Finders Keepers

The other day I was reading about the British actor James Mason, star of films such as Kubrick’s Lolita and Hitchcock’s North by North West. After moving into Buster Keaton’s former house in the Hollywood Hills, Mason discovered a small building, hidden in the undergrowth within the properties grounds. He broke open the rusted door and found a projection room and shelves bursting with cans of rare and unseen Keaton masterpieces, a movie lovers treasure trove. I imagine the basement of the Finders Keepers re-issue label to be somewhat similar to Masons garden projection house, stacked high with hundreds of rare and dusty records plucked from obscurity to be re-released and re-appraised.

The owners of the Manchester born but London based label describe themselves as: “psychedelic librarians and cosmic pop quiz elitists” committed to leaving: “no progressive pebble unturned or record collection un-rifled” in their search for music’s lost gems. The troika of owners include Manchester based record producer Andy Votel, DJ and designer Dominic Thomas and owner of Delay 68 records Doug Shipton. Their aim, to bring obscure lost gems back into the public sphere, from across the world, reproduced in the style of their original packaging.

The labels inaugural release in 2005 was Jean Claude Vannier’s L’enfant Assassin des Mouches. The record is perhaps best known for its cover which shows the protagonist Jean Claude Vannier who was the arranger for Serge Gainsbourg’s sublime Histoire de Melody Nelson, running across a beach stark naked. Jarvis Cocker searched for the album during its years out of print and said of it after the records re-release: “This is one of those records that you really can’t believe whilst you’re listening to it; So you put it on again just to check, pinching yourself to make sure. Yep, here it comes again – insane guitar? Check, unhinged orchestra? Check, demented choir? Check, this record is real, you really need it in your life.”

The title which roughly translates as “The Child Assassin of the Flies” was scribbled on the back of a piece of paper by Gainsbourg after he heard the record for the first time. This elusive title is the only explanation provided for the music that lies within the cover, although Mojo magazine did attempt to flesh out the plot saying it roughly concerns: “a small boy who drowns enormous sentient flies in a lake of jam while an array of alarm clocks, a ghostly 140-voice choir and random bursts of accordion create aural mayhem.” To me it sounds like something David Axelrod would have turned out if he had been an arty Frenchman, living in the tenements of Paris, perhaps next to Gene Kelly in the opening of An American in Paris. Fuzzy guitars and stabbing strings abound, but their is also the sprinkling of showbiz and old Hollywood musicals about it. No doubt everyone will come to different conclusions as to its hidden depths and meanings.

However the labels most successful release to date has been Lubos Fiser’s Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, a soundtrack to a Czech new wave film. Czech new wave films apparently all have weirdness in common and never brush past the notion of being “easy going”, in fact Czech cinema is really best avoided at all costs ,unless you want to watch something not unlike Crossroads blended with Hammer House of Horror.

The soundtrack though garnered a cult following after the film was showed at the Glastonbury Festival and the soundtrack release has even spawned a tribute album. It took Andy Votel 12 years to track down the original studio recording and the baroque rock cycle of suites has been organized into something that vaguely resembles the plot of Jaromil Jires original film. The music has a mystic feel tinged with uncertainty and foreboding.

The slew of records released under the Finders Keepers umbrella is not limited to European musical obscurities though. Turkish psych rock is provided by Selda and Hungarian folk by Sarolta Zalatnay, the Janis Joplin of her native country. Both have voices that could jar a corpse or at least give a dentists drill a run for its money in the irritation stakes and are example of some corners of the catalogue that are difficult to get into. But the trio of Welsh psychedelic rock albums, compiled by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals, more than makes up for some flights of fancy that are sometimes found. And of course not forgetting Yamasuki, a psych-rock opera about karate sung in French, something that truly has to be heard to be believed.

Votel, Shipton and Thomas promised on the launch of the label to provide: “Discerning purveyors of the bizarre and abnormal with Japanese choreography records, space-age Turkish protest songs, Czechoslovakian vampire soundtracks, Welsh rare-beats, bubblegum folk, drugsploitation operatics, banned British crime thrillers and celebrity Gaelic Martini adverts… presented on CD, 7″ and traditional black plastic discs in authentic packaging.” All so far achieved minus the odd bump in the road.

Bob Dylan once said that he thought himself a “musical expeditionary” when he whiled away hours of his youth seeking out and listening to obscure Americana records. We don’t have to do the record hunting now though, because Finders Keepers are there to do it for us.

Christmas on The Cote d’ Azur – A Review of ‘Bonne Annee’ by Jean-Pierre Massiera

Many musical sins are committed during the festive season, just look at a list of Christmas number ones and you will see a whole host of them, many now used as instruments of torture at Guantanamo Bay. Lock me in a room with the last 20 years of Christmas number ones playing on a loop and frankly I would confess to anything, just to get out. Thank goodness then for a little record label called Finders Keepers, who have just released their Christmas single, to virtually no acclaim – ‘Bonne Annee’ by Jean-Pierre Massiera.

In a world were money minded suits sap creativity at record labels for the sake of profit and publicity, Finders Keepers, an off-shoot of Stockport Born DJ Andy Votel’s Twisted Nerve Records, reaches back to unreleased obscurities from years ago. Don’t get me wrong though, most of them are obscure for a reason, they don’t necessarily appeal to the X-Factor, Take That loving types that so adore the “usual suspects” that clog up the “charts” these days. They are though treasures for those who love real music.My favourite and the labels second release is ‘Yamasuki’, a fuzzed out, educational, multi cultural, psych rock opera from 1971…..sung in French, described as “absolute fucking genius” by Plan B magazine and labelled as “proto-psychedelic hip-hop that defies categorisation.”

