Sunday, 7 April 2013

Churn Milk Joan - Without a Horse + a retrospective

Hebden Bridge, in the scenic Calder Valley of West Yorkshire is known to those of us of a certain age as the home town of a certain Bernard Ingham, once the bulldog-like press secretary to That Bloody Mad Woman, or Margaret Thatcher as she likes to be known.

For some reason I initially wrote "likes" in the past tense, can't think why.

Anyway, it is not the sort of place one would associate with the hive of artistic endeavour that is Colin Robinson's shed. OK he probably works in a slightly more comfortable environment, but the cottage industry that is the Big Block 454 studio yesterday issued the fourth album by Colin's project Churn Milk Joan, a mere 16 months since their debut. Also within that same timeframe Colin has released a further two albums of experimental minimalistic ambience influenced by the local landscape under the name Jumble Hole Clough, which I need to investigate properly at a later date. Somehow the first word in the band name Churn Milk Joan seems entirely appropriate!

Lets do this thing chronologically. I'll keep it brief with these older albums, then on to the new one...

Back in January 2012, just under a year on from the last album by Colin's previous group, the individualistic experimentalists Big Block 454, CMJ sprung their first attempt at aural dislocation on an unsuspecting and largely ignorant world. "One" it certainly is, as in "on the one", as the spartan Gang Of Four funk of Happier gets those dancin' feet twitching. Things are never that simple, and as it says on the Bandcamp page "Only one of the songs was pre-prepared; all the rest arose out of live improvisation recordings" and the result is a collision of Faustian scratchings and knowing white boy funk, with odd Zen-chanting vocals.

Colin plays guitars, eBow, lap steel, fretless basses, non-keyboard synths and groovebox, and his CMJ partner in the groove is American Richard Knutson, who has his own long history of experimental music behind him, releasing countless albums under the name Plum Flower Embroidery.

Richard throws vocals, guitars, 6-string bass and keyboard synth into the mix. His vocals veer from the strident to the becalmed, a Peter Murphy jiving with Malcolm Mooney throwing shapes, probably dodecahedrons, over the righteously funky backing. The fact that most of this is improvised and at the same time tight-as-a-nut is quite amazing.

Roll forward to May 2012, and out comes Black & Ginger. Taking the funky template to new heights, incorporating a knowing melodic sensibility, one is again reminded of Can.

A more musically accomplished effort than the debut, the opening track Eating Ice Cream In A Jowett Javelin hits the funk groove and will not be budged.

Less Is More sees a kind of white boy (and it is all very white) dub enter the house, all swagger and hip-shake.

The highlight is the title track, a minimalistic and drawn out trip through a soundscape populated by a lysergically altered version of The Blue Nile. Charming, eerie and lovely in equal measure. Suddenly waking up towards the end as if waking from a long dream, the tune skitters off over the moor.

January 2013 saw the release of
8 Black Postcards, a sonically classy and occasionally stripped back affair, steeped in sinuous bass lines. Richard restricts himself to bass and vocals this time, while Colin contributes guitar, synth, 6-string bass and groovebox. There are guest appearances from Pete Scullion on guitar and Marian Sutton who adds vocals and field recordings.

Robots dance at the break of dawn as something strange Fell Through The Sky. The love affair with Deutschrock and funky moves from the Gang Of Four/Cabaret Voltaire/Metal Box era PiL school continues, with added spidery Keith Levene-like guitar lines.

At 6:58 Fell Through The Sky is the shortest of only five tracks here, the longest being closer Boom Dipper Stick at 11:33. The length of these largely improvised extemporisations allows the listener to become fully immersed in the warm bath of spacious groove that Churn Milk Joan effortlessly conjure, the hypnotic effect of The Letter (episode 1) being a case in point. The female voice is a nice addition to the mix that serves to add another layer of mystery.

Much like all of CMJ's music, the lyrics here and on all the other albums are impressionistic and textural, as the beguiling and slightly scary Menagerie highlights. Ford Maddox Brown is quite bonkers and is the sort of thing Talking Heads might have recorded had David Byrne not been into the pop star thang.

And so we arrive at the here and now, and the new album Without A Horse.

This time round we strip back to the duo: Richard Knutson on lead & backing vocals, bass, guitar and percussion, and Colin Robinson striking guitars, basses, keyboards & synths and percussion, and adding backing vocals, groovebox and Buddha machine, which is a a Chinese box of tricks the size of a cigarette packet that plays tinny electronic loops for meditation purposes. Colin tells me he "just plugs one in and lets it go".

A naggingly familiar construction introduces opener Honeyman. Boy is it bugging me; not exactly very early Cure, but in that vein, or possibly Bauhaus, or Wire? Someone please enlighten me! Anyway, underpinning this tune and prevalent throughout the discography are the weird bleeps, swoops and swooshings generated by Colin's groovebox, essentially a series of user-manipulated electronic loops.

Success At The Flower Show actually rocks, a rare thing in CMJ-world, sludging out swamp blues for the 21st century, cheekily referencing another wildly experimental band from a previous era in the process, the mighty Edgar Broughton Band, both musically, and by ending on a chant of "Out, demons, out".

Elsewhere we have CMJ's trademark minimal space-Kraut-funk, Robert's Mooney-Suzuki-Beefheart voice and his deeply mysterious lyrics enunciating impressionistic scenes: "Alive at least, at least you passed, you're favourite to win, or not to come last", "You retain too much. How are you finding Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky, cast down, you pick it up", and "You got in further than anyone expected, without a horse. Defending the borders, against delerium, with a Porsche". Not forgetting the very surreal The 3-legged Dog Takes A Train; you'll just have to work that one out for yourself!

The marvellous Can vibe returns on 1952 which funks along accompanied by wah guitar and sinuous snake rhythms. More generous helpings of white boy dub reverbs and echoes bounce off the walls and into the firmament on The 3-legged Dog Takes A Train, a smokily draggin' trip through random fried synapses.

Fishnet Hooks has some ferocious fuzzed guitar and careens along like a bus speeding downhill with no breaks. A slab of unstoppable attitude that will strip paint at twenty paces. PLAY LOUD! This is the sort of thing that Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone on BBC 6Music should be playing. Send them a file! (why does that not sound anywhere near as good as "send them a tape"?)

The album ends with the gorgeous alt-ballad Defending The Borders, a song loaded with lyrical irony. Musically, this is another departure for the duo, coming across like electronica lounge music at the end of the universe. Charming and quite odd.

In a year which has seen mucho fawning over a certain shoeless "prog God", this maverick duo show us what the true spirit of real progressive music actually sounds like, and, along with the fab new Guapo album confirms that UK avant music is alive and well. Chew on that, Bernard!

Like a secret lover hidden from your disapproving friends, Churn Milk Joan could well end up taking up far too much of your attention, but you could never accuse them of being high maintenance, as all the albums are available for free, contributions on checkout being entirely voluntary.

As this is the new one, here's the...

1. Honeyman (3:32)
2. Success At The Flower Show (4:44)
3. "Not to be confused with People's Republic of China" (3:39)
4. The Line Thief (5:09)
5. 1952 (4:12)
6. The 3-legged Dog Takes A Train (6:19)
7. Fishnet Hooks (9:20)
8. Defending The Borders (4:59)

Hebden Bridge, worker-hive centre of avant-pop sensibilities; who would have thought it?! Get this, and find links to all the others, here. If enough downloads are made in the first few days of release the band hope to crack the Bandcamp charts. Spread the word!

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1 comment:

  1. Re the italics after the first paragraph - I would point out that I wrote and posted this piece on 7/4/13, the day before she died. Spooky!


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