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John Abbott (San Francisco, CA)
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A Prisoner of the Past
A Prisoner of the Past
Price: £0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A stalking of the imagination, 4 Jun. 2014
There are conflicting elements in many Prefab Sprout songs, and this is no exception. On the surface there’s something of a light pop feel that stems from the vocal treatment and the catchy, soaring melody, filled with hooks – and not just in the chorus but during the verse too. But there’s a harder edge and an epic quality to the arrangement, with its crashing drums and a horn section alongside the rich strings. (The album Andromeda Heights features full orchestral arrangements that sometimes sound like a cross between Ravel and lounge music). The lyrics are something else again, the theme of unrequited love familiar enough, but in this case with a creepy and obsessive revenge element that is unusual.

This is a song about stalking, but it’s a stalking of the imagination. There’s little attempt at realism, the song builds on the conceit of the opening line – “I’m a ghost to you now, I’m someone you don’t really wish to see” – and takes a supernatural, gothic turn: “Baby you’ll turn as white as white as snow”. Especially in the verse the words are delivered slowly and in long phrases over a faster moving accompaniment, and Paddy McAloon manages to make this sound both relaxed and menacing at the same time.


Lemon Jelly.ky
Lemon Jelly.ky

5.0 out of 5 stars Multi-layered chill with influences from light music to classical minimalism, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Lemon Jelly.ky (MP3 Download)
I discovered electronic music duo Lemon Jelly a few years ago when I was looking for instrumental music to play for – and hopefully soothe – my young son. This is chill-out or “lounge” music, I suppose, but I think of it more as a mix between easy listening or “light” music, club electronic and classical minimalist music. It’s very melodic and accessible, but relies heavily on varied repetition and the use of intriguing samples, to the extent that it’s sometimes hard to pick out what is a sample and what is new. Tiny details in the music become very significant in its organization. That sounds to me like minimalist music in the classical world. The primary difference would be the use of drum machines and studio techniques more familiar from recorded (rather than live) music, but regular pulse is central to minimalism, so that’s not a huge step to take. The dreamy, fairy-tale sound of “His Majesty, King Raam”, (originally from The Yellow EP, 1999, which samples Henry Mancini’s “Two for the Road”) was the first to catch my attention – and my son loved it. I then bought the CD LemonJelly.KY (2002) that collects the music from their first three EPs together. All the tracks are excellent.

Originally released on the EP, The Bath, “A Tune for Jack” is worth a closer look. It starts out with sea elephant sounds and the commentary from a 1960s BBC children’s programme (is that Michael Rodd from Tomorrow’s World?). Then, after an extended introduction, nearly two minutes long, comes the main piano theme and full-on rhythm section, including a deep and fluid bass line – its sheer exuberance is hard to resist. Underneath, the sweeping string sounds are obviously sampled. But what about the piano itself? Despite its length and apparent unity, a closer listen suggests it’s also been put together from sampled fragments, and in the third of the three short phrases that make up the theme there’s a deliberate stutter in the rhythm that draws our attention to this. This is repeated every time the phrase re-occurs, to emphasize the artificiality.

Further detective work reveals that the piano sample comes from the Johnny Pearson/Sounds Orchestral arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, dating from the late 1960s. It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of easy listening “elevator” music, where the piano-led melody line, slow and built up with huge echo, often sounds as if it’s being played by just one finger. But here I think it’s being used affectionately as well as ironically. Most Lemon Jelly tracks have this kind of multi-layered structure (and there’s plenty more to dig into – what are those baby sounds later on, and who is Jack?). But they also succeed on their own terms as vibrant, funny, and often beautiful music. The follow up CD to LemonJelly.KY, called Lost Horizons, is also highly recommended.


A Tune For Jack
A Tune For Jack

5.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, layered - and with some interesting samples, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: A Tune For Jack (MP3 Download)
Originally released on the EP, The Bath, “A Tune for Jack” starts out with sea elephant sounds and the commentary from a 1960s BBC children’s programme (is that Michael Rodd from Tomorrow’s World?). Then, after an extended introduction, nearly two minutes long, comes the main piano theme and full-on rhythm section, including a deep and fluid bass line – its sheer exuberance is hard to resist. Underneath, the sweeping string sounds are obviously sampled. But what about the piano itself? Despite its length and apparent unity, a closer listen suggests it’s also been put together from sampled fragments, and in the third of the three short phrases that make up the theme there’s a deliberate stutter in the rhythm that draws our attention to this. This is repeated every time the phrase re-occurs, to emphasize the artificiality. Further detective work reveals that the piano sample comes from the Johnny Pearson/Sounds Orchestral arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”, dating from the late 1960s. It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of easy listening “elevator” music, where the piano-led melody line, slow and built up with huge echo, often sounds as if it’s being played by just one finger. But here I think it’s being used affectionately as well as ironically. Most Lemon Jelly tracks have this kind of multi-layered structure (and there’s plenty more to dig into – what are those baby sounds later on, and who is Jack?). But they also succeed on their own terms as vibrant, funny, and often beautiful music.


