Saturday, 15 December 2018

Leftoverture - Kansas

Provenance: I know more about the state of Kansas than I do about the band (who hail from Topeka, KS, a fine city folks), due not in no small part because it's where my partner comes from. We got married in Kansas and, by God, I shall die in Kansas (note: I live in the south-east of England so I haven't quite thought through the logistics of this latter claim).

However, long before I had any kind of association with Kansas the place, I was into Kansas the band. More precisely, I was into Leftoverture, and even then I would say no more than two-thirds of the album. I could never really bring myself to sit through all six 'movements' of 'Magnum Opus'. I bought a Russian import of Leftoverture from a secondhand shop in Bournemouth for about a fiver.

Before I go on, I really want to point out that despite my frequent digs at the place I really do hold a lot of affection for Kansas. From the First Nations peoples of the region and Coronado's 16th century expedition to find the Seven Cities of Gold, to Bleeding Kansas through to the great cattle drives of Wild West mythology, it really is a fascinating place - and that's before you even get to its natural history. You've still got mass graves from the Oregon Trail and innumerable ghost towns, plus some cool places like Lawrence, Manhattan, Abilene and Dodge City. Rather than the usual sun-sodden vacation spots or overhyped cities, why not give Kansas (or the Midwest in general) a go?

Review: Yes! If Kansas got nothing else correct, they damn well knew that frontloading Leftoverture with 'Carry On Wayward Son' was an absolute pro move. A song like 'Carry On Wayward Son' swings for the fences on all kinds of fronts. Even the a capella intro, something I tend to dislike, sounds great. From there it's a real Nantucket Sleighride of a track, pulling you through riff-rock, gentle piano balladry and a warped kind of Midwestern boogie-prog. It should be a hot mess, but it isn't.

One of the textures that distinguished Kansas' brand of pomp-rock from their competitors was the prominent use of violin in the mix. Nowhere is this better exemplified in 'The Wall', soaring and bombastic, underpinned by a lyric describing one man's search for inner tranquility. This becomes more interesting when you replace 'one man' with 'Kerry Livgren', Kansas' guitarist and main songwriter. Listening to many of the other songs - 'Carry On Wayward Son', the hard-driving 'What's On My Mind', the epic 'Miracles Out of Nowhere' (all of which was side one, basically) - and you're left with the impression of a man at a crossroads. Someone who's had his fill of what the world has to offer and is turning inward for succour.

For enlightenment.

For peace.

Yes, my friends, I think we've found yet another hidden Christian rock album.

Three years after Leftoverture was released, Kerry Livgren became an evangelical Christian. It was a move that would eventually lead him to quit Kansas and release actual Christian rock. Betwixt and between, he also flirted with a rather bizarre niche of Judeo-Christianity codified in a gargantuan work called The Urantia Book, all of which mirrors the unsettled mind wrestling with notions of truth and uncertainty during the first half of Leftoverture. The subtlety employed here has to be commended, as each song taken individually doesn't give a clear picture; but taken as a whole, side one is a fairly obvious delineation of introspection and the struggle of a dawning spirituality, one that would lead him to leave Kansas and secular rock music behind (spoiler: he came back).

Unfortunately, past about 'Questions of My Childhood', two-thirds of the way through, Leftoverture runs out of steam a bit. Although Kansas have a keen ear for melody and some chewy, inventive musical ideas they're simply not an out-and-out progressive rock band. They simply lack the nimbleness and light-touch of a band like Yes. As such, 'Magnum Opus', a six part - count 'em! - suite of rockaria tries its best to gather speed but never quite leaves terra firma. There's a couple of cute ideas hidden amongst the weeds that surely could've been developed into fuller compositions. What possibly seemed like a questing and adventurous format actually ends up strangling all the clever bits in the crib.

Nevertheless, Leftoverture can be considered one of the good'uns, and side one is up there as a high-point in the pomp rock annals. Plus, in the fingerpicked guitar in 'Miracles Out of Nowhere', you can hear the blueprint of what would become 'Dust In the Wind', Kansas' most famous composition. As Coronado once concluded, four hundred and fifty years ago, Kansas are well worth exploring.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Motley Crue - Motley Crue

Provenance: Honestly, no idea.

Review: Where does one start with this curio? Perhaps a little context would be helpful.

Until about 1993, US MTV viewers had to put up with a lot of hairspray and decadence. Motley Crue (I'm not bothering with the umlaut, guys), bolstered by albums such as Shout at the Devil, Theatre of Pain and Dr Feelgood, were one of the earliest and most successful acts from the glam era. They were rich, famous and cool - and then grunge happened.

Unlike the fabled Punk Year Zero that supposedly reset the clock in the UK (lol, no, Genesis still sold bucketloads in the wake of Lydon, Strummer et al), the rise of alt-rock in the US genuinely swept away the spandex brigade almost wholesale. A few of the big boys endured - Guns N Roses were dangerous and credible, Bon Jovi erred close enough to blue-collar likeability - but some, like Motley Crue, didn't. That's not to say that sales entirely dried up, but suddenly they and their peers were chasing a zeitgeist rather than creating one. Bands scrambled to appear hip to the new scene, with Warrant, KISS and Def Leppard all coming out with albums that strove to appear edgier. What it did was make them look desperate. And thus we have Motley Crue, erstwhile-hair farmers reinvented as 1994 alt-metal tyros.

The most immediate difference to that which came before are the vocals - and it's an improvement. I have never been the biggest Motley Crue fan due in large part to Vince Neil's unappealing hooting and yelping. Given the direction the band took here, had he not left in 1992 Neil would've been frankly floundering. John Corabi's grittier, more soulful delivery is a good fit for a collection of tracks that is more mid-paced and downbeat than anything Crue had hitherto deigned to release.

However - the big problem here is that the whole album feels like an exercise in pastiche, as if someone had tasked a competent band to produce an ersatz version of what was lighting up the charts at the time. 'Power to the Music', the opener, is the sound of a group that grasps what's happening at surface level without any deeper level of understanding, and it's frankly laughable to hear good-time hedonists Motley Crue suddenly develop an urge to tackle paedophilia ('Uncle Jack'). That's some dark fucking shit bro!

The missteps continue. In the space of three songs they've used that modish compressed voice effect you hear on Soundgarden's 'Spoonman" (also 1994) twice, although in the second instance it feels less egregious because 'Hooligan's Holiday' is a legitimately fun track, sounding like something that could've adorned Skid Row's Slave to the Grind (which is a compliment, trust me). It mixes tempos and dynamics nicely, a punchy head-nodder that overcomes its ridiculous lyrical content with ease. Meanwhile, 'Misunderstood' threatens to actually lift proceedings through a change of pace and a welcome injection of subtlety. It starts off like the kind of woozy, dreamy ballad that Aerosmith could do and Corabi even sounds like Steve Tyler for the first half of the song. Sadly, as with everything else on Motley Crue any hint of a good idea is bludgeoned to oblivion, in this instance by kicking it up into generic heavy 'rawk'. About the only time Crue break outside of the cage is 'Loveshine', which sounds appealingly like a Tesla ballad. It's light and breezy, and over in two and a half minutes on an album that clocks in at over an hour in run time.

There's one more highlight to come - 'Poison Apples', which sounds like a bouncy, slick Quireboys boogie, albeit with the chorus to the Manic Street Preachers' 'You Love Us' (yes, really) grafted on top. But I like that song, and I like the Quireboys, so it's a winner for me. It's the last time Crue keep things relatively carefree; from then on, signores Mars, Lee and Sixx furrow their brows and do theur best to appear pissed off with the world. And it's boring! It's fucking boring! And that's the biggest sin of all. Motley Crue can be many things - frothy, boneheaded, insubstantial, idiotic, annoying - but not dull. Yet here I am, anxiously awaiting the little zip noise that signals that the CD is over. 'Til Death Do Us Part', 'Welcome to the Numb' (really?), 'Smoke the Sky', 'Droppin' Like Flies', 'Driftaway' - all the different shades of shit are represented here. Call it what you will - a crawl, a plod, a drag - but the last twenty-five minutes of this already flawed attempt at relevance are awful, a purgatory that not even hair metal fans should be subjected to.

It's got its defenders. It's got those who think that it should've been released under a name other than Motley Crue (one I'm sympathetic with). Largely, though, it's got those who saw it on the shelves or caught 'Hooligan's Holiday' on MTV and responded with a collective shrug. I have now listened to Motley Crue twice over the course of two days, hoping that spending a little quality time with the album would reveal its hidden charms to me. That didn't happen. Ultimately I ended up not giving a pig's eye one way or the other. Welcome to the numb, I guess.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Yoshino Fujimal - Yoshino Fujimal

Provenance: I bought this from Tower Records in Tokyo last month. I didn't have to listen to a single note of it to know it was going to be a triumph. Just look at the cover and tell me that's not the smoothest man in Japan?

Review: This album sounds exactly how you hope and expect it to sound. I didn't know it at the time, but Yoshino Fujimal is emblematic of a genre called 'city pop' that thrived in Japan during the 1980s. Sleek and cool, it trended towards the more sophisticated end of the yacht rock spectrum. From what I can gather, Fujimal was a member of the AB's (essentially Japan's equivalent of Toto), a skilled studio musician with a fine ear and chops to burn. I've struggled to find out more about Fujimal and can't see much solo work beyond the late 80s; perhaps it's indicative of nothing more than my ineptitude with Google, because one sad alternative is that he simply didn't receive the wider recognition his talent deserves.

