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Chris & Carla - 'Velvet Fog: The Studio Recordings' - Box Set

posted at 11/13/2020

We're extremly happy to release the Chris & Carla 'Velvet Fog: The Studio Recordings' box set on December 11 on Glitterhouse Records. Pre-Order: bit.ly/3plk0hx

The Box set contains 3 Double-LPs plus three CDs, carefully remastered for vinyl versions of the three studioalbums. “Life Full of Holes” (1995) and “Fly High Brave Dreamers” (2007) for the first time ever on vinyl and “Swinger 500” (1998) now as a double Vinyl set. All three LPs come in a gatefold sleeve and the whole set is rounded by a 16 page (LP size) brochure including tons of unreleased pictures and extensive liner-notes plus rare bonus tracks. Limited to 1.000 copies.

Chris Eckman, Ljubljana 2020: “Carla and I had played a handful of duo acoustic shows in Europe during the winter of 1993 as a way to promote the “New West Motel” album. On that short run of shows, we recorded the concert in Hamburg and that became the “Shelter for an Evening” record. I guess the idea of Chris & Carla as a studio recording entity came of out of that low key start.

Our debut studio endeavor “Life Full of Holes,” was never supposed to have been an album. We had originally planned to make an EP with the esteemed Seattle producer Steve Fisk known for his work with many of the bands we had come up through the clubs with. But what drawing us towards him at that point, was his newly launched electronic soul project Pigeonhead. We were increasingly listening to that sort of thing and we thought it would be an interesting meeting of worlds. Some sort of early stab at folktronica. But our calendars didn’t line up. First, he needed to postpone the planned session, and then we did, and then we both moved on - though he did end up producing and playing on one track: “Sleep Will Pass Us By.”

As we waited for a chance to record, and new concept to guide us, we ran into R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck one night at the Crocodile Cafe in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle that Stephanie Dorgan, his soon-to-be wife owned. Stephanie had been a friend of both Carla and I at the small liberal arts college that we gone to. The Crocodile was our main hangout during those years, and we had gotten friendly with Peter the year before, when he ended up playing a variety of instruments on our “Satisfied Mind” album. He asked us what we were up to, and we told him about the EP idea and he told us that EPs suck because they don’t give a reasonable payback to either the artist or the label, and that he had some leftover songs from the upcoming R.E.M album (“Monster”) and that we should get together and knock them around and see if something cool came out of it. A few weeks later, he had a party at his lake-view mansion, a couple of blocks away from where Kurt Cobain ended his life. There was a film crew in town. The lead actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was there. Also Steve Turner from Mudhoney. Various Walkabouts. We went upstairs to his music room and he played guitar and I recorded the two instrumental song ideas on a portable DAT player. I wrote the lyrics to what became “Storm Crazy” and “Nights Between Stations” later that year as Carla and I ventured through the outback and backroads of Morocco. One evening, in the middle of the desert, we caught the John Peel show via our portable shortwave radio just as Peel debuted the new R.E.M single “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” It made sense that Peter had handed us those two countryesque tunes. They didn’t at all fit in with the crunchy riffs that were jumping out of the lo-fi radio speakers.

At the end of our Moroccan journey we stopped back in London for a one-day session with the Tindersticks. They had become friends and pretty much our favorite band ever since they had asked Carla to duet on their classic song “Travelling Light” the year before. That lineup of the band was very funny and very inspiring to hang out with. Constant dry humor and an abundance of leftfield musical ideas and deep, atmospheric playing. Carla had brought an unstable stomach back from North Africa and she had to stop the session a few times to wrestle with that. The condition gave her voice a dark, dusty texture. She liked the effect and in the end didn’t want to re-sing “Velvet Fog” and “Take Me,” the George Jones song that she did as a duet with the band’s singer Stuart Staples.

Morocco was a huge backdrop for the album. We worked on the songs at night in threadbare hotel rooms as we zig-zagged the Atlas Mountains and the desolate frontier along the Algerian border. The cover art came from there. As did the title track. We were navigating the souk in Marrakesh with a guide and we told him we were musicians and he told us that there was a place he needed to take us to. It ended being a rather austere music store with some scattered local cassettes and guimbris, ouds and other traditional instruments on the wall. There were also framed pictures on a whitewashed wall of the owner posing with various Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin members. We sat down for tea, as is the custom, and a few minutes later a robed man walked into the shop and looked us straight in the eyes and said “I have a song for you.” Luckily I had the portable DAT player in my backpack. He grabbed an oud off of the wall, I hit record and he played us a song that became “Life Full of Holes.” It was magic. The melody and pulse ancient. The mood resonant - like a Berber echo of Leonard Cohen. We wrote down the musician’s name: Tyes Abelhaq. As we left, Tyes assured us the song was a gift. We asked him for a translation and he told us to write down whatever first came to the heart. He said that would be the proper translation. We floated back to the hotel, through the tumult of the covered market and the open expanse of the Jemma el-Fna – the central square of Marrakesh – as dusk descended and it had started to fill up with its nightly cavalcade. The scene we witnessed was later recast in the song:

