Sunday, 11 August 2019

A Capella - Todd Rundgren

Provenance: My brother bought this for me as part of a three-album set of Todd Rundgren's Warner Brothers releases.

Having dwelt a fair bit on some pretty straightforward classic rock releases, I asked my brother what I should review next. His suggestion was A Capella, which certainly fits the bill of being a wee bit left-field, because...

Review: ...every sound on this album was created using Todd Rundgren's own voice. It's not entirely free of instrumentation - the liner notes of this release note the use of the Emulator sampling keyboard, which was deployed to manipulate those sounds into chords or percussive noises. On the other hand, this was put together back in 1984 and used entirely analogue recording techniques.

Of course, a capella performances are nothing new. The phrase 'capella' derives from the Italian 'chapel', and so the root of unaccompanied singing in western tradition is linked to sacred choral performance. This gives me a good excuse to embed the following video, which I regard as rather remarkable:

In African-American traditions there is, of course, gospel; its own overt religiousness hardly proving a barrier to becoming popular, both in the past and epitomised by modern ensembles such as Sweet Honey in the Rock. (NB - for a provocative take on the origins of gospel, jazz musician and academic Willie Ruff has got you covered, claiming that its roots can be found in Hebridean line-singing.)

Cutting across ethnic lines, although again beginning in African-American communities, the doo-wop explosion of the middle of the 20th century began with corner singing, though instrumentation was often added in the studio. Typically, doo-wop groups would feature a lead tenor taking the melody, a bass voice to provide rhythmic underpinning, and a combination of high tenor leading down to baritone to fill out the backing sound, going 'top to bottom' in range. Hit up groups such as the Orioles, the Moonglows and early Drifters if you want a taste. I haven't even gotten onto barbershop quartets, floor singing in folk music, field hollers, or non-Anglo ensembles such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo - but the world of vocal performance is rich and varied.

However, what Todd Rundgren has done here feels almost ridiculous. My first reaction, when my brother told me about the concept behind A Capella, was "why go to all the bother?". Especially if you're going to mash and twist your vocals through a series of electronics just to produce the desired effect. On reflection, I have an inkling that it was precisely this ability to manipulate sound in such a way that appealed to Rundgren; that, and the sheer challenge of creating such a weird album. For someone who has genre-hopped his entire career, it does seem of a piece.

The best thing about A Capella is how damn fun it is. Opener 'Blue Orpheus' is absolutely stunning; the audacity to produce something that sounds so startlingly odd still has me laughing every time I hit play. I can't easily describe it; perhaps like a cut from Yes' 90125 album, if Trevor Horn made the band ditch their instruments. It's all the more remarkable that it has such a strong melodic sense, the lead vocal soaring over a backing more multi-layered than anything Queen or 10cc ever managed to conjure up.

Indeed, even after repeated listens, the sounds leaping from the speakers can still surprise; the chorus to anti-war paean 'Johnny Jingo', on its last pass, is overwhelming in its immensity. The effect is dimmed a little on the ballad 'Pretending to Care' and the only cover in the collection, if only because it's are the kind of song one can imagine performed on piano in a nightclub or cocktail lounge; low-key, and only a slight shuffle away from being sung unaccompanied. Nonetheless, the curtain of wordless 'oohs' and 'aahs' Rundgren stitches together to recreate what might've been a lush string arrangement is killer.

My personal favourite on A Capella is 'Hodja', a dizzying admixture of doo-wop and gospel, its meticulous creation shot through with a lively sense of spontaneity thanks to some delightful scat singing. Some of the joints on this piece are pretty tough to categorise - 'Lost Horizon' is Sensual World era Kate Bush meeting So's Peter Gabriel crossed with the shiny white soul romanticism of Hall & Oates. Meanwhile, 'Something To Fall Back On' sounds like one of Kenny Loggins' dancier numbers, if he had the Bee Gees backing him up. I'm at a complete loss as to how Rundgren was able to recreate the organ on this track, given the technical limitations he was dealing with at the time (though, of course, actually at the time, Rundgren probably found the Emulator to be an incredible, labour-saving piece of kit).

As each track unrolls, one can't help but be awed at Rundgren's facility and expertise, even if the song doesn't quite strike home. I'm not overly keen on either the Bloody Mary fable 'Lockjaw' or 'Miracle in the Bazaar' and its cod-Orientalism but these are rare moments of filler, and in fairness 'Lockjaw' did sound like fun to put together (but - if it was just a few notches less goofy it could easily have been a cut from a late-era Tom Waits cut). 'Honest Work' is a touching and poignant folk ballad, that's the 'straightest' thing on A Capella and I can't figure out whether it would benefit from a more maximalist approach or whether it would ruin the sentiment. The confection ends on a high, the bouncy, joyous 'Mighty Love' (originally by the Detroit Spinners, the only cover here) taking us home with gospel-inflected soul power.

What a peculiar artefact A Capella is. It certainly stands out as unique in my collection, if only because nobody else that I rate would be bonkers enough to put in the Stakhanovite effort. In any other hands this would be 'experimental' (=unlistenable) but Rundgren has too keen a pop ear to fall into that trap. A dazzling, baffling testament to a singular and restless genius, I can't recommend A Capella enough.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Provenance: As a young guitar player I wanted to play 'Free Bird'.

Review: I almost decided to go with something by Electric Wizard or Lee Dorsey this week, as I couldn't be arsed with this album title. Even the band's name gives me a minor headache. So, henceforth, (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) will be Pronounced..., and I may well just stick to 'Skynyrd' for the band.

It's my belief that Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the more unfairly maligned bands out there. Certainly, their current incarnation does them little favours, having seemingly succumbed to the temptations of the Nuge crowd a decade ago with a wretched platter called God & Guns. In all probability it was a savvy move; it resonates both with the classic rock crowd (a conservative old bunch) and the fans who didn't quite get them the first time around. A victim of their own success, one might say, as Skynyrd are often portrayed as the archetypal white trash favourite, semi-idiot fans drunkenly braying for 'Free Bird' a whole two songs into their sets.

