Sunday, 24 May 2020

Gaucho - Steely Dan

Provenance: By the time I had purchased Gaucho I was deep into 'the Dan'. So, it was the purchase of a fan seeking to be a completist. About the only notable thing one could say is that I bought it in Kansas City. Fine BBQ out there, folks.

Review: The first time I slipped Gaucho into my stereo I frowned, wrinkled my nose and stashed it away for a few years. Something about it triggered an internal revolt. I struggled to square this with the questing solos of Countdown To Ecstasy or the deep jazz grooves of Aja.

I'd like to say that my innate natural curiosity and generous approach to reappraisal led me back, but the truth is I saw Steely Dan in concert and heard a few of the songs from Gaucho played live. They sounded great. I came home and put Gaucho on, and heard the same songs as I'd heard at Wembley Arena. They sounded great.

This would be the last album Steely Dan made before splitting in 1981 (they would reunite in 1993 and record two more platters) and it shows. Two years after Gaucho, Donald Fagen would unleash The Nightfly onto the world, and to say that these albums could be kissing cousins is an understatement. The production is similar, the arrangements have the same feel and even the synthesizer textures are alike. One crucial difference - I liked The Nightfly the instant I listened to it. I didn't need time to let it grow, or to witness the compositions in another context. So what's the difference?

For one, drugs. This is Steely Dan's drug album - or, more accurately, their cocaine album. It's not just the references in 'Hey Nineteen' and 'Time Out Of Mind', concealed with a gossamer-thin layer of metonym and allusion; it's also the backbone to the vignettes in 'Glamour Profession', which delineates a few of the characters involved in the coke trade game. Moreover, it's not only the subject matter at hand but even the very consistency of the sound you're hearing that screams Bolivian marching powder. Surfaces shine with a flat glossiness, rhythms snap with a jaw-grinding lockstep, synths gleam and shimmer with an antiseptic chemistry.

At first, this is what turned me off. Even when factoring in Becker and Fagen's notorious perfectionism, prior albums still had a human heartbeat and the odd ray of romanticism glinting through the carapace of cynicism, obscurantism and wisecracks. Gaucho, in comparison, felt tired, numbed, a kind of end-of-the-party sourness creeping in.

Well children, I started to buy the particular brand of weltschmerz the boys were selling. Leaning in, I found oodles to savour. The slickness combines nicely with the subjects - narcotics, ageing lotharios, Hollywood homosexuality scandals, possible PTSD - into a sickly brew of L.A.-flavoured sleaziness. As a downbeat chronicle of a gilded demimonde and the lowlifes slithering around in it, Gaucho remains unmatched.

So wallow in the reflective degeneracy of 'Babylon Sisters'; wince at rueful narrator of 'Hey Nineteen' determined not to act his age; and luxuriate in the frothing monument to perceived folly that is 'Gaucho' itself, a confection that starts off sounding like the theme to a low-budget breakfast chat show and builds to a mock-epic tower of grandeur, each jazzy augmentation of the usual rawk 'n' pop chord progression tugging you ever so slightly off centre. I've heard interpretations of the song talking about gauche (geddit?) roommates or friends, but to me I hear two film buffs ruminating upon the secret homosexual lives led by movie stars like Rock Hudson, or maybe some minor player like Perfecto Telles. The latter wouldn't surprise me.

There's great stuff all over - the bleak 'Third World Man', which hitches a mournful, swaying riff to harrowing tales of shellshock, is apparently one of Joni Mitchell's favourite Dan tracks; and 'My Rival' is possibly the most old skool track on this joint, which sounds like a larky, Sunshine Boys-inspired tale of two geezers with beef, but might also be about fatherhood. That their songs wind, twist, reflect and elide like MC Escher illustrations is just one of the buzzy little thrills afforded to the serious Dan fan.

Gaucho took its time to reveal its charms to me. At first, I didn't really understand it. Now, it's the Steely Dan album that most frequents my stereo. Funny how things shake out, isn't it?

Sunday, 17 May 2020

The Allman Brothers Band - The Allman Brothers Band

Provenance: I don't know when and where I got this. As with a few other bands I've reviewed on this blog, owning an Allmans platter or two feels a bit like the 'done thing' for anyone who wants to be considered a serious rock guy (which I assuredly do - almost as much as I'd like to one day be considered a 'football man').

A couple of clues though; thanks to an ex-girlfriend I have a Molly Hatchet 'best of', which contains the track 'Dreams'; plus somewhere in my dad's Zappa collection is a live rendition of 'Whipping Post'. My esteem for both of these recordings may very well have tipped the balance when it came to making a purchase.

Review: Approaching the Allman Brothers feels like more than just an appraisal of a single album. For many, they are totemic of a time and a place; a group whose craft and musicianship hauled southern rock - mixing together blues, boogie, soul and country - out of the juke joint and into the arena. The Allmans, more than anyone else, broke ground on a subgenre that would catapult the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Black Oak Arkansas, .38 Special, Blackfoot, the Marshall Tucker Band and the rest into the rock-buying public's consciousness. Despite those they dragged in their wake, the Allmans were also sumthin' else - nobody played a sweeter slide than Duane Allman, or jammed out harder (witness Eat a Peach); and, save for the notable exception of Skynyrd, nobody rivalled the Allmans for the twin tragedies of early deaths and substance abuse.

So, to their debut - and it's easy to hear why they cast such a long shadow. Almost every ingredient that would season the successes of other southern rock acts is present - some took one or two elements, others would port the template across wholesale. There's the gospel organ, swallow-dive guitar runs, white soul vocals and a bedrock of blooze upon which the confection sits. In fact, about the only influence that isn't discernible in these boys from Macon, Georgia, is an overt country influence; certainly not when stacked up against a barroom weepy like Skynyrd's 'Tuesday's Gone', or the backwoods zen of Black Oak Arkansas's 'High 'N' Dry'.

