George Henderson was born in Scotland many years ago and has been creating music in New Zealand since the mid-1970s and releasing it fitfully since the mid-80s, mainly as The Puddle. In this our 21st Century he has taken a renewed interest in his so-called art and released a string of Puddle albums on his brother/drummer Ian’s Fishrider label, most recently Secret Holiday/Victory Blues. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
Lately I’ve been loving the operas of Pietro Mascagni, playing them loudly while doing the housework. But I totally lack the vocabulary and the experience to explain why that’s at least as satisfying a soundtrack as, say, Burzum. That’s why you have William Dart, I suppose. So without further ado, five or so albums I’m loving right now (and have been for some time) that I can perhaps represent in words.
1 – Microdisney, Everybody is Fantastic: It was in 1986 that my brother Ian introduced me to Microdisney, mailing from Scotland a cassette of The Clock Comes Down the Stairs. I became a one-man Microdisney appreciation society, scooping up their albums and working musical and lyrical references into my songs (or plagiarizing, if you prefer). The Puddle even covered Give me All of your Clothes on our live LP, to this day the only time I’ve heard a Microdisney song covered. They should have been huge, but it’s easy to see why they weren’t. Too Irish, too angry, too intelligent, and too musical to win over the masses, they stayed the darlings of John Peel, the NME, and I. Everybody is Fantastic was their first proper album, and was recorded when they were still an embryonic two-piece; a drum machine, Sean O’Hagan’s rolling guitar patterns, Cathal Couglan’s perfectly chosen synth chords and That voice – surely the richest, sweetest, loudest, most compelling voice in the whole of rock – wryly, sadly, angrily telling of a series of perfect little sketches of disenchantment, disillusion, and a weary disgust that would rise to gale force on the later albums and continue to ascend through surrealist and industrial soundscapes in Cathal’s post-Microdisney work with Fatima Mansions, the best representation of which is the Viva Dead Ponies album, which featured a bittersweet little synth-pop tune called Thursday. As Tom Lehrer said, “let no-one else’s work evade your eyes”. Cathal Couglan’s latest release is The North Sea Scrolls, a collaboration with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller. With that team you’d have high expectations, and the snippets I’ve heard so far do not disappoint. (Here’s Microdisney’s Idea and Fatima Mansions’ Thursday).
2 – The Clientele, Strange Geometry: A rare negative review of The Clientele claimed that they “made Belle and Sebastian sound like Chrome”. Like, that’s a bad thing? A more considered opinion was that they were “the greatest pop group of the first decade of the twenty-first century” or words to that effect. I was lucky enough to support the Clientele in Auckland a few years ago, lucky not only because it was a stunning show, but also because I might not otherwise have given their recorded music the time it took to pay off. Sometimes great music is not immediate; the first two tracks on Strange Geometry are, but after that I lost my way… some months later I found myself skipping to the centre of the album to relish the next few tracks – and so on, till after about two years I realised that there wasn’t a weak track on it, and that what I’d initially heard as flaws had become its strengths. A line or a chord change from one song seems to be repeated in another – but these repetitions (or suggestions of such) are like cables holding the whole work together, and the lyrics are worrying the same idea from a myriad different angles; epiphanies that transform the mundane, the mystical visions seen in suburban vistas, and often a tangible discomfort with it all. Alasdair Maclean’s guitar and voice shimmer, James Hornsey plays what have to be the most propulsive and melodically inventive bass lines heard since Paul McCartney’s heyday, and Mark Keen is simply the most tasteful, self-effacing drummer in rock. After about five albums and as many EPs they called it a day, but they had time to write one song about me.
Check out E.M.P.T.Y, House On Fire and George Says He Has Lost His Way In This World.
3 – Humphries and Keen, The Overflow: When Alasdair Maclean from The Clientele listed his albums of the year a few years ago, The Overflow was the only kiwi inclusion. Songs with titles like The End of the Golden Weather set up uneasily high expectations, then ride them to emotionally draining conclusions. This to me is music that evokes the classic New Zealand landscape, those littoral and pastoral vistas so often swept with wind and rain. Paul Keen’s remarkable voice evokes the Man Alone, while Graeme Humphries summons up an orchestra on his keyboards, often before the orchestra joins him. For this is a lushly produced extravagance of a record, and no trouble or expense has been spared to realise its vision. On occasions other past members of The Able Tasmans drop in, but this is not an Able Tasmans record, eschewing anything poppy and most that rocks to create an enduring sui generic work of art. When, 400 years hence, explorers dig up from the rubble the last surviving artefact of twenty-first century New Zealand recording, we can only hope it’s a copy of The Overflow. (12,000 Miles).
4 – Nina Simone, My Baby Just Cares For Me: I have a few Nina Simone albums, but my favourite is this possibly bootleg budget compilation from a service station, which turns out to be a live performance from late in her career. Was there ever a star like Nina Simone? No, and there never can be again; the music industry would never allow it. From her first album Little Girl Blue you hear a piano virtuoso whose improvisations aren’t bound by the jazz arrangements, a voice like a deep bell, and a stubborn individuality. She could take any song and make it sound like she wrote it, and at least once she had the brass to claim that she had; on To Love Somebody (1969) she takes The Beatle’s Revolution, riffs on it a bit, and claims it as a Nina Simone composition in two parts. Anyone else might have landed in court, but what’s the bet even Allen Klein was afraid of Nina Simone. My favourite track is the live version of Pirate Jenny. It sounds wrong, a bit out of tune or under-rehearsed, and she muffs the words at one point, but that just makes it all the more spine-chilling, like she’s daring you to say something about it. Because, this time, Nina Simone is Pirate Jenny. She will kill you in your beds for your disrespect, and you better believe it.
5 – Tyrannosaurus Rex, Unicorn: Before Marc Bolan was a huge star, he was a cross-legged hippy waif with an acoustic guitar and insufferable pretensions as a poet (my #1 fantasy face-off features Marc Bolan and Jim Morrison in a poetry duel). If you’ve never heard Tyrannosaurus Rex then you owe yourself, because you will never hear anything else remotely like it as long as you live. Unicorn is an album that is defined by weirdness yet stands out as being well-made and full of good songs and interesting sounds. Marc is assisted by Steve Peregrine Took and producer Tony Visconti to create a soundscape that might have been created by the Dwarves of Middle Earth deep in the caverns of the Misty Mountains. There’s a distant, churning drum-like sound like nothing before heard by waking mortals. On Cat Black the Wizard’s Hat the Bolan-Took partnership is at its wizard-rocking peak. That talented fool of a Took would soon leave the shadow of his narcissistic collaborator to squat in Ladbroke Grove, make unfinished heavy rock music with Shagrat, and die of drugs. The perfection of Unicorn is his memorial. (The Throat Of Winter)
There are a few other favourite albums I want to write about; Vorn and The is one (Vorn and Foster the People are the only CDs that the kids and the adults agree on during car trips – here’s Vorn’s I’m Wicked); David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World (musically a collaboration between Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti due to Bowie’s lack of interest) another. But my typing finger hurts, and I have work to do. Another time, perhaps.