Friday, 16 September 2011

Hidden gem: Volume 1 - Manfred Mann Chapter 3 (Vertigo)

Many has been the pop star who has subsequently 'grown up'. George Michael managed it with a degree of class, Britney didn't. Of course its not a new phenomenon, both the Beatles and the Monkees alienated some of their fan base in the 60s as they moved into a more adult sound but perhaps less well known is the transition of Manfred Mann from Do Wah Diddy and Pretty Flamingo to jazz laced progressive rock.

Manfred Mann Chapter 3 wasn't strictly Manfred Mann. True, it featured the South African born keyboard player that gave the band its name but the original band had actually split up in 1969 only for Mann to form this new band with vocalist Mike Hugg. This was a much more experimental proposition who focused on the 'time no changes' approach of jazz players, most notably Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This essentially manifested itself in off-the-wall saxophone solos in the spirit of free jazz legends such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Their sound wasn't jazz though and they set much of the template that would influence subsequent rock acts such as King Crismson, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Their debut album somehow managed to fuse all sorts of influences from jazz, rock, progressive, psychedelia and folk to create a recording whose influence can still be heard today.

The album kicks off withTravelling Lady, moody and slightly gothic. What is immediately apparent is the use of horns to propel the song forward - a saxophone kicks in towards the end and one can sense the free jazz spirit. Snakeskin Garter is more psychedelic in feel. It doesn't feature the most profound of lyrics 'she wore a snakeskin garter' but it successfully pre-empts the sexual subject matter of hard rock that would explode only a few years later. Devil Woman is another track that while not blatantly sexist, certainly pigeonholes women with its talk of 'your poisonous tongue and your poisonous lips' and 'spinning your web all round my heart' - very much of its time.

Korekuf is a six minute instrumental track, freeform in spirit but it does contain discipline and direction. One of my favourite tracks is Sometimes. This is gentle and acoustic at the outset and wouldn't have been out of place on the Stone Roses' debut. The best track on side one though is One Way Glass, a song  that has arguably laid the template for the whole of Primal Scream's career with its throbbing bass, funky drums and psych vocals. The euphoric horns at the end of the track leave you wanting to punch the air, its little wonder it has been used on a number of compilations including Pete Fowler's Sounds of Monsterism Island.

The second half of the record is perhaps slower paced and more melancholy. Mister, you're a better man than I is typical as is final track Where am I going? which is at best bittersweet and at worst maudlin with its lyrics of 'the dreams I used to chase, having fallen from my eyes'. Ain't it Sad is notable for its use of a funky folk flute (try saying that after a few bevvies) while A Study In Intimacy is one of the more freeform and almost Zappa-esque tracks. It fades out halfway through only to fade back in.

This is an intriguing record despite it selling poorly at the time (the band would split up the following year). You can feel the creativity surging through it and the drug fuelled openmindedness of the times. It hangs together well as an album while featuring strong individual tracks and its influence can clearly be heard in many post acid house rock bands - well worth a listen and ultimately a purchase.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Kieron Hebden: An appreciation

I sometimes find myself wondering who my favourite musician of the twenty first century is. There are a few contenders - Madlib or Mos Def from the world of hip hop perhaps or Damon Albarn or Thom Yorke - men who have transcended their indie roots to produce forward thinking and original music. Ultimately though it all comes back to a man who has worked with many of these other great acts - Kieron Hebden. Over the last decade he has been at the very forefront of  modern music - always a step ahead of the pack and yet able to create beautiful melodies that are accessible to even the most casual of listeners.

Initially influenced like so many before him by Hendrix and Zeppelin (and later drum n bass) he emerged from the post-rock band Fridge in the mid 1990s having studied at the almost legendary Elliot Comprehensive (also home to Hot Chip and Burial) in South London. His first solo record, the jazz influenced Dialogue was released in 1999 but it was second album Pause in 2001 which really brought him to wider attention with his fusing of electronica and a folkier, organic style. Whereas Boards of Canada had captured a similarly emotive feel with their referencing of nature documentaries, Hebden tended towards real instrumentation and bedroom sampling and soon found himself at the forefront of the 'Folktronica' movement. This was consolidated on perhaps his best album to date Rounds in 2003. Probably my favourite album of the noughties, Rounds brilliantly builds abstract electronica around acoustic guitar hooks. Random beats and sounds are thrown over the top to combine experimentation with a distinct homeliness. First track A Joy features a 909 synth with random beats thrown over it to create a disorientating, and yes, joyful noise - quite unlike anything that has come before or since.

