Sharon used to share a duo with Natasha Lea Jones called Pooka. Theirs was a very unusual blend of child-woman voices which they used beautifully to sing strangely eery songs long before the Incredible String Band had become hip again. Solo, she still writes unusual and striking melodies. Mostly it's the piano up front, supported by a large array of extra players, including bass clarinet to cello and ukulele. Quietly impressive, especially "Kings and Queens".
Sharon Lewis, "Roses at the Top" (www.sharonlewis.net)
Natasha Lea Jones
As it happens, the other ex-Pooka has also made a new album, Hers is more guitar-driven, but she, too, has brought in a sizable number of additional string and (muted) trumpet players, plus P.J. Harvey's drummer Rob Ellis. It is a quiet album, not as immediate, perhaps, as her erstwhile partner's, and Natasha's voice is a little more fragile. But there's a lot of depth and warmth to these fine songs. I guess I should declare an interest - I'm one of the twelve crowd-funders who bought "Soar" in advance, and I'm happy.
Natasha Lea Jones, "Soar" (https://www.facebook.com/natasha.l.jones.9)
Hapshash & the Coloured Coat
I remember exactly where I bought this record the first time round! Hapshash were a bunch of London arty types famous for their psychedelic posters (one, for the Incredible String Band, hangs in my corridor). They made two records, the first of which is an unholy mess and barely listenable. This however, although generally receiving rather duff reviews, is huge fun, a melange of folk, Bonzos, spooky blues rock, yodelling fiddles and acordions.
Hapshash & the Coloured Coat, "Western Flier" (re-release Cherry Red)
Ages and Ages
This multi-tet from Portland, Oregon, makes music that is quite simple and for that very reason utterly "different". For a start, all members - six, seven, eight and sometimes more - sing, all at the same time. Secondly, they only use (mostly) untreated guitars, a mini keyboard and lots of percussion. This might all end up sounding a bit campfire kitsch, but doesn't, mostly thanks to the wonderful vocal arrangements. The lyrics are interesting, too.
Ages and Ages, "Divisionary" (Partisan/PIAS)
Barbara Lehnhoff and Aris Bassetti in their other lives are also part of art rockers Peter Kernel. Here, they apply their idiosyncratic and witty muses to a vintage equipment electro style that is neither part of the ongoing 1980s obsession, nor any other fashion. Instead, their songs have punky oomph and anger, a remarkable degree of originality, and an entertaining double-edged sense of humour.
Camilla Sparksss, "For You The Wild" (On the Camper Records)
Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp
The sextett from Geneva recorded this, their third album, in Bristol with Ali Chant and John Parish. With an all-organic list of instruments including marimba, trombone, double bass, violin and "toys", the delightfully free spirited results carry an echo of the magic Rip Rig & Panic. The whole glorious caboodle is held together beautifully by the laconic voice of Liz Moscarola.
Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, "Rotorotor" (Moi J'Connais Records)
Rather than letting the songs grow out of improvisation and jams, this time the London-based Japanese expats take a more conventional approach to song writing. The intensity of their post-hardcore rock continues to be fearsome, but now the moods vary from segment to segment now, even including the odd "soft" passage. What remains the same is the androgynous banshee-wail of the vocalist which makes this almost unfeasibly heavy music seem weightless like a butterfly.
Bo Ningen, "III" (Stolen)
Island Records have resurrected their classic pink label for this, the debut album of husband & wife team The Rails, consisting of Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard & Linda) and well-travelled session guitarist James Walbourne (Pernice Bros, Pretenders etc.). The link to the past is no frivolous gimmick - the Rails have made a classic English folk-rock album à la 1970s, made timeless by the gorgeous ensemble playing and - of course - singing.
The Rails, "Fair Warning" (Island)
Songs from Utopia
Another husband & wife duo, and another whose muse is firmly located in 1970s British folk-rock. Rebekka Zarkava's guitar style is at times reminiscent of John Martyn or Michael Chapman, here and there we hear a hint of trumpet or organ. The minimalist arrangements suit the songs and - especially - the voice. Highlights are "Perfect Bloom" and "Birds of Prey". A pity, though, that the album begins with the one dud, the heavy-fo9oted "The Jar".
Songs from Utopia, "Shivering" (Tapir Records)
Electric Würms is the new side-project of Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and Steve Drozd. The latter sings and plays guitar and keyboards, Coyne is on bass, and the two are backed by Nashville psychedelicians Linead Downfall. The results sound like a cross between the more oceanic passages of the Lips and the wilder percussive sonar orgies of early Amon Düül 2. Splendid.
Electric Würms, "Musik, Die Schwer Zu Twerk" (Bella Union)
I've had a soft spot for psychedelic fog music ever since Amon Düül 2. One huge hotpot of feedback guitar sludge, rhythms heavy as Brooklyn Bridge, no catchy chorus anywhere in sight - and the whole thing topped off by Isobel Sollenberger's non-singing vocals and flute noodlings. The album was released last year but has only reached me now. Heavenly!
Bardo Pond, "Peace on Venus" (Fire)
After the disappointing "Lady of Shanghai" the Ubus hit peak form again with this, their 18th LP. Starting with a raging firestorm, "Golden Surf II", the music bristles with innovation - including the spooky coupling of woodwind with the Ubu's typical old-school synths. The songs began life as a live accompaniment to a cinema performance of "Carnival of Souls". They would fit "Eraserhead" just as well.
Pere Ubu, "Carnival of Souls" (Fire)
Blimey, those last few months went quickly! Here's the list of my favourite albums last year, in no particular order after the first five.
2) Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, “Rotorotor”
3) Virginia Wing,“Measures of Joy”
4) Damon Albarn,“Everyday Robots”
5) Pere Ubu,“Carnival of Souls”
Jamie T., “CarryOn the Grudge”
Kate Tempest,“Everybody Down”
1Camilla Sparksss, “For You the Wild”
1The Rails, “Fair Warning”
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “Singer’s Grave a Sea ofTongues”
St. Vincent, “St. Vincent”
The Fat White Family, “Champagne Holocaust”
War on Drugs, “Lost in Dream”
Wild Beasts, “Present Tense”
Ages and Ages, “Divisionary”
Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There”
Temples, “Sun Structures”
Gruff Rhys, “American Interior”