Jake Thackray and Songs (The Jake Thackray Project, 2014)
This collection of Jake Thackray's folk club performances is a precious record of the great Yorkshire singer at his best, in small, intimate venues, rather than his somewhat stagey (though also good) TV spots on Braden's Week and That's Life.(Incidentally, it is also a moving reminder of the warmth and vitality of folk club culture in the seventies and early eighties: some of the most interesting shots are of the audience's reactions.) This footage, taken from six live shows, was filmed for BBC2 and shown late at night, necessarily after the watershed --the peculiar Thackray mix of cheerful, sometimes brutal vulgarity and religious devotion, most jarringly evident when The Bantam Cock segues into Joseph, would certainly not have been suitable for children.
Thackray disliked talking to the audience, but one of the most endearing aspects of these performances is in fact, his in-between-songs patter, as well as his strangely perfunctory but heartfelt goodbyes. This material offers some rare insights into the background that seems to have made him vulnerable to the alcoholism which led to his early demise in 2002.For example, he reminisces about a terrifying Jesuit teacher during his Leeds childhood who taught children "by frightening them." Overall, the impression is of a deeply uneasy spirit. Other viewers may be equally surprised to find that the disturbing Ulysses --about an incapacity to accept love, leading to despair and suicide-- was meant to be a children's song. Thackray's story about a little sheep-minder who had died, sixty years previously, on the moor ("that's how they used to treat children, and give 'em a chance, the bastards still do"), explains the lyrics of Molly Metcalfe, with its haunting sheep-counting refrain.
Thackray was every bit as accomplished a guitarist live as he was on record, with his own unique Southern French/Spanish-influenced style, developed in homage to his great hero Brassens.It is displayed to especially beautiful effect here on the performance of his most famous song Lah-Di-Dah.He was ably supported by the brilliant jazz bassist Alan Williams, a taciturn but sympathetic stage presence.They duet delightfully on Scallywag and Worried Brown Eyes, while the bass produces a plangent twang in the chilling song One of Them, about the petty cruelty of a certain kind of joke, contrasted with the universality of human suffering. The verses have a partially familiar tune, and it took a long time to identify it --1969's Melting Pot by Blue Mink. (It is not clear whether Thackray intended the similarity, either melodically, or in terms of the two songs' preoccupations.)The fine anti-war song The Remembrance was new to this reviewer.One of the most striking aspects of this DVD is that it allows the viewer to compare and contrast the rather complicated and baffling attitudes to women that Thackray evinced --on the one hand he was responsible for the notorious On Again, On Again, which goes beyond good humour, as well as for a line in Family Tree which had to be changed, while on the other he attacked misogyny and sexual double standards on The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington. On a lighter and completely unrelated note, it was also striking that he referenced The Epilogue twice (in Ulysses, and The Castleford Ladies' Magical Circle).
Most viewers would probably be completely satisfied with the superb main feature, but the DVD also contains a number of performances by other folk singers --Alex Glasgow, Pete Scott and Ralph McTell.These range in quality: Glasgow performs the maudlin Maggie Gee, but also his masterpiece, the powerful Close the CoalhouseDoor.Ralph McTell is reliably lyrical and tender on Song for Martin, though his memorial song about Blair Peach, Water of Dreams, for some reason fails to evoke the right sort of atmosphere.The Pete Scott performances are, unfortunately, somewhat colourless in comparison with the others.However, the really transcendent moment in the extras is the beautiful singalong by the audience (on this occasion, mostly women) to Streets of London on the credits, which is sadly truncated.
This DVD is a treasure.For a tiny span, it resurrects Jake Thackray, a man haunted by ghosts and by God, with an extraordinary compassion for human frailty. Thackray was inimitable, and while he influenced many current performers, including Jarvis Cocker and the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, it is fair to say that his unique worldview will probably never be recaptured.--Isabel Taylor
Matt Berry's Musical Career If you know his work at all, you are probably familiar with Matt Berry as Dixon Bainbridge in Season One of The Mighty Boosh, or the incompetent boss of Reynholm Industries in The IT Crowd, or Stephen Toast in Toast of London, or indeed Beef in Vic and Bob's anarchic House of Fools.Some of you may even remember the sublime Snuff Box series that he wrote and co-starred in with Rich Fulcher, which hid away on BBC Three, lasted one complete and perfect season, and was never repeated (it featured, amongst other things, parodies of the Old Grey Whistle Test). The more corporate-minded of you will recognise his deep baritone from the Volvic adverts or the Absolute Radio jingles. In the film One Day, based on the David Nicholls book, Berry played it straight on a rare occasion in the role of Aaron, Dexter's agent. However, he is also a talented and intelligent musician, and has provided music for Snuff Box. His first major musical piece was a BBC Three Christmas special, AD/BC: A Rock Opera, originally broadcast on the 21st of December 2004. A co-write with Richard Ayoade (who also starred as Joseph), it re-told the Nativity from the point of view of the innkeeper (played by Berry), featuring such BBC alumni as Nighty Night creator Julia Davis (the innkeeper's wife), Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh, and Little Britain's Matt Lucas as God, as well as actors Rich Fulcher, Karl Theobald, Sophia Winkleman and Lucy Montgomery as townspeople. In this version, the innkeeper is about to be evicted by the richer hotel owner Tony Iscariot (Julian Barratt) and the focus is on his attempt to survive on the night of the Nativity.Parodying musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, it was the work of the fictional Tim Wynde, and supposedly originally broadcast in 1978. Thus the staging and production is deliberately dated, with visual effects parodying those then in vogue on BBC light entertainment programmes, whilst the music runs the gamut from faux orchestral to soul, with sweeping strings, time changes, multiple choruses and typically seventies cool lyrics.However, because all the participants take the music and the script seriously, it avoids the school panto trap and becomes a more serious piece of homage and thereby a highly effective parody.It has an almost prog-like concept, a good deal of Hammond organ, and a magnificent ensemble choral finale, with the traditional resolution in an anthemic song.The DVD was released in 2007 and features the thirty minute long episode, as well as a bonus interview with the musical genius Tim Wynde (Berry at his finest, with echoes of characters including Stephen Toast), and a musical soundtrack of the full album complete with lyrics in the booklet --recommendable to all who enjoy the original and intelligent comedy that BBC Three used to be known for back in its early days.
