Sunday, 30 April 2017

Faster Pussycat - Faster Pussycat

Provenance: My brother Richard - a golfer, pugilism enthusiast and Spurs fan - bought me this for my birthday as part of a clutch of glam albums which, if memory serves, included titles by Dokken and Cinderella.

Richard and I are only a year apart in age, so grew up together and developed similar tastes in music. We even played (badly) in the same band together, in a drummer / guitarist configuration like Van Halen. Somehow, we didn't enjoy comparable levels of success with our lumpen Metallica, Diamond Head and Drowning Pool covers.

Review: The glam metal (aka hair metal, aka butt rock) era was, in its first flush, longer lived as a prominent scene than either punk or grunge, but whilst the influence of both the latter movements is enduring, the same cannot be said for the former. Occasional successes such as The Darkness and Steel Panther stick out as anomalies, and it's fair to say that an element of pastiche and lampoon was required in order for both those bands to make their mark. In some parts of Europe glam clings on - walking around Sweden Rock Festival is always an uncanny experience, seeing bronzed young Scandinavians dolled up for a night out on the Sunset Strip - but otherwise it exists largely as a semi-fondly remembered genre fit only for discussion by time-wasting idiots who still use antiquated online message boards.

The scene had its big hitters like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Poison. In the second rank, I guess, you'd find Skid Row, Ratt, Cinderella, Quiet Riot, Warrant and the like. Then you get the interesting crap, the also-rans and maybe-could-have-beens, who came a coating of Aquanet away from true stardom, and in my estimation it's here where you'll find Faster Pussycat.

I'm going to be automatically well-disposed towards any band that takes their name from a Russ Meyer film; and the invocation of the mammary-obsessed savant of smut is entirely apt given that Faster Pussycat are every bit as sleazy and priapic as one could expect. Unlike Poison (tough name, wimpy music) or Molly Hatchet (album art suggests heroic power metal; reality is hick southern rock with whistling), Faster Pussycat deliver as a concept. It's just a shame that the singer went and named himself Taime Downe.

I say 'singer', because lead sneerer is more accurate. Mr Downe is never going to play a season at the Met. Not that it matters, because it's perfect for the low-rent sound that Faster Pussycat scrape together on this dirty little debut. It's hard not to crack a smile at a song about getting phone numbers from the wall of the toilet, a song that, aside from a couple of paeans to shitty, superficial (and therefore, awesome) Los Angeles, sets the tone rather ably for everything else on the album. Mired gleefully in a glitter-flecked gutter, you fancy you can not only listen to Faster Pussycat, you can smell it too.

Technically speaking, nobody is pulling up trees on this album. I would give a one-armed human being who's previously neither encountered a guitar nor the concept of music about two hours to learn all the riffs. One suspects, reading between the lines of 'Babylon', that between cruising around in convertibles and inhaling a brave portion of Bolivia's GDP, Faster Pussycat didn't spend too much time at rehearsal.

Not everything holds up, though. 'Smash Alley', a largely unforgettable track, leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth with its references to underage girls. Perhaps this seemed daring and edgy back in 1987, and perhaps sensibilities have changed (for the better), but I can't think of any situation in which statutory rape can be mentioned so callously, approvingly even, and be justified as any kind of artistic statement. We've not written Lolita here, guys. A shame, then, as Faster Pussycat is delightfully tasteless without needing to resort to cheap shock tactics. A damn shame, because by and large this is boneheaded, escapist fun. As a celebration of the seedy side of life Faster Pussycat's debut is for the most part a triumph.

Am I being a prude? Taking this all too seriously? It's certainly not the only song to mentioned liaisons with underage girls - I can think of 'Seventeen' by Winger in the hair metal world, 'Christine Sixteen' by KISS, 'Jailbait' by the ineffable Ted Nugent and 'Stray Cat Blues' by the Rolling Stones (a song I really like). I just can't muster any will or enthusiasm to defend this kind of thing. If attitudes towards the sexualisation of minors have hardened, well, good. I'm not expecting anything halfway progressive from a band called Faster Pussycat (nor would I wish to narrow down the field of music, film or literature I enjoy to solely those works that advance a progressive agenda), but I'm never going to be comfortable with grown men boasting about the sexual availability of minors. Fuck that noise.

