This winter saw the sad demise of a particularly lovely and fecund independent; Spinney Records is shedding its leaves for the last time. Spinney was the love labour of one Paul ‘Boots’ Lambden — previously co-founder of the gloriously idiosyncratic Trunk label, and a champion of the neglected classics of Britain’s great folk flowering of the ’60s and early ’70s.
Probably the most notable of Spinney’s achievements was the re-issue, in July 2000, of Vashti Bunyan’s lost masterpiece of folky featheriness, Just Another Diamond Day. Once again blinking shyly into the light, the album proceeded to draw an entirely new and diverse following, the majority unaware of its previous existence. In addition, the unique and affecting feyness of the work fast gave it iconic status among the collective ranks of post-millennial nu-folk, drawing critical plaudits from the likes of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Adem.Wisdom with the benefit of hindsight is easy, and the album’s title track has long since attained ‘song from the mobile advert’ familiarity status. But it’s worth appreciating the sheer foresight necessary in anticipating a mass contemporary audience for the über-kooky Vashti. Moreover, whilst many have become aware of (album producer) Joe Boyd’s role in the renaissance of this gem and the subsequent resurrection of Vashti’s musical career after a hiatus of thirty years, perhaps only the cognoscenti have registered that the original impetus was Lambden’s. So, credit where it’s due.
Having been the prime mover (at Trunk) in securing the 1998 re-issue of Paul Giovanni’s seminal Wicker Man soundtrack (more credit due), it seemed logical that Boots’ next move should be resurrecting another prime cut, this time of early ’70’s horror music: the soundtrack to Gary Sherman’s Deathline with its, frankly, stonking proto-synth/R&B theme tune. It creeps me out to this day (“Mind the gap…”)
Other notable Spinney stable releases include debuts by the Memory Band and the not inconsiderable coup of signing English folk-rock veteran Kevin Coyne for his (sadly) posthumous but characteristically madcap 2005 One Day in Chicago album. Perhaps the standout, however, is the beautiful, plangent earthiness of Yorkshireman Barry Dransfield’s eponymous solo debut, a further lost folk classic, originally released in 1972 and rescued from obscurity by Lambden’s crusading spirit. It makes an entirely fitting companion piece to Diamond Day.
Bowing out with a suitably elegiac offering, Spinney’s swan song release is the beautiful Bees Dream Of Flowers And Your Summer’s Meadow Breath, a vinyl EP by erstwhile Jack frontman Anthony Reynolds with featured vocalists Vashti Bunyan (which, charmingly, brings the Spinney story to something like full-circle) and Charlotte Greig, not to mention a very stylish picture sleeve. It contains three excellent, mood savouring songs, but the standout is ‘Just So You Know’. Above a wonderfully rich yet restrained arrangement, Vashti sings in a beautifully matured and resonant voice, reminiscent of Virginia Ashley’s most sublime moments.
More time spent with his family (and his beloved Aldershot Town FC) now beckons for Boots but, in whatever neck of the woods he next finds himself, we wish him good fortune.
The nom du disc of Köln’s Jan St Werner, Lithops (named after a fearsomely phallic exotic succulent, the tropical horticulturists among you will have doubtless already noted) is the most eccentric, eclectic electronic outlet for a musician famed for his, erm, eccentric, eclectic electronic outlets. St Werner’s droll, genre-shredding duo Mouse On Mars (in tandem with Dusseldorf’s Andi Toma) and Microstoria (his improvisatory laptop collaboration with Oval’s Markus Popp; Himmel! these German avant-musicians have cool names!) inhabit computer music’s capacious hinterland, from digi-funk and dub-tronica to eerie minimalism and synapse-worrying glitch abstraction. Lithops, meanwhile, has latterly provided a berth from which St Werner — recently resident at STEIM, the Amsterdam-based institute for electronic music and software development — can disseminate his installation soundtracks and other gallery-based and experimental musics. The seemingly inexorable gush of Mouse On Mars related releases, meanwhile, shows no sign of abating. MOM’s eleventh album in fourteen years is on the way and the world is still recovering from St Werner and Toma’s 2007 collaboration with the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, under the Von Südenfeld moniker.
