Musikkåret 2016 har vært preget av utrolig mange sterke album, ambisiøse verk som fortjener å oppleves i sin helhet og i tiltenkt sammenheng. Min liste over de 100 presumptivt beste ligger her, men for å oppsummere året litt mer lyttervennlig må jeg selvsagt også rangere 100 av de beste enkeltlåtene – eller i hvert fall de jeg har hørt mye på gjennom 2016. Det har vært en overskuddsoppgave, med god plass for flere. Har avgrenset til én låt pr. artist.
Toppen speiles av artister som nettopp har utgitt noen av årets sterkeste album; Cohen, Bowie, Solange, Woods og Kevin Morby – men helt øverst fant jeg plass for den kanskje aller sterkeste musikalske og visuelle opplevelsen fra 2016, med en artist som utvider begrepet om hvordan musikk kan lages og framføres. Enjoy.
Witchcraft: An Exorcism of Doubts
Signe Marie Rustad: The Space Song
William Bell: Poison in the Well
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry: The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Big Ups: National Parks
Colin John: Gylden
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Little Movies
King Creosote: You Just Want
Nicolas Jaar: Killing Time
Side Brok: Pump Pump
Karl Blau: Fallin’ Rain
deLillos: Graham Nash
Surfer Blood: Six Flags in F or G
William Tyler: Kingdom of Jones
Kristoffer Lo: Front Row Gallows View
Heron Oblivion: Beneath Fields
Josefin Öhrn + The Liberation: In Madrid/Rainbow Lollipop
Deakin: Golden Chords
Residual Kid: Salsa
Jeremy & the Harlequins: Into the Night
Sir the Baptist feat. Killer Mike and ChuchPeople: Raising Hell
Michael Kiwanuka: Cold Little Heart
Danny Brown: Really Doe (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt)
Moor Mother: Deadbeat Protest
Parquet Courts: Human Performance
Mystery Jets: Midnight’s Mirror
Hilde Selvikvåg: Indie
Hjerteslag: Sang til Sonja
Ryley Walker: The Roundabout
Lucy Dacus: I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore
Christian Kjellvander: Dark Ain’t That Dark
Stein Torleif Bjella: Oppfølgingsprat
Lambchop: The Hustle
Max Jury: Numb
Childish Gambino: Me and Your Mama
YG feat. Nipsey Hussle: FDT
Mick Jenkins feat. Badbadnotgood: Drowning
Dirty Projectors: Keep Your Name
Doug Tuttle: It Calls On Me
case/lang/veirs: Atomic Number
St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like)
Foxygen: Follow the Leader
Mitski: Your Best American Girl
Angel Olsen: Shut Up Kiss Me
Mystery Lights: Follow Me Home
Mikey Erg: Comme Si About Me
The Sadies feat. Kurt Vile: It’s Easy (Walking Like That)
Steve Gunn: Park Bench Smile
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: Rattlesnake
Badbadnotgood feat. Samuel T. Herring: Time Moves Slow
The Jayhawks: Lovers of the Sun
Agnes Obel: Familiar
Noname feat. Akenya & Eryn Allen Kane: Reality Check
Frøkedal: The Sign
ANOHNI: Drone Bomb Me
Vic Mensa: There’s Alot Going On
Amanda Shires: Harmless
Black Mountain: Space to Bakersfield
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Jesus Alone
Kendrick Lamar: untitled 02 | 06.23.2014
Marissa Nadler: All the Colors of the Dark
Sturgill Simpson: Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
Radiohead: Burn the Witch
Car Seat Headrest: Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels: Nobody Speak
Jenny Hval: Female Vampire
Cherry Glazerr: Told You I’d Be With the Guys
Hiss Golden Messenger: Tell Her I’m Just Dancing
Okkervil River: Okkervil River R.I.P
Pinegrove: Old Friends
Robert Ellis: California
Weyes Blood: Do You Need My Love
The Frightnrs: Nothing More to Say
Valerie June: Astral Plane
Anderson .Paak: Come Down
Maggie Rogers: Alaska
Chris Staples: Relatively Permanent
Night Moves: Carl Sagan
Ray LaMontagne: Part Two – In My Own Way
Nothing: The Dead Are Dumb
Cass McCombs: Low Flyin’ Bird
Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things
Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar: Freedom
Kanye West: Ultralight Beam
Before punk, there was the pub. Unlike their American counterparts, the British punk scene mainly evolved from pub rock. Developing in the early 1970s, pub rock followed a straight path rooting back to 1950s and ’60s no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues. Disdaining the glitz and glam of the era in favor of a much more back-to-basics approach to rock, it was not limited to one certain style, and just as happily embraced ragged folk, country, funky soul and other musical expressions fit for tight and sweaty club nights.
Because pub rock was mainly a phenomenon based around live experiences it centered around legendary London clubs like The Hope & Anchor, Dingwalls, the Nashville and the Tally Ho. Spearheaded by acts like Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods and The 101’ers (Joe Strummer’s first band before The Clash), the lines between pub rock and punk rock are blurred at best, with The Vibrators, The Stranglers, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello serving as prime examples of the transcending artists of the scene.
By the late 1970s, the pub rock phenomenon was more or less absorbed by the punks, and soon began to fragment into various subgenres. But just a couple years later, a new band saw the light of day in London, one based on many of the some motifs as their recent forefathers: Screaming Blue Messiahs. Formed in 1983 as a power trio consisting of Bill Carter, Chris Thompson and Kenny Harris, the Messiahs were never easy to categorize, but they were clearly inspired by the pub and punk rock hallmarks, with more than a small dose of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues and rockabilly thrown into the mix.