Next week: my amazingly well-reasoned, nuanced and considered views on both 'Oliver's Army' by Elvis Costello and 'Rednecks' by Randy Newman!

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Hot Shots: #9 - Material Issue - Valerie Loves Me

The best song ever with the name 'Valerie' in the title. Fight me. Material Issue blazed briefly but brightly during the grunge era, but were more in thrall to the power-pop sound, with a dash of college indie for good measure.

A spiky - and spiteful - tale of unrequited longing, this is Material Issue's greatest three minutes. Sadly, frontman Jim Ellison is no longer with us, taking his own life a mere five years after the release of this single.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Can't Buy A Thrill - Steely Dan

Provenance: I heard a Steely Dan song or two on the radio and liked them. Consequently, I went and bought their first album. It's that simple.

Or, rather, it isn't. See, I don't just 'like' the music of Steely Dan - I am a swivel-eyed zealot, a slobbering devotee, a man for whom little else matters except the cool embrace of jazz-inflected, complex (but accessible!) soft rock. In short, I'm a fanboy.

For too long the Roman Catholic Church has held a monopoly on holy trinities. Subsequent to the crushing of the fourth-century Arian heresy, a few worthy challengers have appeared; Larry, Moe and Curly; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and of course, the adamantine and ever-victorious troika of McDonald's, Burger King and KFC. Well, here's another for the pantheon - Blue Oyster Cult, Judas Priest and Steely Dan. A triumvirate I esteem above all others.

Review: I don't listen to Steely Dan - I eat, sleep, breathe and shit Steely Dan. As with every album I review for this blog I have it playing as I write, but I don't need to. I know each and every word, the cues for all the instruments, the name of who plays what. I am a tiresome individual to be around, peppering my conversation with references to Steely Dan and acting with exasperation when my interlocutors haven't yet been exposed to the genius of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. I drive my friends crazy. I don't have many friends.

If I am to find fault, it's that Can't Buy A Thrill has a supremely ugly album cover. Like, what else is wrong? The songs are brilliant. The performances are virtuosic. The production is crystalline (and this on their first album; the quest for sonic perfection has come to define Steely Dan to a great degree. When did they reach their apogee? Aja for my money, though some argue that Fagen's solo outings The Nightfly and Morph The Cat push the envelope further).

Do I love Steely Dan, or do I need Steely Dan? Certainly, I'm not the only person who considers 'the Dan' a lifestyle choice. I too want to drink fruity cocktails, roll out world-weary witticisms in sparkling company, wear rollnecks or floral shirts and leave parties early. I want my Nathaniel West cynicism delivered in gnomic couplets and wrapped around a saxophone solo. I want jazz chords, but not too many. I don't own a yacht but I live on the coast and see many go by my window.

Let's be serious for a moment (because one should not be too fatuous about Steely Dan, you'll never win); Can't Buy A Thrill is a stunner, and if it receives fewer accolades than it should it's because it shares the limelight with Aja, Katy Lied, Countdown To Ecstasy and the rest. The two most recognisable cuts here are FM staple 'Reelin' In The Years', tripping along like an urbane Wishbone Ash, and the filmic 'Do It Again', a series of hard-luck vignettes accompanied by organ and electric sitar. In fact, it strikes me that much of Steely Dan's work is in thrall to the silver screen, either employing recognisable motifs or even terminology in their lyrics that is borrowed from cinema. Someone should write an essay on it, so long as it's not me.

Then you have the rueful, crumbs-from-the-king's-plate grooves of 'Dirty Work' and 'Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)'. Both seem to speak of a demimonde possessing a kind of flaccid, played-out glamour. It all sounds ineffably decadent, but remember kids, to be decadent you must first be civilised. That's the real secret to Can't Buy A Thrill - it's all so effortlessly cool. And as the 1970s wore on, Steely Dan would just continue to get cooler. Whilst other bands gurned and grunted their way through the most rudimentary riff-rock and catpiss guitar soloing, Steely Dan would be playing something miles more sophisticated, by the best musicians in the business, and it would sound great on the radio.

