Dusty Stray – Estranged

One of the delightful and yet unintended consequences of maintaining Sonic Breakfast for four years now (on and off admittedly) has been the occasional, ongoing contact that’s developed with a pretty wide array of musicians from around the globe. 

Two and a half years on from writing not one but two short blog posts about Dusty Stray (here and here), I receive an E-mail from Jonathan, the man behind Dusty Stray. He tells me that the new record, Estranged, is to be released imminently (on October 12th in fact). We exchange E-mails. Jonathan is now back in Amsterdam after a couple of years in Colorado and I’m now here in Spain. It’s a sort of refreshing proof that our lives haven’t stagnated. 

Jonathan sends me a private link to ‘Estranged’ and I sit down to listen (with headphones).

In my humble opinion, more people should throw themselves into the work of Dusty Stray. And perhaps for a newcomer, Estranged is as good a place as any to start. It’s an album that’s both beautiful and sad. We watch through a window as Jonathan writes about relationships that are almost done – but not quite. We listen as his voice grieves over the potential loss; a range of instruments creating a sort of ‘folk-noir’ soundtrack that simply accentuate the mood. 

The cracks and the stains have been covered, all of the locks have been changed, broken windows boarded up, and we’ve become estranged.” That’s what Jonathan sings on ‘Houses’, one of the album’s many stand-out tracks. You feel the sadness and the honesty in the story-telling. A perky solo does its best to lift the misery but any respite is temporary. 

Not that it’s an album so desolate that there’s no cause for optimism. In ‘Things Will Look Different’, the romance refreshes before the lap steel and harmonica herald further disappointment. “In the morning, you were gone”, sings Jonathan with tumbling heart. ‘After The Play’, a romantic interlude, places our protagonists in a theatre and there’s flirting-a-plenty going on as tears are shed over the actions on the stage.

The title of the new album comes from the general out-of-place feeling I had returning to the US after living so long in Europe,” says Jonathan about Estranged. And you realise that there are different ways to read the album’s grief. On a literal level, it’s about that always-odd time when a relationship might have ended but you’re not quite sure. From a wider perspective, this is an album about falling out of love with a country that you now feel estranged from. 

In a world of Brexit and Trump it’s easy to see why this might resonate.

 

 

Michael Nau – Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread

I miss my headphones. When I was working back in England, I never travelled anywhere without my Sennheisers. Comfy to wear, I got through many train rides to far-flung towns by simply putting them over my ears and allowing myself to drift away.

My headphones half-broke quite early in my Spanish travels. They still work and it’s probably nothing that a good coating of super-glue wouldn’t fix properly. The foam cushion has detached from the ear-speaker thing. I have to hunch my neck a bit now if I want the full headphone listening experience.

And mostly there’s no need for them over here. The villa is so remote from others that there’s little risk of complaint should I turn my speakers up to 11. I enjoy the peace and quiet and listening to the sounds of nature but when I need to blast music out it seems to impact upon nobody. 

In cases of emergency, I have a pair of Apple earplugs. They’ve improved since the early I-pod days and slot into my ears quite neatly. I couldn’t wear them for long periods of time though. 

This weekend, I’ve been listening to Michael Lau’s latest album through them. It’s a dreamy, reverb-laden Country soul thing. There’s a sort of laconic fuzz that drifts across the album and it draws you in. You want to get closer to the action, to hear the vocals and the pedal-steel close up, and headphones become a natural choice. 

Lyrically, it’s a record open to interpretation. The best I can deduce is that Michael feels on the edge of something. In the Autumnal ‘Shadow On’, the second tune on the disk, that something is hanging by a thread, the final leaves are falling and you wonder if Michael Nau and The Mighty Thread might be setting itself up as a break-up album. 

But as the album progresses, there are signs that whatever has been failing has turned a corner. “The shit from here on in isn’t going to be so hard”, he sings on No Faraway Star as the mood of the record lightens. The reconciliation continues during ‘On Ice’, a highlight of the album and a song about separate beds and the power of the lampshade in fixing what has gone before. 

“Could you let me help you smile?” asks Michael on ‘Funny Wind’ and you sense that the journey is nearly complete before album closer (and another highlight), ‘Smudge’, throws a bit more doubt into the mix with lines like ‘walking together, walking apart’ and ‘another sinking boat’. That all builds towards the final lyric of the record, “waiting for something to never end“. And you realise that this is probably the point of the record. 

Life drifts; there are few clear-cut beginnings and endings. That’s the preserve of films and books. For the rest of us, we wander, often aimlessly, through things. We’re curious about our future and reminiscent about our pasts. We’re all ‘waiting for something to never end’. 

 

Brexiteers, Gazelle Twin and Pastoral

I wrote this piece yesterday and then wobbled over publishing it. I’m not sure why……

It’s never a good idea to argue on Facebook (or indeed any other form of social media) with a supporter of Brexit. There must be somebody somewhere who can put forward a decent case as to why this lunacy is a good idea but they don’t seem to mix in my circles. 

