Aquiline Influences - The Talk Talk Family 

Talk Talk was always in my very short list of Actually Good ’80s Synthpop Bands, but things got really interesting by their third album The Colour of Spring, wherein they begin to step out of the pop mainstream and dip into stiller, deeper waters.  It still included irresistible, ebullient tunes of the kind that made their reputation (Happiness is Easy, Life’s What You Make It), although even these contained their share of surprises (Massed recorders?  Children’s choirs?  Of course!), but in other tracks they delved into a sound-world that better matched singer/lyricist Mark Hollis’s more minimalist inclinations, addressed more by Miles Davis or Debussy than by pop.   It was music that took its time to build, leaving space to contemplate a single organ chord or an opaque lyric, before taking a turn into something unexpectedly intense or fragile. 

By their last two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, they had entirely abandoned their pop ambitions and plunged into a world of long improvised grooves, coloured by very non-pop instruments like bassoon and muted trumpet, draped around Hollis’s tremulous vocals.  I’ve read that both albums were recorded in the dark, which included leaving their session players pretty much in the dark about what to play.  Then they spent months mixing the raw material every which way until they were satisfied, which is pretty much what I do.  The result was later called “post-rock”.  Voila!  They had spawned new genre, about which I don’t imagine them giving a toss. 

In 1992 their disassociation with the world they had outgrown saw them quietly disintegrate.  In 1998 Hollis released his eponymous solo album, which took him a further step down the minimalist path.  Sometimes his voice is hardly there at all, a quiver ruffling the slow, spare, acoustic groove.  This album has become one of my desert island essentials.  Half of what I’ve done with Aquiline and other projects has started off as an attempt to duplicate the atmosphere of tracks like The Watershed, invariably failing, although so long as it goes somewhere else interesting, I consider it an okay failure. 

By that time, Hollis had retired to focus on family.  For twenty years I waited for him to re-emerge with some miraculous new thing, but when I learned of his death in February this year, that dream died too.  Luckily others from the group have been active, notably bassist Paul Webb, working under the name Rustin Man.  In 2002, out of nowhere came Out of Season, a collaboration with the cult singer Beth Gibbons.  Do I dare say it’s even better than her work with Portishead?  Well, I can say it’s an even better fit with my aesthetic, and the simply arranged, thoughtful songs give her the chance to deeply mine the vulnerability that’s always been part of her work. 

Then, just a few months ago, Webb released his first solo Rustin Man album, Drift Code.  Apparently he’d taken that much time to teach himself every instrument he wanted on the album.  His voice is like a baritone Robert Wyatt and his arrangements are as surprising and imaginative as you would expect from an alumnus of one of history’s great bands. 

Lots of artists will cite Talk Talk as influences, and you can feel the love in some of the pieces on the Spirit of Talk Talk tribute album from artist as diverse as the enigmatic Thomas Feiner, jazz minimalist Matthias Vogt, and another hero, Nils Frahm, over whom I will gush at length sometime in the future.

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Song of the Week No. 11 - Laura Mvula - Overcome 

Okay - maybe Song of the Six Months Or So...

Coming home from a wonderful concert in Ballarat yesterday (Alessandra Garosi, Adam Simmons, David Jones), Laura Mvula came up on the player.  "It's about time we heard something new from the fabulous Laura", I thought.  So what came up in a list of recommendations on YouTube today?  A new song, "Overcome", made in collaboration with dance legend Nile Rodgers.  Although Nile is The Man (I was even nicknamed after him at one time), I haven't always liked what he's done.  I was nervous.  Had Laura sold out to Disco?  How could Nile compete with the spare, thoughtful orchestral arrangements of her stunning first album?  The start of the song didn't immediately calm my fears, dominated as it was by a four-on-the-floor drum loop and a typical Nile guitar riff, but as it progressed her rich harmonies layered themselves over the beat and ushered in a joyous, exultant chorus which for me evoked church bells.  A sincere celebration of life.

Song of the Week No. 10 - Japanese Wallpaper - Arrival 

We often have Koffee playing in the kitchen.  It's an easy listening station, but they feature a great diversity of really fine sounds.  I'm always discovering beautiful things.  

I had heard of Japanese Wallpaper (aka Melbourne-based Gab Strum) through a remix he did on Luke Howard's wonderful Night, Cloud album (another contributor to that record, Brambles, has remixed an Aquiline track - stay tuned for more on that).  What I didn't know was that he was just 17 - basically I'm old enough to be his grandfather - and that he has a very mature understanding of that most slippery of subjects - making a good pop tune.

His self-titled EP is a small collection of finely-polished gems.  I can hear the influence of Guy Sigsworth, a producer I admire greatly, in the silky textures and refined arrangements, but he definitely has a voice of his own.  I hope he can trust his ear and doesn't fall for being manipulated by a label into following trends.

