soundstreamsunday #111: “The Gay Goshawk” by Mr. Fox

1200px-Mr.FoxBob and Carole Pegg formed Mr. Fox in 1970 in the wake of Ashley Hutchings’ early rehearsals for Steeleye Span (having I suppose not passed that audition), made two eccentric albums that writers on the British folk revival still can’t really sum, and were done in both their marriage and the band by 1972.  Critics claim it was uneven live performing, a hard-to-parse new music approach to folk rock, or lack of vocal heft that singers like Sandy Denny or Maddy Prior brought to their respective groups… I put my money on a general learned restlessness you can hear in the music itself, in their very Reynardine-esque name.  Oddball northern England raps butted up against drones, earthy fuzz bass and respirating bellowed instruments, and original songwriting.  Decades later these would earn the band a reputation among acid folk revivalists, but Mr. Fox were less Trees or Mellow Candle, more John Cale as filtered through the Yorkshire dales, even as Bob possessed the patented nasal drawl requisite to any respectable folk act of the period and Carole’s fiddling was appropriately rustic.

A gay goshawk came to my window sill,
The snow it fell fast and the stars stood still,
Oh, won’t you take me in from the storm,
Won’t you take me between your sheets so warm?’
Gold was the colour of his wings so fair,
His eyes they were bold and of silver so clear,
As I laid his brown body upon the pillow,
He became a man, live as a willow.

‘Don’t breathe a word, don’t scream, don’t shout,
Or I’ll turn the whole world round about,
I’ll lay the moon flat on the land,
Twist a rope out of flying sand.’
Whispering women say I have been beguiled,
Now the deed’s done, she must care for the child,
Jasmine’s the colour of his hair,
A nut brown boy with a silvery stare.

The night has gone and the seasons slip by,
Knowing seducers still give me the eye,
But on cold winter’s evenings alone I walk,
I watch and I pray for my gay goshawk.

Penned by Carole Pegg, “The Gay Goshawk,” from Mr. Fox’s self-titled 1970 debut, with its pounding tom and killer fiddle drift, is a lesson in folk-inspired songwriting and in shrugging convention.  No other British folk rock outfit could touch it in terms of both originality and faithfulness to the spirit of the tradition being upheld, although Brass Monkey’s “Fable of the Wings” dwells in a similar landscape.  Evidently the song had staying power for Carole, who recast it over four decades on with, naturally, Tuvan throat singer Radik Tülüsh.  Sly Mr. Fox.

*Image above, Mr. Fox live, circa 1970.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #110: “Twa Corbies” by Steeleye Span

twacorbiesThe power in “O Fortuna” — last week’s entry on the infinite linear mixtape — is in its performative setting, the text from Carmina Burana, enlivened, engulfed, by Carl Orff’s score.  Liquored- and sexed-up Goliards may have written it, may have given it a chant or two in its 12th-century time, but it was Orff who saw its dark potential and thus defined it.  It’s the magic in the most successful pieces of music, and why the idea of performance (whether it’s a live rendering of a piece or a feat of studio engineering), the act of putting on a mask, is such an important counter to its parallel, authenticity, with its passing and uncaptureable fire.

The conceits of performance make any “folk” revival possible, and while the makeup may be thickly applied at times — whether it’s a young Bob Dylan doing his best to carry himself like Woody Guthrie or Gillian Welch’s plaintive approximation of Appalachia — it’s a path to something deeper, a striving towards the elemental.

When Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in late 1969 to form Steeleye Span, something like this may have been on his mind.  In bringing together two couples rooted in Britain’s folk music scene, Maddy Prior and Tim Hart, and Gay and Terry Woods, Hutchings was continuing a search to find a balance between the traditional and contemporary, which would soon lead him to form another keystone of the revival, the Albion (Country) Band.  The Woods’s left after the first record, 1970’s Hark! The Village Wait (Terry would go on to be one of the essential Pogues), and increasingly over the next decade Steeleye would be vocalist extraordinaire Maddy Prior’s vehicle, but the debut captures the spirit of the BritFolk moment, with Hutchings and Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks giving a rock anchor to traditional flights.

“Twa Corbies” brings the darkness, recounting a conversation between two crows about making a meal of a dead knight.  Based on “The Three Ravens,” the song was first published in 1611 but in all likelihood has a far deeper past.  Steeleye makes the most of it, Prior’s clarion call washed in the ragged-but-right chorus of her bandmates.