Funk guitars, popping bass and a starlit saxophone all herald the start of 'Who Are You?'; friends, a masterpiece. It's like all the best bits of the Cate Brothers and Christopher Cross if they sang in Japanese. If anyone, next track 'Mid-night Plus 1' is even better; it sounds like Earth, Wind and Fire's 'September', if the latter put on a pastel suit, rolled up the sleeves and came up with a better chorus. It's so good that once I'm done with this review I'm going to skip back and listen to 'Mid-night Plus 1' all over again.

The album is divided into 'day' and 'night' sides, not that I can really tell much of a difference (if its manifested in the lyrics, I'm screwed, as my Japanese pretty much extends to 'yes', 'no', 'please', 'thank you', 'beer', 'hospital'). Though the instrumentation and production belies the age of this collection, it's not to be supposed that Yoshino Fujimal is dated. Instead, guitars either cluck or soar as appropriate, saxophones scrape the firmament and synths twinkle with a neon pearlescence. I can't tell whether this version has been remastered but everything sounds absolutely present and fantastic. In terms of technical accomplishment, it's every bit as finely-wrought as ABC's Lexicon of Love or Donald Fagen's The Nightfly (both, incidentally, released in the same year (1982) as Yoshino Fujimal - if only Sade's Diamond Life had not been two years later I think we'd seriously be treating it as the high watermark in popular music recording).

The first song fully rendered in English - 'Girl's In Love With Me' - could've been a hit. It should have been a hit. It's a skilfully delivered slice of AOR with a nagging hook in its chorus, sweet and addictive. Furthermore, Fujimal is an excellent, soulful singer, seemingly at home with English as he is in Japanese. I can only think that it's the provinciality of the music business that prevented this album or any of its singles from making a mark. Depressing, eh? How many other Fujimals were - are - out there? Still, we got Bros, so who am I to make such a plaint?

Japan was an incredible experience and, unusually for a traveller who enjoys novelty as much as I do, I want to return before long. And when I go back, I'll be devoting some serious time, research and money on snuffling out more gems like Yoshino Fujimal. If you're exposure to Japanese music has thus far been J-Pop and Babymetal (says a guy who, two months ago, only had a Flied Egg (yes, really) album to show on that score) you're missing out. But where else do I turn? Brazilian psychedelia? Italian prog? Heavy metal in Iraq?

I'm going to become one of those twats that goes to WOMAD every year, aren't I?

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Possession - Vodun

Provenance: As is too often the case I place my trust in the hacks at Classic Rock magazine to inform my new music purchases. Not only did they give Possession a glowing review, they also made it out to be the antithesis of the meat 'n' potatoes rock that I've rather fallen out of love with.

So I bought the album, gave it one listen and was airily dismissive about it on Twitter. The sole response was a chastening reminder to me that I was actually talking about the creative endeavours of real human beings, as Vodun's drummer replied and, with more grace than I could ever muster, encouraged me to listen again.

I did. And a year later apologised, because I was wrong. Now, my memory isn't so spectacular that I was able to dredge a snotty tweet out of cold storage; the prompt came because I caught Vodun supporting Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats and they were mind-bending in the best way imaginable. I felt like I'd been assaulted by the time they left the stage. Vodun's second album Ascend is now out, so it feels like a good time to go back and appraise their first effort properly.

Review: The first time I listened to Can't Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan I was nonplussed. A couple of promising tracks here and there. Gerry Rafferty's City To City was, 'Baker Street' aside, not much to write home about either. I played ZZ Top's La Futura maybe twice before consigning it to the collection for eighteen months because it didn't have the immediacy of Tres Hombres or Eliminator.

Of course, Steely Dan are now part of my Holy Trinity, City To City is probably a top ten of all time album, and I think La Futura is ZZ Top's best since the aforementioned Tres Hombres. Which begs the question as to why I felt so confident proclaiming Vodun's debut to be neither here nor there? (Answer: because I am a wretch and a fool).

Still, how did I fuck up so spectacularly in the instance of Possession? The only excuse I can muster is that perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind, because this ain't your uncle's Afro-doom stoner metal album. Like all the best records, Possession demands concentration and rewards the listener when it is given.

Firstly, and least interestingly, the musicianship is top notch. It seems churlish in a three-piece to highlight two standout performers but I'm going to do it anyway; Ogoun lays down some of the most interesting drumming I've heard on a rock release in many years, and Oya is a terrifying vocalist. Live, these two are so overwhelming as to be destructive but it's on record where you can fully appreciate their nimbleness and dexterity. Ogoun is a powerhouse drummer, but much of the juice in Possession comes from the shuffling time-signatures and intricacy of her work. Integrating West African percussion within a metal framework is a potentially dicey affair, and could've sounded awkward or contrived. Instead, at its best, the fusion is hypnotic.

Certainly, what's more interesting is the mood this album conjures up. It's an unapologetic celebration of vodun cosmology, and why not? There are plenty of Christrian rock albums out there and a not insignificant number devoted to our Shining Lord Satan. I recall being very impressed when a school friend showed me a Hare Krishna album he'd been given on the street by a devotee (it sounded like a cross between Hawkwind and the Ozric Tentacles, i.e. per expectations). I have no more than a glib understanding of Haitian vodou or West African vodun so I fully expect not to grasp every resonance or nuance of this work. Nonetheless, this devotional centre gives Possession a concentration and unity that I feel all the best collections have.

It's hard to define what I mean; an album doesn't have to be overtly conceptional in execution, nor do the individual tracks need to be formally uniform. I used 'mood' in the first sentence of the preceding paragraph, and that's a close approximation. 'Character' or 'personality' might also be applicable, but neither strictly nor in their entireties. Whatever it is, Possession has it, like John Martyn's Solid Air or Nick Drake's Pink Moon, or even Acid Bath's When the Kite String Pops. It has a core, a power, a sense of purpose and a hint of mystery to it, all wrapped up in a heady blend of styles and spirituality.

I can't wait to hear Ascend - I can only hope I'm able to be a tad more mindful when I first give it a spin. Oh yeah, and go see Vodun if they play nearby, they are outrageously good live. 

Sunday, 30 September 2018

When The Kite String Pops - Acid Bath

Provenance: A recommendation from the music message board I used to contribute to. I was subsequently bought this as a Christmas present by my parents.

Review: My default position on 'long' albums is to bitch about them for either unspooling the same goddamn idea for an hour or jumping about the place stylistically so as to justify the run time. The former tend to be boring and the latter can be an exercise in frustration as a band or artist, in an attempt to demonstrate versatility, fail to land a knockout punch.

At one hour and nine minutes, When The Kite String Pops is a long album. It is also a rara avis in the sense that it is diverse - even sprawling - but never dull. A bubbling stew of Sabbath-inspired doom, hardcore, groove metal and skeletal balladry, its disparate textures are shot through with a grim, unrelenting focus on the darker side of the human condition. Curiously, the length of WTKSP might actually be one of its most powerful tools.

It's perfectly normal for musicians to use dynamics, tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony to all convey certain moods - so why not time? Taking a considered approach to the actual amount of time allotted to a work is common in ambient and avant-garde composition, and probably in some of the more oblique ends of the extreme metal spectrum. Of course, concept albums and live compositions frequently stretch out, often to provide space for narrative to unfold or to provide a degree of verisimilitude to a performance, but here it's something a bit more nuanced. On WTKSP the sensation is like that of a journey through the bleaker reaches and shades of a netherworld.

Of course, all this could've been disastrous if Acid Bath couldn't whistle a tune, but even at their thrashiest there's still a powerful subtlety at work in their songwriting. Inevitably this comes to the fore when they turn down the amps a bit - 'Scream of the Butterfly' is astonishing, even if Dax Riggs' clean vocals sound ever so slightly like a cross between Chris Cornell and the actor Tony Curtis. Riggs' abilities to deliver convincing performances with both clean and screamed vocals - an ability he shares with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt - means that songs like 'Dope Fiend', where he switches between the two, are suffused with a deliriously split personality.

It's a queasy, push-pull ride to the bottom - and it never lets up. I know I said exactly the same about Judas Priest's Painkiller but whilst Halford and co. exist in a shiny, technicolour comic book universe, WTKSP is a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape rendered in monochrome. I'm also well aware that straining hard on the pathos can lead to bathos, but on this cut Acid Bath never come close to lapsing into unintentional comedy. There is a deadly seriousness - emphasis on the deadly - to tracks like 'Tranquilized' and 'God Machine' that allows for no chink of hope.

Finally, a word on the musicianship. It's as tasteful as you're going to experience in the genre. These guys know when to step on the gas, and when to ease up. Too often in metal I think that bands confuse busy drumming - especially the flavour of skinsmanship that relies on the double bass pedal - with aggression. It is to Acid Bath's credit that they know exactly how to create a sense of controlled tension, and then how to release it in a furious gale of punches to the ears and gut. Head-snapping guitar is paired with big, washy swathes of feedback much in the same way as, per my earlier mention, clean and distorted vocals combine, all to stunning effect. You can't really call it 'light and dark' though, just different shades of black (not to get too Spinal Tap about things).

