Pick of the Week #6
Five Houses
By Beppe Colli
Dec. 25, 2020

Gentle Giant
The House, The Street, The Room

Quite strange, surfing the Web and finding groups of young people performing ancient songs off the Gentle Giant's songbook, half a century after the fact (well, more or less).

Not as popular as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but not exactly "cult artists" such as Van Der Graaf Generator, at the time Gentle Giant inhabited the same "middle ground" as King Crimson and Gabriel-era Genesis.

But while trying to re-create the music of a group whose "front-man" (however "reluctant": Robert Fripp says "hi!") is an integral part of "the brand" can turn a "cover" into a "caricature" (the same being true for, say, Jagger and the Stones), and even taking into consideration Derek Shulman's lively stage presence, it turns out that it's precisely those qualities that at the time made Gentle Giant's music quite "arduous" to appreciate that today make for a somewhat plausible proposition.

Music that's performed as if read from the written page, a melodic dimension that makes great use of counterpoint, the whole made of "episodes" and "motivic variations", all performed with great clarity.

The United States especially applauded those albums released after Octopus, featuring a "strong-arm" drummer and - I'd say - lacking the "soft" element favoured by the line-up's "vanishing brother" Phil. Those "soft" elements being an important part for the favour granted to the first four albums by Italian audiences.

After their first album, Gentle Giant, sounding a bit like "Here we are!", Acquiring The Taste (1971) showed a "new complexity", perfectly assisted by producer Tony Visconti, Advision and A.I.R. studios, (modular) Moog programming by Chris Thomas (and look at the sponsors mentioned in the album's liner notes: "Park - Amplifiers that don't give up").

The funny thing for a "rock" group is that for Gentle Giant the guitar solo is not the "cathartic" moment as featured by those groups who have a fluent guitar player, but just a colour - however important - among many.

All that I've said up to now is well represented by the composition appearing as track #3 of Side One of Acquiring The Taste: The House, The Street, The Room, whose "story" - as expressed verbally - I've always linked to the tense, sinister, mood of (Orwell's) 1984, especially the part about the room where the book's main character tries to find a way out from the nightmare that is his world.

The track is divided into sections that need no introduction - just listen to those different vocal timbres, the "rock" and "chamber" sections, the way the acoustic crescendo gives way to the guitar solo explosion.

And even though I'm usually quite reluctant to anthropomorphize instrumental roles, it's really impossible not to notice the way the obsessive organ and bass ostinato that envelops the guitar solo appears to try to keep it from escaping those walls that keep it as in a cage.

It's a great work when it comes to mixing, volumes, and placement in the stereo spread. Cerebral? Of course!

The House On The Hill

How did a group whose existence we've forgotten sound at the time? Strange question, but one I came to consider, after being asked "How can it be that all those groups of the past were of excellent quality?".

Well, here's Audience - wonder if you remember them? For a few brief moments, thanks also to their record company's efforts - Charisma being the home of both Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator - Audience appeared ready for the big time.

It was not to be. Looking backward, the reasons are clear: too many half-cooked ideas, group members not always seeing eye-to-eye, compositional forces already in need of help at the time of their third album - what's the point of doing a cover of I Put A Spell On You? - etc.

But after about half a century I still remember the names of those who recorded "the big smash that wasn't", The House On The Hill (1971): Howard Werth on vocals (an "American" voice, think: Van Morrison) and classical guitar; Keith Gemmell on saxophone, flute, and clarinet; Trevor Williams on bass (more complex than was the average of the times, with a fuzz pedal that's a bit similar-sounding to Hugh Hopper's); Tony Connor on drums (not as skilled as the album's production would like you to believe; when a few years later I spotted him in a picture in Creem magazine as a member of Hot Chocolate - it was the column titled Letter From Britain, by Simon Frith - I thought that, after all, it was just appropriate).

Gus Dudgeon as album producer, Robin Cable as sound engineer, Trident studios, and a cover (quite famous at the time) by (legendary studio) Hipgnosis.

