive list of notable talents, including Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Murray was also a founding forefather of the horns and wind instruments lauded World Saxophone Quartet.

El’ Zabar’s atavistic with a modern pulse spiritual soul and jazz experiments are coupled with Murray’s untethered long and short breath saxophone contortions on an album of new, specially written material and expansions of compositions from the back catalogue.





Joining them on church service organ and cascading, accentuate piano is Chicago stalwart Justin Dillard, and on bowing soothed and more scuttling acoustic bass, the burgeoning talent Emma Dayhuff. This makes for an enviable solid act; a quartet of jazz apprentices from different generations that between them have connections to every great jazz pioneer of the last fifty plus years. But, nearly, all roads lead back to Coltrane in particular. Murray despite practicing and molding amore unique technique inspired by the triumvirate of old guard doyens Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves then what Coltrane preached, he’s paid various homages to the late great saxophone deity. ‘Trane’, a notion, encapsulation, nod to his universal influence pared down to just the second syllable of a name, is all that’s needed on the track that appears on this album as a tribute of sorts. The swing time ‘Trane In Mind’ is a mood, a sense of that style; a splashed poolside dash of Coltrane in his ascendance.

 

Faith though is the main driver of the groove and varied utterances that pour out of this erudite ensemble’s performances. The water-carrier trickled percussive opener, ‘In My House’, welcomes all to El’ Zabar’s titular sanctuary; a place to raise the spirits and soul. A prayer in the form of a primal gospel House music anthem, the jug pouring shuffler features El’ Zabar’s signature vocal exaltations, which sometimes negate words and lyrics for just hums, feelings and an essence of vocal expression. A frame for a freeform expansion of the mood, Dillard switches from subtle piano phrasing to venerable organ, whilst Dayhuff bobs around as Murray customarily catches shortened hooted breaths and longer sublime circular breathing squalls.

The power of faith in love is enshrined on the next dreamy flight, ‘Necktar’. Dedicated to not only Murray’s new wife Francesca but also true love itself, the quartet skiffle and swing to a liquid soul music groove that sets up a meeting between Gil Scott Heron, Bill Withers and Lester Bowie. Talking of dedications, El’ Zabar’s ancestral percussive, vocal cooing ‘Katon’ opus was written for his fourth oldest son. (El’ Zabar has quite the brood of children and grandchildren we’re told). A special bond and sentiment is conveyed over a magical meditative suite of music box mbira, deft piano, serenading and hooting tenor and dipped bass.

‘In The Spirit’ is, as the title says, another faith radiating communion. Bird like fluting floats over dusty brushed drums on this venerated shuffled version of the original, first performed by El’ Zabar in late 70s Germany. Another past composition, the low-key Savoy jazz like ‘Song Of Myself’ was part of El’ Zabar’s trio project with Murray and the late bassist Fred Hopkins. “An introspection of dancing in your mind”, this riff on that recital stands out on an album of ancestral percussive heavy spiritual jazz and stripped acoustic House music with its smoky, kept subdued almost downtempo, intimacy. Almost veiled even, toots, dusty drums, hints of the vibes and live lounge atmospherics take the listener off into a new thoughtful space.

Working in various forms together since the late 80s, a third composition – appearing on the lauded LP of the same name – ‘One World Family’ is framed as a sort of “theme song” for the partnership. Extending the original with a more expansive performed backing of woody-slapped rhythms (which near the end climax in an erratic display of pounding and punching), spiraling reedy fashioned free-flowing saxophone and soulful melody, the quartet flex and breathe across a earthy but skybound cycle.

A reconnection, a spiritual bound partnership El’ Zabar and Murray appear from the tumult to capture a difficult to quantify feeling: a rage even. Quenching the soul with a “spirit groove”, they’ve laid down a both swinging and mesmeric alternative jazz service of mediation but also, and above all, they push for a positive change in the most inflamed and dangerous of times.





