Some Great Stuff I've Heard Recently

Her Name is Calla “Navigator” (2014)

I vividly remember playing a gig at The Social, on Pelham Street in Nottingham, in around 2005. The Social is a cool venue. A lot of bands and artists play it on the way up (and on the way back down again) on the indie rock touring treadmill. For me as a young songwriter it felt pretty important to be playing at a place like that. From my memory, I played early on, played ok, was suitably intense and moody and was lifted off the stage (elegantly) feeling pretty good about myself. Then a guy called Tom, playing under the name Her Name is Calla, got up and played a set of such searing, visceral power that I was spellbound, and firmly put in my place as to the relative merits of our respective live performances. I picked up a demo and wore it out. Calla of old were a post-rock band extraordinaire. They did quiet and loud in all the right places, better than most other bands and yet, through a variety of circumstances, never quite reached the level of acclaim of some of their (in my opinion) lesser contemporaries. Who knows why.

As time has gone on, Tom has released a string of increasingly wonderful solo records under the name T E Morris, filled with heart-on-the-sleeve honesty, and startlingly serious vocals. All the while, Calla has carried on in the background. Condor and River, The Heritage and The Quiet Lamb built them an enviable reputation as a creative and daring studio band and a juggernaut of a  live experience. With The Navigator, the full potential of the band is finally realised.

This is an album which has “intense” written all over it. The Roots Run Deep has Tom crooning “I’m alone in here now and I’m mixed up” over a skittering beat, strident synths and the kind of blips and bleeps which have characterised the work of contemporaries Ghosting Season. It seems to be a song about lost hopes, maybe romantic, maybe musical. What’s clear is that, after the almost pastoral opening of I Was On the Back of  a Nightingale, that this is no standard post-rock album. Morris and his cohorts have stretched themselves, taking in electronica, folk, even some ambient drone-like elements, as on It’s Called Daisy, which leads into the wondrous Ragman Roll.

Elements of the album bring to mind for me the wonderful Josh T Pearson, such as Burial’s “I don’t have choices, only anger” refrain, which you find yourself singing along to, and then wishing that you, and Tom, didn’t wonder if it were actually true. The interplay of vocals, banjos and violin on this track is a particular highlight. another example of how HNiC have taken the post-rock template and built on it in such a way as to entirely stand out from the crowd. This is pastoral post-rock. The kind that might be made if Nick Cave and Nick Drake had had the same parents.

Best of all, when the explosive release does come, as in the coda of the title-track at the album’s midpoint, it is so unexpected and exciting that it feels perfect. That the wall-of-sound is not returned to in the same way throughout the rest of the album is to its credit.

The concluding quartet of It Was Flood, Whale Fall_A Journal, Dreamland and Perfect Prime will, I think, not be bettered by a band of this type this year. Satisfyingly, HNiC do not resort to going out with a bang, instead space is given to beauty and wonder.

This is an album. It is a heavy listen, for sure, but as an exercise in to how to build and pace a whole suite of music in to a coherent whole, it is excellent. This is the kind of music people who are serious about songwriting should listen to. Tom Morris is  a singular talent and deserving of much more recognition than he is currently afforded.

So, a folk post-rock album, which sounds a bit like Radiohead, a bit like Josh T Pearson, a bit like depression, a bit like Bon Iver, and a lot like the kind of cross-over success that Her Name is Calla have deserved for so long. Let’s hope it arrives, so that they don’t have to spend four years making the next album.

Some Great Stuff I've Heard Recently

Neil Cowley Trio – “Touch and Flee” (2014)

I make this the sixth album from Neil Cowley and the duo that make up his Trio, Rex Horan and Evan Jenkins (not counting EPs, iTunes live sessions and so on). The PR for the record trumpets Neil as “Adele’s Pianist”, which he is, among many other things. It’s him twinkling the ivories on the proper intro for Chasing Pavements, for instance. He’s also had a hand in Birdy’s recent career-high album, been Derry’s Musician in Residence as they were last year’s European City of Culture, and, perhaps most importantly of all, he had a telegram read out at my wedding. Albeit it was a telegram berating me for being so keen on getting early review copies of his band’s albums, but still. As a side note, Neil wasn’t the biggest man to have a telegram read out at my wedding. Neil is quite a reasonably-sized chap. Adebayo Akinfenwa, on the other hand, well. I think you could fit three Neil Cowley’s into one Adebayo Akinfenwa. However, when it comes to the modern jazz pianist, Neil Cowley is an almost peerless heavyweight and the maturity and nuance of his band’s new album, Touch and Flee will only serve to cement and enhance that reputation.