In fact, on opening instrumental 'Don't Want You No More', 'Every Hungry Woman' and 'Black Hearted Woman', there's another flavour that seems incongruous; perhaps my ears are playing up, but I hear a lot of early Santana in The Allman Brothers Band. These songs are essentially interchangeable with cuts from the first two Santana albums, their self-titled debut and Abraxas; both 'Evil Ways' and 'Hope You're Feelin' Better' could grace this album without seeming out of place. You wouldn't blink at a touch of Latin rock or a smattering of congas (indeed, the latter are present on 'Every Hungry Woman'). This certainly sounds more like Abraxas than, say, Strikes or High on the Hog.

Is it good though? Ain't that the point of a review? Yeah, it's good. But fifty years of chesty white guys pumping the blues at megawatt volumes and spooging all over their fretboards has, alas, diluted the impact a little. Greg Allman is a fine vocalist, and his organ work really does take some of these tracks to church in an appealing way. Rhythmically it's all pretty interesting too, a jazz influence discernible in the drumming (the finest example can be found on 'Dreams') and nimble interplay between percussionists Jai Johanny Johanson and Butch Trucks (which doesn't always pay off). Nonetheless, of everything on here, it's the approach taken on 'Trouble No More' which has proved the most enduring - a big ol' sledgehammer that works well enough here but has spawned a thousand more workmanlike, leaden imitators.

At  least the juddery rhythms and soaring glories of 'Whipping Post' are still worth the price of admission alone. Yes, yet another song of a woman who dun him wrong (like, half the tracks here, goddamn - you'd think that stadium rockers playing to full houses of adoring fans never had any luck!) but it's a good'un. Better - it's a reet belter. Overall, worth a look - especially if you like Santana.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Angry Machines - Dio

Provenance: This one's a bit weird.

A few of my colleagues at work know I'm a bit of a metalhead; nonetheless I was surprised when a pal in another department emailed me to ask if I wanted eight Dio albums for free. Of course I did.

According to the people in that office, a ratty old carrier bag had been left lying around containing eight Dio albums for about six months. Nobody knows from whence they came or who might have owned them. I'm thrilled that a Dio fanatic may have been moving quietly amongst their ranks this whole time.

Anyway, my theory is that the late Ronnie James Dio sent them through a timewarp from an alternate dimension to round out my Dio collection. These holes in the space-time continuum are a bit fuzzy and offworld-RJD probably didn't realise I had four of those albums already (since palmed off to my brother), leaving me to enjoy the span of Dream Evil to Angry Machines releases, generally considered a fallow period.

And so boys, girls and friends beyond the binary, here it is - 1996's Angry Machines.

Review: My word, those machines do look rather peeved!

The whole deal with robots turning on their creators is not only bound up with their conception - the word, of Czech origin, was introduced into English via a play by Karel Capek called Rossum's Universal Robots, which ends when the robots, er, turn on their creators. This is a very cool and heavy metal thing to do, as some rockin' tunes have come out from this ceaseless conflict - Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man', Judas Priest's 'Metal Gods', a bunch of Clutch stuff, UDO's 'Man and Machine':

Dio - the man - is not usually associated with this kind of jazz. Or, more accurately, he's very closely associated with a particular strain of lyricism - magic, wizards, dragons, rainbows and such. This is also pretty metal, but also absolute nerd shit, so Angry Machines is a welcome swerve into unfamiliar territory. He does this with a slightly rag-tag band, borrowing bits of Dokken and Love/Hate alongside hard rock's very own Zelig, Vinny Appice, the Man of a Thousand Projects.

All the stars are here...Jeff Pilson...Vinny Appice...Tracy G...
But enough crap about robots and personnel, what's the muzak actually like? Long-time readers might be surprised that I listen to my albums more than once (or even at all), and I had Twitter opinions on Angry Machines over a year ago:

Yeah, I quite liked it. And I quite like it now. Listen up Jack, it's no Holy Diver (what is?), and it's not even in the same tier as Dream Evil (because that's got 'Sunset Superman', which rules) but Angry Machines is a perfectly decent metal album, albeit replete with the pinched harmonic guitar sounds that seemed to riddle the genre at the end of the last millennium (NB: this tended to be something 'legacy' artists adopted to sound legit, when they weren't doing shamelessly chasing the nu-metal bandwagon).

As with most Dio cuts it starts off on a plodder, but 'Don't Tell the Kids' is the most bitchin' tune about divorce (lol) I've yet to hear; the next track after that, 'Black', is even better, with a nagging vocal hook and pounding lockstep riffing. Really - as per my tweet - this is all pretty solid, even if the lyrics reach a new zenith in gibberish. I have listened to 'Double Monday' (huh?) more than most humans and I still haven't the first idea what it's about. Meanwhile, 'Big Sister' is a slapdash appropriation of Orwell's Big Brother, except the gender has been changed from male to female and...that's it. It doesn't go anywhere or explore any interesting potentialities that could occur from framing this universal overseer into a maternal figure.

Besides, who's listening to Dio for lyrics? You're in the game for natural minor riffs and that gigantic, operatic, hammy bellow that was RJD's unique instrument. I can even look past the fact that there aren't that many angry machines actually depicted in the lyrics. What fucking sucks, though, is the last track, 'This Is Your Life'. Ronnie can really deliver on a rock ballad when the fancy takes him - 'As Long As It's Not About Love' from Magica is superlative, whilst one of his efforts in Rainbow, 'Rainbow Eyes', stands as one of the greatest examples of the form. 'This Is Your Life', on the other hand, is garbage.

