Sunday, 29 April 2012

Bush Theme/Lonely Australian Landscape - Sven Libaek (1966)

Here's another gem from Urban Bowerbird favourite Sven Libaek. These two tunes are taken from the nature documentary soundtrack Nature Walkabout, however these are quite different versions to the tracks that appear on the LP. These versions are shorter and have faster tempos than the album versions and a few changes in orchestration and arrangement. The two tracks also seem to be played by a more stripped-down version of Sven's usual ensemble - there are no saxophone, flute or trumpet parts, just piano, guitar, bass, vibes and harmonica on Bush Theme. I am unsure why different versions of these songs were released on the single - is this a standard practice? I have a 7" single from Libaek's Inner Space soundtrack (Thatcherie/Sounds Of The Deep) and it contains exactly the same versions as featured on the LP. Weird.

I always felt that Bush Theme was one of the weaker tracks on Nature Walkabout and I think the increase in tempo and the concision of this arrangement improves it immeasurably. Lonely Australian Landscape on the other hand is one of my favourite of Sven's compositions and I like it even better with this pacing and arrangement. It takes what is already a great melody and gives it an incredible urgency and energy.

Label: Festival
Released: 1966 (I assume; that's when the Nature Walkabout soundtrack was released.)
Players: Unsure, but here's an educated guess: Sven Libaek - piano
George Golla - guitar
John Sangster - vibes, percussion
Ed Gaston - bass
Derek Fairbrass - drums

Richard Brooks - harmonica


Happy Xmas (War Is Over) - Incredible Penguins (1985)

Here's a concept: I'm going to share a piece of music which I really don't like. Think of it as an act of vigilance on my part, as I don't want to ever be doomed to repeat the kind of history which is represented by this release by the Incredible Penguins. This is a benefit single released in '85 by a number of actual and semi Aussie musical celebrities in the aid of the Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor). Allow me to outline the crimes committed by this single:

1. The abysmal artwork and title of the band. What the hell were they thinking? Is that snow in the background? Little Penguins are native to the southern coast of Australia and coastal New Zealand - they live on beaches, not snow. Then again, it does perfectly compliment the slap-dash attitude exuded by the single as a whole.

2. And speaking of slap-dash, what's with the choice of song? They've taken a very well known cover (which was rereleased after Lennon's murder only five years earlier), which was probably good for sales, but what has the song got to do with penguins? What's worse is that in order to create some kind of relevance from the song choice, they play samples over the outro of politicians talking about the Falklands War! What the hell does that have to do with the plight of this native Australian penguin species?

3. The musicians involved in making this record were frankly, pretty uninspiring. This single was the brainchild of Aussie music industry legend Molly Meldrum, who I would have thought could have assembled a pretty impressive mob of musos, particularly during his heyday in the eighties. Instead we get Angry Anderson and Brian Mannix! Granted, Meldrum also got Colin Hay, John Farnham and Bob Geldoff (who during this era evidently got involved with absolutely any charity single that would have him) but they are swamped by a chorus of no name Aussie singers and the Hare Krishna Chorus(?).

4. After you've handed over your hard-earned cash to help out the penguins, what sort of value do you get with this single? An extended version, a radio mix and an instrumental mix of the same song which was already done ten times better on the original - the listenability potential is just overwhelming.

5. Maybe this is going to sound like a weird complaint, but the Little Penguin isn't even endangered (and as far as I'm aware, wasn't categorised as such when this was recorded). Don't get me wrong, any money going towards the conservation of native species is great, but there are loads of other less well-known bird species in this country that could have done with the sort of financial boost that this recording would have brought in - such as the insanely endangered Orange-bellied Parrot. One can't help but think that the Little Penguin was chosen as an easy animal to identify with regardless of other potentially more pressing conservation issues at the time.

Basically, this recording feels like a soulless, vapid enterprise entered into by people who may well have had their hearts in the right place but ended up creating something so pointless and tacky, that it's no wonder that no one (and I mean no one) plays or has even heard of this recording today. It's hard to avoid being reminded of the brilliance of the Simpsons and their own vapid celebrity benefit single We're Sending Our Love Down The Well.

