Sunday, September 21, 2008

Record Review - My Kappa Roots

My Kappa Roots

The House Of St. Colme Burnt Down
Drifting Falling Records

Words: John Mackie

My Kappa Roots- “The House Of StAye. My Kappa Roots. I first came across him an age ago. He looked about 12 years old and was all straggly hair and messed up shoes. He was playing 4th on a low key bill. There was hardly anybody there except those in the bands. He sat down with a guitar. The guitar was battered to hell. So was he. He tried to get the thing in tune and got pissed off when he couldn"t. The folk in the room were murmuring and getting into the beery chat of the gig goer. I thought to myself "he"s a wee nervous guy with a guitar. They"re going to ignore him completely". When he finally played a song EVERYTHING changed. He played quiet. Dead quiet. He strummed in the way of the natural. He was wholly raw and unpolished. It just came straight to him. Even the sound of his guitar alone was enough to begin to quell the chatter. Once he started singing the place was silent. People stayed hushed simply because they wanted to hear him. His performance was astounding. For its simplicity, for its honesty and for the levels of yearning and pain and intimacy in his voice which for the most part was nothing more than a whisper. He made no attempt to paper over the cracks and flaws in guitar or voice. Part of what made you listen to him was the sheer act of bravery in playing so quiet. He just had "something" which grabbed you. This was not music which seemed to utilise "rock language". There were no "black eyed dogs" or "cold hearted women" on here. No mumbo jumbo. The style of his words was as spare as the instrumentation. The meaning was there for you to investigate, not given to you in a passive arrangement. He gave you all you needed. It was undiluted. It came from the world of inner thoughts, brave failures and half remembered feeling. So skeletal, yet so full of life and depth.

I walked away thinking that I had seen a real talent. For one reason or another I got detached from Pablo (Clark, MKR himself) for a year or two and recently saw him playing live again. He looks about 18 now. His hair is shorter. The guitar's still battered. The show was another incredible experience. He still had the same qualities. His performance was in the moment. It was what it was. It was his. He played his songs. He sang. The songs were more confident now. Different and better ones than before. He played a new song about his granny which defied belief in terms of the scope of its poignancy and depth of longing and pain and joy for a life. I thought that if this is the direction and the quality he will continue to produce then we're all lucky bastards. It was the easy power in his voice I noticed most this time. As well as the fluid guitar runs of course. He can build and develop a tune seemingly without raising the volume or changing what he"s playing. Again the crowd listened. They had to. Something about him commands your attention.

Following the show, for the first time I discovered a couple of key things about him. Firstly, he's from Fife. The Fifeness is key for me. This is a place which stamps its mark on you. It's a dark land full of (cultural) deprivation. It's easy to become isolated in about every sense imaginable. You spend time wandering around coastal areas dreaming of something better and wondering how you can achieve it. How could I ever do that? You're feared that you'll end up a freemason or a Rovers + "Kirry's" van in the afternoon / Flyers, stovies + "Tony Hand wank wank wank" at night person. You'll become satisfied with nothing but a Tanfastic and a David Sands. Maybe you'll end up a suicide left behind amongst "the books and all the records of your lifetime" (I think I can be excused from using this phrase in every thing I write. Listen to the song if you don"t think it's justified). Fife scars you. The only thing Fifers who "don't fit in" do is get the fuck out of there. For those who manage it there is a weird sense of fellowship. We've survived with the scars and the marks of the struggle intact and writ large.

Secondly he made an album. This record screams all your Fife things. I'm positive that it must have come from a background of having to grow up in a place where there's not just a culture of defeatism, you are defeated already. The LP was recorded two years ago. I cannot believe I missed it until now. I was literally too busy playing with myself in a bedsit in Dalry to discover it. Right now I want to shout about it. I honestly do want to tell EVERYBODY about this record. I'm not sure this has happened since I first heard "Blue" when I went bonkers in 1999. In my world it's that good. (I'm not comparing it to that particular record tho'. Don"t worry about that. Just linking it to a sensation I felt at a time and a place!)

I guess I’d better tell you about it. Well the first thing I noticed when I picked up the sleeve was that it was mostly recorded in a Masonic hall in Aberdour and references Rosyth. My father is obsessed with freemasonry and worked in that odd wee addenda to Dunfermline for most of his working days. I used to traipse round Aberdour in my post office days trying to cram "Free Fuji Film" exposures through unforgiving letter boxes. I already sensed somehow that this LP was going to plough into territories which would have substantial personal resonance. I like to think of how this record was recorded in places of great shiteness. To muse on what he has produced out of all this makes me feel good.

