Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Great Unheard

Along with the alchemists desire to distort, morph and generally turn a sound inside out to reveal its hidden audio self, comes a yearning for the great unheard. The great unheard is that obscure LP languishing in some dusty corner of the second hand record shop, hidden in a pile at a jumble sale or even down some rarely visited byway of hyperspace. The unheard, sounds like nothing else, a collision of form and structure, tonal palette, chord progression and all the rest to produce a unique, almost impossible record.

The unheard is the Holy Grail for all collectors; its sheer elusive unobtaianability keeps them searching, keeps them hungry. For myself, as a teen and well into my twenties and thirties I spent time and money (student grants, wages, giros, whatever) hunting down that elusive albimn. After so many false promises and dashed hopes and just simple disappointment I began to think that the unheard was indeed just that, the “other”, a negative whose inverse existence was hypothetically possible but ultimately must remain theoretical and intangible.

So when late in the day, when I wasn’t even really looking anymore I stumbled across it, perhaps unsurprising at first I didn’t recognise it, didn’t see it for what is was, but I can now report I have found the great unheard. Its title is Wicked Ivory by Hot Thumbs O'Riley.

That the unheard should have been found by absent mindedly and randomly clicking next blog in the blogger tool bar is all the more unlikely. Usually this brings you nothing more than someone else’s open-air laundry basket; those kiss and tell diarists who hide behind pseudonyms so transparent they might as well be proclaiming in person at speakers corner. On this occasion though the click took me to Boot Sale Sounds run by artist Michael Leigh. Michael is into mail art and seems to run a number of blogs connected to the world of ephemera. Boot Sale is described as a “music blog, mainly featuring records and tapes found at boot sales, charity shops and flea markets. Mainly comedy, novelty and odd items that are hard to catagorise. “ This is a fairly accurate description for most of Michael’s finds are familiar to anyone who has spent time in pursuit of the great unheard. There is the usual collection of quirky, cheesy easy listening with off beat cover art. The sort of stuff you drag home play to an understanding friend and then turf out a few years later.

At the bottom of the page however was Hot Thumbs O'Riley. Given the context and the cover I just assumed this was another wacky keyboard LP, perhaps in the vein of Klaus Wunderlich’s Sound 200 series. I downloaded Warm Rumours, one of the tracks on offer and pretty much left it at that. A few days later when looking for some source material to try out a granular synthesis programme I gave Hot Thumbs a go. Initially it seemed as if the granular programme was capable of some very nice syncopated manipulations but quickly I realised it was the track and not the programme. I returned to Boot Sale and downloaded the other track entitled Currently Cheesing. This has some of the peculiar changes of tempo of Warm Rumours but features a vocal that wouldn’t seem out of place on Hunky Dory. However Hot Thumbs is not one of the many second rate Bowie influenced singers as Wicked Ivory was recorded at roughly the same time. Other tracks on the album have a similar sense of dislocation as if Hot Thumbs O'Riley was the product of some slight genetic mutation producing a warped parallel musical universe in which everything was familiar but different.

A little digging revealed Wicked ivory to be the work of Jim Pembroke an Englishman who followed his girlfriend to Finland and stayed there for most of the 70’s. Pembroke became a member of the finish prog group Wigwam. Wigwam were that oddity a prog group who could keep things short and necessary. Most of the giants of prog kept things long and unnecessary both musically and folically. Pembroke’s pop sensibility and penchant for off the wall lyrics also confused the mix creating a tension between the more muso elements in the band and his inclination towards brevity and sometimes bluseyness. Within the context of Wigwam this could produce some interesting results but on Wicked Ivory when Pembroke was backed by Wigwam members everything seems to have gelled just perfectly.

Oh and by the way it’s a concept album. The concept is that the recording was made at a live “battle of the bands” with tracks by different artist interspersed by crowd noise and announcements. As unlikely as anything Ray Davis might have dreamed up this technique does work to link up the disparate styles.

So there it is then the great unheard, a work of effortless genius, released originally on Charisma and reissued this year on Love Records. The easiest way to track down the CD is on eBay where it can be obtained directly from Finland. You can satisfy your audio curiosity now by listening to two tracks from the LP at Boot Sale Sounds.

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