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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mike Cooper - Metal Box

Although he’s been around on record since the late 60s and has played and recorded with any number of musicians with whom I’m familiar, I entirely drew a blank on the name “Mike Cooper”. Somehow, he’d managed, as near as I can recall, to fly absolutely beneath my radar. Credited with having been a key figure in the London blues revival of the 60s (his album, “Trout Steel” seems to be the one to hear), he moved on into free improv, performing with the South African ex-pats in Britain, Steve Beresford, etc. and, with Lol Coxhill and Roger Turner, formed the band, The Recedents. Glad I finally got around to hearing him.

“Metal Box” consists of six more or less improvised pieces for solo National Steel guitar (another guitarist, Tim Catlin, appears on the opening cut), although the results have been greatly augmented post-production with overdubbing, backwards tracks and so on. I admit to being a sucker for the sound of steel-bodied acoustic guitars; that rich, metallic resonance is just so juicy. The album is dedicated to the memory of John Fahey and, indeed, blues allusions are never very far away no matter how abstracted the proceedings otherwise become. A typical piece will have a huge, cavernous bed of sound, out of which scramble crotchety figures, soft pings, reverse-throbs and so on, generally centered (obliquely) around a tonal core. There are, in fact, moments when I think I’d prefer to hear just the guitar, simply played. As attractive as the baroque elaborations are themselves, they occasionally verge on clutter although there’s always a redeeming aspect, such as the plaintive moans that arise from the lonely pulse of “A Big Wave Event”. All misgivings are cast aside on the final, most overtly Faheyesque track, “Last Chant and Dance for Blind Joe Death”. Part dirge, part lament, ultimately a heartfelt if somber celebration, all the disparate elements mentioned above coalesce with grace and purpose into a wonderfully solid paean to the late, great musician.

The disc times in at on a smidgen above a half-hour, but this is a case where the “shortness” seems to be about the right size helping. Nice record.

Music and its tools: Robbie Basho's twelve strings guitar

I remember I was seventeen years old when, shortly after having knew John Fahey and his "Volume 2" disc, I listened by chance to Robbie Basho.

It was his "The Falconer's Arm Vol.1"... and the world changed!

I promptly, yet with some difficulty, bought my first of many to come twelve strings guitars and began detuning it;-)

At the time no tablature, Web or simply other pals into same weirdness, so... endless afternoons trying&trying&trying to learn some licks and to obtain "that" sound I so much loved...

Later came full Robbie Basho's discography, meeting Maurizio Angeletti and his also mind-boggling, awesome twelve strings and more and more...

... but let's enter Robbie's mighty twelve strings guitar: in an old "Frets" magazine interview I still own, Robbie told the reviewer he purchased that Mexican made old guitar from a sailor in Atlantic City for $ 150 in early '60s.

It had the top changed after it get smashed after a gig by John Lundberg in Berkeley, with that unique apparently flawed, bicoloured spruce top.

The larger than life nut and as well long diapason, it allowed Robbie to reach C and B tunings easily.

The sound of this huge acoustic guitar was supremely various and unique to Basho himself... clangy sounding, yet never metallic and so rich in overtones and sustain.

Robbie played ALL his music composed for 12 strings on this wonder for all his life, with only an old Weymann six-strings as an additional companion... as he wrote several times, he wished and strongly pushed the (twelve) strings guitar to reach and gain and keep the status of American-born instrument - remember: Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Jesse Fuller, Fred Gerlach, Leo Kottke, Basho - giving to the instrument a nobless similar to what A. Segovia did decades before with gut/nylon strung classical guitar.

VERY, VERY sadly, Robbie Basho died too young to complete and fulfill his dream, BUT what he left was a fruitful seed... William Ackermann, Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Michael Gulezian - whom Robbie knew and appreciated - paid for loooong years a daily tribute to the older master... then came the others, the new breed: Steffen Junghans-Basho, Glenn Jones, James Blackshaw and many more.

... and his guitar, as lovingly seen, displayed and showed in several Robbie's albums, left on any acoustic twelve strings guitar lovers and players a deep, deeep impression: the Voice of America, a cleaner, smarter, more clever America - Basho's music was hinting to the voice of wind-moved grass in the plains, when "americans" were Native Americans, and Navaho Nation was a quiet force and nature was a God-like friend, not a waste deposit or something to squeeze to death.