Berry has also released five solo albums, first two of which (Jackpot, 1995, and Opium, 2008) are as rare as hens' teeth. However, he has been signed to the record label Acid Jazz since 2011, and has released three albums of original music, Witchazel (2011), Kill the Wolf (2013) and Music for Insomniacs (2014). When I was purchasing my copy of Music for Insomniacs in my local independent record emporium, one of the staff at the counter asked me what is was like. 'Is it a comedy record?' he asked. The answer is 'No.'While Berry is a comedian, he is deadly serious when it comes to his music. The first of this trio, Witchazel, has a suitably folky cover showing a heavily-bearded Berry and a pheasant, and draws on a long line of sinister acid folk, with echoes of the Wicker Man soundtrack, the darker side of Fairport Convention, and Comus.It evokes twilight evenings and the autumnal shroud of the English countryside. The brief opening An Awakening leads into the pastoral slow build of Take My Hand, with its repetitive catchy chorus, fading out before a threatening, short burst of music leads into the brilliant acoustic ballad Accident At a Harvest Festival. The album is not an homage to a particular movie or genre, but captures the impression that you would have when returning to the countryside after living in the city for a long time, faced with suspicion of newcomers and durable local traditions --a motif that runs through English culture from The Woman in Black to Hot Fuzz, the dramatic irony of a country idyll turned rotten.The lyrics are fairly dark and unexpected in places, and some of the characters (such as in Look In My Book) are very unsympathetic and slightly oddball.The sound of The Pheasant, with its atmospheric recorders, acoustic refrain, jazz funk backbeat and moog synthesiser, is reminiscent of Caravan.The melodic Woman is a paean to Berry's partner, with some fantastic strings, blinding guitar work and great lyrics.Rain Came Down, featuring Paul McCartney, is bass driven folk-rock with prog-style keyboard and muted drums.It builds and builds, and when McCartney's recognisable vocals come in, the harmonies are sublime.It is an odd cameo, and one that sums up the juxtaposition of styles on this album. From the Manger to the Mortuary/Recorder is a mesmerising cyclic tune, with layers that are added and then unravelled again.As the title suggests, it represents the circle of life in music, but in a more substantial and elegiac way than Disney ever managed.The multi-tracked recorder dance coda, written by Cecilia Fage, evokes the musical arrangements by Austin John Marshall for Shirley and Dolly Collins in the early seventies that drew on recordings from the early twentieth century.In the Sky recycles themes from The Pheasant, creating a sense of cohesion that pulls the album together, whilst the contemplative Roosting Time, with its choral vocals and rustic folk hymn style, rounds off an exciting and eclectic album.