The thing is, it was never effortless. Becker and Fagen were martinets in the studio, demanding endless takes from their hired guns until it met their standards. Famously, there's a scene in The Shining where a slow zoom of Scatman Crothers took over sixty takes before Stanley Kubrick was satisfied (as legend has it, Crothers wept with joy and relief in a subsequent filming when the director called his scene a wrap within three takes). The appearance of serenity and the state of serenity are two very different things, and so Steely Dan, like Kubrick, split the difference and opted for the former. It's partly why Can't Buy A Thrill is such a full-bodied, kaleidoscopic success.

I've never seen Steely Dan and would drag my dick through broken glass in order to do so. The closest I came was one evening in Boston. I'd had a great time watching the Blue Man Group with my then-girlfriend - hell, I'd even participated in the show and had a fresh smudge of paint on my cheek as a memento - but emerging from the theatre I happened to glimpse the marquee opposite. It said STEELY DAN and I don't think I spoke another word that evening.  

Monday, 17 April 2017

Hot Shots: #8 - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - Fire

Probably the most well-known of my selections so far, but having talked about Arthur Brown at some length in my last review it seems churlish not to turn the spotlight onto him for a moment. I've seen Alice Cooper, KISS, Ghost - you name it, if they paint their faces and rock out, I'm into it - but way back in 1968 there was Arthur Brown, a man who I now see strolling the twittens of Lewes from time to time.

You couldn't exactly call Brown a rocker, though; his career has been far too varied to pigeonhole him as such, taking in performance, art and poetry as well as music. However, this dark, Doorsy dose of psychedelia (and the accompanying visuals) has been a touchstone for many. I once had the privilege of seeing Alice Cooper and Arthur Brown duet on 'Fire' on Halloween and almost died because it was too spooky for me.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Tales of Mystery and Imagination - The Alan Parsons Project

Provenance: Along with virtually every other person of my age and origin, the first time I heard the Alan Parsons Project was in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Was that joke ever funny? My research reveals that a number of NBA sides, most notably the Chicago Bulls, ran out to 'Sirius' during the nineties, and to this day its pomp and majesty serves to pump up the players and fans of Serie A side Sassuolo.

(As a brief aside - I'm generally in favour of sports teams running out to some cool music. It's the one - and only - thing US sports gets right. Having said that, I lament the day when the bugger manning the stereo at Charlton Athletic decided to ditch Francis Monkman's incredible theme tune to The Long Good Friday, as it was both a brilliant and unique choice).

My first conscious experience of the Alan Parsons Project came about from Planet Rock Radio playing a song called 'The Voice', from the album I, Robot. It was such a singular piece of music that I felt compelled to buy the album. Amazon offered to bung Tales of Mystery and Imagination in for the princely sum of eleven quid. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Review: Very quickly by way of precis - Alan Parsons was not, as I'm sure you've gathered, an eminent Cambridge physicist hired by Dr Evil to make a moon laser. He was - is- in fact a noted producer, sound engineer and musician. His credentials are pretty good - he was the sound engineer on Dark Side of the Moon, which doesn't sound too shabby. The eponymous project was rounded out by the late songwriter Eric Wolfson and executed mostly by a clutch of trusted studio hands and special guests.

So I've just hit play and holy fuck tell me that's not the great Orson Welles, star of Transformers: The Movie, Get To Know Your Rabbit and a bunch of other stuff, narrating? It most certainly is! Just in case you're an illiterate philistine, I should point out that this is a concept album based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and here Welles is recounting some of Poe's thoughts on literature in that wonderful, unmistakeable dark chocolate voice.

Our hand now firmly grasped, we're led into the uncanny, dreamlike realm of Poe's imagination through the medium of instrumental prog rock. Because why, when creating an homage to one of the deftest wordsmiths of all time, would you bother with lyrics? Half of this album is instrumental, which seems a tad gratuitous in 2017. But let's put this in context; back in 1976 you were probably going to get pretty chonged before giving this a spin. So it's all good, brother. It's impressionistic, there's a depth to Poe that words can't - and which presumably, synthesizers and blazing electric guitar can - adequately convey. Meanwhile, instead of taking drugs I'm writing about it on something called a blog. Who's the square now, daddy-o?

