“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. Today it’s a return to these pages for Cathal Coughlan, whose last “song for ewe” was extremely well received. Cathal has a widescreen epic of an album out called “Song of Co-Aklan” (Dimple Discs) and its his first new music in ten years. We of course know and love Cork’s Coughlan as the 80s/90s indie hero and band leader of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions full of vim, vigour and vituperative lyrics, a songsmith of the highest cadre.
Since the foreclosure of the Mansions, he’s released five solo albums, been part of many different collabos and cameos and along with his Microdisney gang was the first recipient in 2019 of Ireland’s National Concert Hall Trailblazer Award celebrating culturally important albums by iconic Irish musicians, songwriters and composers which was awarded for 1985’s cult classic “The Clock Comes Down The Stairs”.
“Song of Co-Aklan” is a theatrical, bombastic tour de force, full of soaring strings and soliloquies of spite and crashing solemnity, backed up by a band including members from long standing associates the Grand Necropolitan Quartet as well as the equally literate Luke Haines (The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder). But the top drawer team work doesn’t stop there, with artwork from outsider artist Cristabel Christo, originated by VS pal Bruce Brand (Thee Headcoats and designer for The White Stripes who doesn’t mind a cup of tea) not to mention a video for “The Knockout Artist” by Emmy award winner George Seminara. For Cathal Coughlan is a man to inspire fervent loyalty by artistes and fans alike.
And his blue chip product doesn’t end there, just you wait until you read his brilliantly eloquent and enlightening new “song for ewe”. Welcome back to Velvet Sheep, Cathal Coughlan!
First check out the aforementioned promo vid
and here’s that arresting album artwork…
Not so much chamber pop but a chamber of horrors witnessed in an unrecognisable world, the album “Song of Co-Aklan” is based loosely around the creative construct / persona of Co-Aklan, and in its scope is reminiscent of ABC’s “The Look of Love” via Yeasayer man Anand Wilder’s “Break Line”‘s bloody rock opera via futureworld shock of The Monochrome Set’s “Daisyworld”. Coughlan’s voice is sweet even though the lyrics are bitter, mention of searching for “Hitler’s bitcoin” reminds me of the fatalistic line about sending a car for the deadly dictator in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais”.
And in the transfixing title tune Cathal’s cryptic phrase handbrake turns to “why are the musicians now housed in cellars and box rooms? Where are their sound-stages and yachts? Do they not seem like exiles from times past, perhaps putting up overnight as they seek to outrun the vengeance of the common people, those noble citizens of somewhere pretty awful?”
Art might be being killed off and cancelled by those in power for the purpose of staying in position, but Coughlan is at the vanguard of the fight back.
Here’s a lockdown shot video that’s anything but incarcerated.
But enough second guessing by me, you came here to hear from Mr. Coughlan himself and it’s an unsurprisingly edifying entry to our series. Without further ado, here’s Cathal Coughlan’s “song for ewe”…
“CARLA BLEY, featuring Julie Tippetts: “Caucasian Bird Riffles”
I’m a sucker for albums where the composer/leader trusts non-‘classical’ (‘untrained’ sounds wrong) vocalists to do some heavy lifting on juicy, harmonically-adventurous melodies. This is fairly rare, outside of works for theatre, as exemplified by those composed by Bertolt Brecht and his musical collaborators.
It’s easier for a free-agent composer to trust instrumentalists, whose chops and sound palette can perhaps make the business of selling harmonic complexity to the listener a less risky business. Plus, you don’t need to hire a librettist or lyricist, whose creative preoccupations may steer your project into shackles of topic and context which you never had in mind when composing the work. Or you can hire a ‘trained’ vocalist to perform pre-existing text, in a manner where intelligibility of said text is an optional extra.
Small wonder, then, given my declared bias, that since proggy youth I’ve been a fan of the American jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley – especially, though not only, her early works. Carla Bley first made a big impression as a leader with her 1971 cast-of-gazillions opus Escalator Over The Hill, a fine work which all fans of musical adventure should check out.
But it’s on that piece’s successor album, “Tropic Appetites”, released in 1974, where one finds the song I want to talk about here. As on its predecessor, the poetry which Bley set to music is the work of Canadian poet Paul Haines (whose daughter Emily will today be known to many as the vocalist in the groups Metric and Broken Social Scene). A stellar cast of instrumentalists, including lifelong collaborators Howard Johnson (saxes, clarinet, tuba) and Michael Mantler (trumpet, trombone) comprise the octet (almost a chamber ensemble, compared to Escalator) which performs the songs.
The standout performer, for me, is the English vocalist Julie Tippetts, who sings many of the songs here. Tippetts has had a long and varied career, from her hit performance (as Julie Driscoll) on the Brian Auger Trinity’s version of Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire in 1968, to the very recent past, in her many collaborations with her late husband, the pianist/composer Keith Tippett, and the British composer and label owner Martin Archer.
On the song “Caucasian Bird Riffles”, Julie Tippetts stands centre-stage. She’s in on the first bar, to minimal piano and Hammond organ accompaniment, singing with little vibrato or inflexion, but with a dominating, glacial presence, as the descending melody line accompanies the opening salvo from Haines: “By words of mouth/knowledge is what shakes its fears/in lacking all experience of them…” In other words, we’re not in Kansas. Or maybe we are, but it’s turned into somewhat hostile territory. This tune could either be Charles Mingus or Procol Harum – we don’t know, but this is intense. And, for me, spellbinding.
The band comes in, in a stately fashion, the light accents of Paul Motian’s brushed drums creating a halo around Bley’s strident piano chords, until we reach the tagline, delivered twice, by band and vocalist, in a staccato fashion which recalls both Kurt Weill and Louis Armstrong. “Lurking Caucasian Bird riffles…”, sings Tippetts, her voice now both emphatic and inflected. That moment of tension passes, and we’re on to the first of two solos from Mantler, both of them spare and emotional.
And these words. Well, they’re poetry, and I’m not about to issue a line-by-line ‘translation’, as this would be to miss the point. But I will say that, despite the whole suite apparently being the product of Haines’ travels in Southeast Asia, I think I detect images of the social ostracism and stories of familial dispossession such as occurred in the American south in the aftermath of slavery and after the defeat of the confederacy. But that’s just a guess, and no more, it could perhaps relate to another post-colonial environment. I welcome a tune where hard-to-handle words are delivery with great intensity, or melodic invention, and this one has all of those.
The stalking orchestral presence of Johnson’s reed instruments, Dave Holland’s bass and cello and Toni Marcus’s viola rise to a crescendo near to the close of Mantler’s first solo, for a time threatening to capsize into complete dissonance, and then – puff! they’re gone, as Tippetts delivers the final verses, culminating in the closing “Maturity/a sulking loss/of reality”.
Absolutely flawless, top to bottom.
Bley still composes melodies as wonderful as this, often for the trio in which she performs with Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. But I like a great vocal now and again…”
MANY THANKS TO CATHAL COUGHLAN AND TO SEAN NEWSHAM AT MUTANTE.
“Song of Co-Aklan” is out now and available via this link
Here’s all the other Cathal Coughlan links you might need too:
And if you still haven’t been satiated, please have another visit to his last “song for ewe” for Velvet Sheep…