When I first heard the name John Carroll, from the lips of someone involved in what might be described as a fledgling Hangzhou music scene, it was his association with Medic Independent Records that left an impression on me. That he played a leading role in helping promote a shifting roster of artists hoping to make the most of a growing interest in live music here in the Middle Kingdom was something I found inspiring. This is not to do a disservice to the fantastic Chinese promoters who are doing the bulk of the work. But from an outsider’s point of view it’s always encouraging to see foreigners here investing their time and efforts in cultural activities too. It implies something more than an intention to come to China and just get drunk and party for a year. Nothing wrong with that of course, but some of us foreign settlers, migrants if you like, see themselves as long-term fixtures in China if possible, and being part of a music community can play a really positive role in bridging gaps between cultures.
On hearing the John Carroll album ‘Cenotaph Tapes’, which was released in 2014, it became immediately obvious this was a very talented artist with sizable creative aspirations of his own to satiate. This was a man then, who was happy to carry the baton for artists he believed in but was actually first and foremost a singer-songwriter, musician and performer himself. Not long living in China, I found ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ an LP I could really relate to in terms of the experiences that were being relayed to me, as well as feeling a sense of relief my adopted city already had a creative scene I could potentially tap into and involve myself in. Fast forward to 2017 and we have a Hangzhou with a brand new Mao Livehouse for groups that can pull in a crowd and an extremely precious venue in the form of Loopy, that can cater to more underground or up and coming artists, as well as lesser known international touring outfits. Things have noticeably changed in the city then but what of John Carroll’s new output – how is it different and how has it remained the same?
From the opening thumps and squeaks of ‘Gravedigger’ the immediate impression is that this will be a very different album to the preceding release ‘Cenotaph Tapes’. Eleanor Rigby style strings jab and cut away at the arrangement with an acoustic guitar providing a bold rhythmic pulse, in a sense occupying the role of drummer. As the song progresses the listener is aware the song is always mutating and shifting, mirroring the lyricism and arguably setting a template for the entire LP. Lyrically there are parallels with ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ in the sense the songwriter is telling a tale of alienation but musically we are in a very different, though no less enjoyable, ballpark.
‘Horseless’ provides rather a fun contrast to the opener and conjures up a recording philosophy not radically different to the work of Bill Callahan but with Pixies-like guitar lines. With melodica notes nicely filling in the gaps, this is a curious and unexpected little ditty leaving you wondering what could possibly happen next. What does happen next is ‘Anonymous Proxy’. On the surface a much more uniform and traditional song structure and one you’d expect to receive play-listing on BBC Radio 2 and 6 if getting national radio play was based around merit alone. The bass on this track is superb, both in terms of the writing and the execution, whilst the synth and guitar motifs provide decoration which is almost Enoesque in its conception. The drumming propels the track to new radio-friendly heights and the female backing vocals provided by Juliet Gray provide the icing on the cake – really beautifully rounding off an awesome sounding arrangement and mix (the album was mixed by Shanghai-based Marcel Primeau).
Next up is ‘Warring State’. This track again sums up the new-found ease Carroll seems to possess when it comes to composition. The manner in which the chords and riffs have been fused together comes across as effortless. There’s a certain songwriting maturity flowing throughout this record. With ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ perhaps there is a sense of an artist who, despite being an accomplished songsmith, is wrestling with something. The John Carroll on 2017’s ‘Aviation’ however, showcases a personality less at odds with himself and the manner in which he negotiates his environment both sonically and perhaps even in his everyday life. In essence, there’s more of a feeling this is someone who, whilst eager to explore and widen his palette, at the same time knows what works for him and what doesn’t, with an increased confidence in himself and his craft.
This idea is reinforced in ‘Ambushed From All Sides’, a real gem of a pop track, and, again, not unlike The Beatles, though less perhaps this time regarding the instrumentation, but more in the approach behind the writing. The mere title comes across as something Lennon or McCartney might have seen in a newspaper and immediately recognized as a potential song name. Melodically too this isn’t that far away from the Fab Four – a catchy and memorable number.
‘Migrant Bird’ is a reminder that the John Carroll of ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ is still around in his more pensive moments and this has actually become one of my favourite tracks. It’s a useful bridge between the two records which gives his catalogue cohesion but, more than that, it’s just a really touching song and subject matter that is vital to the story of modern China. The acoustic guitar does the hard work and demonstrates the kind of playing that shows Carroll could simply play solo the rest of his life as a folk artist should he wish to.
‘Thin Air’ however provides the necessary jolt that suggests there is more to Carroll than the role of an acoustic troubadour and signals an artist that will refuse to be typecast. First impressions can be deceiving – this comes across as a rock track but…wait…where are the drums? It doesn’t matter. The acoustic guitar again communicates all the rhythm that is needed and as Frank Ocean already demonstrated in 2016, a pumping drum track isn’t always required to do something interesting with your medium. Welcome to the future. Anything goes.
The drums return with ‘If You Know How’. This is an interesting track. You could imagine the riffing being played by a heavier rock band but the fact it is played in a more stripped back manner creates a really unique texture. The meat of the song has something Dylan about it but the little quirks in the arrangement really spice it up and take it somewhere more modern.
Another of the more fascinating tunes comes in the shape of ‘Great White Shark’. Literally inspired by the animal in question, Carroll conveys rich and vivid imagery both lyrically and in terms of the notes played. Whilst the temptation on first listen might be to perceive this song as just a quiet number to help begin closing out the record, closer inspection reveals some really neat little techniques to build up the arrangement. Another contender for best song of which there are admittedly many.
‘Snare Traps’ throws up an opportunity for Carroll to fall at the final hurdle but he clears the last jump seemingly with ease. Again this is an example of the control and maturity this artist is displaying towards writing and arrangement, the acoustic guitar playing blending gracefully with synth lines, piano and string flourishes. It would be fascinating to see what John Carroll could achieve working with a top producer and with the huge promotional machine that backs so many of the most ‘successful’ of today’s big hitters. If this isn’t attainable that’s not a problem though, as this is an artist who has the wind in his musical sails and has done much to display his sizable production chops in addition to his already proven songwriting talents. Top marks and worth the three year wait. We’re proud to have artists of this caliber residing in Hangzhou.
‘Aviation’ is out now on Medic Records.