The other tracks on the EP are very catchy and more upbeat, although still with a delightful delicacy, but this one isn't afraid to be uncompromisingly minimal.

If pop is indeed an elusive treasure, we might only be able to define it in elusive terms.  One of those might be that you feel a bit sad when it's over.

Song of the Week No. 9 - Tony Gould - Follow the Flowers 

The current artist on inexplicably high rotation in my iTunes is the wonderful Tony Gould.  One of those recent instances was in the car driving my mother to an appointment.  "I don't like this kind of music", she observed, "I cant quite explain - it seems kind of grating".  That's a shame, but it's okay.  I'm sure it's all to do with what you've grown up with and where you stand on the spectrum between the attraction of familiarity and the attraction of the new (Mum has a track record in this regard - on another recent trip she criticised Ella Fitzgerald for messing with the melody too much - what can you say to that?).

I have always tended toward the novelty end of the spectrum, and the weave of the harmonies in tracks like this one is for me, exciting like good food - sweetness, tartness, bitterness and richness combining in layers that change with each moment.  There's no doubt that having knowledge of areas like jazz and modern classical music helps with the appreciation of music like this.  I suspect, though, that even if I was too young to have any background at all, I would be captivated by this because it's so textural - you can feel the chords as much as hear them.

I'd like to test that theory on some kids.  In fact, this is from the Hush collection, so obviously somebody else thought Gould's work would be good for stressed young souls - gentle, moody and playful, it hits the spot for me.

Follow the Flowers on iTunes (if the link doesn't work for you, just go out and buy yourself the album.  It also features luminaries David Jones, David Griffiths, and Friend of Aquiline Imogen Manins).

**Postscript: In a further incidence of synchronicity, the morning after posting this, I was rubbing vice-regal shoulders at Government House for the launch of the wonderful new Hush Treasure Book, when who was there but Tony Gould, along with David Griffiths, giving us a gorgeous version of Is It Spring Yet?  How beautiful life is.

Song of the Week No. 8 - Bonobo on KEXP 

They tell you Shuffle Mode is random, but I know better.  Sometimes I get the same artist pop up so often that I know the Gods of Good taste are charging me with spreading the word to a world in need of more great art.  Therefore, the word must clearly be broadcast about Bonobo, who have cropped up just about every time I've plugged in in the last few weeks.

Bonobo is British DJ/Producer Simon Green, who has been producing quirky, thoughtful sample-based soundscapes since the late 90's.  I've always found his work to be more subtle than most electronica, especially when it comes to his organic, delicate beats.  He uses a lot of found sounds, making his grooves original but human-sounding.  But most interesting about his development has been a gradual move towards more structured song-based forms.  His latest album, The North Borders, features some wonderful vocalists, all with a real fine touch, including Cornelia, Erykah Badu and the enigmatic Grey Reverend, best known for his work with my big heroes The Cinematic Orchestra.  Bonobo's work here, to me, shows how much feeling can be injected into electronic music.

But even better is how Green has adapted his work to the stage.  He has put together a flexible band of typically six people playing actual instruments.  Although he still uses samples, he gets real musicians to really play, turning his loops into spacious acoustic drum work and interwoven guitar and keyboard riffs, overlaid with the soulful vocals of Szjerdene.  I actually like it better than the recorded stuff.  Like the aforementioned Cinematic Orchestra, Green leaves lots of space for chords to linger and the drums to gently encourage the groove along.

Their performance is nicely captured in this live session for KEXP radio.  Okay, it's more than one song, but sometimes you can't stop at one.

Song of the Week No. 7 - Joni Mitchell - Let the Wind Carry Me 

I heard on the radio that Joni Mitchell had had an aneurism and lost the ability to use her voice.  It felt to me like her two great artistic loves - music and painting - had been at war and one of them had finally won.  I wasn't too sad because I knew she'd been ill for some time and I started grieving when I first heard.  Grieving to me is not reserved just for death, but for the ending of anything, even if it's temporary.  In a way, Joni taught me that.  She taught me that being sad is a part of everything, and not something to be avoided, but instead something to explore.  She has looked at emotion from all sides now, and can communicate it in the most personal way I can imagine an artist doing, complete with all the complexity, the nuance, and the conflict we like to layer over it.

As it turns out, I now find she doesn't have an issue with her voice (other than the amazing metamorphoses it has been through over the years), and she is expected to make a full recovery.  That's wonderful news, and I welcome any more reflections and stories she might care to share with us when she's better, but if, as it seems she prefers, she chooses to shrink from the limelight, that's okay with me.  She's given me the blessing of her companionship in song for so many decades, and I'm able to dip into that deep-flowing river any time, from any of the bends formed over an always-adventurous, ever-changing career.  Did you know Rolling Stone ranked her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time, the highest woman on that list?  How cool is that?

