Trembling Bells

Carbeth(Honest Jon’s 2009)

England graced us with so many psych-folk icons in the 1960s. Their troubadours borrowed from the same pages as their American counterparts, but imbued it with a stately grandeur lacking in the States. Both were indebted to the blues, folk, psychedelia and country, but the British interpreted country quite literally as their output celebrated the rural life and its mundane, yet magical charms. This is one big fucking generalization hovering in the air like a pinata waiting to be whacked by shephard’s staff, but I always felt the American point of view was one of protest and restless ennui where the bands like Fairport Convention Pentangle and Incredible String Band were more interested in celebrating tradition, mother nature and the epehemeral nature of life. Sure, hippies on all continents were singing about long-haired beauties, narcotics and peaceful vibes, but the Americans raised their fists in the air while the British dug theirs into the earth and were inextricably tied to the surroundings in which they were raised.

Not surprisingly, this era has been mined so often that it’s kind of hard to be floored by an album that owes so much to a particular genre. Sure, people have put their own stamp on English psych-folk by slathering it in proggy excess like the Espers, ringing feedback like select shoegazers or just aimed for a faithful interpretation of its ample vibes. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to duplicate the pipes of a Sandy Denny or Jacqui McPhee or the meandering warble of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. It is the x-factor that renders the rest pretenders to a die-cast that is not easily reproduced or imitated. Then you hear Trembling Bells’ vocalist Lavinia Blackwell sing and you wonder where this voice has been all of your life. She’s no dead ringer for Denny, but I wouldn’t want her to be, but her voice soars like her idols and she squeezes plenty of pathos into every note. However, what sets Trembling Bells apart from the rest is that they possess the melancholy grace of their influences, yet inject enough subtle eccentricities into their instrumentation that they are entirely their own creation.

Carbeth is their debut and its success isn’t surprising since their ranks include guitarist Ben Reynolds, who gets no press, but blew me away a few years back with a series of cdrs that lulled me to sleep many a night. Drummer Alex Neilson has played with Jandek, Baby Dee, Alasdair Roberts and Will Oldham and his improvisational background lends a loosey-goosey demeanor to the percussion. In short, there is a ramshackle refinement to this music and it soars where so many kindred spirits have fallen flat. There is a triumphant quality to this album where you get the sense that they are hitting on all cylinders, albeit in the most mellow way possible. If it was released in 1967, everyone would embrace it as a godsend, but it has been relegated as an afterthought a year after its release. That’s a shame since it deserves so much more respect and devotion than a cult following. Carbeth is the real deal and taps into that awe one gets when hearing Unhalfbricking or Wee Tam and the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter at 3am. In my admittedly biased world, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Strapping Fieldhands-Discus

September 8, 2008

Strapping Fieldhands

Discus LP (Omphalos 1994)

There is something magical and special about this album and its place and time in my life. If you haven’t picked up my very unsubtle and non-existent hints, I grew up in Philadelphia and had the pleasure of spending much of my youth shopping at the Philadelphia Record Exchange, which is still manned by members of the Strapping Fieldhands. Now this is totally irrelevant to both mine and your enjoyment of this somewhat forgotten gem, but this store shaped much of my musical taste and served as an inspiration, source of advice and a place where I was mocked for buying a Steely Dan box set. Anyhow, it was a place to meander and get turned onto to the Majora and Siltbreeze labels while tempering my love of bad indie-rock with some hoary old psych chestnuts. In short, 3rd Street Jazz and Rock and Record Exchange sated my music addiction with proteins and monounsaturated fats instead of the empty calories to be found in the competing genres which could’ve stolen my attention. God, this was meant to be a simple salute and now it some meandering dedication, but thank you fellows.

Let us get back to the music.  After a couple singles on Siltbreeze, the band recorded their debut, which remains sadly out of print and unavailable to those that may latch onto their ramshackle love of loner psych, skiffle, untuned balladry and perfectly concocted pop melodies played off the cuff. I may be totally wrong, but Discus always seemed like a bunch of music aficionados tapping into the best of Peter Hamill, Incredible String Band, Lonnie Donegan and early Holy Modal Rounders in the context of what Guided By Voices were doing in the early 90s.

Until the day I die, I will always be sucker for the opening track “Boo Hoo Hoo” which says little beyond the chorus and invitations to engage in carnal passions in a Scottish glade. It is so simple, but a perfectly imperfect ditty about an illicit weekend rendezvous and the consequences with a lazy regard for the consequences. Almost three minutes into the track, there is a such a sloppy, but uplifting guitar riff that always plasters a grin on my face.

I could never figure out all of the lyrics to “When I Came” but it always engendered these melancholy feelings due to the ramshackle rise and fall of the instrumentation mixed with the endlessly hopeful chorus. It seemed like a feel good song strangled by an inability to decide which mood to embrace.

Polished isn’t a term I would use for any Strapping Fieldhands album or single, but there is something about the smudges and smears that endeared Discus to me. There is a sad heart that beats beneath the sloppiness, myriad of influences and happy-go-lucky exterior that kind of grabbed me and never let go years later.


Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart (1972)

There is much love within my heart for the Incredible String Band and their meandering hippie opuses about minotaurs and good ol’ cousin caterpillar. I remember the first time my punk ass saw the cover of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and snickering at the commune of foppish souls in technicolor coats and beaded necklaces, but once my viewpoint was forever altered once I actually heard it years later. My narrow mindedness isn’t much of a surprise since I once thought oversized t-shirts, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and malt liquor were enjoyable, so I wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve.

Clive Palmer was an integral part of the first Incredible String Band record which was a more straighforward affair that sort of reminds me of an Appalachian via English skiffle-folk version of the Holy Modal Rounders’ first two lps. Yeah, it isn’t an entirely accurate description, but it’ll do for now. Clive left the band before they expanded and explored more abstract, experimental territory. In the meantime, he joined the Famous Jug Band and recorded a solo effort entitled Banjoland, but these outlets were lesser lights. At the urging of Ralph McTell, he formed COB. or Clive’s Original Band, and recorded two of the best English folk/psych albums of all-time. First came 1970s Spirit of Love, then came their grand finale Moyshe McStiff.

Supposedly a song cycle about Crusades, Moyshe McStiff’s title and cover image evoke a mystical quality that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Incredible String Band cover. In fact, the music is eerily reminiscent of their 60s recordings as the band’s invention of a dulcimer/sitar hybrid, the dulcitar, echoes the woozy, mystical vibes of ISB’s most stoned moments. Biblical themes abound as COB references Judah, Solomon, Martha and Mary as the band delves into spiritual quests and the meaning of love. It is such an earnest, sincere album that would seem ridiculous if it wasn’t so gorgeous.

The centerpiece of the album is “Let It Be You” which may be one of the most tender, but simple love songs I’ve heard. It is a celebration of the power of song to immortalize true love as well as a tender sentiment. It is a testament to power of words as well as the ephemeral quality of our affections. It is full of dedication and uncertainty just like those first exhilarating months of a new relationship.

To put it it down right, to make it true

if my songs were people, this could be you

but if i lose it, or just confuse it

lets make it summer, lets make it you

and when i’m longing let it be you

and when im giving let it be you

i woke this morning and without warning

someone was near me and it was you