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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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…

David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.

XTC’s English Settlement: 35 Years Old Today

r-1455277-1313625163-jpegVirgin Records, released 12th February 1982

Produced by Hugh Padgham and XTC

Recorded at The Manor, Oxfordshire, October/November 1981

Working titles: Rogue Soup, Motorcyle Landscape, World Colour Banner, Explosion Of Flowers, Knights On Fire

Album Chart position: #5 (UK), #48 (US)

Singles released: ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (UK #10)
‘Ball And Chain’ (UK #58)
‘No Thugs In Our House’ (did not chart)

Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘We spent the summer of 1981 rehearsing at Terry “Fatty” Alderton’s Tudor Rehearsal Studio and it was very sweaty. All the Swindon heavy rock bands would rehearse there, drink cider and piss in the corner. Terry (Chambers) had forgotten how to drum. He had spent the early summer working on a building site and when he set up his drum kit it was more like scaffolding. He was just useless (but apparently improved pretty quickly… Ed.). I forced him to buy a new snare drum and timbale. I bought a Yamaha acoustic. It opened up possibilities for new sounds where the live arrangements mattered less. I’d become unhinged a couple of times on tour and wanted a break. The album cover (by Ken Ansell)? I think it was just that we were fascinated with the Uffington Horse. The Americans thought it was a duck…’

Dave Gregory (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals): ‘I’d always dreamed about owning a 12-string Rickenbacker but it had seemed like a frivolous folly until now. I fell totally in love with the sound. English Settlement was a watershed record for us. We’d made a couple of guitar records and then the acoustic side came out. It was definitely a progression. There weren’t too many songs, just not enough time…’

Colin Moulding: (vocals, bass, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘I bought a fretless bass. I thought it would fit in with the acoustic stuff we were doing but it was impossible on tour. You have to have a flair for playing something without frets and I haven’t. As soon as the lights went out…the rest is history…’

For much more info on English Settlement, check out Neville Farmer’s book ‘XTC Song Stories’.

XTC’s Skylarking: 30 Years Old Today

xtcVirgin Records, released 27th October 1986

10/10

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Recorded at Utopia Studios, Woodstock, upstate New York

UK album chart position: #90 (!)
US album chart position: #70 (!)

terry-thomas

Terry-Thomas in ‘School For Scoundrels’

Side One:

1. ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

Andy Partridge (composer): ‘Something about the words reminded me of Dylan Thomas. Not that I’m saying I’m a Dylan Thomas. More of a Terry-Thomas, really…’

2. ‘Grass’

Colin Moulding (composer): ‘A lot of people think the song’s about marijuana – it isn’t. Todd said: “Don’t sing so deep. You sound like a bit of a molester.” So I just did the Bowie thing and added an octave above it…’

3. ‘The Meeting Place’

Moulding: ‘Because the riff was a bit like “Postman Pat”, we were just figures on a Toytown landscape viewed from above. It was me meeting her (future wife Carol) at the gates for a sandwich in The Beehive pub, embroidered with the suggestion of a lunchtime quickie…’

4. ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’

Partridge: ‘I’d go into his (guitarist Dave Gregory) little room, smelling of aftershave and guitar wax and dead mice, and he’d be rehearsing this solo over and over again. I can still see him playing it. I remember when we were recording the song that Todd was trying to master it on keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, “He’s got the chords wrong!” He thought the chords were major, and they’re not. I was hearing it a lot more clangorous…’

5. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ (Partridge)

6. ‘1000 Umbrellas’

Partridge: ‘There was very little time to do the strings. They had one run-through and then recorded it. Their balls were on the line but they turned in a pretty fine performance…’

7. ‘Season Cycle’

Partridge: ‘I felt that I had maybe laid the ghost of Ray Davies ‘fore me and written a song that could stand up against “Shangri-La” or even, dare I suggest, “Autumn Almanac”.’

Side Two:

8. ‘Earn Enough For Us’ (Partridge)

9. ‘Big Day’

Moulding: ‘I’d been messing around with the chords of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love” and, with a little moving around, it became this sort of fanfare to a big event, a ticker-tape parade for a big day.’

10. ‘Another Satellite’

Partridge: ‘I regret writing it because things turned out so marvellously with the person (Erica Wexler) it’s all about. The story had a happy ending because Erica and I finally got to express the emotional bond that was always there.’

11. ‘Mermaid Smiled’ (Partridge)

12. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’

Partridge: ‘It just says you’re born, you live and you die. Why look for the meaning of life when all there is is death and decay? Todd said, “Let’s do a John Barry thing” and, literally overnight, came up with his arrangement with brass and flutes. It’s bang on. Cod spy music.’

13. ‘Dying’ (Moulding)

It frightens me when you come to mind
The day you dropped in the shopping line
And my heart beats faster when I think of all the signs, all the signs
When they carried you out your mouth was open wide
The cat went astray and the dog did pine for days and days
And I felt so guilty when we played you up
When you were ill, so ill
What sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard
And your multicoulored tea cozy

What sticks in my mind is the dew drop hanging off your nose
Shrivelled up and blue
And I’m getting older, too
But I don’t want to die like you
Don’t want to die like you, don’t want to die like you

14. ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’

Moulding: ‘There was a touch of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a bit of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” in it, I suppose. But I wasn’t moralising. It was just that this was an evil piece of music and good would triumph over it. (The strings) were a bit too Vivaldi for me, but it had to go somewhere, I suppose…’

Further reading: ‘XTC Song Stories‘ by Neville Farmer

Complicated Game‘ by Todd Bernhardt/Andy Partridge