Take yesterday. The content of Theresa May’s speech at the Nasty party conference was nothing short of horrific but she did a nice dance to Abba so nobody seemed to mind. As the U.K heads hurtling off the cliff and the prospects of a no-deal Brexit loom ever larger, the argument of your average Brexiteer seemed to revolve around two points:-

(a) It wasn’t so bad back in the days pre-EU on our little idyll so it won’t be so bad post-Brexit. 

(b) At least, we’ll get our country back. 

Of course, the average Brexiteer has little response (save for ‘Fuck off you commie bastard) when you point out that they must be delighted with the direction that the Labour Party is taking. Those halcyon pre-EU days they so identify with were also times of nationalised industry, more council housing, more efficient education and health services and less pronounced extremes between the haves and the have-nots. And we got free milk in schools then.

The world has moved on – but not for those who exist by harking back to the good old days. They don’t seem too sure what ‘country’ it is that they’ll be getting back but vouch that a strong leader will surely sort it all out. At this juncture, it would simply be churlish to point out the parallels to the ‘good old days’ of 1920’s Germany. 

In these times of turmoil it follows that great art is likely to be made. I wanted to discover some of the great art that slotted in with my current malaise and somebody (I can’t recall who) suggested that I gave Gazelle Twin’s new album, Pastoral, a spin. 

It’s a dense record and not one that I can claim to enjoy as such. But it is a record that can be admired. Elizabeth Bernolz, the British composer who’s adopted Gazelle Twin as a stage name, is absolutely on the money about the current state of England. She’s bashed out a doom-laden industrial soundscape that verges towards the apocalyptic, the vocals at times as menacing as the fuck-ups she details. You immediately understand why she makes use of old folk instruments to create her scary vision. Because with lyres, harps and recorders, she’s emphasising the faux-idyllic, the good old days. The village green, a bastion of ‘our country’, might be getting tangled up in weeds and vomit but at least it’s still there.

I played ‘Pastoral’ to a Brexiteer. “Can’t we listen to some Ed Sheeran instead?”, he asked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda Em – Wild Fire

I’ve never known weeds grow in quite the way that they do out here in Spain. I guess that the rain of the past weeks has helped their considerable spurt. 

I find little joy in gardening but these are no beanstalks leading to magic kingdoms. They’ll just engulf me unless I take action and so, armed with a bucket and a pair of gloves, this morning I set about tackling them. 

‘Tackling’ feels like the right verb to use for this was (and still is) a sporting endeavour. It’s me against nature and despite my very best intentions I suspect that the best I can hope for is a score draw. Or a narrow defeat. 

Regardless, there was great satisfaction to be gained in pulling at them. Their heads popped out of the gravelled driveway masking the submerged stems that wrapped themselves underground around clumps of earth, stone and tarpaulin. The ones that broke off before I got at the root mocked me but some came out of the ground complete. When they did I let out a little yelp of self-congratulation. The stray black cat, that’s made a habit out of spying upon me from a safe distance, smirked as it watched. 

“You crazy, sweat-ridden Englishman”, it no doubt thought.

Try as I might I can find little connection between pulling up garden weeds and todays choice of music. Linda Em, Irish and living in London released her ‘Wild Fire’ EP last week and it’s all sorts of smoky-seductive fab. 

If I was really pushing it, I could suggest that I’d love a wild fire to destroy these weeds. Or I could observe that the lead track is all about a power struggle in a relationship built on control and passion, where there can be no victor. That does feel a little like my battle with the weeds except I have little passion for them. 

No, it’d be foolish to force links. It’s best perhaps to simply sit back and allow Linda’s wonderful tunes to wash over you. Let the candles smoulder as the duet in Wild Fire tells the story of dying, impossible love. Allow yourself ‘the bitter sweet surrender’ mentioned at the end of ‘Two Hands’. 

The weeds will no doubt continue to grow. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death By Unga Bunga

It was a Spring day I think. Though it might not have been. 

It could have been an Autumn day. All I know is that the drive was a sunny one; not sticky and hot like we might expect in the summer months. The air was fresh and bright, all sorts of beautiful. 

We drove across the high road from Leicester to Rutland with not a care in the world. At least it felt like that for a short while. I’m sure if we had stopped to think about our lot we might have crumbled.

I put on a CD that I knew very little about. It was back in the days when the PR agency used to send me new albums in the post. This one hadn’t arrived with much of a fanfare. Still, we listened and loved. 

The garage pop felt right. It wasn’t a long album. We didn’t stop it when it started to repeat. By the second listen, we could sing along to the catchy choruses – and felt no inhibitions when doing so. If the car had been one that had a retractable roof, we would have let the breeze blow through our hair as we sang.

That was my introduction to Death By Unga Bunga. Norwegian power pop at its best. Pineapple Pizza the unlikely CD.

