Sunday, 25 September 2016

Christopher Cross - Christopher Cross

Provenance: The first time I knowingly encountered the work of Christopher Cross was through a Saxon album that was, somewhat incongruously, for sale at a university bookshop. The song in question was, of course, their cover of 'Ride Like The Wind', which I considered a highlight.

The next time I really zeroed in on a Cross composition was when I encountered 'Sailing' in this episode of the always-excellent Channel 101 series Yacht Rock. For those unaware of Yacht Rock, I urge you leave this blog immediately and do something truly worthwhile, ie, binge watch the series on YouTube from start to finish. Please come back though.

Review: For all my heavy metal posturing (yeah, I saw Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper this weekend), I really do love a bit of gleam and polish every now and again. I don't mean the flat, clippy, mechanically precise products of the Pro-Tools generation. However, give me a touch of pop sophistication, a dash of craftsmanship and perhaps Michael McDonald doing backing vocals and we're talking. Hall and Oates, Supertramp, Boz Scaggs (come on guy, 'Lido Shuffle' is just about perfect), Cate Brothers, Toto - these are my people. I prostrate myself at the altar of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and Steely Dan continuously vie with Blue Oyster Cult for the laurels of the coveted 'my favwite band evah' award.

Oddly, my enjoyment of the yacht rock genre (such as it has been called) means that I might actually be cool for once in my life, as this rather excitable and confused apologia argues. I don't buy it. Virtually every popular music genre undergoes a process of reappraisal at some point or another, with contemporary artists hip to the cause paying tribute in their work. All trends, including those that ride a wave of retro-nostalgia, eventually wane, leaving behind their artefacts for subsequent generations to (re)discover. Put more simply still, there's some enduringly great yacht rock out there. And I reckon that Christopher Cross is amongst the best.

You may have heard the story of how the formerly unheralded Fleetwood Mac roadie came from nowhere to sweep the 1980 Grammy Awards. Have you listened to the album recently? It's disgustingly good. Almost too pretty. There's not a hint of grit or a rough edge in sight. From start to finish it's like gorgeously delicious caramel is dripping from your speakers; you want to gorge on the almost too-rich sound. You've got Cross' soaring, strangely disembodied voice. You've got 'tasteful' brass parts. Lush arrangements. Congas. Hooks. Michael McDonald. Don Henley (the Eagles), J.D. Souther, Larry Carlton (Steely Dan), Victor Feldman (loads of people, plus Steely Dan) and Eric Johnson (Eric Johnson) all lend a hand too but the real mustard, as any fool knows (or believes), is a Michael McDonald backing vocal.

I don't think I'm being unfair when I say that Christopher Cross is a vacuous record. I'm not ascribing any negative connotations to that quality, as this is all surface; a pearlescent, refulgent surface, glowing pink and orange in a Malibu sunset. And that's not to say that Cross is a crap lyricist or anything. In fact, where Cross triumphs is the marriage of some fairly cute, albeit standard, sentiments about love (found, lost or unrequited) with the perfect musical accompaniment. Thus 'Poor Shirley' never sounds mawkish, and 'The Light Is On' is sketched with just enough mystery and apprehension, not to mention a superb chorus, to help it over the line that separates genius from stupidity.

As an aside, I should mention that my CD contains a quote from Mr Cross himself, recreated here in full because of its utter superfluity:
I'm a very nonpolitical and nonintellectual lyricist. But people have so many demands on them already in their lives. I'm just trying to give them a little enjoyment and relaxation.
Seriously Christopher, there is nothing - nothing - remotely controversial on the album. Nobody is confusing you with Billy Bragg or Skrewdriver. Nobody is going to start a white supremacist group after listening to 'Sailing'. The only time Cross sounds vaguely pugilistic is on 'Ride Like The Wind', a soft rock classic, featuring the wimpiest man in the world boasting about having a gun and never going to church. The final flourish is the soulful, doleful 'Minstrel Gigolo', sketching a seemingly enviable life of adulation but sung in the manner of a man down to his last pina colada, chalk-blue sports jacket slung over one shoulder. It is, as with everything else on the record, immaculate. Essential.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Way Out - The Books

Provenance: This isn't really my album, but my partner's. However, as with all CDs in our dwelling, it has been subsumed into the collection in much the same way as 'the Blob' enveloped a small town in Pennsylvania. That was a good film, wasn't it? Anyway, as such The Way Out has been deemed a legitimate candidate for review on this blog. By that, I mean in essence that I make the rules up as I go along.

Review: Well. I like it. I've never actually listened to this all the way through until I sat down to write this review, but the few preconceptions I had were based around 'A Cold Freezing Night', a track beloved by my partner, which uses snippets of speech between two young siblings, coupled with a weird, slapstick electronica, to create a heightening sense of anxiety and tension.

This approach, it turns out is pretty par for the course - instruments and samples burst from nowhere, odd but never dissonant, and often delightfully surprising. I imagine Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong have grown exceedingly bored of being called musical magpies, but it's entirely apt. This disparate grab bag of sound is often welded to guitar and drum machine, giving structure to what could be an unholy mess. In fact, through the uncanny mechanics of synthesis, much of The Way Out sounds like companion pieces to the output of other artists, as if their sweepings from the studio floor had been spliced together to make mutant music.