For those who would seek to mock metal, WTKSP is a serious rejoinder. It is both a showcase for fine musicianship and as a primal howl of despair, but furthermore it makes demands on the listener to step wholly into an uncomfortable and disconcerting place. It's strong medicine, and repeat listening is an exercise in masochism, but all the better for it. One for the ages. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Dance Of Death - Iron Maiden

Provenance: Along with a few others I could mention, Iron Maiden belongs in that category of bands that any self-respecting metalhead should like. All my friends at school that I played rock and metal with were avid Maiden fans, and I even wound up performing an entire set of Irons covers at a school band bash.

However, I have a confession; if my compatriots in denim 'n' leather hadn't guessed it at the time, I will openly state for the record that I don't love Iron Maiden.

I don't revere Iron Maiden.

I just kinda-sorta-sometimes like Iron Maiden. And that's fine, right?

Anyway, this album dropped when I was working weekends at a well-known high-street purveyor of trinkets and tchotchkes, including compact discs. For many a moon I, along with my still-friend Emily, would be first in the store to sort out all that day's magazines and newspapers. I often used this hour or so before opening to crank the CD player and submit the long-suffering (as I said, still my friend!) Emily to the depredations of whatever metal album I could rustle up. One of them was Dance of Death.

Review: Just look at that shitty album art. It's horrific. It's the kind of thing created by a callow thirteen year-old to accompany their darksided Harry Potter slash-fic. It's like if Eyes Wide Shut were made entirely on MS Paint. It's Hieronymus Bosch filtered through the aesthetics of ReBoot. After glancing at it for two seconds I punched myself in the face; not, as per Tristan Tzara's injunction, as an artistic gesture, but as an anaesthetic for my poor, abused cerebral cortex.

Don't misunderstand me, heavy metal is the natural realm for eye-breakingly bad album art but much of that was due to having no money and getting their stoner D&D-playing mate to draw "a badass space monster" or whatever. But Maiden weren't broke then, and certainly aren't broke now. It makes my hair stand on hand when I consider the size of the organisation and management infrastructure surrounding Iron Maiden and thus the number of individuals who looked at the draft artwork and thought "yes, that's just the ticket." I think it's best I we talk about the music now!

Ah yes, the music! It's...fine? Pretty good in places? It sounds like some Iron Maiden, for the most part. Bruce Dickinson's slightly hammy wail is present and correct, and Nicko McBrain's drumming is muscular and creative; the swirling concussive vortex he conjures up on 'Montsegur' is absolutely monstrous. Here and there, the things I like about Iron Maiden are present, correct and at the forefront. Opener 'Wildest Dreams' blasts out of the traps, and it shares with 'Rainmaker' the kind of tasty fretwork curlicue that has elevated so many Maiden tracks.

But I have some misgivings - and I'm not exaggerating when I say you can cut and paste the following verbiage from this paragraph into any review of Iron Maiden from the Dickinson era onwards. Firstly, for their huge and largely-earned success, which rests upon consistently excellent live performances and a firkin-full of top-tier tracks, the ratio of filler-to-banger is pretty high. There are lesser bands without the same stature who operate(d) in the same genre such as Saxon and Diamond Head who couldn't sustain the quality but did put out individual albums that are better, front to back, than anything Maiden have managed. The second is a petty hill to die upon, but I dislike the fact that I run the risk of learning something from listening to a Maiden album. It's nerd metal. I am sure that one can pass GCSE History purely by listening to every post-Brave New World release in order.

Now, to hone in on a specific issue with Dance of Death; just like a Swinetunes review, it's far too long and often takes its sweet time getting where it's going. Almost 70 minutes, seriously? With a title track that clocks in at 8 mins 36 seconds so it can include room for passages that sound a bit like a beefier version of Spinal Tap's 'Stonehenge'? And just in case that wasn't enough, skip forward a few tracks and you've got one called 'Paschendale' (sic) only nine seconds shy? Come on. I've always felt that Maiden's 'epics' are a by and large ponderous and enervating affairs, a sensibility evidently not shared by bassist / songwriter / multimillionaire Steve Harris. I'm definitely right, though.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mellow and ruminative 'Journeyman', which closes out this album, which was also rather wonderful when I caught the Dance of Death Tour at Earl's Court with my brother. To produce such a song is, I would submit, a truer test of the band's ability to flex their creative muscles than an interminable war gallop that contains the lines 'Battlefield nothing but a bloody tomb / Be reunited with my dead friends soon." But what the fuck do I actually know? Dance of Death is a good album, give it a listen, but maybe schedule in a comfort break if you do so.

PS - The album artwork for Dance of Death is a true aberration. Through the years Iron Maiden have decked their releases out in some truly iconic and very metal designs, even if the music itself sucked substantial ass.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Mothership Connection - Parliament

Provenance: Not entirely sure. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me, I seem to recall somebody telling me that this is the best funk album ever recorded. That's worth a punt, isn't it?

I know I definitely owned this before I went to university, because I once saw a dude on campus wearing a Mothership Connection t-shirt. I tried to engage him on the subject (viz: the best funk album ever recorded) but he nixed it, saying that he just liked the design and hadn't ever heard the album. Right there and then, my friends, I wanted to cuff some sense into that mooncalf.

Review: To the gauzy wraith of my memory who told me about Mothership Connection, I doff my cap to you. In the grand scheme of things I haven't listened to a great deal of funk (though I've enjoyed spasmodic funk flaps when a friend, colleague or acquaintance has hepped me to something, including the time where my father-in-law ran me through the Ohio Players discography) so I don't feel qualified to bestow any laurels upon on particular platter or another. That being said, I come back to Mothership Connection again and again and again, so it's doing something right.

Sitting squarely in the middle of an Afrofuturist musical pantheon that spans the Sun Ra Arkestra to Janelle Monae is George Clinton's outrageous Parliament-Funkadelic collective. The history is not altogether straightforward, but Clinton conceived Funkadelic to be the raw, psych-heavy outfit, bringing Eddie Hazel's swirling, hypnotic guitar work to the fore. Meanwhile, Parliament were the more R&B orientated group, a groove machine which pushed Bernie Worrell's keyboards and, on Mothership Connection, an elite horn section front and centre. In fact the personnel assembled here, pound-for-pound, possibly constitute the most dazzling array of funk musicians captured on magnetic tape.

Folks, it's a wild ride. Cold open to an imagined radio station (maybe being beamed in from outer space?) called WEFUNK, which is a device I've enjoyed in 1970s cinema (Vanishing Point, The Warriors). The putative DJs riff on the medicinal qualities of funk and jib off artists who aren't quite up to their standards (including, amusingly, David Bowie and the Doobie Brothers); this goes on for almost eight minutes, and aside from periodically busting out into a monstrous chorus it remains a nervy, tentative trip. Not at all what I had imagined - and yet it's infectious, weird, funny and absolutely addictive all at once.

However, one 'P Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)' is done, we're into a world - no, a galaxy - of groove. It's difficult to tag a true MVP when everybody is absolutely cooking with gas, but Bootsy Collins certainly earned his fucking corn on this bad boy. It's hard to describe exactly what he's doing, but it's some of the most rubbery, audaciously groovy bass you're likely to hear. Even at low volumes it seems to punch you in the chest, and in my car's souped-up sound system it turns my humble Peugeot 207 into a veritable low-rider. And just as I once claimed that Judas Priest's Painkiller doesn't let up with the metal madness, by the same token it could be claimed that Mothership Connection couldn't stop being funky even if it tried. Even the start of 'Unfunky UFO', which is merely a finicky little syncopated guitar and bass drum, is sublime. People talk about John Bonham's right foot, but this is (perhaps quite literally) a kick from another galaxy.

None of this should suggest to you that Mothership Connection doesn't shift around in terms of mood or style at all. The coda to 'Mothership Connection (Star Child)' is built around 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', which is strangely poignant; a spiritual about liberation from earthly pains transmogrified into the context of an imagined African-American-extraterrestrial realm. Then there's the most old-school R&B track of the bunch, 'Handcuffs', an absurd and humorous meditation on male possessiveness. Parliament actually had its roots in doo-wop (as The Parliaments), and it's on 'Handcuffs' where this is most obvious, with all five(?) vocalists stepping up to deliver featured spots. For the finale, the general lightness of the album is nudged out in favour of a laser-focused intensity on the largely instrumental 'Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples'. This track rides atop the most outrageous groove on the whole album, and it is sticky - hell, Worrell's scuzzy synthesizers sound as if they're on the verge of collapsing in on themselves, and you the listener feel almost as if you're about to be sucked into this dark star of pure rhythm.

One thing about Mothership Connection that is abundantly clear to even the most casual enjoyer of hip-hop is how very alive the music is to the present day. To suggest it's an influence on the genre would be gross understatement; just have a look at how many times it is estimated that Parliament have been sampled. Stick 'em up there with James Brown, Kraftwerk and the 'Amen Break'. Parliament, and Mothership Connection in particular, pumps through the arteries of so much b(B)lack music, from Kool and the Gang to Charles Hamilton to Dr Dre and beyond. It's the single coolest, slickest, catchiest and unruliest goddamn funk album I've ever heard, and I'll probably spin it again once I'm done listening. Plus, who wouldn't want an album that contains a track called 'Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication'? It almost puts Isaac Hayes to shame!