In fact one would say that the whole Finders Keepers catalogue defies categorisation from soundtracks for Czech art-house films to the sharp trill of Sartola Zalatnay, labelled believe it or not as the Turkish Cilla Black. And from the beat poetry of Susan Christie on John Hill’s ‘Six Moons of Jupiter’ to the psychedelic sounds of deepest darkest Wales on the Welsh Rarebit compilation.Their specially chosen Christmas 7inch single is no different. Jean-Pierre Massiera, a studio wizz and prog genius, recorded few albums and the discovery of one would cause any record collector to go into hypovolemic shock, so is their rareity.

The A side of the single recorded originally in the late 1960s takes Christmas staple Silent Night and twists it into an amazing sound collage of fuzzy guitar over the theme with a French spoken word over-dub discussing the finer points of the Cote d’Azur and dinner with Dirk Bogarde….or something along those lines. Side B, Bonne Annee 1969 then takes the same theme and mixes it with a David Axelrod-like brass and string powered funk. If Silent Night has to be heard at all, it has to be heard like this, transformed into a mini psych rock masterpiece.

All in all it knocks every other Christmas single currently congealing all over our air-waves, into (as we say up north) a very cocked hat. I fear though it will never triumph over the likes of our current musical Yuletide hero’s……..Terry Wogan and Aled Jones….Peter Kay in a fat suit etc. as the record is a super limited 45. It is though a seasonal introduction to a charming record label.

Oh the Money to be Made in the Enigma Game 19/12/08

Scott Walker, Bill Fay and Nick Drake are often listed as the mystery men of British music, enigmatic and reclusive are descriptions that apply to all three. There are plenty of competitors for those titles today though, reclusive and enigmatic are labels artists increasingly cling to in an attempt to fetter a myth around themselves and increase record sales.

Nothing was more ridiculous earlier in the year than folk rock guitarist “Bon Ivor” grousing unendingly in interviews about how he fled to a log cabin in the woods and lived off deer meat for a month, all while recording his debut album. A great stunt, which conned a few innocent souls into thinking “this guys obviously tortured, a real thinker”. His next trip to the cabin, for the all but certain follow up album will no doubt be accompanied by an online video blog and live web cam of him crying into his deer meat and coming up with a few more generic ballads of loss and longing. The whole hearted bragging of his month long solitary existence was a gimmick, if it was not, he wouldn’t have mentioned it, he would have released the album to critical acclaim and let the music announce itself on its own merits, and then years down the line say “oh by the way that albums got a nice story to it”.

Then of course we have people like Ray Lamontagne, a guy who we’re told hasn’t cracked a smile for forty years. Except of late, on his increasingly regular trips to the bank, hand in hand with some very large bags of money, when he has apparently been spotted grinning moronically. He is of course painfully shy and doesn’t want to leave his hotel room for fear of bumping into other human beings. There is no problem with that of course. But you can’t help thinking about someone like Nick Drake who crafted some of the most beautiful songs in the pantheon of 20th century British music. He was so shy he couldn’t perform live concerts, Mr Lagmontaine has tour dates falling out of his ears. Drake barely saw any of his records sell in his lifetime, Lamontagne’s debut album sold half a million copies, yet he hasn’t cheered up just in case it blows his act. Drake certainly didn’t highlight his own misfortune at every opportunity, he had to much pride in himself and his music. Lamontagne seems to pick over his own problems in almost every interview he does.

Chamber-rock artist Bill Fay is even less known than Nick Drake, the three albums he released in the late 1960s and early 70s are lost classics which sold a handful of copies at the time. Alt-country group Wilco’s patronage has heightened his profile ever so slightly, but this doesn’t mean he has rushed into production, what would only be his fourth album in a lifetime, or announced a concert tour. No, his camouflage has remained in place, his hiding place undiscovered, there are only five known photographs of him in existence and his one live appearance in decades, with Wilco in a gigs encore, was never recorded on his stipulation and has not been replicated since. He has certainly not cultivated his mystery to inadvertently increase his fame, his reclusivness is unrelenting.

The ultimate McCavity of British music though is Scott Walker, who’s fame with the Walker Brothers in the 1960s matched that of the Beatles. He threw all this away for the sake of his insular introvert self and produced four string laden masterpieces in loneliness and despair. His massive young fan base immediately dropped him as they became enmeshed in songs about Ingmar Bergman films and references to Albert Camus, which of course as Walker explained with a wry smile: “they couldn’t dance to”.

Walker purposely shunned his own success to produce the kind of material he wanted to, with no explanations. He had early fame and asked by Muriel Grey on a bizarre appearance on The Tube in the 1980s if he would like it to return he said he desperately hoped it wouldn’t. His latest albums are chocked with extraordinary gothic weirdness, totally at odds with his early work. His change of paths comes with no self – psychoanalysis on his part of course.

Today’s thinly wrapped enigmas, the Lamontagnes and the Bon Ivors caveat their music with their tales of misfortune and years of turbulent melancholy and they use it as selling point over their craft itself. I’m not saying they have not lived through difficult times, but it is not something unique to them, other artists have to, but they’ve not breathed a word of it voluntarily. The real enigmas give us their work and then disappear to whence they came, leaving us to ponder the person behind the music and come to our own conclusions.