A musical Damascus moment

As I hope this blog makes abundantly clear, music is – to quote Frank Zappa – ‘the best’.

Consequently, I type this surrounded by my guitars, recording equipment, amps and shelves and shelves full of recorded music.

Several years ago – when I had hundreds of cassettes and vinyl LPs (remember those?)  – I once worked out that I could play my collection for several weeks and not hear the same track twice.

Now, it’s several months at least…there’s music on MP3 CDs, MP3 DVDs and hard disc drives.

We’re not talking mere gigabytes here – it’s terabytes of the stuff…

So, there’s a shitload of music here – and of all kinds, from classical to avant-garde jazz.

Indeed, to coin a phrase, from Abba to Zappa.

My current tastes have been steadily with me for a few years now. I find myself listening to a lot of blues, some country and a hell of a lot of jazz.

Heh…I suppose I’m in a bit of a rut – albeit a very, very pleasant one.

However, I’ve just had my musical world totally fucking rocked by what’s probably the most refreshing and involving album I’ve heard in years.

It’s giving me major goosebumps right now listening to it, and I think I could quite happily get marooned on a desert island with nothing but this beautiful music to keep me company.

Basically, it’s an album of Steely Dan songs sung by two Swedish women with minimal accompaniment – mostly piano.

It’s this:

fire-in-the-hole

It’s called ‘Fire in the Hole’ and it’s by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist – although they don’t look like the cover seems to suggest they do.

Here they are:

 

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That’s better, isn’t it?

Here’s the Dan songs they cover:

  • Rose Darling
  • Barrytown
  • Gaucho
  • Green Earrings
  • Your Gold Teeth
  • Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)
  • Don’t Take Me Alive
  • Josie
  • Do It Again
  • Fire In The Hole
  • Pearl Of The Quarter
  • Midnite Cruiser

What surprised me was that if someone asked me to list a dozen Dan songs I’d like to hear covers of, very few of the above would have made it to my list.

However, Isaksson and Törnqvist make the songs their own, and, with minimal accompaniment, the songs are stripped down to the essentials – melody, harmonies and chord changes – and then sung in such a way that each one becomes a small jewel of dazzlingly radiant beauty.

They’ve made me aware of subtleties in songs that I very often skip through when listening to the original albums on which the tunes appeared. I just know that I’ll revisit the Dan versions with fresh ears now.

Their voices are simultaneously plaintive, vulnerable and sensuous but with an inner strength that supports a format of basically two female voices and an acoustic piano.

Yes, there are other instruments – occasionally you’ll hear a mandolin, a sax, a clarinet, an acoustic guitar, a synth, an electric piano or a kick drum – but it’s basically kept very simple and these other instruments just used for texture and seasoning.

Even the voices reinforce this simplicity, with solo and unison singing used when appropriate, and so the glorious harmony sections are made to really stand out .

Some of the instrumental lines – such as the guitar figure in ‘Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)’ – get sung in a vaguely ‘scat’ way, although what could have been a ‘jazz’ album gets elevated to a sort of a melodic purity by dint of the clarity of the singing and an overriding urge to display the inner lyricism of the tunes.

It’s an absolutely fantastic piece of work.

Fortunately, I can share it (sort of) with you on here.

YouTube has a couple of live versions which are almost as good as on the album.

Here they are:

 

The album’s not a work of genius – it’s something a bit more unique than that.

Just as the planets will occasionally align, the sun will be eclipsed and you get a phone call from someone you were thinking about a minute before the phone rang, it just happened – because it did.

The two voices came together on a few pieces of music and something just happened – something so unique that it became more than just a series of circumstances or a fortunate situation.

Call it serendipity or coincidence, but whatever it was, it all gave rise to some of the most beautiful music I‘ve ever heard…

PS I’ve just read this on a blog regarding this musical gem and I agree 100%:

The fact that it even exists gives me hope for the future of humanity.

 

 

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A home studio at last!

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve now finally been able to unpack and semi-organize my ‘stuff’ – ‘stuff’ being the desktop PC, guitars, my music gear and all the associated bits and pieces.