At least in the early days, before little brother took over as the frontman, Skynyrd were a more nuanced operation. 'Saturday Night Special' was as anti-handgun as anything out there; 'Tuesday's Gone' and 'I Need You' are wonderful slices of balladry, teetering just about on this side of maudlin; 'Sweet Home Alabama' is much ambiguous than its title suggests; and of course, they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch by slagging off their own record label with the incredible riff-monster 'Workin' For MCA'.

So, here's where it all began - with some wonderfully greasy drumming that kicks off both Pronounced... and 'I Ain't The One', a tough blues-rocker that serves as the template for a raft of Skynyrd tunes. They would get a little more complex on subsequent releases, but it's really all here; swaggering riffs interpolated by wiry, slippery blues soloing and Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano. The cherry on top is Ronnie Van Zandt's vocal; he has no real range, aside from a country falsetto holler, and one imagines his speaking voice wasn't too far from his singing voice. But that's the charm! His voice is no more or less 'honest' or 'authentic' than Jobriath's, or Gladys Knight's or Ian Curtis', but here it feels entirely at a piece with the style, context and ideas behind the music.

It is this unpretentious and plaintive delivery that entirely elevates the otherwise slightly pedestrian 'Tuesday's Gone' - a big ol' ballad about leaving your woman in the 'By The Time I Get to Memphis' mould - into a real heartwrencher, and good enough for Metallica to cover. It's also an effective deadpan, as on the comic-buffo 'Gimme Three Steps' (about approaching the wrong guy's woman in a bar); you can almost picture the raised eyebrow as he intones "ah said, excuuuuse me" just before a lead break. If I am going to bring authenticity into play, it's that as a native son of Alabama Van Zandt totally gets away with the couplet "Hey there fella / With the hair coloured yella". And by 'gets away', I mean it's a real kicky little moment in an already knockabout number.

Now, I know that 'Free Bird' is part of the gilded iconography of southron rock, alongside 'Whippin' Post' by the Allman Brothers, the band's very own 'Sweet Home Alabama' and Charlie Daniels' deranged Twitter feed, but for my money the better song is 'Simple Man'. It's in the same vein of cornpone balladry as 'Tuesday's Gone', but features some satisfyingly crunchy choruses and a sentimental lyric that's atypical in classic rock by recounting the advice the singer received from their mama about living a good life. Nothing here to rival Montaigne you understand, but it's direct and sincere.

It's about this time that Pronounced... sags into a rhythm that approaches the formulaic, but there's nuggets of gold strewn throughout the back end, such as Powell's Dr John impression on 'Things Goin' On'. Of this little bunch of tracks that lead up to 'Free Bird', 'Poison Whiskey' is probably the most interesting for Skynyrd fans as it most obviously points towards the sound on their next album, Second Helping. There's a muscularity and aggression in the attack, and it introduces the knotty turnarounds that festoon Second Helping, incidentally making some of the best Skynyrd songs deceptively tricksy to play.

I feel like it's a hopeless task writing about 'Free Bird', thanks to its ubiquity and notoriety. I'll say this, then; the verses, underscored by Hammond organ, are Skynyrd doing their best Allmans impersonation, and I like 'em best when they're sounding like Skynyrd. It's not bad, but on an album with two slower-paced numbers already in the mix, it drags a little. The lengthy coda, however, consisting of a galloping guitar dual, remains a treat. What impresses are not the pyrotechnics on display - it's not actually a particularly difficult solo in technical terms - but how it's constructed. The different motifs locking together, weaving in and out of each other, building both momentum and tension - and then the final release (albeit slightly anticlimactic) are what makes 'Free Bird' a perennial. You want proof? Here's some proof.

Pronounced... is a minor classic, albeit one that exists in the shadow of the monster it spawned. In this scribe's humble opinion Skynyrd actually get better on Second Helping, but that's all for another time. Yeah, this is really first-rate deep-fried southern rock, and not half as boneheaded as you may have been led to expect.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

J Geils Band - J Geils Band

Provenance: During Sixth Form I formed a group, to play at our school band bash, called Centerfold. The ostensible reason for doing so was to play stuff that wasn't punk or metal (the two flavours of music available at the band bash), but really it was so I could play the J Geils Band song 'Centerfold' to a large-ish audience.

In that respect it was a success, but in most others the performance was not just an abject failure, but a litany of failures. Nevertheless, today I am able to battle through the still-present fug of embarrassment to get back on the J Geils Band horse. Here's their first album. Just look at those cool rockin' daddies - hotcha! Hotcha!

Review: Basically, I became mildly obsessed by the song 'Centerfold' after hearing it at a pub quiz. Not long after this revelation, I learned that the band once invited Lester Bangs onstage to play a typewriter solo. A band worth following up with, you'd think - and I duly did, a mere sixteen years later. Other stuff got in the way I guess. Anyway, I had come to be aware of the fact that early on, the J Geils Band were more a gritty R&B band than the slightly New Wavey 'Centerfold' would suggest. That's fine, as my tastes certainly skew towards gritty R&B, plus they had a harmonica player called Magic Dick, which frankly ticks a lot of boxes.

I'm partial to a spot of roughhouse blooz 'n' roll, and that's essentially what this is. Somewhere west of Dr Feelgood and north of Albert King circa his Born Under a Bad Sign Stax release, it's unpretentious, knockabout fun with not a little craft. I like the fact that vocalist Peter Wolf doesn't confuse histrionics with expression, and I'm delighted by Magic Dick's fluid, buzzy interpolations. He even gets his own showcase of his own called 'Ice Breaker', which has hints of Booker T & the MGs. It's a bit odd to sequence this in at track two, though. Was Magic Dick their big selling point? He certainly blows a good harp.