The production on Angry Machines isn't too bad - a little dry, as was the fashion, but not anything radically different from any other Dio release until that point. Odd, then, that 'This Is Your Life', a piece for voice, piano and baby's first Casio keyboard, sets my teeth on edge. For obscure reasons it sounds really clangy and even out of tune - as if close-miking Mrs Mill's beer-slopped old upright was exactly what the closer to Angry Machines needed. To compound matters further, Dio - man capable of great subtlety when required (seriously, check out 'Rainbow Eyes') - positively moos all over this shit. He sounds like a bison with a headache, and drags the song into fresh realms of atrociousness.

Yes, there are missteps - two(!) songs introduced by nursery rhymes, a breakdown in 'Stay Out of My Mind' that sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon - but these are venial sins in the grand scheme of it all. 'This Is Your Life', however, is a real dud, even more soporific and tiresome than Michael Aspel ambushing some c-list 'sleb with a poxy red book. Put it in the bin. Still, Angry Machines is worth a listen, though keep that finger at the ready to stop the show after track nine. Why ruin a good time?

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Eskimo - The Residents

Provenance: My first exposure to the Residents came through the written word. I did not hear anything of theirs - consciously at least - until I was pushing copies of Commercial Album, Third Reich and Roll and Eskimo into my CD player. It's all quite shocking, and I recommend it.

What drew me to the Residents was their impishness, their experimentation, their readiness to subvert accepted conventions of recorded music, and not least of all, their anonymity (I am a sucker for artists who conceal their real identities, even if in one or two cases they have a very good reason to do so).

Another experience, quite apart from music or even music journalism, drew me towards Eskimo. A few winters ago I had the privilege of spending some time in Chicago, and looking for indoor activities my partner and I went to the Field Museum, a mega-sized cross-pollination of London's very own Natural History Museum and British Museum. One of the more striking rooms was the Native North American Hall, which contained fascinating exhibits of, amongst other things, peoples living in the Arctic north of the continent. Of these artefacts, it was the ceremonial masks that stayed with me - haunting, terrible, funny, grotesque, conveying more even within the stasis of a glass box than words could. When used within the context of ritual - combined with music and movement - these masks must have projected a rare kind of power.

Review: This is almost impossible to review as music. In some ways, I long for the simple certainties of Status Quo or Riot, for as unadventurous as they are, they exist in a recognisable template of blues-based western rock music. I've mentioned before now my struggles with writing about jazz, despite listening to a fair amount (and having Professor of Jazz as an in-law - embarrassing!). This is an entirely different kettle of fish - or should I say, putrefied walrus? Eskimo is nothing less than an attempt to tell stories of these Indigenous Peoples via the medium of sound effects, music concrete and garbled speech. Imagine, if you will, an attempt to take you through the One Thousand and One  Nights stories solely using the soundboard from The Sims games, and...well, you're not close to getting it, but marginally closer to where you were.

Not only was I not prepared for all the above, I also found I was supposed to do some fucking reading in order to benefit fully from the Eskimo experience. The liner notes point towards the Residents website - what, I wonder, were audiences doing in 1979? - and suggest "for maximum enjoyment, this album should be listened to with headphones while reading the literal accounts of what you hear. Eskimo should be played in its entirety. A relaxed state of mind is essential. Warm clothing or a blanket should be within easy reach." Hard agreement with everything there, including the seemingly tongue-in-cheek throwaway last sentence.

There's nothing quite like Eskimo in my album collection. Even Gryphon's weird attempt to portray a chess match via instrumental prog doesn't come close to the immersion that Eskimo engenders. Through little more than textures, rhythmic drumming and treated chanting the listener is thrust into the icy polar midnight of the far north. Great swirls of white noise are used as a backdrop to the action, an unceasing howl at the core of the narrative. Not a single instrument possesses any notional quality of warmth. Some of the effects are harrowing - the whirring of the harpoon in 'The Walrus Hunt', and especially the cracking of the ice by the water spout, brought into existence through magic by a vengeful shaman on 'The Angry Angakok', are thrilling.

Most of the stories told through Eskimo are bleak, or contain threat. 'Birth' involves a perilous journey to an ice cave and an uncertain fate for the new-born; 'Arctic Hysteria' portrays the looming madness of lives lived within white-out bleakness; and 'A Spirit Steals a Child' is plainly terrifying, riven with the cries of infants and dogs barking into the night. My nodding acquaintance with the Residents had given me a false notion that there would be some levity in Eskimo, but this is as flat-out nightmarish as anything I've ever heard. It is only at the end of 'The Festival of Death' that anything like music breaks out - a last glimpse of something hopeful, bespeaking perhaps renewal or resurrection, to punctuate this astonishing litany of menace.

A curious thing, then. One could almost make a case for Eskimo's inclusion into the 'World Music' genre (the most idiotic and patronising genre yet conceived), although it stands for almost the opposite of the po-faced WOMAD-approved definition. Eskimo also makes a mockery of a raft of black metallers before that genre even came into being; their LARPing around in Scandinavian forests hissing about pagan deities comes across as cartoonish when met with the unyielding terror of the Residents' own images of the north.

Once, in Iceland, I ate hakarl, rotting shark essentially - not too dissimilar to some of the food that the Indigenous Peoples of the north would've eaten (and may still do). It was disgusting, easily the worst thing I've ever tried to eat. But it was fun, right? I was in the comfy confines of a Reykjavik cafe, and the next day I was heading to a thermal spring to wallow around in. It's fun to pretend you're doing something daring, when in reality you're as far away from grim reality as one could be. Remarkable, then, that a pranksterish surrealist art collective from Louisiana can take you, over the course of thirty-nine minutes, one or two steps closer.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Fire Down Under - Riot

Provenance: No big story behind this purchase, I just happened to read about this album and it sounded up my street.

