Sunday, 23 January 2022

Doremi Fasol Latido - Hawkwind

 

Provenance: As with Gryphon, Hawkwind are another band I've inherited from my dad. I've got albums, been to see them (and a few of their offshoots) live; hell, I even spent a weekend on the Isle of Wight at HawkFest.

Yet I'm no superfan. It's taken me a while to get around to reviewing Hawkwind on this blog. The reason behind that is, in my life, Hawkwind speak to a very specific mood, or perhaps more accurately, a particular state of mind. A state, as it happens, that is not very congruent to sitting down and tapping away at a computer.

Nonetheless, ultimately it's music - and thus even if my third eye is a little attenuated on a dull Sunday afternoon, I'll give it the old college go.

Review: Almost immediately after hitting the play button on my stereo, I regret that I'm not lying back in a darkened room at midnight. I could close a few curtains but it would be a faint attempt at recreating the ideal conditions to absorb Dave Brock's singular contribution to our specie, Hawkwind. In fact, 2am in a marquee surrounded by other revellers and vision-questers is probably the ideal. As I have mentioned before now, Simon Reynolds has convincingly argued the case that EDM can only be properly experienced at a rave, with the attendant sensations, lighting - and drugs. I think the same applies to Hawkwind.

So, I'm not about to get myself twisted at the same time as Paul O'Grady: For the Love of Dogs is on TV (nor will I ever, really - I'm notoriously boring in this regard). Still, at their best - which Doremi Fasol Latido approaches - Hawkwind are a mighty proposition, beaming in all manner of strange vibrations from the dimly-perceived reaches of the galaxy. For the uninitiated, Hawkwind have worn a few hats in their time, but their most famous guise is as 'space rock' pioneers; long, jammy, semi-improvised pieces with an emphasis on repetition and lashings of burbling synths and crazy guitar tones. Not top forty stuff - for the most part.

For the most part, that's what you get on Doremi Fasol Latido, especially on the likes of 'Brainstorm', 'Lord of Light' and the lengthy 'Time We Left the World Today'. However, there's a very cool acoustic spine to many of the tracks here, which suggests a kind of bridging between the hippy past and the electronic whoosh 'n' clang sound that would come to dominate the space rock genre. The woodiness of acoustic guitar and the extra-terrestrial beeps and blats actually blend very well on tracks like 'Space Is Deep' and a personal favourite of mine, 'Down Through the Night', which sounds like a transmission from the starry vault above. Meanwhile another acoustic number, 'The Watcher', was straight enough a composition to appear in relatively unaltered (albeit, massively amplified) form on Motorhead's debut album.

Yes folks, this is Lemmy-era Hawkwind; in fact, Doremi Fasol Latido is the first studio album he appears on. In what form, however, is a little obscure, simply because his bass is virtually inaudible. His inimitable croak, like a toad regurgitating a sheet of sandpaper, graces one track, though it is in (relatively) limber form compared to how it would sound only a few years down the line. Still, I don't really mind the lack of bottom end, as all the fun stuff on Doremi Fasol Latido occurs in the mids and trebles - the hypnotic two chord buzz-guitar for one, and Nik Turner's free verse flute and saxophone soloing. I've long been a big advocate of people going insane on the flute in rock music, and would love to see a revival.

(A couple of days ago I saw a cool band in Brighton that featured a dude playing amplified accordion. Immensely enjoyable. More of this in rock music, please, but specifically, more hog-wild flute parts.)

Now, whilst I very much like the version of Hawkwind that attempted things like melodies and choruses (Quark, Strangeness and Charm), it's this iteration, one that deals more in sounds and textures, that is dear to my heart. Out go pop song structures - in come grinding guitars, motorik percussion and synthesizers that feel like they're about to split apart. Yes, there's plenty of abandon present, but lurking at the centre of Doremi Fasol Latido is a kind of meditative focus; that through ritual (you could describe much of the music as here in the vocabulary of chants and marches) and intent, we're only a tachyon or two away from hitting upon the universal resonance that opens us up to the music of the spheres.

Take heed my fellow psychonauts, Doremi Fasol Latido is the rocket fuel needed to kick clear of Spaceship Earth, even if it's just for forty minutes or so. It's longer than Bezos managed.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Rock The World - Various Artists

 

Provenance: Back when I were a lad and finding my feet musically, compilation albums proved a great gateway drug. I look down on them a little these days, and perhaps I should rethink; it is through a compilation album that I got hepped to my favourite band, Blue Oyster Cult. 

Now, Rock The World and I have a history going back many years. My mum used to work in a library, and as such would often bring home tapes and CDs that she thought my brother and I would be into. That way led me to becoming a fan, fairly idiosyncratically, of both ZZ Top's Recycler and Aerosmith's Nine Lives, neither of which would ever be hailed as tree toppers by those bands' fans.

Rock The World was one of these albums mum brought home to us, and we played the shit out of it. I think my brother even obtained a copy. However, like some kind of weird divorce, as we drifted off to university, first me and then my brother, our music collections had a parting of the ways. All of a sudden I was bereft of Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne and Megadeth; he was left pining for Steve Vai and Motorhead, amongst others. Nonetheless, Rock The World went one way, I went another.