The most obvious comparison with The Books is the Ghost Box record label, whose stock in trade is 'hauntology', whereby a not wholly benign, atavistic past is summoned up through the sampling of documentary, movie and public information film, set to psychedelic electronica. The Ghost Box sound (what a wonderful name for a record label, by the way - don't you think it's brilliantly evocative?) comes very close to being replicated on 'Group Autogenics I', with its soothing, nonsensical self-hypnosis narrative, and 'Chain Of Missing Links'. Oddly, on 'IDKT' I got a strong whiff of Sex And Religion-era Steve Vai, whilst 'All You Need Is A Wall' could've come straight off Feist's Metals album.

Perhaps that's the point. Without speaking to either guy who constituted The Books (they disbanded in 2012), I would guess that there was a conscious effort to make, through a collage technique, something that sounded familiar without being entirely plausible as mere pastiche. At some point, the music becomes wrinkled, twisted; the sonic equivalent of a shirt that doesn't button up properly. All very clever.

But I like The Way Out without loving it. It's difficult to really explain why. Perhaps it's those rare moments where The Books are aiming for beautiful and instead hit pretty. Perhaps it's because it's just a smidge too self-consciously odd, a somewhat studied exercise in the bizarre. Contrast that with a Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis or even a Captain Beefheart, from whom weirdness gushes forth as naturally as water from a spigot. Maybe it's just that I get a sneaking sensation that The Way Out is little more than a hauntological re-remembering of White Noise's groundbreaking 1969 album An Electric Storm, which feels simultaneously like a monstrous slur yet not inaccurate.

I want to listen to it again, though. And possibly again after that. Dark room, lava lamp, headphones, The Way Out - an agreeable way to enrich an hour of my existence.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Heavy Traffic - Status Quo

Provenance: I like Status Quo. They were the first band I ever saw in a live setting, and it left a profound effect on me. The two most vivid things I remember about that gig was, firstly, the addictive quality of sheer volume; and secondly, my Dad singing along to 'In The Army Now'.

Review: Along with many, many other households in this sceptered isle, I also possess one of the legion Status Quo 'greatest hits' collections. (For my US-based readers, the Status Quo 'best of' is as ubiquitous as Frampton Comes Alive is in the Midwest). That's all the Quo most people require, but I saw them performing 'Jam Side Down' on Top of the Pops and thought it sounded decent enough to drop coin on the parent album.

And you know what? For the most part it is decent enough. Better than that, as it happens. Most of the songs sound a bit like other Status Quo songs, the good ones. We're mostly talking about the sledgehammer boogie sound Quo have almost trademarked since jettisoning their early psychedelic pretensions. In fact, 'All Stand Up', 'Creepin' Up On You', 'Solid Gold' and 'Money Don't Matter' could (and possibly do) sit comfortably with the rest of their material in a live set. The only curveball, sonically speaking, is 'Green', whose inheritance can be traced to 'Gerdundula'. The rest is a bit fillerish but not unpleasant. Except for one track - 'The Oriental'.

Status Quo don't generally deal in subtleties or finer feelings, so it's apt that they've actually included an elephant on the front cover to symbolise the one that 'The Oriental' introduces into the room. At some point in the writing process, Francis Rossi and John 'Rhino' Edwards (this paragraph is like a safari thus far) presumably thought it'd be a lark to write a tune about mail order Asian brides. Not in a sensitive manner, you understand. The more charitable listener might suggest that it's just a lark, and that half the lyrics are nonsensical. The latter is true - but the sticking point is the other half, replete with pidgin English (ha ha! Because East Asians all speak like that!), lazy cultural stereotyping and the apparent ease in which women can be traded or rented like commodities.

Making play with the perceived exoticism of the Far East has been the stock in trade for many Western musicians. Now, I don't want to be too harsh here because for boys and girls raised in suburban or working class Europe or America, playing somewhere like Japan must've seemed somewhat fantastical. So we get Deep Purple's 'Woman From Tokyo', Y&T's 'Midnight In Tokyo', Krokus' 'Tokyo Nights' and the weird Todd Rundgren song 'Eastern Intrigue' (and, I suppose, Aneka's 'Japanese Boy' or Carl Douglas' 'Kung Fu Fighting'). But that was way back when, and this is a bunch of late-middle aged men in 2002. I just can't find one redeemable or even venial element about 'The Oriental'. It is perhaps apposite that the lineup that recorded this crap actually looks like a bunch of guys who spend their evenings trawling mail order bride websites.

As well as being fairly racist, it's also a monumentally stupid song. There's some lyrics in the middle eight that, I guess, are supposed to convey the sense of a whistle-stop tour of the East. Except that 'and carry on to China / Asia Minor and some more' makes precious little sense, because Asia Minor is most accurately expressed today as the Asian territory of modern day Turkey. It serves to underline the rather parochial reputation that Status Quo have earned for their perceived lack of ambition in territories outside of the UK (whilst boogie contemporaries Foghat and AC/DC set about conquering the US and the world respectively). Perhaps I am expecting too much of poor old Rhino, a man of such delicate sentiment that in 2006 he was moved to write a song about his favourite Brentford FC striker.

Sorry if you expected a more forensic review of the album. Honestly, if you excised 'The Oriental' you have a really punchy, four-to-the-floor rock album. As it stands, its inclusion is as if somebody wiped their shitty ass over your nice new Belgian lace tablecloth. Use the skip function on your stereo, or download Heavy Traffic and delete track three. It's a reasonably lengthy album, you won't miss it. Nobody will miss it.