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). 

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Born In The USA - Bruce Springsteen


Provenance: I bought this with my own hard-earned piastres but to this day couldn't tell you why. It was a music shop purchase, so I was surrounded by scores of albums I coveted more than Born In The USA; an aberration, then, like much of my life.

Review: Here's a strange one - an album I like a lot, perhaps even love, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else Bruce Springsteen has done.

I consider the E Street Band to be one of the most overrated bodies within the firmament of rock 'n' roll. I don't know how anyone could abide three hours of their dreary, churning mediation of the genre.

Furthermore, I don't think I can really talk to anyone about the Boss. Here in the UK, I've often found people who are big into Bruce Springsteen a bit suspect, like Tex from I'm Alan Partridge, the guy who "likes American stuff." Undoubtedly, in this instance, I'm the weird one projecting my anxieties about the romanticised version of the USA onto the uncomplicated tastes in music of others, but whatever; if you're a Brit and you like Springsteen, in my stupid mind at least, you're a rube.

But listen, don't let me get too high-handed here; I'm prey to exactly the same mythologies, and even attempted to justify getting misty-eyed about eagles soaring over the Tuvan steppe in my Huun Huur Tu review. Maybe, just maybe, I've found it easier to resist the allure of the whole 'cruisin' down Route 66' view of America because I've actually been to places like Kansas. As a visitor I can never truly grapple with the reality of life in the Midwest, of course, but becoming personally acquainted with a place and its people is the next best thing. 

On a vaguely related note, actually going to the Mississippi Delta brought me round to finding much of the mythos are blues music quite distasteful. The ink spilled on rather purple descriptions of living conditions of southern Blacks, coupled with an inference that in one or two instances a supernatural assist was required, creates a kind of gothic romance that thoroughly dehumanises the protagonists. Fundamentally, we're talking about talented human beings very much plugged into the commercial realities of the time and place they found themselves, as opposed to the ethereal musical cryptids that a few have become.

How to sum up these ramblings? Perhaps, that America tells good stories about itself. 

Bruce Springsteen also tells good stories, very good in fact, considering that he's had no firsthand experience of the lives led by the blue collar heroes and heroines who populate his songs. For all the guff about lumber yards and construction, he has about as much familiarity with the ins and outs of manual labour as Joan Baez. Which is fine, because he's a musician; we don't make the demand that KISS are actually kabuki space aliens, so why the purity test for ol' Bruce? He's the KISS of the workingman, with better lyrics and worse music.

At times, Springsteen's facility with a story is great - witness the mounting desperation and breakdown of 'Downbound Train', the best track on the album, or the knockabout update to Eddie Cochrane's sound on 'Working On The Highway' which masks a tale about contravening the Mann Act. The latter is fun, because much like Sparks or Cheap Trick, it demonstrates an ability to wrap a spiky subject in a sweet melody. You know, I'll even put 'Glory Days' in the 'great song' category, but the meditation on reflecting upon one's flaming youth only starts to make sense (like Bob Seger's music) when you've got a few miles on the clock. Now, the KISS song 'Flaming Youth'? You can enjoy that at any age.

However, much of the remainder gives me pause. Is 'Darlington County' anything more than a raucous pub rocker? Probably not. A couple of charlies drive to South Carolina looking for work, give it the big 'I am' with the locals and promptly fuck off - that's the song, albeit we've got cops, unions and the Fourth of July thrown in for good measure. Even some of the songs that come across as a celebration of male virility, 'Dancing In The Dark' and 'I'm On Fire', sound like the internal monologue of yer da sizing himself up in front of the mirror before happy hour at the Fat Ox.

The less said about the title track, the better. Just like N'Golo Kante is the least underrated underrated player in the Premier League, 'Born In The USA' is the least misunderstood misunderstood song in rock history.  The only reason it has its reputation is that idiots contrive to keep playing it in inappropriate situations. Or maybe they are appropriate, and the likes of Ronnie Reagan was providing a slick meta-commentary to his own neoliberal policy positions? Oh well, never mind, there are plenty of other tracks campaigning politicians can reach for that are far less problematic - how about Neil Young's 'Rockin' In The Free World', that sounds unambiguously fine...

