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'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' by Luke Concannon

Review

One of the most anticipated albums to be issued by a Coventry & Warwickshire artist has to be 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning' which Luke Concannon is sharing with the world on February 5th.  The tunes have long been assembled & I've long wished to share my thoughts with you. Now the moment is here.

Thankfully, Luke has already released three of the songs as singles "Doing Nothing" which we reviewed in October, "Your Heart is in My Chest" the following month & most recently "Absolument" which has been out a couple of weeks. Three entirely different tracks & each quite stunning in its own fashion and hopefully you will recollect my thoughts on these, or if not refer back to the reviews.

You'll be pleased to hear that the seven tracks on the album which you won't have yet heard fit right in with the themes of individuality & excellence.  Produced by Nashville's James Prendergast at the Vermont farm of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (Luke now lives with his wife Stephanie Hollenberg, on Abenaki land in that state), the ten songs feature a most impressive array of musicians (including Stephanie whose voice in the harmonies is prominent).

I'd say that despite the wonderful eclecticism of the collection as a whole, there are several unifying factors. The first, and possibly most apparent, is Luke's abiding enthusiasm which elides into optimism despite whatever issues concern him. This has been so evident in the boundless joy of  "Your Heart is in My Chest" and "Absolument" where the chief problem seems to have been containing it & even "Doing Nothing" had a self deprecating wit which neutralised any possible negativity in his circumstances. The same, as you'll discover shortly, applies to the "new" pieces.

The other common thread, which I keep on returning to in my reviews of Luke's work, is how he has now completely transcended genres in his work: yes the songs as a set are eclectic as many excellent artists' are, but they are internally eclectic too: each individual one contains melded aspects of a variety of styles which he has achieved the art of getting to work together holistically: I think one can definitely hear the acquisitions of all his explorations of musics of the world.

So what are the other songs? A key one, the mighty "Join The Liberation" (which he originally released in 2017) is what you might call trademark Luke: a passionate exhortation for us to unite in meaningful action: plaintive in its description of the current horrors yet getting angry in response to them: at this point his vocals nearly burst out of the melody so great is his emotion.

"Coventry" is a nice touch, reconnecting him with the area covered by this magazine, but of course Luke is no parochialist & it is no token tip of the hat his homeland, but poetic use of the dreadful events of the November 14th 1940 "Moonlight Sonata" blitz to evoke parallels with the cynical & materialistic society he sees around him: strong imagery for sure but he seems unwilling to mince his words on this subject. To add to the sense of moral outrage, the arrangement is very unsettling: odd fragments of disparate cultural tones drift in and out: vaguely "Eastern" strings, sudden horn stabs, wailing harmonies. Like "Join The Liberation", "Coventry" uses the symbolism of civilisation on fire to make its point about impending apocalypse (and he's not the only songwriter from our area doing this currently: I think of Ellie Gowers' as yet unreleased "The Sky Is On Fire").

"The Hummingbird (Kieron's)" (I imagine the title is a nod to his Dad) is probably the most single minded of the album, being the nearest to a pure folk song & featuring absolutely gorgeous guitar playing of a stately reel picturing a pastoral idyll.

"Feel You In My Arms" has as its focus the plight of those without homes & those isolated from their families, the victims of alienation & rejection by society while pleading for compassion towards them & genuine connection.

"It Won't Wait" is a lament set appropriately over an arrangement built around a drone heart, though in characteristic Luke form, after a while his exuberance causes him to break away from this restraint & not only does the track increasingly swing, but we even get a rap section.

"Denial" is another stunner as you might say: sung a cappella, the absence of instrumentation leaves Luke nowhere to hide: but then why would he want to do that? He has the voice to pull it off (though the delivery is totally sincere: there is no showboating here) and above all with Luke it's about the message of the words: and you certainly can't escape them here.

Finally we have "Grow Wild", which certainly seems to be a highly personal one: possibly directed at Stephanie & it consists of a series of themes & metaphors which  twist around each other so organically it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them: which almost certainly is what you are not meant to do. We get layers relating to gardening, creating music, personal relationships & nurturing whole communities: both literal in every case (I think) and mutual metaphors: all delivered over one of the most "genre defying" arrangements on the record: another seamless concoction crafted from many elements with which Luke feels comfortable as a writer.

As I say, there is so much going on on 'Ecstatic Bird In The Burning', yet despite the delights in all the many details, the core messages of hope, love, the need to engage etc remain crystal clear. He asks much of us, whether it's to respond to the challenges in his lyrics or get around his often very idiosyncratic song structures and arrangements, but that is not in my book a bad thing.  Luke's discography is extremely impressive, yet this is arguably his best work to date: many things are coming together & maturing & this is the album of a man confident in his own creative skin: clear on what he wants to sing about & clear on how to say it. An artist with a bulging portfolio of musical ideas to pull out in service of his songs & the skills to combine them into coherence.