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s taen another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.

The chunky lo-fi crash apropos a murder of crows murks in the background, conjuring its medieval vibe as baldly and surely as Orff might, electric guitars not detracting from the proceedings.  We’re there, with the band, with the corbies, pikin’ at the bonny blue een.

*Image above by Sam Black.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

 

soundstreamsunday #109: “O Fortuna” by Carl Orff

carminaburana_wheel-1When your local symphony wants to fill seats, a good bet after the annual Star Wars night is a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Its pop power lies in a percussion both brawny and nuanced, and the clean melodic lines of the 23 songs bracketed by the thunderous chant of the opening and closing piece, “O Fortuna.” Orff’s success with Carmina Burana (1936) made his career, but its legacy is — must be — shaded by Orff’s less than courageous behavior in the Nazi era. The piece is thus endowed with a taint, a stink, and some feel this extends to its overt distillation of Stravinsky’s thornier Les Noces (1923) into symphonic ear candy.  Historians have judged Orff’s cowardice and originality to an uncomfortable draw, but listeners remain enthusiastic, sensing in it I think the same elements enriching Orff’s and Gunild Keetman’s Schulwerk project:  a simplicity of melody empowered by a rhythmic focus accenting drama.  Smart but not brainy, easy on the digestion but also moody around the edges, maintaining enough emotional mystery to keep things interesting.

Orff’s adaptation of the Goliardic text was in itself a meditation on life’s uncertainties — his successes were few at this point — and a statement of non-conformity in a fairly heavy-handed academic music scene.  The resulting hour’s worth of songs, combining the words of punk drunk monks and a faux medieval vibe, carries an anti-authoritarian ethic embraced years later by rock.  If you first heard “O Fortuna” waiting for your band to come onstage you’re not alone.  Goths and metalheads love this stuff, and Ray Manzarek, god bless him, went so far as to actually attempt the entirety of Carmina Burana on record.  Oh, fortune, indeed….

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
poverty
and power
it melts them like ice.
Fate – monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is in vain
and always fades to nothing,
shadowed
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Fate is against me
in health
and virtue,
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everybody weep with me!

There is no lack of recordings of Orff’s masterwork, and this primer by Jeremy Lee is highly recommended.  Including here the last two songs in the cycle, “Ave formosissima” building to the return of “O Fortuna,” as recently rendered live by the Munich Percussion Ensemble under Adel Shalaby.  It has a lean, un-stuffy quality that I think complements the spirit of the work.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #108: “Many Mansions” by Sonny Sharrock

sharrock1Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages (1991), with its depth-defying groove and meet-up of ambition and gravitas, is the portrait of a maturing artist hitting his stride.  Sharrock was 51 and riding a creative wave — one foot in the free jazz he brought his guitar to in the 1960s, one in the “collision music” envisioned by musical partner and producer Bill Laswell — when he made this record with a sympathetic band of jazz leaders:  drummer Elvin Jones, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and bassist Charnett Moffett.  A pleasurably melodic challenge, Sharrock’s last record before his passing in 1994 manages to be both a ripping rock guitar album and an American jazz classic, steeped in themes of race, religion, and identity.

The participation of Jones and Sanders is key to creating this mood, their link to John Coltrane making for that ghost’s heavy presence, but Sharrock’s post-Hendrix tone and attack works a territory not dissimilar to Pete Cosey’s and Reggie Lucas’s contributions to Miles Davis’s live records in the 1970s, or Eddie Hazel’s Funkadelicisms.  There is a lot of satisfying growl here.

The penultimate tune in the set, “Many Mansions” takes John 14:2 across a droning chord sequence, a woozy blues backgrounding Sanders’ shrieking solos and Sharrock’s responses.  The deft touch of Jones and Moffett keeps us wading in the water, moving towards an undertow of deep meditation.  Original album version here as well as an incendiary performance from Frankfurt in 1992.

Powerful, spirited, spiritual.