I’ll admit took me a while to “get” this album and as a result. I missed the album’s June 9th release date for posting this review because I didn’t know what to say about it. And then, all of a sudden, it seemed, I “got” it. This is a great album. It will go down as a classic. It is the best jazz album of this and most other years. Now I shall tell you why.

Beginning with the beguiling Kneel Down, there is an immediately noticeable development in the band’s style and approach. While all the sounds are immediate, Kneel Down unfolds laconically, rather than with the insistence of the Trio’s former jams, as an elastic bass riff is juxtaposed with chiming piano chords. It immediately sets out the stall for the album. Whereas power and bombast in some parts, and smooth balladry in others, were previously Neil Cowley Trio’s stock in trade, this time, there is an almost concert-hall feel to the work. These nine pieces are symphonic without being grandiose, a contrast again to the previous album, The Face of Mount Molehill, which employed a string section to add orchestral flourishes. This time, the synergy between Cowley, drummer Evan Jenkins and Rex Horan is all that is required to make these songs soar.

Noticeably absent here are the, for the want of a better phrase, faster and louder songs. That is not to say that the album lacks intensity by any means, but it is symptomatic of the increasing maturity in Cowley’s writing that he never resorts to ivory-thumping. Instead, as on Winterlude, a groove builds and builds without ever reaching an expected crescendo, Sparkling, well, sparkles, as major and minor chords intertwine and compete, all adorned by trademark flowing arpeggios. Gang Of One, again, twists and turns all over the place, simmering with buried angst, before resolving into the kind of funk groove that makes me want to walk like an Egyptian (unlikely in my case). It’s great. A high point of the album. It is followed by another, as Couch Slouch’s staccato rhythm slinks into play. By this point, mid way through the album, the listener already knows this is a different kind of listen. Heads are nodding, feet are tapping, subtle air drums are being played (if they’d only stop being so clever and changing time signature all the time and catching me out). Bryce is a mournful, almost cinematic piece, which, yet again, begins in a kind of “all come apart” fashion before finding itself around some beautiful Horan picking. Always feeling like it could devolve in to a Bad Plus, Nirvana-covering hullabaloo, it never does, instead opting for beauty and substance, allied with style. As with the rest of the album, the mix-positioning of the rhythm section, making you feel like the players are in the room with you as they play, really enables you to feel every cymbal splash, every time Rex leans in to a note. It’s as close to having them play in your living room as any of us are ever likely to get.

Never ones to be pigeonholed, the band then unveil Mission,a song pushed along by what sounds like a toy organ. While the song is good in and of itself, it works best as an introduction to the majestic Queen, “Touch and Flee”‘s high point and defining moment. Beginning with the hushed brushes of Evan Jenkins, what develops in the next six minutes or so is the kind of song that musicians dream of writing, playing, sharing in with an audience. It is perfect. Each section builds on the last, at once both taking the song to places you can’t imagine it would go and also satisfying that inner sense we all have when listening to the greatest music of “it’d be great if they did this now”. This is the song on the album that not only sounds the most like Neil Cowley Trio of old, it is the song that sets the course to the Neil Cowley Trio of the future. The section which begins at 2.27 is the kind which renders all other music totally irrelevant. You can already imagine crowds sitting, eyes closed, at one with the band as they sway in gloriously intense concentration as something transcendent is brought to live. This band do gradual builds better than any I have ever heard, and Queen is the greatest of them all. I cannot wait, I cannot WAIT to hear this song live. Best of all, it doesn’t go crazy, everything is under control, but it’s also the most intense and invigorating six minutes of music you’ll hear this year. I promise.

As the album concludes with The Art, a largely Cowley-focused legato end-credits, one is left to marvel at having sat through something truly special. For a relatively short album, so many ideas are packed in that it feels like hours have passed. Anyone who thinks they can write songs should listen to this band. This (ironically for guys who seem much more interested in beards than the divine) is music which has touched something of the divine. Neil Cowley Trio have made their jazz album and it is damn near perfect.

And to think I didn’t like it to start with.

You can stream Mission from the album here


Enabling Church: First Reflections

This past Tuesday (June 3rd) I had the immense privilege of speaking at the Enabling Church Conference at The Bethel Centre, West Bromwich. Later, I will post the text of my talk from the conference, as well as audio links to the two deliveries of the talk from the day. I’ll also be blogging in the next few days exploring a couple of key questions and themes which arose for me during and as a result of the day In the first of my reflections, I want to offer a few general thoughts on the day as I experienced it.