The more traditionally structured songs are a real treat though. Tackling 'The Raven' is a big ask given its ubiquity but it's rendered here with the satisfyingly overblown treatment the subject demands. However, the real mustard is to be found in 'The Tell-tale Heart', which pushes the madness into the red with a suitably demented vocal from Arthur Brown. I often see Arthur Brown strolling around as he lives quite close to where I work, and he's quite hard to miss considering he wears loon pants and a top hat, and seems about six and a half feet tall. Here's a callback to my opening paragraph; at the start of the 2016/17 football season my team Lewes FC adopted the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's classic 'Fire' as their entrance music, and for the first game of the season Brown himself sang it as the teams emerged. Did he wear a flaming helmet? Of course he did, and it had to be put out with fire extinguishers before the game began.

How freaking rad is that though? You go to watch some division eight bullshit football match and there's your man Arthur Brown screaming "I am the God of Hellfire.." before kick off. You don't get that in the show-pony Premier League.

The next two songs are sublime too. 'The Cask of Amontillado' has probably the cleverest lyric of the bunch and wouldn't seem out of place on the best Paul McCartney albums. When the orchestra kicks in for the first time the effect is widescreen - really, it's almost like the first time you hear Maurice Jarre's theme for Lawrence of Arabia as the camera tracks across the desert. It sounds huge. Meanwhile, 'Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether' is a quirky cod-funk number that should be ridiculous but turns out to be a triumph. How? Superb arrangements, imaginative instrumentation and a sound that is absolutely impeccable, flawless. What else do you expect from a guy who worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd? They weren't exactly slouches.

Here's the deal, then. Tales... is very much of an era, and as such you're going to hear Orson Welles chuntering over some proggy soundscapes from time to time. The entirety of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is in effect a tone poem, and if you're intolerant of sonic whirligigs and gewgaws, this isn't for you. It is an ambitious work, and does an excellent job of presenting Poe without getting too hammy or Grand Guignol about it. I guess W.A.S.P. used Poe as source material, punning on the title 'Murder in the Rue Morgue' but singularly failing (spoiler alert) to write a song about a goddamn orang-utan (or whatever) committing murders in Paris (an amazing conceit for a heavy metal song, no? Not according to W.A.S.P.). Nevertheless, give this engrossing and cerebral album a go, at least before you indulge a man who used to sport a saw-blade accessorised codpiece.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Hot Shots: #7 - Cornelis Vreeswijk - Balladen om Fredrik Åkare och den söta fröken Cecilia Lind

Seeing as today's album review (2112 by Rush) was prompted by the wonderful Birke, I thought I'd share with you a song that cropped up in a previous conversation. Commonly shortened to 'Cecilia Lind', I would rank it as one of my favourite pieces of music of all time. Whilst I am by no means a Swedish speaker, I understand the tale told here and, yeah, I get emotional. I've had to pretend I've been chopping onions a few times.

How it came into the ambit of my musical knowledge is quite lovely (in my opinion, at least). It was at Sweden Rock Festival, camping with the girls mentioned in my Queensryche review, and I imagine the subject of singer-songwriters came up. Who was Sweden's Bob Dylan, eh? The answer - a Dutch-born fellow named Cornelis Vreeswijk.

And there, with evening summer sun streaming through the pine trees, the two girls sang this song, haltingly at first, a capella. The expression 'time stood still' has become a cliche but in that moment I felt the most indescribable sensation of calmness and, without wishing to be too woo-woo, oneness with my environment. Transmutation of experience into deathless words - writing - will forever be inadequate at capturing that instance. That's magic, then, isn't it?

2112 - Rush

Provenance: I'm not sure why or where I bought this album. Fairly certain that it wasn't a gift. Who buys people Rush albums as presents? I knew I had it before university, as the following text will bear out.

