Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Chinese Democracy - Guns N' Roses

Provenance: Ahh, Chinese Democracy - the great white whale of the butt rock scene. I'm aghast at the realisation that I've spent something in the region of 18 years lurking and posting on an old-skool music message board, and for almost half that time the main scuttlebutt was about Chinese freaking Democracy.

When was it coming out? Who's on it? Why is it taking so long? Did Slash sneak in at midnight to record some solos? Did Brian May overdub them? Will this actually be worth it? Has Axl Rose gone mad?

Sifting through the misinformation and gossip that took up most of the discussion, one thing became apparent - this was going to be an expensive album. And so it came to pass - by around 2005, it was revealed that the production of Chinese Democracy hovered around the $13 million mark. Yet it still wasn't ready.

Then, in 2008, news flew up and down the forum, like Paul Revere announcing the imminent arrival of the British. Chinese Democracy was coming! It was going to be released in time for Christmas! Fifteen years after the underwhelming Spaghetti Incident, the band that called itself Guns N' Roses was about to launch its meisterwerk into the world and we, the grateful, desperate idiots that we were, were in raptures. Fifteen years and tens of millions of dollars in the making - this was going to sound like music of the goddamn future!

Review: I saw Guns N' Roses play a headline set at Sweden Rock Festival once. It was truly dreadful. This was the same year as the previously discussed Billy Idol performance, which was very bad. However, in comparison to Rose and his ragtag band of mercs, Idol's set was an exemplar of song selection, pacing and competence. Having missed their stage time by about an hour, GNR finally emerged all cannons blazing with the title track from Chinese Democracy -  and it sounded simply incredible. That is, until Rose started singing in a voice best described as a halfway decent impersonation of a geriatric Mickey Mouse. About seven songs in I gave up and headed back to my tent, arriving at roughly the same time as the other folk camping nearby, all equally disgusted. I say 'seven songs'; ultimately I heard a couple more Chinese Democracy cuts done badly, one track from Appetite for Destruction and, oddly, a brace of instrumental solos, one of which was Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.

But hey, 'Chinese Democracy' (the song) sounded good live! And here, on Chinese Democracy, with the luxury of a studio at his disposal, Axl hits the mark too, the track sounding like the Scorpions' 'Rock You Like a Hurricane' on anabolic steroids, featuring a truly startling guitar solo from Buckethead. However, even in this - probably the best overall cut to grace the album - the seeds of what makes Chinese Democracy somewhat irksome can be detected. One song with a distant, echoing introduction that suddenly slams into sharp focus is cool, especially out the traps; but the trick is then repeated on 'Riad N' the Bedouins', track nine. (Also, 'bedouin' is the correct plural but I'm not sure too many Guns N' Roses fans are particularly fussed.)

As Alice Cooper once said, it's the little things that drive you wild. At times you can hear a touch of technological 'assistance' in the vocal tracks (though for the most egregious uses of this wizardry, I'd point the reader towards Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series - unlistenable shite), and some of the production choices already sound dated. Despite it being the older album, you simply can't say that about Appetite for Destruction - yes, you can place it at a certain juncture in time, but it still sounds vital and snappy. The dead hand of digital is all over Chinese Democracy, combined with some synthesiser flourishes that come straight off Billie Piper's debut. What in the everlasting fuck is that weak drum loop on 'There Was a Time' all about anyway? At least it blossoms into a pretty engaging mid-paced epic, as opposed to preceding number 'If The World'; that whole mess sounds like an abandoned Kula Shaker/Babylon Zoo collaboration.

Another thing I've got against Chinese Democracy is that, at 14 tracks and seventy-odd minutes, it's too flabby. Ditch the ballads. Guns N' Roses were never any good at them. You know why Appetite... was so fun? No ballads. Why are both (whew!) Use Your Illusions so exhausting and cringingly self-indulgent? Unspeakably bad content like 'Don't Cry', the endless 'November Rain', 'Civil War' (which also features whistling, by personal bugbear), nine-minutes-and-change of 'Estranged' and a completely unnecessary version of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'. Hateful, all of it. Yet here comes Axl with his Baby Grand and delusions of being, seemingly, the next Richard Marx on pap like 'This I Love'.

Whilst we're on the subject of writing, 'Prostitute' and 'Catcher in the Rye' are embarrassing. The latter especially so, with Axl crooning his trademark strangulated 'ooos' around the song's title to arse-clenching effect. It's also a bit reminiscent of Pilot, albeit the wimp-rock quotient is considerably beefed up.