RECOMMENDATIONS


Etienne de la Sayette ‘Kobugi’
(Muju Records) LP/1st June 2020




As pleasantly inviting as the album’s sumptuous artwork, the highly active Etienne de la Sayette delivers another worldly traverse of Africa and South East Asian rhythms.

Channeling a wealth of his ever-expanding array of projects, from the Ethnio-groove imbued Akalé Wube to Bae Ho homage-inspired Baeshi Bang, and from Frix to an assortment of film scores, the Etienne de la Sayette platform pulls together the overspill. Put together in-between all these other commitments, but far from a secondary concern, the latest album to emerge from that project is a rich gentle flowing exotic affair. Played entirely by the intimate band of flexible drummer Stefano Lucchini, balafon maestro Lansiné Diabaté, and a small circle of guests, the undulating soundtrack is mostly devoid of technological interference: no virtual instruments or MIDI were used in the making of this record we’re told. Etienne for his part plays a mix of accentuate and hooted, relaxed honked saxophone and flighty flute throughout this borderless escape.

Embracing genres, especially in the rhythm department, the opening odyssey ‘Jajinmori’ takes a traditional Korean rhythm that Etienne discovered whilst collaborating with percussionists in Busan in 2016 and adds a softened Kuti Afrobeat vibe, Orlando Julius Afrojazz sax and the buoyant wooden bobs of the balafon. Riding over the top of this wavy fusion, Chicago rapper turn Parisian scenester RaceCaR lyrically flows with a stream of poetic consciousness that kicks back to the ancients. He gets to finish the album too, with a more political spit against the arms industry and the militarization of authority on the growled, scuzzed acid-metal-psych Deep Purple-esque monster riff ‘War Business’. Though spanning a two-year period, this “sawn-off shotgun” of a leap from the rest of the material proves the timeliest in light of recent events.

Second guest spot on this album goes to Cameroon troubadour Erik Aliana, who arrives from another compass point to rasp, growl and also lay down sweeter vocal charms on the rustic-folky village song ‘Safari Kames’.

Taking the guiding light of Afrobeat once more, the busier ‘LOULOU’ is as much influenced by Steve Reich ad chamber music as it is by Kuti and Tony Allen. There’s even a tone of Benin spotting organ and Hailu Mergia woven into the flashbacks. Diabaté’s balafon is almost watery, like a jug pouring out the droplets of bouncing notes. It’s “shamanic invocations” that rise from ‘Kobugi King’; another undulating fusion of the dreamy and soulful, taking in Muscle Shoals organ, oriental voodoo and impassioned talking-in-tongues utterances.

With slightly more buzz and rattle, the group channels the spindled resonance of the metal tine thumbed Kalimba, as played in the style of Konono #1, on the wilder exchange of organ and free-form drums tribune to the African and Caribbean god of knowledge of stories, ‘Anansi’. They also evoke a bit of the intense fuzz of Marc Ribot; his ‘Ceramic Dog’ being mentioned in the notes.

The only cover, Tegenu Balkew’s Ethnio cassette obscurity ‘Anchi Bale Game’ plays loose with the original’s magical spell drift towards the Orient. In another example of the free-travel music show, the group takes on a reggae gait with the church service suffused beachcomber ‘Tortoises’.

The most interesting thing about this album and the musicianship is the flow of ideas, and the weaving together of both African and Korean rhythms, as Etienne and his ensemble blend tastes of Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and the Orient together in one track. Apart from a couple of numbers, Kobugi is a lilting, relaxed but deep listen; a cross-pollination of music synchronicity.





Myles Cochran ‘My Own Devices’
(9Ball Records) EP/19th June 2020




Regular readers and followers may remember that we premiered the experimental Kentuckian bluegrass, roots guitarist and composer Myles Cochran’s subtly evocative single, ‘It’s Like This’ last month on the Monolith Cocktail; a track that reverberated with the atmospherics and mood of a vaguely traced place on the outskirts of a recognizable American panorama. A hazy semblance of Cochran’s alternative Americana sound, that same single now forms one part of an extended version, ‘It’s Like This – It’s Like That’, on the new EP, My Own Devices. Expanded into a drifting Appalachian traverse with echoes of 75 Dollar Bill, and part rustically dreamy guitar, part lilted classical waned and bowing strings (the cello parts courtesy of Robert Curran), this couplet would make a great soundtrack to ambiguous horizons.