My own personal coda: thanks to being turned on to Parliament at a young age, once ensconced at university I was one of a few students who knew the name Maceo Parker (saxophone; also played with James Brown and Prince, which isn't too shabby). So when his band rolled into town I was THERE and - goodness me - it was transformative. I dance like Theresa May but, just like the Prime Minister whenever she steps foot on African soil, the pull was irresistible. He's still out there touring - catch him if you can.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Sheik Yerbouti - Frank Zappa

Provenance: In a not insignificant number of ways I am my father's son, and nowhere is this more evident than my tastes when they edge towards the weirder end of the popular music spectrum. White Noise, Gryphon and today's subject - Frank Zappa - all came into my orbit as a consequence of my dad's listening habits.

In the instance of Sheik Yerbouti, I bought this to signal a small amount of independence. How so? Because dad didn't own this album. I distinctly recall as a youngster being impressed by cover art of both Overnite Sensation and Hot Rats, I thought the guy's name was cool (it sounds like a freakin' laser) and some of the songs made me laugh. Thus when I was older and casting around for my own bit of Zappanalia, I went for an album that was considered one of his more 'hard rock' efforts, as per my own inclinations at the time. Hence Sheik Yerbouti.

May I drift a little here? When it comes to worst fanbases of all time, you have to consider those of the Grateful Dead, Britney Spears and Pantera. They all have their demerits, but for me nothing comes close to being stuck with a Zappa fan when the topic of conversation is Zappa. I've had my head forcibly banged for me watching Iron Maiden, met some Megadeth fans who were happy to show me their Neo-Nazi tattoo collections and saw not one but three fights break out within spitting distance during a Madness gig. I'd happily endure all that again, and then some, if I didn't have to spend another moment in the presence of a Frank Zappa fan (my dad excluded, who is the epitome of the exception that proves the rule).

Review: Well, this is a bit of a disappointment.

I can imagine that, aged sixteen, I found some of this stuff funny. However, I've never found scatalogical humour particularly engaging, and any youthful proclivity I may have had towards it has certainly dimmed with age. In terms of my Zappa listening these days, it tends towards the more instrumental side, Mothers of Invention era cuts or Hot Rats (because 'Willie the Pimp  features the greatest violin riff in rock music). Sheik Yerbouti has slipped to the bottom of the pile, and giving it a listen for this review has done little to rehabilitate it.

You know, 'I Have Been In You' might have elicited the odd yuk back when Peter Frampton was a ubiquitous presence in the homes of Middle America, but pastiche is a dodgy thing to pull off at the best of times. It's saying something that the parodical Bob Dylan harmonica stylings on 'Flakes' is the highlight of 'Flakes'. And revisiting the notion of jokes ageing poorly - whew - 'Jewish Princess' (yep) and 'Bobby Brown (Goes Down)' (a discotheque staple on continental Europe, which is enough to make me a full on Brexiter) would've surely been offensive forty or so years ago. In 2018 they come across as positively Neanderthal with their depictions of Jewish women and homosexuality, respectively. A former English Literature teacher of mine once felt moved to describe Zappa as a 'poet'.

I'm happy to say that, amongst the more overtly comedic songs, one still holds up - 'Dancin' Fool' is a stabby little lampoon of the disco scene that works through a combination of splenetic observational humour and metrical tricksiness, the latter effectively turning it into a disco track that can't be danced to. 'Tryin' To Grow a Chin' is also a lot of fun, drummer Terry Bozzio providing a demented vocal. Plus I like false endings, and this song's got one (sorry to spoil it for you, folks - but are you really going to listen to Sheik Yerbouti any time soon?).

Here's the frustrating part; the first track that appears to privilege musicianship above cheap thrills, the instrumental 'Rat Tomago', hits the mark. The push-pull percussion, jazzy keys and wild guitar improvisations afford a glimpse into realms beyond this album's - consciously applied - limitations. Oh, enjoyed that music, did ya? Never mind, here's some wisecracks about fisting. With Sheik Yerbouti we've reached a point in Zappa's career where he needed to do the stoopid stuff (and take it out on tour) to fund his more serious compositions, which had become prohibitively expensive, especially where recording orchestral works were concerned. At least, that was the line trotted out at the time. Who knows? Maybe that was the case, but then again maybe he just got a kick out of stigmatising homosexuality via the medium of comedy song.

As I have intimated, there are hints of a better (and shorter) album here; all the instrumental cuts are great, with 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango' coming out on top because it sounds just that little bit out of control. Zappa fans might scream that their formalist hero knew exactly what he was doing, but I think it's sometimes pretty neat to hear the seams of the music. (Isn't this where improvisation becomes truly interesting? When instead of falling back on the rock / jazz / blues playbook of licks, they take their instrument on a journey that teeters between inspiration and failure?). Of the 'straighter' rock stuff, 'Broken Hearts Are For Assholes' has a certain appealing mania to it, even if it does descend into a coda about 'poop chutes'. 'Baby Snakes' is here and gone far too quickly, which is a shame because it's a little gem of hard-edged surrealism. 'City of Tiny Lites' really kicks out the jams - a spacey and strangely soulful number that skips along on busy percussion and a rubbery bass line. The guitar solo is fucking badass too.

I will say this - aside from the more objectionable extremes of Zappa's lyric writing, I enjoyed the experience of revisiting Sheik Yerbouti more than I had expected. It's also told me something about myself, and the ageing process. When I was in my teens, I would often skip the 'boring' instrumental tracks so I could get to the next chucklefest. Now, it would be the other way around. Once upon a time, this would've been my favourite Zappa album because it had some rawk 'n' roll on it, but now I gravitate towards his jazzier output (which coincides with a general awakening to jazz as a genre, I guess). Anyway, Sheik Yerbouti certainly treats the ol' lugholes to some interesting snippets of music, but you have to ask yourself whether it's worth wading through all the snark and calculated dumbassery to reach.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Firepower - Judas Priest

Provenance: I have every goddamn Judas Priest album so I was always going to get this bad boy the day it came out.

Review: There's no two ways about this, Firepower is fucking sick. Although it sports the worst album cover since Painkiller I would happily frame this and stick it in the Louvre. Why? Because it's a piece of Judas Priest ephemera and therefore in my desiccated pea brain is automatically elevated to the status of high art.

However, at the very least it gives you a flavour of what Firepower is all about, i.e., indomitable mecha-monster war machines kicking the entire world's ass. This odd strain particular to Priest - like that of Saxon's obsession with public transport, or Iron Maiden's godforsaken attempts to ram imperial history down one's throat - began by my estimation on 1978's Stained Class (coincidentally, the album that debuted their current logo) with 'Exciter' and has continued via 'Grinder' and 'The Sentinel' before reaching its apogee on the incredible Painkiller, which positively swarmed with these hellbeasts. You know where else you'll find another menagerie of the infernos? Right here on Firepower, muthas.

Whilst I'm a big fan of predecessor Redeemer of Souls, with the growing influence of newest band member Richie Faulkner (who replaced founder KK Downing) this is a far more focused collection. It starts off as every Priest album should - a dirty great riff and a Rob Halford scream - and barely lets up for a moment over the ensuing 58 minutes (another trait it shares with Painkiller).  The one-two punch of the title track and the gloriously bonkers 'Lightning Strike' ranks up their as my favourite Priest opening salvos.

Of course, this is still a Judas Priest album and so the lyric sheet is the usual casserole of bogglesome ineptitude, but it doesn't really matter. Even though little makes sense from one line to the next, it's all suitably pumped-up and aggressive. A good Priest album does not invite the listener to embark upon close textual analysis; instead, it invites the listener to punch things. If your fist doesn't reflexively clench during the choruses of 'Children of the Sun' (which may or may not be about conflict in the Middle East) or 'Flame Thrower', then I can't help you, son.

Speaking of 'Flame Thrower' - "You're on the run / From the stun / Of the flamethrower!" - that's the chorus, genuinely. Looks stupid upon the page? Cool, because it also sounds stupid coming out of my stereo, but it's also perfect. I wouldn't replace a single word because it sounds totally bad-ass in Rob Halford's hands (or mouth, to be more accurate), peculiar inflections and all. Honestly, although he's mostly sacked off the screaming these days, Halford's still an absolute force. He brings an entirely unearned authority and gravitas to songs about robots having a pagga with mankind.

And look - although I'm clowning on some aspects of the Priest experience, it's done from a place of affection. It's taking longer than usual to type out this review as I've frequently paused to air-guitar or headbang to my favourite passages, which are legion. There's true craft on display here; 'Lightning Strike', 'Necromancer' and 'Children of the Sun' are magnificent stompers from the first half of the album; on the home straight you've got 'Flame Thrower' and 'Lone Wolf', which would be highlights on any album, along with the mighty 'Spectre'. Although Richie Faulkner has made a point of calling Firepower a forward-thinking album, some of the best bits here are redolent of past triumphs - 'Spectre' being a case in point. A nasty prowler with chewy guitar, thematically it's a direct descendent of 'The Ripper' from second album Sad Wings of Destiny and is all the more enjoyable for it.