Despite J Geils Band scoring precisely nul points in the originality stakes, it's testament to the band's facility with a twelve-bar that their original compositions stack up well to their interpretations of others. The gear-jamming anthem 'Hard Drivin' Man' (gotta drop that 'g', baby) is the highlight of side one, and has a suitably top-down, open-highway feel to it. It is, however, run quite close by the crawlin' king snake strut of 'Serves You Right to Suffer', and it's nice to hear John Lee Hooker done well in a band setting. Part of JLH's charm was his looseness, which was often the first thing that bands covering his songs would discard. It's great to hear the J Geils Band have the confidence in the material to stretch out and keep proceedings simmering away at the right temperature.

However, having praised the songcraft evidently in existence within the J Geils Band, the true standout of the whole album is the cut that gets side two cooking. I already loved the Otis Rush original of 'Homework', but this hard-charging, snakey version is solid gold. To follow it up with a bippin' and boppin' version of 'First I Look at the Purse' (a hit in 1965 for The Contours) is pure filth. I'm thinking of great one-two punches that get an album galloping out of the stalls; the first two tracks on Love's Forever Changes or Steely Dan's Gaucho come to mind. The start of side two of J Geils Band can go toe-to-toe with anything. Likewise, when you decide to round off proceedings with the Albert Collins instrumental cut 'Sno-Cone' (according to the liner notes here, co-written with The Big Bopper - helloooooo baaaaaaby!) you could've packed the intervening ten minutes like a sock of shit and I'll still be giving this a rave. Okay, so 'On Borrowed Time' might not be the greatest blue-light ballad ever written, but it's a welcome change of pace. I love everything else.

As I mentioned before, there is nothing new under the sun here, but when it's this muscular, unpretentious and tightly arranged (all words that can describe me, incidentally) there's nothing to do other than sit back and admire a job well done. The J Geils Band might sound like a bar band, but it's the best damn bar band west of the Danube. Buy this album.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Liege And Lief - Fairport Convention

Provenance: My memory is fuzzy on this, though I recall buying Liege and Lief for my dad at some point. That's how I first heard it; and it obviously left an impression, because I bought it for myself many years later.

Certainly, if it wasn't for dad I wouldn't have an inkling about the folk rock scene. The first band of that ilk I remember hearing were Steeleye Span, probably their Below the Salt album. I was less familiar with Fairport Convention but distinctly recall Babbacombe Lee being in my parents' vinyl collection. In a slightly odd twist, during my MA I would live a few yards from the prison where they tried to hang John "Babbacombe" Lee - three times, if I recall correctly - before a halt was called to proceedings.

But enough rambling about Babbacombe Lee, it says at the top of this article that I'm reviewing Liege and Lief, so I'd better start paying some attention.

Review: Iconoclastic. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of Liege and Lief, it's worth noting a bit of context. I would direct any reader with the slightest interest in the British folk scene to pick up a copy of JP Bean's oral history called Singing From the Floor. This book both manages to dispel and enhance the perception that folk is an austere, scholarly pursuit riven by purists and gatekeepers of the worst kind. I say enhance, because a few major figures certainly fit the bill. Ewan MacColl in particular comes across as something of a martinet, obsessed by the technicalities of folksong and running the rule over which songs were 'acceptable' to be performed at his clubs. I should say that despite his stated orthodoxies and the faintly ridiculous 'finger-in-the-ear' style of singing that entered popular culture, MacColl and others like Bert Lloyd did much to preserve a dying tradition, and in MacColl's case to contribute some fine songs of his own.

Where Singing From the Floor dispels the notion of folk as altogether too stuffy is in its depiction of the Soho scene. Here, young British performers mingled with American counterparts such as Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank; ideas around tradition and authenticity were a little looser, and I don't think its surprising that the more innovative musicians in folk - Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Roy Harper et al - emerged from this crowd. This is also the crowd that gave birth, in stuttering form, to Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief is Fairport Convention's fourth album. Founding members Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were here joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick, singer Sandy Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks, the replacement for Martin Lamble after his death in a road accident in which every member of the band at the time except Denny were involved. Whilst coming to terms with loss and injury, bassist Hutchings buried himself in researching traditional music archives housed in Cecil Sharp House. Denny was already familiar with much traditional music, and Swarbrick had a knowledge of folk that Thompson would describe as 'encyclopaedic'. What they subsequently did - take music that stretched back centuries in origin and electrify it - would prove to be a game changer.

From the perspective of 2019, where it feels like every genre has been run through the electro-wringer (though electro-swing definitely shouldn't be a thing), Liege and Lief might be considered quaint. Certainly, some early rock 'n' roll sounds a bit tame to my ears, even as I strain to discern its importance in the development of popular music. Given that folk already has a somewhat unthreatening patina to it, I was worried that a reappraisal of Liege and Lief would be full of caveats. I'm happy to say that they're not necessary.

In some ways, this record is wilder than anything floating around at the moment, even in the edgier 'hard folk' circles. Firstly, the electric backing to songs that already sound unearthly transport Liege and Lief into the realms of psychedelia. This weirdness is heightened by the fantastical nature of some of the lyrics - 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin' being standout examples of songs that read like trippy, twisted fairy tales. The playing is exemplary - Mattacks' backing to 'Reynardine', for example, which consists of little else than slow swells on the cymbal, is breathtaking in its simplicity and ability to create a sense of otherworldliness. The truly mindbending element in the mix is Swarbrick's electric fiddle, which at times drones away like John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'; at other times, it simply kicks free from gravity and takes flight. The mid-album medley of 'The Lark in the Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunter's Jig / Toss The Feathers' is a blistering showcase of Swarbrick's enormous talent, but the band behind him is no less facile with the shifting tempos and time signatures.

And yet, in my opinion Swarbrick's incandescent talent is eclipsed by that of Sandy Denny. Hands down, Denny is my favourite female vocalist. My dad might argue for Maddy Prior's powerhouse vocals, others might highlight Annie Briggs' almost bell-like purity. Both excellent singers, but neither could inhabit a song with the same expressiveness as Denny does on Liege and Lief. Tender, strident, doleful, commanding, playful - whatever the song - hell, whatever that particular lyric demands, Denny delivers. The most dazzling example is the murder ballad 'Matty Groves', which Denny tackles as if it's a play and she's somehow wound up acting as every character.

