GROUP LISTENING is a pairing of two very fine Welsh musicians: Cardiff’s Paul Jones, a deft jazz and experimental pianist and arranger who first worked with his partner on this project, Stephen Black, on the latter’s fine and wonky Sweet Baboo project (and is there any kind of Welsh indiepop that doesn’t espouse those two qualities, fine and wonky – from Super Furries and Gorky’s up through Meilyr Jones, Cate le Bon, Melin Melyn and so on into the future; for which I think we should be very grateful).
They came together in 2018 as the hauntological sounding Group Listening for an excellent album entitled Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol.1, in which the two reworked tracks mainly drawn from the back catalogue of ambient pioneers and leftfield legends such as Brian Eno, Roedelius, Robert Wyatt, Arthur Russell, and brought these songs wholly into their world of clarinet and piano.
The result? Atmosphere in spades, lovely, haunting reinventions which found absolute acclaim and immediately positioned the pair in a lineage alongside luminaries like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Virginia Astley, others; a record of delicacy that seemed removed from the struggles and concerns of the present day, to be beamed in from some familiar but hard-to-locate place you’re sure you’ve visited. If you haven’t? Do, please do, although the three various vinyl pressings, as I’ve discovered: hen’s teeth.
A CD single followed and then a 12″ with Cate le Bon, recasting tracks from her Reward album; but the title of that first release, volume the first, suggested there’d be more.
And here it is, Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works Vol.2, a second lovely joint investigation of reimaginings, tracks from the leftfield canon – of krautrock, the African tape underground, obscure synth outfits, brought to the table, lovingly rebuilt in a dreamlike pastoralism that seems to refer to a time just out of reach.
With that one long-player under their belt, they’ve changed their approach now, saying: “We’ve done a lot more work together now and so have developed certain ways of working. Because these processes have become norms, it’s spurred us on to push things a bit further and to avoid repeating ourselves.”
So, where Volume One was brought into being in one three-day burst in a hired space, the second came together over a longer period – necessarily, what with the lockdowns. In fact, it took six months, in a studio set up in Paul’s living room. Deliberately, they’d record a track or two and then pause, considering how to approach the next.
“I like to think that Vol. 2 starts where Vol. 1 ends,” says Stephen; “Paul and I allowed ourselves the time and freedom to explore and experiment with the recording process and the song selection itself.”
And well, fair to say no copybook has been blotted with this second venturing; ambient but so much more so, modern compositional but also folky, it speaks of a world entirely of their imagining and which you can’t help but enter for yourself: appreciative, emotional, tranquil, leftfield, altogether enrapturing listening.
Setting the blueprint for how they mean to proceed, the opener is a bright, calm and wide-eyed with simple wonder reading on Beverley Glenn-Copeland’s “Sunset Village”, the original of which comes from his 1986 album, …Keyboard Fantasies… . How to encapsulate this tune: blessed bliss, a flow of piano very much in that ambient pioneer mode, full of flow, over which Stephen’s oboe dips and soars and glides and holds steady in the thermals; yes, very much with the effortless glide of a raptor. Homely and ambitious and pastoral all at once, it’s a truly lovely thing. It’s here. See what you think.
The video was shot at Roath Park Conservatory in Cardiff: “In addition to all the amazing plants inside, the space itself is quite interesting, as the light is heavily diffused by the old conservatory glass,” says Paul.
“The image in the video is the fish pond, with the heavily reflective roof panels mirrored in the surface of the water. It’s a very abstract image that moves constantly, really I happened upon by accident – the angle of the sun around midday made it possible.”
The pair turn the eccentric six-string odyssey of spiritual guitar explorer Robbie Basho’s “Blue Crystal Fire” into a movement of wintry marvel, Paul’s piano metronomic; Stephen’s woodwind, in response, bassy and throaty.
As an insight into their process, it’s interesting to speak to Paul, who says: “It took me a while to come up with the concept of how to arrange it because the original is so sparse, and it has a uniquely haunting, mystical quality that comes so much from Robbie Basho’s wonderful vocal performance. But it’s also to do with the way the original sounds; and I wanted to capture that, but felt we needed to find a different way to do it. So we had a lot of fun with tape recording.