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'The Righteous Jazz' by The Mechanicals Band

Review

We cover some excellent artists in the magazine who produce some great material. One extra special profile of an artist (to me) is one who works or collaborates across artforms, and another is a sort of restless one, who is ceaselessly seeking to develop ideas & who keeps a reviewer on their toes.

A really good example of both would be The Mechanicals Band. Inasmuch as you can pin down what they do, they set poems to new music (though that is far from all they do) and their music links hands intimately with not only poetry & drama too.

Their 2017 debut ‘Exit, Pursued by Bear‘ (when they were Rude Mechanicals) had a strong, yet not exclusive focus on Shakespeare & ideally was appreciated in performances they gave with the collaboration of actors. Then came 2019's ‘Miscellany #1' EP which set more recent poems by a range of writers.

However for the past few years, their main focus has been ‘The Righteous Jazz' project: a wholly Philip Larkin orientated one which went public in 2019 in a short form at Coventry's Shoot Festival & after Arts Council Funding was secured, a longer theatrical performance was given at both the Tin Arts in Coventry & Hull Truck Theatre, with the dramatic aspects directed by Connor Alexander & performed by Lisa Franklin & Steve Brown. Hopefully you read our review of the evening at the Tin from November 2019.

You might reasonably suppose then that their release of  ‘The Righteous Jazz' album will serve to capture the musical aspects of the show. This however, being the Mechanicals, is only part of the answer as no fewer than three of the eight songs have been created since those performances & hence we'll need to look forwards to hearing them live during the delayed tour of the project.

Wes Finch (guitar & lead vocals), Jools Street (violin), Ben Haines (drums and percussion), Katrin Gilbert (viola) and John Parker (double bass) have created another mesmerising collection which in very broad terms musically acknowledges Larkin's profound love of jazz but equally brings in a fair range of other styles, subtly woven into the tapestry.

Although Wes is the principle setter of existing lyrics to new tunes, as with earlier work, Jools has composed two tracks "Mr Bleaney" and "High Windows" & these raise the intriguing question of "can you capture the work of a writer without actually using their or any other words?". It's not as paradoxical as it might sound, for though "High Windows" is indeed an instrumental , though named for Larkin's poem, the band eschew actually setting the words as they have with all their previous word & just let Jools' stately & dignified tune evoke the absent lyrics. A bold move but hardly the first of their career.

"Mr Bleaney" is a little more conventional in that Wes does recite the poem of that name over Jools' ragtime tinged composition: but again this breaks new ground in that hitherto, the poems have tended to be sung rather than delivered in this manner.

"This Be The Verse" is probably the one text in the project whose use was unavoidable (I believe Wes & the band  selected all the poems to use themselves) given that this is the one poem by Larkin everyone knows (if they know of his work at all) & whose opening is presumably his most quoted lines. The band however do not tiptoe around this cultural icon with deference but approach it, as with everything else, with confidence & love and manage to bring fresh life to the meaning of the words.

On the other hand, "Long Lion Days" is one of the least known of the poet's work: composed in late July 1982 and unpublished during his lifetime, Wes  discovered it, rescued it from obscurity & now it is among the most loved not only of the band's live repertoire but also in Wes' solo sets (when these are possible): an excellent example of the deep power of the project & one which lends Larkin a service by revealing another side to his personality, often ignored. Were there to be a single released from this album, I should have thought that this was the outstanding candidate. Personally, having heard it live so many times, having a recorded version at last is delightful.

"Horns of the Morning" is I think the song I've heard second most often in concert to date (I assume it thus to be one of the earlier ones to be created) and is another tune inspired by the earlier jazz forms in terms of the arrangement, yet the vocal melody swings back towards a more folk tone, appropriate maybe given that this is another of the poet's more pastoral & optimistic pieces.

Of the newer songs, it's not too surprising that given the idea of setting the poems of a man who was jazz critic of the Times for a decade that the band should plump for one of his more overtly musically themed ones (from  1954): hence "For Sidney Bechet". The tune tips its hat to the New Orleans sound alluded to in the lyrics rather than the older stylings of "Horns of the Morning" in a most compelling and authentic manner. It's good to hear horns on this song, though ironically not the saxophone associated with the subject of the poem…. It's the groovy cut on the album.

"Days" shares a title with the famous Kinks song and some of that track's reflective tone: a timeless meditation on our lives & the human condition: it particularly resonates with the relentless passage of days during the pandemic & conceivably that is why this poem has been selected. The sound is much more classic Mechanicals with prominent violin & viola, echoing the sound of the first two albums.

"Trees", which closes the latest collection is rightly placed there & I think a very good decision: another of Larkin's best known works, this equation of seasonal changes to those of life & death is a profound one & the band rise to the challenge of a tune & performance to match it. Elegiac & melancholic at turns, this should, in my opinion, be a significant live addition to their repertoire & I look forward to hearing them perform this & the other tracks at the earliest opportunity.

As with all their earlier work, there is boldness in what the Mechanicals present us with: yes the tunes are highly melodic & burrow into our heads easily, but the apparent ease with which they perform the songs should not blind us from the challenges before them initially, to capture the essence of a complex individual, often using very well known texts & say something new about them.

