It’s funny how two short words, just five letters and a punctuation mark can prove so evocative and intriguing, but Who He? fits the bill to a tee. It’s the title of Ian Carr’s new album and funny is certainly one way to look at it. Firstly, there’s a droll recognition of the expected lack of recognition amongst the music buying public. Secondly, there’s the fact that the record is billed as Ian Carr & The Various Artists, a nod perhaps to the impromptu cast of supporting musicians, who probably like Ian, are generally found playing with someone else. Thirdly, there’s the humour in the mangled abbreviation of English, while finally, there’s the sleeve image with the words encased in a speech balloon, being barked by a piebald dog, sat on a kitchen chair. But if this all points to an artist who isn’t taking himself too seriously, playing the record is something else again. From the very first spin it’s clear that something rather mysterious, but magical is happening. A couple of plays later, and the reason that this became such a serious earworm for Tom at Reveal Records and that he simply had to put it out, starts to become clear. Even though some of the songs remain tantalisingly opaque the feeling of something great happening just grows and grows.
In searching for the biography and history of Ian Carr, I came up all but blank. Okay, you don’t have to have an MA in Folk Music Exploration to know that Ian Carr is a very fine guitarist with one hell of a CV. Equally if you’re not one for reading the small (and often microscopically small) print of CDs, your absolved of any guilt for not knowing that. Quietly perhaps, there’s a side of Ian that likes it that way, but he’s currently a chosen sideman for Eddi Reader, with an incredible history taking in Kate Rusby, Kathryn Tickell, Heidi Talbot and so much more besides. It’s a list that runs and runs and these are not the kind of gigs that you get in succession without being something special. If you’re a seeker, the proof is right here and no amount of self-deprecating humour is going to keep that hidden forever. If you were to use the term journeyman it would be in terms of a full diary of constant gigging and air miles accrued, rather than any pejorative.
That said, I mentioned tantalising. Perhaps it’s these old ears shot to blazes, but having played the opener I’ll Call You a dozen times, I’m little closer to penetrating the deliberately smoky, confounding mix. It’s a wonderful tune none the less, but it layers the vocals (with a hint of vocoder??), behind the guitars. Perhaps it’s the omnichord that bassist Staffan Lindfors also adds to the track, which creates the unusual quality of the sound. Somewhere in there, however, I’m getting, “We’ll listen to The Rolling Stones, I’ll let you use my new headphones,” but there are big gaps. Still like I say, I’ve played it a dozen times trying to divine the meaning, so I guess that’s job done, and besides there’s some sparkling viola d’amore work from Maria Jonsson, who is also the female voice duetting with Ian here and the song boasts a lovely melody that suddenly blossoms out into something quite cosmic.
There are only so many notes and certainly only so many that you can sensibly cram into a guitar phrase, none the less, it’s something of a surprise when the title track starts with just a single one. A less is more philosophy, perhaps. It’s more a means of setting the root, around which harmony is layered and the tune spirals outward with increasing rhythmic complexity as a harmonium, played by Ian adds to the solidity. There is more in common with systems music and minimalism than anything that boasts of guitar technique, it none the less has a beautiful, organic precision, more human than mechanical, yet also crystalline in its repetition.
Road Drill is somewhere between the two, it sets off as an instrumental with a dancing gait and a head in the clouds air, adding some harmonies less visited, but with that same circling feel. It finally slips it’s moorings and taking off when after an extended intro taking up half the track, there’s a surprise as Maria suddenly sings “My shoes are green and they have seen the world.” The song that subsequently unfolds seems to concern the road less travelled, or in Ian’s case, perhaps it documents the wanderlust that has either inspired or resulted from his travels, albeit with an oblique stroke of the pen, as it’s not quite clear what this rolling stone has gathered. Hey Jack Kerouac indeed. Maria’s viola d’amore also features, joined by Mikael Marin on violino grande.
The following jaunty instrumental suggests the perils of letting your road drill slip, or perhaps it’s just the traveller’s relentless checklist and the remorseless regimen of bus, gig, hotel suggested in the title, Never Been To Oxford (Or Is That Cambridge). Those wanting out and out guitar histrionics, might prefer more incendiary stuff, whereas fans of the subtle and sublime hit hog heaven.
Just Nu, is sung in a tongue unknown, although I’ll presume it’s Swedish given that Ian has made his home there and it is where the record was made. The voice is that of Corina Nornamson, who also plays violin on the track, expanding that family of instruments and adding to the viola and |Viola d’amore from Maria. The presence of a viola d’amore throughout the album, with it’s sympathetic strings, is yet another sign of something uncommon going on, as is the vague dischord that weaves through the intro and finish to the song, bookending the piece and somehow enhancing its inner beauty.
Following on, The Beans War, returns us to a viola and guitar duet that captures some of the special chemistry that the likes of Lau call upon routinely. You can see why Kris Drever in particular has claimed that, “Everyone pinches Ian’s harmonies and techniques and Rhythmic thinking.” There’s a playfulness to the guitar work here that would transpose to many a setting and enhance it every time. That said, Talking Frances returns us to more overtly strange territory with the juxtaposition of a spoken narrative and more of the expected, exemplary guitar work. It’s a cut and paste collage technique, that works around the rhythms of speech. The story that surfaces is both ordinary and exceptional, as is the unmistakable kora from the Senegalese maestro Lamine Cissokho that adds an unexpected exoticism to proceedings.
The world of the strange abounds through the squidgy and atmospheric Take Me To Your Leader. But as out there as it gets, the finale Piggy I’m In Jail, is a title to prick any cosmological journey, albeit with its own strangely-strange swagger featuring Gustaf Ljunggren on electric guitar, feedback and all, and mandolin. It’s a frisky gambol of a tune that threatens to once more to take you higher and higher in giddy abandon. Perhaps it’s a functuion of the overall 41 minute running time that this final pairing, which between them account for around 12 minutes of that time, are actually my personal favourites on the record.
As the CD finishes I have a heady sense of nostalgia. It’s not that this sounds like something from my past, but it opens a window on a feeling that I used to enjoy, when the discovery of new music was the means and the end in itself. Thankfully that appetite remains undimmed, so better late than never, this first solo album from Ian Carr can join the inner sanctum of records whose unique sound sets them apart from the crowd. Who He? has all of the hallmarks of something once discovered, never ignored, an earworm of the first order and a treasure of particular rarity.
Review by: Simon Holland