Fast forward to April 2020 and I was idly dicking about on Discogs looking for some eldritch NWOBHM release or another when from nowhere the thought popped into my head: Rock The World! And lo, there it was, with a British seller and a total price (including p&p) of £6.44. Automatic purchase. The transaction was conducted swiftly, buyer 'n' seller gave each other pleasant reviews, and then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Until, finally, I contacted the seller to suggest the CD was lost in the Bermuda Triangle of a Royal Mail sorting office. £6.44 duly refunded and I got on with life.

Then, last week, a padded envelope arrived. Not entirely unexpected as this coincided with my birthday, and friends often send me music as a gift. But - you've guessed it - inside was Rock The World a full eight months after I had ordered it. The address was one house number awry, and this was apparently enough to send it into limbo for two-thirds of a year. Still, I have it now, a little piece of my youth. Nice, eh?

Review: What is there to say? It's the kind of rock comp that contains 'Layla' by Derek and the Dominoes (sans Duane Allman outro), '(Don't Fear) The Reaper' by Blue Oyster Cult (retaining Buck Dharma's masterful solo) and other big beasts like 'Bat Out Of Hell', 'Smoke On The Water', 'Born To Be Wild', 'Boys Are Back In Town', 'Hold The Line'...you get the picture. Little you hadn't heard before, one would suspect.

Indeed, the listening experience is like a pleasant stroll through one of the calmer zones in Jurassic Park - imagine each of these songs as peaceful sauropods lumbering around, any threat that their sheer size presents countermanded by their docility. Fuck, there's even a mimetic quality to 'Smoke On The Water', possessing as it does the exact rhythm, one suspects, of a charismatically large dinosaur ambling to a watering hole. 

In fact, this harmlessness is the common characteristic to all the cuts on Rock The World. There's no New Wave spikiness, nor thrashy bite to proceedings, and precious little mystery. Black Sabbath's hoary old workhorse 'Paranoid' is about as occult as things get (though that didn't stop us playing it at Band Bash - our version contained an ill-starred slide guitar solo, performed by yours truly). Saying that, there are a couple of curveballs herein - relatively speaking, of course.

For example, when I first encountered Python Lee Jackson's downbeat beauty 'In A Broken Dream' I was very impressed with how their lead singer could ape Rod Stewart so well (until I discovered it actually was Rod Stewart). Starship's 'Jane' is the only track with a cod reggae section, and Atomic Rooster's brassy 'Devil's Answer' would be partly responsible for my later purchase of their excellent Death Walks Behind You album. Amusingly, as there was about a zero percent chance of licencing a Led Zeppelin track, some jabronis called Black Velvet deliver an admittedly very credible 'Since I've Been Loving You' (were Kingdom Come not available?).

Ultimately, though, the value of Rock The World doesn't stem from the music it contains, though it's a bit of quaint knockabout fun in the age of streaming and shuffle. It doesn't even matter that it's dad rock incarnate, so much so that you can picture it in bootcuts, feigning expertise in single malts and hitting on your girlfriend. No, this album represents something greater - sitting on the battered sofa in my bedroom with my brother and our friends, going nuts at each other over a multiplayer cage match of WWF War Zone on the PS1. Memories of laughing uproariously, dropping the Stone Cold Stunner whilst 'Black Betty' blares away in the background - now, isn't that worth £6.44?

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

El Astronauta - Quaker City Night Hawks

 

Provenance: A Christmas present from my partner! Who, in turn, heard Quaker City Night Hawks on Spotify and thought that I'd enjoy what they had to offer. Let's see...

Review: Despite providing me with one of the most underwhelming live experiences of my life, I remain staunch in my love of ZZ Top. Every era had something to sink one's teeth into, whether it was their early psychedelic rhythm 'n' blues, the world-conquering techno-boogie most people are familiar with or even their greasy latter day scuzz-rock. I am one of the faithful where the Church of ZZ Top are concerned - and so, it seems, are Quaker City Night Hawks.

Like the boys with the beards, QCNH are unabashedly Texan, with songs that tell of oil fields and goin' down Mexico way. Then there's the title of the album itself, El Astronauta, taking its cues from Tex-Mex Top nomenclature such as Tres Hombres, Deguello and Mescalero (a naming convention that was never adhered to rigidly, though Billy F Gibbons has more than once suggested that their eighth album might be reconsidered as El Iminator, the sly old dog!). But most of all, the kinship is there in the boogie, swagger and desert-fried weirdness that both bands revel in.

After some roaring numbers to start the album - 'Liberty Bell 7' being a particular favourite - things start to get a little spacey on 'Something To Burn', a slow funk jam laced with a spooky vocals and soulful electric piano. Changing pace again, 'Beat The Machine' is up-tempo acoustic rock that could almost be described as summery, reminiscent of the cruisin' good-time tracks that peppered the albums of another Texan, Edgar Winter (when he wasn't laying the smack down over gnarly riffs with his saxophone, natch).