All of which brings us to Ye Viols!— Lithops’ (count them) eighth album in a little over a decade and probably the most consistently compelling of St Werner’s solo works thus far. Comprised partially of pieces which began life as art gallery accompaniments, it’s typically uncompromising, unpredictable fare that at times threatens melting, Autechre-like wilfulness, at others reduces down to tactile globules of digital sound that seem to render the electronic realm entirely ‘organic’. For anyone who thinks such a description suggests the last word in yawn-inducing, microscopic geek music, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Geeks don’t generally ‘do’ playfulness, and for all the, no doubt, hi-tech software involved in its creation, Ye Viols! is riven with an ineffable quality of teasing humour that’s oddly warm and, well, human.
Opening track ‘Graf’ may have started life as the sonic drapery to an exhibition of neo-modernist architectural sketches, but its mind-bending clatter of abruptly severed melodic ‘developments’ and capricious, if somehow still vaguely danceable, rhythms are imbued with a spirit that has more to do with infant school poster paint splashing than pseudo-scientific chin-stroking. The ensuing ‘Handed’, meanwhile, begins with an ingenuously simple siren call that quickly develops into a rather sublime, Philip Glass-like grid of counterpoint melodies and implied rhythms — a robot’s idea of joy unconfined.
Elsewhere the mischievous, queasy ‘Sebquenz’ is disco music as purveyed by HAL, the evil computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey; ‘In Nitro’ is a minimalist essay for heavily processed clangs and throbs which might have first been captured in a vast, empty aircraft hangar and ‘Bacchus’ is a study in scary industrial drones and test oscillator-like tones that fans of David Lynich’s Eraserhead will likely warm to.
A word of praise too for the sleeve art (also St Werner’s handiwork) — a finely wrought marriage of reptilian surrealism and monolithic gothic typescript which, like the music it so decorously sheaths, is strange, counter-intuitive and curiously alluring.
David Sheppard talks to Jan St. Werner
What were your intentions when you started working on the Ye Viols!?
There were a couple of songs and sounds which I had used for various gallery shows and I felt like archiving them in the form of a record. I’m always afraid of losing my files so putting them on a record makes it more likely that they won’t get lost. I also enjoyed separating them from their initial purpose to see how they would do as purely musical pieces.
What’s behind the title – is there some connection with ‘early music’?
The title suggests that this music has a purpose in an old fashioned way – like a Renaissance dance party in which music is more a pleasant supplement to a cultural spectacle than a means of artistic expression. Ye Viols! is an ironic invitation to please an audience’s need for distraction through art. It’s also a little mix of surprises in itself – as the crocodile egg man on the cover suggests.
Tell us a bit more about the artwork – it’s very eye-catching.
It’s just a collage of some old photos I’ve found and new ones I make myself. I’ve made drawings, collages, videos and paper sculptures for a long time but I never had the urge to exhibit them. For Ye Viols! I found it appropriate to use some of those collages to give a hint of the music’s original context while keeping it away from being a specific work from a specific artist.
Your creative life seems to involve equal measures of fine art and music. Do you feel the need to distinguish between the two disciplines in any way?
I usually find the reward between visual artists more rewarding. Musicians don’t talk much – music is not about words, it’s too concrete and possibly the most anti-intellectual of all the arts. It’s a philosophical question, whether we can understand the world by taking its elements apart and bringing up key questions through artistic construction. To decipher a secret and translate it into a picture or composition is, I guess, the most rewarding thing you can do as a human being, besides drinking beer, sleeping and a couple of other good things!
I interviewed Mark Smith once and he said all he ever listened to was rockabilly and Mouse on Mars. Can you tell me how the Von Südenfeld collaboration came about?
Mark came to a show of ours some years ago and we decided to stay in touch. We couldn’t really come up with a project at first so we asked him to write new lyrics for ‘Wipe That Sound’, a song from [Mouse on Mar’s] Radical Connector album. We released two new versions with Mark as a guest vocalist on a 12″ on [MOM’s own label] Sonig. Mark got back to us and said that we should work on new material; so when The Fall were on tour in Germany he stopped by our studio for two days and we recorded some live sessions. We reworked them and made sketches for new songs. A couple of studio visits later we had an album completed.
David ‘von’ Sheppard
The most challenging aspect of this exhibition was its sheer bulk, which initially left me with a niggling feeling of discontent. Later, as I started to turn it over whilst wading through the exhibition catalogue for clues, I started to realize that the issues I had with certain works were more attached to their presentation.