I don't really know what more there is to say. If you love heavy metal, Firepower is a distillation of all that was fun and magnetic from its classic era, wrapped up in crisp modern production. If metal is a genre you don't care for, it'll come across as exactly the kind of leather 'n' rhinestone clad nonsense you're no doubt striven to avoid. More fool you, in my not so humble opinion - go listen to Father John Misty or just fuck off, whatever.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Bit of What You Fancy - Quireboys

Provenance: It's 2002 and I'm at the Bournemouth International Centre to see a package tour called Monsters of Rock. Here's the bill - Dogs D'Amour, Quireboys, Thunder, Alice Cooper. Sensory overload for a seventeen year-old.

In order to steel myself for the gig I had downloaded one or two songs by each artist that wasn't Alice Cooper. If I recall my Napster library correctly, it was 'Love Walked In' by Thunder, 'Spooks' by Dogs D'Amour and 'Hey You' by Quireboys. "Hey You" was my favourite of the bunch.

Every band was on top form that night, and I subsequently saw a couple more Monsters of Rock bills at the BIC. Quireboys would later play a local show at Poole venue Mr Kyps, where my friend Steve almost ran over Spike in the car park. For a few years Quireboys - along with Thunder, it should be said - seemed permanent fixtures on the dad rock festival circuit. Always in the same early afternoon slot, Quireboys would be there to gin up bleary-eyed campers with their energy and bonhomie, and it invariably did the trick. Fine band, and one Christmas I got given A Bit of What You Fancy and Bitter, Sweet and Twisted.

Review: I was five when this came out in 1990 but from what I could tell, a fair bit of noise surrounded Quireboys' entry onto the scene. From what I can gauge, these guys were either the UK's answer to Guns N Roses, the UK's answer to Aerosmith or the inheritors of the Faces' good-time raunch 'n' roll mantle. For once, unlike every band that farts out a blues lick and gets named the spiritual successor to Led Zeppelin, I can hear it.

If I had to plump for the closest analogue, it would however be the Faces. Whilst GNR and Aerosmith strove to project an edgy image, Quireboys give off more of a loveable ragamuffin vibe. The impression given is not so much that of a bunch of degenerates shooting smack in an alley with underage girls, rather a cheery mob roistering their way through a bunch of boozers. It's a good look too, as whenever the hairspray merchants in the US tried to act tough it pushed a risible situation into flat out absurdity. Quireboys, on the other hand, sound credible as toerags.

The Faces comparisons also hold up vocally. Spike has an appealingly raspy voice (one that Classic Rock magazine would no doubt call "whiskey soaked") that seems on the verge of giving out at any moment. It's firmly in Rod Stewart territory and is probably the ace in the hole when it comes to Quireboys' overall sound. It's testament to Spike's gritty delivery that a song about fleeing the depredations of Deep South slavery ('Whippin' Boy') by an all-white London band is delivered with a degree of sensitivity and emotional engagement, though I doubt such a song would be attempted almost thirty years later (rightly so).

"Whippin' Boy" is a rare pensive moment on A Bit of What You Fancy - the rest of the album is pretty much given over to rowdiness, sentimentalism and bacchanalia. Case in point - after "Whippin' Boy" you get the most gloriously on-the-nose track of the lot, 'Sex Party'. It's got about two and a half chords and the subject matter is exactly how you imagine it to be. Here's the chorus - 'Sex party / Sex party / You're all invited to a - / Sex party!'. Bob Dylan this ain't, though bizarrely both Dylan and Quireboys have a drummer in common. In the same vein you've got drinking anthem '7 O'Clock', 'Misled' and the superior 'Hey You', their highest charting single.

What I haven't mentioned so far is that despite an utter lack of originality, it's all great fun - and by and large, extremely catchy. A Bit of What You Fancy could certainly be described as mood music, if the mood you'd sought to capture is a rowdy night out, various parts ribaldry, mischief and misjudgement. Quireboys most certainly do a decent line when it comes to whipping out the onion, though 'I Don't Love You Anymore' teeters ever so fucking close to the acceptable line for schmaltz, with it's sighing regret and saccharine string arrangements. Incidentally, this does sound a fair bit like the kind of crap balladeering that Aerosmith have got down to a fine art. Both ''Sweet Mary Ann' and 'Roses and Rings', kissing cousins to Rod Stewart solo efforts like 'Maggie May', are more effective.

A Bit of What You Fancy doesn't come close to pushing the envelope, nor does it set out to be a startling artistic statement. It is, however, a fine collection of original songs played with heart and gusto. Who would like this? Well, if you can stomach the filigree of late 1980s music production, if bands like the Faces, the Rolling Stones and even Status Quo float your boat, you should give Quireboys a bash. As a bonus, the whole band seems to have adopted Keef's raffish Artful Dodger look too, which I find agreeably matched to their music. Give it a go - this winking little slice of audio debauchery might just be *puts on sunglasses like Horatio Caine from CSI: Miami* a bit of what you fancy...

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Too Many Snakes in the Road - Kent DuChaine

Provenance: Kent DuChaine is a real one. He's played tens of thousands of gigs and, by his own estimation, has travelled somewhere between two and a half and three million miles as a consequence (after all, what's a spare half a million when you're grinding away on the road?). I've seen him play five times now, and the deal has been the same every time - it's Kent, his 1934 National Steel guitar 'Leadbessie' and a peck of the blues. Never once has he disappointed.

The first time I saw him was at the Lansdown Arms in Lewes. A couple of friends of mine recommended it as a good night out, knowing I was a blues fan. They also mentioned his absolutely bonkers tour schedules, which are a work of art in themselves worth checking out. I had grown to expect blues gigs to be a bit mannered, perhaps a little tame - but a Kent DuChaine gig is nothing of the sort. In a packed sweatbox of a venue he hammered away with a hard-driving attack that instantly got people up on their feet. It was one of the most boisterous and joyous shows I had witnessed in a long while.

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that DuChaine is able to move a crowd - he's been doing it for years, and has honed his craft to an expertly-paced set liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and tall tales. I'm sure he'll be back soon, criss-crossing the country and playing to rooms large and small; go see him if you get the chance.

Review: As I mentioned before, Kent DuChaine has been a consistently excellent live act so I've bought a couple of his CDs at gigs I've been to. After all, a guy who gets by primarily by touring can't survive on applause alone. The double album Too Many Snakes in the Road is interesting because not only are the tracks recorded live, many of them are preceded by the stories that DuChaine tells to introduce them to his audience. A pretty cool twist, but does it work?

In a word, yes. To develop it further, I think it's worth digressing a little to talk about how blues music is treated - namely with the kind of reverence usually reserved for museum exhibits or particularly long-lived politicians. Lots of ink has been spilled about blues music as a genre born out of African-American suffering, which is absolutely not incorrect, but with that has come an attendant solemnity that simply does not fit. By focusing on the bleaker end of the spectrum there's been a tendency to ignore or downplay the bawdier, funnier, lighter side to the music, which if anything was predominant. By trapping it within the amber of authenticity and gravitas, I fear many historians and critics also deny its power as a live phenomenon. This wasn't music you were supposed to scratch your chin too!

Whether consciously or not, Kent DuChaine grasps both of these issues. He doesn't omit to retell the odd myth about luminaries such as Robert Johnson, but then there's also stories of going fishing with Johnny Shines, playing Bukka White's guitar and sharing reefer and champagne with Muddy Waters. Furthermore, when he's playing 'Little Red Rooster' he's not expecting his audience to sit in rapt silence - he's asking them to howl along with him. Hell, the first time I saw him he had people on tables throwing beer around and belting out 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. In DuChaine's hands, the blues is a vital, muscular music.

As he demonstrates on Too Many Snakes... he's also a mean, mean player. Eschewing flashiness, instead he plays with a heavily percussive approach, hammering away on the strings with his right hand whilst slashing away on slide with his left. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on his version of 'Aberdeen Mississippi Blues', which features a bludgeoning intro that sounds like nothing other than the clattering of a freight train, that old favourite avatar of the blues. Elsewhere, DuChaine's full-blooded approach breathes new life into old bones; the popular standards 'Fever' and 'Summertime' are not so much reinvigorated as given a total blood transfusion and a side order of monkey glands to boot.

Given the richness of the blues tradition, and DuChaine's obvious affection for its greatest exponents, it's unsurprising that most of the songs on Too Many Snakes... are covers. However, a true highlight for me is an original composition that is preceded by a wonderful story; '16 Gauge Steel' is a tribute to Johnny Shines, who underwent something of a renaissance after DuChaine himself got him back recording and touring, acting as his sideman until his death. Every time I hear the verse "I have stood in the Georgia pines / With the legendary Johnny Shines" I'm not embarrassed to say that I catch my breath a bit. So simple, yet so evocative.

By his own admission DuChaine is not the best singer out there, but as he advised your author, "you just gotta go for it" and that's what you hear. It honestly doesn't matter though, not at all, when his right arm is pumping up and down like a steam piston and he's chugging his way through 'Rock Island Line'. Kent DuChaine is a superb emissary for the blues as a music that is both varied and vital, and Too Many Snakes... is a very fine testimony to the fact. Now go see the man perform!