But, listen you, I don't hate it at all! The really primo stuff absolutely glitters - 'Chinese Democracy', 'Better', 'Scraped' and 'I.R.S.' all land knockout punches. They are, by and large, brash and uncomplicated, with guitars to the fore (which prompts another issue; so much six-string talent to hand, so poorly utilised). When Axl and chums try to be cute, they get bogged down in the weeds far too often. And at times there's simply just too much of too much, lending Chinese Democracy a slightly oppressive, suffocated quality. One feels that much of the material began lean and sharp, but was gussied up so much between hither and thither that in the end it hits with the impact of a marshmallow.

For any other band I'd consider a release like Chinese Democracy to be a near miss, an ambitious stab that falls short. I've mentioned before that I find this quality much more endearing than diminishing returns that stick to a formula. However, I can't quite conceive of this as a win for Guns N' Roses - so much time, effort and cash was plowed into its gestation, yet it feels as if mistakes from the past are doubled down upon, but this time accompanied by a few mid-00s beats in a quixotic attempt to appear contemporary. Next time, eh, lads?

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mojo Working: the Best of Ace Blues - Various Artists

Provenance: Learning how to play guitar, blues was almost one of the first things I gravitated towards. The songs largely stuck to a formula I could follow, it gave me the foundations upon which to fumble around with the minor pentatonic, plus it sounded really cool.

I think I picked this little doozy up in my late teens. I definitely had it before university, because I used Little Willie Littlefield's 'Happy Pay Day' on a video project.

Review: Twenty tracks and not a duff amongst them. I must have picked this up because I recognised a few of the names - BB King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins - but it's the lesser lights who make this interesting. For a genre that is sometimes dismissed as too simplistic for true sophisticates, it also runs the gamut, from the minimalist vamping of Hooker on the immortal 'Boogie Chillen' via the skronkin' sax-fest of Littlefield's jubilant 'Happy Pay Day' to the lamplit comedown blues of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's wonderful, idiosyncratic 'Three Hours Past Midnight'. The vast majority of this stuff comes from the 1950s but still packs a right ol' wallop in the speaker department, and makes a lot of what was on the pop charts at the time sound insipid and neutered.

Honestly, this collection probably came along at just the right time. Having (somewhat) shaken off my thraldom to Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was dangerously close to becoming that most dreaded specie amongst blues fans, the Purist. Any taint of commerciality, any hint that the guy I was listening to hadn't flogged his soul at the crossroads, and I wasn't interested. For me, half the excitement was the mystery, the notion of singular men "emerging fully-formed from the Delta", as Elijah Wald has it in Escaping the Delta, his excellent deconstruction of the mythology and assumptions made about Robert Johnson, probably the blues' most totemic figure (a book that also ably demonstrates that Johnson was every bit as swayed by his peers, and contemporary tastes, as any other artist). So, for me, the perfect blues artist had an unknown birthdate, a sketchy recording history, and an early, hopefully disputed, and perhaps grisly, death. Oh, and they played solo.

The archetype, then, was someone like Blind Willie Johnson and his 'Cold Was the Night, Dark Was the Ground'; a piece of music so powerful that it was blasted into the galaxy for space aliens to enjoy, performed by an artist who met a suitably gothic demise. Not quite as tragic, but even more haunting was Skip James' breathtaking 'Devil Got My Woman', used to such good effect in the underrated movie Ghost World. You see, it all resonated with that key watchword for me - authenticity.

So, thank goodness for Mojo Working, with its stylistic breadth and judicious choice of cuts. Yes, it still had those choons that got me all shivering and misty-eyed about southron twilights - the spare, sinister 'Lonesome Dog Blues' from Lightnin' Hopkins chief amongst them - but it also opened my ears to the richness and variety not just of the sonic template of the blues, but also its moods. I've already mentioned the knockabout 'Happy Pay Day', but there's also the sly insinuations of Arthur Gunter's chooglin' acoustic number 'Baby Let's Play House' and the more forthright swamp-braggadocio of Slim Harpo's 'I'm a King Bee' (which features a sound used to create the instrumental hook - I'm not even sure whether it's a bass or harmonica - that I'm yet to hear anywhere else).

