Album Review: The North Sea Radio Orchestra feat. John Greaves & Annie Barbazza – Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom

Following his retirement in 2014, there are few, if any opportunities to hear new material from Robert Wyatt, though while he remains alive and in reasonable health, there’s always a glimmer of hope, and his canon of oddball esoteric jazz-pop remains much revered and respected within the musician community and far beyond. Save for a couple of guest appearances with other artists, Q & A sessions and the odd ‘live in the studio’ performance for TV, RW hasn’t really gigged since the Mid 70s, so it’s incredibly rare and sacred to hear his music performed live these days.  Which brings us to Folly Beloley, a recording of a live concert of songs, in order, from Wyatt’s seminal 1974 masterpiece Rock Bottom, by Craig Fortnam’s North Sea Radio Orchestra.

The songs from Rock Bottom have been reviewed, scrutinised and intellectualised over thousands of times, and there’s no need to go into detail here; in the main, this is an album for the already converted, and those who know.  They are of course, interpretations rather than straight covers (who could even dare to do so anyway?) but for the most part, there is not too much straying from the original blueprints.  That’s not to detract from this album’s right to exist however, and Fortnam’s arrangements for his wonky chamber-pop ensemble beautifully capture the spirit, chaos and nonsense of Wyatt’s original work. Awash with reedy Farfisa organ (courtesy of The Cardiacs’ William D Drake) and vibraphone, occasionally dissonant guitars and carefully selected string and woodwind instruments, it is testament to the writer’s ability to be both intricate and simple, subtle and unsubtle simultaneously.

The concert features Henry Cow alumni and long-time Wyatt collaborator John Greaves, on both bass guitar and cracked baritone vocals, as well as some beautiful spoken word in his birdsong-esque welsh burr. The majority of lead vocals though, are handled by Italian jazz singer Annie Barbazza, a fledgling talent who’s been carving a niche for herself in re-imagining a range of prog rock classics in recent years.  Her voice is, at first listen, perhaps a little too pure and schooled to truly fit snugly with Wyatt’s songs, though she absolutely captures the spirit and clearly knows her subject matter, or her onions, as my grandad would say.

As a tasty little treat, the last four tracks are carefully selected from other albums over Wyatt’s career – The British Road from Old Rottenhat, Maryan from Shleep, and a cheeky little Matching Mole number in the form of O Caroline.  Of course, no tribute to the man would be complete without a version of the second greatest song he never wrote, Shipbuilding (The greatest of course being The Monkees’ I’m a Believer, but you knew that, right?). Apparently, Mr Wyatt is chuffed to bits with this album, and if you’ve read this far, I’m presuming you will be too!

The limited hand numbered edition of 500 LP audiophile blue premium vinyl with gimmix foldout cover and bonus golden CD and 999 cardboard sleeve hand numbers audiophile golden CD is out May 17th on Dark Companion Records.

There will also be a special live performance of the album at London’s Café Oto on 27th June to celebrate its release, which you’d be crazy to miss out on.

Gram Canyon

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