Thursday, March 15, 2007

Busman's Holiday

Club music songs are very much like Marimekko fabrics - a few elegantly simple design ideas in sort of modular pieces that can be reliably recombined and usually work out, as long as you're not expecting anything other than what they are.

Pulling a mid-90s UK house 12" named "I Believe" by an ensemble called the Happy Clappers out of the "to be listened" pile pretty much guaranteed a certain kind of listening experience, with the only variable being whether it would actually be good or not (it proved to be pretty good).

Were there any doubt that this was to be a well-crafted specimen of its time and place (and not much more), a glance at shows that they had two hits, "I Believe" and "Hold On," which they rereleased in endless 12" vinyl and CD configurations and then recycled them through a series of compilations, most containing the word "Ibiza" in the title.

The lyrical phrases "I believe" (sometimes punctuated with "in love") and "comin' to ya" alternate over a 4/4 kick drum, some congas, the standard slightly gospel-inflected three-chord piano vamp and some synthesized strings, and, of course, hand claps.

None of this explains why these records are sometimes convincing and often not - the precise tension and release structure (where the kick drum drops out for a bit, the piano chords pause or accelerate and so on) is not obviously quantifiable. For that matter why is "If You Should Need A Friend" by Fire Island (hmm, who are they appealing to?) better, or in what ways is it better?

For one thing the piano part has four chords and more chromatic motion between them and there are synthetic horn blats in place of the strings. The lyrics, although banal, attempt to be about something rather than just generic feel-good dance floor hollers and singer Mark Anthoni injects a little gritty expressiveness. At the opening, before the lyrics start, he takes a simple two-note wordless melodic fillip and jumps back and forth between his falsetto head voice and high tenor register to very good effect.

The record label, by the way, is Junior Boy's Own which I've found to be pretty reliable - I'll have to see what else is kicking around here on their imprint - in the meantime, should you (for example) find several hundred in a dumpster, give them a listen!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Brass Monkey

There was a flurry of rediscovery around here centered on The Acoustic Folk Box, which was inversely inspired by missing Martin and Eliza Carthy (and Norma Waterson) at Symphony Space a couple of weeks ago.

The box itself has many pleasures, one of which is a track from Martin Carthy's early 80s quintet called Brass Monkey. The group combined Carthy's guitar and voice with fellow Albion Band alumnus John Kirkpatrick on concertina, along with percussion and brass instruments, trumpet, trombone and saxophone (sorry not to list everyone's name and dozens of other affiliations). They made two vinyl records on the legendary Topic label in 1983 and 1986 and the two were combined onto one CD, The Complete Brass Monkey, in 1993.

The Acoustic Folk Box includes "The Maid and the Palmer," the single best piece from their eponymous first LP, and the second LP, See How It Runs, has one equally astonishing song, called "The Handweaver and The Factory Maid." On both, Kirkpatrick's playing on the various small accordion-type instruments (concertina, melodeon, button accordion) has a remarkable propulsive quality - you can feel the air pumping in and out of the device, urging on the rhythm like a bellows stoking a fire. The brass parts, lending throughout an air of the concert hall or military band which takes us away from the farmyard, have an almost modernist edge, with their repetitiveness and the slightly off-kilter folk metric patterns - lots of dropped crochets and two beat measures. The parts, to my wildly free-associative way of thinking, are reminiscent of Rhys Chatham's marvelous "Waterloo, No. 2" (try this snippet on which should give you the idea).

Finally, the lyrics to "The Handweaver and The Factory Maid" are intriguing as, according the liner notes, the song was originally titled "The Handweaver and The Chamber Maid." The change of focus from petty rural class rivalry to the industrial revolution, the factory maid now representing the new class that is replacing the handweaver, is quite brilliant. Furthermore, despite his family's disdain for factory girls, the narrator seems only too happy to give up the "wearisome trade" of the weaver who is "so bent that he's like to crack" and instead "trudge to the mill in the early morn", where the girls are!

The other big reminder upon revisiting the box was find out more about Eliza Carthy - her closing track, "10,000 Miles," is one of its high points and her 2002 release Anglicana, currently digitally unspooling for my delighted ears, suggests that was no fluke - more to come!

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Pourquoi Je Chante

I was browsing through the track list of "Ultra Chicks Vol 1: Filles In The Garage!" (a collection of French 60s female pop - there were at least 6 volumes in a bootleg series) and noted "Stella" among the many first name-only noms d'étape. I recalled that this was almost certainly the same Stella who subsequently married Christian Vander and they founded the still extant progressive rock band Magma in 1969 and with a few seconds of Web searching, my recollection was proved correct.

Rather than repeat myself on Magma, you can read a quick and entertaining summary in this Time Out New York piece and I'll do a post culled from my secret desert island discs catalog on my two favorite Magma albums at some later date.

Meanwhile it is Stella Zelcer Vander who is of interest today. One of the so-called Yé-yé Girls, Stella apparently became disenchanted with the superficiality of the musical style, hence her eventual move to a rather more esoteric musical realm and now bills herself as "the anti-yé-yé girl" on this rather elegant MySpace page (it's so rare that these things look good, it's sort of a cause for celebration when they do - compare Magma's own page).

My friend's digital copy of "Ultra Chicks..." proved to be corrupted on her track "Nouvelle Vague Blues" - it was just white noise, and surmising this not to be the original intent, I went on the hunt, only to find everyone on Soulseek had the same corrupted copy. Finally, I tracked down a 2-CD compilation that came out in France in the late 90s called La Collection Sixties des EPs Français. Forty tracks of this stuff may be more than the casual fan needs, but it is thoroughly enjoyable in the right doses.

The "Nouvelle Vague Blues" itself fulfills the promise of its title, with a jazzy backing track and lyrical references to "Jules et Jim." The song "Beatniks d'occasion" (audible on her MySpace page) also takes an ironic look at fashionable Bohemianism, although some of the songs recorded when she was very young (she started at age 13) are charming for the opposite reasons - "Douée Pour La recré" is a schoolgirl complaining about how tedious all her academic classes are and she's best suited for recess, and "Les parents twist" is (I'm assuming) a complaint about oppressive parents based on some sort of Americanized teenage slang ("Mon Dieu, que c'est triste, d'avoir des parents twist!") - just the sort of linguistic borrowing Jack Lang campaigned against during his tenure as Minister of Culture!

Finally, don't miss this interview. Also, I noticed a lot of this French 60s pop is tagged with "velocipede radio" on, a phrase I can't find anywhere else, so I'm going to contribute to its spread by using it here (but not on which doesn't support two-word tags!).

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Name Of This Blog

The phrase Sold By Volume is the title of a 10" vinyl record by the band Tono-Bungay (which I am in). It was actually coined by Robert Dennis, so I am hereby giving him credit, even though I have now appropriated it.

You can hear a track from the record on the band's MySpace page, read clever blog entries there, look at long lists of experimental rock bands - and so on!