I'd give a finger to know where this very guitar is, now and who - I hope and trust - collected it back in 1986, after Robbie's untimely death.


You know... it's utterly wrong saying: "Now I want to have fun!" or "I want to fall in love" or "Let me feel moved" or "I need a friend"... some life aspects simply "are" and you cannot be fooled: emotions, feelings, sensations have no "ON/OFF" switch or command!

Things "happens", period.

Yesterday evening I had a very pleasant listening session in nice solitude and, like it happened several times at home, I didn't have a well-seated, at sweet-spot, hardcore audiophile listen, BUT I simply layed on the sofa, in dimmed light, appreciating Eleni Karaindrou's "Music for Films" on a beautiful (and nicely sounding) ECM vinyl... it's a Theo Angelopulous' movies and related O.S.T.'s compendium, with piano, strings, Eleni's beautiful voice and Jan Garbarek's icy alto-sax, and it was the most appropriate music for my daily musical thirst; also with my relaxing horizontal (wrong) position, I was appreciating a decent soundstage and in a while, I sort-of had the sensation I finally "settled" and "tuned in" with my new environment.

The lights, which I previously kept stronger than needed or wished, were pretty right, I changed some wall dressing, adding some my own jazz musicians pictures and a couple of cool TAS' posters, instead of the Mapplethorpe's flowers I previously had.

The room was welcoming me as I was, finally, accepting "her"... the overall sound is, now, almost OK, as I'm still fiddling with my IVIE IE-30 and IE-20 R.T.A. and Pink-noise generator, but, more than at home, the by-ear fine tuning is necessary to find the best, yet average, balance good for almost every music.

At some point, I suddenly "knew" - like the definite feeling naturally blossomed from my mind and thoughts - the room absorbs what happens "inside her", in her belly and, mysteriously, returns to me the stored, multi-layering music and emotions interwoving under a fog-like, almost palpable, highly cocooning solid air.

As "there is no scientific proof of the existence of music", I'm not aware of any scientific essay about the deep, sometimes heavy, difficult or peaceful relation of Man and his environment, BUT from ancient Chinese wisdom - i.e. Feng-shui - to some modern, illuminated doctrine... with some humble "cleanliness" and being in open-cells mode, we ALL are able to clearly "feel" when a place is good or bad, its vibes and almost healing power on our welfare.

Like dogs do with their resting places at home, we are (most of the times unconsciously) able to choose in a park "that" seat under "that" tree, in a sunny day, to read our book or newspaper... "that" place and not another.

When I choose "that" room to become my music studio, I "felt" it was "the" one.

It's not easy stuff, because it's too easy, ancient knowledge - i.e. DNA-related, skin-feeling, more than guessing and choosing by an arbitrary taste-related choosing.

It's like enamourement... it's chemical stuff, but you "know" when you fall in love, don't you?

I'll re-read an old, slim booklet I have somewhere about "Feng-shui", BUT I remember it wasn't only an empty paraphernalia used by cannabis smoking architects to impress their upper-class clients;-)- i.e. "this chair there, the sofa overthere, away from the window, because good-health fly away from the window"... "beware subterranean waters: they make you pee a lot";-))) and the like, but a dowser-like approach... almost forgot art and knowledge... but it works!

It's not furnitures positioning, but Man's ease and well-being and his house and outdoor environment relationship(s).

Heavy stuff, indeed!

The all unparallel walls created several troubles to me, while positioning the speakers... I used same "wrong" means while composing the four ways and horns and drivers, like I previously used to do at home; in a couple of month I'll finally have installed the new low-end "true" horn with in-phase upper ways... a lenghty, expensive, time-consuming, difficult, almost never-ending job which I would have never been able to complete without the wise support and skills of Franz Hinterlehner from Austria.

Nonetheless, beside the still - to my regret - unfinished layout, the overall results are - already - far superior than I used to enjoy at home: the larger space allows a better, enhanced, yet not exagerated low frequencies expressiveness, the wooden, high ceiling benefits the highs, which flows liquid and unbeamy, natural as I seldom heard everywhere but at a concert and large scale orchestral music is much more pleasant and truer.