Mojo Working basically became by blues primer, the springboard for exploration which has led me to buying albums of at least half of the artists that feature on the compilation. Hell, I've even reviewed a couple of them! But the one I want to dwell on just for a moment is an artist who first tasted success with rhythm and blues in the 1950s, and then again during the 1970s. I am, of course, talking about Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. I am actually more familiar with his hepcat funkster output, but the 1956 joint that appears on Mojo Working sounds astonishingly modern. 'Three Hours Past Midnight' is remarkable not only for its pin-sharp production but the tone Watson coaxes out of his guitar. On an album full of distinctive guitar work (from Elmore James's slashing slide playing to Little Johnny Taylor's busy, jazzy runs up and down the fretboard), Watson's lead sounds like it was beamed in from another galaxy. It's utterly strange! A kind of clucking, quacking noise that's accentuated by Watson's staccato attack (apparently using his thumb alone, which boggles my noggin), but something I can't imagine all the available ProTools plugins could ever replicate.

They might get close, but they'll never quite make it. And what is that unassailable quality that cannot quite be replicated, if it isn't that magic notion, authenticity?

Of the hundreds of albums I own, few have burnt themselves into the memory quite like Mojo Working. Every track appears in the mind's eye as distinct and as whole as entire universes. When I give this a spin, I can convince myself that this is the alpha and omega; no other music exists. And for the span of an hour, perhaps, it doesn't.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Heavn - Jamila Woods

Provenance: My partner went to a Jamila Woods show and bought a copy of Heavn. They said that "I might like it", and it's ended up in our shared, monolithic CD collection (only Blue Oyster Cult and Michael Jackson are kept reverentially separate), so here goes.

Review: I'm really not qualified to talk about Heavn at all.

Now, regular readers of this benighted blog will no doubt be wondering why I've only awoken to my almost crippling limitations this far down the line. And it's fair, I don't consider myself a Robert Christgau (nice website mate) or anything of that calibre. I poke and pry, and sometimes alight on the odd insight or two; I tend to be more at home with metal than other genres; heaven forfend that I try and step up to the plate with a jazz review. I would suggest, humbly, that one of my strengths is that I know what I know, and correspondingly I have a fair idea of what I don't know.

So, I know that I don't know enough to appraise Jamila Woods' full-length solo debut Heavn in anything other than the most superficial aesthetic terms. Why? Because unlike the person I am sharing a life with, I have no idea what it's like to be raised as a black woman in America, and this notion of the beating heart of the song cycle. Okay, you might counter, what could I possibly share with the guys in Motley Crue or ZZ Top, or with Tom Waits? My answer - lots of cultural touchstones, a collective musical inheritance (which ironically appropriates tons from black-origin forms) and a society that is happy to propagate the notion that the least amongst us white folk is still better than someone else. And in the USA, that's black people, Latinx, indigenous peoples, queer folk - and good fucking luck if you intersect across any of these designations.

Here goes, then - this is pretty damn great. The production is whipsmart, all wobbly electro-dreamscapes and snappy beats. Woods is a rather lovely singer - sweet and mellifluous, which honeys some incredibly stark messages. Eric Garner's choking at the hands of the police is referenced in 'Vry Blck', a track that sounds like a playground chant, and I'm sure that the dazzling, swirling 'Heavn' slips in a reference to the slave trade with the same sly, allusory quality employed by Randy Newman on 'Sail Away'.

I like the way that Heavn swings between moods; at times it exhibits a playful, wilful strain of juvenilia that's also present on cuts by Tank and the Bangas; at others, there's a dense, layered jazz-tinged soul-pop sound that resembles KING's first album, which I properly loved. Collaborations are judicious, which makes a change; Chance the Rapper, to take one instance, shifts the pace nicely in 'LSD' with a dense, push-pull verse that abuts Woods' sleeker versifying very effectively.

Perhaps even more than the black female experience, however, is how strikingly personal Heavn is. Little nuggets of a life zoomed in at microscopic level shine through every now and again, to the extent that a line like "I be in my nightgown, chicken wings ready" feels both utterly humdrum and utterly voyeuristic. This intimacy is heightened by the spoken-word interludes studded throughout Heavn, which are made to sound as if Woods is talking down a phone line. It genuinely feels like engaging in a conversation, listening to Woods' joy at unexpectedly being able to bond with other black women through shared schoolyard games, or sharing the story of how she got her name, or musing about living a life true to oneself. It's all apiece conceptually with everything else on Heavn, and it's wonderful.