In fact, over the course of thirty-seven minutes 'n' change, there's a nice variety within the QCNH sound - from the more stoner-influenced stuff like 'Mockingbird', 'Good Evening' and 'Medicine Man' through to the toe-tap shuffle of 'Duendes' or the atmospheric Rio Grande mindbender 'The Last Great Audit', plus the aforementioned switches in gear. Also keeping things interesting are the little filigree touches throughout, whether it's a burble of weird synth here or a glissando of prepared piano there; clearly this is a band with an expansive vision for how rock music can sound. For a moment I thought my speakers would implode at the finale of 'The Last Great Audit', which is of course very satisfying.

It's rare that I review an album on the first pass, but fortunately there's an immediacy and vibrancy to El Astronauta that gives me confidence to scribble down some thoughts. Fortunately, QCNH have produced something that I'll be spinning again and again - and maybe I'll be moved to revise my opinions in the future? Hey, this is the internet, and this is my blog, I can do what I like. For now, though, I'm more than happy with this festive treat and I'll certainly be delving deeper into the Quaker City Night Hawks catalogue. 

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Sugar Baby

Wearing a tie to play the banjo
It's that tedious time in the calendar yet again, the period between excitedly tweeting about your  favourite Spotify artist and the moment when some poor schmuck in the Office of Barack Obama LARPs as his boss to pretend that the 44th President of the USA spent the year listening to Little Simz and Hope Tala.

So now the post-Wrappedgasm dust has finally settled, I thought I'd structure an entry around my top Spotify listen of the year, which happened to be 'Sugar Baby' by Dock Boggs. For the uninitiated, Boggs, who was born in the 19th century, spent most of his life as a coal miner in his native Virginia. Save a few recordings from the 1920s, he went largely unnoticed until the 1960s folk revival, at which point he resumed his performing and recording career. Playing old-time, mountain, folk and bluegrass music, Boggs is considered unique due to the overt Black blues influence in his music (due in part to his fondness for an itinerant musician active in his younger days named Go Lightning).

Here endeth the lesson - because, leaning on a tried and tested format of mine, I will now proceed to whack 'sugar baby' into Spotify's search tool review the top ten results. 

Artist: Dock Boggs
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Simply, one of the mightiest pieces of music ever recorded. When I included this on a monthly playlist for friends, one of them commented that he could picture himself sitting out on the front porch in some Appalachian holler, and I quite agree. There are no fancy tricks or studio magic to be heard, just the unadorned sound of traditional mountain music by way of human voice and some nimble banjo picking. A somewhat oblique song about losing a woman that Boggs first put on wax in 1927, it nonetheless contains haunting snatches of balladry from an even older English folk tradition. A link between past and near-present, spooky and weird, and as vital a testament of a time and place as any book or chronicle. 10/10

Artist: Bob Dylan
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Bob Dylan knows what's up where the history of folk music is concerned, and I'm no stranger to this track as it's off my favourite Dylan album, Love and Theft. The whole album is a whirlwind of references, from poetry, vaudeville, blues, literature, history and the Great American Songbook. I know that Dylan knows exactly what he's evoking by calling this track 'Sugar Baby', a downbeat, hazy meditation on a lost lover. Longing and lovely, like much of Love and Theft it's a dreamy kaleidoscope of an olden day Americana that never really existed. 9/10

Artist: The Rubettes
Song: 'Sugar Baby Love'
I've talked about rock 'n' roll revivalism recently on this blog, and so here's the Rubettes, who like Sha Na Na resurrected a soda-stand doo-wop sound that was only two decades old at the time, give or take. I wasn't hugely impressed by the Stray Cats and their attempts to disinter the then-recent rockabilly past, but this is an irresistible, fizzing confection of a track. Given a maximalist production - with literal bells and whistles - the 'shoo-waddies' and soaring falsetto give credence to the notion that sometimes the second time around ain't none too bad neither. It even has a spoken word bit! Superior wham-glam doo-wop revanchism. 8/10

Artist: Jimmy Powell and the 5 Dimensions
Song: 'Sugar Babe'
One of Rod Stewart's early bands, apparently - but here fronted by Jimmy Powell. As a backup band, these cats provided the music to Millie Small on her smash hit 'My Boy Lollipop'. Well - this is great! It's one of those rhythm 'n' blues British beat cuts that has been lost in the shuffle somewhere down the line, which is a damn shame. It's got kicky guitar and organ solos, oodles of energy, proto-Moon drumming and to top it off Powell sounds utterly demented. Yeah baby!! 10/10

Artist: Sam Amidon
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Here we have our first 'cover', if one could call it such, of the tune made famous by Boggs. Here it's slowed down - Amidon sounds like he's on quaaludes - and arranged for modern folk sensibilities. So, in place of banjos we have trebly, chiming guitar, pizzicato strings and a tastefully scribbled lead guitar. I guess it falls squarely into that chamber-folk sound that was popular a few years ago (and continues to be, for all I'm aware). A pretty, atmospheric reworking. 7/10