It even starts with a tune called "The Lord Of Rosyth" (this one is recorded in Dalgety Bay of all places. It's an entirely lifeless collection of "new" 1st time buyer housing estates overlooking the Forth which everybody mistakes for being a new town), a leisurely preamble to start proceedings. He has a wonderfully light way of playing the guitar. The melodies seem to jump out of him. He can idly strum a passage and then suddenly pick up a melody from nowhere and play it with such crispness. He has entirely unassuming ways with both guitar and voice. They get me running to the thesaurus for synonyms of "natural". It's hard to put one's finger on it but he carries so much pain and weight in even a solemn gentle warble. "All that I bring to the table is my youth. All you bring are your years". It sets the record up most succinctly. Parched reflection. An understanding of the way of life. It's mostly futile. It's usually heartbreaking. It's occasionally exhilarating. When I think of Rosyth usually all that comes to mind are those black jackets with MOD on the back that most folk from the town used to wear. This song does not make me think of Rosyth in any way. It's a low key start to the record but an enticing one. You're in already. A few echoey lines of backing vox appear. They are used in a judicious fashion. He seems to be coming from a lo-fi standpoint and I love the incomplete and non-note perfect side of that thinking but I feel in an ideal world I would have looked to have had the sound stripped away even further and shorn of as much as could be removed.

There is embellishment on here and if you've seen him live it does take you by surprise to hear somebody else on there tho' the backing vox, strings, melodica etc which emerge at various moments through the record are unobtrusive, minimal, appropriate and highly highly pleasing wee interventions which underline and emphasise instead of dominating or clouding what he's doing. I suppose I can't get away from my knowledge of what he can produce in a guitar and vox only setting. I want him to take this to a zenith. I guess I have fear of him one day appearing with a full band and losing the immediacy and intimacy of his performances. He has a bona fide "bearing" and taps into such a scope with simple voice and guitar. I would have wanted that built on, isolated, heightened even more so the sound is wide open and all around you 'til there is nothing more and nowhere else to go. This effect even if it exists just inside my head would be wholly devastating on these old heartstrings. You wouldn't lose warmth or spontaneity this way because it's all there in his playing however you record it or arrange it. You don't change the way he plays, you would just hone in on a different aspect. I have read the odd mention of Nick Drake as a point of reference. I don't get this. It's a lazy comparison ie one man playing "dour" (ha!) intricate music on a guitar. There is classicism to ND which is not always there with Pablo. I feel that he's more jumpy and dare one say it "progressive" in his thinking than a chestnut sic as Nick (albeit my favourite chestnut in the whole world). In my heid I keep coming back to Christopher Mack (a much loved (by me) great once lost "post-singer songwriter" singer songwriter who recorded as The James Orr Complex and then disappeared to Brazil) as a point of reference. They share an elegiac and swoony playing style. They embody differing shades and textures often in the same tune.

He continues with "Narcissus Waits By The Water", a wee Jimmy Orr-esque instrumental which shows off more guitar. It's not precise, it's not perfect. It's piquant and rich of tone. These opening two tracks are good but you know there must be more to come. "Man Of The Islands" is the first "major" piece on the record. I can't get away from the prodigious beauty of this song. I can remember seeing him play it on our first encounter. It's the sparseness and economy. All the components of this song are set on "the right level". They say all that is required and nothing more. You know what he is talking about. He sings it with dignified, aching yearning. That voice. Even with a whisper it carries a rare rare power. He just knows how to "sing", how to phrase words, how to tell a story. Why do people sing songs? To express themselves. To have a connection with people. To entertain themselves and others. To stir feeling. To feel. To feel alive. This record, this song, this artiste remind me of these facts. One tends not to hear all components of a song working together like it does here and throughout this collection. He works so splendidly with what he has. It sounds like he can wring any permutation of feeling and nuance out of a tune. This one's a story of loss and an elegy to his uncle and when he says "Find you by the sea, you"ll be by a lake, find you in the earth, find you with the trees, we can start again", it kills me. You see, people nearly always sing in a manufactured way. I kid you not folks. I do not care if this sounds like sheer hyperbole. I cannot put it any other way. He sings like he has a line straight from his heart and his thoughts. They are expressed whole and neat without adulteration from style or pretense. No genre statements or fashion items can be made out of them. This song produces incredible "moments". I feel as if I might never hear hurt and loss expressed in this way again. Musically this song features sympathetic strings with lush "Five Leaves Left" arrangements. He finishes it with an apt jaunty coda as if to prove that life goes on and has many moments which are so worth living. I do give apologies for saying all this but I"m trying to be honest. On listening to this song it feels like there is hope when music and times such as this can be produced.