Review: Before anything else is said, can I please ask what the fuck that abomination on the front cover is supposed to me? It appears to be some kind of ghastly Dr Moreau hybrid man-seal, but for the life of me I can't fathom why it's gracing the cover of a hard rock album. I'm not the only one affronted by this abortion. This is worse than Y&T's stupid robot, and has possibly edged it ahead of Iron Maiden's incompetent Dance of Death artwork to be the worst album cover of any I've reviewed so far.

However - starting off your album with a track called 'Swords and Tequila' is dope as fuck, a completely alpha move that almost excuses the fact that you've put a baby fur seal on your album cover. It matters little that Fire Down Under sounds as if it's been recorded inside a shipping container, or that the lyrics are so mind-bendingly on-the-nose that you're weeping for a simile or metaphor by the last few tracks; you start a rockin' album with a track called 'Swords and Tequila' and you're cooking with gas, baby.

There's something extremely lovable about Fire Down Under that cloaks it's myriad demerits. Never mind the fact that this is metal as written by people who palpably haven't ever looked into a book that doesn't possess illustrations. Ignore the fact that the influences begin at track one of Judas Priest's Killing Machine and end at track eleven of Judas Priest's Killing Machine. Don't sweat that every guitar solo sounds the same. Try to drink yourself into such a stupor that you forgot you ever saw that crime against nature on the album cover.

See, what Fire Down Under has is guts, sincerity and an all-in, gonzo belief that rocking hard is the apogee of human experience. Seeing as an actual Nazi has laid claim to the expression I would use to describe why this album works, I'll settle with stating that this is a victory due to nothing less than bloody-minded and blinkered commitment. Passion and sincerity can take you a long way when some of the subtler arts employed by most artists are absent.

Besides, there's a base level of competence here - everyone can play, the vocals are appealing enough if generic - which means that Fire Down Under keeps its head above water where it matters. On top of that, although I did mention that every solo sounds the same, that's no bad thing because that one solo fucking smokes. The aforementioned artlessness that went into the creation of Fire Down Under works in its favour, as it's absolutely free of pretensions towards anything other than sending the dandruff flying. So, whilst 'Outlaw' has a chorus that is - literally - about playing roulette, it's certainly the best heavy metal roulette song I've ever heard.

The sheer joy in Fire Down Under is that it creates a feedback loop of adrenaline, each subsequent track galvanised by the momentum of what came beforehand (that is, until 'Altar of the King', which takes inspiration both in name and ponderous intro from Rainbow, before morphing into some tight shit that could've graced the first three Saxon albums). I feel it's impossible to not be caught up in the clattery stampede, and I couldn't guarantee you that I wouldn't be bellowing "swords, and tequila, carry me through the night!" once I got a few Peronis in me. Just imagine how much adrenaline you'd have pumping through you when you're down bowling alley and you've got 100mph tracks like 'Fire Down Under', 'Don't Hold Back' or 'Run For You Life' running walloping through your cerebral cortex - you'd be windmilling those balls at the skittles overarm.

To sum up, then, Riot's Fire Down Under works for me because it appeals to every weekend warrior who picks up a guitar and bashes out Foghat covers to sparse, drunken crowds. There's no cynicism behind that kind of slog - there's a purity of purpose (sheer love of rock music) that is reflected in the almost naïve thump and rumble of this album. It possesses an intangible quality that might be best described as 'spirit' - and no matter how clumsy the execution, that spirit shines through. Wonderful! Ditch the seal though, lads.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Discipline - King Crimson

Provenance: I volunteered at Reading Festival in 2003 (I realise you're all clamouring to know whether I saw Sum 41 - the answer is yes), and my friend Simon, with whom I was camping (next to members of Linkin Park's extended entourage, some guys from the Datsuns and a former Deep Purple roadie) told me about a record fair that was taking place in the leisure centre next to the festival site.

Desperate to get away from the wretched swine who hemmed me in day and night, I readily agreed with Simon's suggestion to slip away for an hour or two.

I hadn't intended on buying anything, but that's been the perennial bleat I've made every time I've exited from a music shop or bookstore laden with purchases. Anyway, I kept my 'discipline' here, and bought a single album - King Crimson's Discipline(!), influenced jointly by my dad owning In the Court of the Crimson King and having seen the Discipline line-up on a Fridays rerun. They sounded pretty cool, and they had an odd looking fellow playing a Chapman stick. Sold!

Review: When I was growing up in Bournemouth it had a reputation as a place to go once you've given up on life; later on, thanks to the proliferation of clubs with names like Wiggle, Bliss and Toko, weekends in the town became one long bacchanal, if such revels solely consisted of guys in Ted Bakers getting in paggas at taxi ranks and driving modded hatchbacks very slowly around the 'Westover circuit'.

What was never apparent about Bournemouth in those days was its status as an incubator for many a prog-rock superstar. John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia), Greg Lake (Emerson Lake and Palmer) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) all met each other at Bournemouth College, whilst the Giles brothers (King Crimson) were also local. During my late teens, quite a few then-current / former members of Hawkwind (honestly, they probably couldn't tell you whether they were in the group or not) used to hang around a pub I would frequent, and my mate Max and I would receive semi-regular thrashings on the pool table from these erstwhile psychonauts.

This should mean nothing when it comes to a sober appraisal of Discipline, but my take on their output is tempered with a small but significant - and no doubt idiotic - dose of hometown pride. We had sticky clubs pumping out DJ Otzi megamixes, a shite football team and our most famous residents were Max Bygraves and Jimmy Savile. King Crimson, at the very least, had a degree of credibility, even a touch of mystery - bandleader Fripp was a retiring, elusive presence, and their version of prog left no room for flummery or whimsy. To those of us of sound mind, pop music can't really hurt you, but for my money King Crimson's Red is about as unsettling and scary as the genre can get. Cool!