Recorded and put together between rural studios in France and the UK (where he now resides), much of this EP’s material wanes and sighs, breathes and pines across a sonorous prairie. The opening swooned, rhythmic shuffle ‘Love Is As Beautiful As Pizza’ merges reverberations of Myles Bluegrass signature trails with jazz, post-rock Mogwai and Daniel Lanois. As the title suggests, it is indeed a beautiful, and bowed mirage-y, instrumental.

Released a few months back, the ‘Early Dark’ peregrination blends more yearning sad and trembled strings with brushed drums, and the hint of a Mick Harvey soundtrack (there’s that word again, ‘soundtrack’). Though you can also confidently add shades of Ry Cooder, Robert Fripp, Warren Ellis and Steve Reich to both this ‘springtime mix’ and the rest of the EP’s material.

Plonking peaceably across the prairie, Cochran finishes up on a Bruce Langhorne meets Eno mosey ‘Churrito’; another drifter traverse of skiffle like rhythms, resonating guitar and spindly strings.

Almost just the tracings, lingering from behind the valley landscape, Cochran’s meditations and waning mood pieces are easy and quiet on the ear; shaped towards an alternative contemporary ambient vision of those bluegrass roots.

Myles will follow this latest EP up, we’re told, with an album entitled UNSUNG later this year.





Fierro Ex Machina ‘Processions’
LP/19th June 2020




The sensory sonic processed imaginings of Alex Norelli concentrate the mind on some foreboding sometimes creeping recondite worlds: Worlds that branch both the chthonian and alien.

From an apparatus of electro-acoustic, and what the L.A. based multi-instrumentalist and creative calls their “noise harp” – an assemblage of deconstructed electric versions of classical strings and dejected music equipment, which includes Alex’s Grandmother’s out-of-tune 1950s S1 Hammond Organ -, materializes a quartet of heavy studies in the experimental neo-classical, ambient, soundtrack and jazz fields. Yes, I did mean to include jazz; the kind that the American Nocturnal avant-garde saxophonist Andy Haas exudes on his various boundary-pushing peregrinations. But also a semblance of Ornette Coleman’s strung-out writhed, iron gate hinge waning saxophone can be heard enervated on the album’s opening mourned journey through the portal, ‘Praeter Nexus’. Unsettling as it slowly gains gravitas and a seething momentum that grows more mysterious, more unknown. The Nexus track demonstrates a frayed, fabric torn movement simultaneously as spatial as it is claustrophobic and dark.

Ominous nocturnal movements follow with the spherical shifting ‘The Shadows Of Plants At Night’. Metronome counted ripples tick away in the night garden as a ghostly-like voiced sound and permutations of Donny McCaslin’s sax waft by. Those plants sound more like concrete planetary leviathans chiding and scraping together. The lamentable entitled ‘Do You Know The Sorrow Of The Horses’, which sounds like the opening from a particularly harrowing plaint from beyond the ether features howls of a kind from wolves of some sort prowling the borders. This wispy invocation, as a scion of Cage and Nam June Paik, trundles across the inner workings and mechanisms of a grand piano: or so sounds.

‘A Sail Of All Tears’ finds a trace of melody and even a rhythm amongst the circling uncertainty and the chills. Turning over in the darkness, dawdling bass guitar and electric guitar notes act as guidance through the enormity of the elementals.

There’s a dark majesty and gravity to all four of these heavy evocations. The dissonance is nowhere to be found however, and so even in the abyss each one of Norelli’s visceral statements remain in a sort of ominous building harmony; a synthesis of sonorous emotion, journeying towards the void: A soundtrack for our frightening times.