Following a song like that successfully is almost impossible. He makes a good fist of it and does so with a pleasing folky doodle called "Home-Coming". It's the most "traditional" song on the record with it"s refrain of "and all the ships which made it back home wore black sails and black masts so tall…". Again the tonality of his guitar alone makes it worth hearing. Because I've listened to this record so often I have a sense of it being sequenced around a handful of key songs with the rest acting as high quality warm ups and preparation for the emotional toll to come. It does feel now like I'm waiting for the next masterpiece to come along. It doesn't come quite yet with "The Burn Will Make It"s Own Way", a comely delay fest recorded outside "in the park by the lane". It has a diverse feel from the rest of the LP tho' the record is not uniform in texture over it"s duration by any means. The delayed guitar on this one recalls Sparhawk at his most billow-y. The eloquence of the picking at the end section picks a clear route through the FX and he comes in with a world weary tale of a kind of loving. "By the dawn we are timid and ashamed of our very flesh…" A few lines of this ilk, an electro gurgle and then it's gone. Point made. Impression left. His songs are unhurried despite the lack of procrastination. He doesn"t mind taking time to establish mood and build character. It's a heady combination. There is a great deal of confidence and elan in his song structures. The words are given space to breathe and inhabit the tune.

This brings us to "Fleeting Like Etain". It IS the next biggie. Giving a description might well have me slipping into plots likely to cause embarrassment to self. I don't know where to start with this song. He picks a line on the guitar and sings like he's completely alone and trying to pour his heart out to no one. In Fife people do this or is it just me? There is a mad form of solace to be had in the emptiness. I'm hurting, I'm defeated but none of these bastards are able to hear my pain. I find it comforting. I can sing to the void and nobody can take it from me. You taste the sheer presence of his voice. He is close miked and has joined you for the duration. He sings in his own accent but there is none of the forced "Scottishness" which has crept into a few "quiet" records one has heard of late. There is no aroma of Jock Scot on here. Anyway… The words keep coming. Internal monologue. Innermost thought. "By the night the entire set connected in the darkness", "coal pit side, Cranes in the wind like young girls dancing.bIt's when we"re dashed against the gates of desire", "we are lone satellites in the fog… bramble babies born of a buried wind" He keeps going he knows the side effects of blissful love. It all ends. "She says we're not born of the stars above, we are but fleeting moments in the sun and there is no higher glory just a quiet human end". It expands and grows. A wheezy melodica wafts in and out. A harmony voice provides confirmation of his thoughts. His words are homespun and lyrical passages. Christ, he has an understanding of life and all its crushing pointlessness as well as its greatness. The imagery and melodies of these songs display an assurance in composition and performance which you just don"t hear. Period.

Next up is "Summer you Dancer!". Cracking title but on the surface it"s not a cheery song. At any level, jesty outing it ain't and how splendid it sounds as a result. The first line is "Thunder across the spine of the world". The first wee chorus coils the words "you tow some heavy cargo" round a spidery melody with a blithe violin providing emphasis. Again, this tune uses a scanty set up for a yearning crescendo which goes and goes to the end... "with thirsting lungs we do pursue". The level of emotion he provokes, there seems no limit to what he can do with just voice and guitar. It continues on a journey towards a perfect starkness with "A Night Full Of Reverse Birds". The more I write about this record, I just want to quote you the lyrics and let them speak for themselves re how good they and the songs are. "And we fled to the wind's whispered dirge. Behind us the woods roared and spat". "We set out our wicked path" "We shrieked and carouseled". Again, he"s nearby and sounds so desperate and desolate. It is the sparsest song on the record . 99% shorn of addenda. Slow and resonant. "All I could think of is what we had done. All this hate is unnecessary. All this shame is unnecessary. All this guilt is unnecessary. All these regrets are unnecessary", he repeats over and over until he's purged. He is right. It's all of no consequence in the end. Except for what stays in your head from day to day during the routine grind. What keeps you going and what you think about at small moments of wax and wane. These songs matter to me. They have not left me since I heard them. It's the intangibles which appeal. I guess I'm trying to "make recompense for what"s done" in terms of my lack of articulation skills but how can we accurately say why something elicits a response in us? I just know that I feel a kind of familiarity in what he describes and invokes. It resonates with my own pain. I feel succour. I feel tinges of that pain coming out in the wash. I feel rewarded and welcomed by his sounds and words. It all comes back to my feeling of how I "like" this record. At the risk of being a fan-atic, on this occasion it isn't nearly enough just to say "like". I should move on…

