Black Vines – The Return of the Splendid Bastards

Since moving to South Yorkshire around 10 years ago, it’s been good to discover the great musical heritage that abounds here. Of note must be the great Joe Cocker and one of Mike’s former Mechanics, Paul Carrack. The Classic Rock Society has two great venues here too, at Maltby and Wath-upon-Dearne, and within popular music of various genres the county has given birth to Human League, Heaven 17, Def Leppard, Pulp and Arctic Monkeys among many others.

To that list we can also add The Black Vines. They may seem like an odd band to be reviewing on this site, but as Brad has mentioned them in an earlier post maybe I can get away with it.

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This is the second album by this Barnsley four-piece, and the 10 tracks take up just over 41 minutes of your time, ranging from 2:40 to an almost epic 8:00 for the album closer. This is not ‘prog’ as we would understand it: this is honest, stripped-down, bluesy rock; “a hard-hitting dirty riff-based dirge, full of soul and dark matter” as the band’s own Bandcamp page proclaims. There’s nothing unnecessary or pretentious here: this is music taken down to the bare essentials and delivered with power and panache as only guitar, bass, drums and voice can.

That said, there are some quirks to this recording that give it a certain edge: for goodness’ sake, they use a mandolin on ‘Another Second Chance’! A number of the songs use audio clips of old radio shows in polished English accents as introductions. The opening song ‘Come With Us’ has the time signal (the ‘pips’) near the beginning, which is echoed at the end of the penultimate track ‘Wolves’, giving the impression that the ‘long song’, ‘In From The…Reign’, is some kind of coda, or even a summary of the whole collection. The clip that opens it speaks of ‘listening to Britain’ and urges us to ‘hear that heart beating’, and perhaps that’s what the rest of the songs have been seeking to help us to do.

If it is the heartbeat of Britain, then it is a frenetic one! A pounding beat pervades the music, driven by bass and drums that feature quite high in the mix in many places, though without completely overpowering the riffing of the guitar and the calm but powerful authority of the vocals. This album put me in mind (in places) of Black Country Communion, Wolfmother, Bad Company and The Temperance Movement, and even of some of Hendrix’s bluesier pieces.

There are some wonderful crowd-pleasing moments here, and I have no doubt that these guys will rock in the live setting (I’ve not seen them live, but can imagine that something like ‘Black Boots on Red Dirt’ would go down particularly well). If you like your rock ‘down and dirty’, and on the whole bite-sized, then this may be a band for you: this is what the band themselves call – in good Yorkshire style – “mucky Rock”.

Chthonic Journey by Ezekiel Graves

ChthonicThe blues moves like a river. It rolls deep, and long ago breached the banks of its Mississippi creation myth.  If you ask where the real blues lives today, you’ll find as many answers as there are street corners, but I see one version as a line running through the Kinks, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, the Ramones, shouting back at Charley Patton, hollering towards Dock Boggs — anyone drawn to its punky bones, the rattlesnake shake embedded in its progressions.

Ezekiel Graves approaches his electric blues along this continuum, through the drones embedded in the banjo and guitar tunings he grew up around in western North Carolina, and these blues are all over Chthonic Journey, his new record of solo electric guitar available on bandcamp (http://ezekielgraves.bandcamp.com/).  The songs are meditations, skeletal structures where rhythm lazily lopes after the beat.  There’s no hurry, though the pieces are short, and the relaxed progress of the album satisfies and stirs.  If you’ve ever wished Richard Thompson’s intro to Calvary Cross lasted longer than its fifty seconds, then this might be your record.  Thompson is a key here, and Graves’s other work has shown his influence more directly — on Chthonic Journey, though, Thompson only occupies a room adjacent to a distinctly American blues.