The reason, then, that I still like Born In The USA is that when Springsteen finds his mark as a storyteller he's surgical in his dissection of not just the actions but the psychology of his subjects; and when he is a bit clumsy, you've still got a pretty decent racket backing him up. As much as I do find the E Street Band a fairly turgid proposition, their prosaic accompaniment suits the mood here, a few clangy keyboard tones aside. 

Ultimately, it's entertainment. The music coming out of my speakers does not distort due to a lack of literal truth or authenticity. Approach Bruce Springsteen as you would Alice Cooper - substituting the guillotines and sabres for tales of road maintenance and union dues - and you're golden.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Jazz På Svenska - Jan Johansson


Provenance: In a Classic Rock article about the music that influenced them, one of the members of Opeth mentioned Jazz På Svenska. The concept behind it - Swedish folk music played on piano and double bass in a jazz idiom - intrigued me, so I bought it.

Review: I like jazz, I like Sweden, I like the piano. What I don't tend to like is minimalism, particularly. Or, to be more accurate, its sparseness that tends to turn me off. I've bought music, damn it - so why would I be content paying for the gaps in between?

Of course, those gaps are as integral to the sound as all the noisy bits I treasure so dearly. Nonetheless, I would guess there is an impatience lurking within my heart that finds most music that is meditative and ruminative in nature to be lacking. It's not quite the "don't bore us, get to the chorus" celebration of hooks, melodies and concision that admittedly has worked as a formula for much superb pop music; rather, I think I just like stuff to happen. As much as I clowned Gryphon for their strange an unaccountable pretensions, at least their music constantly shifted and probed, at times to bamboozling effect. Fundamentally, I could tolerate being guided through a maze of keyboards and krumhorns due to the energy and propulsion that went into their dizzying souffle of sound.

Here, on Jazz På Svenska, we are presented with a very different proposition; Jan Johansson on piano, Georg Riedel on double bass and...that's it. Two guys playing jazzy folk music, with no virtuoso moments or dazzling solos. Or vocals. It's the most barebones sounding thing I own, because as far as I can tell everything is done live with nary a hint of an overdub or any other production wizardry. There isn't even a producer listed on the liner notes, just a recording engineer (shout out to my boy, Olof Swembel).

In the past I've made much of how I love the sound of jazz albums of a certain vintage - essentially, that the music lives and breathes through all ensemble members being in one room and playing with each other, as music has been performed for millennia. As basic a concept as this is, it's unlikely to feature on any music that makes it to the charts. As such I cannot help but feel that huge swathes of modern audiences are missing out on the pure and crystalline beauty of hearing music played without stultifying layers of studio 'magic' mediating the experience between performer and listener.

Of course, there's plenty of music that relies on this membrane of teases and tweaks to achieve the intended result, but there's a small thrill in hearing music being played the way its done on Jazz På Svenska. And hey, you could argue that I'm cheating, what with volume knobs, stereo equalisation, even the concept of microphones. "Listen Swinetunes," I hear you say, "why don't you just go and listen to some fucker playing a flute in the woods if you think it's so great?" and yeah, I won't do that. But I did see - before buying this album, incidentally - the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. Some might find their strictly trad repertoire hokey, but hearing it being played in a small room, with the musicians almost at arm's length, with zero by way of amplification, really brought home to me just how distorting a lens technology can be when in the service of music.

However, I'm not about to become the music blogosphere's version of the Unabomber (on this issue, at least); rather, this perspective on the creation and playback of music has, I feel, given me a greater appreciation for Jazz På Svenska as a work of art. Next to the congested sound of rock, pop and the rest, it's a lovely, refreshing thing, redolent of clear mountain springs and wide blue skies. One could quite easily have this playing at a dinner party or a dentist's waiting room, sure - but that's only because its understated, unobtrusive charm lends itself to such settings. Active listening is advised.