Note: the image of Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock is in all likelihood from a Sanders-led tour in the late 1960s, when the two initially collaborated.  It’s just too good an image not to use in description of the music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #107: “Dada Was Here” by the Soft Machine

softmachine1Given his breadth of tastes, it’s reasonable to think that Jimi Hendrix‘s invitation to the Soft Machine to support him on his tour of the States in 1968 was a calculated act of subversion, upending the guitar god cult and the power trio temple he’d built along with Cream.  The group was an underground darling, the French loved them, and although a rock trio — guitarist Daevid Allen’s departure in 1967 didn’t seem to faze them — they operated on a different kind of wattage, preferring the lower registers of distorto bass (Kevin Ayers, then Hugh Hopper) and organ (Mike Ratledge), beasts that closed in around Robert Wyatt’s peerless drumming.  What lyrics they used tended towards the surreal, either in delivery or meaning, as opposed to the era’s psychedelicisms, and along with their monster chops betrayed the members’ schooling.  They would come to be regarded as the core of the Canterbury Scene, even as they rejected the notion of any such thing, and while key to the development of progressive rock in Britain, their first records, with Wyatt, are diverse affairs defying categorization (hence, doubtless, their influence).  As the band drifted away from jazz experimentation in a rock setting and increasingly towards a watered jazz fusion — its more powerful form they certainly helped to invent — their power diminished.

But for a while, dada was there, and “Dada Was Here,” from 1969’s Volume 2, is an exact explanation of prime Soft Machine, working freely and with a wry, concealed grin.  Sung in Spanish, it is a series of queries with the inevitable answer of i-don’t-know, backed with a breezy post-bop (fuzz) bass, piano, and typical outta-this-world drumming.  There’s a hint of autumn to it, of turning leaves and melting clocks, and in that parallel world where things are as they could be and we appreciate grasp equaling reach, it’s a hit record.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #106: “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” by Cream

Cream1A worthwhile imaginary history: Eric Clapton doesn’t leave the Yardbirds in March 1965. He stays, compromised but successful, and the band’s psych-garage boilerplate “For Your Love” is the first in a clutch of similar vocal-fronted hits that eventually morph the band into a second string Moody Blues.  Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page never join the band, thus there is no Jeff Beck Group (thus no Rod Stewart, no Faces), and no Led Zeppelin. Clapton’s presence in the Yardbirds corks those possible future bottles. And, of course, there’s no Cream, and as such possibly no Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath, and, most definitely, no Mountain. There’s an argument here against Hendrix as well….

Such are Great Man theories of alternate history. Easily corruptible, but fun as thought experiments, and this one makes as much sense as any. Cream’s influence on rock is so profound, their catalog so fundamental, that their absence would have set transatlantic rock down a very different path. Cream backgrounds and informs every subsequent in-unison bass’n’guitar heavy hook (read: stoner rock), every song where a tom-obsessed drummer plays a rhythmic lead, every power trio, and every rock-based long form live jam (growing out of the “rave ups” that made the Yardbirds the scenemakers they were in Clapton’s day).  Even if you’re not a huge fan of Eric Clapton — and I’m not — and you could create similar wouldnahappened scenarios with his Cream co-pilots (and geniuses in their own right) Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, it was Clapton who was the tortured searcher, who saw the productive warring of Baker and Bruce as a positive, and was the driver of Cream with its wheels of fire, perpetually in a state of just passing through.

When they issued their last proper album in August 1968, Cream were so popular that their twin LP swan song went platinum, the first double rock album to do so.  Its studio disc summed in spirit Cream’s first two efforts, Fresh Cream (1966) and Disraeli Gears (1967), while the live disc showcased Cream’s already legendary, and loud, performance prowess, and the tensions banked therein:  it’s a sly joke when at the end of their cover of Robert Johnson‘s Crossroads — a song still played on rock radio 50 years after its recording — we hear Jack Bruce say, “Eric Clapton, please, for vocals.”  Yes, Clapton’s vocals were integral to Cream even as they were secondary to Bruce’s, but it’s his guitar playing that’s the thing, never more so than on “Crossroads,” and Bruce’s toast could just as easily be a wheedling needle as props.  It’s as if Bruce was continuing a conversation that moments before he was playing on his bass: whaddya got, and where else can you go?

The dense, thick battle lines of Cream’s live show were the Mr. Hyde to their studio work, where interpretations of electric blues standards sat next to original songwriting cutting directly to proto-prog poetics, the product of Bruce and his songwriting partner, Pete Brown.  The combination of forms made for a catalog that could put “Spoonful” or “Outside Woman Blues” or “Born Under a Bad Sign” back to back with weirdly beautiful non-blues like “I Feel Free” or “World of Pain” or “Those Were the Days.”  These last were intrigue, fanciful psychedelic flights, for the young Clapton, the blues purist whose work would never again be so adventurous or influential as with Cream, his traditionalism reconstructed by the Band’s Music from Big Pink (July 1968), which left him awestruck.  Playing go-between for Bruce and Baker, in the wake of Big Pink, must have seemed an almighty chore whose fruit was withering.

