John Moore: ‘Lo-Fi Lullabies’ and ‘Floral Tributes’, Reviewed

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Another late-night bar. Always late-night bars (by soundtrack if not by actual presence). Give me Gitanes; black coffee after the cheap gin. We’ve exhausted all The Cramps discs on the jukebox – nothing remaining but the Jake Thackray before we call it quits. And all the merchant seamen have set for sail, the hookers, the barflys, the Ezra Pounds tucked up in homely garrets; all that’s left in our late-night bar is the mean face lurking amidst the optics with his haven’t you got homes to go to? drying upon chapped lips, and the dapper gent sat in the corner. Like us he’ll have been here since mid-afternoon, nursing his glass of Pernod or whatever, a guitar case on the floor by his troubadour shoes (or perhaps he sells vacuums door-to-door to merry widows, always ready with a wink and a how’s-yer-father), and just as we’re about to decide to exit he’ll dig his nose out from behind his copy of The Racing Post, and as if addressing shadows far above our station, announce “Hello, I’m John. Would you like to hear a song?”.

The John is question is John Moore (who us grizzled folk will recall as one of many Jesus And Mary Chain inmates, then as leader of the very much under-rated John Moore and The Expressway before slinking about in the background as one third of the glorious Black Box Recorder), and yes – the above actually happened. Well, apart from the John Moore bit. And Ezra Pound – he’s long dead. Were I to admit to a penchant for hanging around the type of bar frequented by stevedores and bad Catholics, that’s my own business; after hiding himself away whilst life, love and living room renaissance man status played out, Moore this month turns up with not just one but two long players – and damn fine they are, too. There may be a strained metaphor or two in my opening paragraph, but you (hopefully) get the gist; Lo-Fi Lullabies and Floral Tributes are very much late night affairs. That moment gone midnight, with all its attendant guilt, tenderness and ennui. Fuck it – let’s have another drink; I promise we’ll still hug in the morning.

Back story: neither album (which come in translucent blue and red vinyl respectively) is new in respect of freshly written and recorded material. Rather, these are tracks Moore has been hoarding up the back stairs for a while – as if we all have two LP’s worth of previously unreleased sonic texture rolling around the attic. This fact should not put the connoisseur off, for there’s nothing gratuitous here – no sense of raiding the archives for raiding’s sake; instead, twin discs of sardonic, thematic cohesion, like another nightcap with that louche, jazz-tinged vaudevillian (both albums feature the maudlin wail of the musical saw, for instance; end of the pier, end of the night, end of).

Floral Tributes is perhaps the more expansive of the two, and therefore more immediate. Swathes of piano and double bass (‘Almost Optimistic’, ‘Though The Eyes Of A Drunk’), Moore working his nicotine-stained vocals, the guitar lines (especially on tracks such as ‘My Old Dancing Shoes’) languid and evocative. Guest stars including Boz Boorer and Sarah Nixey pop up like old friends, the clarinet on the sparkling ‘Smoking On The Cancer Ward’ is almost Dixieland in reproach, ‘Sweet Oblivion’ (the oldest track on the album) hits like a glorious, lost-lost Matt Johnson / The The lament, and the whole affair is carried off with aplomb most old fashioned (and therefore timeless, if that’s not pushing too far at oxymoron).

As its name implies, Lo-Fi Lullabies is more intimate – frequently just protagonist and his guitar-backed confessions – which encourages Moore’s lyrical honesty (however slanted) to flower; on tracks such as ‘The Path Of Least Resistance’ I’m reminded of some of Momus’ more pared-back moments (and that’s a compliment). A Jacques Brel chanteur aesthetic transposed across the trials of modernity, perhaps.

So; two records, then. And a most pleasing degree of synergy; when listening (as always: last thing at night; wine and headphones whilst huddled upon the bare floorboards), red then blue compliment each other in a fashion few twin discs of this ilk manage (“The art of conversation is well and truly dead, there’s nothing left to say that hasn’t already been said,” as begins the cello-tinged ‘Giving Up The Ghost’). John Moore (who in his spare time hangs around with ventriloquist dummies – always a highly positive sign in my book) may be about as far from household name as my dear old Auntie Mabel (I somehow get the impression that’s the way he likes it), but should you require your aural entertainment akin to another dawn approaching in an otherwise empty bar, I very much recommend a purchase.