Furthermore, just in case you weren't convinced, she repeats the trick on 'Tam Lin', a 16th century ballad that's transformed here into a spiky, ominous, lysergic rocker. There comes, at around two minutes, the moment where Swarbrick's violin opens up in delicate counterpoint to Denny's vocal melody and the feeling it engenders can only be described as blissful. The constantly changing dynamics of 'Tam Lin' means that the song seems to morph around Denny's moods, making it the most sophisticated track on Liege and Lief and the one that, for my money, packs the most wallop. I don't think that I've ever heard anything quite like it anywhere else.

Have I convinced you? Do you still automatically associate folk with fustiness, beards and real ale? Or can you begin to imagine it - at least in the guise of Liege and Lief - as a gateway to that which is inherently and indigenously strange about British folk ways? Folk can sometimes seem hobbled by its homeliness and rather old-fashioned insistence on telling stories; Liege and Lief serves as a startling reminder as to the power, vitality, violence and peculiarity of British traditional song. Hell, it should be on the National Curriculum. A peerless, important work.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Long Live Rock 'N' Roll - Rainbow

Provenance: I had a 'best of...' compilation, purchased due to my enjoyment of 'Since You've Been Gone' and 'I Surrender'. However, I gravitated more towards the tracks sung by Ronnie Dio, and so in short order I picked Long Live Rock 'n' Roll up from my local HMV. Boring story, right?

Review: Ah, Rainbow. The band Deep Purple could have been. Seriously though, at least until Dio left / was sacked / just stopped turning up to the studio, by my reckoning Rainbow were one of the best hard rock acts of the mid-70s. Albums such as Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow and the majestic Rising stood out for their fantastical lyrical themes, blazing virtuosity and a willingness to incorporate classical and Eastern scales into rock music. These releases were to prove hugely influential on heavy metal in general, pointing a direction away from the bluesy trudge of much that had come before.

Long Live Rock 'n' Roll was the third and final instalment in the Dio trilogy. Prior to recording the band had gone through one of its frequent convulsions, with David Stone replacing Tony Carey on keys and future Ozzy Osbourne / Gary Moore bassist Bob Daisley stepping into Jimmy Bain's shoes. (NB: the late Jimmy Bain must be one of the few rockers to have died aboard a ship, doing so on Def Leppard's 'Hyseria on the High Seas' cruise in 2016.) Nonetheless, the core songwriters of Dio and Blackmore remained in situ.

Another key ingredient to Rainbow's sound, in this listener's humble opinion, was the powerhouse drumming of Cozy Powell. There's few better ways to get the party started than hearing Powell slamming a tattoo out on his snare. He's one of a select few drummers whose might was captured in the studio. You can hear the muscle behind his thwacks and thwomps! Powell's skinsmanship is one of my favourite elements of LLR&R, especially his deceptively tricksy fills and the way he uses his crash cymbals almost as exclamation marks. He's all over the title track opener, providing the heft and swagger for a rumbustious celebration of rocking out. It's fucking spectacular.

It's also a real joy to hear Dio in his pomp. Even though he remained an imperious singer up until the end, back here in 1978 that plummy, operatic timbre was fused with a rare litheness. Any old jabroni can sing loud or quiet, but the trick is to imbue it all with character and emotion (as required) whatever the dynamic. So we have Dio going full-tilt on the title track and the prowling 'L.A. Connection', and practically roaring his way through 'Kill The King', but he virtually coos his way through closer 'Rainbow Eyes', demonstrating a hitherto undisclosed tenderness. Dio's overall performance on LLR&R was the best he ever sounded in his long and storied career.

Congratulations if you've come to the realisation that I really, really like LLR&R. In fact, I think I can go so far as to declare it my favourite of all the Rainbow releases. It's not perfect, but that's never stopped me falling in love with albums before. Nevertheless, I'm going to nitpick over a couple of aspects. 'Gates of Babylon' is set up as the big epic in LLR&R and it almost comes off. Despite its grand string arrangements and Middle Eastern flourishes, it collapses under the weight of its own pomposity and Orientalism, ultimately veering closer to 'Arabian Nights' from Disney's Aladdin than, say, Maurice Jarre's overture from Lawrence of Arabia

The one other moment that, without fail, comes across as faintly risible occurs in the otherwise invincible 'Kill The King'. It's brief - in fact, the singing of a single word - but it used to crack me and my friends up every time. There's a line that goes 'Power - power!' and the second 'power' is delivered in a way that makes it sound like Dio is both spitting and swallowing at the same time. It's over in a flash, but it's fucking hilarious.

Nonetheless, it can't be understated as to how important LLR&R was to the development of metal. Despite being a little less adventurous and colourful than its predecessors, it stands as a hard rock monolith. Every one of those shitty bands from Germany or Sweden that play power metal should bend the goddamn knee when they hear 'Kill The King', because it more or less invented the accursed sub-genre. I imagine Yngwie Malmsteen genuflects in front of a triptych containing the artwork for the first three Rainbow albums every day he draws breath, as without Blackmore it simply wouldn't be acceptable to wear crushed velvet and buzz away at the harmonic minor on a Strat. For all that he could be combustible or even downright ridiculous (unsurprising, given he was once a member of Man-Baby Group of the Decade - 1970s), when feeling inspired Blackmore was one of the greats.

The power chord feels like a fundament in the world of rock and heavy metal, but it's used sparingly on LLR&R. Instead, Blackmore uses his command of harmonic minor and phrygian dominant scales to coil his guitar lines into unusual and exciting soundforms that writhe and bend in and out of the bass and drums. His soloing is no less expressive, and one can only admire how he twins dexterity with tunefulness. Blackmore's nimble fingers and agile mind are such that the work on LLR&R made many of his contemporaries seem in comparison to be tethered to terra firma. A shame, then, that for subsequent releases, Blackmore's decision to pursue a more commercial approach (one that was successful, I should add) brought him back down to earth.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Opus Eponymous - Ghost

Provenance: For a band who I've followed avidly since they first burst onto the scene about ten years ago, my memories of how I became with Ghost acquainted are fuzzy.

