Uncut Editor's Diary
On four albums by Mike Cooper...
I must confess that, until very recently, I hadn’t really heard of Mike Cooper; more evidence, I guess, of the apparently boundless reserves of records from the early ‘70s still to be reissued (the Bob Carpenter album, due to be released on No Quarter in the autumn, is another great example I should write about soon).
For those of us interested in how roots music can intersect with the avant-garde, however, the rediscovery of British guitarist Cooper is a fortuitous one. His journey from folk and blues clubs (Cooper was approached to join The Rolling Stones at one, very early, stage) to the furthest reaches of esoterica began in the early ‘70s with three rare and rewarding albums. These albums, Trout Steel and Places I Know/Machine Gun Co are about to be reissued as two CDs by one of the most assiduous labels currently active, Paradise Of Bachelors.
1970’s Trout Steel showcases singer-songwriterly craftsmanship in the Bert Jansch mould, occasionally dissolving into free jazz drift (the 11-minute “I’ve Got Mine” is a fidgety, minimalist precursor of Wilco’s “Less Than You Think”). Places I Know (1971), meanwhile, is a good-natured retrenchment into Michael Chapman-ish folk rock, which also finds room for a spellbinding piano ballad, “Time To Time”, that would have done Bill Fay proud. Cooper originally envisaged Places I Know to be a double album with what turned out to be 1972’s Machine Gun Co (note the Brotzmann reference), and the pair are reunited for this reissue package. After the relative orthodoxy of the first set, Machine Gun is a rambunctious pursuit of Trout Steel’s wilder ideals, as sturdy songs – notably “So Glad (That I Found You)” – are repeatedly sent off onto knottier improv tangents.
The reissues – and especially the questing aspects of Machine Gun Co – also act as a serendipitous prelude to Cantos De Lisboa, a hook-up with the busy Brooklyn guitarist, Steve Gunn, that’s the latest entry in RVNG INTL’s always interesting FRKWYS series (previous notable inter-generational collaborations have included the Sun Araw/Congos Jamaica project and, my personal favourite, the meditative freak-outs programmed by Blues Control and Laraaji).
Cantos De Lisboa is ostensibly a collection of jams captured at Cooper’s home in Lisbon, in which his and Gunn’s shared love of country blues is entangled with Portuguese folk music and some brackish avant-garde tendencies. Cooper uses his lap-steel as an atmospheric tool, so much so that on the likes of “Lampedusa 2013” it takes on an abrasive, almost industrial timbre. For all the liberating experimentation, though, Cantos De Lisboa’s standout track is ironically its most conventional: “Pena Panorama”, an impressionistic piece sung by Gunn that recalls the exceptional “Old Strange” from his 2013 solo set, Time Off.
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