But Discipline is not Red. This is King Crimson meets Talking Heads, heavily influenced by the new wave and self-consciously arty. However, Robert Fripp is undoubtedly one of the more cerebral guitar slingers out there, and for Discipline he recruited other guys who weren't exactly slouches in the brains department either - Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals), Tony Levin (bass, Chapman stick) and the incomparable Bill Bruford on drums (the single holdover from King Crimson's previous studio album, the aforementioned Red). This adds up to an arch, clever-clever group of musos with the chops to pull off some complex ideas.

Two things at the outset - first, these guys can't sound convincingly playful. Not even wacky old Adrian in his pink suits can escape the po-faced pomposity of some of the subjects that Crimson tackle. I'm not expecting the kind of winking bawdiness that AC/DC do from King fucking Crimson, but even lighter themes are turned into somewhat byzantine word-and-rhythm games. I don't think anyone has ever referred to King Crimson - any line-up of King Crimson - as 'the lads'. The second point, slightly adjacent to the first, is that everything on Discipline is highly technical, highly strung and very buttoned up. Nothing on Discipline sounds at all organic (probably by design, given the name), so one has to be in a certain frame of mind to enjoy it. This isn't music to relax to - quite the opposite - it's tense, itchy, uncomfortable. This latter issue isn't necessarily a criticism.

In fact, when it comes together, Discipline is a marvel. For all that they've sacrificed any notions of looseness or vibe for technical ecstasy, the personnel involved mean that the level of playing is simply dazzling. Bruford is the standout for me, conjuring up polyrhythmic patterns of rare power and drive. I reckon an album solely of Bruford's contributions would be quite listenable. The word genius is tossed around a lot when a simple 'very good' would do, but he's worthy of the mantle.

Elsewhere, the strength in Discipline lies in the sheer range of weird and wonderful sounds the rest of the band coax from their instruments. For example, on opener 'Elephant Talk', some clever sod has got their guitar sounding like a pachyderm's trumpeting; and instrumental 'The Sheltering Sky' features a slew of guitars that have been pushed to their outer limits. Here, the effect is sometimes shrill and uncanny - but on the gorgeous, aching 'Matte Kudasai', the weeping violin effect is mesmerising, elevating an already plangent tune to greater depths of sensibility.

And where necessary, in between the Afrobeat guitars and paradiddles, King Crimson can still muster up a mighty roar. The first instance that the heavily overdriven guitar kicks in during the chorus of 'Thela Hun Ginjeet' is a startling, even overwhelming moment - so all-consuming is the sound that it knocks the wind out of the other instrumentation and almost takes on a physical dimension. Mostly the jump scares are absent, though it really doesn't matter whilst the arrangements ping and whizz around in a dizzying, whirling, triumphal demonstration of what happens when pure ability is harnessed to a singular, iron will. Discipline is whip-smart, deadly serious, a little pretentious - and perversely, a lot of fun.

Oh, and Blur were absolute pony at that year's Reading Festival. I gave up and went to watch Billy Bragg instead.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Locked Down - Dr John

Provenance: One hundred percent sure that my brother got me into Dr John, although how and when he did remains a mystery. One moment there was no Dr John in the house and then suddenly a 'best of' CD appeared in my brother's room. Anyway, it was very cool.

Happy to say that my brother and I got to see the late Mac Rebennack together at the Barbican Centre, as part of the 2014 London Jazz Festival in a special performance paying tribute to that other favoured son of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong.

Review: There are loads of Dr John albums out there, and I own about four. Why this one? Well, having been stuck in a rut bumping out easy-rollin' rhythm 'n' blues alongside a slew of guest musicians, some bright spark decided that the good doctor needed a bit of lead in his pencil. Enter Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys as producer to stoke the boiler a bit, yet could also be relied upon to be sympathetic towards his subject. Interestingly, Auerbach encouraged Dr John to step away from the piano and onto a range of rather grungy sounding keyboards, whilst he handled guitar duties. Crucially, every song on Locked Down is an original, co-written by Dr John, Auerbach and the band assembled for the album.

As a consequence, Dr John's final studio album of original material sounds fresh, organic, loose and live. Auerbach also gets the production spot on - dusty like the first Wu Tang long player, reverb turned all the way up to spooky, and there's a supreme indifference as to whether instrumental tracks bleed into each other. The end result can only be summed up as sounding downright mean; this is a platter that sounds like it'd beat your granny up for her pension and kick the dog for a laugh. Rather cleverly, it also harks bark to the grimy, indistinct stew (must - not - write - gumbo) of Gris-Gris, the Nite Tripper's very first outing under his own steam.

Whilst this doesn't contain anything quite as weird or demented as 'I Walk On Guiled Splinters' (one of the more disturbing cuts ever committed to tape), Locked Down is dark, swampy and sinister. Dr John spits some surprisingly downbeat, even paranoid, lyrics to the likes of 'Ice Age' (where he compares the CIA to the KKK - nice) and 'Kingdom of Izzness'. I love these songs, with their janky guitars and slightly queasy timekeeping in some quarters, which manage to sound both ramshackle and powerful at the same time.

This sickly, feverish mood persists throughout until the final cut, 'God's Sure Good', at which point the McCrary Sisters come to the fore. On such a necromantic album, it's almost a relief to hear the affirmative, joyous wallop of traditional black gospel, which the sisters provide with gusto at each chorus. Even here, on what should be the most straightforwardly positive song, the denouement morphs into a wild, abandoned jam. Despite the protestations of affinity towards a nominally Abrahamic God, darker forces always seem closer to hand.