I'm very sorry if I've blundered through the album, missing any number of references that Woods has painstakingly woven into the tapestry of Heavn. For what it's worth, I'm smitten with this cerebral, passionate, reflective, sumptuously crafted offering. It feels apt that Heavn finishes up on a reprise of the most affirming track, 'Holy' - "woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me / I'm not lonely, I'm alone / And I'm holy by my own" - a message of self-love that everybody could do with, from time to time.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Red Queen To Gryphon Three - Gryphon

Provenance: A few years ago at work, we were idling away the hours on the taxpayer's dime chatting about striking examples of cover sleeve artwork. I recalled an album my dad still owns, Raindance, by today's subjects Gryphon. In the course of searching for the cover art online, I discovered that Gryphon had also produced a work called Red Queen To Gryphon Three, a concept album that's based on a game of chess and features a krumhorn. Armed with that knowledge, what do you think I did next?

Review: You know when people take that "none more black" line from This Is Spinal Tap and apply it to some other scenario, and it's never funny? Well, I'm not about to break the mould here, but in all human endeavour, there is none more prog than Red Queen To Gryphon Three. It takes two of the nerdiest things in existence - prog and chess - and fuses them together via the medium of medieval instrumentation. I imagine this as the product of only the most ascetic of proggers, denying themselves all pleasures of the flesh (most definitely women, although one suspects that wasn't difficult) to come up with this shining anthracite bolus of musical antimatter. So dimly, horrifyingly black that it sucks all pretenders into the gaping maw of its prog-rock singularity. Friends, this is geekery on a colossal scale.

We've got four lengthy tracks called 'Opening Move', 'Second Spasm' (lol), 'Lament' and 'Checkmate'. None of this makes any sense whatsoever, because this is prog so pure that it's entirely instrumental. Why besmirch this magical extravaganza with such earth-bound discordance as the English language? This is the music of the spheres! The universal resonance! I will concede that, possibly, the only thing more progressive would be to either make up your own language or perform your horrible compositions on ice.

I'm not sure I even need to tell you that Red Queen To Gryphon Three begins with a keyboard fanfare, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre could've guessed that already. 'Opening Move' is ambitious, in the sense that it takes the listener through a variety of moods - one moment jaunty, the next foreboding - none of which that I've ever experienced when playing chess. The performances are almost virtuoso, and it must be admitted that the quieter, piano-led moments are quite affecting. 'Second Spasm' (still laughing) starts off altogether rather 'hey nonny-nonny', but again, shifts about in timing and atmosphere; however, it retains a cheerfully martial feeling throughout, which gives it a good sense of cohesion, and the main theme (played on a variety of instruments) manages to be both knotty and catchy at the same time. Erk! I'm starting to enjoy this!

Ah, but now we're onto 'Lament', which is very sad and makes me cry. Kidding! Yeah, it's a bit more mournful than the preceding material, and the bassoon (a glum instrument) gets a decent workout, but any true emotion gets sucked out of proceedings by mere dint of it being a fucking prog track. Can you sob in 13/7 time? These guys seem to think you can. Weirdly for a track called 'Lament', there are a couple of brief movements that are frantic and upbeat, all crazy woodwind and Afrobeat guitar sounds. By this point I felt that I'd been listening to RQTGT for about a day, and so these moments of elation mirrored my notion that it was all soon to be over. A glimpse at the stereo revealed I was only just over halfway through.

Ahhhhh, but I can't quite hate it! The music is so guileless, so questing and brimming with ideas that cynicism feels churlish. It's not as if anything hangs around too long, either - Gryphon's modus operandi on RQTGT seems to be "getting bored of this twiddly bit? Don't worry, another will be along soon enough."

However, once you're halfway through 'Checkmate', exhaustion has almost settled in. Despite noble attempts to cut through all the jibjab by establishing a theme for each track, it's all starting to blur together. The jazz guitars! The clavinets! The bassoons! The krumhorns! (Reader, I have discovered that there are two krumhorn players on this album.) In summation, Red Queen To Gryphon Three certainly takes the listener on a journey - one where the destination can, at times, be obscure - but it's a quixotic undertaking. How anyone can conjure up a game of chess whilst being bombarded by this folk-prog maelstrom is beyond me.