Artist: Megan Thee Stallion
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
'Oh - he want a bad bitch? Well I want a n***a with money and a long dick" aren't lyrics that appear in the Dock Boggs song 'Sugar Baby'. This is an unabashed demand for any suitor to pay for Megan's lifestyle, or to quote directly, 'Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business'. I'm totally not the target audience for this kind of pop-hop sound, but I couldn't help sticking this on repeat. What is it? A combo of an earworm melody, a squelchy synth sound and the attitude in Megan's delivery made the corners of my mouth twitch. 7/10

Artist: Freddie McGregor
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
Reggae! This is pretty cool - McGregor's got a smooth delivery, and the chorus is every bit as saccharine as the sentiment. I've never really known what the trippy metallic sound at the start of this track is - I hear it on quite a few reggae numbers, and it always makes me think of The Clangers. McGregor serenades his lover as the 'cherry on the tree' who he wants to pick 'because you're so sweet' - might nick that one for when I'm out in Haywards Heath. 6/10

Artist: Baby Bash
Song: 'Suga Suga'
The album this is from is called Tha Smokin' Nephew. The vaguely son cubano electro-acoustic guitar riff that runs throughout, like 'Blackpool' in a stick of rock, is the best thing about the joint. As with the Freddie McGregor track, this track is a serenade to an unnamed object of affection; however, where McGregor sounds boyish, almost coy, this one has the sweaty urgency of an apprentice PUA attempting to impress an online Men's Rights guru called something like bl4Ze_d with his daygaming progress. 3/10

Artist: Wink
Song: 'Sugar Baby Love'
Intriguing, this - a Japanese female 'idol' duo from the late 1980s covering the Rubettes song. Unfortunately, in replicating this with the sonic palette of a Stock, Aitken and Waterman production job all the soul and likeability of the original is sucked out. Not even the novelty of hearing lyrics in Japanese can save this tripe. Where you once had hysterical falsettos and skronkin sax, you now get boring synths and drum machines. Kudaranai mono! 2/10

Artist: The Kills
Song: 'Sugar Baby'
A lo-fi garage rawk version of the Dock Boggs track. God, this is less than twenty years old but already sounds horribly dated. Just imagine if Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were sped up a bit and you'd have this. In and of itself it's not bad, but it feels fairly pointless in the face of other versions that do a much better job of capturing the emotion and mystery surrounding this track. At least these lads knew their music history. 5/10

So, that's that - I've listened to doo-wop glam, chamber-folk, reggae, hip-hop, synthpop and garage rock, but nothing quite touches the majesty of the Dock Boggs cut. To my absolute delight, I feel like I've uncovered a gem in that Jimmy Powell number. Right - I'm off to buy a banjo, become a coal miner for four decades and spend my final, ailing years playing to groups of earnest middle-class students. Auf wiedersehen!

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Hoodoo Man Blues - Junior Wells

 

Provenance: I'm still chugging through my Toronto thrift store purchases.

Review: As a long-time blues aficionado this album should be catnip, putting the spotlight on estimable harmonica-jockey Junior Wells, and featuring my close relative Buddy Guy as a sideman.

I have had more than one friend complain that blues music doesn't feature enough variety to hold the attention, and I can grok that. Formally, most blues music (with notable exceptions) follows a few set templates in terms of chord progressions, scales and even subject matter. How many times have you heard trains a-rollin' or a woman stepping out on her man?

That being the case, I think one of the keys to creating memorable blues music is the way you play the damn thing. Muddy Waters imbued his with an irresistibly sly boastfulness, Freddie King aimed for the bleachers with buzzsaw guitar soloing and Howlin' Wolf sounded like a one-man demolition team; seriously, his opening cry to 'Smokestack Lightning' sounds like a cave-in at a coal mine. Like any pursuit with a set of rules to be observed, the joy can be found in the manner with which the game is played, or subverted. 

So now we come to Hoodoo Man Blues, the first solo album credited to Junior Wells. Already a veteran sideman, having replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band in the 1950s, Wells assembled a crack band in an attempt to recreate the hot sound of an electric Chicago blues band. In doing so, he birthed a masterpiece, echoes of which could be heard in popular music for decades to come.

Firstly, it must be said that Wells is not the greatest vocalist around; he's probably not even the best singer in the band (that accolade, aka 'The Michael Anthony Award', going to Buddy Guy); but he was no slouch on the blues harp. It's a testament to the supreme level of musicianship that the whole confection was recorded in two days, and that takes into account amplifier issues that led Guy to playing some of his guitar parts through a Leslie organ speaker. Can you imagine that happening today? Ain't it wild that some bands, not too further down the line, would spend a week in the studio trying to capture a decent snare sound only to release a load of old pony?