Firstly, it was an incredibly exciting and privileged thing to be a part of. To arrive at the venue first thing on Tuesday and find queues into the car park to get in is quite nice as an ego massage for a speaker at a conference (I was by no means at all the main draw, but still, it’s a nice feeling!) It was also indicative that the subject of disability, God and the Church is being taken increasingly seriously in this country. Throughout the day I met people and heard stories of situations where Churches are engaging in the work of moving towards being more welcoming, inclusive and participatory for those with impairments and disabilities of all types. There was so much wisdom and experience, so much passion and enthusiasm in the conference centre. It really felt like a moment in Christian history, as Cristina Gangemi suggested. As she often says, the time is now for disability issues to play a key theological role in the life of the Church. Gone are the days when a ramp, a hearing loop and a toilet are sufficient. A Church which does not refer to weakness or impairment, which seeks to live only in victory and strength, cannot stand. On Tuesday we had the inspiration of 400 people gathered to commit themselves and the Churches they represented, to continue the onward motion and the coming of this aspect of the kingdom.

It was a great pleasure to hear the Bishop of Lichfield speak with such verve and determination to see his diocese lead the way in this work. Roy McCloughry spoke with his customary vigour and insight in inspiring the delegates to seek for greater participation for all at all levels of Church life, including leadership. John Swinton gave a fantastic presentation on personhood and discipleship, particularly in relation to those with dementia or who lack self awareness, showing that knowledge and the ability to articulate oneself is not required for salvation.

Following from this, I took part in the Disability stream, along with some people who were much more eminent, articulate and knowledgable than myself (!). I enjoyed speaking, or rabble-rousing, twice during the afternoon, on identity and disability in Christianity. As I’ve said I will add links to the content of what I said, and explore the themes in more detail, later.

Following my talk, Ann Memmott gave a clear and insightful presentation on Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Church life. Ann is a good communicator and speaks with real candour. I have always enjoyed seeing her open the eyes of audiences to the joys and the concerns of ASD and Church. She has a huge gift at making a complex subject intelligible. Jonathan Edwards was next. He currently works for Prospects, having previously been a senior figure in the Baptist Union. I would love to go to wherever he preaches every week! He spoke with real fire about a Christian response to welfare reform in the UK, in a highly practical fashion exhorting the Church to take its role as the social leader of Britain seriously. The sessions were concluded by an audience feedback slot, led by Cristina Gangemi, Disability Advisor to the Vatican for the Catholic Church (perhaps now you can see why I felt a bit overawed!) where once again it became clear, both times, how much wisdom and experience there was in the room. Roy McCloughry chaired the gathering, and Tim Wood facilitated us all expertly.

As we were running our stream throughout the afternoon, I didn’t get to hear any other speakers, but the theme of the day was clear: The Church is God’s. It is for all, not some. Every Church, every Christian, can do something so that the ultimately enabling faith of Jesus Christ can be accessed by all who seek Him. What an inspiring hope. It was enthralling to see a little way in to the future as the day drew to a close and to imagine how far, with the help of God, we might have journeyed along the road in a few years time.

I am hugely grateful to Gordon Temple, Tim Wood, Churches for All and Through the Roof for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful event and to participate in it. It’s truly humbling for me, as a relatively inexperienced speaker, to work and minister alongside so many people whom I look up to.

So, an Enabling Church? What might one of those be? I believe it is a Church which understands the call to abundant life that is offered to all by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe it is a Church which lives in such a way that that life is made available to all, from participation in which none are excluded except by their own choice. An Enabling Church is one from which the love and grace of Jesus Christ pour out in acts of abundant kindness and generosity.It is one which is fully reflective of the glorious panoply of the creation and soon-to-be-redeemed kingdom of God. It is one which gives high esteem and honour to its “weakest” members, does not avoid pain and suffering, but journeys together with individuals and communities as they do suffer. It teaches and exists to glorify Christ and Him crucified above all else It is a small, as yet imperfect picture of the final, technicolour coming kingdom. It is something that we are invited to be a part of today.

In my next blog I hope to look at the issue of disability and leadership, both from the point of view of disabled people leading in Churches, and those who are abled seeking best to lead disabled people in Churches, and in family life.


Disability News

Enabling Church 3.6.14

I’m looking forward to speaking at the Midlands Enabling Church Conference 2014 next Tuesday (June 3rd). For more information on the conference you should visit the Enabling Church Website – this is an important day for anyone involved or interested in living and working with disabled people in Churches. I’ll be  offering some thoughts on Identity and Future Hope in Disability.

Other more important/eminent/noteworthy people speaking at the event include Joni Eareckson Tada, John Swinton and Roy McCloughry. It’s an event teeming with expertise and wisdom and a real privilege for me to be involved. Don’t miss out.