Album reviews: Duke Garwood – Garden of Ashes, Eliza Carthy & the Wayward Band – Big Machine and more

Also Black Flower – Artifacts, Benjamin William Pike – A Burdensome Year, Georgia Ruth – Fossil Scale and Ralph Towner – My Foolish Heart

Andy Gill
Wednesday 01 February 2017 17:08
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Garwood describes his sixth album as ‘beautiful apocalypse love music’
Garwood describes his sixth album as ‘beautiful apocalypse love music’

Duke Garwood, Garden Of Ashes

★★★★☆

Download this: Coldblooded The Return; Sonny Boogie; Blue; Garden Of Ashes; Heat Us Down

In the credits for Garden Of Ashes, Duke Garwood thanks “my soul brother Mark Lanegan for his friendship and inspiration”, and it’s not hard to see why. The pair, who first collaborated on 2013’s Black Pudding, seem to be merging together artistically, though it’s an aesthetic affinity that goes deeper than sound, as both men strive to map the darkness of the soul.

In this instance, Garwood describes Garden Of Ashes as “beautiful apocalypse love music”, for lovers walking through the remains of an Eden razed by corporate greed and rapacity. The track itself is one of the loveliest here, developing a relaxed but compelling groove of quiet, wave-like drums spattered with trilling, mandolin-like guitar. Throughout the album, the tempi are slower than slow, rarely more than a stroll (if “Hard Dreams” were any slower, it would be in reverse), as Garwood forces the listener to adopt his pace – a sort of aural equivalent of the “slow food” movement.

But it works: ”Coldblooded” opens the album with a slinky swamp-blues groove of cyclical, arpeggiated guitar figures, earthy percussion and haunting, wordless backing vocals that bring to mind Dr John’s Gris-Gris, an ambience that sucks one into Garwood’s song about “good gone bad”. “Gold shine in the sun / Nothing but metal in the dark,” he muses, his baritone murmur a simulacrum of Lanegan’s. And it’s clear which side of that divide he’s stranded: “It’s like the sun moved to a better world,” he frets in “Sonny Boogie”, trying to sweeten the darkness with a more than usually melodic croon, as tendrils of backwards guitar gradually ensnare the song.

Save for the acoustic lullaby “Sleep”, the songs mostly feature variations of the same approach, performed in extempore manner, as if busked in the moment: achingly slow tom-tom pulses, and subtle striations of distorted guitars, occasional ghostly backing vocals by the Smoke Fairies, and Garwood’s deep, foreboding baritone, all captured in a remarkable mix (by Lanegan and Alain Johnannes) which conveys cavernous ambient depth despite every element being so upfront they almost crowd the listener. It’s perfect for lyrics that ponder the apocalypse so poetically: “Dust rises like a flock of angels”, he notes at one point; at another, “The silence will break like a thousand tears / Drinking all our futures in”. And when that happens, this would be as good a soundtrack as any.

Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, Big Machine

★★★★☆

Download this: Fade & Fall (Love Not); Devil In The Woman; The Fitter’s Song; I Wish That The Wars Were All Over

With her dozen-strong Wayward Band, Eliza Carthy stretches folk music in all manner of new directions on Big Machine. It’s not just a matter of sheer power – though there’s a rumbustious euphoria about the way the horns pile into the chorus of “Fade & Fall (Love Not)”; rather that the band’s range affords so many weird and wonderful approaches. So Ewan MacColl’s industrial ballad “The Fitter’s Song” acquires a Tom Waits-esque arrangement of louche, jazzy horns and angular-twang guitar, while a duet with Damien Dempsey, “I Wish That The Wars Were All Over”, is suspended on a cyclical, repetitive groove, effectively a folk adaptation of minimalist modes. Virtually the only recognisably traditional piece is the whirling instrumental “Love Lane”, and even that’s more folk-rock than folk. Which bothers me not one jot: the confidence of the performances benefits strong contemporary material dealing with issues from outreach to domestic abuse, the latter rousingly avenged in “Devil In The Woman”.

Black Flower, Artifacts

★★★☆☆

Download this: Bones; Alexandria; Abeya Zeybekiko; Lunar Eclipse

Belgian quintet Black Flower deal in a crossover strain that mixes the rhythmic grasp of classic Ethiopian jazz with the sly lope of dub reggae and the cosmic effects and electronics of psychedelia. It’s a rich blend that finds its most absorbing realisation in “Alexandria”, a pulsing Ethio-funk piece addressed by organ and punchy baritone sax, and “Abeya Zeybekiko”, the track most haunted by the influence of Ethiopian legends Mulatu Astatke and Getatchew Mekuriya. Elsewhere, the opener “Bones” uses rattling percussion as the bed for evocative explorations on conch shell and washint flute, a vivid example of the strength and power of the seemingly fragile; while “Lunar Eclipse” looks further east, through Oriental violin, before the ebullient horns tug it back to Africa. A vibrant, variously entertaining album which bends the purist rules of world music, to good effect.