Of artfully told lost love, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is Cream ’68 in full studio flight, a richer sound afforded by rapidly advancing recording technology (although still short of the breathtaking step Led Zeppelin would make just months later on their first album) and the psychedelic mood further defined by producer Felix Pappalardi, whose string contributions add dynamic breadth and sweep to the dramatics and roadmap his work with Mountain.  Three versions here: the original studio recording, with its dark and perfumed paisley fully intact; the original live version pulled from the same set of songs the band used to put together Wheels of Fire‘s live disc (and which appeared on Live Cream II in 1972); and its last incarnation, from 2005’s reunion show, before things turned bad again between Bruce and Baker and Clapton got bored, containing an interesting energy, as Bruce brings the goods in the wake of his liver transplant, and Clapton and Baker play with a subtle restraint retooling the song’s psychedelia towards a jazzier, bluesier roll.  The spark is still clear, igniting the air, and we fall to our knees thankful that Clapton left the Yardbirds.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #105: “Light My Fire” by the Doors

doors3The Doors built its finest work around straight-ahead rock’n’roll, adding a whirling, baroque jazz samba momentum from the alchemy of keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore, all schooled in the post-bop cool permeating, by the mid-1960s, the many stripes of a blossoming California pop music scene.  Jim Morrison brought the goods of fame, an impassioned thunderhead vocal whether singing his own lyrics or Krieger’s (the band’s most successful writer), and a hip pin-up beauty boosting the band’s pop darling status.  (There is great irony here, as the New York Factory crowd crowed over Morrison’s veneer — with appropriate Warhol-esque fascination — and Morrison himself did everything he could to make and then deface his pretty boy shell, revealing the rot within, in one of rock’s most infamous stories of self-creation/immolation.)  At the core of Elektra’s push to advance American rock in the wake of the British Invasion, the Doors — along with label mates Love, the Stooges, and the MC5 — subverted from within, using their musicianship and Morrison’s undeniable charisma to chart a course for a freedom in pop music that contained the seeds of both progressive rock and punk.  In this they were like the Velvet Underground, although their east coast analogue never achieved anywhere near the popular impact of the Doors (V.U.’s influence notwithstanding).

Of their six studio albums with Morrison, all of which have their strengths, the self-titled debut is the Doors’ most cohesive LP.  Released in the first days of 1967, it counterpointed the hippie cheer of the Sgt. Pepper era, playing to rock’s shadowy furies and heavily influenced by the day-glo punk creep of Love, a band greatly admired by Morrison and which, although still months away from its masterpiece Forever Changes, had already taken the dive into the seamy pop noir that Los Angeles inspired in those who saw desperation in greater relief the brighter the sun shone.  It was a darkness with extreme definition, fascinating to both Arthur Lee and Jim Morrison, and the Doors came out of the gate startlingly fully formed in concept and execution, with Manzarek’s keys and Krieger’s unusual, flamenco/finger-style guitar conjuring a smooth jazz carnie ride driven by Densmore’s muscular but lithe drumming.  Nothing else sounded remotely close to the Doors, thanks in large part too to producer Paul Rothschild and engineer Bruce Botnick, who used the studio as if they were recording a jazz group, attaining a clean, lively separation absent from the period’s rock recordings.  Chalk this up to Elektra’s genius and artist-first philosophy.

Krieger’s “Light My Fire” was the band’s first great success, although its shortened radio single eviscerates its midsection, which contains one of rock’s great guitar solos and instrumental interplay that made its artists’ statement clear: this wasn’t the Wrecking Crew or session players, but a group intent on pushing limits as a band, as if that in itself meant something.  Even the simple final line — “Try to set the night on fire” — Morrison treats as life or death (to this day few singers can build towards and deliver the final utterance of a song as Morrison could).  More revolutionary for its time than it now might seem — and diminished by Oliver Stone’s clunky telling of its creation — “Light My Fire” and the first Doors record as a whole established the notion of a rock group as artistically independent from its record company, a sea change in American music in the late 1960s.  For all of the attention focused on Jim Morrison’s histrionic deterioration and Ray Manzarek’s eulogizing of the Lizard King, the Doors were a cooperative, artistic effort that continues to influence, and haunt, rock groups that hew the edge.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.