At core, though, this is the most potently distilled prog in my collection, and so I shall cherish it forever. I'll probably listen sparingly, because I don't want to actually turn into a wizard, but listen again I shall.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Aqualung - Jethro Tull

Provenance: I guess at one time I decided that should get into Jethro Tull. Anyway, I purchased this album before I went to university because it formed part of the meagre collection of burnt CD-Rs that accompanied me to halls of residence. I blasted the shit out of this thing during my first year.

Review: Some artists or albums are hardy perennials - they can be played almost any time of year and slot right in. For some reason, Jethro Tull are a seasonal band; I couldn't imagine spinning Heavy Horses or Songs From the Wood whilst the sun is shining. Very particularly, Aqualung is a winter album. Perhaps it's due to to the imagery of the title track, with its ice and 'December's foggy freeze'. It may be due to the seam of religion that runs throughout, which for some reason I've long associated with a dank coldness (the interiors of churches and cathedrals, perhaps?).

Or it might be that Aqualung goes well with the most deathly season because it sounds pretty goddamn deceased itself. I've got plenty of albums from eras where recording technology was still quite rudimentary, others whereby some creative studio trickery dates the music badly. I've even got a couple made by a sex offender in his basement. Whatever their flaws, none of them sound as dead as Aqualung. There are grime tracks recorded on mobile phones with more presence. The cardboard guitar in the video to Judas Priest's 'Breaking the Law' has better tonality than Martin Barre achieves. There are uncontacted tribes deep within the Amazon who have opinions about the production on Aqualung.

Let's be charitable. It was one of the first albums recorded at Island Record's Basing Street studios. Teething issues, an' all that. It's not as if any other album, being recorded at the exact same time at the exact same facility, sounds any good.

I've got more beef with Aqualung. About the only moment of human warmth and empathy on the entire collection comes early on, in the acoustic mid-section of 'Aqualung', where we are invited to feel sorry for the subject of the track, the titular tramp. For the rest of the album, Ian Anderson's lyrics are by turns arch and sneering, as if he's just that wee bit more clever than the listener. It's particularly insufferable on 'My God' and 'Hymn 43', which come across as 1971's equivalent of watching a YouTube atheist channel. (NB - please don't watch any atheist-themed YouTube content - it almost drove me, a staunch non-believer, to the seminary.)

Take, for example, Sparks - a band who are undoubtedly arch and oh-so-smart, but who wear their erudition lightly, and deploy a winking charm to make their references to Shakespeare, the Rockefellers and the human reproduction cycle slide down easily. Jethro Tull, alas, come across as dour as any carping Presbyter or dorm-room Maoist in their attempts to enlighten.

It's a shame, because putting aside the hectoring and shit production, Aqualung possesses the kernel of a prog classic. The electric guitar riff to 'Aqualung' is a blooter, and is rightly smashed out by greenhorns in guitar shops up and down the country. 'Cross-Eyed Mary' has some wonderfully angular guitar work, and is probably the leanest, dirtiest thing on the platter. 'Locomotive Breath' is another corker, an indomitable chugger that is nevertheless not as heavy as the version that plays in my head. It also sounds like a rubber band is part of the instrumentation. Ah, fuck it, 'Locomotive Breath' properly smokes.

Even 'Hymn 43' doesn't sound so bad, if you ignore the lyrics. In fact, it would have fit in very nicely on Atomic Rooster's Death Walks Behind You, an album that I like very much.  Pick of the bunch for me is 'Mother Goose', not only for its delightfully absurd lyrics, but because it best resembles the twisted folk that would appear on my favourite Tull joint, Songs From the Wood. Hey, maybe I'm being tough on Aqualung because it's not Songs From the Wood! Maybe!

Look, I can take the sermonising if the music sounded immaculate, and it doesn't. I still like this weird, somewhat cerebral little beast but it could certainly do with someone like Steve Wilson to give this a bit of remastering spit and polish. Oh, and I was wrong earlier on - contrary to my claims that Aqualung was altogether bloodless, 'Wond'ring Aloud' possesses a lot of heart. It's rather beautiful, in fact.

NB - my CD version of Aqualung contains a rather interesting interview with Ian Anderson about Aqualung. In the interests of fairness, it's not just me who thinks the album doesn't quite sound right; Anderson uses a portion of the conversation to bemoan the production, and the difficulties of getting decent performances on tape in the particular studio Jethro Tull were assigned.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Cherry Pie - Warrant

Provenance: I like hair metal, so what? The purchase of this album was preceded by a 'best of' collection, which I enjoyed very much. Couldn't wait to hear some Warrant deep cuts.

