A closer look to the Private Parts & Pieces series
After discussing the overall Anthony Phillips’ discography in the previous articles, I’ll finally spend some more words on the Private Parts and Pieces series, that holds a special place in its overall production and, after The Geese and The Ghost, is his most distinctive and trademark work.
Here I will especially concentrate on those albums whose main nature is anthological and eclectic (more consistent works as Twelve or Ivory Moon have been previously discussed) that, aside the differences in content through the years, work consistently as a whole, big archive. In fact, despite the efforts from Phillips and collaborators to sequence them to provide a listenable program, most of them don’t work quite well as full albums, unless for background listening.
Instead, they are like a reiterate discourse, whose main topics keep coming back volume after volume.
I guess very few would contest that the main dish on the series are guitar (and other plucked instruments) pieces. Phillips’ relationship with his “fretted fraternity” is still the strongest and it’s there when you’ll find his more distinctive musical nature.
So it’s not surprising that guitar(s) pieces make the majority of the tracks in the overall PP&P series, that two volumes are monographic (Antiques and Twelve) and a third mainly guitaristic (Dragonfly Dreams).
What already said about Phillips’ compositional approach to guitars can be easily verified in the PP&P, as it follows.
- Notable Classical pieces include the simple and joyful Carnival (VII) and the adventurous 8-minutes seven strings tour-de-force Eduardo (IV). Many tracks are pretty slow paced and simple but there are faster and more energetic moments, as well as complexity.
- Only three pieces are performed on solo steel string acoustic guitar: Openers, In The Valleys and Quango, all from IX. The first is a uplifting plucked etude-like piece, in simple ternary structure; the other two are fingerpicked and pretty much comparable to the classical guitar repertoire (Quango sort of jazzier – the title is an easy pun), with the steel strings being used mainly for timbric reasons.
- Duets or trios are rarer but interspersed through all anthologies. Ensembles with different overlaid guitars are a little more frequent: La Dolorosa (VII) is classically structured, Tregenna Afternoons (I), with classical and 12 strings overdubbed, is closest to a certain “prog” sensitivity, alternating arpeggiated chord sections to more melodic ones.
- Excluding Twelve, only I, IV, and IX feature the trademarked Phillips’ 12 strings guitar. None of those pieces have been written after the Eighties. They’re all worthwhile.
While Reaper and Flamingo (I) are, in some sections, reminiscent of rock/prog, they also share the “classical” attitude of Twelve, with defined structure, contrast, and complex sections. Same can be said for Chinese Walls (IX), a stunning 17 minutes piece, loosely structured as a sonata form, with a cuddling exposition, a stormy “development”, a quick recap and a strangely warm sound, possibly consequence of the “bizarre” tuning and the denoising/eq-ing of the original tape.
Out of curiosity, Flamingo is the opening movement of an aborted 12 string concert.
The remaining two are simpler: Tibetan Yak-Music (I) is repetitive and hypnotic while A Catch At The Table (IV) is étude-like (while doubled in recording, is essentially a solo in writing).
Outside the two monographies, VI and X, there’s very little piano in the series.
Seven solo pieces are scattered in volumes I, II and VII (with the former closest in style to Ivory Moon and the latter to Soirée).
The older ones have some stiffness to them in writing and poor sound (one was remade in Seventh Heaven, though); the newer pieces from VII, Cathedral Woods and Now they’re all gone are instead good ones, structured and complete, evocative and charming. They could be in the Soirée tracklist without problems and indeed it’s a pity they are not.
There’s a consistent part of tracks in the PP&P series (1 and 3/4 hours of music) that can be somewhat considered progressive music. I’m using the term in a broad way here, to include all those tracks that, from a compositional point of view, don’t fit in the acoustic or classical styles and, for recording/mixing technique, lean more towards a “studio” approach (overdubs, layering, etc.). If you consider these tracks altogether, despite the differences, you immediately get this common thread that makes them different from everything discussed so far; and “Prog” itself is a macro genre that evolved with time, thus allowing this liberty of inclusion.
Usually, these tracks feature ensembles, from the typical rock lineup to several guitars and acoustic instruments plus occasionally rhythm sections (drums, percussions, drum machines, etc.).
The oldest of them of course do sound more “Seventies” and closer to the original prog rock template: like the brilliant Scottish Suite (II) – sort of a rock stage music for Macbeth – the leftovers from Wise After The Event or the double piano extravaganza Beauty And The Beast (I).