That's why I feel I got Goto back, at last... not an easy task, but - now I know for sure - the lesser system I used for some (toooo looong) weeks was making me sick;-)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Spiller's of Cardiff - the oldest records shop in the world

Sure it's a well-kept Welsh's secret, but this very shop sold zillions records and sheet music and instruments and related in Cardiff, Wales for more than one century, now, so much worth quoting it!

"Spiller's - The Oldest Record Shop In the World

Spiller's was founded in 1894 by Henry Spiller at its original location was in the Queen’s Arcade, Cardiff, where the shop specialised in the sale of phonographs, wax phonograph cylinders and shellac phonograph discs. In the early 1920s, Henry’s son Edward took over the running of the business and, with the aid of the popular accordionist and band leader, Joe Gregory, sold musical instruments alongside the pre-recorded music. In the late 1940s, Henry moved the shop around the corner to a larger premises on The Hayes, where it has happily remained and thrived ever since.

Over the years Spiller's has seen and supplied many varied types of pre-recorded music. Today we pride ourselves on our diverse selection of music on both compact discs and good old vinyl at very competetive prices. This site is always growing so let us know if you can’t see what you’d like on here, and we’ll add it or get one for you."

Spiller's site

Thanks to Matt for hinting...

Ivan's Choice - Mahler revisited by Matthew Herbert

Mahler was an obsessive reviser of his own work, an attitude Matthew Herbert extends here by taking a previous recording of the Adagio from the unfinished 10th Symphony and "recomposing" it by recording playbacks in mordant situations: from inside a coffin, over crematorium speakers, from a passing hearse, and in Mahler's cabin in Toblach.

With the addition of a viola line played at the composer's graveside, the results were mixed together using effects and montaging strategies. The effect is darkly contemplative with the famous climactic dissonant nine-note chord subjected to pulsing repetitions. It's a surprisingly engrossing piece of work, and more respectful than Herbert's methods might suggest.

I ordered it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Music and its tools - John Fahey's '39 "Ray Whitley Recording King" acoustic guitar

It's a personal fave of mine... both John's and his very guitar, long before his (someway) sad guitar(s) sounds on a Martin D-70 Bicentennial model or the endorsed Laguna Guitars, down to his last days on borrowed-only acoustics or electrics...

His 1939 Ray Whtley Recording King was "The One" John Fahey played on "Fare Forward Voyagers", maybe his most beloved disc ever, and quite similar to the '30s "Bacon & Day" - which John himself traded at Jon Lundberg's Berkeley shop in 1969 for... the Recording King (!!!) - the one blinking from "Requia" cover in a leftish, disguised form, as the slide was possibly reversed for layout, photographic reasons - i.e. John Fahey wasn't left-handed, but righteous, like his guitar.

This guitar owns a very one-of-a-kind sound, unboomy, yet rich at low-end, with OM-like fat trebles and a quite "nasal", unique character.

This very guitar was destroyed by John Fahey himself during a (maybe) drunken angryness attack, and get smashed in several pieces when hitting "somewhere" (a wall... or his girlfriend head, as someone argued?!?!).

Here is the chronicle of the loving restoration people at "Paracho del Norte" luthiery made some years ago.

A labour of love

and the history, as told by Federico Sheppard of Paracho del Norte (thanks a lot):

"John Fahey's 1939 Ray Whitley Recording King and Federico Sheppard's tale of its demise and of how it came to be whole once more.

I had gone to see John Fahey play in Minneapolis in '82. We got to talking guitars, and I asked him what guitar he had used on the recording "Fare Forward Voyagers", as that was a very good sounding recording and my personal favorite. He told me about the Recording King. I asked him what had happened to it, and he told me this story..

John Fahey's 1939 Recording King, was fully restored, unveiled for its debut at the first John Fahey Memorial Concert, Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, CA, August 19, 2001

The full article about this guitar is available in Acoustic Guitar magazine.

John had had the flu and had been in bed for awhile, not feeling well at all. His girlfriend at the time was encouraging him to get up and around, and this wasn't taken well by John at all. As John put it, "She just wouldn't leave me alone." At some point in the conversation, the words "What do you love more John, me or your guitar?" were invoked.