Review: It was a sad day when Warrant frontman Jani Lane departed prematurely from this world. Addiction to alcohol and drugs caught up with him in 2011, by which time he was living in rather straitened circumstances. Thanks to this particular album, he also had to live with the ignominy of being referred to as 'the Cherry Pie Guy' for much of the latter part of his career.

It's massively unfair, as although he did write the addictive, double-entendre laden smash hit Lane had much more in his locker. Cherry Pie is testament to this - so alongside the usual hair farmer preoccupation with sex there are finely honed, sensitive tracks about loneliness and betrayal. Whilst not quite in the same calibre as Bruce Springsteen, it's fairly indisputable that Lane wrote the greatest butt-rock song about witnessing a murder within a rural community (the track in question is the riotous 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', which has about as much resemblance to the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel as I do to Desert Orchid).

I would go so far as to say that Jani Lane was the best songwriter of the whole glam metal movement. Some of his peers have moved into writing and producing for contemporary artists, and I can't shake the feeling that a sober, focused Lane would have made a mint doing this.

It is sad, too, that 'Cherry Pie' became an albatross for Lane and Warrant. On the one hand, it was emblematic of the big, dumb, sexist rawk scene that was flourishing on the Sunset Strip. It almost acted as a semi-colon to the scene before the giant full stop that was grunge and alt-metal. Given the bleak thematic concerns of what would succeed glam, 'Cherry Pie' sounds almost impossibly airheaded and inconsequential. If I could reach back through time, I'd urge Warrant to enjoy every second about doing silly songs about sex, because you're about to get pounded by lads doing bits about school shootings and blokes getting snuffed in Vietnam.

As with every band of this ilk, Warrant always stowed one or two cigarette lighter moments onto each album. 'Blind Faith' is fairly so-so, but 'I Saw Red' - about walking in on a partner's moment of infidelity - is as good as it gets. Especially considering that it's set up, in the first verse, to sound like a panegyric. It's clever, and it packs a wallop, although I have to confess that the acoustic version on my 'best of' is even better. 'Bed of Roses' is another track that benefits from Lane's shrewdness; here, he plays the part of a lovelorn tenant of a dingy motel, dreaming of a better life for the object of his affections two doors down. Beneath the gated drums, gang vocals and squealing guitars is a very human heartbeat.

I'm also a fan of 'Song and Dance Man', which could be either a celebration of life on the road or a cry of desperation. Maybe it's both; but it possesses a brooding quality to it missing in much other glam metal (the only other hair band that does this convincingly is Ratt; Invasion of Your Privacy might well be the only properly existential album from the spandex brigade). Nonetheless, it's a welcome note of ambivalence in a genre that is generally averse to notions such as introspection and equivocation. Imagine Bread's 'Guitar Man', except it's for people who say 'dude' a lot.

What more is there to say? It's well sung, well played, the hooks are chunky and it sounds exactly like a glossy MTV metal release from 1990 should do. Cherry Pie does feature a banjo on one track, I grant you that, and a version of Blackfoot's 'Train Train', bringing my personal 'Train Train' collection up to two (I've got the Blackfoot joint it where it first appeared). As a sting in the tail, Cherry Pie rounds off with a cheeky little spice called 'Ode To Tipper Gore', essentially a supercut of profanity uttered by Lane in live settings. Completely puerile, but it must've seemed a tad daring given the political climate of the time (and the outrageous actions of Tipper Gore and her troupe of self-appointed moral arbiters, the Parents Music Resource Center). Inside the liner notes, 'Ode To Tipper Gore' sports the caption "Freedom of Speech...What a concept!", making Warrant one of the unlikelier upholders of the First Amendment flame.

The bottom line is this - if you don't like glam metal you won't dig Cherry Pie. However, if you've got any regard for the genre, i.e. you're an individual of refined sensibilities, not only will this hit all the usual marks, but it'll give you just a bit more juice than usual in the songwriting department.

Now, just for the record let's get this story straight; me and Uncle Tom were fishing, it was gettin' pretty late...

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Sweet Tea - Buddy Guy

Provenance: I think anyone with a more than passing interest in the electric blues knows who Buddy Guy is. Still kicking, still playing, with a slew of solo releases and guest appearances to his name, Guy is considered a living legend.