In summation, Locked Down is a superb Dr John album - greasy, ugly and shorn of the tameness that had crept into some of his latter-day output. Credit must go to Dan Auerbach. By shutting the door on pipe-and-slippers guest spots and woodshedding a crack band, he managed to coax a set of performances more fiery and vital than anything had sounded in years. Is this Dr John's best album since Goin' Back to New Orleans? Is this Dr John's best since City Lights? You be the judge. Meanwhile, I'm going to skip back to 'Eleggua', which hitches marble-mouthed Nawlins hokum onto a tumbling woodwind riff and rides it all the way home.

Dr John was a big loss. Like his hero Professor Longhair, you knew it was him within seconds; those trilling triplets on the high keys, that entirely unmusical, strangulated rasp that nonetheless sounded perfect atop the jazzy, funky rhythm and blues that was his trademark. I saw him perform twice, and he was spectacular on both occasions. Now all I can do is cue up 'Iko Iko' and daydream about the time I spent back in the Crescent City ten years ago. That's not a bad consolation prize, though, is it?

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Texas Flood - Stevie Ray Vaughan

Provenance: Back in the mists of time, long before your Facebooks and Tweet-O-Grams, people did things like collect stuff, get drunk, and attempt to master an instrument. Yes, your humble scribe did some of the former (Panini football stickers, matchboxes) and much of the latter (guitar, a bit of mandolin). As for the drinking? I couldn't possibly say! [Insert winking emoji here.]

My parents very kindly paid for a guitar teacher to do things like point out the wiry bits were called strings, and that it would help if I used both hands. Once basics had been raised to a level of competence, he was keen that I learn to improvise - in essence, to hold enough theory in my head that I was able to react and adapt lead playing, in real-time, to musical structures. A good foundation for this is blues music, which uses the minor pentatonic scale extensively (the bedrock for most rock music) and which often relies on familiar chord progressions.

So, how do you engage a teenage classic rock and metal fanatic with the blues? Give him something suitably rocky and pyrotechnic to aspire towards - and thus, the first blues I ever played was Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'Pride and Joy', which appears on today's album, Texas Flood. I loved it, even the tricksy turnarounds and unfamiliar shuffle feel. Plus it proved to be a watershed moment, as I am now a fully-fledged blues fan; my favourite players are people like Mississippi Fred McDowell and especially the merciless Lightnin' Hopkins, but I'll always retain a soft spot for SRV for providing me with the gateway drug.

Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan came to prominence during the 'blues boom' of the 1980s, which saw the emergence of artists like Robert Cray and the resurrection of others like John Lee Hooker, whose star-studded 1989 album The Healer won a Grammy award. So what was SRV's contribution to the genre? One could argue, nothing new. There are parallels to be drawn between Vaughan and the British guitarist Alvin Lee, who was similarly lionised for his hyperkinetic rhythm 'n' blues playing. An argument could be made that Vaughan was an improvement - defter, more accurate, a better songwriter and, crucially, in possession of a genuine grit 'n' diesel Texas drawl, as opposed to the dorky facsimile that Lee (and, in fairness, many others) tried to conjure up. Unlike Lee, Vaughan didn't stray far from the blues either; yes, he made a cameo on a Bowie album, but his own material was locked down, and when he did interpret the music of others, it was to emphasise its bluesiest elements (his take on Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing' being a prime example). There was no meandering into psychedelia with Vaughan, which cannot be said for Alvin Lee and his band Ten Years After.

Let's start off with my own personal bone that requires picking with regards to Texas Flood; 'Pride and Joy' and 'I'm Cryin'' are the same freaking song. I get that the first is celebratory and the latter strikes a more consolatory tone, but dude, write some new music. It's a ten track album that doesn't even top forty minutes and yet here are a couple of 'companion pieces', I guess. A bit of a 'fuck you' to the blues buying public, but I must admit a sneaking respect for this approach. It's like writing a song for your girlfriend, and when she dumps you trying to fit the name of the new squeeze into the melody. Writing the same song for when you're both happy and sad about your partner is, upon reflection, quite an alpha move.

Duplication issues aside, this is a quality slice of 1980s rock-influenced blues. The clean production sound works when recording what is a small combo - Vaughan is backed by bass and drum-mongers Double Trouble throughout - as it brings his ultra-precise lead playing to the fore. Remarkably, for such a polished product I was later to learn that the entirety of Texas Flood was recorded in two days and features no overdubs. Give or take some messing around with the levels, what you're hearing is the live band, it's extraordinarily tight. The vocal performances are fantastic too, and it's boggling to try and comprehend how SRV managed to wring such impassioned performances from both hands and larynx without any need to go back and fix anything.

All the hallmarks of Vaughan's playing are there from the get-go, too; heavy vibrato on bent notes, daggerish little single-fret slides and almost percussive use of double stops. The latter is especially evident on 'Love Struck Baby', a twitchy, fidgety shuffle blues that begins more like the commencement of a boxing bout than a blues song. The most comprehensive displays of SRV's guitar trick-bag are to be found on the instrumentals 'Testify' and Stray-Cats-on-amphetamines rockabilly whirlwind 'Rude Mood', although the dizzying 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' runs them close; and that aforementioned deftness comes to the fore on the closer 'Lenny', another instrumental, in this instance an glimmering, iridescent tribute to Vaughan's partner Lenora Bailey (she thought 'Pride and Joy' had been written for another woman, so SRV wrote her a brand new song - wise man).

And yet.

I can't claim to hold too many original opinions on music; I think my takes on most of these albums resonate with the critic pool at large, albeit not as well written. I do adhere to the odd heresy, like my belief that Neil Young's Trans is misunderstood and ZZ Top's Recycler is not devoid of merit, but by and large I'm reasonably vanilla. Thus, here's my lukewarm take on Texas Flood that anyone familiar with SRV has probably seen ambling over the horizon for a while now - it sacrifices soul at the altar of technical ecstasy.

