Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Night Songs - Cinderella

Provenance: When I was eighteen I went to see Blue Oyster Cult at The Brook in Southampton. I distinctly recall seeing a rather statuesque young lady alone in the crowd, and being both a) a bit cocky and b) entirely oblivious to the notion that she might not want to speak to me, I went over and introduced myself. She was a first-year student at the local university and, as it turned out, welcomed a chat as none of her peers had answered the call to see 'the Cult' live. We talked music, and it turned out she was especially enthused on a band called Cinderella, particularly a chap called Eric Brittingham.

I didn't get anywhere beyond talking about our mutual enjoyment of rock music as I suspect that sharing the same number of syllables in our names was about the only thing I and Mr Brittingham had in common.

Wind the tape forwards a few years and you'll find me sat in my tent checking the schedule at Sweden Rock Festival. Ahoy hoy, what's this? Cinderella playing a late afternoon 'cold beer' slot? Was I going to check them out? Too bloomin' right! And yeah, Cinderella were cool even though Tom Keifer had a goddamn baby voice.

Review: From looks alone one would reflexively lump Cinderella in with the spandex 'n' Aquanet glam metal mob. And indeed, there are certainly a few signifiers of that era present on Night Songs - noise-gated drums, trebly guitars, wailin' vocals. Yet that only tells half the story - because on this album, you can hear the serious intent of solid blues-rock musicians trapped within the glittery carapace of butt-rock dandies.

Unfortunately, this is the album's fatal flaw. Although Night Songs contains some great songs and sterling performances, it is hamstrung by a gauzy production job courtesy of Andy Johns. It's not as if Johns is a bad producer - he helmed the desk on Television's Marquee Moon after all - but I can only conclude that here he was making a misguided attempt to keep up with the zeitgeist. A strange decade, the 1980s; you had albums that sound immaculate - better than anything being produced in the present day (Sade's Diamond Life, Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, hell let's thrown ABC's Lexicon of Love into the mix too) - but for every bejewelled wonder you also had about three albums that sound like a clutch of synthesizers rattling around the bottom of a shipping container.

The good news is that the rather enervated production can't hide the quality of tracks like the rambunctious 'Shake Me' ("aaaAAAalll night!") and the monumental 'Nobody's Fool'. It's interesting to note that instead of a shack-shaker to kick off the collection, whoever sequenced Night Songs opted for the moody prowler 'Night Songs', a track very much in the mould of AC/DC's 'Hell's Bells'. A freaking bell even chimes during the intro, and it doesn't escape notice that Keifer is singing in the same range of a certain Brian Johnson of, er, AC/DC; shurely shome coincidensh?

It sags a little in the middle with 'Once Around the Ride' and 'Hell On Wheels', two generic rockers that would've sounded more than passable if they had some balls. Was glam metal one big emasculation fever dream? Lots of castrati-high vocalising and gender-bending raiment all in the service of men aggressively asserting their masculinity via some of the most sexist lyrics ever yelped into a microphone? I don't know where I'm going with this.

If you aren't disposed to like either heavy rock or freeze-dried production jobs you're not going to find Night Songs particularly palatable, but you might be able to look past its obvious faults and glimpse the promise of something quite wonderful. Also, when I mentioned 'blues-rock' in the fourth paragraph, I am of course talking about blues rock in its whitest iteration; there's nary a whiff of the Mississippi Delta about Night Songs. But an album that burns down the home stretch with pulsing dandruff-looseners like 'Somebody Save Me', 'In From the Outside' and the mighty 'Push Push' deserves respect. Good stuff all in all, but Eric Brittingham can do one.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Helen's favourite songs - part two

Last time out I rather optimistically said that they'd be a regular review or two between part one of this round up and the following installation. That was before I went away to Germany, came back and got lazy. However, a good session with the new Judas Priest album (Firepower, it's magnificent) helped me to regain my mojo and so here are five more of my friend Helen's favourite songs.