Screaming Blue Messiahs rose from the ashes of Motor Boys Motor (named after a 101’ers tune). The now obscure, but superb band only released one sole album in 1982, exposing a crew owing debt to the likes of Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Captain Beefheart. With some adjustments to the line-up, the smokin’ trio was finally settled as the highly skilled outfit of Bill Carter on guitar and vocals, Chris Thompson on bass and Kenny Harris on thundering drums. Soon after they were renamed the Screaming Blue Messiahs and found a natural place to call home in the excellent and wildly eclectic Big Beat label, one known for pushing rock in all shapes and forms (rockabilly, mod, hillbilly, blues, rock ’n’ roll, ’60s soul and much more).
For their debut EP Good & Gone, they hooked up with legendary producer Vic Maile (1943-1989), known for his work with artists like The Who, Led Zeppelin, Motörhead, Girlschool, Dr. Feelgood, and loads more. Maile turned out to be a close partner and provided his muscular production skills through much of their career.
Good & Gone, along with some ravaging live shows, set the band on fire and saw them reach the top 20 on independent playlists. The major labels smelled success, and in 1985 the trio signed with WEA and began work on their debut album.
Gun-Shy hit the record stores in early 1986 and segmented the band’s status as both critical darlings and live favorites. Following the release of Gun-Shy the band did some extensive touring in Europe, North America (with The Cramps), Australia and New Zealand.
The New York Times described it as “one of the year’s most powerful – and raucous – major-label albums, blunt and muscular and implacable. With twanging, squealing guitars and walloping drums, Gun-Shy comes on like a pickup truck full of Furies.”
Bikini Red followed a year later and saw the band dwelling even deeper into iconic American pop and trash culture. Complete with references to Elvis, cars, booze, TV evangelists and fast living, the music itself proves an amalgam of rockabilly, rhythm & blues, hillbilly and surf fronted by Bill Carter who (with an American accent) declared that “Jesus Chrysler Drives a Dodge,” “I Can Speak American” and even “I Wanna Be a Flintstone.”
They were met again with positive reviews, even though the release itself was a bit haltered due to the lack of the same sort of extensive touring that followed their debut. But support then came from unexpected places, including when David Bowie, on several occasions, stated that “an angry mob from London” known as the Screaming Blue Messiahs was “his pet project.” His admiration led to a couple of support gigs along his ongoing Glass Spiders tour in the UK. Then, in 1988 they reached a commercial peak as “I Wanna Be a Flintstone” hit the charts, introducing them to a more mainstream audience.
Though Bikini Red is considered to be the peak of their album career, the band itself would soon history as they had, by this point, started to drift apart.
Thus, Totally Religious (1989) became their swan song, an album that, while equally ferocious as its predecessors, demonstrated that they’d obviously lost some of their previous steam. Vic Maile passed away at just 45 years old, and legal wranglers with the record label and internal strain had also taken its toll. It was all over by 1990.
We had the great honor of chatting with Kenny Harris and Chris Thompson about their past, where they, among other things, reveal a not particularly strong relationship with their former comrade Bill Carter. Like their music, they are tough, no-bullshit guys. Here’s their story.
* * *
How do you consider the longevity of the Screaming Blue Messiahs catalog, if you ever happen to revisit it today?
I don’t listen to any of it very often but I don’t think it’s dated too badly.
There are lots of different influences to be heard in your sound. What were your most obvious ones?
Blues obviously with a pinch of rockabilly, a dash of country and a huge dollop of Wilko Johnson [the guitar player in Dr. Feelgood].
How would you describe Screaming Blue Messiahs to new listeners today?
Could never describe the music then and I can’t even think of any way to describe it now.
Did you have a clear idea from the get go on what the band should be and sound like, or how did you work on finding the right direction?
We knew the chemistry was right and we just let things take their natural course. There was no plan.
How in your opinion did you evolve during your relatively short time span as a band?
I think that as we toured and recorded we evolved musically but as people, we devolved.
At least, one of us did.
How was the environment for your kind of music back when you guys first started out? Can you please try and describe the scene you belonged to at the time?
London was a far better place gig wise then than it is now. We still had the original Hope & Anchor, The Marquee, Dingwalls and lots more. It was very healthy.
In addition to being rooted in a clear English rock tradition, the close integration of American culture seemed to follow you all along. Care to shed some light on this Anglo/American approach and how you intertwined it into your unique style?
Bill Carter watched too much American telly.
Can you please tell me a little about your close cooperation with Vic Maile and how important he was in the shaping of your sound?
Vic Maile was brilliant and quite possibly the nicest person ever to work in the music business. He didn’t so much shape our sound as condense what was already there.
He could also handle Carter, in the beginning anyway.
David Bowie was a huge fan of you guys, and you also did some touring with him. How did you get to know Mr. Bowie, and what was it like going on the road with him?
He had done an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said he liked us. Our manager got on to his people and we ended up doing two gigs on the Glass Spider tour. So we didn’t exactly go on the road with him.
You hit the charts with “I Wanna Be a Flintstone” off of Bikini Red. How was that experience, and did it change anything at all for you?
It was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made and we ended up doing Top of the Pops which was fucking horrible.
I know there was some label issues around your final album. What happened?
We got dropped.
Why did you guys decided to call it quits?
Bill Carter walked out. Simple as that. No announcement, no meeting, he just fucked off.
Are you still in touch with him, and what are the odds for seeing you all together back on the stage someday?
No, we are not in touch with him and as for a reformation, you have a better chance of seeing Elvis on stage supported by The Beatles.
What’s your favorite album – and why?
Bikini Red. We were very match fit and we had Vic at the helm.