Best episodes being Jackdaw, You're Not Smiling ("radio hits" in my part of the woods, just like the title track), and The House On The Hill.

The House On The Hill (the song) is an almost-Van Der Graaf song of fine quality, with a compressed-, angry-sounding, saxophone, apocalyptic vocals, obsessive bass, drummer doing his best, a flute solo, an episode with echoplexed sax, a bit la Terry Riley, and lotsa noise for what is the album's (and the concert's, I'd say), closing track.

And what's there, in The House On The Hill? Well, a giant rat that wears a judge's cap, and that when it snows becomes a beautiful maiden who enchants and then devours those who happen to pass, what else?

This Is The House/This City Never Sleeps

Even though the group's first album was In The Garden, in many ways Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983) can be considered Eurythmics's real first album, especially when it comes to the commercial sphere, the single and the video immediately becoming world-wide smashes (but the duo had definitely paid their dues, starting with the Tourists; maybe someone still remembers David A. Stewart as just a kid, getting a contract on Elton John's new record label, with the group Longdancer).

A bank loan of 5.000, second-hand equipment, a lot of time and care (at the time, I happened to read a cover story about the group in US monthly Keyboard; while a couple of years ago - it was the time of the usual re-release - UK monthly Sound On Sound ran a nice retrospective, with a few fine pictures showing the original instrumentation and studio).

The music featured on this album has a pleasantly-sounding electronic flavour - there is also the famous Movement Drum Computer, with a wood cover and a led display (those who saw the video with the cows probably noticed it) - with sequencers, "percussion", and real guitar timbres (a Gretsch, if I'm not mistaken). And of course, Annie Lennox's voice.

Some "real" instruments were not listed at the time of the album's original release. There's a bass guitar on This Is The House - to me, it sounds like a Fender Jazz Bass with the bridge pick-up shining through - and a trumpet on The Walk, which a "yankee" colleague of mine mistook for an electronic replica. Something which I mention not to show him in a bad light, but because he was one of the better equipped to know it was a real one. Maybe his wanting to believe that a "spit" trumpet could already be replicated by hardware took him in the wrong direction.

This Is The House is your classic "stomper" with bass drum, "funky" bass, "mariachi" trumpet, sequencers and whistles, a "Latin" intro ("Esta es la casa. Esta la historia" - maybe), and a mysterious visit - there are quite a few "holes" in the tale - to a place from the past.

Even if the main character, as per the song's title, is a city that never sleeps - recording from the underground (the tube?), public announcements, footsteps, trains, doors - This City Never Sleeps highlights the narrator's point of view: a house where many people live, whose names one doesn't know, walls so thin that almost make it possible for one to hear their breathing, but when one gets close to them, one can only hear one's own heartbeat; from this perspective, the narrator "incorporates" the sounds of the underground, making them a part of the room he lives in.

With great simplicity, Eurythmics gave us a picture of great ingenuity and beauty. Annie Lennox's vocals did the rest.

Ben Folds Five

It was impossible not to notice the open hostility that a certain number of record reviewers - names I didn't know, and that I've since forgotten, but I remember the name of one publication, and that's Pitchfork - showed towards Ben Folds. Understanding that said hostility was not directed towards the artist as a person, per se, the reviewers getting the art - a composer's thoughtful, well-considered, approach - and the instrument, a piano, as their targets. (While an artist like Regina Spektor - maybe because she's female? - gets the courtesy of silence.)

I'll just say that an anthology like The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective (2011) - a triple CD split in "Best", "Live", and "Rarities" portions, the 18 tracks of the first CD being available as a separate entity - offers material of great quality that's also highly enjoyable.

An unreleased track by Ben Folds Five ends the first CD.

House immediately shows us the scene - a "for sale" sign in the yard, the furniture gone - and the memories, which are described as "fetid".

A long crescendo, an appropriate backing by bass and drums, a measured piano, "nightmares" and "counselors", and a firm proposition: "I'm not going back up in that house again".

Beppe Colli 2020

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 25, 2020