I could have chosen any number of songs, but this one from her 1972 For the Roses LP is interesting for being a transitional piece, from a time she was beginning to stretch out from her folk roots and experiment with arrangements.  I remember when I first heard it being entranced by the soaring, slightly jazzy backing, combing ethereal vocals and winds, along with lyrics that evoke youthful self-discovery and drifting into the unknown.

Song of the Week No. 6 - The Lark Ascending 

My family and I spent the long weekend in Daylesford, something of a spiritual home for us.  The house we rented was waiting for us with the heating on and ABC Classic FM on the radio.  Classical music in the background doesn't always grab my attention, but in this instance, I found myself continually distracted by the consistent beauty of the pieces they were playing.  Well, that was because they were featuring a weekend-long Swoon Top 100.  I love the the word and the idea of a collection of music to make you swoon.  Originally Swoon was a segment on the breakfast program featuring pieces that are connected simply by their ability to induce rapture.  Frankly, I could use their selection as my exclusive classical music playlist. A lot of classical music is tremendously invigorating, dynamic, spectacular or virtuosic, but the stuff that gets me right in the heart most consistently is the slow, contemplative stuff.  Give me a bunch of Adagios and you can keep the Allegros.

I was thrilled to see Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel coming in at #4 (more on that piece in a future post), but was not surprised when the winner turned out to be The Lark Ascending.  I remember hearing this piece at about age 17, again on ABC Classic FM (bless the ABC) and being swept away.  I'd enjoyed some classical music prior to it, but this one really made me sit up and take notice and sent me down a path I am still on.  It captures the aching beauty available from the violin (an instrument prone to musical hissy fits), whose soaring freedom is offset beautifully by the warm, slow grace of the orchestra, appropriately evoking a bird whirling ecstatically across a cloud-dotted summer sky.

Song of the Week No. 5 - Kurt Elling - The Waking 


A good concert is just about my favourite thing - the magic of a beautiful venue with my beautiful wife to witness beautiful music.  As Nancy said, it is food for the soul.  Especially when you're in the caring hands of an artist like the charming Kurt Elling.  Even more especially when he's joined by the wonderful Melbourne Symphony Orchestra who, under the guidance of Ben Northey, really can swing.

So many delights!  Alongside his fabulous scatting and other spectacles, two poignant moments stayed with me: a lilting melody from Arturo Sandoval lyricised by Kurt (featured on his brand new album Passion World), and a gorgeous duet with bassist Clark Sommers called The Waking.  That's the one I feature today, if only because I have recently reacquainted myself with the double bass after several decades apart.  It's a wonderfully lyrical and graceful bass part, not very "jazzy", and is a perfect foil for Kurt's supple baritone, bringing real feeling to a Theodore Roethke poem.  Kurt's gift for vocal gymnastics is legendary, and it's on show here, but what sets him apart is his total respect for the lyric and the message.

This particular version from Later with Jools Holland features the original bassist, the late Rob Amster.  I can just make out a little of what Rob's playing (if anyone has access to a clearer copy, let me know) and am already trying to work it out.  After that, I just have to find a local equivalent of Kurt...

 

Song of the Week No. 4 - Laura Mvula - Can't Live with the World 

Having encountered Laura Mvula in my travels four times in a week, I am clearly being directed by the gods to tell the world...
 
Lauras Sing to the Moon arrived like a spring breeze in 2013 and instantly found its place alongside the likes of Jeff Buckleys Grace and Elbows Asleep in the Back on my Great Debut Albums shelf.  Her combination of spare, imaginative arrangements, rich harmonies and unadorned vocals (a refreshing change from the histrionic melisma that bellows out from TV competitions) was a delight to the senses, exquisite and moving.  She is a shining example of leaving space for the listener to live in the song, making it very personal in the process.
 
This selection is one of the gentler songs from the album.  If you want something more upbeat and optimistic, try Thats Alright, or if youre ready for something restrained yet utterly heart-rending, try Father, Father.

Song of the Week No. 3 - Tom Waits - Take One Last Look 

I don't usually watch talk shows, but I've always been a fan of Letterman, both for his dry wit and his support of great music. So I was pleased to surf across one of his very last shows and find it featured Tom Waits, a Letterman stalwart who rarely performs these days. After riffing hilariously on antiperspirant (among other things) he then brought the house down with a brand new song, seemingly written for his pal.
"Take one last look at the place you are leaving" is classic Waits, made all the more wistful by his voice, which has descended from gravel to more like rubble (in a good way). Not everyone appreciates Waits, but I find him a true legend with heart and humour.
I believe he's said "I don't know when I will see Dave again. I guess from now on we'll have to settle for bumping into each other at Pilates".