What is in your opinion the greatest achievement in the history of Screaming Blue Messiahs?
That we got through it without Chris or me killing Bill Carter.
Any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second chance?
I regret not leaving the band the moment we were shown the cover for Bikini Red.
Love the album, hate the cover.
What’s going on for you guys now, any recent or future projects you like to share with us?
Chris and I still play together but I think my playing days are drawing to a close due to severe arthritis.
But not yet, not fucking yet. Chris and I have still some unfinished business.
Finally, any new music out there you’d like to recommend?
Kenny: Check out Lurch, a producer/DJ based in Bristol.
Chris: Also check out Georgia Pip Willacey, a young singer-songwriter with lots of promise.
* * *
After our chat with Kenny, Chris jumped in and had to underline just one more point: ”I agree with everything Kenny says except that I am not as a big fan of Bill Carter as he is! Virtually all the material was written in collaboration with Kenny and I. No songs came into the studio from Carter fully formed.”
Cheers to the guys for taking their time with us. As you now might have come to understand, we won’t see the Screaming Blue Messiahs together again, but be sure to dig into their albums. They really do still sound as great as ever.
Å rangere årets favorittalbum er en øvelse som raskt minner om et par ting, både mengden kvalitetsplater som utgis hvert år og den skrekkelig lille tiden man egentlig har til rådighet til virkelig å grave seg ned i materien. Og det sier jeg, som sitter å lytter til og vurderer musikk hver dag som en del av jobben. Denne kåringen av årets høydepunkt fungerer dermed også som en rolodex over titler som fortjener mer fokus, og som jeg har ambisjoner om å høre enda mer på (for det kommer sikkert ikke noen bra plater i 2017 som vil stjele den tiden…)
Uansett. 2016 har vært et helt fabelaktig albumår, i en tid der mange hevder dette formatets endelikt. Au contraire, albumformatet har gjenvunnet en status, ikke minst innen såkalt urban musikk som preges av en etterlengtet politisk slagside vi ikke har sett maken til siden slutten av 60-årene, med profilerte navn som Beyoncé, Kanye West og Solange som fremste talerør. Artister som Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar og Anderson .Paak driver også den musikalske utviklingen framover i stadig nye retninger og gjennom nye mutasjoner, som bidrar til å hviske ut gamle skillelinjer.
For et annet kjennetegn ved denne oppsummeringen er sammenblandingen av mainstream artister og undergrunnen. Det har gjerne vært tette skott mellom disse grupperingene, slik vi ofte har sett to ulike verdener på salgslistene kontra kritikertoppen. Så er det ikke i år, hvor vi positivt nok har sett at veven mellom topp og kred bare har blitt enda tettere.
Likevel står ikke 2016 igjen for meg med den ene soleklare favoritten, faktisk ble jeg overrasket selv over hva som til slutt endte på Topp 10. Det ble en merkelig smørje dette, som gjenspeiler vår tidsånd, i hvert fall for de av oss med relativt åpent sinn, som har tilgang på alt hele tiden. Ikke overraskende preges lista av mye indierock og folk/Americana, men også mer pop og hip hop enn vanlig, samt en variert miks av world, jazz, electronica – og en ikke uvesentlig andel ‘godt voksne’ artister (noen langt oppe i 80-årene, som Shirley Collins og Leonard Cohen) og ringrever (David Bowie, Radiohead og Teenage Fanclub leverte alle opp mot sitt beste i 2016). For Bowie og Cohens del, betød det også at de gikk ut av tiden med den stilen de fortjente.
Tiden er for knapp, frekvensen for høy og den endeløse tilgangen for stor til at vi trenger å bry oss med det som er halvbra. Ingen på denne listen – som lett kunne vært dobbelt så lang – kvalifiserer til en slik betegnelse. Dette er i hvert fall 100 av de beste og mest hørte platene som har blitt utgitt i år. Sett fra tampen av 2016.
Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band: The Rarity of Experience
Subrosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
King Creosote: Astronaut Meets Appleman
Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids: We Be All Africans
Luísa Maita: Fio da Memória
Hasse Farmen: Livet du redder kan være ditt eget
Teenage Fanclub: Here
Vanishing Life: Surveillance
Moor Mother: Fetish Gambles
Kristoffer Lo: The Black Meat
nonkeen: The Gamble
Deakin: Sleep Cycle
Elza Soares: A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo
Black Mountain: IV
Anders Røine: Kristine Valdresdatter
Western Skies Motel: Settlers
Maria Usbeck: Amparo
Weyes Blood: Front Row Seat to Earth
Howe Gelb: Future Standards
Heron Oblivion: s/t
Jeff Parker: The New Breed
Karl Blau: Introducing Karl Blau
Ryley Walker: Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina
Lucy Dacus: No Burden
Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein: Stranger Things
Parquet Courts: Human Performance
Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard: Nonagon Infinity
Tim Hecker: Love Streams
Kedr Livanskiy: January Sun
Chris Staples: Golden Age
Jherek Bischoff: Cistern
Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math
NxWorries: Yes Lawd!
