Tuesday, 31 October 2017

St Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley

Provenance: I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree when 'Crazy' came out and swept all before it. Even if 'Smily Faces' wasn't quite as infectious as its predecessor, the duo of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green appeared poised to go on to do big things.

Gnarls Barkley cultivated an image that was both playful and hip, with enough sonic invention to offset accusations of novelty invited by their penchant for fancy dress. It was also hard to categorise their sound - was it soul, funk, electronica or an unholy fusion of the lot? Whatever, I was suckered in. I remember my friend Darryl being quite tickled at my pride in buying music by a contemporary artist.

I haven't played this album for quite some time, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it.

Review: Well, that was underwhelming.

I'm a bit disappointed in myself, to be honest. Yes, I was young and dumb, I did stupid, crazy stuff at university like subediting the student newspaper and dressing up like Paul Stanley. I'm not proud. But for all my faults and foibles, I thought I had a good ear. Yes, I supposed, there are plenty of pop songs able to get the foot tapping, but I felt I was able to see through the cheap tricks of mere earworms. Well, damn me! Damn me to hell! Because I heard 'Crazy' and thought I was taking a peek behind the veil and observing the fucking future.

In mitigation, I wasn't the only one. Reviewers fell over themselves to acclaim St Elsewhere as a work of rare genius. And hey, maybe by the standards of 2006 it was pretty good. But it wasn't great.

Let's get one item out of the way - 'Crazy' is still a tune. Green's vocals glide over the track's queasy electro-thrum and the chorus has the cavernous majesty of full-bore Isaac Hayes. Sometimes there are albums where the lead single is clearly not the best of the bunch. St Elsewhere isn't one of those albums.

Which isn't to say there aren't glimpses of brilliance elsewhere. Kicking off, 'Go Go Gadget Gospel' takes the listener to church via Lost In Space and later on the Willie Dixon-quoting Violent Femmes alt-rocker 'Gone Daddy Gone' is transformed into a glitchy, shifty laser-zap of unrefined bliss. 'Smiley Faces' was, ah, the follow-up single to 'Crazy'.

Otherwise, everything else sounds flat and dated. I don't know if 'Who Cares?' sounded taut and cool back in the day but now it just feels sclerotic. Almost the entire second half of the album seems hastily conceived and sketched out without ever being finished. 'The Boogie Monster', 'Feng Shui', 'Transformer' and 'Necromancer' go through the motions. What could be - and possibly have been - described generously as 'flourishes' of Morricone, Wu-Tang Clan and the Isley Brothers now sound like the bored daubings of a distracted dilettante. Nothing in the lollop to the finish line leaps out of the speakers or surprises the listener. The little quavering Moog is exactly where you imagine a little quavering Moog would go. This seems to jar with Danger Mouse's reputation as a multiple Grammy-nominated superstar producer, but then you recall that he played midwife to both U2's Songs of Innocence and Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Getaway.

Also, Cee-Lo Green comes across as a particularly unlikeable individual, so I don't give a shit, St Elsewhere is mostly dross.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

A Boy From Tupelo - Elvis Presley

Provenance: I've been to Graceland, you know. It's the roughly seven-year anniversary of the road trip I took around the Deep South of the USA, during which I met the person who I would later go on to marry.

That journey proved to be the catalyst for me to fall in love with a whole bunch of things, aside from another human being. There's New Orleans, and fried catfish, zydeco and the Great Smoky Mountains, the Arkansas State Fair and Twelve Bones BBQ, small town hospitality and the alluvial expanse of Mississippi's Delta Region. I know, I've reeled off a bunch of cliches - and I stand by them all. For a dumb, wide-eyed young'un from Bournemouth, it was something the hell else.