On a couple of numbers, such as 'Berg-Kirstis polska', there are echoes of Brubeck's playfulness with tricky time signatures in Johansson's playing. In the main, however, Johansson relies on the tasteful lyricism of interspersing the sparse arrangements with jazzy little touches, such as diminished and minor seventh chords that were unlikely to have existed in the original folk songs. Nonetheless, the playing is deceptive, with even a novice pianist such as myself being gulled into thinking I could replicate much of the right-hand work on tracks like 'Visa Från Utanmyra' or 'Gammal Brollopsmarsch' until I listen again. Combined with the strolling bass of Riedel, there's more going on than is obviously apparent in these sweet, mournful little songs.

Despite being recorded at the dawn of the post-bop era, there is nothing exploratory, swinging or dissonant on Jazz På Svenska; on that basis, one could charge it with being perhaps too polite and conservative. No matter - mood, subtlety and elegance are the watchwords here. A peculiar album in relation to the rest of my collection, but one I treasure immensely. 

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Goodbye Girl, Girl Goodbye

TOTO, voted America's Sexiest Band 1982

A while ago I penned a review of the top ten songs on Spotify called 'Hourglass', prompted by a phase where I was listening to the Squeeze song almost obsessively. Undoubtedly, the format was a crashing failure, and I've never returned to that particular puddle of vomit...until today. We're back, baby!

This time around, it's TOTO's incredible 'Girl Goodbye' that's been getting the juices flowing. For those of you uninitiated to the pleasures of melodic rock, TOTO were the mightiest of musos, virtually carrying the entire US AOR industry on its back during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As well as massive songs like 'Hold The Line', 'Rosanna' and 'Africa', its constituent members guested on any number of smooth classics in the yacht rock wheelhouse; the discography section of drummer Jeff Porcaro's Wikipedia page is quite something to behold

The great thing about 'Girl Goodbye' is that not only does it retain TOTO's trademark facility with a soaring chorus, but it's got some attitude and aggression to it that one doesn't readily associate with the band. It got me thinking - there must be plenty of other kiss-off songs with the words 'girl' and 'goodbye' in the title, so I've fired up Spotify and given 'em a listen. 

Artist: TOTO
Song: 'Girl Goodbye'
Rivals both Boney M's 'Rasputin' and Squeeze's 'Hourglass' as the greatest song ever recorded. Singer Bobby Kimball is all over this piece; curiously, the lyrics fall into a strange yacht rock preoccupation of being a bad-ass criminal on the run, a la Boz Scaggs' 'Lido Shuffle' and Christopher Cross' 'Ride Like the Wind'. Sample lyrics:

Yeah I'm out on the run,
Got some heat, got a gun

Objectively very cool stuff I'm sure you'll agree. What's 'heat' doing here, I wonder? If it's the 'heat' that comes from police attention, fair enough; but it's a reference to a firearm, it's a tautology because he mentions that very fact in the next breath.

Oh there's smoke in the air,
And there's blood everywhere
But I'm hoping that the white man don't recognise me

Look pal, you're in TOTO - I say this as a man of almost spectral pallor, but if there's one thing us white people recognise and love, it's this kind of overblown bullshit pomp-rock! Nonetheless, this slams, Steve Lukather plays some cool riffs and I like the keyboard at the start. 10/10

Artist: Squeeze
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Making their second appearance in this format, it's Squeeze. And it's the usual wide-eyed kitchen-sink earnestness from these boys. This time, Squeeze are not ditching their old lady to make a run for the border, no - true to form, they're the sadsacks left on their lonesome, getting robbed for good measure. It's charming pop-rock with a percussion track that sounds like a commuter train pulling into a station with a short platform. 7/10

Artist: Go West
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
This features one of the most horrendous synth tones ever devised. I wouldn't be surprised if it was initially perfected as part of a secret non-lethal weapons programme. Anyway, it crawls along with all the energy of an arthritic snail, but I have to concede the vocals are good and there is a little bit of wobbly Mick Karn / Pino Palladino style fretless bass, which made me laugh. 4/10