Huerco S: For Those Of You Who Have Never (and Also Those Who Have)
Babyfather: ‘BBF’ Hosted by DJ Escrow
Leyla McCalla: A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey
Ka: Honor Killed the Samurai
Shabaka & the Ancestors: Wisdom of Elders
Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Richmond Fontaine: You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To
Daniel Bachman: s/t
Ólafur Arnalds: Island Songs
Erlend Apneseth Trio: Det andre rommet
Max Jury: s/t
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Silver Tears
Geir Sundstøl: Langen ro
PUP: The Dream is Over
The Mystery Lights: s/t
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: EARS
Bon Iver: 22, a Million
Årabrot: The Gospel
Angel Olsen: My Woman
Terrace Martin: Velvet Portraits
The Olympians: s/t
Nothing: Tired of Tomorrow
Stein Torleif Bjella: Gode Liv
Marissa Nadler: Strangers
Ray LaMontagne: Ouroboros
Shirley Collins: Lodestar
Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like a Levee
James Blake: The Colour In Anything
Floating Points: Kuiper
Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
Agnes Obel: Citizen of Glass
Steve Gunn: Eyes on the Lines
Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
Nicolas Jaar: Sirens
Childish Gambino: “Awaken, My Love!”
Jeff Rosenstock: Worry.
Ian William Craig: Centres
Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
Drive-By Truckers: American Band
William Tyler: Modern Country
Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch
Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
Solange: A Seat at the Table
Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
Cass McCombs: Mangy Love
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Kevin Morby: Singing Saw
David Bowie: Blackstar (★)
Woods: City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Amanda Shires: My Piece of Land//Big Ups: Before a Million Universes//Brandy Clark: Big Day in a Small Town//case/lang/veirs: s/t//Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book//Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas: Mariner//Darling West: Vinyl and a Heartache//Dinosaur Jr.: Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not//Frank Ocean: Blonde//Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing//Jim James: Eternally Even//Julianna Barwick: I Will//Kaytranada: 99.9%//Lionlimb: Shoo//Lydia Loveless: Real//Maren Morris: Hero//Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings//Mattis Kleppen & Resjemheia: El Bokko//Mitski: Puberty 2
Mystery Jets: Curve of the Earth//Nails: You Will Never Be One Of Us//Oathbreaker: Rheia//Okkervil River: Away//Oranssi Pazuzu: Värähtelijä//Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories//Savages: Adore Life//Signe Marie Rustad: Hearing Colors Seeing Noises//Swans: The Glowing Man//S U R V I V E: RR7349//Tony Molina: Confront the Truth//Touché Amoré: Stage Four//Twin Peaks: Down in Heaven//
Retroåret 2016 – 10 Utvalgte Favoritter:
Various: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music
TAD: God’s Balls/Salt Lick/8-Way Santa
Sun Ra: Singles
Jack Rose: Jack Rose/I Do Play Rock and Roll/Dr. Ragtime and His Pals
Scientists: A Place Called Bad
Various: Chaos in the City of Angels and Devils – Punk in Los Angeles 1977-81
Various: Doing It in Lagos: Boogie, Pop & Disco in 1980s Nigeria
Terry Allen: Juarez
(Paradise of Bachelors)
Various: Aloha Got Soul – Soul, AOR and Disco in Hawai’i 1979-1985
It’s been a while since Shirley Collins sang in public. As a matter of fact, when that last happened Michael Jackson had just released Thriller and E.T. phoned home from the movies. Ronald Reagan was gunned down on the streets, and the Falkland Wars between England and Argentina had just began. Commodore 64 was launched, and tech savvy consumers could actually buy a CD player for the very first time, the technological shift was so distinct, TIME magazine even named the computer ‘Man of the Year.’
Nothing could be further from Shirley Collins’ interest than some tech boom. Her entire musical life is based upon deep knowledge, understanding and love of musical roots and tradition, following the long lines of history more than chasing the latest craze. Her magic story is far too extensive to narrow down over a few paragraphs, but in short she made a career as one of the most significant and cherished voices of 20th century British folk music.
Born in 1935 into a folk music family – her father a milkman and her mother a communist – she left Hastings for London in 1954 to sing at folk clubs and research folk music at the legendary venue Cecil Sharp House. She soon met and fell in love with American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, already famous at that time, and by 1960 she had recorded her sparsely arranged first albums, Sweet England and False True Lovers.
In 1959 she embarked on a trip to the Deep South with Lomax, making pioneering field recordings across the region where, among others, they managed to capture James Carter and his chain gang – later of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame – in a penitentiary, discovered the previously undocumented blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell and recorded Appalachian singer Texas Gladden.
Returning back to Britain, Shirley Collins built a steady solo career. Often accompanied with her sister Dolly, a gifted arranger and composer in her own right, Shirley cementing her role in the rapidly blossoming English folk scene. In all she recorded over 20 albums, including the highly-influential Folk Roots, New Routes (1964), a collaboration with avant-garde guitarist Davy Graham, her seminal work Anthems in Eden (1969), done with Dolly, and the eclectic masterpiece No Roses (1971), which spawned the folk group The Albion Band. Existing in the very center of the emerging electric folk rock and acid folk circuit, Collins managed to maintain a sort of noble grace, fusing elements of contemporary folk with archaic, pre-modern roots.
Author Rob Young describes her voice and this duality in, Electric Eden, his thorough book about British folk music:
‘Her voice was uniquely suited to this purpose: not heavily accented, but with enough flattened vowels to indicate her provenance in the south-east. But the main quality was its clarity and neutrality. Sometimes accused of coldness, her voice was in fact an ideal folk voice, sounding as though it was grappling with the words for the very first time, and yet equally as though it was so inured to the pain and suffering so often portrayed in the songs that it had insulated itself from them.’
While being part of the flowery counterculture scene at the time, she also kept her distance from the psychedelic underground; Shirley Collins’ culture was in many ways steeped in a deeper soil. This incident, taken from Electric Eden, can serve as a sufficient example: Once, while the Collins’ sisters played with Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, he urged them to expand the session with some drugs: ‘You’ve never seen a tree until you’ve taken LSD,’ he said, prompting Dolly Collins to snappily reply: ‘I know perfectly well what a tree looks like!’