The problem is probably me and my relation to blues music. When I interrogate my own feelings about Stevie Ray Vaughan and the blues I feel a bit queasy, to say the least; am I like the martinet Ewan MacColl, insistent on "authenticity" above all else? Would I have pulled the plug on Dylan? I've been a good boy, I read Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta and feel clued up enough not to fall into the authenticity trap (I've written about this before now), so why do I have such a problem with Texas Flood? Is it merely because this is tagged as a blues album, and so I'm bringing a whole mess of expectations to the table that really shouldn't be there? How come I can enjoy the 'newgrass' movement begun in the 1970s (which sought to fuse bluegrass to styles such as jazz - and this has just reminded me to go and listen to some David Grisman Quintet) without my appreciation of bluegrass colouring the experience? Perhaps because my knowledge of bluegrass is dwarfed by what I (think I) know about blues music, and is unencumbered by those strange gatekeeper tendencies that can sometimes evolve alongside a burgeoning personal passion.

Sadly, I must conclude that I'm simply too smart to properly appreciate Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Genuinely, though, I really must stop sorting things into boxes and weighing up their merits accordingly. Because taken at face value, Texas Flood is a rollicking good time. It's an album full of good singing, good playing and lots of whizzy guitar licks, and so in the future I'm going to endeavour to meet the album on these terms alone. Even if 'Pride and Joy' and 'I'm Cryin'' are the same freaking song, goddamn.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Bella Donna - Stevie Nicks

Provenance: Last Sunday (8 March 2020) was International Women's Day - and with Sundays being the day of the week I generally reserve to update this blog, it would've been fitting to have written about a female artist. Believe me, I am acutely aware how much this blog skews towards the XY chromosomal combination.

However, I was enjoying a long weekend in Poland at the time, so have had to defer this review. Please, feel free to interpret this review as metonymical of my entire approach to IWD2020 - late, half-assed and woefully insufficient.

Anyway, I bought Bella Donna because I realise it contained the two Stevie Nicks solo songs I was familiar with (I like both), plus the album art is top notch. I don't know what the fuck that sad thing in the bottom left-hand corner is, but it wouldn't be out of place in an abode with a 'live, laugh, love' wall sticker. Also, I had just assumed that Nicks was riffing on a witchy vibe by holding a snowy owl, or maybe a dove, given the lyrics to 'Edge of Seventeen'; I'd never really looked too closely, and I register a mild jolt of glee and surprise every time I squint at the cockatoo perched on her hand.

Review: My version of Bella Donna is a three-CD set, containing the original album on one disc, a whole mess of bonus tracks on a second, and a third containing a 1981 live show. For the purpose of this review I'll only be looking at Bella Donna itself, but the live set is rather wunderbar, and the extras include Nicks' contribution to bonkers Canadian animated feature Heavy Metal. To those of you who are not part of the cognoscenti where Heavy Metal is concerned, it's a sci-fi anthology film featuring music by Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Donald Fagen and Sammy Hagar (amongst a raft of others), plus vocal performances by Harold Ramis and Jim's dad from the American Pie franchise. Go see it now if you've yet to do so.

So, to Bella Donna - which sounds pretty much exactly how you imagine a 1981 solo release by Stevie Nicks should sound. By which, I mean that it's sumptuously produced, tastefully arranged (ahh, is that a hint of 'congas in the night' I hear?) and leaning heavily on the most successful period of her career to date, the soft-rock behemoth that was late-1970s Fleetwood Mac. The title track itself has it all - the push-pull dynamics, woozy lead guitar and Nicks' oddly bleating vocals gliding atop the quiet storm. Congas are present. It should be dreck, but it's beguiling really, lulling the listener into a kind of drowsy acquiescence.

It's curious to hear the shift that occurs on track three, 'Stop Draggin' My Heart Around', Nicks' collaboration with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, because we're suddenly snapped out of the soporific twilight conjured up early doors. It's a stretch to say that Petty and chums inject any sense of punky urgency - this is the Heartbreakers cruising at low altitude - but there's definitely a little more spit 'n' grit present. It also works splendidly, Nicks' gossamer (took me six paragraphs to use this word, gimme some credit) presence butting up against Petty's adenoidal wail agreeably.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Bella Donna is that it's entirely self-contained, its own universe of angst, loss, regret and heartache. Even when Petty and, later on, Don Henley get to share the spotlight it's always as guests in Nicks' world of pristine high drama. The only real misstep on the album, 'After the Glitter Fades', still inhabits this darkling soft-goth realm despite being a hokey cocaine-cowboy crack at country. No matter though, because straight afterwards comes the monumental 'Edge of Seventeen'.

For the record, 'Edge of Seventeen' is a song I can listen to again and again. It's pretty much perfect, right? From the juddering guitar riff to Nicks' tough, slightly strained vocal it sounds weird and arresting from the get-go; and the layered voices swooping in from all angles give proceedings a hint of hysteria, as if 'Edge of Seventeen' is about to break apart under the weight of its own foreboding and magnificence. All of this is underscored by an almost unbearable tension - the needle-point rat-a-tat guitar merciless, without any kind of drum break to provide a comfortable groove until it feels almost too late.

It's with absolutely no sense of denigration that I consider Bella Donna to be the stylistic companion piece to Christopher Cross' debut, seeing as I view that doozy as a yacht rock masterpiece. However, whilst Cross works with the pastel tones of a Malibu sunset, Nicks' post-meridian music is redolent of flickering candelabras and pregnant thunderheads. Interestingly, it's when the blokes get in on the act that Bella Donna sounds most earthbound, and Henley's otherwise likeably vulnerable crooning on 'Leather and Lace' is a little thumping compared to Nicks' glabrous keening. I haven't even found time or space to give tracks like 'Kind of Woman', 'Think About It' or 'How Still My Love' their due, each a little sparkling mote of glitter.