But while I think there’s an honest authenticity of experience to Chthonic Journey, I’d hesitate to call the record or Graves’s playing American Primitive or Old Weird America or whatever the hell America was before it became less apparently interesting — that’s gazing on this music from a remove, an imagined distance of something past (and which plagues so-called “oldtime” music) — and besides there’s way more here that snaps and buzzes and denies, reminding me of the way Miles Davis played off Pete Cosey, snake charming riffs and using electrical wah itself as a voice and a texture, conjuring memories deeper, more present, than nostalgia.  And still calling it blues.

Records like Chthonic Journey are elemental because they capture an artist in motion.  It reminds me of the Billy Joe Shaver lyric, “moving’s the closest thing to being free.”  I think Zeke Graves is moving, putting an edge to his map.

Some gracious insight from the artist himself:

What was the genesis of the songs?

I had been trying to adapt Southern old-time fiddle tunes to electric guitar–as an exercise and a way to introduce some new patterns and phrasing into my playing, but also as a jumping off point for improvisation.  I liked the idea of starting with something very traditional and taking it to a completely different and out-there place.  Fiddle tunes are typically comprised of two alternating sections (that can potentially cycle endlessly)–each a melody or riff that is enhanced by drones played on open strings.  I thought this would translate well to guitar in an open tuning.  It’s enough musical raw material to keep things interesting, but harmonically simple and static enough that you can go in a lot of different directions without worrying about a lot of chord changes or things getting too cluttered.  This led to the first piece, “Twin Sisters” which is a haunting, modal fiddle and banjo tune from Southwestern Virginia.

I kind of abandoned the fiddle tunes thing at that point (although it will be popping up again from time to time), but I kept the idea of starting with simple, modal themes and improvising from there with an emphasis on space and dynamics.  I wanted to hear how sounds began and ended, the attack and decay.  Once I had that approach in mind, I would just get my guitar into a tuning I liked (mostly ones used by country blues artists of the 1920s and ’30s or modifications thereof), play around until I had a riff or two to start with, and let it spin itself out from there.  I tried to be patient and be as much a listener as a player.

How did you record the album?

I did it all in my little studio loft at home.  Initially, I was using a Tascam stereo portable recorder to capture things, just because it was easy to grab it and press record whenever I had an idea.  I would record for as long as I felt like, and then transfer that over to my computer/audio workstation for listening on studio monitors. Once I realized I was working on a project, I switched over to recording with a Shure SM57 microphone running into Cubase software.  As simple as things can possibly be.

Once I had a large batch of recorded material to work with, I had a few sessions where I would listen and take notes–marking down beginning and end times of sections that sounded compelling with brief descriptions of the sounds.  I pulled those shorter sections out (there were maybe 20 or 30) and then did the listening process over again and whittled them down again to 9 or 10.  I liked the extreme spareness of what I was hearing, but felt that some of the selections could use additional sounds.  Not because I wanted to fill up the empty space or I thought something was missing, but because I thought another tonal color would actually cast things into sharper contrast and make the initial guitar tracks pop out at you even more starkly (to use a visual metaphor).  For these overdubs, I would quickly get a sound I liked with my guitar, amp, and effects and then play along with as little premeditation as possible, focusing on texture, letting accidents happen.  That’s pretty much the whole process.

Tell me about the title of the record.

I was reading some fiction that used a lot of mythological allusions.  In researching those a bit further, I came upon the word “chthonic” (as in “chthonic deity”).  It means “subterranean” or “having to do with the underworld”.  I liked the strangeness of how the Greek word translates into English–it just looks and sounds wrong.  It also sounds like a mispronunciation of “sonic”, so it’s kind of a pun.  More associations came to mind.  The trope of blues as the devil’s music or the fiddle as the devil’s box.  Blues and folk as “low” music as opposed to “high” culture.  “The underground”, as in underground music or movements.  The idea that you have to go beneath the surface to find what is really there.  So I ended up with “Chthonic Journey”, kind of a quest to find something that was lost or stolen.  This is my first attempt in a while to actually release any recorded music, and I have been through some weird places during that gap…so maybe that has something to do with it.

Six of the tracks are called blues.  Definitions, inspirations?