(You can tell I fancy these records; it’s not every day I post an awfully bad photo of myself on this blog. Gladioli and a botex-prey forehead – I spoil you. Buy the vinyl here, and here).

John Moore / Smoking On The Cancer Ward

The Twisted Name On Garbo’s Eyes: LGM on Bowie’s Hunky Dory

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Records as opening point. As gateway; the route straight through. Beneath mould-coloured skies and the bricolage of teenhood, back when no-one cared for vinyl and Camus was read in his native tongue – each word understood, the sentiment less so. The devils were busy downgrading to compact disc, their LPs dumped like never-loved puppies; these were stupid people, a lack of foresight and glued-up ears, and because of this entire collections were broken up then re-homed at thrift store prices. A mint 1971 pressing of Hunky Dory, purchased for 50p from a grizzled Vietnam vet who scraped a living clearing houses, selling off the proceeds from whatever temporary premises he could procure. I no longer own this copy; a few years later I split up with that era’s love interest, who somehow came out of the relationship with custody of the Bowie vinyl, thus beginning a series of break-up-inspired record divorces that continued into my thirties, as if some rather fine music was default compensation for suffering my attentions. Also: this loss doesn’t matter; records experienced at formative ages stick with you to such an extent that the actual physicality is mere transience. I was fourteen or fifteen; how could I have foreseen the trails of song and broken hearts leading long into the distance?

I’ve read somewhere that Hunky Dory is easy listening, subjugated (transfixed; possibly rescued) by its lyrical content. Which is another way of proclaiming its conventional musicality, and thus the contrast with all those chameleons, comedians, Corinthians and caricatures hanging about the vocal track. This is not a theory I can buy into (my teenage self would prohibit it). I still recall those early listens; an event of Precambrian proportions, I suspect. Before, Bowie had prowled within parameters defined by the Top Of The Pops aesthetic. Pop Bowie, ’80’s Bowie, dancing in the bloody streets Bowie. The ’70’s canon would have been brushed up against – a highlights package badly and heavily edited; ‘Starman’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Space Oddity’ – but any nuance didn’t hit as representative. Hunky Dory changed all this. The gateway, the route straight through sound and vision – by which easy listening is simply a dispersion.

Those preliminary listens, then: an exercise in enchantment. The method through which the material is backlit. The framed theatricality, the fading looped sax squelch as ‘Fill Your Heart’ segues into ‘Andy Warhol’ (the former originally recorded by (of all people) Tiny Tim; the b-side to ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ – come the revolution, every album will have to feature at least one Tiny Tim cover). ‘Fill Your Heart’ is whimsy, yet neither alien nor gratuitous; Hunky Dory’s themes may be complex, the hot/cold maturity flaunted, but that doesn’t mean fun (and/or warmth) is deliberately excluded. What this record represents (or possibly: represented – I may be no longer in my teens) is a proposition; an invitation to view the equilibrium implicit in Bowie’s back catalogue in ways yet thought of.

Take ‘Quicksand’ for instance. “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with potential of a superman” (which pretty much trumps any “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” in the gravity stakes). There’s a great deal here to get (adolescent) teeth into; the lyric-carried philosophy is cod, of course, the Aleister Crowley references pure Jimmy Page, but the execution is deft and fleet of foot, gravitas courtesy of Mick Ronson’s string arrangement as much as Bowie’s hocus pocus.

So: album as a series of poignant statements, perhaps. One in which the slanted self-exposure rides amidst sly lullaby (‘Kooks’) and charging glam ballad (‘Oh! You Pretty Things’). Opener ‘Changes’ can be read as a soliloquy of sorts; a mark of intent, the display of actorly confidence, Bowie’s sax rampant, the interplay between Ronson’s guitar and Rick Wakeman’s ivory tickling resplendent. ‘Life On Mars?’ is ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ but good; ‘Eight Line Poem’ fosters a languid, lazy Sunday quality (“The tactful cactus by your window surveys the prairie of your room”).

