September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music. The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.

A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982. Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships. He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.

Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz. His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.

Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.

What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). And, lucky for us, footage exists of the latter’s recording session, focusing in on Wayne Braithwaite’s bass overdubs (did they change the song’s key at a later date?):

Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal. Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.

‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove on this, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.

Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.

This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say that things were never quite the same again.

 

 

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Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Virgin Beauty 30 Years On

Who are the great pop and jazz melodicists? McCartney, Brian Wilson, Paddy McAloon, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Becker & Fagen, Miles, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker?

Ornette has to make that list too. He’s virtually incapable of playing a fatuous phrase, even when his accompanists seem to be scrambling eggs. Virgin Beauty, released 30 years ago, was and will now always remain a bit of an anomaly in his discography, a one-off album on CBS subsidiary Portrait Records (which also released Stanley Clarke’s If This Bass Could Only Talk) marketed as ‘Ornette does fusion’.

Which is a bit like asking Miles to do ‘pop’: i.e. you can market it any way you want, but it’s not gonna come out like that. Ornette’s version of fusion contains elements of country and western, space-invader electro, early hip-hop and, of course, glorious chaos.

I hadn’t heard Virgin Beauty for years but loved revisiting it this week. It’s on an old cassette sandwiched between Brian Eno’s Nerve Net and George Clinton’s Computer Games – perfect bedfellows.

First of all, I think it’s OK to find the album funny. Everything sounds a bit wonky; the Chick Corea Elektric Band it ain’t. Ornette’s beautiful alto is always just out of tune (though his trumpet playing is surprisingly in tune) and Chris Walker’s fretless-bass intonation is never perfect. Two rhythm guitarists (Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee) chatter away in different keys and Ornette’s son Denardo programs some drum machines, hits some acoustic drums, some electric drums and, frequently, a jazz ride cymbal. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia drops in for a few enjoyably ramshackle guitar solos.

It’s also almost bass-less. It’s one of the first albums I’ve listened to in the past few years when I’ve had to turn the bass UP. Which is a good thing, because Al MacDowell’s playing is sometimes fairly astonishing. He even throws in a few quotes from ‘Yakety Sax’.

Virgin Beauty was the natural peak for Ornette’s Prime Time band but a bit of a cul-de-sac career-wise. It would be seven long years before his next solo studio album Tone Dialling. The record companies never got their ‘fusion’ record – thankfully.

Scritti Politti’s Provision: 30 Years Old Today

A pop formula can be a dangerous thing. In Scritti mainman Green Gartside’s case, it was literally dangerous – dangerous to his physical and mental health.

He speaks of their 1988 album Provision with something akin to dread these days, lamenting the three-year recording process (no less than 10 studios are listed in the credits) and then ‘a year of hell’ – his words – promoting it (epitomised by the fairly dire ‘Boom! There She Was’ video). A full-blown breakdown followed, and he now says he wished he’d had the guts to explore the hip-hop sounds that had begun to enthrall him around ’86/’87.

But, to these ears, Provision is an almost-perfect follow-up to the classic Cupid & Psyche ’85. There’s arguably more cohesion – Gartside and keyboard-playing cohort David Gamson co-wrote and co-produced all tracks (no Arif Mardin this time) and the guest spots from Miles Davis, Roger Troutman and Marcus Miller are expertly placed.

‘Sweetness’ is the word that seems to follows Scritti around. And despite containing two classic ballads (‘Overnite’, ‘Oh Patti’), Provision is unashamedly happy music – all songs are in major keys – and for me it’s one of the ultimate summer albums (’88 was a great year in this regard, Provision sharing disc space with Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick, Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy and Joni’s Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm).

But Green’s lyrics are always subtly subversive. ‘Sugar And Spice’ may be about anal sex or drugs (or both!), ‘Boom’ references Immanuel Kant and a ‘pharmacopoeia’ (dictionary of drugs), amusingly lip-syched by Gartside in the video, while his interest in Marxism is never far from the surface of even the most seemingly-straightforward ‘boy/girl’ song.

And is there a Grammy award for arrangement? If so, Provision should have won. Gamson and Green do some intricate things here with backing vocals (check out ‘Bam Salute’), rhythm guitars and synth syncopation. No-one else has really explored similar areas, including the greats of ’80s R’n’B. No wonder Miles was a bit obsessed with Scritti.

Yes, the songs on side two are a bit too long and possibly point to a dearth of material, and the album could also do with a real drummer (Steve Ferrone, Vinnie Colaiuta?). Provision missed the top 100 in the States but made the top 10 in the UK (selling over 100,000 copies) and produced one top 20 hit in ‘Oh Patti’. Writer Nick Coleman gave the album a 9/10 rave in the NME, calling its songs ‘sweeties to rot your teeth and detonate your heart’.

