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by Ian Mann

September 30, 2012


Anyone familiar with Tom Waits' highly personalised musical lexicon should find something to enjoy in "Secret Language" too.

David Coulter and Ralph Carney

“Secret Language”

(Trestle Records)

This Anglo-American collaboration appears on the small London based independent label Trestle Records. Trestle describe themselves as being “dedicated to instrumental music” and their output embraces both avant rock and experimental music. The label is certainly not a jazz outlet per se although jazz is inevitably a component part of much of their output. Previously on this site I’ve reviewed the jazz tinged instrumental rock of the Anglo-French group Morviscous on their album “House Sounds”.

Now comes another international collaboration with the UK’s David Coulter linking up with the American Ralph Carney on a fascinating and wide ranging set of instrumentals. Neither musician is in the first flush of youth and both have long and distinguished CVs which have seen them working with a variety of illustrious artists across a wide range of genres including jazz, rock and pop. Coulter has also worked extensively in theatre in dance as composer, musician and musical director.
Carney’s website gives a fascinating and often amusing insight into his musical world.

Multi instrumentalist Coulter and saxophonist Carney have worked together on theatrical projects such as “Plague Songs” and “Twisted Christmas” plus numerous Hal Willner projects but for me they are most closely associated with the music of Tom Waits. Carney has appeared on many of Waits’ classic albums and was once part of Waits’ touring band. In the days when Tom used to perform live I remember seeing them from the back of the Hammersmith Odeon, way back when.  Coulter, meanwhile, contributed extensively to Waits’ “BlackRider” project. I also recall Coulter collaborating with former Van Der Graaf Generator vocalist Peter Hammill on his 1986 solo album “Skin” and briefly being part of Hammill’s live ensemble. 

“Secret Language” represents the first collaboration between Coulter and Carney outside the bands and projects of others. The album is a genuine Trans Atlantic affair which originated several years ago when Coulter sent Carney a variety of solo meditations on an internet file and asked Carney to respond to them. These “virtual” or “digital” dialogues eventually mutated into the ten pieces to be heard here. Sometimes the mood is almost ambient but the spirit of Waits and his love of arcane sounds and instruments also pervades the record. There’s a dark, Waitsian humour about some of these items but obviously the pieces are less obviously song based and lean closer to improvisation.

The album credits don’t make it clear as to who plays what but both musicians are multi instrumentalists. It’s probably fair to say that Carney specialises in saxophones and other types of reed with Coulter concentrating on the sound of the didjeridu, an instrument upon which he is something of a virtuoso. Coulter is also mentioned as playing other unusual instruments among them tenor guitar, musical saw, mandolin, Jew’s harp and Stroh violin. The album also includes keyboards, percussion and low key electronica.It is mastered by Nick Siddall of Trestle Records and one of the twin guitarists with Morviscous.
The track “Did You” appears on Wire Tapper 30, the compilation CD given away with the October 2012 edition of Wire magazine, an indication perhaps of the experimental nature of the duo’s music. 

The album begins with the eerie and ambient atmospherics of “Pie Graph” which mixes droning didjeridu and wordless vocals with the crackling of electricity and the ghostly sound of a tolling bell. For me it conjures up images of an abandoned and deserted railway station in the American Dust Bowl or the Australian Outback.

“Protractor Situation” introduces a Middle Eastern/North African sound with Carney playing some form of reed above the drones and rhythms of Coulter’s didjeridu. It’s pleasingly lively and exotic and highly effective.

The first item to feature a full drum kit “Ghost Gum” is tremendous fun with Carney’s overdubbed horns blasting away to deliver the most exotic “cop show theme” ever. 

“Did You?”, the piece that appears on the Wire compilation features Carney’s sax ruminations above the deep drones of Coulter’s didjeridu. The sax playing owes a substantial amount to the jazz tradition even if the backdrop is considerably more exotic. It is followed by its companion piece “You Did?” which occupies similar sonic territory and is equally effective.

“Five New Bricks” supplements the now familiar didj drone with the sounds of fiddles and banjo to create a kind of warped hoedown. It’s a sound that has its roots in the world of Waits’ skewed vision Americana, an imagined freakshow of midgets, fairground barkers, wheezing pipe organs and arcane, battered musical instruments. Swordfishtrombone anyone?

The following “Elephant Hunter” is even more Waitsian, a grotesque tale that begins with the sound of an echoing sneeze and features distorted, semi spoken Waits style vocals (delivered by Carney at a guess). 

“Snake Dance” simulates the creepy sound of church organ or harmonium and teams it with the trumpet in a kind of Miles Davis goes Gothic pastiche. Coulter augments the keyboard drone with the even deeper sounds of the didj. One suspects that much of Coulter and Carney’s music would make great film soundtrack music. Also incorporating distorted voices “Snake Dance” would be right at home in a Hammer movie.

“Soda Jerk” features the rasp of Carney’s baritone sax alongside the didj and it sounds like their maybe a trombone in there too among other things. With its treated wordless vocals parts of it are are just as creepy as much of the rest of the duo’s output but there’s a woozy humour too engendered in part by Carney’s periodic baritone vamps.

I’d like to think that the title “Bullroarer” may be an oblique reference to the duo’s sometime employer Mr. Waits himself. The piece turns out to be one of the album’s more ambient and impressionistic pieces with the eerie shimmer of a steel guitar adding a unique atmosphere to this brief concluding piece.

“Secret Language” is almost impossible to classify and is all the better for that. Coulter and Carney dip their fingers into a variety of musical pies and the results are never less than intriguing. Some may find their music something of an acquired taste. Unlike the Norwegian tuba/saxophone duo of Daniel Herskedal and Marius Neset whose album “Neck Of The Woods” was recently reviewed on these pages Coulter and Carney are not necessarily looking to craft a thing of beauty. Indeed much of their music is highly mannered, slyly humorous and often wilfully grotesque, inspired by Waits and by figures such as Harry Partch (1901-74) the American composer and instrument builder, himself a sizeable influence on Waits from the time of the “Swordfishtrombones” album onwards.

It’s not exactly jazz but anyone familiar with Waits’ highly personalised musical lexicon should find something to enjoy in “Secret Language” too.

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