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Thursday, 16 September 2010

Camberwell Now - 'All's Well' (ReR)

Camberwell Now, what a band, what a moment in music, but what little splash they made! This CD, long sought-after by yours truly before it was finally reissued, compiles everything they recorded during their brief (1984-1986) existence. Now, here's a bias to lay up-front: I'm a massive This Heat fan, and I look to Charles Hayward as a magical musical force that did a lot for my own artistic and critical development. This Heat/Camberwell Now brought together a lot of concerns for me at just the right time in my life (my early 20's!). In the musical arena, they brought together ruthless sound experimentation with mindblowing musical chops - the balance is always perfect, as for every dazzling Hayward drum run comes some incredible use of musique concrete techniques. And lyrically, Hayward showed me that you can bridge fiery, political expression with poetry and the personal - I'd say that I now follow the "everything is political" philosophy, which is a great deal inspired by This Heat. So Camberwell Now was the somewhat more obscure followup band, whose lone LP The Ghost Trade I luckily scored from eBay about ten years ago, but whose other records remained unobtainable. The Meridian EP, which comprises the first 4 tracks of All's Well, is an open, tuneful Camberwell Now, and maybe the furthest removed from This Heat's post-punk caterwauls. The nautical theme is overabundant and years before all those midwestern indie rock bands started writing songs about boats, it's funny to hear Charles Hayward's approach. The trio format of This Heat, with Stephen Rickard on the tapes, is retained; what's different is that there's a more central rhythm, yet less rock structure here. It seems to emanate more directly from the intelligent 70s prog scene that Hayward came out of, but I think more of Rock Bottom than the Quiet Sun LP. Coming in the midst of Thatcherism, these songs about decaying empire and the exploitation of natural resources seem prescient, if not overtly obvious. A bit of digging under the surface is good, and the way these rhythms emerge it feels like waves, gently rocking. The instrumental 'Resplash' is where we get Camberwell Now starting to really amp things up. It gets a bit 'S.P.Q.R' at points, but puts on the brakes at just the right moments, building up massive caches of tension. It's the first really astounding track in a disc that's full of them, and it's like rock music has taken a major step forward. A bonus track, 'Daddy Needs a Throne', is inserted after Meridian, before Ghost Trade and clearly coming from the same sessions. This is when we start to really feel the manic, bass-driven rock of Camberwell Now's middle period. The song, in only 3 and a half minutes, somehow manages to address the difficulty of maintaining a working class family structure, while exploding in a cacophony of furious voices and electricity. But it's almost a teaser for 'Working Nights,' the leadoff cut from The Ghost Trade, which I'm glad to have on CD because my vinyl copy is practically worn through. This is the definitive Camberwell Now song, which is crazy because the first time I heard it I thought it reminded me of New Order! There is something lively and dancey here that This Heat never had, but it's so fucking intense and fast and magical and the bassline is like a choker necklace on your brain. I don't even know what else to stay here, but I know the LP will get listened to soon on Vinyl Underbite, so I'll save it for there. 'Sitcom' follows , assessing the state of progress in mid 80's Britain, and then the beautiful, understated 'Wheat Futures' closes out side 1. Except this is a CD, so we don't have to flip anything! 'Wheat Futures' is one of those songs where Hayward is singing/droning/intoning deeply and passionately, accompanied at first by an electric erhu and some keyboards, and it slowly builds to a slow series of musical thoughts, with a repetitive autoharp line to centre it. This is still somehow punk rock to me, but it's also folk and experimental and anything and everything. Hayward probably never plays drums as minimally as at the end of 'Wheat Futures', yet it's still folding in on itself in rhythmic complexity. 'Speculative Fiction', with it's cut-up vocalisings and electro-beat, at first sounds like the great sellout, but is actually an upright stride towards Valhalla. While still frantic, it's slow enough to breathe, with lots of studio/Rickard tricks, such as layers of bells and whistles, echoing drum fills, and nooks and crannies jumping out at all points. By the end it's a swirling maelstrom of the original electroclash hook and Haywards layered Ya-ya-yas. And then 'Ghost Lantern', whose lyrics aren't printed in the booklet for some reason yet this track continues The Ghost Trade's reliance on Trefor Goronwy's manic basslines and frantic guitar chops, with Hayward's crisp yet explosive drumming. And then 'The Ghost Trade', the 12 minute behemoth that ends the album of the same name. The first four minutes are a midtempo song, an indictment of global capitalism, post-Fordism and conspicous consumption. And then a slow xylophone line emerges from the keyboard smog and a plodding, instrumental coda takes us to the end. It's as beautiful as everything else here, which is to say it's also tense and strange and unusual. And then, the Greenfingers 12" to close out the disc! The title track is an explosive meditation on rural malaise, with punchy saxophones and a rock-solid beat that makes me violently tap my foot off the bottom of my desk when I listen to it. It feels a bit more fruity than what came before, perhaps a feeling carried on in 'Mystery of the Fence'. At this point, the band has expanded to a four-piece, with Maria Lamburn adding the sax, piccolo and viola. The textures are slightly more plastic, but it's 1986 after all - it's got that digital sheen on things, despite Lamburn's organic grounding. Goronwy's own tune, "Know How" comes next, which is a real 180 turn. His earnest, bright voice sounds like he should be in Tears for Fears, and the simple, minimal lyrics are much more commercially rooted than Hayward's use of language. There's a nice pulse behind everything, and I've come to really like this song over time. It's a weird sort of ending for the Camberwell Now, though I guess that would actually be the 35 second 'Element Unknown' which actually ends the disc. I realise this has been one of the longer and more passionate entries in the Constructor Bags to date, but I guess that's why I love music - because it gets me excited, inspired and totally fuckin' pumped! The booklet includes lyrics and a rather technical description of the tape switchboard, written by Rickard. I know that this is all that there is, but I still can't help myself from pining for some more deluxe edition (vinyl!) in the future.

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