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Pretzel Logic - Steely Dan

Provenance: I became familiar with two Steely Dan songs right around the same time - 'Do It Again' from Can't Buy a Thrill and 'Rikki Don't Lose That Number' from this bad boy, and I bought both albums close together.

Review: I struggle, sometimes. The easiest reviews to write, or so it seems, are those where I find some little scab to pick at, such as an undertow of misogyny; and goodness knows I enjoy giving a band a good shoeing every now and again. The tough ones are when I'm confronted with something I unabashedly love and, furthermore, take seriously. Case in point - Pretzel Logic.

I remember reading stories about how Persian carpet makers would deliberately introduce a single flaw into their otherwise expert designs. This was done to assert that only God's creations could be considered perfect, and that no man should get ideas about his station in life. Well, if there's a Persian Flaw in Pretzel Logic I'll be damned trying to find it. The first two Steely Dan albums were - are - superb, but here they shift gears into another realm altogether. Everything here is fine-tooled, finessed, wrought so delicately that the music itself seems to glint and gleam in a kind of audio pearlescence.

Attempting to play advocatus diaboli for a moment here, I'll try to level a charge or two against the album whilst giving it a listen. For one, it doesn't exactly throb with a primal swamp rhythm. It's certainly not shack-shaking primitivism of the stripe one would encounter with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard or even Motorhead. This is music that wipes it feet before entering, for sure. It's an accusation heard often against Steely Dan - that in attempting to achieve technical ecstasy the finished product ends up rather bloodless. I get it. I'm not going to psyche myself up before playing sport by blasting 'Any Major Dude Will Tell You'. Of course not.

And hey, some people just plain don't like the Dan. And those people are wrong.

I'm not going to talk about key changes or thirteenth chords, though as my music professor father-in-law would assert, those things are totally legit to consider when unpacking why Steely Dan (and Pretzel Logic in particular) are so good. I will say that having so many jazz elements bubbling away underneath the surface of eminently hummable and hooky pop songs is a tough thing to pull off, however. And I guess this is why I take Steely Dan seriously, because hearing such consideration and sophistication in popular music is rare (and, I would argue, increasingly so).

Take, for example, the wonderfully kinetic 'Parker's Band'. As a tribute to Bird it's a canny and multifaceted little gem, one in which we don't even hear a snippet of Parker-inspired music until the cavalcade of horns ushering in the end of the track. The lyrics, meanwhile, begin on the same declarative note as music labels adopted to advertise their wares at the time - "Savoy Sides presents a new saxophone sensation!" Just how immersive is that! It's a small detail, no doubt, but exactly the kind of thing that Becker and Fagen agonised over to ensure that their music hit all the marks. Plus the middle eight is perfect:

We will spend a dizzy weekend
Smacked into a trance
Me and you will listen to
A little bit of what made preacher dance

In four lines we get a nod to Dizzy Gillespie, a nod to nodding out and the merest equation of jazz as a surrogate spiritualism. It's true that Steely Dan's lyrics can often seem elliptical to the point of opacity, but my counter to that would be what's the problem? Does everything need to be so literal? Is it not metonym, metaphor, allusion and the rest that work as the very stuff of poetry? Don't get me wrong, I'm not ordaining Steely fucking Dan as the inheritors of James Joyce's mantle. What I'm groping towards is that sometimes the hazy, ill-defined mirages conjured up on Pretzel Logic are perhaps more effective than a more prolix versifying at creating mood. It asks the listener to bring something to the game. I'm pretty sure Edgar Allan Poe was thinking of 'Charlie Freak' when he wrote "music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry."

(I should add, for the uninitiated, that Steely Dan is anything but hard to get into. Even the most teasingly obscure lyrics are wrapped up in the chewiest, sweetest jazz-rock you're likely to hear. Plus, if you watch movies there's always an olive branch to grab hold of - "If the dawn patrol gotta tell you twice / They're gonna do it with a shotgun" crops up in the flinty 'Night By Night', for example. I've mentioned before now the massive influence of cinema I have perceived in Fagen's songwriting.)

As someone who grew up away from American classic rock radio I don't have the ubiquity of Steely Dan to process. When I first became conscious of the fact I was listening to Steely Dan I was already (in law, if not in spirit) an adult. Thus, to a guy who had gorged on all the lumpen blooz-rock the 1970s had to offer, Steely Dan sounded fresh, curious and fizzing with musical ideas. A few years on, and now as the owner of their entire discography, nothing's changed. To me, Steely Dan represent the apogee of what popular music can be, which is a technicolour meld of virtuosity, wit and a blue flame of emotion. The only thing left to add is that, despite lacking the Persian Flaw, I don't even regard Pretzel Logic as their best work. That's for another day...

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Scorpion Child - Scorpion Child

Provenance: Another overheated review by Classic Rock magazine led me to making this purchase.

Review: There's a reason why, when my Classic Rock subscription lapsed last month, I haven't exactly jumped to renew. Whilst the featured articles are pretty good (when they're not 'listicles' - do I really give a fig about the '50 greatest guitar solos in rock history'? The answer is no I don't) the reviews section is full of shit. True, if it weren't for glowing write-ups of early Ultravox or Robin Trower's Go My Way I probably wouldn't have rolled the bones, but for every Ha! Ha! Ha! there's been a We're Here Because We're Here (NB: this corpulent monstrosity of an album garnered a '9/10' review from the pie-dribbler on prog duty that month).

Yet here I am again, failing to learn my lesson. I'm worse than those Sonic the Hedgehog man-children whose entire lives are spent whining about bad computer games on YouTube. At least those fellows possess some kind of fealty, albeit to anthropomorphic road-kill. I have no excuse, my ambivalence towards Classic Rock's reviews section was crystallised many moons ago and yet I still return to drink from the well. And thus, Scorpion Child.

Let's start with their name, as it sets the tone for everything else. Like everything else associated with this band it feels derivative, like a muffled echo of something infinitely better. You can imagine a band called Scorpion Child playing gigs at the local rugby club, and they'll even throw in a Bon Jovi cover just to keep everyone happy. And the songs? They've got names like 'Salvation Slave', 'Liquor', 'In the Arms of Ecstasy', 'Paradigm' and, er, 'Polygon of Eyes'. Aside from that last one (what the hell?) they must've taken all of two freaking minutes to come up with. 'Salvation Slave'?? Puhhh-leazzze. Utterly cringeworthy.

Still, you'll be relieved to know that Scorpion Child, at least on the basis of this self-titled nugget (of what, you may ask) do indeed sound like a competent bar band who have struck upon the idea of "playing badass hard rock, like Led Zep or Deep Purple, but with a modern twist", the latter meaning that the production is loud and clippy. Scorpion Child is a bunch of riffs bolted together underneath the interminable wailing of a guy who, one suspects, imagines himself to be a latter day Glenn Hughes, albeit if the Voice of Rock possessed an irritating Roger Chapman bleat to his vibrato and also sucked a bit.

Don't misunderstand me, these guys can play. They're perfectly adept at playing riffy heavy rock, and I'm sure they'd be fine as the backdrop to a few cold ones. A bit sluggish, a tad pedestrian in places, rather too familiar overall, but it's fine. It's fine. And that's the problem. Nothing grates on me more, musically speaking, than bang average. I've got time for virtuosity, I love a glorious failure, god knows I love a trier; and by all means, do something creepy and weird in your basement, I'll lap it up. But if there's no craft, no spark, no inspiration (in whatever form that might take) then I struggle to maintain interest. The guys in Scorpion Child are no doubt committed and passionate about what they do, yet I can't help but feel that instead of a fire-breathing demon of an album, they've created a facsimile of one.

Stale, predictable and one-pace - all words you can use to describe my blog, but applicable to this album too. And yet whilst I struggle to delineate any real plus points (I guess the Geddy Lee impression on 'Antioch' is pretty good), there are others who really dig what Scorpion Child are serving up. Like, really dig it. Good for them, but not really my cup o' char, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Taj Mahal - Taj Mahal

Provenance: From the moment I picked up a guitar I was interested in the blues. When it came to learning riffs or copping licks, the pentatonic scale seemed to be all-pervasive, looming as it does to this day over a century's worth of popular music. For a while, I was just all about cats like Stevie Ray Vaughan, guys who could shift around the fretboard. Yet even then I was dimly aware of names like BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson. These days each one, coming from different times, places and styles of the blues as they do, sound utterly distinctive - but at the time they were old blues guys.

So whilst learning 'Pride and Joy' and 'Crossfire', I was delving backwards and finding some awesome, overpowering stuff. Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell became favourites, as did Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown (whose birthday, I distinctly recall, was marked on a Simpsons calendar our family once had), Son House, Fred McDowell, Pinetop Perkins, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and of course the incredible Lightnin' Hopkins. Man, you can put 'Lonesome Dog Blues' on right now and I'll still reflexively crack a grin at Lightnin's "po' dog" aside during the first verse.

Later on at university my housemate Ben and I devoured the Martin Scorsese-produced series of documentaries on blues music and that's when I first encountered Taj Mahal. Later, for my birthday, Ben bought me the Taj Mahal 'best of' that accompanied the series and I was away. That was it - I was a Taj Mahal guy from then on.