As for the following albums, prog tracks include: electro-acoustic tunes (with drum machines like Lights On The Hill and Bouncer (IV) or without it like Old Faithful (IX) – classic guitar solo over synth pad); rocker-jazzier fusions like the noteworthy Sunrise And Sea Monsters (VIII – with sax); folker tunes like the skilled Pieces Of Eight suite (VIII – with cello).
I also put here all those otherwise acoustic or semi-acoustic pieces whose simplest construction is loosely song-like (es. Esperansa – III), whose style is mainly based on strummed guitar (es. Infra Dig – VII) or a “lead + rhythm guitar” approach (es. Beachrunner – VII) or again featuring mainly broken chords over repetitive chord progressions and loops (Summer Ponds and Dragonflies – IX).
Finally, I include in the group that kind-of-almost-ambient guitar or ensemble pieces, whose slow pace, repetitive structure and/or heavy use of reverb make them sound closer to soundscapes (examples of this kind can be found in If I Could Tell You – VII – short sketch with guitar and sax solo; or in the improvised duet The Tears Of Pablo Paraguas – IX).
Overall, the best of these “prog” tracks can prove to be among the most interesting and exciting in the whole series. But it needs to be said that big part of the others (especially the shorter) act more or less as mere fillers.
Vol. VII (Slow Waves, Soft Stars) is mainly comprised of electronic material, vol. XI (City Of Dreams) almost totally. Other interspersed tracks are featured in II, IV, VII and IX.
PP&P electronic tracks differ substantially from Phillip’s big scale albums like 1984 or Slow Dance, but also quite from the Missing Links works, because of the theme-less, improvised, loosely soundscape and sometimes unfinished feel of most of them. In a word: unmemorable.
The most effective results are reached in moody, calm, almost immobile atmospheric pieces like Vanishing Streets and Slow Waves, Soft Stars (VII) or Under The Ice (IX), or Tuscan Wedding (XI) that take advantage of Phillips’ evocative skills; or hypnotic arpeggiated lullabies like Lostwithiel (IX) and Coral Island (XI) or the moody Night Song (IX), with synth soprano voice.
Occasionally some track shows a recognizable structure (as is the case of Anthem To Doomed Youth – XI) but a great deal are a combination of improvisation and rhythmless, droning, prolonged sounds.
Generally, anyway, these tracks are too unresolved and fragmentary to be really interesting; and even organizing some pieces in the Ice Flight suite (VII) or trying to intersperse common recurring themes in the whole XI doesn’t cast away this feeling.
City Of Dreams is the weirdest of all. It sounds like a “full” electronic album (the occasional acoustic moment is treated so that it blends sonically with the rest) and, like in the Wildlife soundtrack album, short pieces are crossfaded and glued together to form sort of a suite; but the “snippet factor” is at its peak, here, because sparse, undeveloped melodies and short soundscapes prevail in an alternating stream of moods (from melancholic to suspended to dark-ish) only to be improperly broken at traits by an out-of-place dramatic track.
Safe aforementioned exceptions, the electronic music in the PP&P share a common trait: attentive listening proves to be pretty pointless, though it works as relaxing music.
Here and there, PP&P albums include some songs, that I’ll touch very briefly for sake of completeness, since they certainly are not the main object of interest in the series.
They are acoustic, voice and guitar only, and most are old ‘69 pre or early Genesis songs (that were dropped because of the move towards progressive rock). The majority of them, not in the original tracklist, was recorded and added as bonus for re-issues on CD in the Nineties.
Phillips generally speaks fondly of them, commenting that they give you quite the spirit of the time. Possibly meaning: youthful simplicity, kind of naive romanticism. Not my cup of tea, but you may give ’em a try.
Here’s the tracklist of the PP&P mixtape I’d give you to try this series out. Old style, two programs of 1 hour each. Not “all the best” but close. Unfortunately, there isn’t an online source that has them all available for streaming.
- Beauty And The Beast (I)
- Flamingo (I)
- Hurlingham Suite: (iii) Bandido (III)
- Tregenna Afternoons (I)
- Scottish Suite (selection) (II)
(i) Salmon Leap
(ii) Parting Thistle
(iv) Amorphous, Cadaverous and Nebulous
- Let Us Now Make Love (VI)
- Chinese Walls (IX)
- May (V)
- Eduardo (IV)
- Pieces Of Eight (VII)
- Scythia (X)
- New England Suite (VIII)
- Sunrise And Sea Monsters (VIII)
- Carnival (VII)
- Rain Suite (X)
- Summer Ponds And Dragonflies (IX)