Also, side two. A fan boy triptych; Warhol, Dylan, Lou Reed. It’s easy to have a thing for Michael Ronson (he did produce Vauxhall And I, after all), and his guitar lines across these three tracks signpost the attraction (was Bernard Butler a fan? I’m guessing that Bernard Butler is a fan). ‘Andy Warhol’ (which I think is in E minor) and the duelling acoustic cross-check, one playing chords, the other splayed out against the riff. ‘Song For Bob Dylan’ has Ronson’s lead all sensual over the vocal. And ‘Queen Bitch’ – such the slutty hook, aping the acoustic riff like some tarty pastiche, Eddie Cochran on a construction site in too much Max Factor. This is artist (and foil) at their most waspish, their most New York City, and as a track it really is rather marvellous, buffeting up against the grand finale that is nonsense poem ‘The Bewley Brothers'; inscrutable and yet strangely fragile; another aspect of that self-revelation should you know where to look.

Teen me = a big fan of this album. Adult me functions in very different patterns (I think), and yet dropping needle here isn’t an act of stagnant nostalgia, of meeting my younger apparition behind the bike sheds to share a crafty cigarette. There’s a vitality to this record; a lean sort of swagger, a zip and a zing. But is Hunky Dory the acme of David Bowie fandom? I don’t know; after spinning ‘Win’ on his wireless show the other night, Marc Riley (who very much knows his stuff) nailed it when confirming Young Americans as his favourite – his favourite that particular week. You can draw a trail right through his ’69 eponymous album all the way to 1980’s Scary Monsters, and whilst the musical focus is the child spending an entire afternoon in the fancy dress shop – troubadour to harlequin, Philly Soul to Cold War blitz kid – the integrity is solid, and all-encompassing whether Tony Visconti is at the mixing desk or not (Ken Scott produced Hunky Dory; hence the subtle, pleasing art rock whiff to proceedings – it’s hard not to hear this playing in the background as Roxy Music recorded their debut, for instance). The difficulty arrives in the contrast, of picking out one item above another (cue awkward tapas analogy). Heroes is the more intoxicating album. Aladdin Sane is more coherent, and perhaps more thrilling; Diamond Dogs, and I’m hiding behind the sofa. Hunky Dory? Well; it represents something. A left turn perhaps when considering what came before, but also one of those staging posts along the way when the listener received a jolt, and a new way of appreciating recorded sound. The album arrived in adolescence, near-on twenty years after release (which is not the point), yet potent enough to mark the place where Bowie’s importance first struck, the 80’s material identified as aberration, and buying habits very promptly changed for the better.

David Bowie / Queen Bitch

Tiny Tim / Fill Your Heart

Confessions Of An Ageing Record Whore

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I get home. Pour a large glass of wine (red; a preference for malbec), stick a record on. Any record will do; I’ve long since quit any pretence at alphabetising. LPs sit on shelves, in stacks on the floor by the turntable, lost in alcoves after hiding them whilst a little tipsy, ready to be rediscovered in some hazy, ill-thought-out future. 7”s congregate like late-night drunks, the desk in the corner of the room their taxi rank, their take-away, a setting befitting the punch-up. It’s more fun this way – honest; listening by chance. The lucky dip of the thrift store disco. Just don’t ask me to spin something specific, unless you have the time…

From I wanna hold your hand through to It seems I saw you in some teenage wet dream (via a series of looped buzzes and bleeps most pernicious), the journey’s been long, eventful, and judging by my bank balance, ludicrously taxing upon general funds (whomever invented late night booze-fuelled jaunts to online vinyl retailers – the ones with credit card details handily pre-populated because numbers are not a drunk’s best friend – deserves a slap). Also, the older I get the more I’m able to witness a regression toward adolescent fanboy territory; I’m not quite yet at the stage of posters pinned to bedroom walls, stalking Terry Hall, or applying for tickets to be in the Top Of The Pops audience the week Luke Haines, Einstürzende Neubauten and a reformed T-Rex kick down the doors to the Hit Parade, but it’s only a matter of time.

A recent witness for the prosecution: the lead track from The Man Upstairs, the new Robyn Hitchcock LP (out at the end of August). ‘The Ghost In You’ is originally a Psychedelic Furs single; from the 1984 album Mirror Moves if memory serves, back before they set upon their legacy with hammers. Hitchcock’s version is a departure of sorts in that he makes the song his own; there’ll be at least twenty or thirty of his tracks to neatly exemplify the attraction ageing record whores feel for the back cat – the cheeky grin and an easy, playful charm that frame the deceptive, underlying melancholia – but the delicate touch of this slots into the mindset as well as any of his other records left lying about the LGM garret. Only, remember to disguise your disappointment should you arrive at a request and expect a rapid location.