Anyway, I was today reminded about Rush as my very good friend Birke matched with a guy on Tinder who said he was a fan. Big respect to anyone who goes public on a hookup site with that. Apparently he works at CERN, which makes sense.

This one's dedicated to you, Birke.

Review: I own not one, not two but five Rush studio albums. They're in a special CD rack that also has multiple albums by artists like Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Steely Dan and Tom Waits (though not Blue Oyster Cult - they have their own special rack). That I've bought many albums by these musicians suggests that I like their output, and indeed, many of the albums experience heavy rotation. But I literally had to dust off this motherfucker before putting it in my stereo. Five Rush albums, unplayed, unloved. What's the issue?

I guess it's this - in my head, Rush are a good band without ever being great, plus they wed too much of their material to the risible Objectivism of Ayn Rand. It's like biting into a nice juicy apple to find half a not-so-nice (but equally juicy) worm poking out. I've talked previously about how Ted Nugent's dumbass beliefs spoilt Craveman for me and I'm anticipating something similar here. The other misgiving I have with Rush is that they never overawed me with any one element of their music. Instead, I was often left with an impression of a group of songwriters hobbled by formality, creating a kind of prog that sounds like it was done with compasses and calculators. It never seemed to bounce along as well as a Yes song, was never as earthy as the best Jethro Tull, nor could it compete with the avant-garde leanings of King Crimson. Still, the whole point of this exercise is that I reappraise albums in my collection, so let's give 2112 a fair go.

I know I owned this album prior to university as I made one of my first friends on my course, Mike, discussing it. Specifically, side one - '2112', rather grandly split into seven parts. I credit Mike with opening my ears to the dazzling world of jazz music, but I recall vividly his summation of the intro to '2112' - "it's cool because in 'Overture' they play all the riffs in the coming sections, like it's a blueprint for what you're about to hear." Ha ha! It's not strictly true, but more or less right, and it's a beautiful way to think about it. And truly, I had forgotten how thrillingly virtuosic this section is.

Equally, I had forgotten just how mind-numbingly idiotic '2112' is as a story, and how irritating Geddy Lee's voice was back then. If I do listen to Rush these days it tends to be something more modern, because Lee's dog-bothering upper register is largely absent. No matter though - neither helium lungs nor stupid lyrics can spoil part two, 'The Temples of Syrinx'. Big, bombastic, exhilarating, fun even. The next section, 'Discovery', where a man finds an ancient relic we know to be a guitar (music is tightly controlled by the aforementioned clergy in this dystopian future) is cleverly done; the dissonance of an untuned guitar gently give way to pleasant arpeggios; and as this schmuck becomes more entranced with his discovery, the excitement is mirrored by changes in tempo and picking techniques. Alright, 2112 is pretty good so far.

Unfortunately, nothing in the coming sections of the '2112' suite quite matches either the power or cleverness of the opening two parts, in execution at least. If you don't give a fuck about the storyline - which I don't - then you've got a clutch of movements that start to sound fairly similar to each other, dynamically and tonally. Probably my favourite bit here is 'Grand Finale', where everything is sucked into a whirling sonic vortex and a sinister voice says some crap like "WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL", and authoritarianism, as we all know, is a totally metal thing (either its assertion, or busting free from its bonds).

Now it's side two - starting with the risible 'Passage To Bangkok', an absolute turd of a track. In its allusions to drug use this song gives the listener such a prod with the elbow that it would crack a rib or two. Everything fucking sucks, plus they use the 'Oriental riff' twice and I can't tell if they're being ironic or not (probably not), so it's a relief that the succeeding song 'The Twilight Zone' is rather good. Better than that - it's superb, combining punchy verses with a woozy, delicate chorus.

The quality is maintained with both 'Lessons', which marries a jangly Doobie Brothers feel in the verses to a hard rock chorus. It should be said that Lee's voice sounds great here, especially when doubling Alex Lifeson's guitar riff. Next up - 'Tears'. What a belter. Not only is it a welcome change of pace, it also possesses a hitherto unrevealed depth of emotion - a yearningly, achingly crystalline confection, and so simple too. I can play this on a single acoustic guitar and it sounds good (NB: everything sounds good in my capable hands).