"The Green Shelter" is the longest song on the record. Oddly enough it"s probably the "happiest" in purely crass terms. "Even tho' I was not raised here. It's where I belong" He's found a place. Security. He talks about "homespun bones". It features evocative, intricate picking in the middle with fractured snatches of conversation bubbling underneath. It changes tone and gets closer to a form of reflection. The melodica groans away again. He counters it with emphatic flourishes and tumbles. He travels in a stately instrumental fashion through the mid section. His guitar lifts it all near to the heights touched earlier when he used far darker hues. Mr. C can seriously "play". When I say that, I'm not talking about a virtuoso display / Listen to how he can solo and be a bluesy wailer. It's the feel and the tone and what he can conjure from it. There are a number of fluffed lines on this record. Their inclusion helps to convince me of the admiration I feel for him and his music. It ends with another slight ray of sunshine. "To this place part of me will always belong. Let's take a walk amongst the giant's footsteps... let the green shelter weather our storms". It's barely a rasp by the end but he's sure in his convictions. He can make a tiny sound and you will still hear him loud and clear. "Goodly sin and sunshine" are further let in by "Here's To The Sun-House" which is a jaunty Davey Graham-y instrumental and the simplest track on offer. It is gleefully played (it also makes me yearn for this LP to be re-titled "All That Moody") but tends to act as an usher into the closer, a number which is an unforgettable experience.

That is "The Dour Festival". When I first heard it I couldn"t think of other songs which are so complete, so fully formed. It's bursting with vitality and all that I want to hear in a record or in "a piece of art". It"s another scouring and elegant take on loss. It begins with a stroll amongst the Dylans. "The whole village is sleeping in some hushed lullaby from the faltered steps of dreaming speechless sounds arise...". It has momentum and pace and the words weave their spell. Poetic and seamless. "The sighed song of the living is unveiled from every doorway and perched upon the breeze to be carried across the sea and settled in every bough of every tree and amidst their bludgeoning rocks… or wherever we shall lay". It's the way he knits these impressions together and layers the world weary perdition. Then, just as you're starting to think how much you love this already, he turns it round and unleashes a stunning melody upon which he adds maybe the most heartbreaking vocal I've ever heard. I just want it to go on forever. I thought earlier that he had just produced a definitive evocation of defeat and sadness but then this came along. I have to quote what I think he's singing during this last bit in full

And the old dancers, the large bodied ladies who careen by

And whisper "We'll never be young again"
And the drowned sailors who sneer into their mugs
And pine and call for another round of vitriol

And the moon's young daughters faces painted neon white with flesh revealed

Pant and crawl into the night
And the clay cracked poets who"s liver spotted anecdotes are bandied round
And who are crushed by old desires

And we young, hunched pack rats (?)…we loved in the face of the stars

Oh were they jealous of our youth?
And now we lay in the road side sun drenched and forgotten about at this dour festival.

Maybe I'm flawed but it reads to me like a kind of perfection. The vocal performance here is breathtaking. He sings in Fife-ese ("His liver spoated anecdoats". I adore the way he gives this line) because that"s how he speaks and it's so relaxed but at the same time dripping with regret and turmoil. Underneath this a chorus intones the phrase "At this dour festival" over and over. A sax plays somewhere miles away. I never quite believed the phrase "life-affirming" before now. It's taken a song about death to convince me of the existence of this quality in song. Every time I listen to this tune I really can't quantify how much it means to me. This is a great piece of music.

Aye, well I guess the album is over. How do I sum it up? Do I need to? I think you will know my feelings on it by now. The type of words which I could come up with feel insufficient. Awesome. Great. Outstanding. Aye. This is an album I will treasure. Maybe it's the Fife connection, maybe it's the naked understatement, the seeming ease with which he does it all, the fact that I perceive him to be unconcerned with getting it "right". It could be any of these factors and tons more. In the end, it doesn't matter. Yeah. This is a special record.

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