The Birds Around Us - Gould League of New South Wales (197?)

Here is number three in my series of posts on Australian bird call recordings. This one is an LP and from a slightly later era than the last two - it must have been recorded before 1977 as this was the year that the narrator, Alec Chisolm, died. The recordings were compiled by the Gould League of New South Wales which is an environmental education body that seemed to be a part of every Australian's schooling in the generation before mine. The Gould League isn't really active these days, but they really seemed to be a significant force in raising awareness of conservation issues in the sixties, seventies and eighties. The first side of the LP features the calls of many native birds with Chisolm's narration, whereas the second side is pure uninterrupted bird call recordings.

Label: Columbia/EMI
Released: 197?
Players: Alec Chisolm - narrator
Peter Roberts & Roger Golding - recordists

The Australian Kookaburra - Peter Bruce (196?)

Here is another bird call EP by Peter Bruce, focusing on another of Australia's iconic bird species, the Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae). The Kookaburra is one of our most recognisable and well-known bird species due mainly to its extremely distinctive laughing call and its tendency to live in close proximity to humans. Although this EP was recorded by Bruce (who's amusing narrative style I remarked upon in my post on his Lyrebird EP) this time the narration is done by Richard Davies - one of those old-style announcer types who has that curious accent that fuses the classic Australian tone with that of the British private school. The first side of the record describes the calls and habits of the Kookaburra, referring to the indigenous folklore surrounding the bird and its place in the Aboriginal dreamtime stories. The second side is a mix tape of native bird species - Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus), Grey Shrikethrush (Colluricincla harmonica), Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galleria) and Boobook Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae). Unlike the showcasing of the mimicry on Bruce's Lyrebird EP, no prior knowledge of Australian birds is needed to enjoy this set of field recordings.

Now, if you'll forgive a little self-indulgence, my own musical ensemble, The Cambrian Explosion, used the B-side of this EP as a sample for a track from our last album The Forgotten Music of Felix Ookean - a tribute to the Australian nature documentary soundtracks of the sixties and seventies. In the song, Those Bushranging Birds Of The Bush, we have taken the sample in its entirety and scored each call like different scenes in a documentary - have a listen.

Label: Columbia, produced by Geoffrey Jackson.
Released: 196?
Players: Peter Bruce - recordist and script writer
Richard Davies - narrator


Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Superb Lyrebird - Peter Bruce (196?)

I'm a musician and a zoologist, and I've always had trouble trying to work out where and how these two disciplines can interconnect. However, there have always been those who shared those twin interests and this where we get the field of bioacoustics - the study of the music made by animals. There seems to have been an assumption many years ago that Australian birds were musically inferior to the songbirds of Europe - probably due to the squawking, screaming calls of the ubiquitous native parrots and some of the more inharmonious honeyeater species. Despite this, or possibly because of this slight to their native fauna, early  Australians developed a patriotic pride in  the unique musicality of their native bird-life and much was written praising them. (Even while others were introducing European bird species such as Blackbirds to remind them of the birdsong of the old country). Obviously, audio recording was the best way to show off and share these unique soundscapes and back in the old days many vinyl recordings were released in this vein.

I was lucky enough to find two Australian bird call EPs both on the Columbia record label in an op-shop in Laverton. The first such record I would like to share is The Superb Lyrebird (Australia's Forest Singer) by wildlife recordist Peter Bruce, recorded, by the looks of it, sometime during the early sixties although no date is indicated. The Superb Lyrebird is very well-known for its extraordinary mimicry and this was something that was recognised and celebrated soon after Europeans became familiar with this bird. Superb Lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiae) are found along the edge of south-eastern Australia in temperate forests and woodland. They are incredibly distinctive as they are large ground-dwelling birds that can measure up to 1m, including their tail. This huge fan-shaped tail is made up of two large outer feathers surrounded by wispy, light feathers in between. 

