TOM BAILEY IS a name many will remember from his pop group The Thompson Twins, a trio that, for a brief blip in the mid-‘80s was the biggest band in the world. What is less well known is what happened to Bailey – the group’s only real musician and songwriter – when he retired from the commercial arena, and for some years, lived in New Zealand.
Apart from his face-lifting production and instrumental work on local group Stellar’s most successful releases, Bailey used his time in the Antipodes primarily to explore a music style he had loved for many years: Jamaican dub. His International Observer project was a creative outlet that was almost the antithesis to his years in the commercial spotlight, and IO’s deeply introspective electronic dub, when you listened closely, revealed hitherto disguised brilliance.
The under-heard Seen from 2001 is still the most magnificent slice of electronic music to have originated from NZ, and one of the best-sounding recordings from this country, too. But listen carefully to Seen, and you’ll hear Bailey’s melodic gift, and the benefit of his training and interest in classical music in the subtle inflections and modulations. It’s a record that I never grow tired of, and keep in my pile of hi-fi test discs.
Along with his studies in classical music form, Bailey has always identified strongly with Indian culture and spirituality, and while visiting Varanasi he struck a musical union with Pandit Vikash Maharaj (sarod) and his son Prabhash Maharaj (tabla), virtuosos from a family of professional musicians going back 14 generations! The fusion group Holiwater Band was formed with the addition of James Pinker (NZ-based percussionist whose background includes post-punk group The Features, industrial band Fetus Productions and Australian/UK one-offs Dead Can Dance), and over the years, the ensemble has performed around the world in all kinds of contexts, and in NZ at WOMAD and Splore festivals.
The group’s second album, Maya (Dubmission Records) will appeal to anyone with a taste for traditional Indian music, but deviates from tradition with the addition often achingly beautiful melodies played on both the guitar-like sarod, and on Bailey’s electronic keyboards, which simulate a variety of instruments, including flute and santoor (essentially a hammered dulcimer). Some might blanche at the use of synthetic equivalents to organic instruments, but Bailey’s command of his keyboards and ability to pitch the notes perfectly to Indian scales make them work seamlessly.
Prabhash has won numerous tabla competitions, and to witness his playing in a live setting is to experience a kind of rhythmic bliss. In your lounge, however (on a great hi-fi, of course), you can hear every nuance of that most alluring instrument.
Several of the tunes deviate from the group’s typical sound just a little, ‘Darbuka’ incorporating that dry, turbulent middle eastern style, and ‘Diaspora del Flamenco’… well, you can imagine!
There are also some crowd-pleasing improvisational wig-outs on tracks like ‘Conference Of The Birds’, and some happy stomp-alongs like ‘Kumbh Mela’, but the most memorable tracks are those with a tear-inducing mournfulness, like the opening ‘Kabir Chaura’, which feels like it’s evoking some unspoken sadness that runs through time itself.
Bottom line: Holiwater Band’s Maya is recommended to fans both of Tom Bailey’s latter-day work and of world fusion in general.
Norah Jones is a favourite of hi-fi stores, and it’s not hard to see why: the rounded purr of her vocals and the lovingly engineered recording of her band – including those woody double basses and mellow guitars – make just about any system sound better than it is.
But Jones had her day in the sun way back in 2002 with the runaway hit, Come Away With Me, and she’s never been able to better its sultry appeal, despite attempts to go all youthful and raunchy like that of Little Broken Hearts (2012). She’s always had a penchant for side projects that tune into her interests, rather than her record company’s projected demographic, and that has to be good.
Foreverly (Reprise) is like that. It’s a whole album covering a whole album by seminal pop songwriting duo The Everly Brothers, and weirdly, the vocal harmonies of Jones and Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong sound exactly like… The Everly Brothers! The whole exercise, credited to Billie Joe + Norah, is quite brilliantly carried off, but I could never quite get it out of my head that it is an exercise. I mean, if your challenge is to replicate something, then fine, but what’s the point when the original still exists? So, it’s probably got finer resolution than the Everly Brothers version, and it’s in stereo, but I found it utterly pointless.
The Everly Brothers revival is just around the bend, with the imminent release of a compilation that will further enhance their reputation as the wellspring not only of ‘60s songwriting but a much-copied type of vocal harmonising. By the original.
Bottom line: If you’re going to pay tribute to a great album by a seminal act, why just replicate it? Foreverly is utterly pointless.
If you’re after a female singer-songwriter of style and substance, taste and try Flip Grater’s new album, Pigalle (Maiden Records). Grater started out as an indie chick songwriter from Christchurch, but these days she makes her home in France, where she travels around Europe performing, and in her spare time, tasting the local wines and produce, and writing about it.
Pigalle, like her last album Be All And End All, carries traces of that most nonchalant of groups, The Cowboy Junkies and their low-down ambient alt-country sound. But Grater is no copyist, and her vocal texture and phrasing, and the backing of tasty acoustic guitars, together with occasional piano, bursts of electric guitar, violin and even the odd burst of gypsy fervour, all contribute to a record that’s full of flavour.
Her songs are intimate and seem devoid of artifice, and I could swear that on ‘Marry Me’, she sings that she’s only ever made love with the light on, but perhaps a forthcoming lyric sheet will make a liar of me. In any case, she doesn’t turn her back on naked honesty, and the recording, which brings out the increasingly world-weary textures in her voice, help to make it one of the more compelling albums I’ve heard this month.
Bottom line: Flip Grater is anything but flippant on a set of serious songs that resound with naked honesty.