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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Reviews: Alun Vaughan & Big Block 454

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Alun Vaughan - The Kindness Of Strangers (solo bass)
self released, 2010, DD album, 35m 12s, £4.50 or more
all proceeds donated to the MS Society

The long standing association between the solo bass release and a meaningless display of rippling technical muscularity is thankfully receding into history. It’s reasonable that it should have come about: to play something that is more agile and melodic than the traditional low thump of a bassline requires rather more application on a bass than on a guitar, and there was also, I think, a sense that if the bass player wasn’t displaying some extraordinary chops, why didn’t they stay at the back next to the drummer? The other thing of course, is that an album of any one instrument needs something to keep the listener’s attention, and even the most musical of players can make good use of some pyrotechnics to vary the texture.
However, there is no longer any need to make that stuff the primary focus (and since Victor Wooten released A Show Of Hands any attempt to do so looks a bit laughable). My favourite solo bass album remains Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears, which consists entirely of unaccompanied melodic improvisation, much of it in the lower register: Alun Vaughan doesn’t restrict himself to that degree, but The Kindness Of Strangers is recorded without overdubs, and live looping, which has become a popular technique for solo bassists, features on only one track (and there he plays the loop on a guitar).
What Alun Vaughan does is to use the upper register of his six string bass more or less as a guitar (and it is a species of guitar), and play some songs on it. They don’t have any singing, but they are beautiful, melodic, soulful, harmonically sophisticated, engaging and varied songs nevertheless. The girth of bass strings imparts a warmth and gravity to the tone that the same notes would not possess had they been played on a guitar, but to most intents and purposes this could be an album of fingerpicking guitar; the configuration of a fretted stringed instrument imposes certain preconditions on the music, but within those it really doesn’t matter what Vaughan is playing his music on. He is just playing the music.
Vaughan is unusual among players from the jazz and popular music traditions, in that left to his own devices he has the confidence to use tempo expressively. This is of course part and parcel of learning to interpret a composer’s work for a classical musician, but for those on the other side of the fence so much work is put into learning to play metronomically, and to developing your own internal clock, that it can be hard to let go of that. Tempo variations can be seen as a token of incompetence, but Vaughan has the courage of his convictions, and displays an ability to let the music find its own tempo, its natural pace, from phrase to phrase, and even note to note, that is hugely beneficial to the emotional impact of his work, and that I found extremely engaging.
The material on this album includes some haunting chord melodies (‘Waves’, ‘Closing Time’ and the title track), which Vaughan writes simply and economically, and performs with an understated calm that belies the considerable technique required to execute them as cleanly as he does. The way he combines C string licks with basslines and voice leading makes these thoughtfully orchestrated tunes more than simple instrumental compositions. The tune he wrote for Jimi Hendrix (on my 40th birthday, also the 40th anniversary of Hendrix’s death) is full of the lush harmonised melody lines in thirds that Hendrix was so keen on himself, and sounds a lot like ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. There is also a creative re-interpretation of a tune by the excellent Matt Stevens (who you should check out here if you don’t know his work), and a jaw-dropping rapid-fire bluegrass piece, that reminds me very much of the amazing Colin Hodgkinson, who pioneered Vaughan’s approach of playing bass like an acoustic guitar in the early 1970s (on a four string Precision!). For Bandcamp purchasers only, there is also a short bonus track of ridiculous technical wizardry, just for fun.
The Kindness Of Strangers is a pretty rare beast, a solo, instrumental album, of bass guitar no less, that I can imagine having a pretty broad appeal. It’s easy on the ears, but varied and intricate enough to keep them twitching, and the pieces it collects are performed with an audible degree of passion and commitment. This album does, to return to my initial discussion, display a considerable degree of instrumental technique, but it wears it lightly, and places it entirely at the disposal of a generous and creative musicality.

Big Block 454 - Bells & Proclamations (folk-funk/ psychedelic rock)
self released, 2011, DD album, 48m 10s, £name your price

Big Block 454, named for a 1970 Chevrolet engine, are one of the oddest bands I’ve encountered in a while. They are creatively out there, full of weird sounds and transgressive stylistic collisions, and yet they are, to me at least, accessible, pleasing, and decidedly danceable. Apparently they’ve been around a long while: well, it’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of them, because as good as they are, I can’t imagine any record label monkey having the first clue how to sell this stuff!
The opener’s funky groove, its amusing title (‘Pyjamageddon’), its evocatively strange lyrics (‘her eyes were filled with dust’), its borderline atonal, Belew-esque guitar textures and its theatrically unhinged vocal delivery serve notice that this is a band with its own ideas about how to do things. The track that follows it starts out sounding funky, so you might think you’re starting to get a handle on them: but the vocal is in the style of English folksong, and much of the instrumental content is in the form of a chaotic, psychedelic jam. Despite the almost random seeming mish-mash of musical elements, the album does in fact have a strong stylistic identity and coherence.
It’s far from easy to take a bunch of disconnected stylistic features and shove them together into something that sounds like itself, but Big Block 454 have succeeded in admirable style: it’s a tribute to the clarity of artistic vision that informs this album, that it achieves a genuine fusion, where each sonic constituent is employed for its expressive effect, and there is nothing contrived about the bringing together of what might seem fundamentally incompatible musical traditions. Of course the tradition in which this music is actually located is that proud succession of stylistically diverse hallucinatory experimentalists, that leads by winding paths from the likes Henry Cow and Can, through Cardiacs and Throbbing Gristle, to the myriad strangenesses that the internet makes easier to seek out today. I’m disappointed not to have been aware of Big Block 454 for more of their history, but pleased to have found them now, and it is a wonderful thing that it is so easy to find their ilk from the louche comfort of my own chaise longue.
This is some truly alert, wakeful, questioningly creative music. It is also very funny: humour has often been an element of the most creatively adventurous music, as recorded by Gong for instance, or Frank Zappa. I tend to take it as a token of intellectual authenticity, in as much as self-importance tends to accompany pretentious contrivances, which have staked too much on their authors’ uncertainties to ever stop being defensive and just have a good laugh. This is the work of people who are comfortable with what they do, and are not motivated by a concern for whether or not others will think they’re clever. It flits from the daft to the profound like a coin spinning in mid air, and whichever side it lands on at the conclusion of a song, you’ve always had a good look at the obverse.

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