Hear, hear. That ‘sweetness’ again…

Prince’s Lovesexy: 30 Years Old Today

Why is Lovesexy probably Prince’s least-heralded, least-mentioned album of the 1980s? Even Dirty Mind, Controversy and Batman seem to get a better rap these days.

The cover photo said it all – this was Prince’s ‘spiritual rebirth’ album, and you were either in or you were out. Lovesexy was also a response to his alleged dabbling with psychedelic drugs (apparently taking place on 1st December 1987) that shook him to his core, and also a response to the highly sexualised, uncharacteristically angry Black Album. He once said, ‘I realised that if I released that album and died, that’s what people would remember me for. I could feel this wind and I knew I was doing the wrong thing…’

So Prince shelved The Black AlbumLovesexy was the speedily-recorded, musically-rich antidote. It’s one of the most challenging albums of Prince’s career but also one of the most rewarding. From the opening synth chords and Ingrid Chavez’s brief ‘poetry’, it’s clear that this is something pretty special. And different.

The horn arrangements are downright loopy throughout. Discordant, dissonant. Instruments are layered to sometimes disconcerting effect. Comparisons to Zappa are not inappropriate. Prince also dials in a lot of his spiritual concerns, with God competing against the Devil (or ‘Spooky Electric’), the purity of the spiritual life competing against the sins of the flesh. With a few jokes.

For many, including saxophonist Eric Leeds, the result was a bit of a mess: ‘I thought it was going to be a great album, but when I heard the final mixes, I was very disappointed. I thought he had completely over-produced the music…’ But the savvy so-and-so that Prince was, he was also careful to throw in three of his most irresistible, ‘throwaway’ pop tunes – ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Dance On’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ – and one of the finest ballads of his career, ‘When 2 R In Love’.

At once scary, profound, silly, funny, romantic and outrageous, Lovesexy still sounds fantastic 30 years on. It was Prince’s first UK number one album and spawned probably the best tour of his career. Here’s how prolific he was at the time – Sign ‘O’ The Times had only come out a year before. And many in Prince’s camp believed that the Sign album and tour had a lot more legs, and that releasing Lovesexy so soon killed them off. We’ll never know. But we do know now that he was coming towards the end of his Purple patch.

Dance On…

Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock? Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage. Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and, to be fair, he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he gathered a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) for his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981.

Entirely written and arranged by jazz provocateur Carla Bley, it’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery. And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even a Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River‘). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career.

 

 

Stump: A Fierce Pancake 30 Years Old Today

If you read the press blurb about Stump, the general consensus seems to be that they didn’t quite ‘make it’. But rather we should probably be thankful that they got it together for as long as they did.

The Anglo-Irish band made me smile (and continue to do so), released a great mini album (Quirk Out) and one full-length one, A Fierce Pancake. Released 30 years old today, the latter is probably in my ’80s top 10 (and is reportedly one of Faith No More/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton’s favourites too).

It was never going to be easy: the drummer (Rob McKahey) sounded like he belonged in Beefheart’s Magic Band or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the fretless bassist (Kev Hopper) was into sampling, Pere Ubu and Brand X, the guitarist (Chris Salmon) sounded like a cross between Hank Marvin and Adrian Belew and brilliant frontman/lyricist (the late Mick Lynch) was more than likely to engage in a bit of onstage belly dancing.

But it somehow works. A Fierce Pancake is dedicated to the life and works of physician/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and writer Flann O’Brien. It was released on Ensign Records, mainly known for breaking Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. Recording sessions at Hansa in Berlin were apparently long and difficult – original producer Holger Hiller jumped ship halfway through and then ‘stabilising influence’ engineer Stephen Street got summoned away to work with Morrissey.

But the album’s sometimes hilarious (‘Bone’, ‘Charlton Heston’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Eager Bereaver’), sometimes touching (‘Alcohol’, ‘Boggy Home’) and always musically interesting. I think of it as something like a cross between Viz magazine and XTC. It’s a shame that they couldn’t maintain the John Peel-endorsed momentum of their early days.

Their manager persuaded them to call it a day after a disastrous Camden Electric Ballroom gig supported by The Blue Aeroplanes on 21st December 1988. A Fierce Pancake hadn’t come close to recouping its costs and the Rave scene was in full flow. It was all over, barring a one-off comeback gig in May 2015.

For more on the band, check out this excellent podcast.