The truth of what happened next is known only to those two persons who were present. Having access to all the forensic evidence, and holding a board certification in Orthopedics, I would have to say that the point of impact is more consistent with an impact with a rounded, padded, but solid surface. Marilyn's head? Possibly. Only her hairdresser knows for sure. A girl's necklace was in the debris field. Maybe someday Marilyn will come forward and shed some light on this episode. As I knew John, he wasn't the kind of guy to go around hitting women. Not then, not ever.

John had purchased a Hawaiian guitar from me that very same night, after his had been stolen, and he offered me the remains of the Recording King. The real hero of this story is Charlie Mitchell, the guy who collected the pieces after the unfortunate encounter. All but a few fragments were somehow preserved in a cardboard box. The box came into the possession of John Zender at McCabe's guitar shop in Los Angeles, where it remained stored for a few years, and then it was very kindly released it to me at the behest of John Fahey. The remains of the King were shipped to me shortly thereafter; this was late 1982.

My own life got in the way of the restoration project, and John Fahey's 1939 Ray Whitley Recording King stayed in its little box for another 19 years, through five different moves, three careers, and my never-ending good intentions.

In March of 2001, I traveled to Salem, Oregon to attend John's funeral and memorial service, which were very moving. Shortly thereafter, Peter Lang told me that there was a tribute CD in the works. I knew that the time had come for me to do it. I turned the ringer off on my phone, and buried myself in the project. I had no idea if the pieces would even fit after the trauma and the many days gone by.

After 12 days, the final piece to complete the sides was fitted with complete success, and the body fit the top.

I would describe the process as similar to piecing together a broken dish. The rosewood shattered like glass but had retained its shape. Luckily the top had its bracing intact, or the King might have been a lost cause. The neck is built like a baseball bat, and didn't even need to have its truss rod adjusted. The guitar has great action, great sound, and is very playable.

I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to be the caretaker and caregiver for this priceless piece of Americana. Hopefully the King will be used for recording projects for many years to come.

I am interested in compiling as much information as is available about the recordings on which John played this instrument, photos of John with the instrument, etc., and am preparing to make a limited edition copy of this fine guitar available to the public. I made a number of these fine guitars until July 2006 when my use of the Recording King brand ceased."

Also of interest are some rare YouTube footage of John playing his wonder, the a.m. Bacon & Day... please notice his weird, yet effective thumb fretting at some point during the playing.

Thanks a lot to Federico for correcting some miswritten infos (now settled).

Record of the Month - Gastr del Sol - The Serpentine Similar

I had, like usual, a browse at Massimo's always weird and interesting record bins, at Piazzola sul Brenta (Padua) monthly flea-market, and what I got is a rare (on vinyl sure it is...) Gastr del Sol "The Serpentine Similar", a 1993 wonder on Dexter's Cigar Records.

I knew about this prog/avantgarde group produced by John McEntire, BUT I wasn't prepared to the beauty of this disc, period!

It's a sparse duo, Grubbs and Brown - becoming a trio with McEntire's percussions on one track - with beautiful acoustic and electric guitars, an huge, subterrean bass and Monk-like piano and melodies and atmospheres reminding and hinting to some John Fahey's ideas, some Jim O'Rourke's experiments and productions, but also some Capt. Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" greasy sounds and - strange indeed - some Incredible String Band's from their "U" double album: acid-tinted sounds, truly seldom heard everywhere.

A true joy for the mind, ears and heart, as well...

"A Watery Kentucky", "Ursus Arctos Wonderfilis" and, even more, a superb tune titled "Even the odd orbit", a little masterpiece itself, really pleased me in Gotorama, during a lazy mid-summer afternoon, while quietly puffing a wonderful Bolivar habanos.

I recommend everyone into prog and electro-acoustic slow-tempo experimental music to give a try to this... this... yes, a masterpiece, maybe a little one, BUT still a masterpiece!

As a plus, recording quality is also awesome.

Breathing buildings

In a De Chirico-like town, people emptied by vacation frenzy, I noticed these during my dog-peeing trips... some are ancient - dating from XV/XVI century, others are simply old, replicas or new, industrial... but ALL seems a gothic mouth allowing ancient buildings to breath.

They also remind me of obscure, ancient alchemic meanings, but maybe it's something book hinted, as I'm (shamelessly) re-reading H.P. Lovecraft these days;-)

I like'em all...