The Art of the Song
The Art of the Song
Price: £7.52

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wafarin' Stranger, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: The Art of the Song (Audio CD)
What’s going on here? Charlie Haden is a bass player best known for his free jazz. But on 1999’s The Art of the Song he went into somewhat different territory of ballads from multiple genres, backed by Alan Broadbent’s string arrangements. (Broadbent was the pianist in Haden’s ensemble of that time, Quartet West). Vocals on the album were shared out between Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, but on the final track, the folk song/spiritual “Wafarin’ Stanger” Haden himself is singing in a vulnerable-sounding, untutored voice, well out of his comfort zone. It’s very simple and affecting. “I’m only going over Jordan – I’m only going over home”


May Monday
May Monday

5.0 out of 5 stars beautifully fluid and melodic, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: May Monday (Audio CD)
The album May Monday is a collection of mostly new instrumental compositions in the Irish and Swedish folk traditions. The pieces are centered around Karen Tweed’s piano accordian and Timo Alakotila’s classically-influenced piano playing, but around half of the tracks also feature a chamber group made up of a second accordian, guitar, flugelhorn and strings. The accordian playing is intricate but relaxed, the seamless long melodic lines superb. Although it’s using a different musical tradition, the approach reminds me of Gideon Kramer’s chamber renditions of Piazzolla’s tangos on his CD Hommage a Piazzolla. Highly recommended, even for those (like me) not normally attracted to folk music. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get hold of.


Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain
Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain
Offered by skyvo-direct
Price: £16.80

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 21st century's first acknowledged masterpiece?, 4 Jun. 2014
Sir Simon Rattle makes the claim (in a YouTube video) that In vain is “one of the only already acknowledged masterpieces of the 21st century”. Georg Friedrich Haas – an Austrian composer born in 1953 – writes music that employs microtones rather than conventional “tuned” intervals. He’s one of the spectral school of composers who use computer analysis of sound and overtones as source material. In vain, written for an ensemble of 24 instruments, runs for over an hour of continuous music, which sounds daunting to say the least. But as Rattle points out, it has become something of a cult wherever it has been played. And there’s an element of theatricality. The music is structured through a series of oppositions between tuning systems, and light is used to highlight changes in the music – with 20 minutes played in total darkness.

Beginning with a flurry of unfocused notes (like a snowstorm, says Rattle) the music gradually winds down as the lights turn lower and lower. Suddenly it’s completely dark, and pure single notes are fighting against others just slightly lower or higher. Then a harp is introduced, playing the harmony of natural overtones – evoking a halo of sounds that existed long before our compromised modern harmony. As the horns and trombones enter, Rattle memorably describes the result as “like hearing the music that could have been in Wagner’s sub conscious”. This ten minute climax is also reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s late music. Then the lights go down again, and the musicians play memorized snippets of notes that focus into the key of C major. Again a kind of “natural” harmony seems to be established, only to dissipate again as the lights gradually come back up. The music winds up again (as it wound down in the beginning) and we no longer know where we are. It’s stops in mid air, and all has been “in vain”.


Jerry Springer: The Opera
Jerry Springer: The Opera
Offered by Audible Ltd

4.0 out of 5 stars see a live production if you ever have the chance...., 4 Jun. 2014
This is something of an odd case, in that while Jerry Springer: The Opera had a huge impact on me when I first saw it at the Battersea Arts Centre in February 2002 (still then as a one-actor, if I recall correctly), I’ve never much liked the music on its own. But the concept is great – the recurring themes on the Jerry Springer Show are operatic and equally the tropes of opera can often seem overblown and ridiculous. The first production, which evolved out of a series of workshops at Battersea, was really strong, and the music and words worked brilliantly together – particularly the interaction between chorus (audience) and the contestants. Above all it was hilarious, and the audience loved it. So did Jerry Springer himself, who was quoted as saying “I only wish I’d thought of it first”.

However, the music just doesn’t hold much interest for me without the action. (I do enjoy the choral opening where strings of swear words are given the full Handel oratorio treatment – and also the later choral movement “Jerry Eleison”). After the Battersea performance and the Edinburgh Fringe run later the same year (which I also saw), the show was lengthened for its full scale National Theatre production in 2003, and I felt by then it had lost its edge. It was only much later (in September 2010) that I saw another production that I really liked – the Ray of Light Theatre group, performing at San Francisco’s historic, but somewhat dilapidated, Victoria Theatre on Mission and 16th. II had thought it might be too offensive, and even perhaps too anti-American, to be a success in the States, but I was proven wrong – the audience went wild. I’d still go out of my way to see any new production that comes along, but won’t be dusting off my CD of the National Theatre production any time soon.