As a consequence, Hoodoo Man Blues has an electrifying live sound to it. Stylistically it treads the fine line between sophisticated and tough (like the best Chicago blues does), Guy's lacework guitar sparking against Wells' rough-house harmonica. Which, by the way, isn't to say that Guy couldn't land a few stingers himself; a couple of his licks in 'Hoodoo Man Blues' and 'We're Ready' are as sharp and clean as a wet shave from a Turkish barber. I think it needs to be emphasised just how good the playing is here; pocket drumming, locked-in bass and guitar work that possesses the neatness of prestidigitation. 

So how influential was this joint? The ripples can be heard in acts like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Rory Gallagher, early J Geils Band and, especially to my set of lugholes, Dr Feelgood. The combination of lean orchestration, musical adroitness and aggression would solidify (and perhaps, falter) in the blues-rock sound of the late 1960s into the 1970s; a good example is Ten Years After's supersonic take-off of the Wells' band's version of 'Good Morning Schoolgirl', which booms with a proto-metal heaviness but also contains the seeds of self-indulgence that would lead to dead-ends and sclerosis. None of that is evident on Hoodoo Man Blues - a smoky, punchy, vital testament.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Best Of The Stray Cats: Rock This Town - Stray Cats

 

Provenance: Yet another from my Toronto haul. Never been a huge fan of Stray Cats but this was cheap and I'm partial to a little rockabilly now and then.

Review: Stray Cats fall into that weird category of purist revivalist music that saw acts like Sha Na Na and Showaddywaddy gain footholds in the culture at various times, despite no real explanation for it. True, the 1980s did see some of the OG rock 'n' rollers hit chart gold as their music was exhumed for movies and adverts; am I underestimating the power of nostalgia?

Unlike their near contemporaries The Cramps, Stray Cats play it straight. Which, on the one hand, is admirable, but on the other makes for a fairly monochrome listening experience. The vast majority of the tracks on Best of... are built from a foundation of bass, drums and guitar; I almost punched the air when, two-thirds of the way through, I heard a fucking saxophone. Oh, and Slim Jim Phantom (top tier name by the way) plays a drum kit consisting of snare, bass, hi-hat and crash cymbal, a minimalist approach that no doubt played well to the greasers and ensured no Neil Peart style histrionics.

This short, ten track compilation kicks off with the Stray Cats' most recognisable, and arguably best, song, 'Rock This Town', which is a genuine shack-shaker that makes all the right moves. The next track though - '(She's) Sexy & 17' (gender in parentheses, presumably so nobody gets the wrong idea) is a little noncey, in a Chucky Lee Byrd way. Also, two tracks in and I'm bored of Brian Setzer's weedy voice. I'm almost bored by his guitar playing, which trades creativity for period fidelity. Luckily, numero tres is a great doo-wop number called 'I Won't Stand In Your Way', which reveals that Setzer is much better playing the sap than the tough.

A shame, then, that a chunk of the Stray Cats oeuvre which appears here is predicated on them being a bunch of flick-knife wielding alley bruisers. Setzer's lapdog yelp doesn't cut it on 'Stray Cat Strut' or 'Rumble In Brighton', not even when backed up by his two goons, who look like they have acromegaly or rickets or perhaps both. 

The collection reaches a nadir on 'Gene & Eddie' (that's Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane to you plebeians), a song that both quotes from and utterly mangles the work of those two doomed genii. It's the kind of concept I tend to despise, with the exception of ABC's 'When Smokey Sings' and maybe Nils Lofgren's 'Keith Don't Go' (depending on which way the wind is blowing at the time). Both hagiographic and tautological, just once I'd like one of these 'tribute' songs to give their subject a proper shoeing. Actually, Stray Cats shouldn't have bothered at all, considering that a few years beforehand, Ian Dury & the Blockheads had produced the far superior 'Sweet Gene Vincent', which deals with the legend in a much more interesting and playful way.

There's not a huge amount that's wrong with this, especially if you like wearing leather jackets, fashioning your hair like a duck's arse and pretending that slapback echo is the pinnacle of music production. Sure, at one point they nick a line from a Lazy Lester tune, but that's the business. Sometimes Lee Rocker walks up the neck of his upright bass, sometimes down it. Slim Jim speeds it up and slows it down. Brian Setzer plays his Cliff Gallup and Scotty Moore riffs with aplomb. The Best of... is a slick, adroit bit of graverobbing, which has its moments but is too in thrall to rock 'n' roll's golden age to be more than a curio.

Sunday, 7 November 2021

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! - Devo

 

Provenance: Another one from my Toronto haul. But I've long had a liking for Devo, having owned a 'greatest hits' compilation for a little while now.

Review: I'm going to open this up by stating that I have always felt a little wrong-footed where Devo are concerned. Their absurdist aesthetic and 'zany' music initially persuaded me that we're dealing with some art-house aural commentators-cum-pranksters, along the lines of Frank Zappa or perhaps even Oingo Boingo

However, on the evidence of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, I am convinced that this is a band who uses wackiness to conceal the fact that they're deadly serious.

Although part of the New Wave, Devo's roots pre-date punk and were initially buoyed by the artsy concept that humanity was regressing or de-evolving (hence the band name), a theme that surfaces every now and again on this album. In addition, founding member Gerald Casale was an eyewitness to the Kent State Massacre, where National Guardsmen opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four of them. This is some quite heavy material for a joke band, no?