The conundrum of why something jars at the Baltic lies in the space. The fifty pieces spanning the conceptual artist’s career of some fifty years — ranging from drawings to installations — are shown over two floors, both huge with high ceilings. With a few exceptions it is open plan and herein lies the drawback. Everything looks small, lost, and jumbled together.
Among the works that stand out are Cut Piece, a seminal performance captured on 16mm film in 1965. It is shown next to Cut Piece 2003. In the former, Yoko Ono sits motionless while the audience is invited to cut off pieces of her clothing bit by bit. The young Ono, in 1965, is a vulnerable beauty who sits naturally poised as people cut away at the rough looking material of her garment. Shot on black and white film, it stands in immense contrast to the colour version of 2003, where the mature artist is approached by the audience in a reverential manner. The 16mm film Fly (1970) has since 2003 been shown as a multi-screen installation of close-ups of flies crawling all over a naked woman’s body. There is not a twitch on the woman’s face as a fly traverses her lips, whereas I physically started to itch. What makes the piece more intense is the accompanying sound, a high pitched buzzing noise that could well be Ono’s own voice.
If audience participation is your bag, then Yoko Ono is your artist. This is obvious in works that invite the viewer to take something away with them or write down their thoughts, wishes and dreams, such as My Mommy is Beautiful (2004-2008) where the length of a wall is covered in notes and photographs proclaiming love to mothers, from the unconditional declarations of devotion to the more honest (‘my mum is great, she bought me an iPod’). Although I found it cloying and tabloid, like a twisted re-enactment of Princess Diana’s death tribute wishes without the flowers, I could see it was an incredibly popular piece judging by the amount of notes that had been left. It clearly hits a nerve as everybody has got something to say on the subject and makes those who contribute feel included, as the final piece is to be mounted onto canvas and sent to the artist in New York.
Despite the weak layout of the exhibition the works that shine through are enough to bring home what Ono, after all these years is still trying to say. She persists with her quest to make people face the ‘love, peace and understanding’ ideology through art, regardless of trends and attitudes. The show is ultimately a great celebration of the conceptual and the participatory.
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Sunday 14 December 2.008 — Sunday 15 March 2009
Warhol produced around 500 ‘Screen Tests’, silent black and white films which feature visitors to his New York studio The Factory. They were seated before a stationary 16mm Bolex camera on silent, with stark lighting and no direction as to how to behave for the duration of filming — around 2 and a half minutes. The films were then slowed down for screening, and the result is a collection of startlingly beautiful and revealing portraits. The dramatic lighting, unremarkable set up and apparent indifference of the artist — Warhol often left the studio during filming — belie how fascinating and unique each portrait is.
As an audience, you are captivated as, under the impassive scrutiny of the camera, the emotions and personalities of the subjects are revealed. A deep breath betrays a beautiful woman’s anxiety, while the bravado of a young man fades to vulnerability with the twitch of a muscle.
Warhol filmed a wide variety of different people for his screen tests, from fashion models and musicians to anonymous people on the street. Among the selection for ’13 Most Beautiful…’ are some of the more famous subjects. A young, confrontational Lou Reed contrasts with the nervousness of a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, and the film of Edie Sedgwick, recovering from a car accident, exposes the anxiety in her eyes. Warhol said that he “never met anyone he couldn’t call a beauty”, and this selection of subjects as ‘most beautiful’ doesn’t conflict with that at all; it sits easily with Warhol’s fascination with celebrity — a fascination mirrored by the culture of today.
Now these most arresting of the screen tests are available to anyone to buy on DVD, to be watched and watched again on small screens —and listened to as well, accompanied as they are by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ sweeping, wistful soundtrack, a mixture of covers and original songs. The films maintain their intimacy and effectiveness despite the change in format and the greater availability of the images that this entails. Watching the films on television also seems fitting in a way, utterly compatible with the ideals of democracy inherent in Warhol’s belief in the mass production of art. Owning this DVD allows you to control your experience of the films, to watch them in whatever environment you choose, to decide how often you view them and whether or not you listen to the soundtrack as you do so. For me, this time, the portraits were enough, so I lowered the volume, to be consumed by the films in silence.