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The Camberwell Now - All's Well CD (album) cover

ALL'S WELL

The Camberwell Now

RIO/Avant-Prog


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Syzygy
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars All's Well is an excellent compilation which gathers together nearly everything officially released by The Camberwell Now during their existence from 1983 to 1987 - two 12" singles, an album and stand alone tracks which appeared on compilations - in chronological order. Their music was informed by a strong sense of place (Camberwell is a largely working class area of South London) and time; their lyrics, especially on the Ghost Trade, were highly critical of Mrs Thatcher's Britain.

The first four tracks come from the debut 12" single, Meridian. One track, a brief instrumental called Trade Winds, is not included here, presumably so that everything could fit onto a single CD. The first three songs sound more like Hayward solo than a group effort; he has the sole writing credit, and there is a minimal feel to the arrangements. The common theme is water, a recurring motif in Hayward's lyrics. Cutty Sark opens the proceedings, a song about the famous sailing vessel now moored on the river Thames near Camberwell. The arrangement is simple; a melodica refrain, cymbal and vocal by Hayward with bass and tambourine by ex This Heat colleague Charles Bullen, and the lyrics are about the ship's past as a vessel for trade with outposts of the British empire. Pearl Divers maintains the theme and mood, with keyboards and minimal percussion backing another mournful vocal. Dunkirk Spirit sees the entry of the full drum kit, played with a featherlight jazzman's touch, and an extended scat vocal introduction. Throughout these three tracks there is a feel very similar to Robert Wyatt circa Rock Bottom, and the lyrics reflect the band's left wing political views in an intelligent, understated manner. Resplash is a lengthy instrumental that reworks Splash, the closing track on the original 12" single and which gives the first full flavour of the band; Trefor Goronwy plays some nimble bass and also adds some ukulele, Hayward gets busy behind the kit and adds some simple keyboard motifs and Steven Rickard's loops and manipulations add the same kind of wild card to the mix that Gareth Williams' keyboards and tapes added to This Heat.

Next up is a stand alone track, originally issued only on an obscure and long deleted cassette compilation. Daddy Needs A Throne is effectively a curtain raiser for their album; the backing of the song is played on bass and drums with Trefor Goronwy using the full range of his instrument to play both low end rhythm and high end riffs and solos. Steven Rickard's tape work adds extra textures in the breaks, but it's basically a manic vocal/bass/drums performance with some extremely tight changes of tempo and metre. The Robert Wyatt influence is a lot less noticeable here - the sound is closer to Krautrock, with echoes of Can, Neu! and Faust discernible although the the lyrics and vocals are unmistakably English.

The band's solitary full length album, The Ghost Trade, was a remarkable achievement that demonstrated just how powerful a unit The Camberwell Now had become. Hayward and Goronwy had coalesced into an unbelievably tight, focussed rhyhtm section and the songwriting had found a distinctive, unique voice of its own. There are just 6 comparatively lengthy tracks on the album, and the musicians give themselves plenty of space and scope without degenerating into pointless noodling. The first two tracks, Night Shift and Sitcom, are in the same style as Daddy Needs A Throne - voice, bass and drums carry the bulk of the arrangement, with keyboards or tapes providing simple washes of sound or background drones. Abrupt shifts of rhyhtm and tempo occur throughout, while the lyrics take critical sideswipes at Mrs Thatcher's Britain. The pace slows down with Wheat Futures, which features no drumming for its first half, followed by a lengthy and discordant coda with ritual percussion and dark keyboard figures that recall Univers Zero's more sombre moments. 80s production values are in evidence on Speculative Fiction, which has what sounds like a sequencer generated bass line and a hypnotic bass/snare drum beat, which Hayward and Goronwy play over, around, under, across and through. Portions of the lyrics are spliced together from different voices (friends and neighbours, according to the credits) and the whole thing has bizarre echoes of 80s Pink Floyd. The Green Lantern is the shortest piece on the album, and features some heavy electronic distortion - it wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Can album circa Ege Bamyesi. The album closes with the title track, which clocks in at over eleven minutes. The lyrics hark back to This Heat's mighty SPQR, while the music builds up at its own pace. The instrumental section which closes the piece is carried by a simple motif that sometimes sounds like a glockenspiel, other times like a musical box. The bass and drums weave ever stranger patterns, while a simple electronic drone holds the whole thing together. All in all, The Ghost Trade is a masterful album which repays repeated and careful listening - an essential piece of 80s RIO.

A couple of significant changes had taken place by the time of Green Fingers, their final recording. The line up was augmented by Maria Lamburn on reeds and viola, and for the first time they were not recording in Cold Storage, the studio established by This Heat ten years previously. The result was something of a mixed success; the title track, apparently an old This Heat song, is a superb piece with extremely powerful bass and drums and some excellent jazzy interjections from Lamburn on soprano sax. The mood is maintained on The Mystery of The Fence, which moves into slightly more discordant territory and which has an extremely busy arrangement. Know How features Goronwy's only lyrical contribution to the Camberwell Now, and is a mournful, oddly inconclusive piece followed by a brief, sombre instrumental. For the first time since the songs which opened Meridian there is a note of uncertainty in evidence, and like the debut 12" single Greenfingers is good but rather patchy.

The Camberwell Now experienced little commercial success in their lifetime, which is odd given the extremely high standard of their output. Their bass/drum/vocal excursions may well ahve been a formative influence on Ruins - Yoshida Tatsuya is a big fan of Hayward's, and Cutty Sark was to remain in Hayward's solo live set. Comparisons with This Heat are inevitable, but they were emphatically not This Heat part 2; this was a band with its own sound and agenda and which developed into an entity as disticnct from its parent band as Art Bears was from Henry Cow or Matching Mole from Soft Machine. On the Ghost Trade they equalled This Heat's considerable achievements with their own, and on their other releases they explored other ideas and styles with varying degrees of success, some of which would inform Charles Hayward's solo career. All's Well is an excellent collection even though not quite complete, and is best listened to in segments corresponding to the original releases. Strongly recommeneded.

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Posted Monday, September 11, 2006 | Review Permalink

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