“The piano was captured directly on a very old wobbly valve reel-to-reel and then we used a couple of old cassette tape recorders to process the clarinet and bass clarinet, speeding the tape up afterwards as it was all out of pitch.”
It’s then away from the Americas and back to what they’ll definitely consider the right side of the Severn for a reading of lost Cardiganshire ambient artist Malcolm Neon’s “Y Cwsg” (‘The Sleep’), on which a lo-fi metronomic drum machine provides the perfect, minimalist choice for a cover high on wonder and an almost funky motif on the clarinet, earthing a track which is pretty much away in the cosmos, where you’ll gladly follow.
“Hollywood Dream Trip” comes courtesy the none-more-obscure but rather excellent Seventies’ Canadian synth band Syrinx – a sort of Hot Butter of north of the 49th, if you will; a hell of a track to unearth, and one which serves not just as a lovely cover but towards a band ripe to discover in parallel. The Group Listening version is completely melodically faithful but also entirely absorbed into their own world, and emerges such a sweet Cymric lullaby in their capable hands.
Two shorter sketches sit in the album’s midriff: the Big Star via Yo La Tengo (!) “Take Care”, here absolutely redolent of darkening evenings and oases of milky yellow light from dotted windows, completely transformed and rapturously so; and a treatment of the theme from “Camberwick Green” – I mean, c’mon. Awwww.
“All Of A Sudden”, from the catalogue of the masterful Laraaji, is crisp and has a sense of strong, anthropocene forward movement somewhat in contrast to the more spontaneously arising, naturalistic qualities of many of the other tracks herein. The piano marches on the on-beat, Stephen again flying high on the melody line.
One of the brilliant things about Paul and Stephen’s aesthetic is how they can take a tune and find a reading wholly theirs, as they do with Dutch-Italian electronica explorer Grand River’s “This Was Us” – I mean, here’s the original for contrast; to take lo-fi electronica of a quite woozy nature and fashion of it something wholly organic? Wow.
Paul says: “We were quite faithful to the original in terms of how the track is arranged, as it’s very precise and carefully organised. We added a bowed cymbal to represent one of the sound design details in the original, and we also added some buzzy high-pitched drones, which we created by using the feedback on a really ancient delay unit.” I love this seeking and happenstance approach to bringing a track to ground in earthier qualities while still allowing for the ethereality of the original.
They researched and dug far and wide for this, you betcha: as with “Five Hundred Miles”, which comes from Mamman Sani – active in the 1980s in the Saharan tape underground. Recherché enough for you? The original, an entirely synth piece, is here; Paul and Stephen remake it in a wholly organic duet with answerphone chop-ups and tweaking openly and confessedly drawing on The Orb – as Paul says, “that queasy, psychedelic feeling … the little moments in someone’s day-to-day life – the profound in the mundane.”
Track the tenth and final is one of the best known, maybe, relatively speaking, being 2Seeland” from Neu 75; it’s got that metronomic, motorik quality, of course, but here inverted and subverted and backgrounded; krautrock remade in Talk Talk’s image. rendered a work of Fourth World contemplation. Stephen says: “[Paul’s] instruction was to play the clarinet like a giant alpine horn calling from high up the mountains. I always imagine that now when listening back.”
Group Listening’s second volume of duetting explorations for two instruments, often completely instrumentally removed from the original – it’s a bit of a masterclass to be honest; a masterclass of interpretation but more importantly of evocation.
For me there’s something really key and telling about that little off-the-cuff reading of “Camberwick Green”; as for all that this two-handed exploration is modern compositional or post-classical or whichever, it’s a world away from pristine grandstanding and opera houses, and sounds much more rooted in scuffed pianos in venerable chapel halls, tiny mugs and frosted windows. For me, it has a deeply rooted sense of place. And that makes it come alive, makes it breathe, makes it absolutely essential.
Group Listening’s Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 will be released digitally and on limited edition gold vinyl by PRAH Recordings on January 28th; you can order your copy here.