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Late Junction Sessions: Unpopular Music
Various Artists Richard Foster , September 13th, 2016 11:22

BBC Radio 3 has often been an important if sometimes overlooked champion of out-of-the-way pop music. Those of a certain vintage will remember Mixing It in the 1990s; a programme which, alongside Peel, Barker, et al, broadcast unusual sounds to an unwitting public. Now that mantle is carried aloft by the excellent Late Junction. In what seems like a mix of classic Reithian public service and deft (Tory-cut-swerving) promotion, the programme has brought out its very own long player, BBC Late Junction Sessions: Unpopular Music. Not surprisingly the record is a showcase of the many collaborations captured (in analogue no less) over the years at the Maida Vale studios. The Late Junction team (with presenter Nick Luscombe as “executor”) and owner of Gearbox records, Darrel Sheinman, were tasked with the collation and “curation”.

Assembling diverse musicians from various traditions and disciplines to suddenly get their mojo on in the studio together is not exactly a new idea, but it’s a worthy one. And if the resources and opportunities are there (and the Beeb does have muscle in these matters) it’s one that should be taken. This makes the tracklisting all the more surprising. What struck me from the off was how understated the record sounded. It has to be said, BBC Late Junction Sessions: Unpopular Music is not a record that announces itself. At all. Rather, like some amusing looking wallflower at a dull corporate party, Unpopular Music seems to be happy in minding its own business and looking good, but keeping that teensy bit outta reach. And initially that irritated me. I began to think this was a record that had somehow missed the mark, regardless of the uniform fabulousness of the artists and music.

Maybe the title is prescient, as Unpopular Music does feel that it is intent on throwing you a whole heap of wrong ‘uns from the off. The opener, ‘Many People Of The Songbird’, by Eska, Jesse & Louis Hackett, seems a tad contained, and could have been recorded at the kitchen table. It’s lovely, nonetheless, with the slightly dippy vocals coming on a bit in the style of Èglantine Gouzy. The feel that the whole thing took five minutes to knock together after a trip to the SPAR is lent credence by the squawks of Jesse Hackett’s daughter, Wonder who does her damndest to get in on the act. This quiet feel continues with Gudrun Gut’s husky intro to her 2009 collaboration with AGF (Antye Greie). Now, Gudrun Gut and AGF are two brilliant artists who should need no introduction; their wonderful ‘Baustelle’ album (and ‘Baustelle’ remix album) should be staples in any Head’s flat. And this Beeb recording is the seed that led to the creation of both. Their take on what became an album track, ‘Drilling an Ocean for You’ is typically suggestive, based (as Gudrun says in her introduction) more round the possibilities of voice than an essay in the sleek electronica they are masters at. The ending is great, too; radio interference cuts of the minimal electro and soft voices and then morphs into a melody off ‘Autobahn’, just for the crack. But it IS quiet stuff; and if you didn’t know the provenance of the work here, it could pass you by.

But regardless of a quiet start, this is a record that will grow into a steadfast companion, sometimes prone to throwing out melancholy passages but one that is reliable and resourceful. A good example here is Tunng & Tinariwen’s ‘People Folk’, which reveals its patient charms after repeated listen. And some of these collaborations are instantly and obviously beautiful. BJ Cole and Nils Økland’s ‘Jeg Har Så Lun En Hytte’ is a courteous duel between slide guitar and fiddle, a wonderful, open reflection held together by the most minimal of melodies, and conjuring up images of windswept promontories of rock, with only Gannets for company. Similar with Ana Silvera, Maya Youssef and Laura Moody’s ‘Greenwich Pier; a wonderful piece of modern folk. Toe-curlingly sentimental it could be but - like many other pieces on this LP - its deftness and surety of touch means it’s damned pleasing. Likewise ‘Talibe’, the piece by Diabel Cissockho, Kadialy Kouyate and Finn Peters, which cooks up a satisfying mix of Senegal and Albion; the plangent notes of the kora dovetailing beautifully with Finn Peters’s Dave Mason-ish flute part, something that could have easily sat on a Witchseason recording.

What I like most about this record, though are the surprises. Polar Bear’s Seb Rochford never sounded groovier during his work with Chartwell Dutiro, Leo Abrahams & Jyager on the loose limbed, ‘Leo’. John Paul Jones and Erland Dahlen’s ‘Piece No 5’ sounds like a pair of drunks let loose with equipment for making dentures. And Simon Fisher Turner & Martin Baker’s ‘Citius Altius’ is a marvellously woozy collaboration; the sound of a perfect future-past suspended in aspic; a lost soundtrack to one of Uncle Monty’s discourses, and one of the best things on the record. The way in which Westminster Cathedral’s organ, of all things, comes crashing into the track is like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Talking of Uncle Monty, Tanya Auclair proclaims “the sky was bruised” on her collab with Brandt Brauer Frick, ‘Bolt Of Light’. This is a theatrical tour de force, pitched on the right side of daft, and full of clangs wobbles and crashes. Similar surprises are to be found on Kate Tempest and Elysian String Quartet’s track, ‘Where the Heart Is’, where Tempest’s trademark quicksilver turns of phrase are given a thorough investigation by her collaborators. Led on by the restless, enervating soundscape, Tempest seems to be on the point of speaking in tongues, of achieving a sort of detached state of grace and balance, free of any point making.

All credit must go to Late Junction for assembling and curating such a fabulous array of talent with what feels like the lightest of hands on the tiller. It somehow warms the cockles to think of the material for this record being patiently collated, and guided, and then presented in good old-fashioned album format. Lord Reith’s not dead, kids!