Thursday, 14 January 2016

Spiro - Pole Star (1997)

Back in the days of me yoot when I was just a boy pushing me bike up the hills of Shipston on me way to buy us a Hovis, I responded to an advertisement in WHY, the local listings rag. I'd been recording my own music, or at least my own noises, and some guy was selling a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder from what I could tell, one of the proper TEAC jobs. Weirdly, the seller turned out to be someone living in Shipston, and weirder still the address was a house to which I delivered a daily newspaper on my paper round. The person selling the tape recorder, whom I hadn't actually met despite delivering his newspaper each morning, was Jon Hunt, a boy a couple of years older than myself. I later realised he was probably the closest thing Shipston had to celebrity*, being the man behind the Ideal Husbands, a local band which had released a single called Town Planning. I think it had been played on Peel's show, possibly.

Anyway, I wasn't aware of any of this as Jon showed me the tape recorder and I realised I would need to save my combined pocket money and paper round wages for about a billion weeks in order to afford it. I told him as much and so instead he sold me a cassette tape of his songs, not the Ideal Husbands but a solo work entitled Who is the Captain of this Ship?

I was initially phased by the tape including a cover of Chim Chim Cher-ee from Mary Poppins, and not even an amusingly punky cover with sneering and references to doing a poo down the chimney stack but not really caring about it. In fact the music was quite unlike almost everything else I was listening to in whichever year that was, being both gentle and generous in spirit, well played, and it didn't seem like it had anything to prove. I might have likened it to a less angst-ridden The The had I known of Matt Johnson at the time.

A year or two later Jon had Who is the Captain of this Ship? pressed up as a vinyl album, opting to hand produce the sleeve by means of silk screen for whatever reason. The design had seven colours, each of which had to be printed individually on every cover before we could add the next colour; and I can't remember exactly how many copies he'd had pressed, but it wasn't less than five-hundred. It was a lot of work. He drafted five or six of us in to help, and so we spent a couple of days as a human production line at the local art college turning out cover after cover. Annoyingly this was at the end of the college year, so I somehow never got my complimentary copy of the finished record with the hand-printed sleeve; then against all odds I found one a couple of years later in a junk shop in a village way over on the other side of the country.

To at last get to the point, I always wondered what became of Jon Hunt. Given the quality of his album and the fact that it really didn't sound like the work of someone who was just pissing about, it didn't really seem too likely that he would have packed it all in to become a floorlayer; and my unvoiced question found an answer when somebody invented the internet. He moved to Bristol and joined this bunch, and this was their first album as Spiro.

I would say it's folk music, except the more I listen, the less such labels seem to fit; which I suppose is handy because I've never been quite sure where I stand with folk music. Certainly I dislike anything overly twee, or in which chartered accountants pretend to be eighteenth century crofters and tailor their speech patterns accordingly so as to encompass sentences such as I did see a maiden fair, because the verb to see had no past tense until Nikola Tesla invented the word saw in 1941; and I've never really given much of a shit about real ale; and I might read The Lord of the Rings again at some point, but it's by no means certain; and neofolk can folk right off and take its limited slipcase edition of Mein Kampf with it, so far as I'm concerned.

From what I can tell of the artwork and website, this band of four look very much like a democracy, and yet repeated play of Pole Star leaves me in no doubt as to the involvement of the guy who recorded Who is the Captain of this Ship?, so I'll assume the distinctively fine balance struck between the bitter and the sweet is either his doing, or else he's been lucky enough to hook up with some seriously kindred spirits. The instrumentation is acoustic - guitar, accordion, mandolin, and violin, and somehow it manages to sound just as you might anticipate from that line-up whilst remaining astonishingly fresh, as though this is the first time you've heard anything of this kind. In fact the mood is such as to evoke the notion of hearing music itself for the very first time. It's somewhere between the instrumental simplicity, the ornate melody, and an apparent reluctance to just trot out anything too familiar or obvious for the sake of tradition, but there's something very fundamental about the sound of this group, primal without the primitive. There's no trickery or pissing about, and yet the entire disc sparkles.

So this is what Jon Hunt did next, and nosing around on the band's website it's pleasing to note that Spiro seem pretty popular in certain circles and have played this stuff to audiences all over the world. So it's not just me.

...and you can probably buy it here.

*: Possibly excepting Frank Spencer's wife from the telly.

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