I certainly recall my first live encounter with the band - March 2013, when they headlined that year's Jagermeister Tour; support acts were Gojira and The Defiled. Caught it down in Bournemouth with a few friends and family, tickets costing a princely five quid. Even back then, Ghost put on a hell of a show.

Anyway, last month I spent a week in North Macedonia and listened to fourth album Prequelle on the flights there and back. Having initially dismissed the latest as a bit ballad-heavy, I am now inclined to see it as their strongest album to date. So, having recently used this blog to pretend that I'm an adult with grown-up tastes, I now think it's time to check out a bunch of Scandinavians who wear masks and pretend to worship Satan.

Review: Prior to pressing 'play' on my stereo, I had a horrible impression that I was going to be less than fair with Opus Eponymous. What I saw in Bournemouth all those years ago was exciting and theatrical, but absolutely nothing like the slick outfit Ghost have subsequently become (I saw them in Brighton a couple of years ago for significantly more than a Lady Godiva). Likewise, the music on Prequelle is rich in texture and nuance, great swathes of orchestration wrapping around songs that have one eye on the charts (NB: this album didn't do any business in the US, whilst Prequelle peaked at number three on the Billboard Top 200).

Then again, at this point in time, there was still a lot of fun to be had around Ghost's identities. Taking a leaf out of the Kiss playbook, the songwriting on Opus Eponymous was credited to 'a Ghoul Writer'; the frontman was the mysterious Papa Emeritus, and the band referred to as 'a host of Nameless Ghouls'. Furthermore, the album sported cool artwork and reinvigorated a strain of metal that could be subtle yet heavy, sinister yet campy and unafraid to revel in showmanship. In short, they basically revived 1972-77 era Blue Oyster Cult, but this time, with added devilry.

(Even the symbol Ghost use has a touch of the Kronos motif Blue Oyster Cult deployed on all their albums. Catnip for BOC geeks such as myself.)

I don't think it comes as a surprise that a collection quite so schlocky as Opus Eponymous opens up with a church organ dirge. Pretty standard stuff, really, when it comes to albums that celebrate Old Nick. All well and good for setting the scene, but it's over quite quickly and we're into the galloping 'Con Clavi Con Dio', which is what all of us in the peanut gallery came for. It's fucking badass - and makes me realise that although Ghost were working with a much more basic palette than on subsequent releases, that ability to fuse tunefulness and heaviness was there from the word go. One suspects that were this to appear on Meliora or Prequelle, it would be washed with keyboards and other such orchestration. One thing that does stand out is that the music has more 'gaps' than the thick tapestry of sound that typifies later releases.

Still, this no-frills approach gives it a pleasingly retro feel. Vocals aside, much of Opus Eponymous sounds like it could've been disinterred from the mid-1970s, or maybe the first dark flowering of the NWOBHM. This ersatz dustiness - a false vintage - perhaps puts Ghost, at least here, in the bracket of some kind of eldritch Sha Na Na, inviting the listener on a journey to a time that never quite took place in the first place. I'm not suggesting for a moment that Ghost belong in any serious kind of discussion about hauntology but their Blue Oyster Cult cosplay act is damn convincing.

I keep mentioning BOC here, and at this juncture I should also throw in other obvious influences such as Mercyful Fate, Alice Cooper, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Slayer; they're all there. But - but - but - you can taste the fact that Tobias Forge (the leader and frontman of Ghost) is intimately familiar with Long Island's finest between, especially that golden stretch between Tyranny and Mutation and Spectres. Damn it all, the keys in 'Con Clavi Con Dio' sound like they've been ripped from 'Tattoo Vampire'. Elsewhere, there are echoes of 'Flaming Telepaths', 'Career of Evil', 'Quicklime Girl' - the good news is that Forge's borrowings are from the absolute prime cuts, so it's all good. Greta Van Fleet, take note; when you want to emulate your heroes, just try and do it well in the first instance, yeah?

In any case, none of this would add up to a hill of beans if the songs aren't there - and, praise Satan, they really are. Forge isn't a screamer; in fact, for a metal singer his voice is quite soft, made even more pliant by enunciation informed by his Swedish background. However, if anything this makes the music sound even more unworldly and uncanny; compare and contrast with Kiss, who for all their attempts to shock polite society, couldn't hide the fact that they were a bunch of Noo Yawk schlubs if their lives depended on it. Instead, Forge relies on a building a sense of drama and majesty to propel his infernal ditties and it works splendidly. Ghost celebrate the Father of Lies with all the pomp and ceremony of a High Mass, and choruses to tracks such as 'Elizabeth' (about Elizabeth Bathory), 'Stand By Him' and 'Death Knell' simultaneously soar to the heavens and plumb the fiery depths.

Having listened to Opus Eponymous again, so soon after spending a lot of time with Prequelle, has brought me not only a sense of relief (i.e. that it's a banger) but also reminded me why I was so revved up by Ghost almost a decade ago. It's yanked me back to a small concert room in Bournemouth, and to marvelling at the audacity of trying to conceal the band's identities in the online age. The latter couldn't last, of course, but I enjoyed the schtick at the time. With a whiff of brimstone and a smear of greasepaint, Ghost delved backwards to bring the joy of the old-timey rock 'n' roll spectacle to the twenty-first century, for which we should all be grateful.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Mingus Ah Um - Charles Mingus

Provenance: This is the first jazz album I ever bought and it's entirely thanks to a friend I met at university, Mike.

I was in his room during the first year and we were chatting away about music. Despite christening me 'Hair Metal', a nickname that would stick for a good three years, we found each other fairly simpatico in terms of likes and dislikes. That is, until the subject of jazz arose.

'I don't think I like jazz,' I said. 'It's too complex.' It speaks to Mike's good taste and geniality that, instead of berating my ignorance, he loaded Mingus Ah Um into his stereo and pressed play.