Now, my partner credits me with hepping my father-in-law to Taj Mahal - which is cool, because if I did, I'm indirectly response for the fact that he's now writing a biography of the man. Coming full circle, it was thanks to him that I was able to go backstage after Taj's show in London last year. He's a man who, I suspect, meets scores of people every night on the road, but he took one look at me and already knew my name, who I was and my backstory. I, a fairly insignificant cog in the grand scheme of things, was impressed, surprised and humbled. We had a good chat, incidentally, about Cool John Ferguson, who is another guy you need to check out. Oh, and at the same time I also met a true broadcasting hero of mine, Dotun Adebayo (he was a prince, by the way, making a mockery of the adage that one should never meet one's idols).

Review: This is where it all began - almost. Here is Taj Mahal, taking his first solo strides after playing with the Rising Sons (who also featured Ry Cooder and future Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy), with a self-titled straight shot of the blues. At a shade over half an hour it's a tight little collection but across the eight tracks Mahal roams around the blues landscape, executing everything from electrified rock to gutbucket country. With a crack band featuring his erstwhile Rising Sons colleagues, it's every bit as impressive as it is eclectic.

Dig this, too - the opening harmonica trill on 'Leaving Trunk' is lodged firmly in my top five ways to start an album. It's startling and joyous, acting almost as a heraldic fanfare or a clarion call to arms, before locking in with a funky, choppy rhythm that causes one's thighs to twitch involuntarily. All this and Mahal hasn't even started shouting the blues in a voice that contains all the grime and passion you could ask for. Yes, yes, yes.

One thing that I have omitted to suggest so far is this album's importance. I genuinely think that without Taj Mahal and a few other American electric blues releases of the era, the renaissance the genre enjoyed in the 1980s wouldn't have happened. Here was an African-American artist contemporaneous with the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and the rest, creating music at once so recognisable yet so vital as to be quietly revolutionary. Despite the fact that almost every song is a cover Mahal's arrangements sound fresh, injecting fire into the veins of hoary old favourites such as 'Dust My Broom' and 'Statesboro Blues' (NB: the latter is excellent but, alas, my third-favourite rendition of the song; the best being by Blind Willie McTell and the runner-up emanating from the Rising Sons, whose clattery breakneck version is a revelation).

I suppose that's the genius of Taj Mahal - it straddles old and new without ever seeming to compromise or accommodate. There are no swirling Hammond organs or phased drums here - you've got drums, bass, guitar, harmonica, piano; we could be talking the same kind of setup that Muddy Waters was using when storming the clubs and cutting heads in Chicago a decade or more before. The closest Taj Mahal comes to anything that has an obvious genesis in the 1960s is 'E Z Rider', which has a couple of chord changes in the turnaround that Jimmy Rodgers probably wouldn't have put together; and the Sleepy John Estes number 'Diving Duck' gets the same hard-hitting, funky treatment that would come to characterise the best-known version of Albert King's seminal 'Born Under a Bad Sign'.

There's space for one more, and perhaps the most important, song on the album. Mahal stretches out 'The Celebrated Walkin' Blues' to almost nine minutes long, building a slow song slowly. In doing so, room is provided for some dirty slide guitar, keening harmonica and a mandolin counterpoint that serves to remind the listener that blues may live in the city but was born in the country. It lollops along methodically, hypnotically, voice and instruments weaving in and out of the unceasing plod of the bass and drums. It's masterful in its simplicity and stateliness, and served notice on all the British guys trying to sound like Jeff Beck or Alvin Lee. It says: this is the blues served neat, and you boys aren't getting close. I love it.

Later on the scholar and restless spirit that is Taj Mahal would seek out common threads between African-American folk cultures and those of both sub-Saharan Africa and Hawaii, recording some of the most startling collaborations I've been privileged to hear. And it's all there - even when he's rocking out in Zanzibar or Honolulu, that blues root that is so firmly delineated on Taj Mahal is always pulsing away in the background. To the novice Taj Mahal listener: start here, push forward and, as the man himself does, keep pushing - you'll be rewarded.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sonic Temple - The Cult

Provenance: I heard 'Fire Woman' on the radio one time and really liked it.

I've always been irked by the very existence of The Cult as it's prevented me from referring to the superior Blue Oyster Cult as anything other than 'B-O-C'. That, and that stupid 'She Sells Sanctuary' song.

Review: Emblazoned on the back of the album, in a typeface barely smaller than that used for the track listing, is notice that Sonic Temple is produced by Bob Rock. More commonly associated with Metallica's breakthrough into the commercial stratosphere, Sonic Temple almost feels like a warm-up to the monster albums Rock would helm (before, latterly, riding the desk for much of Michael Buble's career).

Although Metallica was a massive seller, metal fans are still torn over its merits and demerits. I've heard it dismissed variably as lightweight, mid-paced and aimed squarely at the casual listener, none of which I can particularly disagree with. But, as in the classic job interview scenario, it's exactly those seeming weaknesses that Metallica parlayed into strengths. I still don't rate it much as an album, but I can see clearly why it still pumps out of the car stereos of soccer moms the length and breadth of the Midwest.

But what's all this got to do with Sonic Temple? Well, because to these ears it sounds like a blueprint for Rock's approach with Metallica. A thick sound, big basic riffs, nothing sounding too busy or elaborate, songs all played at a mid-paced tempo. It's as if the lessons about producing an expansive, back-of-the-hall sound from Simple Minds' 'Don't You (Forget About Me)' were coupled with Mutt Lange's insistence that Def Leppard stripped down their riffs to the bones on Hysteria. The result is something that is digestible, radio friendly, chunky and, dare I say it, a touch cynical.

That's not to say Sonic Temple doesn't feature some good music. The opening one-two punch of 'Sun King' and 'Fire Woman' is pretty spectacular. These two songs loom out of the speakers, huge slabs of stadium rock with insanely catchy hooks. 'Fire Woman' in particular is an absolute stomper. This approach is also evident on cuts like 'Sweet Soul Sister' and 'New York City', where any pretence towards sophistication is sacrificed on the altar of simplicity. There's always been a place for big dumb rawk, as AC/DC could attest to, but here the grit and grime has also been cleared away in favour of a polished, layered sheen. And it mostly works. Hell, 'Soul Asylum' even gets away with a single note intro, that sounds like someone attempting to play Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' for the first time, and it still works.

However, Sonic Temple is only a qualified success. Let's revisit 'Soul Asylum', because after it actually does develop into a crappy version of 'Kashmir', things get even worse when Ian Astbury, hitherto one of rock's most preposterous popinjays, opens his fucking mouth. "Who - would break - a butterfly - on the wheel?" he emotes, before beginning another verse with "Who - would crush - this woman - underfoot?" Give me a fucking break, dude. I actually like Astbury's voice - it's distinctive, with a bit of yelp and swagger to it, but his delivery can certainly tip over into the histrionic and hammy (which is precisely why he fronted a latter-day version of The Doors, right guys?). But goodness me, some of those 'yeah-yeahs' he uses as punctuation get old fast.

The other big criticism I have is that Sonic Temple is two songs too long. Had the album stopped after 'Soldier Blue', I would've been much more hearty in my acclaim. "It's only two songs, you jabroni" I hear you say and yes, I dig, but in this instance it's more than a minor hitch. Given the absolutely unvarying tempo of the album, that final eight or nine minutes slides the experience over from rather enjoyable to a bit fatiguing. It's not that either 'Wake Up Time For Freedom' or 'Medicine Train' are bad songs per se, (though they both teeter close to the edge of acceptability), but these two constitute the sequencing equivalent of the mid-gig drum solo; you're looking at your watch and waiting for something more interesting to kick into gear, which in this case means putting on another album. Christ, 'Soldier Blue' is perfect to end on; ever since I read Simon Reynolds' (excellent) Shock and Awe I've been listening out for glam's influence on the rock music that came afterwards, and the mighty Glitter Band style drumming on this track is a prime example. Compared to the rest of Sonic Temple it even does something slightly different with the rhythm! Call it a day when you're on top!

Listening to this album for this blog has been fun, yet I genuinely had to blow dust off the CD box. I think I know why. Although I'm the mad king howling on the moor about the devilry of shuffle play, this is the perfect album to be mixed in to playlist. A lone track here and there, especially if it's 'Fire Woman', sound stunning. Two or three together are cool, you can drive to the supermarket to that kind of jive. The entirety of Sonic Temple in one sitting is, alas, a bit too much. It commits a cardinal sin of popular music, which is through precision-engineering and a dearth of variety, it becomes a wee bit boring. Oh, and that hokey blues intro to 'Medicine Train' is so bad as to be funny, worse than the bluegrassy bit that kicks off Warrant's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', and that's saying something.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Brown Acid: The First Trip - Various Artists

Provenance: I can't quite remember where I read about this collection, but the concept behind it intrigued me: once the Summer of Love had petered out into paranoia and ennui, darker, bleaker sounds started to permeate the counter-culture. The rise of bands like Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly in the USA (and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath in the UK) heralded a turn inwards; pain, confusion and angst bubbled away under thick slabs of Hammond organ and fuzzed-up bass. As you can imagine, most of this was very cool.