Sad Man ‘Daddy Biscuits’
LP/5th June 2020




Despite the alter ego moniker of garden shed electronic music boffin Andrew Spackman’s most prolific incarnation yet, the Sad Man in lockdown is anything but as anxious and plaintive as the name might suggest. The latest (must be millionth, or something like that, release from Andrew now) experiments-in-motion album is in fact quite playful: a laugh even. Euphemisms, innuendo aside, Daddy Biscuits has a more uninterrupted flow of rhythms and progresses in a less agitated, ennui fashion than most of Andrew’s output.

Set loose with a trick noise making apparatus, the Sad Man goes for the kicks, transmogrifying House music and Techno for a staccato dancefloor. Jolted Djax Techno gets warped and bashed with shocks of Mike Dred, galloping 808s and mischievous Ed Banger electro funk on an album in which you can hear the cogs moving around in the artist’s noodle: where to go next? What about this, zap-bang-clatter-wobble-drill!! A Sad Man track seldom ends where it began.

God knows what the titles indicate half the time either. The titular cyber wilderness track alone goes through Luke Slater, Juan Atkins, Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers. The track ‘Sleeper’ is anything but somnolent, running as it does through a bastardize version of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, 16-bit computer game coin-up prizes and hints of M-Plant Rob Hood and a crystalline dream magic. For me though, I love the strange curio ‘House Work’ (definitely a tune that would improve the chores no end). It sounds like Major Force mashed with Wagon Christ and Les Rita Mitsouko; a sort of electro-operatic funk.

For kicks then, Andrew eyes up the groove on a collection of both panel-beater workshop beats and modulated weirdness; an album for lovers of Warp, Leaf, early Jeff Mills and House Of Tapes. Lockdown proves a fertile environment for the conceptual artist and sonic maverick. I like this subtle change. Pass round the magic biscuits selection again in the future please.





Above The Tree ‘King Above’
(Hukot Disc/Plug In The Gear/Krimzkramz Sub Post) LP/Available Now




Dropped into some alternative futuristic pastoral world in the aftermath of an unexplained event – or that’s at least what it feels and sounds like to me -, visual artist and amorphous sonic sculptor Marco Bernacchia creates a visionary traced soundscape of haunting holy and esoteric materializations from out of the ether on his latest vivid soundtrack, King Above. A soundtrack, as it turns out, for an as yet unreleased documentary, this regal entitled suite of passages, renderings and lingerings would suit a mysterious theme with its signs of the ominous, exotic, and in some cases, supernatural.

Gravitating around the so-called “Italian occult psychedelic” scene, a catch-all term coined in the early noughties to describe the emerging esoteric and out-there sound being made by bands such as Comaneci and Father Murphy (both of whom feature in various ways on this album), Bernacchia practices a sort of ever-evolving vision of “outsider music”. Far too knowing and technically proficient and learned to be the musical equivalent of the usually naïve outsider art, his Above The Tree moniker mapped abstractions have a depth and knowledge that betrays an eclectic, studied palette of influences.

Blessed and doomed in equal measure, the Urbino Academy of Fine Arts alumni paints a both unsettling and pretty atmosphere. In between his professional practice (reaching the heights of exhibiting at the Venice Biennale; which is one way to say you’ve made it in the contemporary conceptual art world), the painter has learnt an assortment of instruments, from saxophone to guitar, the Malian harp-like Kamalengoni to the Russian variant of the Jew’s harp, the Vargan. All of which appear throughout the various dreamy drifts and Kosmische stirrings.

All these instruments and influences are filtered through a gauze of the gossamer, wispy and misty, with the bewitching chimes set against distant echoes of voices, messages and Medieval leftfield folk: think Faust at their most atavistic meets Sproatly Smith. Something like the courtly, rustic reverberations of a past epoch drift in and out of a vaporous bed of drones, ambience and exotic swathes of an unearthly realm. The plucked brushed tremulous guitar phrases often evoke Ry Cooder and (sharing this particular roundup) Myles Cochran.