Benjamin William Pike, A Burdensome Year

★★★☆☆

Download this: Beasts Of Burden; The Hand You’ve Been Dealt; Bless The Bad Days; Dead Man Walking

Those undergoing serious medical treatment will empathise with Benjamin William Pike, whose burdensome year involved preparation for, and recovery from, a kidney transplant – a process simultaneously documented in these ten songs. A streak of resignation runs through several, with Pike reaching a point of poised equanimity on “Dead Man Walking”, redolent of the anaesthetic ante-room to surgical theatre: “when a man accepts his fate, there’s nothing left to fear”. But as he acknowledges in “Bless The Bad Days”, “it’s not the easy days that make you strong”. Delivered in Pike’s careworn, weathered tone of weltschmerz, it may sound rather grim, but thankfully Pike also happens to be a brilliant fingerstyle guitarist, his dazzling, springy runs and flourishes underpinned by subtle percussion and double bass, augmented by occasional fiddle and pedal steel. Indeed, it’s this piquant contrast between the darkness of his songs and the incongruent jauntiness of his playing that gives A Burdensome Year its peculiar charm.

Georgia Ruth, Fossil Scale

★★★☆☆

Download this: The Doldrums; Cloudbroke; Supermoon

Though not quite as impressive, Georgia Ruth’s follow-up continues the fine work of her 2013 debut Week Of Pines. Sadly, her harp is less evident in these arrangements, which instead rely on electronic keyboards and synth textures, allied to subtly empathic drumming. But there’s a wealth of sonic detail, from the ice and water sounds of “Ice Age” and “When I Was Blue” to the wearily meandering wisps of Suhail Yusuf Khan’s bowed sarangi on “Cloudbroke” and “The Doldrums”, where it perfectly evokes the ennui stifling a relationship too mired in hermetic isolation: “For I have lost the will to word / And I have lost the rest of the world”. Ruth employs unusual metaphors for matters of the heart, from the meteorological (“Cloudbroke”) to the archaeological (“Fossil Scale”), but the most effective may be the astronomical allusions of “Supermoon”, which concludes with the hypnotic, mantra-like repetition of the phrase “not even 0.2 times bigger”. Brian Cox would love it.

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Ralph Towner, My Foolish Heart

★★★★☆

Download this: Pilgrim; Saunter; Dolomiti Dance; Two Poets

In his dedication to the acoustic instrument, and his exploration of the borders of both classical and jazz, Ralph Towner is effectively the guitarist equivalent of Keith Jarrett: there’s a calm, reflective quality, allied to an intense involvement, about both players’ solo work, of which My Foolish Heart may be Towner’s best since his sublime 1973 debut Diary. Apart from the title-track cover – an homage to Bill Evans – and a couple of retreads from Towner’s work with chamber-jazz ensemble Oregon, it’s all new material. “Dolomiti Dance” showcases Towner’s quicksilver arpeggiations and serpentine lead lines, while the aptly-titled “Saunter” swings with a casual grace, his sense of rhythm driving the piece almost subliminally even as he peels off complex runs and chord vamps simultaneously. His rhythmic skill is perhaps best demonstrated on the opener “Pilgrim”, where the halting manner of the shifting tempos ingeniously evokes the pilgrim’s progress, as passages of urgent resolve are punctuated by weary moments of rest.

Various Artists, English Weather

★★★☆☆

Download this: Love Song With Flute; Til The Christ Come Back; Big White Cloud; O Caroline

This latest of Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs’ archaeo-musical compilations focuses on the early Seventies interregnum between psychedelia and the assertive stomps of glam and heavy metal – an era tinged by melancholy and disillusion. Bands like Camel, Van Der Graaf Generator and Caravan scaled the foothills of prog rock, though mercifully without the self-regard and emphasis on virtuosity that would come to characterise the genre. There’s a uniquely English diffidence, for instance, about Caravan’s “Love Song With Flute”, one of several tracks sourced from the Canterbury scene, of which Matching Mole’s lovely “O Caroline” is the most enduring: it’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary Robert Wyatt’s reedy, apologetic vocal was at the time. Elsewhere, the selection ranges from T2’s mellotron-drenched “JLT”, to folksy West Coast harmonies from Offspring, Prelude, and John Cale, and soured singer-songwriter commentary from Bill Fay, whose “Til The Christ Come Back” has an unusually abrasive edge: the quintessence of disillusion.

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