In 1971 Collins married mellow musician Ashley Hutchings (Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span), and the two came to represent a return to a more pure and honest tradition of British folk music. Collins, always concerned about the rural working-class from where the songs first spawned, continued working with her partner in the first half of the 1970s in various constellations, including the acoustic Etchingham Steam Band
And then it got quiet.
Ashley Hutchings left her in 1978, and Collins lost her singing voice due to suffering a form of dysphonia in the aftermath of the turbulent split, leading her to withdraw from performing and recording, and retreat to civil jobs outside of music.
Along with the likes of Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Angel Olsen and Graham Coxon (Blur), British comedian, writer and musician Stewart Lee is among the many who’s lauded her in the silent years. In his extensive liner notes for Collins’ new album, Lee reminds us on how it was: ‘It’s not possible for any music fan born in the last twenty years to imagine the impossible darkness, and also the thrilling mystery, of the pre-internet age; when legends might yet be sustained by over-the-counter word of mouth; or by tip-offs and tape trades from movers and shakers; and when off-the-radar artists were still gossamer ghosts. You could not Google Shirley Collins. There was no Google. And she was gone. And even post-Google, the essence of Shirley resists reduction to a Wiki page of verifiable detail.’
David Tibet, of the experimental neo-folk band Current 93, has played a particulary crucial role, coaxing her since the early 1990s and patiently persuading Collins to find back to her voice and return to recording.
So now, after decades of silence, the fairy queen of British Folk Music is finally back again. Titled Lodestar, her first album in 38 years is a collection of English, American and Cajun folk songs dating from the 16th Century to the 1950s, tying bonds to her profound love of the English Folk Song and her journeys to the Mississippi Delta.
We had the honorable opportunity to speak with Shirley Collins about the past and the present.
In 1959 you went to the Southern United States with Alan Lomax on what I understand turned out to be an important and historical musical journey for you. What do you find especially intriguing about the American folk and blues?
I am fascinated by the way the British songs and ballads that were taken over to America by early settlers were gradually changed, especially in the Southern mountains. At the same time you can find songs that remained intact, complete versions.
Also, I love the way that the mountaineers sing – shrill, high and lonesome. In a way it reflects their way of life, tough and rather isolated. As for the blues – how can you help but love them. The voices are wonderful and genuine; what the blues say is full of truth about lives of black people, and the form of the blues is so compelling and beautiful to listen to.
You’re also well known to focus on rural and pastoral material from your home area in southern England. What, in your mind, are the common grounds between British and American folk music, and where did you place yourself in such a context?
As I said, the American tradition springs from the British one – it’s a continuation of it, although over time there are changes. Where did I place myself? When I was in the South in 1959, right in the middle I think. So many of the people I met there were really pleased to meet someone from “the old country,” especially someone who not only loved their music, but could sing English versions of their songs.
In what way, if any, did inspiration from the Deep South transform into your take on English folk music?
It didn’t really.
You’ve said that you ‘believed in English music and believed in its source.’ What is the essence of English music and what sources do you consider the most valuable?
Our most valuable source is the field recordings made in the 1950s and ’60s here, as you can hear the way the songs were sung, as well as many, many variations of the actual song. But of course, the earlier collectors, who worked without the benefit of sound recordings, are immensely important too.
The essence of English music? The gentle melancholy of many of the songs, the beauty of the tunes, the fascination with the words. And here I’m talking about the best of the songs – there are many that aren’t that good, as well!
Why did folk music resonate so well with young people then, and what do you think made it relevant to the pre-war generation?
Perhaps it was the independence of the folk music revival; and the fact that it was music they could sing and play themselves – not out of reach.
I’m interested in your 1965 album, the rare and influential Folk Roots, New Routes, that you made together with Davy Graham. In the liner notes your then husband Austin John Marshall draws comparisons to blues, jazz, Appalachian and Eastern music. Can you please shed some light on how you approached this recording and how you consider this album today?
I approached it with an open mind! I don’t like jazz … but that’s where Austin John first heard Davy play, in a jazz club, and he was playing an exotic mix of those you mention above. He invited Davy out to our house. Davy played me an Irish song “She Moves Through the Fair” with an accompaniment that drew on Irish, North African and Indian music – and it worked! I loved it! And I could tell straightaway that it would certainly work with Appalachian songs without losing their identity – and the English songs, too.
Davy was a very sensitive musician, as well as being a genius on guitar. So I was thrilled to be able to work with him on a few live performances and to record Folk Roots, New Routes. I think it’s a fine album; it’s got integrity and still holds up today.
1965 seems like a watershed year, when you, Donovan, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Jackson C. Frank and others released albums, all rooted in folk traditions but also in many ways pointing forward. In what way do you consider this a transitional time of British folk?
I don’t agree that they were rooted in folk traditions – or not my idea of folk music anyway. Mine is the music that came from the rural working classes, and I don’t think that any of those people really delved deeply into that.
You later worked with Joe Boyd and folks from the Incredible String Band, released albums on the iconoclastic Harvest label and gave us the eclectic album No Roses in 1971. Can you please try and describe this period of time in terms on how you found your role ‘between’ traditional culture and the psychedelic expansion at the time?
Although I worked a little with the Incredible String Band, whose early albums I really liked, I was never part of the psychedelic scene. That never suited me at all. No Roses was an album of really fine English traditional songs – and with brilliant musicians. So that even while it was a folk-rock album, the songs didn’t change, nor did my singing of them.
How did you befriend David Tibet and what has he meant for you in terms of you now returning as a recording artist?