So here we have Q: Are We Not Men?, a title very aptly taken from H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau and with an album cover sporting an image not of the band but an airbrushed image of the professional golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez. The Moreau inference - the creation of animal-man hybrids - fit into the devolution thesis nicely, but golf? Perhaps its emblematic of a culture that is slowly amusing itself to death, the "good walk ruined" being a past-time of the rich, idle and non-productive members of society, sucking up precious resources to keep their wastefully large fairways verdant out in the Arizona deserts. I say all this as a golf fan.

So what does all this blarney sound like when put to music? Pretty great, actually.

My favourite thing about Q: Are We Not Men? is that it's constantly kicking against rock conventions, sometimes by omitting them entirely (overt displays of tasteful technique, emotive singing) but sometimes by warping them out of shape into new and uncanny forms. Take opener 'Uncontrollable Urge', which sounds like the Romantics' 'What I Like About You' with all the groove and swing taken out; in its place are jerky, sped-up rhythms and a singer hooting out 'yeah-yeahs' like a malfunctioning robot. The latter affectation is particularly striking, stripping away the grunts 'n' yelps of innumerable rawkers of any sense of verisimilitude and so amplifying the notion that what you're hearing is artifice, fakery; a sham.

Yet 'Uncontrollable Urge' also explodes out of the speakers despite its stiff-collared discipline, and there's a weird exhilaration to be found within the rush of its motorik rhythms (NB: Alan Myers was one of popular music's great underrated drummers, no?).

Devo repeat the trick on a brilliant deconstruction of '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction', almost an ur-text of modern rock music, turning it into a jerky android tale of consumerist frustration, complete with babbled 'babybabybaby' chants in place of Jagger's Thames Valley bluesmannery. This, and especially 'Jocko Homo' (which has a kinda, sorta call-and-answer version of the album's title as the chorus), sound not too dissimilar to latter day Captain Beefheart, most notably Bat Chain Puller (Shiny Beast), where recognisable time signatures are thrown out in favour of undanceable and awkward rhythms that nevertheless somehow hang together. It's not easy to listen to, but it's a perverse kind of fun.

Yet how, in 2021, do we parse a song called 'Mongoloid'? It's about an individual with Down's syndrome, but the lyrics are clear that he leads an ordinary life. Devo are always playing tricks on us, though always with serious intent; is their point (very controversially) that modernity has presented wage-slave humanity with an existence that is so flattened that it really doesn't make any difference if its participants possess any kind of developmental disorder? Or is it a commentary on everyone living the western 'bring home the bacon' lifestyle, much as we might be described as 'normies' or 'sheeple'? Nonetheless, the song leaves a slight whiff of distaste, even if the meaning is a little cryptic. (Perhaps that unease was exactly what Devo were aiming to produce?)

Side two of Q: Are We Not Men? possesses some fairly hard-driving music, almost punky in its execution, with Mark Mothersbaugh's garbled hysteria powering 'Gut Feeling (Slap Your Mammy)', 'Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')' and 'Come Back Jonee', the latter being another dissection of rock 'n' roll, this time Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode'. Instead of seeing his name in lights, this titular Jonee cuts out on a woman and slams his Datsun into a truck, 'Detroit Rock City' style. 

Beneath all the whizz-bangs and geekery, as mentioned previously, I detect something quite sincere. The subdural content of Q: Are We Not Men? is not light-heartedness or quirkiness but a deep cynicism and pessimism. It's a world of conformity, of angst and of the trauma done to the individual in a post-industrial world. By the same token, spontaneity, emotion and individual expression have all been snuffed out. The universe created by Devo on this album hardly smacks of 'hail fellow, well met' good cheer or merriment. It's bleak.

Maybe Devo lost their way a little later on by using the poetry of would-be Reagan assassin and current Twitter celeb John Hinckley Jr for lyrics? Or, say, when they teamed up with Disney to create a family-friendly version of themselves played by child actors called Devo 2.0? Perhaps these acts were taking Devo's almost nihilistic central theses to their logical conclusions? Perhaps they needed they money? Whatever happened to Devo since they first appeared - and yeah, they probably did soften up somewhat - the music that appears on Q: Are We Not Men feels like an articulation Futurism's proto-fascist politics crossed with a mangled version of Krautrock. Difficult, infuriating, ambiguous - and, at times, brilliant.  

Sunday, 24 October 2021

John Barleycorn Must Die - Traffic

 

Provenance: I bought a few albums whilst I was on holiday in Canada, and John Barleycorn Must Die was one of them.

But why this, eh? Did I just reach into the secondhand sales bin like a pier arcade mechanical arm game, scooping up anything within my grasp? No! As regular readers will know, my finely honed sensibilities mean that some discernment went into this selection.

The first of the 'pull' factors is that I remember hearing a version of 'John Barleycorn Must Die' years ago; it's on one of my dad's folk-rock vinyls, though unusually for me I cannot recall whether it's the version by Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention. I could just pick up the phone and ask him now, but nah.