Artist: David Gates
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Yup, it's the guy from Bread - I suppose TOTO owe him and his ilk for popularising a brand of mature soft-rock with a focus on chorus hooks and high production values. This is exactly as I had imagined it - a pretty soppy piano 'n' strings ballad with, yes, a big chorus hook. Gates sounds like a schlub, which actually works well given the context. It's okay. 6/10

Artist: Broadcast
Song: 'Goodbye Girls'
The most impressive thing about this slice of lo-fi postmodernism is that they get the word 'counterparts' into the lyrics. The vocals are faux-naif psychedelic, the electronics sound like a fax machine performing an extended death scene. Decent, I suppose, if that brand of hauntology floats your boat. 5/10

Artist: Luke Bryan
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Some 'cry into your whiskey' country corn-pone here courtesy of Mr Bryan. This kind of music sounds almost focus-grouped; just enough lap steel to offer a patina of regional authenticity, a lolloping pace entirely fit for such a mournsome subject and a vocals that conjure up a regular ol' boy who's tough, but hurtin'. In other words, the most horribly banal Nashville conveyor belt pabulum imaginable. 2/10

Artist: Rumer
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Does this have both a zither and a harmonica on it? That's neat. A little nondescript in the verses, but Rumer has a voice suited to confessional, intimate music, and the chorus is rather lovely, nodding as it does to the girl group sound of the Ronettes. Not bad! 7/10

Artist: Peter Criss
Song: 'Kiss The Girl Goodbye'
So it's KISS' very own street fightin' man on his first solo album here (which coincided of debut solos from the other three members of the hottest band in the world). I recall reading, once upon a time, that Criss considered his voice analogous to Rod Stewart; yeah, perhaps whilst he was getting his stomach pumped. What a fucking mess this is; this is like a Big Star ballad being played by a band who have never heard Big Star before. 1/10

Artist: Art Farmer
Song: 'Goodbye, Old Girl'
When I saw the song title I thought to myself, "is this going to be about a horse?". It's not; rather, it's trumpet player Art Farmer blowing a sweet, warm and emotional slow jazz number. It's a joy to hear this kind of unfiltered, in-the-moment playing, both from Farmer but also his pianist accompanist, who creates a bed of twinkling arpeggios for the lead instrument to ease back into. Beautiful. 9/10

Artist: Aaron Watson
Song: 'Kiss That Girl Goodbye'
What did I give the Luke Bryan number? Two out of ten? Well, it's twice as good as this noisy bro-country slurry. I once endured a nine-hour drive from Colorado to Kansas where the radio station was permanently tuned to this kind of dogshit, and I swear I could feel my IQ dropping in real time. At least Bryan tries to connect with some semblance of human emotion; this is eighty percent proof moonshine nihilism, and seems to revel in the fact. 1/10 for somewhat resembling music.

There's your lot - of course, TOTO emerge triumphant, but I could listen to that Art Farmer track again and again, plus I was pleasantly surprised by Rumer's offering in the 'goodbye girl / girl goodbye' stakes. Perhaps I'll give this format another go sometime? Maybe one day I'll actually make an entertaining fist of it? Who can say?

Sunday, 4 July 2021

High Voltage - AC/DC


Provenance: Somewhat murky; this is my first AC/DC album, and I suspect I bought it myself in Bournemouth's Essential Music

However, a tiny voice buzzing in the back of my mind tells me that my dad possibly bought this for me on a whim? Which is odd, as his tastes veer more towards Frank Zappa and the mighty Gryphon. Meat 'n' potatoes Antipodean rock was part of the household ambience until my brother and I indicated that we wanted to make a ruckus on drums and guitar respectively.

Incidentally, we liked AC/DC because it sounded simple to play, but then we could never get the rhythm of 'T.N.T.' correct and gave up. Does this suggest hitherto underrated rhythmic complexity on the part of messrs Young, Young, Scott et al? Or utter ineptitude from our side when it came to playing even the most basic of rock 'n' roll songs? You be the judge!