Nature is always present no matter where Bernacchia guides us. There’s even a sort of nature meditation codex at the end of this fourteen-track oeuvre; the sound of birdsong and an ambiguous great scenic outdoors is permeated by the waning gravitas building accompaniment of bowed strings and the barest undulations of the synthesized. Icy blows, vortexes, cylindrical metallic and ghostly visitations merge with the pastoral and at times the revenant.

With permission from his already mentioned compatriots, Father Murphy, a sample from the group’s 2018 esoteric blessed ‘Communion’ – which featured on the Rising. A Requiem LP – features on the cooed cloisters score ‘Merci On Us’. The original song’s venerated choral atmospherics are woven into the lulled dreamy renaissance treatment.

“Donating” lyrics and voice to a couple of tracks, Francesca Amati of the Comaneci duo offers up a strange repeated breathy mantra on the open couplet ‘Windows Soul’, and utters soliloquy like phrases on the title-track. Amati sounds like a weird space-age narrator on the latter; her statements fragmented, almost disjointed.

Those utterances offer another layer of mystique to an album steeped in the abstract. Tangible instruments exist with the unmistakable tremolo of a guitar, gabbling of the ngoni and spring of a vargen, yet it’s the obscured textural hints of imagined places and spaces that win out. Bernacchia has embraced a history, myriad of emotive forces and atmospheres, the organic and synthesized, and transduced it all into this suffused empirical soundtrack of sublime outsider folk. I thoroughly recommend you seek it out.






REISSUES

Harry Roesli ‘Titik Api’
(Lamunai/Groovyrecord) LP/2nd June 2020




It may sound surprising to many of you dear readers to find that someone as switched-on as me hasn’t come across, until now, the Javanese Temple psychedelic funk of the Indonesian maverick Harry Roesli. Submitted by the kind folks at the Lamunai/Groovyrecord hub, a reissue version of the celebrated artist’s iconic mid 70s concept opus Titik Api has piqued my interest.

Providence wise first, Roesli was born in the bastion of Gamelan, on the island of Java in 1951. In what could be described as a privileged upbringing, Roesli’s father was a major general in the Indonesian army, his mother a doctor; both positions offering a relative security in a country ruled by the quasi-dictator Suharto – a leader with a tightening grip, who managed to keep hold of power for four decades, from 1967 to 1998.

Obviously a talented musician from a young age, Roesli actually decided to study engineering instead of music. It was during those formative years that the creatively minded bohemian was turned on to political activism – a story retold in more detail in the album’s liner notes. To be glib and race through the details, he became an active member of the 70s Tradisi Baru Movement. Translating as “New Tradition” this growing political and creative movement were committed to experimenting with Indonesian traditions such as gamelan. Critical of the regime however, it soon became too dangerous for student activists such as Roesli to evade the authorities iron fist. In one such crackdown, Roesli found himself imprisoned. Luckily for him, a Dutch member of Amnesty International was on the case; gaining an escape route for Roesli through the promise of a scholarship, studying percussion in Holland.

To cut a long story very short, this gave the burgeoning talent another layer of musicianship and host of new influences, which he eventually would take back to his native home. The music of Indonesia was now fused with prog rock, psych, acid rock, pop, enervated funk, soul and even the more complicated rock experiments of Zappa. All of which you can hear on the ambitious 1975 concept album, Titik Api: a kind of Indonesian drama set to music, with ‘prologs’ and ‘epilogs’ and a quasi-overture, a work of art from a hip-international minded cat. It’s nothing short of a Southeast Asian panorama of atavistic mysticism, romance and spiritual yearning.