I overused the word “blues” in the titles to call attention to it and question whether any of this stuff could possibly be called blues, or whether a person like me in this day and age could play something you could call blues, or whether that genre name could mean anything so far from the social and historical conditions that created it.  I wanted to show some self-awareness and a sense of irony or humor about my appropriation of these gestures, idioms, and techniques that I use in my playing.  But I also wanted to leave open the possibility that blues is just an expression of life and feelings, and that sounds can go beyond anything material, political, or worldly.

There’s a lot here to think about, musical roots and branches.  Are you working in a tradition?

I think so, or at least engaging it in different ways.  I grew up hearing a lot of what you might call very traditional Appalachian music and still play it with my family and some different groups of friends.  You could see it as being limited or anachronistic from the outside, but once you get inside it it opens up and you see how strong and deep and regenerating it can be.  I learned to play banjo and some fiddle in the last few years and it has completely changed how I play and think about guitar.  I’m particularly interested in these points where the traditional and the experimental music worlds overlap:  raw and gritty timbres, drones, modality, open tunings, the spaces in between the intervals of equal temperament, rhythmic complexity rather than harmonic development.  I don’t feel any conflict in bouncing between those two worlds and feel like I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from that dynamic.

Who would you consider your musical contemporaries?

Really, anyone who is filtering the traditional (or more broadly, American Music) through a personal prism and coming up with something of their own.  In the past five years, I’ve played shows with Marisa Anderson, Chuck Johnson, Daniel Bachman, Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, The Black Twig Pickers, Steve Gunn, and a bunch of others who are roughly scratching in the same dirt.  That is the kind of company I aspire to musically.  I always want to play with and dip my toes into other sounds and scenes though, and am somewhat wary of pigeonholing myself into what is increasingly being written about as a sort of new “American Primitive” scene.  That’s a whole other piece of fat to chew on though.  When it comes down to it, I am just suspicious of genre names and always want to question why and how they’re being used.

What’s next?

Well, I have a bunch of songs that I’ve written over the past few years (like with singing and chord progressions) and I’ve started working with some other musicians to arrange those and have an electric band that can play out.  The idea is to merge the original songs with the kind of guitar playing you hear on “Chthonic Journey” and also bring in some traditional tunes and motifs too.  So I want to develop and then record that.  It’s been a lot of fun so far and I’m excited to see where it leads.

BillyNews: Blodwyn Pig Compilation

Blodwyn Pig coverBlodwyn Pig Compilation Of Rare Unreleased Recordings ‘Pigthology’ Now Available!

London, UK – British blues-rock legends Blodwyn Pig, featuring original Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams, have released a new compilation of rare unreleased recordings titled ‘Pigthology’ on Gonzo MultiMedia UK. Along with Abrahams (vocals, guitars), the band featured Jack Lancaster (saxes, flutes, violin, keys and wind controllers), Andy Pyle (bass), and Ron Berg (drums) and was later joined by Jethro Tull’s Clive Bunker on drums. Produced by Mick Abrahams and Jack Lancaster, ‘Pigthology’ features re-mastered recordings of Blodwyn Pig’s most beloved and successful songs “Dear Jill”, “See My Way” and “Drive Me”, along with unreleased live and studio material.

Blodwyn Pig in its first form was a legend in rock history hitting the top of the LP charts in Britain and elsewhere around the world. The band received new recognition and inspiration when the track “Dear Jill” was used in Cameron Crow’s movie ‘Almost Famous’. Many bands credit Blodwyn Pig with being a huge influence at the start of their careers, including rock legends Aerosmith. There are several fan sites across the internet which still attest to the group’s popularity. Through the years several bands have recorded covers of Blodwyn tunes, the most noted being Joey Ramone’s version of “See My Way”.

Blodwyn Pig played alongside Led Zeppelin, The Who, Procul Harem, BB King, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and Joe Cocker at the Isle Of Wight rock festivals, and the Reading rock festival. The “Pig” completed two successful American tours, playing venues like the Filmores, numerous universities and the LA Forum. Most of the recordings on ‘Pigthology’ are from this period.

