Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Most of the time when people refer to Mike Alway or to the record labels that he's been involved with (el, ...if, Reverie, Blanco y Negro, Cherry Red) they say something like "The legendary Mike Alway and his famed and influential cult label..." and then go on to talk about whatever they were going to talk about (lately that's usually been Death By Chocolate). If this just happened once in a while it would be ok, but as the "legendary" thing comes up again and again and again it starts to get really irritating. Ok, I get it. He's a legend. Fantastic. And by "legend" I assume you mean "person who no one in America has ever heard of"? Would it be a terrible bother to explain why he's a legend, if you please?
So, if you don't know who Mike Alway is or what he's done, here are a few interviews that give some actual details. Yay!
Ok, so he's into made-up bands, style and art, the 60's and England. And, during the 80's and 90's, he acted as a powerful opposition to the forces of evil that are known as "borecore" in some parts. And he has a long history with Bid (guy from the Monochrome Set, see yesterday). Their relationship took a slight hit when they disagreed about the direction of the Songs For The Jet Set series, and starting back in 1999 Bid began releasing albums in the guise of a very Alway-esque fake band called Scarlet's Well. I'm writing about Scarlet's Well because they released an album this year that might actually have some appeal outside of the usual Alway crowd, but more on that later.
The back story of Scarlet's Well is probably enough to send a lot of people running for the hills:
SCARLET'S WELL - THE STORY
"I envisaged a village somewhere in the South-West of England. I called this little place "Mousseron" (a particular type of French mushroom), and further imagined a nearby magical well, called "Scarlet's Well". About a year after the release of the first album, I heard about a real Scarlet's Well near Bodmin in Cornwall. I seem to also recall that nearby Boscastle used to house the only witch's museum in the country. I am irritated by the fact that Real Life continually strives to emulate my twisted and bizarre psyche.
"In making these albums, I am walking through a thick fog, lit here and there by fireflies, and have little idea of where I'm going. Storylines develop between songs and albums, and I sometimes make an effort to guide them, but mostly end up following some silly sprite into a puddle.
""Strange Letters" is "set" in the village, with the penultimate song being about a ship sailing out to sea (thereby inadvertently establishing Mousseron as a port).
""Blue Flowers" is partly set somewhere off the coast of South America, with the crew of the ship from the previous album now on the trail of the lost Lord Fishgarlic, a native of Mousseron. Some of the words on that album are spoken by him, some by the girls sailing after his memory, and some have nothing to do with any of it! The penultimate song is the reading of a parchment written by Lord Fishgarlic and found on the floor of a temple by the girls, describing his opening of a secret doorway within and entry to a foul place beneath the earth.
"On "Underworld", Alice and her friends journey back to Mousseron through the Underworld." The Return..." is the ship coming back by itself. "Macaw" is about a ghost on the ship haunting one of the two macaws that sailed- this one flew back, after betraying the others. The other parrot walks back with Alice's (much reduced) party. Most of the other songs are about encounters and dialogues Alice has with the dead and the cursed. "Cerberus" sees Alice cheat the guardian of the Underworld and escape (by putting him to sleep, q.v. Orpheus and the Lyre). "Diary" is Alice's exit from the Underworld into the Mousseron annual steam fair, where she is unnoticed in the mayhem.
"In "The Dream Spider Of The Laughing Horse", a group of people sing songs and tell stories in an inn ("The Laughing Horse") on the outskirts of Mousseron.
To make matters worse, a lot of the singing is by English schoolgirls who sound like they've just returned from Narnia. My dad the classical music lover said, "her technique isn't the best" and we had to have a long talk.
If you're only considering running for the hills after reading all this, there's some solace to be found in the fact that Bid references the Magnetic Fields and The Divine Comedy as artists working similar territory to Scarlet's Well. Better?
Ok, good. Personally, I'd add Kevin Ayers and Slapp Happy to the list. Ray Davies in music-hall mode is probably in there as well: basically the whole "clever" contingent from England whose work often includes non-rock influences. Stephin Merritt is hereby voted an honorary member. One key point: you don't have to pay attention to the lyrics to enjoy the music. In fact, you can ignore the lyrics entirely and still have a great time (I mention this in case you're worried about having to be charmed by charming ditties about Lord Fishgarlic, etc.).
Here are a couple of tracks from the third album, Alice In The Underworld. First, the very Kurt Weill sounding My Mystery's Mother. And here's my favorite track of the moment, Death. You know, last weekend I went kayaking on the Hudson and after I finished I was lying in the sun listening to this album and I cannot imagine a more perfect soundtrack, especially given the sea-shanty aspects of some of the songs. It was wonderful. If you like the tracks I've posted, you should love Scarlet's Well. Run out and get everything!
On the other hand, I'm pretty aware that this sort of twee-little-English-girly stuff isn't everyone's cup of tea.
If you're one of those people, you might still like the new Scarlet's Well album The Dream Spider Of The Laughing Horse. It starts out in the usual territory, but by the end of the album it's moved into a really nice, slightly psychedelic early 70's mode -- I can imagine a Brian Eno/Kevin Ayers/Divine Comedy collaboration sounding like the last half of the album. Here's How The Cypress Made Apollo and I Walk In Endless Silence as examples. The latter track, especially, is a wonderful bit of neo-psychedelia that I could see appealing to fans of Robyn Hitchcock if they ever hear it. If Bid ever released a whole album in this vein I think it's possible that he might finally get an American label to put out his albums. Meanwhile, order from Darla or Tonevendor unless your local record shop is way cool.
Right now, Bid is busy touring some of the material, using guest musicians. Details are here, but the gist is that you form a band and fly him over and ta-da, it's a show. He doesn't seem to be coming anywhere near NYC yet, but I see that there are a couple of shows in California in a day or two.