Rather unexpectedly, I also found myself falling in love with a certain Elvis Aaron Presley. I'm driving down the highway in my rental, destination Memphis. I want to be the biggest tourist around, see Beale Street and the Stax Museum and, of course, take a pipe at Graceland. I've got a passenger with me, a large raw-boned chap called Tommy, a former Aussie Rules player I picked up in Nashville. He's here on business, but taking some time out to travel a bit. About twenty miles out of Memphis and fiddling with the satellite radio I get an Elvis station - live from Graceland - on Sirius XM. (Closer into town and I'm on the newly-christened Isaac Hayes Boulevard, which is nice because it wasn't named after a racist.) W head south toward the airport, hang a right and we're almost there.

Graceland isn't a place for the fainthearted. It's a monument to both a great artist and to folly. It is excessive, tacky, a glittery testimony of all that is crass. To stumble around this bejewelled carbuncle is almost nausea-inducing, and one has to consciously remind oneself that actual human beings dwelt in this funfair house of mirrors. And you think, yes, the star of such cinematic triumphs as Clambake and It Happened at the World's Fair would live in such a place. Yet on the ride in, you heard something pulsing on the radio, something vital...

We got into Graceland fairly late, and as Tommy and I were leaving we noticed trestle tables being set up and barbecues being lit. So we decided to do what any two folk in our position would do - don our suits (don't ask why I packed one, but a great call), hustled our way into the function and spent the evening partying on the verandah, food and drink courtesy of the Tennessee Department of Tourism. We even witnessed what must've been the most high-pressure gig for an Elvis impersonator to perform. Yet even in that pale imitation, there's a whisper of something great...

Review: This handsome three-CD (and book) box-set contains every recording of Elvis spanning the period 1953-55, including service acetates, radio performances, studio takes and singles. I'm only reviewing disc one, containing the acetates, the RCA masters and those immortal Sun masters that cemented Elvis' early reputation.

Nick Tosches is a man who can spin a yarn, the kind of guy whom I imagine considers the gospel truth to be a minor inconvenience when there's a good story to be told. His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire, might be based in part on speculation and hearsay but it's also scintillating. Similarly, there's some tall tales told in Country: the Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll but amidst the mythologising there's some important history on the genealogy of American country music (spoiler: it's all British, and often very old). The book also takes a stand for white hillbilly music's influence in the formation of rock 'n' roll; if not a wholly equal partner with black rhythm 'n' blues, Tosches nevertheless states a strong case - citing plenty of evidence - to suggest that a) there's a clear and obvious country ancestry to rock 'n' roll that's deeper than white performers appropriating black musical forms and b) that blues and country music were cross-pollinating each other for decades anyway. All this is worth holding in mind with regards to A Boy From Tupelo.

From the collection of early acetates you can hear why Sam Phillips initially didn't think he had much on his hands. In a restrained, slightly quavery voice Elvis sings a few torch songs accompanied by his own rudimentary guitar playing. Nothing here for Tosches, or anybody else, to write home about. Even the first couple of Sun masters are on the soporific side. And then, all of a sudden - magic, pure magic, as rockabilly bursts forth from the speakers in full colour. Elvis, along with guitarist Scotty Moore and stand-up bass player Bill Black, tear into Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's 'That's All Right' with a wild assurance. Gone is the thin reticence that defines Elvis' sophomore efforts; instead, he meets the percussive thump of Black's bass with a swaggering, swooning brilliance. If ever a recording sounded white hot it's this bad boy, people, it's this one.

There's so, so much more to come; Bill Monroe's waltz 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' whipped up into a 4/4 country-blues; the supreme cover of Roy Brown's jump blues 'Good Rockin' Tonight'; a crackling 'I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine'; and possibly Elvis' most potent two and a half minutes ever committed to wax, his cover of Junior Parker's 'Mystery Train' (Scotty Moore is sublime on this cut). Even here, in this formative (and utterly electric) period, Tosches was able to muster up a moue of disappointment; he pinpoints the false start of 'Milkcow Blues Boogie' ("hold it fellas, that don't move me - let's get real, real gone for a change") as the moment Elvis first demonstrates his own awareness as a commercial performer, effecting a compromise that would forever taint the rest of his artistry. Well, it's an interpretation, and from a man who certainly knows his onions.