Peter Bruce provides us with narration on the habits of these birds interspersed with examples of their talent for mimicry. Bruce has an amusingly languid and descriptive tone but he is clearly very familiar with his subject and was responsible for the field recordings themselves. It must be said, that it certainly helps to be familiar with Australian bird calls to really appreciate these sorts of records - after all, how impressive is the Lyrebird's spot-on impression of a Gang-gang Cockatoo if you don't know what the hell a Gang-gang Cockatoo is? Regardless, there is something fascinating about listening to these sorts of recordings and imagining the world that Bruce is describing, where Lyrebirds are always calling and there's a friendly narrator to guide you through the Australian bush when it was a little more pristine than it is today.

Label: Columbia
Released: 196? (Bruce recorded an LP of Lyrebird recordings for Smithsonian Folkways in 1966, and it seems likely that this was EP was recorded at around the same time.)
Players: Peter Bruce - recordist and narrator
David Corke - writer of commentary
Superb Lyrebird - vocals

À L'Olympia - Alan Stivell (1972)

I found this LP in an op-shop and had no idea who Alan Stivell was or what sort of music he might play, but on the back cover were seemingly random phrases written in French: 'Futurisme', 'Diversité des cultures', 'Progressive-folk', 'Celtic pop-music', 'Monde technologique' and so on - it seemed like it would be interesting enough to gamble $10 on. It certainly was. This album is in fact, a live recording by Alan Stivell at the Olympia theatre in Paris from 1972. Stivell was responsible for something of a renaissance in the Celtic folk music of Brittany and interest in the Celtic harp generally during the seventies. This performance combines this traditional folk music with elements of rock and prog very effectively on this LP using harp, acoustic and electric guitar, dulcimer, banjo, violin, organ, drums, percussion, electric bass and bombarde, a traditional French reed instrument in the oboe family. Most tracks feature Stivells distinctive vocals (in French and English) and are traditional tunes that he has arranged for his band. For a live disc, the sound is excellent, although the crowd noise in between tracks is positively deafening, but I guess they were just really into it! I know I would have been - it sounds like an incredible gig. The first side is a mellow set which showcases the more folky material whereas the second side brings out the more contemporary rock influences. Although the first side is a great listen, I prefer the more folk-rock fusion tracks from the B side such as the instrumental 'Pop Plinn' which combines rocking guitar lines with a Celtic harp breakdown and a bombarde solo (the crowd goes nuts for the latter). The circular melody of 'Tri Martolod' and it's contemporary sounding beat make this another highlight of side two along with the closer 'Suite Sudarmoricaine' which starts with a flute-driven section but then quickly segues into a upbeat seventies rock song with a very catchy wordless chorus allowing even us non-Francophones to sing along.

Label: Polydor
Released: 1972
Players: Alan Stivell - Celtic harp
Gabriel Yacoub - guitare, dulcimer, banjo
Rene Werneer - fiddle
Pascal Stive - orgue
Gerard Levasseur - basse
Henri Delagarde - violoncelle, flute, bombarde
Dan Ar Bras - guitare électrique
Michel Santangeli - batterie
Serj Parayre - percussions
Mikael Klec'h - flute, bombarde

Discoveries Underwater - Howard J. Davidson (1988)

Everybody loves underwater soundtracks. This obscure, but well-loved genre has become very popular amongst record collectors, culminating in the veneration of records like Sven Libaek's Inner Space which was reissued in 2008. This album is from a different era from most of the popular underwater soundtracks, but it's an interesting and atmospheric listen nonetheless. The soundtrack is scored for an eighties documentary series on underwater archaeology, so ambient synths and slowly layered soundscapes are the natural choice for the subject matter. Where this sort of approach could so easily turn into a snooze-fest of glacial synthesiser, Davidson's material seems to more aligned with the Vangelis school of awesome synth soundtracks. Many of the themes are written in unconventional time signatures, but the composer's ability to make electronic music sound organic means that the listener barely perceives this deviation to the norm. Davidson is also able to incorporate live instruments into his electronic soundscapes to great effect such as cello in 'Aqua Sub Aqua' and guitar in 'Atocha'. The subtlety and depth that Davidson achieves with only synthesisers allows the live instruments to join in without jarring or sounding out of place. Overall, this album feels to me more like an ambient concept album than a television soundtrack and it is a piece that I find myself listening to a lot.