The second thing drawing me to this was that I have been fortunate to see Steve Winwood live, supporting Steely Dan at Wembley Arena. Although he didn't play anything from this platter, I was (and remain) deeply impressed by his performance. Nobody's voice from that era has weathered the years better than his.

Finally, I do possess a version of 'John Barleycorn...' by Traffic on the fantastic Electric Eden Brit-folk compilation. It's not the cut that appears here, but it's one of the most gorgeous, atmospheric takes I've yet to hear, so if this comes close I'll be a very happy punter indeed. 

Review: Why should I bother when altrockchick has written this excellent overview? Not only does she actually analyse the music, she also provides much more background shading than the Swinetunes "uh, I think my dad has a copy of this somewhere?" brand of context. She's got a great taste in music overall - you should probably ditch this blog and migrate to hers, honestly.

However, if my particular viewpoint happens to float your boat (it's all subjective, yeah?), crack on. I confess, my expectations were subverted somewhat by the opener 'Glad' - I was anticipating gentle pastoral folk, and instead I'm treated to some lightly swinging jazz-rock with kicky piano interpolations thrown in for good measure. Nonetheless, in the best traditions of the late 1960s / early 1970s, its multiple sections and careful orchestration signal ambition and no little ability.

Does this album feature some of that weird, breathy jazz flute playing that has almost entirely vanished? Absolutely. Do I like it? Abso-damn-lutely. Flute is one of those instruments I am adamant should be part of rock's firmament (alongside the much-maligned saxophone), and 'Freedom Rider' would form part of my evidence submitted humbly to the jury and m'lud. Just as the era 1967-72 seemed to be a time when folks simply played the shit out of their bass guitars, circa. 1968-75 is also a primo time to hear some major dude wailing on the flute, be it in prog, fusion or soul. 

I am also fully in favour of the piano work on this album. As a novice ivory-botherer myself, who has only really got a grip on the minor pentatonic, I am cheered by the bloody-minded determination to play rolling New Orleans piano irrespective of the track. In this sense, Traffic are like a harbinger of a future to come where Squeeze's former keysman plays boogie over whatever his guests are serving up; John the Baptist to Jools Holland's Jesus Christ. Still, it does add a pleasing cohesion to proceedings - I dig albums that sound like the songs 'belong' with each other, even if they touch upon different styles and genres.

What of the title track then, eh? Well, it ain't quite as magical as the 'first version' that is on Electric Eden but it's still a fine, fine progressive folk testament. Where the 'first version' opts for sparseness, this one is fleshed out with more guitars, percussion and voices and ups the tempo a smidge. One wonders why the joint that ended up on the album was preferred to the earlier stab. There's a good chance that I'm in the minority here anyway, considering some of my other opinions. Regardless, it's a lovely, evocative track, the best thing on here and quite likely one of the better musical allegories about growing and harvesting barley out there (sez I, whose shelves are bulging with barley-related releases).

Solid stuff, then. Nothing here, 'John Barleycorn...' aside, has completely fried my synapses, but there is certainly a time, place and space for this kind of music. Traffic, at least on John Barleycorn Must Die, are certainly better at invoking mood than they are at writing memorable songs. It's pleasant to hear Winwood and co. 'going to church' on tracks like 'Empty Pages' and 'Every Mother's Son', and as per previous, I'll always go to bat for hyperactive rock flute. Always.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Point Of Entry - Judas Priest

 

Provenance: As a dyed-in-the-wool Judas Priest fanatic I own every one of their albums (except the pair of Ripper Owens releases - no Halford, no Priest).

Review: Eh, this is a funny one.

It's as if Priest tried to analyse what made British Steel such a roaring success and alighted upon a) more commercial-sounding tunes and b) a stripped back sound as the two key components, when really the answer was always c) damn good heavy metal songwriting.

Consequently, we are presented with a sleek product with, at the time, the poppiest incarnation of Judas Priest on record - but it's all a bit lightweight. And that's coming from a guy who thinks Turbo is absolutely smashing.

There are, admittedly, a few moments where Point Of Entry does take flight. Opener 'Heading Out to the Highway' has a big anthemic feel to the chorus, married to some punchy verses; 'Hot Rockin'' is Priest doing that fascinating metal tautology better than anybody, a hard rockin' track about how hard you rock (other notable entries into this subgenre: 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' by the Scorpions, 'We Rock' by Dio); and best of all is the widescreen road movie 'Desert Plains'. This last example is majestic, expansive and frankly tickles the imagination in a way that nothing else on Point... manages to do.

Them's the three highlights. Ach, it's not as if everything else is rammel, it's just that it feels half-considered or hurriedly executed, and thus a bit frustrating. The chorus to 'Don't Go' is good in a brassy, hooky way, but why is it welded to such a faltering, unsatisfying verse? 'Solar Angels' is quite intriguing and has potential as a weird, spacey number (which, to my mind, is an approach Priest have rarely explored in their career - most of their tracks are dense, closed-fist little nasties) but the rather minimalist production lets it down. I actually like 'Turning Circles', which is almost the inverse to 'Don't Go', sporting a fantastically chunky, descending riff in the verses but an irritating chorus.

