Sunday, 28 August 2016

Strikes - Blackfoot

Provenance: This one's a bit murky, but I'm fairly certain I bought this due to Warrant's cover of 'Train, Train'. It wasn't for the awesome sleeve art.

Review: Here's a weird one; quite often, bands of a certain vintage go through many incarnations. Increasingly it seems that you only need one or two original members (Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Y&T, Guns N' Roses) to keep the flame held aloft, with the expectation that a decent number of fans will accept a degree of rock 'n' roll wastage as time ticks by.

So what to make of Blackfoot, who currently boast zero original members? And we're not even talking about a lineup that features any members from a 'classic' era - hell, current Blackfoot look a bit like they still jam Papa Roach covers in the drummer's garage. Here's the kicker - original guitarist and frontman Ricky Medlocke, who plies his trade these days in another substitute-heavy band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, still lurks in the background, acting as a Southern rock svengali to his be-goateed and be-mohawked charges. But can it still really be called Blackfoot?

Fortunately we're on more solid ground with Strikes, released in 1979. Blackfoot's third album, it still featured the 'classic' (that word again) lineup of Medlocke, Jackson Spires (drums), Charlie Hargrett (guitar) and Greg T Walker (bass). So named because Spires, Medlock and Walker all shared a First Nations heritage, Blackfoot took the blues-rock template of Free and Bad Company and imbued it with a degree of soul raunch, courtesy of Medlocke's soulful singing.

In fact, Medlocke's vocals are the standout event in Strikes - that, and the ability to craft punchy, catchy rock, the kind that's suited to a long drive with the windows down. Of the two covers on the album, Spirit's already excellent 'I Got A Line On You' is slowed down, toughened up and deep fried. The other one is a waste of time - Free's 'Wishing Well' is a perfectly good song, and Blackfoot demonstrate they can play it so competently that it's almost redundant. Yes, it plays to all collective strengths, but when the end result is virtually a xerox of the original, what's the point?

The originals are where the real mustard is on this album. 'Road Fever' is a decent mid-tempo opener, but it really catches light at 'Left Turn On A Red Light' - the subtler connotations of which were not revealed to me until I drove around the USA and got in a crash on the second day of my car rental. It feels like it's brooding, building, growing into a full-blown widescreen epic, so it's surprising to see it's a shade over four and a half minutes.

'Pay My Dues' is another solid fist-clencher, after which Blackfoot seem to have their head turned by the FM radio market with both 'Baby Blue' and 'Run And Hide' (which bookend the redundant 'Wishing Well'). I've got nothing against bands striving for a commercial sound - I like Foreigner, for goodness' sake - and although these are tight and hooky, they contain no surprises. Were it not for Medlocke's superlative singing, they'd be pleasantly anonymous. Fortunately, things get back on track (pun unintended) with 'Train, Train', which curiously has its harmonica intro listed separately on the running order. It's cool, though, as its played by the song's writer, Shorty Medlocke, granddad of Ricky (and later covered both by LA glamsters Warrant and Dolly Parton). It chugs along atop its crunchy gutbucket guitar riff and features the lyric 'Well, leavin' here, I'm just a raggedy hobo' so it was always going to score highly from me.

Last up is 'Highway Song'. Now, I don't know whether I should be laying the blame at the feet of the Allman Brothers for their interminable noodling on Eat A Peach, Lynyrd Skynyrd for pub bore favourite 'Free Bird', or whether I need to reach back further to the jam bands of the 1960s, but somewhere along the line it appears that Southern rock bands became infected with a notion that they all had to write a big, long song that starts quietly, picks up the pace and ends with a guitar wig-out. (However, in terms of Southern rock, 'Free Bird' almost seems like the ur-text for this nonsense.) 'Highway Song' is not a particularly bad song, and it contains the blueprints for something that could've been genuinely good - but to my 21st century ears it sounds stale. I imagine it probably stunk a bit even in 1979.