Label: BBC Records
Released: 1988
Players: Howard J. Davidson - synthesisers etc.
Hugh McDowell - cello
Phil Palmer - guitar

Film And Television Themes - Bruce Smeaton (1987)

I hadn't heard anything about Bruce Smeaton when I picked up this album at the Salvos with a bunch of other Australian soundtrack LPs. But this combination of movie and television soundtrack pieces is actually a very nice set from an interesting and talented composer. As seems to be the case for anyone who wants to do this sort of work in Australia, Smeaton has an eclectic resume. My favourites from this LP tend to be tracks that are clearly written in an established genre, but which Smeaton has added an extra, idiosyncratic edge. '1915' for example, a track from an ABC miniseries about ANZACS in the first world war, is played as an old-style military march - but Smeaton uses chord progressions and arrangements which give it far more emotional depth than its source material ever really achieves. On the film soundtrack excerpt 'Eleni I And II', Smeaton attempts to evoke the film's setting of Greece with the use of soprano sax, accordion and strings in the first movement and in the second, a 7/8 motif that starts out quite starkly but then is joined by the full orchestra and turns into something incredibly compelling. This second movement sounds quite unique due to Smeaton's use of the Akai EWI - an electronic wind instrument which he also uses to great effect on the track 'Iceman' - which produces a synth sound that could easily sound dated, but in this context blends nicely with the other instruments to create a very distinct sound. The liner notes on the back describe the theme from 'The Great McCarthy' as 'a cross between early ragtime and Nino Rota' which sounded pretty bloody appealing to me - and the liner notes were spot on. Once again this track sees Smeaton taking a familiar style but giving it a fresh approach and creating something truly interesting. Although some tracks on this LP are a little more pedestrian than the favourites I've mentioned (the less said about the soprano sax-laden, cheesy, eighties rom-com theme to 'Roxanne' the better) this is a predominantly enjoyable album of some very well composed and produced soundtrack material.

Label: ABC Records
Released: 1988
Players: All pieces played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bruce Smeaton.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

There's Music In The Air! Vol. 2 - Various Artists (1976)

I like albums that are able to create (or recreate) an atmosphere of a particular time or place. With this in mind, it's pretty hard to beat an album with the actual inflight music from a Qantas 747B from the seventies. It's an easy-listening trip back in time that allows you to imagine that you are living the lifestyle of some sort of jet setting seventies Australian Don Draper. The liner notes are straight from the pad of the Qantas marketing team and explains in amusing prose how luxurious their flights are. The use of the term 'Qantastic' never fails to make me laugh just a little. The set opens up with 'The Stripper' by the David Rose Orchestra. Why on earth they would have chosen this song is a total mystery to me. "That's what they used to play when the hostesses came out," suggested a friend. After that auspicious start, most of the tracks are easy listening tunes from op-shop favourites such as Acker Bilk, Manuel Music Of The Mountains and numerous other guys with orchestras. There's a rather lovely rendition of 'Fool On The Hill' done by Basil Henriques & The Waikiki Islanders. My favourite is the closing track 'Ritual Fire Dance [Falla]' by accordionist Jack Emblow which is done in a frenzied style somewhere between exotica and Mr. Bungle's Disco Volante. From the liner notes: Music lovers, gourmets, movie watchers, readers, writers, talkers, dreamers, sleepers - pampered people all, welcome to the Qantas 747B.

EDIT: I have subsequently noticed with some chagrin that this album is in fact, just a rebranded release of the ubiquitous Impact: The Breakthrough To The Exciting World of Stereo Sound LP released in 1968. Way to make an effort, Qantas marketing team. 

Label: EMI
Released: 1976
Players: Various artists.