There is, alas, some stuff that is just crap. What the fuck was going on when 'Troubleshooter' and 'You Say Yes' were dreamed up? 'Troubleshooter' has a lyric that could be improved simply by ceasing to exist; meanwhile, 'You Say Yes' is simply dogshit, on a par with some of the most miserable Priest material to make it onto vinyl (what is the worst? I reckon 'Rock You All Around the World' on the aforementioned Turbo is about as rancid as it gets).

One element that puzzles me is that, in Rob Halford, you have one of the most unique weapons in metal - by which I mean his ability to sustain screams at such a pitch that it feels like a hot syringe to the ears. I suppose it was used sparingly on British Steel, and here it makes a fleeting appearances, most notably in closer 'On The Run', but c'mon fellas - this is literally one of your band's defining qualities! Fortunately, Priest would get the memo for subsequent releases, but sticking to Halford's mid-range, characterful as it is, only adds to the notion that the handbrake was on during the making of Point Of Entry.

How to sum up? A bit of a stop-gap, really. Almost anything sandwiched between British Steel and the incandescent Screaming For Vengeance is likely to appear a little pastel-coloured, but even out of context it's a bit of a weird, underpowered stab at the charts. Good news - better albums were to come, but to quote Kirstie Alley's tribute to Prof. Stephen Hawking upon his passing, "You had a good go at it...thanks for your input."

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Squeezing Out Sparks - Graham Parker & the Rumour

 

Provenance: A very solid review in a magazine convinced me to buy the remastered, reissued version of Squeezing Out Sparks. But why? Prior to sticking this in the CD player, I'd never knowingly heard a single Graham Parker track in my life. 

Sometimes you just have to take a chance, right?

Review: From a sight-unseen punt, this has become one of my all time top-ten albums. It may not be the most musically virtuosic, Parker might not be the best singer, and there's precious little here to bother the charts; nonetheless, permit me to reach into my bag of cliché here, because little sums up Squeezing Out Sparks better than 'greater than the sum of its parts'.

Which isn't to say that some of those elements I've already highlighted aren't up to snuff. The Rumour are a no-frills unit but as tight as a Skyscanner-sourced airport transfer, honed as they were in numerous pub-rock outfits in the same London scene that gave a home to acts as disparate as Ducks Deluxe, Kilburn & the High Roads and Dr Feelgood. The album came at a time when a lean, stripped-back approach was in vogue, though on Squeezing Out Sparks it's enlivened with touches of New Wave twitchiness and Parker's natural inclination towards soul music.

On that point, Parker is, one feels, a blue-eyed soulman trapped inside the larynx of a punk-rock snarler. What emerges is an angry, sneering voice that still achieves a kind of brawling musicality, a triumph of energy over technique. However, it's as a songwriter that Parker really intrigues, and on Squeezing Out Sparks he comes close to greatness with his vituperative and peculiar perspectives on life. Only his hardwired idiosyncrasies prevent him from achieving a universality, but I would argue its precisely his weirdness that sets the album apart.

To pose a few examples, we're treated to the disorienting 'Discovering Japan', which condenses a recent tour experience into impressionistic, fragmentary surrealism; the seemingly sincere desire to learn about extraterrestrial life on 'Waiting for the UFOs'; and the steaming paranoia of hard rocker 'Protection', probably my favourite track on the whole album. You can feel your skin tighten as the song proceeds, which starts with a throwaway dismissal of Winston Churchill and ends with a demented "You wanna hide? You wanna hide? You wanna - hide, hide, hide?!". Put simply, despite its relatively conservative formal trappings, I've yet to hear anything quite like Squeezing Out Sparks.

In terms of the best songwriting on the platter one must head to 'You Can't Be Too Strong', a gentle ballad that contains the album's title in its lyric. It happens to be about abortion - furthermore, you're left wondering (if the contents of a popular song are to be believed) quite where Parker stands on the issue. So often, such an emotive subject is presented in song as either pro- or anti-, but here Parker slips through the cracks, and through documenting the ambiguities around abortion creates something quite unsettling - and masterful.

The version of Squeezing Out Sparks I bought contains two bonus tracks, which I don't usually include in reviews but they're too irresistible to gloss over - 'Mercury Poisoning', a delightfully acidic jab at his former record label wrapped in a horn-powered rocket of a track; and a very decent cover of the Jackson 5's 'I Want You Back', lending the song a toughness that doesn't exist in the original. Cherries on top, really, as even without these two belters Squeezing Out Sparks is a genuine masterpiece, larded with spite, jealousy, wonderment, confusion and, every now and then, a hint of joy.

Oh, and if you don't believe me that Parker is a bit of an eccentric, you're more than welcome to head to his website and check out his novel, The Thylacine's Lair (name of the protagonist: Brian Porker).