Bella Donna is a triumph, a swirling ocean of yearning and romance. Why are we listening to tinny, minor-key sadsack robo-pop when this exists, I wonder?

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The Captain And Me - The Doobie Brothers

Provenance: The Doobie Brothers had long been a shadowy presence in my musical consciousness prior to picking up The Captain and Me. I had vague notions that they were a big deal in the USA, and knew 'Long Train Running' (which is on Captain...) from a variety of dad-rock compilations. Everything else is a little hazy.

For example, did I know 'China Grove' before playing Grand Theft Auto? I certainly covered it in a band later on, but I can't say whether my virtual capers predated my purchase of this album or not. I knew the song 'Listen To The Music' long ago, but wasn't sure who did it (NB: the Doobie Brothers). Same deal for 'What A Fool Believes', and in any case it doesn't sound much like the Doobies; it's more akin to the unholy prospect of Captain and Tennille fronted by a walrus. No good, man.

So, at the point of buying this album I perhaps thought of the Doobs as a bit southern rocky, slightly funky ("but can you imagine Doobie in your funk? Whooo!") and maybe prone to the odd boogie number. And you know what? I was right.

Review: Everything on The Captain and Me is done tastefully and is in its place. The rocky bits rock out, the mellow bits are nice and serene, the quiet bits are quiet and the loud bits are also quiet. It's well-played, well-sung, goes down smoothly and is about as edgy as a damp cabbage. Keep this one on file for a sun-dappled day suited for ingesting soft drugs and makin' it with your old lady.

Weirdly enough, given the above, I don't hate it. I hate bits of it, sure, but overall The Captain and Me coasts by on just enough charm and finesse that I can't bring myself to condemn it outright. There's a slickness to proceedings that, as a fan of Steely Dan and Christopher Cross, I view largely as a positive. Sure, I've got Crass and Stooges albums tucked away (yet to be reviewed, I remind myself) but the top-down, ease-the-seat-back coolness of American FM rock (always American, as the British flavour always seems a bit desperate) can work a strange magic on me. Take that old warhorse, 'Long Train Running' - a clumsy funker featuring prominent congas; yet it coasts by on a sublime vocal hook coasting over the top of attractively itchy guitar work.

That equally hoary slice of highway razzmatazz, 'China Grove', a strange paean about what sounds like an utterly ghastly commune in Texas, wins out with a guitar riff that is kissing cousin to Nazareth's 'Hair of the Dog', but it's infinitely smoother and less clay-footed in execution. I suppose a certain nimbleness and elasticity accounts for the appeal of the Doobie Brothers on this album; high mids, choked-off bass (for the most part) and guitars that cluck and peck, rather than sledgehammer you into acquiescence. Keep it light and airy, give the melodies a bit of breathing space, add a bit of diet bluegrass acoustic guitar and you're onto a winner, baby.

However, the eagle-eyed amongst you will probably gather from "I don't hate it" and "I hate bits of it" that I'm not entirely uncritical of The Captain and Me. And these aren't the small, easily surmountable bugbears such as the hamfisted stab at a multi-part song that makes 'Clear as the Driven Snow' sound like a bargain basement Kansas ft. Roy Harper track, because if I bitch about that I might as well throw out most of my 1970s rawk platters. No, we're back onto women getting a bum deal from these fucking hippies, again.

Thus we have 'Dark Eyed Cajun Woman', a track that hangs off a knotty, stuttering guitar riff which is great, great, great. What could be a witchy little swamp rocker instead gives one a bit of a chill with the lyric "You know, I took you for a small girl / Really not quite seventeen." Admittedly our serenade goes on to state, with some relief I should imagine, that he was wrong and that the object of his ardour was a grown woman. Phew! No need to join the ranks of the Rolling Stones and Faster Pussycat in my hall of shame.

The other lowlight comes in 'South City Midnight Lady', which has a title that makes me want to reflexively puke. It's actually sports one of the prettier melodies on Captain..., a gently yearning thing that the Eagles used to be able to conjure up before they dived into a hillock of fine Colombian. However, come the chorus and we're getting the following being dribbled out:

South city midnight lady
I'm much obliged indeed
You sure have saved this man whose soul was in need

At this point I'm scooping up the vomitus so I can swallow it back down and re-evacuate this shit out of the most fitting orifice. No name, no agency, no nothing about the person this song is addressed to aside from what she can do for the drunkard night owl she's unlucky enough to be lumbered with. Not especially egregious on its own, but as part of the wider Captain... context, women only serve as objects to be desired or discarded. The way this is simpered out pisses me off, and the cherry on top of the turd is that awful faux-Southern gentlemanly "much obliged indeed". I'd haul these guys in front of the Hague for that alone. Incidentally, the next song, on which the Doobies try (and fail) to sound tough, is called 'Evil Woman'. Of course it is. Of course.

(Which is not to say you can't do a song like that; ultimately it's the prerogative of the artist. But ELO can do an 'Evil Woman' with at least some degree of wit and accomplishment, and even Cliff Richard can pull off a 'Devil Woman' by making it a surreal end-of-the-pier chiller, one that he can never perform again because it's too spooky for his religious faith to handle.)

So, what the hell, go listen to The Captain and Me for an undemanding forty minutes or so. There's good singing, good playing and some sweet harmonies to be had. I personally prefer this rotating cast of vocalists than the era where Michael McDonald is thrown into the mix, but whatever. Best enjoyed with a cold beer and an empty brain.