Having exposed my prejudices prior to listening it feels as if I've unjustifiably maligned 2112. It's not perfect; that designation is reserved solely for Boston's debut and Steely goddamn Dan. The lyrics are still shite (Neil Peart, a supreme drummer, should have the pen wrestled out of his hands every time he goes near a piece of paper) but it's very listenable and, when one is in the right mood for Objectivist hokum, rather enjoyable.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Stronger WithEach Tear - Mary J Blige

Provenance: My wonderful partner, the poet Sea Sharp (and here I'm sounding like Vincent Price, who always referred to his wife as "the actress Coral Browne" (I sincerely hope your inner voice read that out in his voice)) was given this as a graduation present.

I want to preface this by saying that tonight will be the first time I'll have ever listened to this album, and indeed, any Mary J Blige album. To my discredit, my knowledge of Blige and her output could easily be written on a postage stamp, leaving enough room for me to list my favourite Steely Dan songs, which happens to be all of them.

Review: First off, without even hearing a note, what is this horseshit cover art? A nice big picture of the artist, her name's nice and clear, and the album is called Stronger, fine. But what's this? On closer inspection there's a kind of subscript under the word 'stronger' seemingly designed solely for the benefit of amoebas or protozoic lifeforms, and it reads thusly - 'withEach Tear'. Thanks Blige - Stronger withEach Tear looks absolutely stupid and you've given me eye strain.

However - there's a sizeable portion of my album collection that features terrible cover art (mostly in the heavy metal genre) and I still dig the sounds, so let's judge this on the music. 'Tonight' starts off promisingly enough, with a grainy, pulsing Wu-Tang bassline overlain with a shimmering synthesizer borrowed from Fat Larry Band's 'Zoom'. I certainly like Blige's voice, and on this and subsequent track 'The One' it's manipulated with clever production to produce a range of interesting effects. Both are in a minor key and ride atop edgy, tricky beats, generating a skin-tightening tension that I really enjoyed.

It dips a bit on 'Said and Done', as a lubricious synth riff gives way to a fairly bland-sounding chorus; even so, the rather neat darkwave influences make it worthwhile. The next track is where everything turns to moose manure; 'Good Love' is an uptempo frothing fountain of piss, anchored by Club Tropicana brass and a guest verse from T.I. that did negative things to my I.Q. 'I Feel Good' can't be any worse, but it sounds like the Des'Ree / China Black collaboration that nobody asked for.

It becomes uncomfortably clear that on SwET, Blige is far more accomplished with the gritty, sultry or aggressive material than she is with the brighter, shinier gubbins. It's fair to say that the rest of the album plays out this way. Blige's voice is a thing of beauty, possessing clarity in full voice and a hint of bite when in declamatory mode. Her producers (and they are legion) have also used phasing and filtering effects intelligently; on 'I Luv U' for example, the combination is quite subtle, the mixture of natural and robotic voices turning the track into a tour-de-force of wind-tunnel techno-eroticism. It's the last truly great track on the album, but it's a cracker. Closing track 'I Can See In Color' comes close to greatness. Blige puts her full dynamic range on display out in front of the kind of downbeat heavy-lidded soul track that used to cook behind one of those characteristically gargantuan Isaac Hayes slow jams.

I can't say that I've become a fan of Mary J Blige since listening to SwET but I have become an admirer, albeit with qualifications. Blige is certainly a masterful singer, and with sympathetic material is absolutely capable of bashing out a masterpiece. The thing is, I don't know quite which direction would best serve Blige best. On the one hand, I'd love to hear a full album of her duking it out with Daft Punk in futuristic heaven; on the other hand, 'I Can See In Color' hints at the possibilities of Blige looking backwards and recording steamy, funky soul with the Swampers (or whatever their latter-day equivalent is) down at Muscle Shoals. With this much talent, it's perhaps hard to know which way to turn - which is also a reasonable summation of Stronger WithEach Tear (seriously, fuck this album title).