The first cut from this double album alone, ‘Sekar Jepon’, moves from a gamelan Goblin to Bolero, whilst maintaining the signature zappy effects, sizzled fuzz and chiming percussion that permeates this entire opus. Those prog rock influences get harder on the hypnotizing temple rock ‘Jangga Wareng’: almost Sabbath heavy. The fluty thirteen-minute epic ‘Lembe Lembe’, features both shades of Jethro Tull and ‘Revolution’ era Jefferson Airplane. Slicker, leaning towards soul music, the romantic-sounding female lulled harmonies, sun-anointed ‘Merak’ fans out towards a lilting Brazilia. In a similar vein, another lengthy opus, ‘Kebo Jiro’, switches from soft funky soul and pop to fantasy boat ride, then snake-charming prog and rattling conga solo. ‘Curah Hujan’ takes a scenic route in an Alfa Spider convertible, as the radio blasts out a quasi-Bossa Italo love theme.

It seems Roesli wasn’t shy in throwing everything into his musical fantasy; Latin dreamy troubadour on the first of two ‘epilogs’, proto-disco on ‘Dinding Tolan, and Samba-rock on ‘Bunga Surga’.

From seductive slumbers to golden temple spiritualism and mirage-y trinkets and tubular tolls, Titik Api is an adventurous psychedelic vision from a fertile, expansive mind. An alternative Javanese dimension, invigorated by contemporary late 60s and 70s influences this is an all-encompassing epic from the Indonesian maverick. Don’t worry if like me you missed it first, second even third time around, this new reissue will serve crate-diggers and psychedelic fans alike well enough. Take a punt, dig it out and be introduced to a whole new rabbit hole of Southeast Asian music.





Scarlet’s Well ‘Magic (Selections From 1999 – 2010)’
(Tapete Records) LP/26th June 2020




The saga of the Monochrome Set spans five decades and umpteen break-ups. Blossoming at the fag end of the punk epoch, and continuing to produce music even to this day, the revered group has disbanded at least three times during a checkered history. The second those breakups, in 1998, proved a fertile escape for the Set’s stalwart singer, guitarist and songwriter Bid, who plowed his fantastical and whimsical inventions into a new band, Scarlet’s Well: a band that would, in one form or another last until the third incarnation of the Set in 2010.

 

A congruous bedfellow to Bid’s former group, Scarlet’s Well not only featured the Set’s 90s period keyboardist Orson Presence and producer Toby Robinson, but also transformed some of the unfinished material. Though it wasn’t just a place to crash for former Set members, the evolving, changing lineup would after a few albums expand to include Alice Healey on vocals.

Conceived as an “atmosphere” rather than a band, Bid conjured up a surrealist village diorama and cast of bawdy rouges, lost supernatural characters and monsters, explorers and pining cowboys/cowgirls to build an evocative storybook. Coming to life over seven albums of varying quality, this strange but disarming set location and its vague geographical tributaries (“somewhere east of the Azores and only slightly north of the Styx”) offers a magical encapsulation of all life’s woes, tribulations and physiological defects. It’s an adventure in which some of the salty sea dog inhabitants take the listener on a voyage to various atolls and exotic river ways; sailing into a range of both suffused and fleeting musical ports-of-call. Even the means of nautical travel differ, from a junk to galleon, a skiff to Pugwash shambolic pirate ship.

Receiving an appraisal a decade on from the Well’s final swansong, this oeuvre brings together a (almost) chronological collection of idiosyncratic pastoral whimsy and deeper, darker metaphors. “Bless my barnacles”, the rightly titled Magic collection opens with a couplet of alternative pop sea-shanties from the Well’s 2006 LP, Unreal: A year that proved very productive, with the band uncharacteristically releasing a duo of albums that year. ‘Sweetmeat’, which despite its alluded title sails on a junk to the gentle tones of a lullaby, has Bid channel Scott Walker and Roy Orbison on this beautiful sayonara caress. ‘Willy Whispers’ – no sniggering at the back – features the harmonizing sweet tones of Healey; who by this time was now a prominent member of the band. An example of that diverse range of influences and instrumentation, this spindled beauty simultaneously evokes Westerns, a punt down the Neva and the charming psychedelic storytelling of Pete Dello.

