Way back when God was a boy (or maybe a girl) I clearly remember buying Gong’s Camembert Electrique album when it was released in the UK in 1974 (at the princely sum of 59p, the price then of a single, and price pointed to encourage sales of music from bands like Gong and Faust who otherwise might not be an impulse buy for callow youths such as I). My initial reaction to Camembert Electrique was a mixture of surprise, disbelief and lack of understanding. But I persisted with this odd music and bit by bit its exotic nature started to find its way in and now its a much loved ‘bonkers uncle’ of an album.
A few week ago the fair Joelle at Northern-Spy Records got in touch and introduced me to Bird Names and their eccentrically named album, Metabolism: A Salute to the Energy of the Sun. I promised to write a few words about it and it has taken an embarrassingly long time to do so, but now I can claim it was all to ensure that it coincided with their string of dates revolving around SXSW. But to tell the truth it is because I wasn’t sure what to say.
The first few times were intriguing but none too easy a listen, but coming back to the set makes it all start to feel a little easier to assimilate and easier to make some sense of. This is where my parallel with Camembert Electrique came in – this is pretty much how I came to know that album as well.
Slapping labels on the work of Phelan La Velle & David Lineal (with assorted chums and mates) is as inevitable as it is unhelpful – experimental, psychic pop, avant-garde and so on and so forth. In addition to the Gong comparisons you can add the likes of Coco Rosie (Phantoms & Fortunes for example), Captain Beefheart and others, with the off kilter rhythms, clanging of objets trouvés, left of centre lyrics and vocals. But underneath are hints of more regular song structures and melodies that make it easier to assimilate the more deliberately eccentric aspects.
Not an easy listen as I say but given a few listens its pleasures reveal themselves. Tracks like Grow Each Other do take me back to 1974 Gong-world, whilst the jangly rhythms of Apollo, Descend have become favourites. Then again there is something of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band about My Baby’s a Lady – now there’s something I never thought I would write in 2011!
Its safe to say that I don’t think that Bird Names will be troubling national radio stations but that is hardly the point. In the same way that, at one extreme of the scale, we must all endure the ordure of manufactured, formulaic consumer pop for the masses, at the other end of the normal distribution curve come the likes of Bird Names. Without bands like this we lose a vital source of musical experimentation, a bit of boundary pushing. A challenging listen is like a challenging book – sometimes hard work, sometimes not completely successful, but ultimately a good thing and I am indebted and grateful to all at Northern-Spy for putting me in touch with Bird Names, oh and I bet they are a blast live….