Album review: Graeme Allwright – A Long Distant Present From Thee… “Becoming” (1970)

Source: Album artwork (illustration by Graeme himself)

Pedro Miranda reviews French psychedelic folk album, A Long Distant Present From Thee… “Becoming” by Graeme allwright

A Long Distant Present From Thee… “Becoming” is a record that doesn’t sound like any other in Graeme Allwright’s musical career, and to understand how that happened we have to understand the musical and artistic background of where the album was recorded, France. Normally the French had been very open to many trends with experimental characteristics and since they have a strong sense of cultural image, they would use those references to create themselves a singular aesthetic inside any field of art. For instance, it’s not hard to see how the introduction of modern jazz to the bohemian youth of Paris affected their relationship with the arts – in the same way Jack Kerouac would say that “On The Road” were only possible to be written due to the fluidity of jazz, Jean Paul Sartre would use it to cure existential pain’s in his novel “Nausea”.

Between the late fifties and the early sixties the ‘Nouvelle Vague’ movement was starting to become solidified. One of the references of the group were the classic Hollywood cinema, directors like Orson Welles and Hitchcock and existentialist philosophy. Some characteristics of the genre was  more freedom in screening and direction; they would put questions like the human experience and the manifestation of the act of being in their movies. Coincidentally, it came along with the growing popularity of free jazz since the release of Ornette Coleman’s Shapes of Jazz To Come in 1959 and John Coltrane’s 1961 album My Favorite Things. This experimental scenario inside the arts in the early and mid-sixties created, in a big part of France’s intellectual caste, an affinity for the new and the different – and it happened not only in France, but the whole Europe – although arguable it didn’t become popular until 1966, but well…that’s another story.

Rock groups influenced by free improvisation were starting to tour by the country and gaining visibility, the Soft Machine spent months in France touring and presenting in TV shows. One year later, Pink Floyd became hugely famous as well due to the nature of their pop sound with experimental elements. Naturally this genre was becoming popular in the country and new groups like Magma, Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, and Gong were starting to appear more often and popular artists were also evolving with the scenario; Nino Ferrer and Serge Gainsbourg were trying to push their boundaries and the same thing happened to Graeme Allwright.

His first three records were entirely folk songs sung in French. It included translated versions of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger – you can see how theirs raw folk style influenced Graeme, although his own songs were leaned more towards French folk ‘chansons’. The fourth album, A Long Distant Present From Thee… “Becoming”, would soon be a singular point in his career regarding style and ambition.

The line up is simple: two acoustic guitars, vocals sung in English, and tabla are present in every song; piano appears in two tracks as well. Apart from Graeme himself, unknown amateur musicians composed the personnel and along the fact that the album was not well recorded (the tabla sometimes sounds like a bucket being played!) Both things make the album so unique in its sounding.

It’s a dense and immersive work, both sides of the record consist of a suite full of poetry and psychedelic improvisation from the very beginning to the end. By listening it, you can see that any of what was being played was not rehearsed before, but even being thirty seven minutes of acoustic improvisation Graeme’s vocals works as the lead instrument, guiding the dynamic of the songs and giving it a way to continue without losing focus – very much how a jazz group would do, free improvisational jazz seems to be a heavy influence on the record.

Regarding the instrumentation of the album, one of the things that make this record unique is the haunting female backing vocals by Catherine Jolivald. It’s not exactly sung, the far-out backing vocals are there to fill the gaps between Allwright’s main vocals, working much more as an instrument else than giving harmony to the song,s resembling a lot of Gilli Smyth’s (Gong) style. Also, her timbre voice fitted very well in with the folk instrumentation, it wouldn’t be wrong to make a comparison between her and Pentangle’s vocalist Jacqui McShee – in fact, there are times that you could feel that dense Pentangle vibe in the improvs, but maybe not as well executed…

At the beginning of the album you are immediately hooked into the song by a hypnotic yet simple tabla rhythm alongside the piano fading in, and in the moment when the lyrics come, the ambiance that it creates surrounds you in a way that’s very hard to escape, Graeme’s vocals are soft but they contrast with the harshness of his lyrics which become tenser and tenser along the instrumentation. The improvisation slightly ceases until a poem starts to be lyrically spoken with an ambient instrumental resembling some parts from 1967 experimental psychedelic rock album Cosmic Sounds by The Zodiac, but acoustic, of course.

Side B also opens with a fade-in but this time the center of attention is the’Gilli Smyth-esque’ backing vocal sung throughout the two first songs and some flutes. The song is soon turned into an ode for hot black coffee sung in a hypnotic way that The Incredible Sting Band might sing as well, until it is rapidly changed to another song laced with a similar mood titled “My Cells Are Changing”. The improvisation still goes on with piano and tabla over the remarkable phrase said by Polonius in Hamlet “To thine own self be true”, the acoustic guitar begins to become percussive in a very slow crescendo until all the instruments start to jam together and another poem starts to be declared; that’s when the music starts to fade out.

This album may not make for easy listening, but it isn’t hard either. It’s not the kind of album to listen to as background music or to relax to, this album deserves full attention for a dense immersion into the unique ambient sound Graeme Allwright can create through his psychedelic jams…

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