By 2013's Kill the Wolf, Berry had a touring band on board, the Maypoles, the nucleus of which (Berry, Cecilia Fage, Mark Morriss, and James Sedge), are the core performers here, with some superb guest turns from fiddler Katriona Gilmore (fresh from the latest incarnation of the Albion Band), saxophonist Ben Castle (son of the legendary jazz trumpeter and TV presenter Roy Castle), TWUKS ukulele band and Andy Vickery (of whom more later). The biggest difference between this and Witchazel is that whilst the latter was firmly a solo album, this is far more a band record. The sound is fleshed out, and although some of the sonic experiments are toned down, the musical interaction between Berry and his talented collaborators is fantastic. Again, Berry writes nearly all the songs on here, though Fage contributes the wonderfully melancholic and atmospheric Wolf Quartet, playing all the instruments as well. Fage and Berry's harmonies blend nicely, and Fage's recorder, clarinet and flute work shine throughout the album, adding that particularly seventies tint to some of the tracks. Again, there is a loose concept at work here --apparently the turn of the seasons-- and the whole record is influenced by acid folk prog. With the opening chant of Gather Up, a Berry composition which manages to sound like a rural piece of folklore older than the hills, the album seems to pick up where Witchazel left off.The foot-tapping Devil Inside Me features some amazing fiddle work from Kat Gilmore, and searing guitar interplay.The sound is far bigger and less intimate than that on Witchazel, but the songs are given space to breathe and stretch out, such as the nine minute-plus centrepiece Solstice, the pinnacle of Berry's songwriting so far.The lyrics push Berry into the more pastoral territory covered by Yes and Pink Floyd, but the music is clearly inspired by Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending and Mike Oldfield's Hergest Ridge.It is a multi-layered masterpiece, adding guitar and then piano and keyboard riffs to the choral voices.Like the finale of Part One of Tubular Bells, the tempo starts to build, drums and bass amass behind the main melodic line, and synths swirl enticingly.Then, like Thor's hammer crashing through the sky, comes Andy Vickery's guitar solo, the finest that I have heard in many years --sheer perfection, crisp and clear, out-glimmering David Gilmour.It is an unimaginable thing of beauty soaring away, pulling the song irresistibly forward. Then it vanishes and the song subsides back into the choral theme. This trick works to great effect again on October Sun, with the background to Kat's brilliant fiddle solo provided by TWUK's twenty ukeleles, and superb syncopated percussion. Ben Castle's gorgeous sax is all over the wonderful The Signs, with lyrics that again reflect Berry's focus on folklore and pre-Christian imagery. Featuring jazz piano and up-tempo vocals, this is a serious counterpart to some of the songs from AD/BC.The cinematic sound on Knock Knock, with its catchy chorus and tale of a broken man seeking salvation, has a great riff, while the off-kilter homily at the end doffs its cap to Witchazel.Bonfire is a nostalgic look at the 5th of November, with cosy lyrics.It is not, however, twee in any way, instead a comfortable and soothing piece, with a languid guitar solo and some beautiful flute work, and manages to evoke the magic of Bonfire Night through a child's eyes. Village Dance returns us to musical themes first introduced in October Sun, and the orchestal reprise of Bonfire pulls all the songs together, before the closing hymnal of Farewell Summer Sun.It could not be more appropriate to this time of year --I sit here writing this in the middle of October, as Autumn draws a veil around the nights, and the hazy hot days of August seem but a distant memory.The track draws the curtains on this mummers' play of an album, with beautiful lyrics, relaxed guitar, and Fage's radiant vocals.
The next album, Music for Insomniacs (2014) is in essence a true Matt Berry solo recording, albeit with additional vocals by Fage.Split entirely into two movements, it references early Mike Oldfield, whose first four albums were all split into parts.Recorded around the same time as Kill the Wolf, when Berry was suffering bouts of insomnia, it is the antithesis of its predecessor.It is more intimate, more personal, designed to be listened to through headphones. Both tracks head over the 20-minute track, which allows Berry and his bank of classic synthesisers room to create various different moods and sonic soundscapes, with electronic experimentation of the sort previously delved into by George Harrison (1969's Electronic Sounds) Mike Oldfield, and Rick Wakeman, and in more recent times by Rob Gould and Andy Tillison. The album owes a debt to Krautrock, early Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, but it always returns to the more elegiac and symphonic sound of English keyboardists. Part One is initially choral- and moog- driven, but then turns, through different moods, into something more pastoral, a long, dreamlike Floydian keyboard mood, with soundscapes that would not have been out of place in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in its pioneering days.As this was recorded at the same time as Kill the Wolf, unsurprisingly some of the musical themes on the latter appear here, either in their embryonic form, or modified for this record.In Part One, sound effects and big chords climb into a crescendo, and the track then pauses, the calm before the storm, before themes from October Sun are built up with synthesised drum beats and vocodor effects to a climax, and then Part One is gone. Part Two starts off superbly choral again, revisiting aspects of Part One, and Fage's ambient vocals drift sublimely through the ether, with some wonderfully space age effects.If this is music designed to help you sleep, it fails in its ambition, but it is a wonderfully immersive experience. Part Two starts to build from about six minutes in, with ominous chords and drum beats.It evokes the sense of a giant lumbering beast stirring out of sleep, as the sound of bells and the robotic metronomic vocals give way to a simple but effective piano riff. The musical ambience builds to a brisk tempo, rather like the psyschedelic section of Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, but with more liquid synths and less rabid brass, whilst Fage's vocals lilt and dive throughout. Part Two reaches its conclusion at around seventeen minutes into the track, drifting into a pulsating synth beat before the keys appear with an almost disco rhythm similar to that popularised by Jean-Michel Jarre in the late seventies and early eighties. It has an early synthesiser sound reminiscent of Ultravox or the Human League. We are played out with a wonderful reprise of some of the album's themes.Music for Insomniacs is a terrific record, and one that belongs in the home of anyone with a penchant for Mike Oldfield and experimental ambient electro.
Actor, writer, comedian, musician, and guest vocalist on albums by the Irish pop group The Duckworth Lewis Method, Matt Berry is a modern-day polymath, as serious about his music as he is funny in his comedies.--James R. Turner