This is a long time coming, and certainly it has been a worthwhile wait. The singer-songwriter Jowe Head (Stephen Bird) along with the late brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, blazed a trail in the seventies with the highly influential Swell Maps. A band who have received a tip of the hat from the likes of Nirvana, R.E.M and Pavement. This fact points to their importance in the scheme of post-punk incendiary music. Following the demise in 1980 of Swell Maps, Jowe Head joined up with another legendary outfit in Television Personalities. But, between the demise of one, and joining another, for three years Jowe busied himself with one solo album Pincer Movement (1981), and the German 1986 release Strawberry Deutschmark. That latter was made up of tracks from Pincer Movement and six from this new archive release, Strawberry Birthmarks.
The majority of Strawberry Birthmarks has not seen the light of day before. Jowe’s post-Swell Maps work was a hive of creativity, and the eighteen tracks here are certainly a testament to that, as they hold an insight into his working methods, and indeed genius. These eighteen tracks are the result of experimentation, a DIY ethic, and a sometimes underrated talent. With Jowe playing electric guitar, fretless bass, electric fire, typewriter, sticks, a battered trumpet and an old harmonium- to think we were once impressed with Mike Oldfield could do! In truth, Jowe was pushing boundaries here, the same as he has done throughout his career, and it is worth noting how the artist effortlessly sculpted that DIY sound that others such as Tom Waits who has focused the latter parts of their career on.
From the first crack of “Insect Valley”, the mood and intentions are set. To say it’s simply music is incorrect, it is structured like an art installation, fusing avant garde, punk and the personality of the artist. Yes it is not mainstream, but the best sounds of the last century have not been. For example the caustic nightmare that is “Back Door To Heaven” is blues based but not blues bound. The depth of the track is immense and the imagination injected into the track as Jowe croaks through it, makes it engaging. This is followed by the abstract instrumental “Easter Bunnies”, and the atmospheric rattling breaks into the obscured surf-guitar excellence of “Loose Tongue”. The themes are sparse throughout, and the acoustic driver “Son Of Tar Baby” shivers in a minimalistic collage, that lends further weight to how this set acts as a fully formed album, and not merely a selection of castaway tracks.
One of the perhaps standouts, and another reason as to why this set painfully lay unheard for so long is “Phantom Of The Airwaves”. This track has an obvious if perhaps not intentional Doors/Jim Morrison nuance going on. It is so diverse and cinematic, that it becomes a living entity as it blasts through the speakers. Further along, and the songs from the aforementioned Strawberry Deutschmark fit into these surroundings perfectly. A case in point the buzzing “Cooling Fins”, with it’s deafening, feedback soaked intensity. Similarly the instrumental “Tar Babies”, with it’s new wave vibes follows the first sonic blast of “Son Of Tar Baby”, giving the album direction. Though the second half of the album contains the previously released tracks, having them here opens the door to what many may have missed.
All-in-all there is a lot to immerse yourself in here. Yes it may be heavily drenched in the avant-garde, but the skill in developing the tracks makes Strawberry Birthmarks entertaining, and enthralling in the same breath. But, something worthy of mention, is it arrives on June 6th with a vinyl release, a deep red vinyl at that, which I feel matches the character of the album. To simply pigeonhole Strawberry Birthmarks as a collection is unfair, it plays as an album and works as an album, and finally it is here to enjoy.
2.Back Door To Heaven
5.Clear The Floor
6.Carrot And Cane
7.Son Of Tar Baby
9.Phantom Of The Airwaves
11.Some Other Day
13.Nearest Faraway Place
16.Shiney Black Shirt
17.Insect Flavour Valentine