David Tibet found me – and befriended me in the first place. He liked my old albums, and hoped to encourage me to sing again. He released a CD, A Fountain of Snow, and I sang a couple of songs on his albums. So in his way, he started me off again, although it would 20 years or so later that I could sing in public – and that was at Tibet’s persuading. And that was the start of what would lead on to my recording Lodestar, so I have a lot to thank him for. He and I have become close friends, and he’s still a great supporter of my work.
Can you please guide us briefly through Lodestar and let us know what we can expect from you this time? As I understand there’s some sort of circle here, since it also includes tracks tracing back to 1959 and your Delta travels.
Yes, there are two ballads that were recorded on the 1959 collecting trip with Alan Lomax, one from Virginia sung by Horton Barker ‘The Rich Irish Lady,” and another, much more light-hearted, “Pretty Polly,” that I personally recorded from an Arkansas singer, Ollie Gilbert.
Otherwise, the songs are all English, with the exception of a Cajun song that Ian Kearey – fine musician, long-time friend and the musical director of Lodestar – played to me. I fell in love with it immediately: “Sur le Bord de l’Eau” recorded in 1927 by Blind Uncle Gaspard, on Vocalion. So I sing it in my Sussex French!
It’s quite a hard-hitting album, nothing cozy about it, and we had a variety of instruments: hurdy-gurdy, 12-string resonator, concertina, fiddle, banjo, various stringed instruments including cello and viola, a harmonium, percussion, an organ pipe, English half long pipes, a Morris dancer and birdsong from the bank at the back of my garden!
I think you could call it a grown-up album…
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The documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins is currently in production. Collins was given the ‘Good Tradition’ award at BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and elected President of the English Folk Dance & song Society (both in 2008) and awarded an honorary doctorate in Music from Sussex University earlier this year. She released her first memoir America Over the Water in 2004 and is currently working on her second book. She is an MBE – Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lodestar dropped November 4, 2016 on Domino Recordings.
Bjørn Hammershaug First published October 14, 2016 on read.tidal.com
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth
The road down the history of Anglo-American folk music, on either side of the Atlantic, is one paved with legendary icons and eccentric characters, telling stories of struggles and sorrow, redemption and atonement. Despite being crucially related to the music that preceded it, folk music refuses to stay stagnant collecting dust in library shelves. Spearheaded by vanguards who transfer forlorn traditions to suit new times, retaining its relevancy as it evolves through waves of renewed interest and revivals. In the paragraphs below, I take a closer look at the various forms in the folk canon, along the excellent reissues of the late Jack Rose and a new edition in the ever so compelling series Imaginational Anthem.
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A New Weird America
In the early 2000s, a flood of folk-based music seemed to sweep over us the scene in a way unseen since the folk revival and subsequent counterculture movement of the 1960s. Bearded gnomes and longhaired children broke with the hustle and bustle of modern living, finding a renewed interest in old timey music, ranging from vintage blues and bluegrass to free-formed psychedelic blasts. Ever so hard to pigeonhole into one specific style, these new folksters, often tagged ‘freak folk,’ shared some common aesthetics: using traditional instruments to make non-traditional music, searching for some sort of freedom in their sound and spirit, breaking with the established and corporate rules, establishing a new network of artists, labels, fanzines and festivals with a DIY attitude.
During the Brattleboro Free Folk Festival in Vermont, 2003, David Keenan from British music mag The Wire penned a much-quoted reference article about the then-flowering phenomenon, covering artists like Tower Recordings (now MV &EE) and Sunburned Hand of the Man, and coined it ‘New Weird America,’ referring to Greil Marcus’ term ‘Old, Weird America,’ used to describe Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes, which he connected directly with the country, folk and blues music featured on Harry Smith’s seminal 1952 collection Anthology of American Folk Music.
Freak Folk? That term is a clown’s punch line. –John Moloney, Sunburned Hand of the Man
Keenan summed up the loosely based movement rather precisely as music that ‘draws on an intoxicating range of avant garde sounds, from acoustic roots to drone, ritualistic performance, Krautrock, ecstatic jazz, hillbilly mountain music, psychedelia, archival blues and folk sides, Country funk and more.’ In other words, an attempt to fathom artists equally sucking in elements from Sun Ra, Skip James, Grateful Dead, Albert Ayler, Captain Beefheart, John Fahey, Incredible String Band and beyond.
It goes without saying that this scene didn’t produce a wealth of mainstream pop stars, but Devendra Banhart did become the movement’s most iconic figurehead. Signed to Swans’ Michael Gira and his Young God label, Banhart immediately stuck out as an original and pivotal voice, with his 2002 debut album Oh Me Oh My… sounding like some long lost treasure trove of 78 recordings discovered in a rotting country barn. While he has gradually evolved into a much more eclectic artist, Banhart used his reluctantly accepted status to tie bonds between past and present times. He curated the seminal new-folk collection, Golden Apples of the Sun (Bastet, 2004), featuring artists like Joanna Newsom, Antony, CocoRosie and Iron & Wine, along with sparking a renewed interest in largely long-lost voices like Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs, who have since both released new material in recent years in response to a newfound generation of fans.
Ten years later, the buzz had largely faded from the “freak folk craze,” if there ever was one, but the historical forms on which it was founded has never vanished or gone out of style. Renowned writer Byron Coley looked back on Keenan’s piece in 2013 and defended the attempt to group such a myriad of artists together: “Initially, this breadth may make New Weird America seem like a useless terminological umbrella. But it’s not as loose as all that. Indeed, it is something like an extension of the varieties of enthusiasms embodied in one of the genre’s sainted figures, John Fahey. Even though he’d been dead for over two years by the time Keenan drunkenly spat the phrase onto a table at the Hampshire College Tavern, John Fahey was, in many important ways, its embodiment.”