Hopes & Fears
Hopes & Fears
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £4.83

5.0 out of 5 stars That piano sound, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Hopes & Fears (Audio CD)
For some rock albums the piano is central - David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, for instance. But a much more recent example is Keane’s Hopes and Fears, where the piano sound is integral to the mood and structure of the songs – in fact a conscious decision was made not to use any guitars at all. What piano was it? In fact it was two. Initially Tim Rice-Oxley’s “electric grand piano”, a Yamaha CP70 was used for the demos – the one also used on the band’s live shows. The piano is a hybrid, it has a real action and real strings, but is designed to be portable, so the strings are much shorter and the sound is supplemented by electronics.

However, something more was needed to add to the final mix, and a grand piano in Chris Difford’s Heliocentric Studios in Rye was overdubbed and mixed with the CP70 tracks. It’s not known what make of piano that was, it’s been referred to simply as “the brown piano”. A further adjustment was to run the CP70 through a guitar amp. It gives Hopes and Fears a very distinctive sound, in contrast to most guitar-led rock.

The piano often provides a counterpoint theme or motif to the vocals (as in “Bedshaped”, “Everybody Changes” and “Your Eyes Open”), but it’s also used to provide a strong underpinning of chords to shore up both the rhythm and the harmony (as in “Somewhere Only We Know”, where regular eighth note chords are pounded out throughout the song). On “We Might as Well be Strangers” the same technique is used, but with four, rather than eight chords to the bar. This song follows the classic Keane style, starting softly, building up to a climax and then dropping back down again This is achieved through strong harmonic sequences and a gradual layering of orchestration (synths, not strings here) all leading to an anthemic chorus “We might as well be strangers in another town”, and all intensified further by Tom Chaplin’s soaring vocals.

There are only two tracks where the piano takes a more secondary role. “She Says She Has No Time” foregrounds the synthesizers along with a more obviously electronic piano. It features a simple but beautiful synth solo that sounds as if it’s played on a Rick Wakeman- era instrument – but transcends any technical limitations that might imply. The Beach-Boys influenced “Sunshine” uses the same 1970s glissando-style solo synth with an overtly electric piano to blend in with the layered vocals.


Classic Meets Cuba
Classic Meets Cuba
Price: £10.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Cuban Sugar - virtuosic arrangements, 4 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Classic Meets Cuba (Audio CD)
There’s a long tradition of light orchestral music in Germany – German orchestras contributed much of the best test transmission music for the BBC television “test card” during the 1960s and 1970s – so it’s perhaps not surprising to find a collaboration between German and Cuban musicians such as this one. The Klazz Brothers are pianist Tobias Forster and bass player Kilian Forster, German musicians who became enthusiastic about Cuban music while on a trip to Havana. They then set about making some orchestral arrangements of classical music in Cuban style, releasing Classics Meets Cuba in 2002 – initially just in Germany, but then more broadly two years later. A sequel, Symphonic Salsa, followed in 2006, featuring the brothers alongside some Cuban studio musicians called Cuba Percussion and the Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Roger Epple.

Sounds cheesy? It is (and that’s part of the appeal) except that the arrangements (by Tobias Forster and Sverre Indris Joner) are intricate and beautifully judged. I’m less interested when they occasionally play it straight, just adding a light Latin beat to the classical melody. But in most cases they assimilate the various elements in a much more creative way. The track Cuban Sugar – which I first heard accompanying a dance piece at the National Youth Ballet performance at the Bloomsbury Theatre in 2013 – is a prime example - it deconstructs Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker, beginning with a staggered version of the original pizzicato accompaniment. Then the zither comes in, establishing the Latin cross rhythms. And then, on piano rather than celeste, comes the main theme, slithering down the scale in lazy triplets against the rest of the band. Salsa is all about the coming together of cross rhythms, and these arrangements exploit that to the full, while adding the combination of seemingly incongruous styles to the mix as well. Other orchestras, such as Norway’s Hovedøen Social Club, are now taking up the arrangements, and some of those performances, which can be found on YouTube, are pretty much as good as the original.


And Then We Saw Land
And Then We Saw Land
Offered by TwoRedSevens
Price: £6.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars October, 4 Jun. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: And Then We Saw Land (Audio CD)
"October" was the first Tunng track I came across (on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction), and it prompted me to buy the album. which turned out to be inventive throughout. “October” is representative, an original song that sounds traditional with its contrasting vocal duo singing in octaves (by Mike Lindsay and Becky Jacobs), with whispering, breathing and silence contributing greatly to the atmosphere, unexpected electronic music interludes, quirky instrumentation and cross rhythm accompanying figures on guitar, keyboards and backing vocals.


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