I now have a studio cum office in what used to be a downstairs bedroom and which once looked like this:

 

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And here it is now:

 

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The guitar stash is a bit depleted – from 19 down to 9 – and now consists of my Taylor electro-acoustic, the Yamaha electro-acoustic, the blue Telecaster, the Gitane, the bling Tokai Les Paul, the old Precison bass, the Variax and the two Vintage resos. Bringing 19 guitars across to France wasn’t a serious option and I was thinking about pruning down the collection anyway.

I’m now starting to play guitar a lot more in an effort to ‘get fit’. I’m seriously rusty and as I’m getting a duo together with another English guy here, I need to get more fluent and build up the old stamina. I’d lost all the hard skin from my fingertips gradually, but now it’s coming back.

I also plan to write and record.

Quite what exactly I don’t know, but I have all the gear, lots of time and a lovely place to do it all in.

House update – 18 months in…

Well, we’re 18 months into ex-pat life here in France so, how’s it gone, Monsieur-dame?

Here’s a rough (very rough) timeline:

  • March 1st 2010 – we arrived in France to look for a house whilst renting. We were after a small house without any major work needing to be done
  • April – we found the house we wanted, (a large house with lots and lots of renovation needed!) put a silly offer in which was accepted and then signed the compromis (a legally binding contract of our intention to buy and the vendors to sell) with a view to completion on 31st July
  • July 31st – completion wasn’t happening due to one of the vendors being a total arsehole
  • November – we eventually completed and the house was ours. We set about clearing the house as lots of ‘stuff’ was left. Work on renovation started
  • February 28th 2011 – we moved into the house whilst work continued. We existed mainly in one room with a bed, a sofa and lots of boxes of our possessions
  • August 30th – today! – the inside is finished apart from a few odd bits (snagging as a builder would term it) and the outside is virtually done, with the drainage being sorted as I type this

So, what have we ended up with?

We now have a fully-renovated longere with two reception rooms, downstairs bathroom, massive kitchen diner, a studio/office and a utility room, two huge bedrooms upstairs and a large shower room leading off a large landing. The house stands in about a quarter of an acre of garden with orchard, and there’s a separate parcel of land of about the same area, with a barn, directly across from the house.

Here’s what the front of the house looked like in April 2010. It’s not the same camera angle and view and in the following ‘after’ picture, but it should serve to give some idea of what it was like. The roof wasn’t too clever, the render was crumbling and vines and creepers were all over the place.

 

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Here’s the house today:

 

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The exterior painting needs finishing and the large shutters still have to be put on, but the new roof is in place and it’s all looking much, much better.

The builders are away next week, but work won’t stop. We have the exterior woodwork – door and window frames – to buzz down and then lasure so that they’re all a uniform light oak colour.

Anyway, it’s been a very busy and sometimes strange 18 months, but we’ve ended up with a house that we absolutely love, in a setting that couldn’t be more perfect. It’s quiet, rural and private.

To come – some before and after photos of the interior…

Frites, fireworks and the French

Yesterday was the village bash:

  • A randonnee – a walk – at 9am
  • Concours de Peche – a fishing contest – at 3pm
  • A soiree with steak and chips, a bal (dance) and fireworks at 8pm

We passed on the walk as we had some work to do and also the fishing as my pole didn’t have a hook or line to attach to it, but we went to the evening do.

Out of about 200 people, we were the only English there but we vaguely knew a few people from the pique-nique in May, including a guy who was born in the house we bought here and his wife.

Robert and Jeanette are a delightful couple, in their 70s but as lively as they come and they made us feel very welcome – as did everyone else we met.

The meal was very good – a glass of kir, tuna salad, entrecote and chips, cheese and fruit tarte.

Excellent beef it was too – cooked to perfection and almost able to still go ‘moo’…

An ambulance arriving to treat someone for what was described to us as a ‘crise de tension’ broke the evening up a bit, but although they were taken off to hospital they weren’t desperately ill we were told.