The debut album, Strange Letters, which now puts the songbook back in linear order, is represented by the solitary oompah-tuba ‘The Captain’s Song’. Reimagining a Brecht version of The Yellow Submarine, Bid’s put-on seadog baritone croons a veritable feast of sea-lovers Bonzo lyricism. Both comical and violent, he comes across like Blixa Bildgard early era Bad Seeds.

The first album of a new decade, 2000’s Les Baxter-esque The Isle Of Blue Flowers is represented by a trio of Spanish and concertinaed songs. Maybe a consequence of being signed to the Spanish label Siesta Records, there’s a dalliance with the host’s Flamenco and Latin spirit in the form of the castanet cantina ‘Lord Fish Garlic’s Last Expedition’: a song that fantasizes about a Suzanne Vega senorita fronting Fairport Convention during the Mexican war with America –imagine that! From the same album there’s the Franco-paradise Edwyn Collins-goes-surfing bendy title-track and the South Pacific meets Creole lala ‘Dark Dreams Aboard The Hesperus’.

Lewis Carroll’s literary and psychedelic totem heroine inspires the Well’s next album in the sequence, 2002’s Alice In The Underworld. A castaway choice of songs reflects the album’s use, again, of certain Spanish motifs and flairs. The exotic ‘Night Of The Macaw’ wafts lazily in a Caribbean bay; soft marimba and a lulling spiritual organ drift in the background of this beachcomber sway. ‘The Ballad Of Johnny Freak’ is another story entirely; a metaphorical tale of acceptance from Monsterism Island that puts Healey center-stage of a Hispanic lilted lament.

Moving forwards another two-years, The Dream Spider Of The Laughing Horse album features another of the band’s characteristic musical embraces: a kind of transcendent mosey form of Americana. The title-track, a trotting on the trial cowboy song, and ‘Big Dipper On The Spearman’s Floor’, a waylaid Hawaiian cowboy amongst the rock pools serenade, are chosen to fit the unfolding travelogue compilation.

The second album from 2006, Black Tulip Wings, goes all noir on us. The Bad Seeds rub shoulders with an enervated B52s, ‘Savage’ even goes into lounge swing halfway through its tremolo and Theremin-like wobbles. It’s show time on the album’s title-track as Brecht is brought to the Hollywood detective paperback.

Once more on the lonesome cowboy/cowgirl trial, the next two albums, 2008’s Gatekeeper and 2010’s Society Of Figurines reimagines the Western and country music cannons. On the first of these albums, Bid and his ensemble traverse The Mekons rebel country signature on the sweetly laced, springy desert key metaphor themed ‘Golden, It Is, Beautiful’. From the same record, ‘My Little Doll’ is a little more upbeat in comparison; a shuffling vision of The Bluebells round the campfire with the Frank And Walters. From the porcelain supernatural cast second of these two albums, it’s a strange combo of garage band with elements of the Inspiral Carpets baggy version of Tex Mex beat that underpins ‘Supernatural Services’. From that same record and drawing this decade spanning collection to a close, ‘The Vampire’s Song’ pitches Nosferatu in Nashville; the bloodsucker’s wandering song is a most lonesome pining affair.

Ambiguous throughout, Bid’s microcosm of mavericks, illusionists, rum miscreants and the plain misunderstood is an escape into the fantastical; a wealth of cryptic, surrealist psychedelic and cartoon outsider storytelling and art transduced into a disarming songbook of posy, shanties, ballads, cantas and pop. If you enjoy that long English tradition of eccentric songwriting, then this marvelous collection will quench your soul, heart and mind.




Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

One Response to “Tickling Our Fancy 087: Kahil El’ Zabar & David Murray, Above The Tree, Scarlet’s Well, Etienne de la Sayette…”

  1. […] Kahil El’ Zabar’s ‘Spirit Groove Ft. David Murray’ (here…) […]

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