A few notes from Jack Lancaster: “On ‘Baby Girl’ Mick played piano as an overdub, otherwise the track was played live in the studio. ‘Cosmogrification’, this was a reformed Blodwyn with Clive Bunker on drums. We only did a short tour. Clive joined because of Rin Berg’s illness. I play piano on ‘Monkinit’ – I mention this because normally we never used keyboard on tracks.”

Tracks include:

  1. See My Way – recorded at Mick Abrahams studio (date unknown)
  2. Baby Girl – recorded at BBC Maida Vale studios, John Peel show (1970)
  3. Dear Jill – recorded at Mick Abrahams studio (date unknown)
  4. Monkinit (A tribute to Thelonious Monk) – recorded at Verdant studios Hollywood, CA (date unknown)
  5. Drive Me – recording location unknown (1970)
  6. The Change Song – live at the Marquee Club Soho (1969)
  7. Cosmogrification – live at Luton Town Hall (1973)
  8. Same Old Story – recorded at BBC Maida Vale studios, John Peel show (1970)
  9. Hound Dog – recorded at Mick Abrahams studio (date unknown)
  10. Sly Bones – recorded at Mick Abrahams studio, Verdant studios Hollywood, CA (date unknown)
  11. It’s Only Love – outtake, Morgan studios (1969)
  12. Stormy Monday – Mick Abrahams studio (date unknown)

This is an anthology of the greatest moments of the original band’s career. Every track is a gem, and I cannot recommend it highly enough! – Jonathan Downes, The Gonzo Daily

To purchase: http://www.gonzomultimedia.co.uk/product_details/15559/Blodwyn_Pig-Pigthology.html

For more information: http://www.squirrelmusic.com/

Press inquiries: Glass Onyon PR, PH: 828-350-8158 (US), glassonyonpr@gmail.com

Back at the Crossroads: The Holland Brothers’ Dueling Devils

One of the highest compliments paid to Chapel Hill NC’s Jennyanykind came from an anonymous reviewer of their album, Mythic (1995),dueling devils

Imagine Syd Barrett composing Astronomy Domine in the mid 90s and you’ll get an idea of what this album sounds like. For that reason, it’s an unusual record, since while most rock bands of the last few years have gone for a pumped up version of that grunge folk popularized by folks like Mark Lanegan, Thin White Rope, and the Meat Puppets, Jennanykind have honed in on the stylistic nuances of bands like Barrett’s Floyd and post-Nico Velvet Underground. A subtle difference, to be sure, but one worth exploring and, done successfully as it is here, one that shows it’s possible to look back for your influences and progress musically. Great stuff.

Jennyanykind were led by twin brothers Mark and Michael Holland. In the early 2000’s they disbanded the group and began exploring their individual interests in roots music, with Mark working in the blues idiom while Michael veered in a bluegrass/ragtime direction. Dueling Devils brings the brothers back together, albeit on opposite sides of an imaginary vinyl recording, each with five tracks of three minutes accentuating their oblique approaches to lo-fi music.

Now, why in the devil would a fan of progressive music spend time with what seems to be its antithesis? I would suggest we reconsider what is called “roots” music on its own terms and within its cultural context. For that, we need to a take a trip to the Crossroads.

On the night of July 4, 2005, I found myself on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Tupelo, MS to Clarksdale, in the company of Jeff Spencer, himself an accomplished guitarist. The ride included a two-hour conversation about music, about Eric Clapton and fellow-Mississippian and King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor, among others. We left the “hilly country” at 7:00 pm and crossed the Tallahatchie at 8:00 (both referenced in Charley Patton’s blues masterpiece, “High Water Everywhere”) and sailed into the ironing-board flat Delta with distant shacks and brewing storm clouds on the horizon. By 9:00 we reached the Crossroads of legend, the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. I jumped out of the car just long enough to have my picture made, but once back inside we discovered mosquitoes swarming by the dashboard light. We found ourselves swatting our way out of Clarksdale.