Me and Reeves walk down to the square
Rings of fire burnin' everywhere
The pariah dogs and the acrobat kings
I tell Reeves I have to laugh at everything
Always laughed at everything.

I don’t remember if we laughed at everything that evening, but I do know we felt blessed. Grateful. A bit woozy. We had travelled far afield with the album we were working on and had continually found crossroads and flashpoints marked by wild chances and generosity. The whole thing began to feel as though it had in great parts been gifted to us. A flow of unsolicited sonic gestures that we now needed to figure out how to put together. It was ours for sure. But it was also a deeply collective experience. Every once and awhile, we had the feeling that we had momentarily vacated the driver’s seat. That we were just along for the beautiful ride.

The two subsequent Chris & Carla albums were both made in a similar sprit. They relied heavily on serendipity. Raw trust. An Eno-like faith that if you invest on the front-end in atmosphere and context and choosing the right people to work with, you will end with something intriguing. We never did rehearsals with any of the musicians that played on those records. First reactions and intuition were the governing ideas. On “Swinger 500” we used drum machines and programmed beats for the first time and brought in modular synths, horns, strings and banjos to add hues and textures on top. It still one of my favorite recording projects ever. Carla and I attained a sense of calm and joyful synchronicity in the studio that we weren’t finding at home. I was thrilled to find out many years later that the album was a favorite of the legendary French singer-songwriter Alain Bashung (if you don’t know his music be kind to yourself and check him out). A decade forward and a continent away we assembled in Ljubljana to record “Fly High Brave Dreamers.” We cut the album in two halves. At first we worked in a small room on a laptop - sculpting songs more than playing them. And then we decamped to a basement studio on the edge of town, for a live tracking sessions that included a supple Slovenian rhythm section (Jani Hace on bass. Runjoe on drums), Midnight Choir’s Al Deloner on piano and Jason Victor from Willard Grant Conspiracy and the Dream Syndicate on electric guitar. We ran down the songs quickly and almost always used the first or second takes. The two processes were very different and so were the sounds they created. Maybe we should have split the album into two volumes? Who knows. Hindsight isn’t much help at this point.

With the things that I write, most of the work is done before I write them. I carry the ideas around for days or weeks and mull and mulch and ponder until I feel I stand half a chance of writing something readable (or singable). As the deadline loomed and I was thinking more and more about these liner notes, a fragment from the past came into view. I am not fully sure how it connects with the albums in question or the rest of these notes, but I will quickly share it. In 1987 the Seattle Film Festival screened a retrospective of Dennis Hopper films. This around the time that Blue Velvet was released and he was having what is kindly known as a “critical reappraisal.” The centerpiece of this retrospective was a screening of the “Last Movie” Hopper’s follow up film to the stratospheric “Easy Rider.” The film had only rarely been screened due the drubbing it received when it originally came out in 1971. The film is weighty, slow as molasses and mostly plotless. But when Hopper jumped on stage to introduce the film, none of us knew that, since not a single person in the overflow theater had ever seen it before. The spotlight focused on Dennis. He looked ragged. Dazed and confused. He wiped a tear from his right eye. He spoke only two sentences before he shuffled off the stage: “this is a young man’s film. It could only have been made during one’s youth.”

With the youngest of these three Chris & Carla albums being thirteen years old, and the oldest having been made twenty-six years ago, I think only now I understand what Hopper was trying to say. Carla and I remain creative and are excited about the projects we are involved with. Risk and dreams have not vanished. But there is a fearlessness in these Chris & Carla records that would be more difficult to replicate now. They were fueled by an undying faith that the chance was worth taking whether it worked out or not. That in time the worst would be forgiven and the best would be remembered. There was still a long runaway then, that seemed to allow endless rethinks and resets. Jonathan Richman wryly warned on the second Modern Lover’s album: “don’t let our youth go to waste.” Listening back to these albums now, I see that we did our best not to do that. Every note and gesture found here meant the world to us.”

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