JOWE HEAD Widdershins CD/Double LP (Easy Action)
Jowe Head is widely regarded as an underground legend, known primarily for his pioneering work with Swell Maps and Television Personalities as well as his solo recordings. A fascination with folk music and the spookier corners of folklore has been sweeping the underground for several years now, and many important figures from the overlapping worlds of post-punk and indie pop have taken an interest in these areas, their music changing direction accordingly. The fact that this phemonenon is still ongoing shows it is no mere fad but more of an awakening to the truths hidden within these ancient concepts. Jowe Head isn't an artist I would have expected to make an album steeped in folklore and mythology, but I'm very glad that he has.
Widdershins refers to walking in an anti-clockwise direction. In superstition it is said to bring bad luck; in magic it is used to bring an end to things or cause harm. The heretical connotations of the album's title tie in with Jowe's own laudable approach to music. Just as religious heretics choose their own beliefs instead of following dogma, Jowe is an artist who very much marches to the beat of his own drum, bypassing fickle trends and dogmatic genre restrictions and putting his own creativity first. The album draws from history while being wholly idiosyncratic, and while some of the songs here are folk standards, Jowe's interpretations of them exist entirely outside of folk norms and stereotypes. It could be said that Jowe Head is walking widdershins to bring an end to tired cliches and blind adherence to fashion and pointless rules.
The ancient funeral song Lyke Wake Dirge ('lyke wake' being derived from an Old English term for watching over a corpse) describes the dangers faced by the soul after death. It is delivered in an appropriately menacing tone by Jowe, and backed by brooding musical accompaniment. Angelic backing vocals from Jowe's Infernal Contraption bandmate Catherine Gerbrands offset the song's dark mood, offering hope of the soul's redemption. Tankerton Bay places a traditional-inspired melody within an experimental folk setting, propelled by a hypnotic thrum interwoven with psychedelic vintage synth burblings. Jowe even uses Tuvan-style throat singing towards the end of the song, to great effect.
Minotaur Song, an eccentric piece originally by The Incredible String Band, combines Greek mythology with surreal whimsy reminiscent of the 19th century nonsense poetry of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. Extraterrestrials is a warped mix of surf, rock 'n' roll and vintage sci-fi music, that ponders the notion that life on Earth was seeded from meteorites, while Extras envisages film extras seeking revenge on the film directors who treat them as pawns, within a raucous musical setting best described as heavy metal bedroom pop. Joseph Cornell is a kind of experimental psychedelic baroque, in which a melody informed by authentic baroque music is accompanied by harpsichord, swirling analogue synth, and the operatic backing vocals of Queen Christina.
Tom O'Bedlam isn't the version folkies will be familiar with, made popular by Steeleye Span and others. This version is told from the perspective of Tom himself and moves the setting from the 17th century to the era of electroconvulsive therapy and the chemical cosh. It stresses Tom's humanity and questions who is really deluded - Tom or the so-called sane who are in charge of him. Half-Bike is a twisted music hall number, its lyrics depicting a bizarre hybrid of human and bicycle, inspired by a passage from Flann O'Brien's surreal novel The Third Policeman. Ein Stuhl in der Hölle is an English translation of an Einstürzende Neubauten song, which is in turn an adaptation of a German folk song which tells the same story as the Scots Border murder ballad Lord Randall. This is sung as a duet between Jowe and Queen Christina who again brings an extravagant operatic feel to the piece, against a musical backdrop of metallic industrial clangs colliding with jazz-tinged trombone.
King of the Corn is the most adventurous, experimental version of John Barleycorn you'll ever hear, set within a bizarre soundscape of retro-futuristic bleeps, clanging metal percussion, sinister juddering noise, and human beatbox. Two Ravens seamlessly combines trad folk with angular, dissonant noise-rock, its gruesome lyrics delivered with impish glee.
The album includes extensive sleeve notes with informative background material on the songs, and features striking artwork of naked male and female conjoined twins, seemingly representing the sun and moon. The music will appeal to fans of psych-folk, dark folk and experimental folk, but can hardly be said to be recycling the ideas of other bands from these genres. The theatrical vocal delivery and the playful/sinister dichotomy of many of the songs brings to mind Current 93, though this comparison relates only to shared aesthetics rather than shared sound. I can highly recommend this album to anyone with an open mind about music. Find out more at Jowe Head's Facebook page and www.easyaction.co.uk
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