Rather than embrace the mainstream, Hebdon's next move was to record with legendary jazz drummer Steve Ried. I recall seeing the two of them play together in London and being blown away by what was essentially a set of just one track of about 40 minutes in length. This was more than just a current artist seeking to sit on the coat tails of a living legend, it was clearly a collaboration of mutual respect and the two men collaborated extensively until Ried's untimely death in 2010.

Next solo album Everything Ecstatic was released in 2005 and contained more magical moments as well as some excellent accompanying videos. By this stage Four Tet was a much sought after remixer and the Ringer EP in 2008 revealed a more minimal stripped back sound (Detroit techno influenced to these ears). This preceded the euphoric There Is Love In You in 2010. This album was perhaps a little patchy (and included a bizarre hidden track) but undoubtedly included some of his very best work including  the Orbital-esque Love Cry and tribute to his favourite London nightclub Plastic People.

In recent years he has worked closely with Burial and with Thom Yorke amongst others. In 2011 they dropped Ego/Mirror which was an excellent 12 inch showcasing the talents of three of the greatest musicians of recent years. Hebden regularly drops low key12 inch vinyl releases which are remarkable in their consistency (check recent release Pinnacles for just one recent example). A hotly anticipated Fabric mix is due in September 2011.

As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, Kieron Hebden is more influential than ever. Check electronica album of last year Swim by Caribou or the more esoteric sounds of perhaps the world's biggest band Radiohead for just a couple of examples of the influence of the Four tet sound. Hebden himself admits that he refuses to sit still - always seeking to be more adventurous with his sound. Its impossible to know where is sound will turn next.

What is really noticeable about Kieron Hebden is his good taste and quality control. He doesn't  compromise in any way and the attention to detail on everything from his remixes through to his artwork is immediately apparent. He somehow manages to reference  folk, free jazz and hip hop and yet couldn't really be defined by any of them. He manages to bring warmth and colour to electronic music and is undoubtedly unique - long may he continue to be so.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Why record companies should be happy giving music away...

As someone who loves music and wants to see the artists who made the music getting their payday, illegal downloading provides me with a moral dilemma. I remember reading about the Motown stars and the Small Faces not receiving the royalties they were entitled to and being outraged and yet the new model of musical acquisition means this sort of situation is inevitable doesn't it? If I paid for all the music I listen to I would be spending hundreds of pounds a month on records I barely listen to yet there is no doubt that I am increasingly accessing music for free which I might previously have paid for (some of which I never even get round to listening to).

The fact of the matter is, whether the record companies like it or not, we now have a whole generation of people who don't expect to pay for their music.  The result is that we consume far more music per capita than we used to but we don't covet it all. The last time US album figures actually increased was January 2006.The popularity of Spotify and other music streaming sites shows that the vast majority of listeners simply want access to a track at a particular time rather than necessarily owning it. Fopp and HMV inevitably get hit as do EMI and Parlophone but its an oversimplification to suggest that the music industry is being destroyed. Independent labels continue to thrive and the UK continues to develop new and exciting artists. Revenue streams (live gigs, TV adverts) are different than they might have been ten years ago and labels are having to work harder to sell product (see the deluxe double vinyl or the Deluxe CD re-issue for examples of the brave new world) but look only as far as Katy B, Adele or The Vaccines to see that artists are still coming through and still making a good living.

Listening habits have changed. I still buy CDs and vinyl but I'm a lot more discerning about it. I might listen to 15-20 albums a month through various routes online and elsewhere before picking the one or two that I want to own. These often tend to be the ones that not only sound good but are lovingly packaged too. The labels I spend my money with are Soundway, Analog Africa, Soul Jazz, R and S, XL and Domino - labels that do it for the love of the music, not the love of the money.

At the end of the day, people have a set amount of money that they are going to spend on music (especially in these tough times) but there is much too much product out there to actually be able to buy. People will buy something if they've had the opportunity to try it and if they can be sure its good value for money (and that isn't just about the quality of the music), the sooner the industry realises this the sooner we can all move on.