I also have one of the most distant personal connections imaginable. My partner's stepdad's sister married one of Buddy Guy's sons. So, yeah, usual caveats apply when reviewing the work of a close family member.

Review: I pointedly mentioned the electric blues in my introduction, because this is what Guy is most famous for. And on Sweet Tea, fans of his spiky, fluid playing have got more than enough to chew on. Most tracks are over the five minute mark, with 'I Gotta Try You Girl' stretching its legs for well over twelve minutes. You wanna hear some electric guitar, friend? You got it.

So it's strange that the most arresting track on the whole album - the opener, 'Done Got Old' - is a relatively concise three-and-change minutes long, and consists of a close-miked Guy and sparse acoustic guitar. It's a weird song, too - because many of Guy's direct influences would flip their dotage on its head, bragging about their experience or ability to keep up with the youngbloods. Think Muddy Waters with 'Young Fashioned Ways' - "there may be snow up on the mountain, but there's fire down under the hill". 'Done Got Old', however, is a straightforward lament - no braggadocio, machismo or defiance, just a quiet sadness that his body is giving up on him. It's a sombre introduction.

And maybe it's supposed to be the banner that hangs over proceedings, a memento mori to accompany the startlingly vital racket he conjures up on Sweet Tea. 'Baby Please Don't Leave Me' has a title that sounds like a Chess cut from the 1950s, but the clattering drums and skronky overdriven bass makes it sound, early doors, more like a particularly sludgy desert rocker. The guitar riff, when it kicks in, sounds like one of the blues tracks that Led Zeppelin stole, if it was played on high-tensile cables. It's a noise you might expect more from All Them Witches than a guy who literally played with Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.

The highlight of Sweet Tea is 'Stay All Night', another relatively short number. It stalks, it prowls, it rumbles; and a flint-eyed Guy doesn't so much ask for love as commands it. It's down-low and nasty, lower than a snake's belly. At this juncture, I should mention that, aside from the quavering opener, Guy sings wonderfully, with a similarly strained, edgy style as Elmore James, albeit dialled down a notch or two. He was still hitting some impressive high notes at the age most people this side of the Atlantic anticipate receiving free bus passes.

Production is a factor that can make or break a record. As much as I love the bells and whistles approach on albums by the Beatles, Jellyfish, Pink Floyd and other studio cosmonauts, most blues music is served by the KISS maxim; keep it simple, stupid. Going back to Chess, some of those Muddy joints are raw as hell; there's a 1951 cut called 'She Moves Me' where Leonard Chess himself provides inexpert but effective backing on a bass drum to accompany Mud's elastic guitar. Back in the twenty-first century, Dennis Herring has kept some of that magic alive, whilst compensating for advances in technology. You can hear amps humming, snares rattling and the odd clam or two from Guy. It doesn't matter; this is more about capturing a mood and a moment than technical ecstasy (Joe Bonamassa and Kevin Shirley, take note). To these untrained ears, it also sounds like the instrumentals were performed live-in-studio.

The overall effect is very in-your-face, and all the better for it. The guitar isn't overly processed; a dab of echo here and there, but otherwise letting an overdriven tube amp, and of course Guy's expert fingers, do the heavy lifting tone-wise. On 'Tramp', cleaving the old soul classic with an arrangement that sounds like ZZ Top circa the kooky Deguello, Guy bends those strings so aggressively you can hear the muscle and blood through the speaker; the same can be said for the portentous closer 'It's A Jungle Out There'. Meanwhile, on 'Look What All You Got' and 'Who's Been Foolin' You', it sounds like Buddy Guy is fronting Dr Feelgood. It's a genuine pleasure to hear the greatest living exponent of the Chicago blues reminding us all why Clapton, Richards, Beck and the rest bend the knee.

I hear two Kings in the way Guy plays; he's got the pyrotechnic flair of Freddie but hits his bends like Albert (a fellow who, at his best, sounded like he was bending the very molecules of existence). There's something else there, though - a simmering malevolence that gives his every solo or interpolation that bit more bite and excitement. Perhaps 'Done Got Old' was a trickster move, a little juke to throw us off guard before proving, over and over, that he's still got the fire burning down below.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Hormonally Yours - Shakespears Sister

Provenance: This is another one I picked up off a school friend for about a quid.

I recall 'Stay' being a behemoth in the charts, but of equal importance to me was the bizarre playground rumour that Siobhan Fahey once checked into rehab for an addiction to fried chicken.