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'Reflection' EP by Rob Lee Thompson

Review

It's uplifting to start a new year by reviewing another local artist whom I've not yet written about in the magazine & on this occasion, the release today of his new ‘Reflection' EP by local artist Rob Lee Thompson has afforded me such a chance.

This six song collection (EPs do seem to be getting longer these days) has its origins back pre-pandemic, in fact a couple are four years old.

A subsequent meeting with drummer and composer Tom Haines at the Stratford-on-Avon jazz jam in 2017 led to the creation of some of the rest with "Sing It To Me" being written during Lockdown #1 with saxophonist Jay Riley.

Of course writing new material & then getting a band together to capture the new songs are two separate things and the planned May 2020 sessions at Sansom Studios didn't happen. Thankfully a brief window of opportunity in November allowed the EP to be recorded over the weekend of 14th and 15th of that month with a band consisting of Elliott Sansom (piano), Tom Haines (drums), Mike Green (double bass), Rob Lee Thompson (vocals) and Jay Riley features on four of the tracks playing tenor saxophone, including the single "Reflection" which was released on December 12th.

As subtle hints in the above paragraphs may have alerted you, Rob is a jazz musician & this is a jazz record. I have no idea whether the musicians involved are aware of the work of PZAZZ who feature on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four' but I was struck with how in some ways they are carrying on where the earlier band left off: albeit with the crucial distinction of vocals. There is the same calm & confident virtuosity deployed in supporting the number rather than grandstanding & above all I like the fact that they not only groove well together but they genuinely swing: and that probably is the main criterion within my personal taste which separates jazz I connect with & that which I don't.

The groove is generally pretty laid back & the instrumentation sits behind the voice in the arrangement (thankfully). With the absence of showing off, we get real songs & the care over writing "proper" lyrics thus is exposed to view. The approach is pretty classic with careful construction rather than falling back on excessive repetition & the tone sits somewhere between acceptance of the world as it is and an optimistic vision of the future: in fact this rather brought to mind the sort of thing soul artists like Curtis Mayfield or the Isley Brothers were looking at in the early 1970s & in fact I can see some of their musical approach in ‘Reflection' too: it's a soul record as well as a jazz one.

The songs are the title track & "Sing It To Me" as mentioned above, plus opener "Rain Is Coming", "I'm Doing Fine", "Tell All the People" and "Out On the Scene" and they add up to a most thoughtful & inspiring collection: quality music to lift our spirits when we need that so much. However as Rob tells me "..the main aim of releasing the EP was to help get more live gigs, hopefully there'll still be some live music venues left!". Amen to that.

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"You The Creator" by River of the Dog

Review

Good news from River of the Dog who on 29th of this month are releasing a brand new single entitled "You The Creator"  (hopefully you'll remember their previous release, "On The Come Down" which we reviewed for you in February last year and which also appears on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three').

Last time out, River of the Dog comprised band founder & conceiver Callum Mckissock with the assistance of Alex Eardley-Scott on lead guitar. For this release, Callum (who provides vocals, drums, cowbell, humming, electric & acoustic guitars) is joined by Alycia Malta on bass and Stuart Mckissock on lead electric guitar. Fans of our local music scene may thus spot a clear similarity with lineups of Brass Hip Flask and it will be most interesting to see how both bands run along  parallel tracks

If "On The Come Down" was a stunning debut (and it was), I doubt if they would approach a song in quite the same way under current circumstances: a chilling & acerbic song, it worked really well but it's not the sort of vibe which chimes with our pandemic experiences. "You The Creator" is not a direct COVID19 response as such (if you want that sort of thing, check out the Brass Hip Flask song "Disrespect" on  ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Three', though there is a little hint in the line "..a world that is frozen" in this current track), but it does offer an oblique look at the artistic process in a sympathetic yet clear eyed way. As Callum puts it, the song "…is a commentary on what artists are really making when they produce art and how that world is viewed and criticised by the artists themselves rather than seeing the beauty within it, mistakes and all." How many people we write about can this apply to? It is also worth mentioning in the context of this theme that the cover art is an original piece by Callum & Alycia.

Consequently, the song is considerably gentler in musical tone than its predecessor. Although adhering to the same skewed sonic approach & twisted processing to create a contemporary & fresh sound, the mood is gentler & contemplative: think of Pink Floyd in terms of material like "Grantchester Meadows" and then fly in elements of Callum's beloved blues and press the "2021" filter button on your console. In fact the track shimmers & shifts along its whole axis (credit to Chris Field for the mix which enhances this) & so hard is it to pin down that maybe this continually morphing style is going to emerge as the River of the Dog trademark once we have more examples to judge by.

At any rate, in a mere two releases, the band have already demonstrated admirable range. Given the interesting juxtaposition of rooting yourself in a musical traditional of considerable depth while utilising such an innovative approach to what they end up sounding like, it seems very clear that the future for this comparatively new band is very exciting.

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