John Fahey and the American Primitive Guitar
This leads us over to a specific phenomenon in the folk canon, namely ‘American Primitive,’ a term coined and shaped by acoustic soli guitar maestro John Fahey (1939-2001) in the late 1950s to describe his reinterpretations of country, blues, and folk with classical, avant-garde, minimalism and improvisation.
In his thorough biography of Fahey, Dance of Death, writer Steve Lowenthal describes it more in depth as ‘Merging genres with a bold ambitiousness, he would eventually call his style ‘American Primitive’, in reference to his untrained methods. Rather than being restrained by formal song structure, he tried to keep the feel of more abstract classical structures, while using familiar fingerpicking patterns found in country and bluegrass.’
A devoted musicologist and collector of records, Fahey traveled on numerous of field trips into the deep South to buy rare and vintage 78 records, and also chase down nearly forgotten blues legends, most notably Bukka White and Skip James. He did a remarkable job securing some of this musical heritage for later generations, even though it’s pretty heartbreaking to know he often tossed albums he didn’t fancy out the car window on his endless drives down south. Later a scholar on the work of blues originator Charley Patton, John Fahey ranks among the giants in the understanding of traditional American music, a knowledge he used to bend into his own unique work that is all at once strikingly personal, hauntingly beautiful and deeply rooted.
Named after his hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, Takoma Records evolved from being an imprint for Fahey’s own amateur recordings to a fully fledged label that included other influential fingerstyle guitar pickers such as Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke, further segmenting Fahey’s status as one of the leading and most influential guitarists of our time.
At the height of the folk revival he brought his music overseas and influenced a notable English crowd including John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Roy Harper. John Fahey gradually expanded his guitar technique to move deeper beyond the blues, exploring psychedelic patterns, Eastern vibes, and classical music in an ever-inventive way. Outspoken Fahey devotee Pete Townsend of The Who later described him as “the folk guitar playing equivalent to William Burroughs or Charles Bukowski.”
Falling from prominence in the 1960s folk circles, in parts due to his heavy substance abuse and deteriorating health issues, Fahey remained an obscurity for much of his life. Saved by 1990s counterculture and a reinvigorated interest in both cult figures and authentic American music, he was thankfully rescued from oblivion and rediscovered by new legions of tastemakers and fans, leading him to work with Sonic Youth, Jim O’Rourke and Boston experimentalists Cul de Sac. Fahey even returned to label work in his latter years. With the highly celebrated imprint Revenant Records he released now-classic collections on Albert Ayler, Charley Patton and other treasures.
Jack Rose: The ancient American
One of John Fahey’s most notable ‘followers,’ not to mention a force of gravity in terms of taking his muse’s learning forward and into a new territory, is Jack Rose (1971-2009). Rose started out making drone and noise music in the criminally overlooked band Pelt, formed in Richmond, Virginia in 1993. Inspired by the likes of Tower Recordings, The Incredible String Band and especially John Fahey (‘he blew my mind wide open,’ he once stated) Rose moved over to acoustic guitar and open tunings, incorporating country blues and ragtime tunes in the American Primitive vein. Being included on Devendra Banahart’s decisive compilation Golden Apples of the Sun further helped enforce his status, and much like Fahey, Jack Rose may be well considered a musician’s musician, dearly recognized among the ones who know his music.
Now, Three Lobed Records has just re-released three of Jack Rose’s former masterpieces. Says Scott McDowell, radio host at New York radio station WFMU and connoisseur in the field: ‘Jack Rose’s vivid guitar-picking awakes in us a peculiar awareness, something ancient and American. Jack Rose’s work exists along the established continuum of American vernacular music: gospel, early jazz, folk, country blues and up through the post-1960s American Primitive family tree from John Fahey and Robbie Basho and outward to other idiosyncratic American musicians like Albert Ayler, the No-neck Blues Band, Captain Beefheart and Cecil Taylor.’
We leave it to Mr. McDowell to introduce the reissued gems:
I Do Play Rock and Roll
I Do Play Rock and Roll, the title a mystifying nod to Mississippi Fred McDowell’s electric period, finds Jack Rose in extended drone mode, coaxing open-tuned raga meditations from his 12-string guitar. “Calais to Dover” first appeared on Rose’s classic Kensington Blues in a somewhat truncated form. The version heard here is more expansive and open-hearted, a waxing-and-waning piece of introspection. “Cathedral et Chartres” shares the same quiet romanticism, with rotating patterns and the chime of open strings. “Sundogs,” the sidelong drone abstraction that occupies side B, stands alone among Jack’s solo work. A long-form live rendition of a track that appeared on the genre-defining triple album compilation by the fruits you shall know the roots, it is perhaps most evocative of Pelt, Jack’s previous band, a minor-key free drone, with only minuscule dynamic shifts and the occasional recognizable string accent. It is territory Rose seldom traveled but completely and fully invigorating.
Rose’s self-titled album was originally released in 2006 on the arCHIVE label, and later reissued as a CD twofer with Dr. Ragtime and His Pals. It contains a combination of studio and live recordings. Jack Rose is marked by a sense of forward momentum, the result of several years of constant playing, with fresh versions of a number of previously attempted songs. Blind Willie Johnson’s spiritual “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is manipulated into a wailing slide-guitar lament. “Levee” pops like a warning. “St. Louis Blues” (in this and its several other incarnations across his entire catalog) is a good example of Jack’s innate sense of swing, a crucial characteristic of his playing perhaps lost on some of his fingerpicking followers. The centerpiece of the album, however, is the nearly sidelong “Spirits in the House,” which begins with tentative weeping glissandos, and slowly reveals itself as a stately fingerpicked blues meditation.