Given the technological and stylistic(?) advances(?) that have been made since Elvis started stirring things up in a small room in Memphis it can, at times, be hard to see past this compilation as a collection of historical curios. Certainly, for ears attuned to popular music created a bit later - say, from The Beatles onwards - it can sound a bit primitive. I recall a conversation with a friend where he spoke approvingly of rockabilly revivalist fashion but said he couldn't fully dig the whole package because of the limited sonic palette the music drew from. I grok. I'd flip that around and say that Elvis, and a whole bunch of contemporaries (and near contemporaries) coupled simple music to simple instrumentation and created some of the most exciting and life-affirming music of the last century. Sinuous, dangerous, slinky, sexy, sweaty, belligerent and beguiling - that first flush of rock 'n' roll was where it was at, folks. Let's get real, real gone, for a change.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Under The Savage Sky - Barrence Whitfield & The Savages

Provenance: I heard a track from this album, 'The Claw', on a sampler CD from Classic Rock magazine. It really stood out from the crowd, and I'd never heard of Barrence Whitfield nor his troupe of Savages, so decided to take a punt. I am well aware of the 'one good song on an otherwise shit album' issue, and indeed, have fallen victim to that particular pitfall myself before now.

Review: Wow, this is a lot of fun! A no-frills garage rock band fronted by a soulful blues shouter, packing twelve songs into 35 minutes, ensuring nothing outstays its welcome.

Bostonian Barrence Whitfield (real name: Barry White) is now in his 60s but you would've thought that a record this lusty and vital was made by someone half his age. Make no mistake though - this ain't snotty kid music, as is clear from 'I'm A Full Grown Man', which carries on the ripe tradition of grown-ass braggadocio pioneered by the likes of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. This is tough, muscular R&B with a punk edge, delivered with the same kind of assuredness and command exhibited by the great soul stirrers of yore.

And 'The Claw'? Check it out:

I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for that diamond-edged guitar sound and a skronkin' ol Bobby Keys saxophone. It's there on 'Rock 'N' Roll Baby' too, sounding every bit as joyful and demented as the sax on 'Blue Moon'. (The saxophone is the most maligned instrument in rock music - I think I've said it before, but I'll say it until I'm as blue in the face as the aforementioned titular astronomical body; used rightly, whether slinking away sinuously in Steely Dan's 'Doctor Wu' or covering the first row in spit, as in Frankie Lymon and the Teenager's 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love?', it's devastating.)

I'm going to make a criticism, and then proceed to dismiss my own qualm immediately. The criticism? Under The Savage Sky feels as familiar as Arsenal labouring against a team in the bottom three. The dismissal? Who gives a fuck when it's this fun? 'The Wolf Pack' is, as one can deduce before even hearing a solitary note, a tribute to Howlin' Wolf, which in theory could be terrible. However, when the rollicking Hubert Sumlin riff (doubled on saxophone) is met by Whitfield's dead ringer Chester Burnett yodel, it's impossible not to crack a grin.

That's the deal with this unholy collection; every time you detect a hint of The Hives, or a soup├žon of Wilson Pickett - perhaps a seasoning of The Seeds, or a suggestion of Sam & Dave - it's like a reward for digging all this sweet ass music, mingled with the reassurance that someone else is still out there, sweating and hollering and keeping the flame alive. About the only time that this magpie attitude towards appropriation oversteps the mark, I think, is on 'Angry Hands', which has a guitar motif that is a near identical twin to that on Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen'.

There's not much left to say. If you like catchy, rough-edged R&B, Under The Savage Sky is the bad boy for you. I haven't investigated any further back just yet (this album came out in 2015) but I get the impression that I won't be disappointed. By the same token, I bet these guys absolutely bring it in a live setting. You can almost see the steam coming off this platter and it's a studio cut, good grief. Just imagine. Just imagine.   

(Oh yeah, I've got one quibble with that Diffuser list I linked to in my first paragraph: Len's 'Steal My Sunshine' always was, and ever shall be, an unmitigated pile of crap.)