In only a few short moments I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And by Toutatis, it swung like nothing else I'd experienced before! After allowing me the time to listen to a few cuts, Mike turned to me and said 'so what is so difficult about this?'

Nothing. Like an idiot, I thought jazz was either some lame-ass big-band granddad music played by dorks in bow ties, or it was a cigarette paper away from the pretentious gubbins parodied on The Fast Show's 'Jazz Club' skits. (NB: jazz can also be both of these things, much like rock music can encapsulate something as wonderful as Terry Reid's River and Kiss' Hot in the Shade).

Review: The last time I reviewed a jazz album I spent an entire paragraph complaining about how difficult I find it to write about this particular genre. I'll spare you the plaint once more, but suffice to say, I feel lost at sea with anything that falls outside of the popular music paradigm. Feel free to go back and read about my utter lack of qualification to write about jazz right now; but if you're feeling particularly masochistic, my friend, read on!

I have a clutch of albums from bandleader (and double bass player) Charles Mingus but this was my first, and still my favourite. From the off, those very first few notes in 'Better Git It In Your Soul', one feels a sense of weight and pregnancy. It's as if the band are straining at their leashes, or waiting for the traps to open. Sure enough, after those first few establishing motifs on bass and piano, the band kicks in with a swagger that is unmatched in almost anything I've ever heard. It's post-bop but in a way that sounds directly plugged into gospel and the blues, riding a tricksy 6/8 time signature but shimmying and simmering along to something elemental and raw.

From that most ebullient number, Mingus Ah Um shifts down into something more mellow and elegiac, the beautiful 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', Mingus' tribute to saxophonist Lester Young. A composition that's been covered by a fair few artists, my exposure to 'Goodbye...' first came about thanks to Jeff Beck's Wired album. It was the standout cut on that LP, but here, with horns taking centre stage, it's a whole new universe. In a world where the tenor saxophone is (too) often deployed for its potential to bring a note of brashness to proceedings, it's a revelation to hear it moaning the melody with a rare solemnity.

I vividly recall what Mike said about the third track on Mingus Ah Um, 'Boogie Stop Shuffle'; every time he put it on, it brought to mind a car chase scene in some 1940s gangland caper. He's spot on. As with 'Better Git It In Your Soul', 'Boogie Stop Shuffle' really shifts, motoring along with the kind of propulsion I had hitherto believed didn't exist in jazz. It's pretty close to a headbanger. It's enough to make a guy want to invest in a zoot suit and Tommy gun combination.

Mingus also excels when stepping into the jazz tradition of paying respects to other composers. Both 'Open Letter to Duke' (Duke Ellington) and 'Jelly Roll' (Jelly Roll Morton) paraphrase elements of each musician's work. 'Open Letter to Duke' especially does a fine job, starting off at a clip before gearing down to an easeful stroll, nodding to Ellington's ability to introduce shades of nuance and mood to the swing palette. 'Jelly Roll' is a little stranger; it's like some kind of ragtime fever dream, both utterly familiar and non-traditional all at once. It's a hell of a lot of fun, I'll say that!

Perhaps the album's centrepiece, however, is the eight-minute 'Fables of Faubus'. I had initially believed that the title came from antiquity ('Faubus' looks plausibly Latin in origin) but curiosity led me to learning of a much more contemporary source of inspiration. It turns out Mingus was referencing an unpleasant little shit called Orval Faubus; no doubt familiar to Americans but a name that would elude the majority of Brits. What he is associated with, however, is relatively well-known; he was the Governor of Arkansas who called in the National Guard in 1957 to prevent African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School after a federal order to desegregate schools.

Thus 'Fables of Faubus' introduces a comic-buffo theme from the start, which crops up every now and again almost as a refrain to Faubus himself. The changing moods and time signatures within 'Fables...', which nevertheless always return to its opening theme, means that it could be read as a tone poem of sorts. Despite the events that undoubtedly fired Mingus to write the piece (Mingus Ah Um was released in 1959), motifs that bespeak sadness or frustration never linger too long; instead, 'Fables...' is defiant and satirical. Even the mock-heroic title jabs at the pomposity of the objectionable Faubus.

In conclusion; an amazing album, that came hot on the heels of another landmark, Blues and Roots. Whilst that one was a celebration of blues and gospel music, Mingus Ah Um twists some of those influences into a thoroughly modern and adventurous sound. I'm no jazz expert (being the son-in-law of a professor of jazz music has proved humbling at times) but this was the gateway drug for me to go out and explore artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and more. With the live-action Aladdin just released into cinemas, I can't pass up the opportunity to suggest that this was a whole new world to me, and one that I don't intend to return from any time soon.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Silent Majority - Life Sex & Death

Provenance: Yet another recommendation from the good people who post over at the Metal Sludge forums. I think I also bought the first Jellyfish album and Sloppy Seconds' Destroyed as a consequence of that one thread.

Review: Prior to the Metal Sludge thread about 'great lost records' or similar, I'd never heard of Life Sex & Death. Yet the few posters who spoke up for The Silent Majority were so convincing, bordering almost on reverence, that I simply couldn't resist taking the plunge. I snapped up a copy without listening to a single second of music.

Why? Well, one member of the forum recalled them delivering one of the most scintillating live performances he'd been privileged to witness - and had begun the evening watching frontman Stanley jerking off in the gutter outside the venue. Another testified that he saw Stanley emerging from a dumpster and eating a discarded, half-eaten burrito. And we're not talking about a band on their uppers - this was at the height of the hype.

LSD were and remain a strange proposition - three hair-metal dudes fronted by a homeless guy who smelled like shit and affected psychotic breakdowns in the midst of live shows and interviews. Even if Stanley, aka Chris Stann, wasn't a street guy to begin with (rumours abound that he came from a wealthy background), he took method acting to its furthest reaches. Contemporary accounts suggest he really did wear dirty, ripped clothes, ate food from bins and slept rough.