Discovery - Frances Yip (1974)

This is quite a cool album showcasing the musical (and linguistic) talents of Cantopop singer Frances Yip in the service of promoting Cathay Pacific airlines. This is something of a promotional concept album, with Yip singing songs from the many countries that Cathay Pacific are happy to fly you to: Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia. Most of the tracks have a great feel to them and production that suggests that Cathay Pacific were happy to spend a bit of money on this album to ensure that it sounded good. Not only was money spent on the music, but this promotional album came in a gatefold sleeve as well (yes, my copy is signed by Frances, try not to die of jealousy). The opening track 'Discovery', isn't representative of any country and is sort of a theme song for the album to get you started on your journey. It's a rockin' number with some great time changes and a killer guitar solo. The next track which is likely to grab your attention (particularly Australian listeners) is 'Green Is The Mountain (Tawain)' as the opening section of this song is one of the key samples used in Gotye's 'State Of The Art' from his hugely successful Making Mirrors album. Overall, Discovery generally manages to avoid a sense of seventies Asian minstrelsy that could easily have crept in, except on 'Kowloon Hong Kong Medley' which sounds a little tasteless and dated to my ears. Given that Yip herself is from Hong Kong, this seems particularly egregious. Then again, as an Australian, I found the rendition of 'Waltzing Matilda' on this album fairly cringe-inducing so maybe it's all relative (although, I do appreciate the whistling over the outro).

Label: EMI (My copy appears to have been purchased in Malaysia)
Released: 1974
Players: Frances Yip - vocals
Vic O. Cristobal - arrangement and conducting
No other musicians are credited.

We Saw It All With Trans Tours - The Seekers (197?)

Q: When are The Seekers not The Seekers? A: When they are The Pacific Seekers and they're singing jingles for a travel company! As you can see from the artwork, this promotional single is credited to 'The Pacific Seekers', however the disc itself is credited to 'The Seekers'. The Seekers first disbanded in 1968 and this release represents a time in the late seventies when original member Bruce Woodley reunited the band (without Judith Durham) to record new material. The track itself is actually quite listenable and enjoyable due to a catchy melody and canny arrangement. There's also a great vintage synthesiser solo and an arpeggio which rings through most of the song which gives it a dated charm. Now, just in case you thought that The Pacific Seekers and Trans Tours would treat this promotional single as a slapdash affair, you'd be dead wrong: you get not one, but two versions of the song, with two sets of lyrics referring to New Zealand and Fiji. And they haven't just interchanged the word 'New Zealand' with 'Fiji' either, the verse has been completely altered to reflect the rich histories of both of these pacific nations. You'll be singing along in no time - Oh, we fly through the air, we drive on the land; yes, we've always been a travelling band. There's so much to see, it's a beautiful land. And we saw it all with Trans Tours. We saw it all with Trans Tours!

Label: EMI
Released: Between 1975-1977
Players: Bruce Woodley - guitar
Athol Guy - bass
Keith Potger - guitar
Louisa Wisseling - vocals
(I have some uncertainty on who played what on this single, but this was the lineup of 'The Seekers' at the time, and the instrument they generally played.)

Getaway (Consulate cigarettes) - Bob Young & His Orchestra featuring Helen Reddy, Errol Buddle and George Golla. (~1963)

This is the first in a number of posts featuring promotional records. I purchased this record because it appeared to be some kind of cigarette advertisement but also because it featured Oz jazz greats Errol Buddle and George Golla. After trying to find out about this record, I also found out that it was apparently the very first vocal appearance of Helen Reddy. It's a nifty little track featuring a full horn section (courtesy of Bob Young's orchestra, we presume), an extended, though safely accessible, solo from Buddle and some nice guitar work from Golla. The lyrics are pretty much what you'd expect: Get away from the everyday - swing to Consulate. The Virginia menthol cigarette. Cool, clean Consulate - the Virginia menthol cigarette! - the melody of the last line is so catchy that it surely could have been the basis of a hit single. Despite Ms. Reddy's exuberance in singing these lines in the early sixties, I am told that she does not endorse smoking and gave up the habit in later life. The people at Rothmans of Pall Mall were good enough to include a vocal and an instrumental take of this track.

Label: Promotional - Released by Rothmans of Pall Mall (Aust.) Ltd.
Released: ~1963
Players: Helen Reddy - vocals
Errol Buddle - tenor saxaphone
George Golla - guitar
Bob Young and his Orchestra: everything else, I guess.