Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cruel Sister — Pentangle (1970)

As noted rock philosopher Neil Sedaka once opined, breakin' up is hard to do. He was mostly correct but what he failed to mention, or perhaps didn't know back in 1962, is that staying broken up can be a bitch, too, especially if there's nostalgia to milk and money to be made. Over the past couple years alone, The Police buried the hatchet ... or at least put it out of arm's reach for a while. The mighty Led Zep played a one-off gig that still promises to turn into a full-blown tour. Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet have rebooted Yazoo and, just this week, Cheech Marin (age 62) and Tommy Chong (age 70) announced they're getting their stoner act back together because, you know, there's nothing funnier than doddering gramp's pot jokes (providing, of course, you're wasted and your critical faculties have been toked into submission).

However, there's one reunion that's piqued my interest. The original lineup of Pentangle is together for the first time in more than three decades and has been playing select dates throughout 2008, including next month's Green Man Festival in Wales. The band's roster reads like a Brit-folk supergroup: guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, double bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox and crystal-voiced frontwoman Jacqui McShee. These five may have been eclipsed by contemporaries Fairport Convention in terms of international recognition but, in terms of artistry and chemistry, they were untouchable. Pentangle's synthesis of British folk, rock, jazz and world music is preserved on six spellbinding albums released between 1968 and the lineup's dissolution in 1973. These records, particularly the first four, remain ageless and full of wonder.

Today's post is the title track of Pentangle's fourth album, Cruel Sister, released in October 1970. The project was a risky one: Pentangle opted to follow the biggest LP of their career, the mostly self-penned Basket of Light (containing a surprise hit single in Light Flight), with a disc of five traditionals, one of which, an 18-minute version of Jack Orion, filled the entire second side. Alas, Cruel Sister suffered a cruel fate. It stiffed and one could argue Pentangle never fully recovered from its commercial failure. Of course, I also should mention it's a freakin' masterpiece, the people who dismissed it in 1970 are tone-deaf morons and you should buy it now!

Here's a sample: Cruel Sister's title track, a murder ballad (aka The Twa Sisters) that dates back to the mid-1600s. It's the tale of sibling rivalry turned homicidal, as a dark-featured maiden drowns her fair-haired younger sister to ensure there's no competition for the affections of a visiting knight. Well, funny these things happen, but the body washes ashore and the men who find it turn the woman's breastbone and golden locks into a harp that's presented to the family's household. The harp starts to play itself and sing about the murder, implicating the older sister during her wedding to the knight. (You don't see shit like that on CSI Miami.) That said, the music is so dazzling, you may not even pay attention to the lyrics. The interplay between Renbourn, Jansch and Thompson is balletic; Cox's percussion is subtle but effective; and McShee relays the chilling storyline with ice-cold austerity.

I've only seen Pentangle once, in 1986, with a greatly diminished lineup. This is one reunion I dearly hope clicks and maybe, just maybe, there will be additional gigs beyond the UK and a new album and a TV variety hour and ...

Please allow me to dream like this: It keeps my mind distracted from the looming threat of a Kajagoogoo get-together.

Cruel Sister (link expired)

And here's Pentangle in 1970, at the peak of their powers, performing Light Flight for the BBC:

Buy it here

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

When We Refuse To Suffer — Jonathan Richman (2008)

July turned out to be an excruciatingly busy month for Bongo Jazz, as work on an annual report consumed almost every minute of personal time. There were many late nights at the office poring over compliance documents, performance measures and financial statements — and if you think that sounds dull and soul-sapping, you'd be correct. But, once the office emptied at the end of the work day, and I settled in for the second-half of yet another double shift, I'd bring out my little iPod speakers and put on some music. I'd play new stuff, old stuff, loud stuff, quiet stuff — and, at least once a night, I'd return to Jonathan Richman's latest CD, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild. For those 45 minutes, Richman re-connected me to the real world where romance and art and life and death matter ... and org charts don't. The record was more than enjoyable. It was replenishing.

Now 57, Richman is making the best music of his career; his natural guilelessness and sweetness enhanced by the sort of profundity and perspective that comes with age. Ruminations on mortality pervade the new disc. Richman, who declared I'm Just Beginning To Live 23 years ago, is now admitting (without lament) Time Has Been Going By So Fast. He plucks Here It Is from Leonard Cohen's underrated Ten New Songs; the song's prayer-like refrain ("May everyone live and may everyone die") providing a powerful lead-in for closing track As My Mother Lay Lying, where Richman visits his mom in a nursing home and gleans wisdom from her last minutes of life. The song is so personal, so intimate and yet so universal. And, really, isn't that what great art's about?

When We Refuse To Suffer is another highlight — or should I say they're highlights, as the song appears twice in significantly different styles. Today's post is the second version, a slow-burning rumba with some sizzling electric guitar work, but both tracks share the same sentiment: In our attempt to avoid all discomfort, we've lost an integral element of living. Or, as Richman says much more eloquently, "When we refuse to suffer/When we refuse to feel/That's when the antidepressant wins/And the fresh air and the world lose."

When We Refuse to Suffer (link expired)

As much as I've loved his recent output, my favourite Richman song remains Now Is Better Than Before, the grown-up, unsentimental love song that closed 1985's superb (and inexplicably unavailable) Rockin' and Romance album. To my surprise, he brought it out of mothballs and played it on Later ... With Jools Holland. Here's his performance brought to you by the magic that is YouTube:

Buy it here

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hawaii — The Young Canadians (1980)

Today is Canada Day in my neck of the woods; it's kind of like Independence Day in the U.S. minus the fervent patriotism and all that didn't-we- kick-some-Brit-ass bravado. Canada Day is time for all Canadians to stand tall, hold our heads high and declare to a waiting world: "Hey, man, we're really sorry for Nickelback. No, seriously, that was really bad. Can I buy you a doughnut?"

In honour of Canada Day, here's a genuine Canuck punk-rock classic that's surely well known to my compatriot readers but likely unfamiliar to all you nice folks in other parts of the world.

Hawaii is the title track of a four-song EP by The Young Canadians (formerly The K-Tels), a Vancouver-based trio led by singer-songwriter Art Bergmann. It was recorded in September 1979 and co-produced by Bob Rock, guitarist with fellow Vancouver underground scenesters The Payola$ and future knob-twiddler to countless heavy metal stars.

Punk, of course, can be a nebulous term and, in this case, Hawaii is ultimately a high-octane version of California surf rock, no more hardcore than the first two Boomtown Rats albums but hooky as hell. That said, the enduring appeal of Hawaii is Bergmann's delicious sneer and his recurring use of the F-word as an adjective to describe possible sunny vacation destinations where he can escape the West Coast rain; places like f---ing Hawaii and f---ing Tahiti and f---ing Miami. Strangely, mainstream radio didn't spin this record much at all. Too bad: Even a few well-placed bleeps wouldn't spoil Hawaii's irrepressible energy and mischievous spirit.

The Young Canadians would release another four-track EP, This Is Your Life, before playing their last show on Dec. 13, 1980. (Zulu Records gathered the group's studio recordings and some live tracks on 1995's No Escape compilation.) Bergmann fronted a couple other independent groups — Los Popularos and Poisoned — then released a series of fine solo discs, starting with the John Cale-produced Crawl With Me in 1988. Sadly, he hasn't released an album of all-new material in 13 years; last I heard, he was living on a farm outside a small Alberta town. You might have heard of the place. F---ing Airdrie.

Hawaii (link expired)

Here's Bergmann, with the Young Canadians, playing This Is Your Life track Data Redux on Vancouver TV in 1980.

Buy it here