However, not every band was destined to enjoy the success of the aforementioned artists. Hell, many didn't even get to release a full-length album (though Night Sun did, and that's some shit you need to check out). It doesn't necessarily mean they sucked, however.

As somebody who is well, well into the original Nuggets compilation (the greatest ever compilation album?) I am the perfect rube for a collection of obscurities from the hard rock / heavy psych scene. Fortunately, the good folk at RidingEasy Records have got me covered with their lovingly curated Brown Acid series. Not only do I get to listen to bands with hip names like Raw Meat, Bacchus, Snow and Josefus, but the label ensure that all the artists featured get paid for their efforts. I'm all for fair-trade downer rock 'n' roll. I got the first four instalments for Christmas last year, so without further ado let's take the first trip together...

Review: I think the highest compliment that can be paid to Brown Acid: the First Trip is that each and every track has made me want to crank my amp, plug in my wah and wail away with pentatonic abandon. As the liner notes state, some of the cuts here are not much more than demo recording quality, but Steely Dan aside, since when has perfection begat true genius?

That's why I'd rather listen to the slightly out-of-tune stun guitar on Snow's 'Sunflower' pummelling my ears into submission than the pabulum served up on top forty radio. I can't be sure as I wasn't there, but songs of this ilk sound like they were played by people who gave two damns about rocking out, or perhaps just wanted to impress the local girls; either way, two noble ambitions.

There's no little ability here either, though if I was going to try making comparisons with better-known artists, I'd be hard-pressed to veer from Uriah Heep. In a good way, most every band on Brown Acid I sounds like Uriah fucking Heep. If David Byron sang on Zebra's 'Wasted' and you told me it was Uriah Heep, I would've believed you. I guess some songs sound like early Edgar Broughton Band, and Bob Goodsite's quirky instrumental 'Faze 1' could be a funky Groundhogs album cut, but listen; if you like bell-bottoms, Les Pauls, the Open Mind's 'Magic Potion', patchouli and lava lamps, absolutely nothing on this collection is going to disappoint you. Absolutely nothing.

Still, me being the contrarian I am, the cut that really stands out for me is the most atypical of the bunch. Fizzing with the kind of upbeat groove that powered Edgar Winter's 'Free Ride', Texan band Josefus' 'Hard Luck' is perfect road trip fodder. A significant element of the pure enjoyment this song engenders comes from the hyperactive, elastic vocal performance by Pete Bailey. It's difficult to describe, but if you can imagine if Arthur Brown (he of 'Fire' fame) was born west of the Mississippi you'd be in the right ballpark. Approximately.

If any of what I've written has sparked an interest I'd urge you to head on over to RidingEasy and drop some notes on Brown Acid: the First Trip. For that matter, just in case I don't get around to reviewing the subsequent albums in this series, I can recommend trips one through four. Whether it's the bludgeon of Zekes' 'Box', the witchiness of Lenny Drake's lo-fi swamp-psych 'Love Eyes (Cast Your Spell On Me') or the Todd's (great name) lysergic tub-thumper 'Mystifying Me', there's something for all the family!

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Alice - Tom Waits

Provenance: This was one of the ten Tom Waits albums my wonderful partner Sea got me one Christmas. Thought it about time I reviewed another of these buggers.

Review: I don't have many albums comprised of music written specifically for plays - by my estimation, two, both of which are by Tom Waits. One is The Black Rider, and the other is this darkly shining shard of anthracite, Alice. God damn, this is good. But then again, so much of his 'latter period' stuff is. That he hasn't released an album since 2011 is a minor crime - to paraphrase Alan Partridge, "come back on, Tom Waits, and play some more."

For the record, I've never seen the play Alice, so I don't have any real sense of narrative on which to hang this song cycle on. There's a part of me that dearly wishes I do get to see a production one day and another part, the one that enjoys the play of the imagination when it's coupled with music, that does not. Waits' music on Alice conjures up vivid moods and atmospheres at every turn; and maybe I don't want the innerspace universe I've built around it to be disturbed.

On Alice, Waits visits many different styles and switches masks with ease, but there's always a unifying element that is hard to define. Whether he is bellowing out angular Beefheartian rollickers replete with junkyard percussion, or tentatively nosing his way through a torch song, it's indelibly Waits. Which is what? A kind of Pop High Gothic, a kind of Low Jazz and a relish for the macabre every bit as full-blooded as Edgar Allan Poe. He's a barroom versifier, sweeping profundities from the floor 'round 'bout closing time, but also able to fashion a song about fictional 19th century nobleman Edward Mordake that is wrapped in the faded, crumbling elegance of Grey Gardens. About the only time I was transported from my reverie during the first half of the album came during the early stages of 'Kommienezuspadt', purely because Waits sings in a voice that sounds uncannily like that of Herve Villechaize, he of Fantasy Island fame.

(NB: I would be the first in line if Tom Waits were to release a song that consisted of him screaming 'ze plane, ze plane' whilst, in the background, a honky-tonk piano fell down a flight of stairs.)

The other element that I think has percolated to the surface throughout Waits' career, and is in evidence here, is a clear love of acoustic instrumentation that is warm and wobbly. There are dashes of electric guitar here and there, and sometimes Waits does use a Mellotron (one of the most underrated - and underused - instruments in popular music?), but my goodness, one has to just stand back in admiration at his dedicated to the fucking pump organ. What a wonderfully asthmatic sound it has though! Any song it features on thus sounds like a tuberculosis-wracked cabaret has-been, desperate for one final turn in the limelight. Glorious.

Located somewhere between Nat King Cole, Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, Kurt Weill, nursery rhyme, Cormac McCarthy, late era Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb; that's where you'll find the Tom Waits of Alice. Hell, there are even faint echoes of post-millenium Bob Dylan, with Alice acting as the drunken, perverted uncle to Love and Theft and Modern Times. It's a disconcerting, seductive, sad, wry (someone should write something in-depth about Waits' sense of humour - just not me), startling journey, but one of the most rewarding ways to spend fifty minutes of your life. Immense.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Bright Mississippi - Allen Toussaint

Provenance: There's three things I am sure of in life; I want my coke to be diet, my football to be catenaccio, and my piano players to come from New Orleans. Just take a look at some of the luminaries to come from the Crescent City - Dr John, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino and Allen Toussaint.

When I was in New Orleans (my favourite American city - and the least American city?) I was fortunate enough to catch the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, playing the trad stuff unamplified in a small room. It's rare, I think, to see musicians of that calibre performing without any kind of PA in such an intimate venue; and from the moment they kicked into 'Sheik of Araby' I was captivated.

When I heard that Allen Toussaint had decided to make a jazz album that honoured the legacy of New Orleans I didn't need any more encouragement to go out and buy it.

Review: Sheer, unadulterated joy.

It genuinely feels like a privilege to hear the ensemble of crack musicians Toussaint gathered for this album to perform with such casual virtuosity. What could have been a tired jog through a clutch of musty old standards instead feels like a vital, ebullient celebration of a city and the music to which it is umbilically linked. It's both remarkable that The Bright Mississippi took a mere four days to record, and yet totally believable, as the sound is so organic that one imagines the band all set up in the room together, running through two or three takes and picking the best of the bunch. If there are overdubs to the live sound, my guess is that they are minimal.

From the very first bar of Sidney Bechet's 'Egyptian Fantasy' one can sense magic swirling around, but for me the album really moves into the realms of the sublime during 'St James Infirmary', a song I've heard many different times in various iterations but rarely does it reach such a degree of majesty as it does here. From then on, everything is immaculate - whether it's a sleepy-eyed rendition of 'Winin' Boy Blues' from jazz's ur-pianist Jelly Roll Morton, an iridescent 'Day Dream' (Duke Ellington) or my personal highlight, a languid interpretation of Django Reinhardt's already wonderful 'Blue Drag'. It might even top any version I've ever heard played by the Belgian master.

Every performer on The Bright Mississippi acquits themselves superbly, though I feel special mention should go to both trumpeter Nicholas Payton and clarinettist Don Byron. The contributions they make to each song on which they feature elevate each piece, with Payton playing some especially imaginative solos. However, the name on the CD is Allen Toussaint, and so it's only fair to pay attention to what he's playing.

Fortunately, Toussaint rises to the occasion splendidly. His playing is light and supple, hands moving across the keyboard with the twinkling grace of Fred Astaire in motion. Toussaint rarely elects to bang out big meaty solos, instead accenting his stylish playing with clusters of dancing notes, little trilling figures that complement the more sinuous sounds of the trumpet and liquorice stick (check me out using that hepcat jazz lingo, daddy-o). However, for all his panache Toussaint is also a two-fisted New Orleans piano player, and that generous, wide-open easy-rolling blues sound is given voice on King Oliver's 'West End Blues' and the traditional number 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee'; and I wouldn't want it any other way.

In every sense The Bright Mississippi is a triumph. The sound is such that it almost feels tactile - can you taste that thick Gulf air on your tongue as you luxuriate in the music? Do your eyes prick at a hint of cayenne pepper and onion? It is, of course, illusory; the jumbled symptoms of an imagination stirred by aural stimuli. But goodness me, what stimuli! I find in such situations that it's best just to sit back, pour a measure of something expensive and laissez le bon temps rouler.