Thursday, 27 March 2008

Easter and Sacred Hymns

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a mystic from the first half of the last century, wrote a considerable body of music, much in collaboration with the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, who was responsible for the piano arrangements for a series of Gurdjieff's hymns.

I have had a recording of these performed by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett for Manfred Eicher's idiosyncratic ECM label for the last 20 years now, and it has always been a favourite. Like most of my records though, it sits unplayed for long periods, suddenly finding itself back at the front of the queue and on it's way back to my turntable. I'm always surprised by how peaceful and meditative this music is. When I first heard it I thought 'Satie' but each time I hear it again I wonder how I could have ever made that comparison. But the music is certainly spare, with silence almost as significant as the piano, and Jarrett's performances, as so often, are impeccably well judged. Mostly it is the sense of timing that lends this curious and rather child-like music the spiritual quality so manifest in this recording.

I've had this LP out over the past week or so, the pleasure of listening renewed as always. I have to admit that I don't often look at the track listings for such albums, finding they come between me and my own responses to what I'm hearing, but looking carefully (possibly for the first time) at the back cover I found that in fact it was Easter music. Even for an atheist like myself, it did seem singularly apt.

It's a little known record, but thanks to Eicher's commitment to artistry rather than commerce 'Sacred Hymns of G.I. Gurdjieff' remains in the catalogue and is well worth seeking out.

Ramsey, 1995

A couple of days ago Babooshka, a photographer from the Isle of Man, visited my politics blog. She posts some wonderful photos of the I.O.M. on her own blogs and I thought I'd put up a few of my own. They were taken in February 1995 (with a lovely little Rollei 35) when I stayed on the island helping a friend renovate an old house. The quality isn't too spectacular here as I scanned them off old prints, but I like to think that they're still reasonably atmospheric.

Walking along Ramsey beach, early evening. Susie chases a stone, something she never seemed to tire of. We had the beach entirely to ourselves, and I took a short sequence of photos here.

Back through the harbour; the tide is right out. What caught my eye about this boat is the way much of the lower rigging inexplicably disappears into the cloud leaving the impression of a stranded ghost ship.

Finally, back to town and a rather obvious view of the very photogenic swing bridge.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Down in Dublin

If you've already discovered Michael Hurley (a.k.a. Doc Snock), you'll have this by now. But if you haven't?

Michael Hurley has been recording (and performing) for over 40 years. He's an American singer-songwriter who has carved out a very distinctive niche with material that is difficult to pigeonhole; part folk, part blues, part country, and part utterly unique. His singing style is as leisurely as most of his songs, with a voice and occasional yodel that has certainly never been troubled by a voice coach; it can take a few minutes to acclimatise. He plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, piano, and does a good impression of a trumpet on occasions (first-timers are sometimes fooled!). More often than not he has backing from a small group, mainly friends. Some of his records are home-made, and the studio recordings have a refreshing absence of gloss. He's never been one for the concert hall, you're most likely to catch him live in a pub or similar small venue.

The first thing you notice with any of these albums is the artwork; Hurley draws and paints his own in a highly stylised semi-naïve way, often as comic strip. The content is utterly surreal, featuring a pair of itinerant musician werewolves called Jocko and Boone whose main interests in life are women with dresses as loose as their morals, red wine, driving around, marijuana, and latterly a fondness for boats; they're mellowing slightly with age. Then there's Kornbred Briarpatch, a mutant 'hornduck', who spends most of his time in bars drinking beer or whiskey, excess of which induces melancholy followed by a desire to rock-and-roll. The sleeve for this disc shows Jocko and Boone arriving at a gig; inside there's one of Hurley's trademark comic strips covering the gig itself; Kornbred and the usual cast are there. It's sad that not all Hurley's work has made it to vinyl as a lot of detail gets lost in small CD booklets although this one does manage pretty well.

The songs themselves often seem lightweight, sometimes absurd nonsense songs, and sometimes straightforward expression of emotions; most are marked by a very cheerful demeanour even when the subject matter is darker. They often reference the characters from the cartoons who themselves express various elements of Hurley's persona. In looking to entertain he never falls into the trap of taking himself too seriously. But appearances can be deceptive, and there is a depth to this work that is cumulative, a voice that encourages the listener to recognise the absurdity of the human condition at the same time as enjoying it, all the while taking life at a slightly slower pace

This record was recorded in Dublin during a 2003 European tour (Hurley has a considerable following over here) at the behest of Brendan Foreman, who produces the 'Blue Navigator', an occasional magazine centred round Hurley and his circle. The Rough Deal String Band provide sympathetic backing along with Thurstan Binns and regular accomplice Dave Reisch (whose bass is satisfyingly forward in the mix). It has a definite Irish flavour, as do some of Hurley's earlier recordings.

Hurley often revisits older songs and his reworking of 'The Slurf Song' is fabulous; if you know the track from it's earlier incarnation on 'Have Moicy!' you'll find this irresistible with it's four extra verses (popcorn, beer, oysters and ennui should you want to know). 'Whiskey Willie' is also given a great second run. But the new material matches these from the off with 'Goners'. Then there's the standards like 'Have I Told You Lately' and 'Pancho and Lefty' which take on new life here.

Hurley's work has always had it's strongest appeal among aging hippies; there is a slight but very pleasurable whiff of marijuana attached to the gentle laidback humour. But he deserves a wider audience, and 'Down in Dublin' is the perfect place to start.

As a taster for this album, I've put up the first half of the opening track 'Goners' as a download. You can't exactly say it's typical of his work but only because there's a surprisingly wide variety in his material, but I hope it tempts you.

You can (and should) get Down in Dublin directly from Blue Navigator for £10.50 (+£2.00 postage); Brendan takes PayPal or cheques. Otherwise you can find it on Amazon. Much of the earlier work is no longer available commercially but you can get that directly from the man himself; just visit his website.