I had a chance to see them live in London. This was as part of a Scandinavian showcase. I was working down there and the Lexington was one of my favourite venues. Beer options were good; pricey but this was London. I suspect it was winter then; at least I remember that it was pretty much dark when I left the office and I wouldn’t  have been prone to working late. 

I hadn’t seen the late E-mail advising me of early start times. And by the time that I arrived at the venue, Death By Unga Bunga had already finished their set. I hung around to watch the other bands. In truth, they can’t have made much of an impression because I can’t even recall their names now. 

I did get to see Death By Unga Bunga eventually. On the surface, they were unlikely additions to the Nozstock festival line-up two years ago. In afternoon sunshine, they looked horrifically dishevelled; a scruffiness cultivated as a result of an early flight from Norway. 

But my eFestivals review of their set was positive  “By the end of their whirlwind set they’ve got all onside so much that the whole band in unison can play their guitars behind their heads with ridiculous rock postures. It’s surely what it’s all about.”

I’m alerted to the fact that Death By Unga Bunga are supporting Ash on their October tour. If I was back in England, I might have tried to take in a show at Sheffield, Bristol, Birmingham, Norwich, Huddersfield or London. Sadly though, I’m not. 

I’ll just have to dig into my memories more. 

 

 

 

 

 

JP Harris – When I Quit Drinking

It might be rash of me to say that I’m going to quit drinking for October. But, at present, nine hours into the month when many are going sober for charity, I’m also part of their club. 

Truth is that after a skinful on Saturday night, it’ll take a while until I fancy another drop. But, probably not a month.

I’ve got a lot of respect for those that are able to give up for months on end. I did it once one January. It wasn’t so much the lack of alcohol that got me, rather how incessantly humdrum life got in those desperate four weeks. 

Given my acknowledged dependency, I suppose that I really ought to give more attention to abstinence. 

As JP Harris has. ‘When I Quit Drinking’ is a prime cut from his record, ‘Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing’, that’s due for release this week. It’s a fine country tune from a songwriter who’s consistently been turning heads for a few years now. It’s as authentic as a Hank Williams reprise with the timbre of his voice perfectly capturing the dilemma a drinker feels when not drinking.

If his press release is to be believed, JP has lived quite a life. He “doesn’t fancy himself a musician as much as he does a carpenter who writes country songs. He left home on a Greyhound bus in the middle of a summer night and since then has consistently worked hard in every sense of the word. Hitchhiking and hopping freight trains while making his living as a farm labourer, shepherd, woodsman, and carpenter, among many other titles, he has also forged his own path in the world of raw country music.”

JP’s album is fabulous. When he breaks into the soft and tender gentle balladry of ‘I Only Drink Alone’ one doesn’t know whether to weep or holler. That’s just the way it is for us drinkers. 

 

Cordillera Sur Murcia Fest

I’m heading across to Murcia later today. My convoluted reasons for doing so are music-related. Murcia is a fine city. I spent a fair bit of time there when I first arrived in Spain but I’ve not headed back much recently. It’s been a bit too hot.

Back in August, whilst sat around a table at Boomtown’s crew bar, I got chatting with a couple of members of Mexican band, Los Kamer. In truth, they spoke little English and  my drunken Spanish was rudimentary. I think I managed to convey that I’d enjoyed their set (even though I’d not watched a great deal of it). They told me about a mammoth European tour they were embarking upon and I randomly made a commitment to catch up with them when they touched down in Murcia sometime in September. 

A couple of subsequent Internet searches proved fruitless and I wondered if my drunken head had made things up. Had I imagined that Los Kamer were playing in Murcia? 

Cordillera Sur Murcia Fest is a one-night festival taking place in the small town of Beniajan. From what I can tell having never been there, Beniajan is a half hour bus ride from Murcia, the equivalent perhaps of a festival in Broughton Astley for a Leicester dweller. If Beniajan has hotels or rental accommodation, they don’t have availability for tonight. But the impression I get is that this is one small town at the end of a dead-end street. It’s Spaghetti Western country. Let the adventure commence.

Los Kamer are one of the few bands on the bill for Cordillera Sur Murcia Fest. But I had a listen to the other acts listed (Eskorzo, Alien Tango and Clot) and couldn’t help but be impressed. The skewed psychedelics of Alien Tango particularly jumped out and  the bouncy world music of Eskorzo would surely get any crowd going. I missed Eskorzo when they made their Boomtown video but it does capture the essence of that great festival. Best of all, tickets for the Cordillera were hardly going to break the bank. At 2 euros for general admission and 5 euros for admission, a drink and a wristband, I plumped for the more expensive. It would have been rude not to. 

As with any ‘new’ thing that you throw yourself into, I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit afraid. I’ve booked a hotel in Murcia and will build some Dutch courage by having a few afternoon beers. It looks easy enough to get to Beniajan by public transport though I do suspect that navigating my way back to the hotel at 4AM tomorrow morning once the music has stopped might prove more challenging. 

Still, that’s no reason for not doing something. Wish me luck.