Simon Henneman - Black Magic & Mustache
As well schooled in popular music as, no doubt, you are, you’ve probably never heard of Simon Henneman. I certainly hadn’t, until, during a recent trip to Seattle, USA, I stumbled upon a rather fantastic record shop called Wall of Sound, in which I ended up making a couple of purchases. The first was the eponymous debut released last year by Math and Physics Club. It’s a short one, comfortably under half an hour; I don’t mind that in itself but some of the songs are so slight they almost disappear. Furthermore, I was shocked to discover that, after a few listens, my long-held assumption that nothing could ever be too much like Belle and Sebastian was being challenged. Having said that, it’s still very much worth hearing if you’re into the whole fey indie pop thing (and I am), particularly, though not solely, because opening track ‘Darling Please Come Home’ is simply one of the pleasantest three minute pop songs recorded since Phil Spector decided he was going to pack up his four-track and sell his echo chamber to spend more time introducing female acquaintances to his firearms collection.
The second CD I bought was Simon Henneman’s ‘Black Magic & Mustache.’ I made the purchase for two reasons; partly because it was cheap, and partly because the store’s handwritten sticker on the case described it as ‘a mix of Pharaoh Sanders, Booker T and David Lynch.’ Clearly, this was an offer I was powerless to refuse. Henneman is multi-instrumentalist. Not a multi-instrumentalist in the way that most bands have a guitarist who can also handle a bass, plonk out a few chords on the piano and, just maybe, at a pinch, take care of some rudimentary drumming, but a multi-instrumentalist in the same sense as Prince, say, or Stevie Wonder; on ‘Black Magic & Mustache,’ Henneman plays literally everything, from guitars to saxophone, basses to clarinet, percussion to keyboards, and even a smattering of penny whistle. A remarkable feat, certainly, given the levels of virtuosity attained throughout, but it is not this in itself that makes ‘Black Magic & Mustache’ the marvellous album it undoubtedly is. What the one-man-band approach does do is lend an undeniable energy, a closeness, a dynamism to the music that comes from each note on each instrument being played with the same purpose, the same clarity of thought. It is all the more remarkable that Henneman has produced the record with such skill that it sounds not like one man multi-tracking himself, but like a live recording of the tighest session imaginable by some fantasy dream-team jazz fusion ensemble.
I’ve heard the record referred to as ‘telling a story.’ If it does, I can’t work it out; this is instrumental jazz-fusion-noir, and if a ‘plot’ is intended then its indiscernible to me, but I couldn’t care less, in all honesty. If you’re mentally predisposed to create a story arc to fit the album’s 39 minutes, then enigmatic song titles like ‘Night at the Bone House’ and ‘It’s All Red Ants’ should provide ample fuel for the imagination, but for me these pieces of music are about images, not stories. They’re images of a world of shadows and shady characters; rainswept streets, fedoras and overcoats. Imagine the very darkest things that Raymond Chandler ever wrote. When I listen to ‘Black Magic and Mustache’, I hear not those stories but the images that make them up, evoked in every wailing, screeching, police-siren sax solo, all the brutally beautiful stabs of cold guitar and the increasingly tumultuous waves of percussion. It’s quite likely that Henneman didn’t intend me to hear anything like what I hear, and it’s even more likely that you’ll hear something completely different again. But that’s what I love about an album of the scale and scope of ‘Black Magic and Mustache’; contained in the at times disturbingly brutal, at times achingly graceful music that is sandwiched between the end of the Django Reinhardt-esque prelude ‘Satchel’s Lullaby’ and its closing reprise are infinite possibilities for the listener. Like all the best jazz, though one doesn’t wish to pigeon-hole the record so firmly, this isn’t music to be passive with, it needs response and interaction from the listener. Make the effort and you will be handsomely repaid.
I deduct one mark solely for the use of the American spelling of ‘Mustache,’ which I cannot abide. Otherwise, this is not only a brilliant record; cinematic, dark, beautiful and liberating, but one that deserves to be seen as really quite important.
Do please note that this is currently only available from Henneman’s MySpace.