I sense I come across as a tad harsh about Strikes, an album I sincerely enjoy and listen to frequently. Ricky Medlocke is such a factor that he alone elevates much of the material. However, if you are a member of a Southern rock band, or are thinking of forming one, please heed this call from me; stop churning out these naked, unabashed attempts to write your own 'Free Bird'. I don't know, maybe it's part of the Faustian pact Southern rock bands make when they go eat some BBQ chicken wings at a crossroads or whatever, and in return for their smokin' guitar tones and hollerin' vocals, they agree to write at least one ultra-dull piece of shit 'Free Bird' tribute. Resist the urge. Play a cover song. Veer off into techno. Make a cup of tea. But I beseech you, no more 'Free Bird'.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Metals - Feist

Provenance: Isn't it nice when you get turned onto something completely out of the blue? In this instance, this album came as part of a wedding gift from Noam Weinstein and his father Larry, two of the nicest people I think I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Noam is a pretty fantastic musician himself, and I'm sure it won't be long before I review one of his albums on this blog.

Receiving albums as a wedding present isn't unprecedented in my family; when my parents got married one of their friends gave them a copy of Deep Purple's Stormbringer, Mk. III's inferior sequel to Burn.

Review: Feist is one of those artists I would never have discovered under my own steam. Too contemporary, too hip. I might hear the name in a conversation and I'll nod along affably before consoling myself that, really, I knew best and that it wouldn't be a patch on Jethro Tull. In short, I'm a total idiot under the sway of unshifting prejudices entirely of my own design. However, folk who don't know any better, such as the Weinstein family, chip away at my wall of ignorance and sometimes make small breakthroughs; I am now a confirmed Feist fan.

As for the music itself, I should probably start by saying that 'Graveyard' is one of my favourite songs - ever. Fragile, menacing, elegant and surreal, with an outro that boasts a brass arrangement that sounds as if it came off an early Alan Parsons Project long player. The quality doesn't dip on the next track either, 'Caught In A Long Wind', shimmering and poised, filigreed with oriental violin.

However, it would be wrong to characterise Metals as soporific (a term I don't use negatively, necessarily; I would happily describe John Martyn's Solid Air as soporific, inasmuch as half of the album conveys a sense of waking sleepiness). There are unabashedly quiet and delicate moments here, such as 'Bittersweet Melodies', 'Cicadas and Gulls' and 'Anti-Pioneer', but many of Feist's compositions are bursting with tension, threatening to unravel at the merest tug of the thread. At its most nervy, Metals inhabits that same weird nation of barely constrained emotion occupied by something like Stravinsky's Les noces. That's probably the most pretentious sentence I'm going to write this week.

Something else that stands out is the sound of the recordings themselves. In a world where clipping is a very real and stupid problem with recorded music, Feist and her producers have performed something of a minor miracle. The clarity given to each of the instruments used - and by the sounds of it, we're talking a whole heap of the damn things - gives an almost organic quality to the compositions. I'm especially taken with the percussion - in the best possible sense, the drums sound almost homemade, the bottom end rounded out with some really meaty rattles and clanks. My love for the Alan Parsons Project means that I would almost automatically be attracted by the brass arrangements, but it goes further than my prog predilections; one genuinely gets the impression of a colliery band, so full, so rich is the sound.

What else? One can't forget 'Comfort Me', by turns haunting and powerful, underscored by some swampy bayou guitar. It's such a good piece of music Feist could honestly sing me the words to the instruction manual of my vacuum cleaner and I'd be happy. Feist has a wonderful voice, incidentally - whispery and intimate without ever being truly warm. It sounds like the voice of someone alone, either living in their own head or cut adrift from the solid, mundane world. If, like me, you seek music to gift you that escapism from the quotidian and workaday, you may very well find it in Feist's strange, fractured universe.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Brutal Planet - Alice Cooper

Provenance: Today is my Dad's birthday, so it's only right that I look at an artist I wouldn't have listened to were it not for him. From single albums to entire genres, my Dad has influenced my listening habits more than he probably realises, and for which I'm eternally grateful. That being said, I don't think I'll ever be receptive to the charms of Peter Skellern.

I first saw Alice Cooper on the Brutal Planet tour, headlining a show that featured Dio and Orange Goblin as support. I went with my brother and some friends, we all put the makeup on and had, oh, about the best time ever.

Review: We all know that Christian rock sucks, but what about when it doesn't? I'm not talking about pabulum like Stryper, who when a couple of friends saw them in London, threw yellow n' black bound versions of the New Testament into the audience for their encore. To Hell With The Devil? Give me a break.