Then it was firework time, with them being set off over the fishing lake which caught their reflections.

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I don’t think I’ve ever met a more friendly and hospitable crowd in my life. They were really, really welcoming and made us feel part of the event.

Off we went to walk home – about 10 minutes away – and just as we turned out of the road leading to the village hall, we were asked if we wanted a lift by two total strangers also leaving the soiree. They explained that walking might be dangerous.

The French stand offish?

I think not.

Lovely, lovely people!

The pursuit of accidents

‘One hit wonders’ are an interesting aspect of pop and rock music and Wikipedia has a very informative entry on the subject here.

However, in some cases, it’s not the success that such acts achieved that’s significant and of lasting merit, but their failures.

Thunderclap Newman – the subject of this article – are best known for their hit ‘Something in the Air’.

This was a so-so piece of hippy revolution fluff that dominated the UK charts in the summer of 1969 and reached #1.

The band was probably more interesting than their big hit based, as it was, around trad jazzer Andrew ‘Thunderclap’ Newman on piano, John ‘Speedy’ Keen on vocals, guitar and drums and Jimmy McCullough (who was only 15) on lead guitar.

With the aid of a powerful friend – no less than Pete Townshend of the Who – Newman and McCullough were brought in to help Keen record the hit. The original idea was for Townshend to mentor each of the three and help with their own individual projects. However, to save time, one project only emerged – the band named after the oddball pianist Thunderclap Newman.

So, ‘Something in the Air’ came and went and the inevitable album was released on the back of the hit – ‘Hollywood Dream’.

Now, ‘Dream’ is an OK album, but it contains one diamond in the rough – a sprawling 9 minute track called ‘Accidents’.

This was totally rejigged and re-recorded as a sub 4 minute single as the follow-up to ‘Something in the Air’ and peaked at a disappointing #46 in the UK.

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I say disappointing because it’s one of my favourite songs ever and a small and perfect but woefully neglected gem.

Dealing as it does with children disappearing through accidents, it was described thus by critic Nathan Morley:

One would have to listen to Wagner in a funeral parlour for something even more morbid than Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Accidents’

However, Morley shares my love for the song:

…which chronicles the deaths of various hapless children who all meet a very nasty end – Poor Mary falls in a river whilst waiting for the Queen to sail by and little Johnny is killed by a speeding car. That said – the song, orchestration and performance are simply brilliant. It is captivating and without doubt their best recording.

The lyrics conclude:

Life is just a game, you fly a paper plane, there is no aim

However, set against a somewhat jaunty backdrop with some nice guitar from McCullough and some well-scored brass, woodwind and strings, drumming that sounds like Paul McCartney to me and some remarkably effective acoustic rhythm guitar, its somewhat depressing message is somehow leavened by the almost singalong and upbeat sound.

It’s one of those pop songs that are quintessentially English – like the Kinks’ ‘Autumn Almanac’ – and like Ray Davies’ creation is almost like a little operetta with various movements all leading to a full-blown coda.

I think another thing that makes ‘Accidents’ very special to me is that I can remember exactly when and where I was when I first heard it.

Somehow I’d blagged a gardening job for the Head of English – Raymond Willis, a great bloke – during the late spring of 1970, which was the year I took my ‘A’ Levels.

It was a Saturday morning and I was re-digging a flower border (a tedious and unpleasant job as he owned a big and very smelly dog which used to shit all over the garden like a fucking elephant) and I had my transistor radio on tuned to the Kenny Everett Show.

Everett always had great taste – usually good melodic pop stuff – and he raved about the track before he played it.

Well, it knocked my fucking socks right off and I tried to buy it as soon as I could, but with no luck.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I heard it again when a neighbour lent me a CD reissue of ‘Hollywood Dream’ and I was able to hear the single version of ‘Accidents’ once more (a bonus track) and also the 9 minute album version.

You’d have thought that maybe a wait of something approaching 40 years might have ended in disappointment.but it didn’t and the track has become very precious to me.

So, what happened to the band?