What a tragedy, then, if this turned out to be some collection of fin-de-siecle butt-rock, or a gloomy alternative metal album about doing heroin and feeling a bit upset. The reality is that The Silent Majority is both of these things, neither of these things, and a whole lot more. It's a daring move to open your album with a live rendition of a torch song called 'Blue Velvet Moon' played on an out-of-tune ukulele; positively stupid, maybe. This rather inauspicious start is brought to a sudden conclusion, a thunderous drum fill kicking off the second part of the track - 'We're Here Now' - a real heads-down, diesel-powered statement of intent.

This approach rather sets the mood for the rest of the album; every time you think you've got a hang of LSD, they undermine what has come before; sometimes with black humour, often with horror, but always with interesting ideas. Track two is the jackboot-stomp of 'Jawohl Asshole'; track three is single 'School's For Fools', with a pop-punk sensibility that apes Twisted Sister's bubblegum anti-authority capers. Then we have 'Telephone Call', probably the best song that Soundgarden never recorded. It's an uncanny, elliptical number that, once it stutters into life, could be about a few topics, child abuse being chief amongst the candidates in this writer's humble opinion - and it rocks hard. The first time I heard the peculiar way that Stanley enunciates the line "you've got - a gun - I can't - outrun - I'm still that little boy, haunted by thoughts in the middle of the night" made me skip back to the start of the song the instant it finished. Bewildering, but brilliant.

Over the course of the album LSD touch upon a huge range of genres - including psychedelic blues, heavy metal, country ('Farm Song' is yet another unexpected twist), glam metal, grunge - and don't really make a misstep. As an hour-long survey of a transitional time for rock music at the dawning of the 1990s it's pretty comprehensive and superbly well-executed. A chorus can be so sweet, and hooky, complete with soaring harmonies, that one could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to Bon Jovi were the song not called 'Fucking Shit Ass'. LSD had the chops to pull of the extraordinarily heavy ('Train', 'Tank'), rousing ('Raise a Little Hell') and stomach-churning ('Guatemala') within the span of about twenty minutes without sounding disjointed. Stanley's voice plays a big part; beseeching, growling, yelping, lascivious, bleating and ever so slightly lisping, always embodying whatever emotion or thought he's trying to convey.

So, you're into the home straight, you've just got through the pummelling 'Big Black Bush', which sounds like Slave to the Grind era Skid Row and features a fun gimmick where the studio recording gives way to live sound midway through, Stanley leading the crowd in chanting the title of the song back to him. Damn me, then, if the last song on The Silent Majority isn't one of the most beautiful and tender piano ballads ever written. 'Rise Above', a delicate discourse on heartbreak, could and would sound like unbearable schmaltz in the hands of another. Here, in context, it sounds like the becalmed centre of the storm raging in its creator's brain. In its own way its utterly shocking. What a neat way to wrap it all up, eh?

Do whatever you need to get hold of a copy - The Silent Majority is the real deal.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

New Orleans Heat - Albert King

Provenance: Yeah, I picked this up for a fiver somewhere. I'm a big blues fan, and I've a solid regard for New Orleans musicianship, so this one seemed like a slam dunk.

Review: When people talk about superstar producers, names like Mutt Lange, Joe Meek, George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin readily come to mind. Now, it's possible that he's over-represented in my music collection because of the direction in which my tastes skew, but I'd include Allen Toussaint in that crowd. In my mind, he is the central figure of 20th century New Orleans R&B, acting as a triple threat of songwriter, performer and producer. It's no surprise, then, that when Albert King pitched up in the Crescent City to try to inject a new lease of life into some of his classics that we find Toussaint producing, arranging and playing on New Orleans Heat.

As one of the 'Three Kings' of the blues, Albert can sometimes find himself lost in the shuffle. Way out in front is the late B.B. King, a man who came to signify the blues for many, even if his sleek, city-sophisticate take on the genre never quite jived with purists. Then you had the volcanic talent of Freddie King; a big man with a gritty soul voice and a flamboyance on stage that was only matched by his scintillating guitar playing. Then you had the six-and-a-half-feet of Albert King, pinging needly guitar bends around an upside-down Flying V, cooing his songs in a warm, keening moan. Maybe he didn't quite have B.B.'s versatility, nor Freddie's chops, but to me Albert thoroughly deserves his place in the pantheon if only for 1967's Born Under a Bad Sign, recorded with Booker T and the MGs and pound-for-pound one of the greatest rhythm and blues albums, period.

However - despite the marriage of two colossal talents in Albert King and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans Heat doesn't really click. Why so? Well, I think Allen Toussaint's work with soul, funk and even jazz musicians eclipses his production of blues artists; his tendency is to deliver something smooth and sly, whilst King thrives with a more knockabout backing. Perhaps it's King's mellow voice that gulls one into thinking that he can fit in with the Toussaint template, but opener 'Get Out Of My Life Woman' can't hold a candle to Lee Dorsey's version (which was, of course, both written and produced by Allen Toussaint). The next track fares no better - the immortal 'Born Under a Bad Sign' brought to heel by Toussaint's tendency to smooth out rough edges.

Sounds like I've got some real beef with Allen Toussaint, huh? Think again. His work with Lee Dorsey in the mid-1960s is sublime (he wrote 'Working in the Coal Mine', fercrissakes) and in Life, Love and Faith and especially Southern Nights he wrote and performed two of the most remarkable funky New Orleans soul albums of all time. At his best, Allen Toussaint could be untouchable; but New Orleans Heat isn't anywhere near his best. It's simply a bad pairing, with some unfortunate results such as the insipid 'The Very Thought of You' and the embarrassing funk of 'We All Wanna Boogie' (though artists who started off in the blues certainly could produce very credible funk records - King's near-contemporary Johnny 'Guitar' Watson springs to mind).

On a few occasions the King-Toussaint collaboration hits the mark. Despite sounding a little neutered, 'Born Under a Bad Sign' is too good a song to ruin; 'I Got the Blues' has a sinuous minor-key groove running through it and leaves enough room for King's guitar to stretch out; and Leo goddamn Nocentelli's chanky rhythm playing injects some spice into 'I Get Evil', in spite of its too-glossy horn arrangements.