Review: Despite Twitter's brain-rotting qualities, around about the time of the 2016 US presidential election, some online wag once commented that "Donald Trump is probably the first president who likes AC/DC", meant to be a fairly unflattering comment on both. Intriguingly, whilst it appears that AC/DC may have actually written a song about Donny Deals, we don't know if the Trumpster has ever cranked 'Thunderstruck' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie' in the Oval Office, Trump Tower or Mar-A-Lago. We do know that the 45th president of the USA was one of the first people to purchase Guns N Roses' Use Your Illusion albums and that he rates the music video to 'November Rain'. Horses for courses - me, I think, like the song, it's excessive, tacky and overblown.

It's worth noting that High Voltage was not exactly a collection of original material; rather, it was a cut 'n' shut job of the band's previous two Australia-only releases. Let's just say you can't hear the join - there's no big evolution, Incredible String Band-style, between their first album (confusingly also titled High Voltage) and the next (which is called T.N.T. but is the first time we hear a song called 'High Voltage - keeping up?). Taking a gander at the two Australian releases, the material from T.N.T. that wound up on this album is stronger, though that does include 'The Jack', a song I consider utterly devoid of merit.

Were AC/DC really so primitive? Well, yes. This is pretty much an album of foot-stomping, blooz-based rockers without a particular surfeit of chord voicings to contend with. However, there's plenty going for it; for a start, the Young brothers somehow alighted on one of the meanest, crunchiest guitar tones this side of the International Date Line, which means even when they're vamping away on something simple like 'Rock 'N' Roll Singer' or 'She's Got Balls', the music has a kicky, muscular feel to it that is quite irresistible.

There's also a kind of genius at play in the sheer economy of the sound - it's raw and uncluttered, and to my ears all the tones from guitars and bass come solely from amplifier settings being tweaked. This really stands out in 2021, given the amount of preamp and production-stage effects most guitar parts are wrung through in modern music. Every instrument and voice thus has room to breathe, the biggest beneficiary being Phil Rudd's drumming, which is basic to the point of being Stone Age, but is executed with a truly organic sense of feel and groove.

I will admit that the combination of Bon Scott and AC/DC's lyrics are an acquired taste. Personally, I like his winking, leering good-time delivery, but at times the words make me want to hide. Aside from, 'The Jack', the most tedious and wretched joint here, 'Little Lover' and 'Can I Sit Next To You Girl' set my teeth on edge. However, Scott comes into his own when yelping about how hard AC/DC rock (always a fertile subject), especially 'It's A Long Way to the Top', 'Live Wire' (my favourite Scott performance on High Voltage) and 'High Voltage'. He's also good at playing the dangerous gunslinger on 'T.N.T.', the best track here - from its chewy guitar hook and the chanted 'oi!' intro to the braggadocio of the lyrics ("So lock up your daughter, lock up your wife / Lock up your back door, run for your life / The man is back in town / So you don't you mess me 'round") it simply whips ass.

Oh, and whilst the colour palette may be a little spare, AC/DC do achieve one notable feat, which is making the bagpipes sound bearable in popular music. Something even the maestro, Paul McCartney, failed to do. Undoubtedly a nod to the Scottish roots of half the band (Forfar-bon Scott is, apparently, the bag-botherer in question), its inclusion in 'It's A Long Way...' is extraordinary, propulsive, droning and huge. I have seen another band, Finnish folk metallers Korpiklaani, do an okay job with bagpipes, but this is the only example I actively like (NB: it seems that Korpiklaani have ditched the instrument; it seems that only one of the thirty-four people to have been in the band could blow pipe; they've kept the accordion, though - hmmm).

AC/DC would, of course, go on to dominate the world of hard rock, most notably with the record-breaking Back In Black, and would arguably compose better music. However, as a manifesto for a tough, scrappy bunch of barroom rattlers, High Voltage hits all the marks. Yes, they got bigger - but did they ever sound more vital?