Dr. Ragtime & His Pals
Dr. Ragtime & His Pals marks Rose’s step into the world of group interplay with versions of his standard repertoire arranged for a band. In its finished form, it exists as a sort of “party record” within his discography. Highlights are raucous and many, including “Linden Avenue Stomp,” “Knoxville Blues,” the spiritual “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” and Sam McGee’s “Buckdancer’s Choice.” In assembling this album, Jack chose musicians with distinctive personalities and their own personal connections to old-time music; people he could learn from. his … pals rotated often and in this case include the banjo player Mike Gangloff (Jack’s old accomplice in Pelt as well as the Black Twig Pickers), Micah Blue Smaldone on guitar, Glenn Jones on guitar, Nathan Bowles (Black Twig Pickers) on washboard, and Philadelphia legend Harmonica Dan (“Knoxville Blues”). The result is a late night back porch jam session, fueled by whisky, friendship, and a shared love of the old weird American music found on forgotten 78s.
Let the phrase ‘shared love of the old weird American music found on forgotten 78s’ guide us further down the road. Another essential focal point in preserving old time music as well as its present day successors is the eminent label Tompkins Square, run by Josh Rosenthal. The imprint is renowned for their exquisite sense of quality and their deep diggings into the forgotten crates of 20th century American music.
Tompkins Square has just presented the eighth volume of its series Imaginational Anthem, which since 2005 has rescued and revived interest in old masters in American Primitive, while also giving many folks their very first taste of artists like William Tyler, Steve Gunn, Chris Forsyth or Daniel Bachman.
Volume 8 of this series is compiled by hardcore record collectors Michael Klausman – former used LP buyer for NYC’s recently shuttered institution Other Music – and Brooks Rice, and features some of the best and most obscure private press guitar records virtually no one has heard. I had the opportunity to chat further with Michael Klausman about his work on this collection:
How did you approach curating this collection of Imaginational Anthems?
This is the eighth volume of the series so far, which I think has been uniformly excellent. When Josh Rosenthal asked me if I’d be interested in curating a compilation of privately released solo acoustic guitar music I said yes right away, despite having some apprehension about being able to live up to the previous volumes. However, I instantly called one of my best friends, Brooks Rice, to rope him into the project. He’s been feverishly hunting down nearly every solo acoustic guitar record he could find since I lent him all of my John Fahey records when we were in college together 20 years ago, and I knew between the two of us we could come up with something special. One thing we were both striving for with this collection is that it not just sound like the same old, same old; that it would take as its genesis the pioneering style of John Fahey’s solo acoustic guitar records of the 1960s and 1970s, but then show how that style could then refract out into a myriad of different, more personal directions, ultimately ending up pretty far afield of Fahey’s vision.
Can you give a brief overview of what we’re getting here?
All of the tracks on this compilation were sourced from highly obscure albums that had been issued in minuscule editions, the songs were often recorded at home, or at small local studios, and then published by the artists themselves. There’s a strong do-it-yourself ethos that runs through the compilation, where each track exudes the sense that the artists had a strong personal desire to document and get their art into the world by any means necessary. Every song is highly personal and unique, sometimes influenced by North Indian raga, Spanish Flamenco, minimal classical music, spiritual jazz, or American folk and blues.
Any standout tracks or artists you’d like us to pay some extra attention to?
One of my favorite tracks is by an artist named Herb Moore, he is a homemade instrument builder, worked in Silicon Valley in its early days, and once wrote a book about how to make music and graphics on an Atari system. The song we included on the compilation, “Hen Was Found,” I find to be deeply beautiful, as Moore utilizes the studio to add layer upon layer of overdubs to kind of duet with himself, while one of his homemade scrap metal instruments distantly chimes in the background. There’s really nothing else like it I can think of.
I’m also a big fan of Michael Kleniec’s song “Obadiah,” which is one of the more lo-fi sounding tracks on the compilation, but one where the recording quality and percussive quality of his playing give the song an incredibly cool, and nearly dirge-like quality.
This collection is fairly obscure, even for guitar soli aficionados. What are your main sources when digging into this stuff, and how bottomless is that pit exactly?
This compilation is really the result of 20 years of digging for obscure albums in record stores, flea markets, antique malls and such… Brooks and I will often text photos of unknown albums to each other while we’re out looking, especially if it looks like it could be a solo guitar record. I can’t say exactly how bottomless the pit is, but we probably could have made this a quadruple LP and not sacrificed anything in the way of quality.
One of the artists on here, Gary Salzman, was completely unknown to the both of us (and nearly everyone else!) until a couple of months into gathering material for this compilation, so I’m confident there are still many things left to be discovered.
Any favorite guitar folk albums you’d like to recommend?
There’s a guitar player from Oregon named Richard Crandell who made an album called In the Flower of Our Youth that I can never get enough of, it’s just completely brilliant melodically, with most songs being short, self-contained little gems that are absolutely memorable. Tompkin’s Square reissued it some years ago, maybe after I recommended it to Josh, but I still think the audience for it could be bigger.
Of contemporary players I recommend Nathan Salsburg. He’s appeared on a previous volume of Imaginational Anthem and produced some compilations for Tompkins Square as well. Where a lot of players focus on technical chops and dazzling displays of skill, Nathan tends to focus on writing songs that people would actually want to sit and listen to – not that he doesn’t have chops too!
Going further back into the past, maybe my all-time favorite performer is the Mexican guitarist and composer Antonio Bribiesca, who wrote and recorded some of the slowest and saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Think Bob Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, but at half the speed and twice the emotion.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.