I asked how far it was to the Dockery Plantation, where Patton and, later, a young Robert Johnson had once entertained. “That’s Ruleville,” said Jeff. “I can take you if you want to go.”

Ruleville was another 45 minutes or so out of the way, and in the pitch blackness of a rural Mississippi night there would have been nothing to see. But what I had seen was enough to establish in my mind the environment into which the bluesmen of old had emerged. To a desolate and desperate place of gang labor and shared misery these men stood out as perverse and irresistible individuals, as showmen and shamans. To a culture that moved to the rhythms of call and response, the bluesmen broke all the rules and concocted a style of performance that, to borrow a phrase from folklorist Cece Conway, was “inimitable and unapproachable.” The blues — with variations of ragtime, jazz, and gospel mixed into the musical mojo bag — was designed to never be fully replicated. This was the work of possessed individuals, griots, spell-binding artists, intent on evoking frenzy and amazement. Two generations before Hendrix, Patton was playing his elaborate syncopation behind his head. It was not popular music, strictly speaking.

To illustrate, I’ve recently been listening to “This Is a Low” from Blur’s Parklife album. It is a cultural gem, composed around a nautical map on a handkerchief and the British Shipping Forecasts. It expresses an English band’s homesickness on the road. And it is pop music to the core, with a big, stirring chorus meant to be accompanied by tens of thousands of Brits in Hyde Park, arms raised. It’s the stuff of football supporters’ cheers.

But with the blues we honestly don’t know what the actual roots sounded like. We just make out enough of Patton, or the Bentonian craftsman Skip James, through a blizzard of crackles and pops on the best digital transfers. What we should hear in those sides are works of extraordinary eclecticism. We should hear the hedges being pushed over. We should approach them the way the original listeners found them.

To revisit these idioms, as the Holland Brothers invite us to do, is to return to the beginning of a music that packed a universe of originality into sides limited by three minutes of wax space. Every slide, every pull-off, every microtonal inflection is a dare. “See if you can do this.”

Mark Holland’s songs clearly emulate Patton. Recorded in stereo, he double tracks his voice (e.g. “My Baby Say She Coming”) to get the same disquieting effect of Patton’s original recordings (did Patton have a ghost voice? were his recordings haunted by demons?). He captures the energy of the Dockery frolics of old on “Coldwater Blues,” a rounder that takes him from one end of the South to the other. “Bic Lighter” works from a minor key to tell a story of dependence, where even “light” serves the cause of darkness.

Mark’s strength, both here and with Jennyanykind, is to capture an atmosphere where the veil between the natural and supernatural is rent. Malevolent forces are at hand, but his protagonists persevere and come to a new level of understanding, often at the expense of conventional wisdom (a good example is “Clear Tone Blues” from 2003). The griot was a storehouse of tradition, but his songs often mocked the culture around him.

Michael Holland’s sides pose a different challenge, recorded as they were live, in mono. This heightens the importance of his finger-picking and phrasing (as well as harmonica and kazoo) to emulate the parts of a larger band.  The playful “Dry Bones” draws from biblical characters (Enoch, Paul, Moses, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy) to show the griot’s awareness of the “light come down.”   He then moves right into Charlie Poole’s rag arrangement of “Leavin’ Home,” a classic American murder ballad.

But his re-do of his own “Peas and Collards” (from an earlier album of the same title) is a swift-moving blues highlight.  It’s about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day for health and wealth, made ironic by the fact that the South, for most of its history, has lagged behind most of the U.S. in both categories (the original version runs through a bitter litany of corporate interests whom “money loves”: Chase Manhattan, Exxon, the WTO, etc., but not momma or the song’s protagonist).

Whereas Mark’s sides are dark, straight-up blues, Michael’s are lighter; but both elements were found in Patton and other genre-benders from nearly a century ago.

A young Syd Barrett spent time listening to a couple of Carolina bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.  An aspiring, avant garde artist of today  would do well to spend some time recovering some of the essentials with the Holland Brothers.