For a rock fan whose teenage years fell around the turn of the millenium I was curiously averse to the charms of nu-metal (alongside those of Peter Skellern, of course). Some of it sounded raucous enough but the poses were a bit too studied, a bit too tired, and furthermore exponents like Limp Bizkit seemed simply idiotic. And yet here I am, thoroughly enjoying a Christian nu-metal album. Aha, I bet you didn't see that coming!

One has to respect Cooper for the way that this preacher's son has managed to maintain his rock credibility despite openly professing his rebirth as a Christian. He's never explicitly stated he avoids performing certain songs from his back catalogue, unlike W.A.S.P.'s Blackie Lawless (another born-again Christian) has done. He's still the guy who gets guillotined, electrocuted, tied up and beaten every night. And as a consequence he's managed to sneak out a couple of Christian rock albums without anybody really noticing.

Brutal Planet's first song (and title track) is pure 2000-era nu-metal, a thick, down-tuned chug; what distinguishes the track - as with much of Coop's output - are the hooks. For a fairly limited vocalist Cooper has a real facility with melody; and whilst his voice isn't the most gymnastic, he possesses one of the most characteristic sneers in rock music. It's loud, aggressive, bleak and has a big chorus - not a million miles away from what Rammstein were doing at the time. What makes it even more interesting is that "Brutal Planet", and many other tracks on the album, wink at his back catalogue.

Back in the latter days of grunge Cooper released The Last Temptation, a loose concept album that circles around a putative Faustian pact. It was replete with Biblical imagery around temptation and redemption, a strange and heady collection of somewhat disparate songs. Brutal Planet is the opposite - hard, unremitting, dark but identifiably a sequel to The Last Temptation. Both the title track and "Gimme" reprise the Faust theme (the latter even namechecking a ...Temptation track), but there are no saints being resurrected in this particular version of the world. Rackety pounder "Sanctuary" similarly follows on from Last Temptation's "Lost In America"; here, our anti-hero has grown up, got his house and wife, and has found his confusion supplanted by hatred.

However, as this is Alice Cooper, there are moments of levity. "Wicked Young Man" sounds more like a celebration than a condemnation, and it's tough to be too serious on a song that contains the lines "I've got every kind of chemical pumpin' through my head / I read Mein Kampf daily just to keep my hatred fed." Then there's "It's The Little Things", essentially heavy metal update of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" with added 'roid rage; fun all the way, with a couple of cute callbacks to "Welcome To My Nightmare" and "No More Mr Nice Guy" for the greybeards.

Yet in "Wicked Young Man" there's a chilling reference to school shootings, and the title track contains a jarring mention of the Holocaust. Perhaps Cooper grew a little tired of his reputation as a schlock merchant, because "Pick Up The Bones" is genuinely grim and disturbing trudge through the aftermath of a massacre. "Take It Like A Woman" is another one that looks backwards, this time to "Only Women Bleed". In concert, Cooper performed both songs together, segueing from the older song to its modern counterpart, and I think this is the best way to appreciate "Take It Like A Woman." "Only Women Bleed" was itself a bit of an outlier - in an era when rock artists were mainly writing about women as lyin', cheatin' objects of lust, Cooper crafted a rather quiet - and sad - paean to those in abusive relationships. "Take It Like A Woman" is more bombastic but continues to lament the enduring status quo of violent, insecure men and stoic women. It may not be the most sophisticated stripe of feminism but a bitter reminder that Cooper is one of the few mainstream men in rock with the ability to write sensitively about domestic abuse.

So then we reach the album's kiss-off, "Cold Machines" - and even for an artist who often makes hay with prevailing musical trends, this is a cheeky one. It's straight out of the Marilyn Manson playbook, recreating that odd mechanical piston-swing that was so identifiable in Manson's best work. It's probably the best thing on Brutal Planet too; huge guitars, chewy hooks and a chorus that simply soars. It's exhilarating, swaggering, and over all too soon. That Coop ripped off Manson so brazenly was, I suspect, a knowing little nudge aimed at the guy who took Cooper's schtick and repackaged it for angry kids who liked to stay in their bedroom.

There's the likelihood that my perception of this album is coloured by the fact that the Brutal Planet tour was the first of perhaps ten occasions I've seen Alice Cooper. He's never, ever disappointed, but the first time is something special, right? He knocked it out of the park that night in Bournemouth, and the Brutal Planet songs sounded monstrous. It's become impossible to rule on Brutal Planet without recalling the pleasure and excitement of that first gig, so why should I bother? Brutal Planet rules.