One final thought - despite the lead guitar work all being very idiosyncratic to Albert King's wavy, elastic attack, his guitar tone is dogshit. Pure dogshit. In an ill-advised attempt to sound contemporary, I guess, it's got some kind of horrible phasing effect all over it. The one track where they seemed to have forgotten to plug the fucking pedal in, 'Angel of Mercy', coincidentally happens to be the most straightforward blues number of the bunch, and - lo and behold - the guitar playing absolutely cooks. Oh well, it was 1978; in any case, it's not the disaster that Electric Mud was (yeah, some disaster - it sold a quarter of a million copies, but it's a mess).

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The Lexicon of Love - ABC

Provenance: Not a clue. I had 'The Look of Love' on a compilation called Atomic 80s before I obtained this album; I think that it would've been a combination of hearing that and 'Poison Arrow' on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that convinced me to lay my money down.

Incidentally, the radio station in the game that plays 'Poison Arrow' was called Wave 103, and a few years later I would end up writing advert copy for a station called Wave 105. Did it feel like being in a GTA game? Just a bloomin' bit!

Review: In the normal course of my reviews I fish out the CD, blow the dust off and await my auditory cortices to ping my consciousness a faint pulse of recognition. Not in this instance; Lexicon of Love is a staple part of my musical diet, one of the select few albums to make it onto my iPod. As such it's frequently in my headphones when I'm navigating the circuit of micro-humiliations otherwise known as going to the gym, or pumping out of my car's ridiculously overpowered sound system. It's a keeper.

Furthermore, earlier this week I saw ABC (well, Martin Fry 'n' friends) play the entirety of this album with the assistance of the South Bank Sinfonia. I guess that it's the only way to properly experience Lexicon of Love live - even the most sophisticated synthesisers would struggle to replicate this album's lush, widescreen approach to composition. Seeing original arranger Anne Dudley conducting the orchestra was merely the cherry on top.

Nonetheless, I'm going to play it through whilst typing, purely for the sheer enjoyment of it all. I don't have to; I know every horn flourish, every cluck of slapped bass, every lovelorn sigh. It's majestic, the pinnacle of New Romanticism; the Guardian review of a show on the same tour called Lexicon of Love Martin Fry's Citizen Kane, and it's hard to disagree. As interesting and ambitious as Beauty Stab or How to Be a...Zillionaire! are, it's Lexicon... that has ended up looming over ABC's discography, the yardstick by which everything else Fry produced would be measured against. It's no wonder that the latest ABC release is The Lexicon of Love II (a fine album).

The fact remains that the least of the tracks on Lexicon of Love would probably be the lead single off any other band's biggest seller. It's that good. Trevor Horn's trademark impeccable production means that every note shines with an iridescence; if you're familiar with either Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome or Yes' 90125 you'll know what I mean. If not, it's hard to explain in a pithy way exactly what it sounds like, but here goes; dry, chickenscratch guitar; prominent, rubbery mid-range bass; reverb-laden keys; and tightly wound percussion that eschewed the then-fashionable practice of noise-gating the snare (think Phil Collins' 'In the Air Tonight' for an example of noise-gated reverb on the snare). It all adds up to a glossy, zesty mix that both dates Lexicon of Love very definitely to the early 1980s and makes it explode out of a good set of speakers.

None of this would add up to much more than an airily pleasing confection if it wasn't for the songs. And what songs! I don't know who my readers are, but if you're not familiar with 'Show Me', 'Poison Arrow', 'All of My Heart' and 'The Look of Love', get onto Spotify or YouTube toot sweet. Better yet, just buy this album because it's brilliant and I want to see ABC play with an orchestra again. In an era - and subgenre - that welcomed cerebral lyrics within a pop framework, Fry combined clever wordplay with an almost inestimable depth of sincerity on the topic of love. Love, that most hackneyed of pop subjects, is the unifying theme of all ten of the tracks. As Paul McCartney acknowledged, it's tricky enough to write a single non-silly love song. Check this out:

A pirate station or the late night show
A sunken ship with a rich cargo
Buried treasure that the four winds blow
Wind and rain it only goes to
Show me, show me, show me that you're mine

Or this:

When I'm shaking a hand I'm clenching a fist
If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed
And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I should have kissed
I'd be a millionaire
I'd be a Fred Astaire

The whole album is littered with these lovely little associative twists and turns which gather into impressionistic nuggets of imagery that always make me cock an eyebrow in appreciation, no matter how familiar I am with the song in question. Oh, and every song is shot through with irresistible hooks. Hooks on top of hooks. More hooks than Captain Hook's spare hook drawer.

The greatest performance on the album comes courtesy of frontman Martin Fry. In some ways it reminds me of Sandy Denny's work on Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief;  on that album, and often in the course of a single song, Denny's voice would swoop and soar, coo and caress. Fry does exactly the same thing, with an added dollop of melodrama. Even when it sounds like he's straining at the outer edges of emotion there's a catch, a sob in his voice that makes even the most over-the-top declaration of love's vices or virtues absolutely believable. Yet the sophistication with which this is all-delivered makes Fry sound tragic in only the most heroic sense, albeit a hero imbued with the lizard charm of Bryan Ferry. Fry never knowingly undersells a line, and that's part of the magic.

To sum up, The Lexicon of Love is not just a great album; it's possibly resident in my all time top ten, and considering the number of albums I own and have listened to down the years, that's no mean feat. I haven't even touched on the influence of cinema that is keenly sensed - just look at that album cover - but driving down the coast into a pink sunset with 'Poison Arrow' as the soundtrack certainly makes me feel like I've been transported momentarily onto the silver screen. Put that into the mix with Cole Porter, Roxy Music, David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder and you're somewhere in the ballpark of where this album ends up. Epic, panoramic, witty, debonair and unapologetically overblown, The Lexicon of Love is the stuff of dreams.