I Left My Heart In San Francisco - Tony Bennett

Going by the first five songs, and now this one, I feel Helen has a real affinity for the bittersweet side of life. Languid yet impassioned, '...San Francisco' is a perfect example of Tony Bennett's immaculate, effortless style. Starting off small and perhaps even intimate, the song crescendoes into a widescreen celebration of the city; you can almost picture the fireworks popping over the horizon as Bennett finishes up. This subgenre of jazz has never really been my thing at all, but this is enjoyable and eminently listenable.

Kiss Me - New Found Glory

Ah, now this is strange. As opposed to most of the picks that Helen and I swapped, this is one I remember contemporaneously. I must admit to having very ambivalent feelings around the whole latter day pop-punk scene. On the one hand, lots of my friends were big into it, and it was agreeably rackety. On the other, I didn't like its bland chugging efficiency, inclusive of instrumentation and singing. Nevertheless, this is a pretty fun rendition of the Sixpence None The Richer track, melodically faithful but with an alt-rock breakdown or two thrown in to placate the moshpit. Eh, not my favourite.

Pull Shapes - The Pipettes

The Pipettes - hitherto, my familiarity with them extended purely to their existence, which is to say, I don't recall ever hearing a note of their music. Coincidence is a funny thing, however, and it was only recently that I read an article in the Guardian about member Gwenno Saunders, who has been releasing music in the Welsh and Cornish languages. Colour me intrigued. What an odd song! It falls somewhere between the Ronettes and Steps! I'm rather smitten with how quirky and guileless it is, and in spirit it does seem to be recovering some of that bubblegum naivete of the best 1960s pop. I do find the modern production a bit stifling for what should be a riot of jubilance, but perhaps the marriage of the two period is the point? Maybe I should just shut my mouth, eh?

Don't Worry Baby - The Beach Boys

Now for an echt 1960s experience, the Beach Boys! This is glorious. As someone who has listened to a lot of this kind of music, I can tell you that absolutely nothing about this song comes as a surprise. You can almost anticipate the chord changes, and even the melody, before you've heard the song. It dips into plaintive longing when you expect it to, it soars with a kind of serene radiance when you expect it to. So what? When it's done this beautifully, so what? The different voices weave in and out of each other like spring butterflies. The Beach Boys were, for me, the epitome of post doo-wop, pre-Beatles pop-making, and aside from dorky numbers about being cool to your school, you can stick a pin in their catalogue from around this time and alight upon a gem. This song clouds the eyes and slows the heart, so why wouldn't it be on a 'best of' list somewhere? I kiss each fingertip in turn!

Stand By Me - Ben E King

I don't really feel any requirement to talk about this. It is perfection writ large, the gold standard of popular soul. It exists in the stratosphere, breathing the same thin air as 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine', 'Respect', 'My Girl' and others of that calibre. The bass riff that introduces the song is immediately recognisable, and instantly hummable. Instead of winding up throughout the track, King bites down on the first lyric, managing to tread a path that both manages to be imperious and yearning at the same time. Speaking of the lyrics, they are both simple and yet universal, underscored by strong images of a faintly apocalyptic nature. But the malt-shop eschatology doesn't sound hokey; it only serves to provide a backbone to the ardour professed by King. Three minutes that will leave you staggered.

That was fun! I would like to finish up with a few final thoughts. Ultimately, although we gave critical appraisals of each other's lists, there was a shared sense that the exercise went beyond merely talking about music. Indeed, I felt a little bit exposed, because whilst I'm happy talking about music, to say 'these are my ten favourite songs' can be quite an intimate thing to reveal. When I was younger, a mixtape was both a gift to someone who had feelings for but also both a shorthand way of demonstrating good taste and a discrete way of hinting that, perhaps, still waters run deep. As it so happened, we did indulge in a bit of cod-psychology; I found Helen's list to have a seam of melancholy running through much of it, whilst she identified a very off-brand sexiness to a few of my picks. Helen's feedback, incidentally, was both thoughtful and insightful; I should also add she has a great ear for music she's not necessarily familiar with. I'm glad we did this.

Anyway, back to talking about some overheated guitar crap next time out!