Well, Andrew Newman still gigs the band although he’s the only original member, John Keen is out of the business after a brief career in music which included producing Motorhead’s first recordings and Jimmy McCullough is dead of a heart attack following a heroin overdose just after he left Wings – yes, that Wings.

I suppose therefore that poignant is the right word for this track – Everett’s dead, Jimmy McCullough’s dead of fucking smack and I’m guessing my old English teacher is too, as he’d be over 100 if he was still alive.

Plus you’ve got children disappearing and a rather nihilistic message.

Perhaps Morley was right after all…

As ever, the music should really do the talking, so here’s the single and the best version of ‘Accidents’ –’ video’ here but good for sound only.

Should you wish to hear the 9 minute album version it’s available on YouTube.

Where am I?

Well, here’s a map of France, with the Pays de la Loire region marked on it:

The region comprises 4 departements – rather similar to UK counties – and we live in #53 which is called La Mayenne. Geographically speaking, it’s south of Normandy and east of Brittany.

We live in the far south-western corner of La Mayenne near to where it says Renaze on this map of La Mayenne:

In fact, we live pretty close to an axis of departmental boundaries meaning that a few minutes’ drive will take us into 3 other departments – Ille-et-Vilaine, Maine-et-Loire and Loire-Atlantique.

Culturally La Mayenne is a cross between Normandy and Brittany and gastronomically speaking, it has to be said, lacking any distinctive style although cider, apples, pork and cream figure largely.

Maurice, our nearest neighbour, laughed when I asked him what the local culinary specialities were…

The departement is largely rural and sparsely populated – which are two of the reasons we decided to go for a move here:

Not one of France’s more mountainous areas – it’s rather flat in fact – the countryside is very unspoilt and verdant and with very few real tourist attractions there are few tourists, which is yet another reason we decided to relocate here:

The hamlet or ‘lieu dit’ in which we live lies just outside a small village which has a church, a mairie, a village hall and…well, that’s it. The nearest shops are about 4km away in Pouance which is where we go for fresh bread, cigarettes and other essentials. In brief, if it’s outside shopping hours and you want something – tough shit.

We’re not the only ex-pats in the area.

With low property prices – another very good reason we moved – the departement attracts quite a few Dutch and British either as second home buyers or retirees. It’s possible to meet up with your compatriots on a very regular basis should you so desire, but we prefer to mix with the French as much as possible. All our neighbours seem really friendly and we reckon that they’re really glad that we’re here renovating a house that was in danger of lapsing into decay and becoming a real eyesore.

Immediately, we’re a bit south of our evening meal which will be pave de rumsteack, potatoes au gratin – made with some 6 month aged Comte – and green beans, all washed down with some rose from a box – 5 litres for 9 euros and quite, quite quaffable.

I’m in a good place!

Ginger bastards update

Time for some long overdue cat news…

Over the year in the house we rented whilst we looked for, bought and finally moved into our own property here in the Mayenne, our two Maine Coon cats settled in to ex-pat life very well indeed.

Django, now almost fully grown at 4, had a particularly good year chalking up many kills including mice, voles and a mole, as well as many birds of several species.

That wren didn’t stand a fucking chance…

Oscar, Django’s half brother and nephew (work that one out!) isn’t much of a hunter, although he  did his best with flies, moths and craneflies.

Oscar is now bigger than his uncle with another year to grow so he seems almost certain to become one of the bigger Maine Coons and I’m glad to say that along with this growth spurt he’s become a very affectionate and companionable cat. Django is a bit more aloof, although still fantastic company.

Now, the process of change has to start all over again for them.

We’ve been here for almost 2 weeks, during which the cats have been kept in. After a few puddles and turds Oscar has finally started to use the litter tray which is something he never did a year ago when we first came over here. I’m inclined to think that this shows that the disruption of moving here wasn’t as great for him as last year when the two cats had to travel on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen without us.

Liberation day is this coming Saturday when the cats of war will be unleashed upon this tiny and unsuspecting community and Ginger Bastardom will reign in this corner of a foreign field…