Besides, that's a cool cover! It's like Vivienne Westwood decided to style Lilian Gish or Theda Bara.

Review: You know, Shakespears Sister (sic) are playing down the road from me next month. I might go along.

Anyway, Hormonally Yours - called thusly because both Marcella Detroit (the tall one who wasn't in Bananarama) and Siobhan Fahey (ex-Bananarama) were pregnant during the making of the album. I shouldn't really be so flip about Detroit, who prior to Shakespears Sister performed as a backing vocalist for a couple of rock A-listers (Bob Seger, Eric Clapton) and wrote songs for many well-known artists, most notably 'Lay Down Sally', one of Slowhand's more bearable songs.

It's been ages since I've given Hormonally Yours a spin, and therefore doing so now feels like diving into an album for the first time. Two things strike me from the outset; one is that it's less spooky than I had assumed it would be (based on the archly gothic 'Stay' I suppose), and the other is that Marcella Detroit has a remarkable voice. At times she sings in the same range that Kate Bush used throughout much of The Kick Inside, but if anything there's more power and control behind these performances. It also contrasts splendidly with Fahey's delivery, which may not contain Detroit's technical fireworks but proves a warmer, more languid, more sensuous counterpoint.

Given their image and the 'Stay' fictional universe I imagined Fahey and Detroit inhabited, it's quite a surprise to hear that most of the first side of the album is pure power-pop - very, very good power pop. It takes its cues from Jellyfish and Redd Kross in some respects, and points towards the successful formula adopted by the post-millenial Cheap Trick in others. 'Goodbye Cruel World', 'My 16th Apology' and 'Are We In Love Yet' are simply fantastic, bouncing around the place with big chewy hooks and quirky little musical interpolations. I wanted to dislike 'Emotional Thing', as it starts off like a pale Was (Not Was) imitation, but I was won over eventually, not least of all by the incongruous blues harmonica that crops up halfway through.

Seeing as 'Stay' was such a blockbuster, I was half-expecting it to overshadow much of the other material. It's certainly meant as a compliment when I say that it doesn't stand out from the pack, other than as a change of pace. If it wasn't for its ubiquity, and my subsequent familiarity with it, 'Stay' would've just been another track I had reason to be excited about. It certainly is the most overtly goth-influenced thing on here, with a mid-section that sounds a wee bit Sisters of Mercy; the only other time I think 'ahhh, goth!' is in the chorus to 'Moonchild', which is disappointingly (for me) not a cover of Iron Maiden's best song. Even then, we're talking Gene Loves Jezebel goth, not Killing Miranda goth.

About the only misstep on Hormonally Yours is 'Black Sky', which has a slight Madchester vibe and a very dated house piano vibe. It's not terrible, and neither is 'Catwoman', which to these jaded old ears sounds like classic Shania Twain. It gets by, though, by being both utterly bonkers and by ending on a note that Detroit hits which caters to the hearing range of bats. On the other hand, props to Shakespears Sister for doing a song called 'Let Me Entertain You' that isn't a warm bath of shite.

Since giving Hormonally Yours a bash I'm left with a lingering shame that this album has lurked unloved at the bottom of my record collection for so long. It didn't deserve that fate, unlike some. Rather, Hormonally Yours is a catchy, weird, idiosyncratic jewel that cloaks its strangeness in an addictive pop-rock packaging. I think I'll be buying that ticket now.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Loud And Clear - Autograph

Provenance: In my mid-teens I made a series of compilation CDs that consisted wholly of stuff I'd downloaded from Napster. They bounced all over the place in terms of genre, there were five of them all told, and I'm very sorry that I can't locate them any longer.

Disc three had 'Turn Up The Radio' by Autograph as the lead off track, a real fizzer. Anyway, some years later one of the many smooth-brained fuckwits that post on the message board I used to frequent convinced me to invest in a few Autograph albums, as apparently the material was of a uniformly high quality.

Our survey said...

Review: ...EEEH-EEEURGH!

Apparently, I'm lucky enough to be in possession of a 'remastered and reloaded' edition of Loud And Clear, according to the Rock Candy blurb. I guess that's analogous to gazing at a turd on an ultra-high definition TV set. Where the turd wins out is that, mercifully, it makes no sound. Ironically, the remastered Loud And Clear sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of my toilet, so it's anybody's guess just how wretched this bilge was back in 1987 the first time around.

It's difficult for me to say much, clever or otherwise, about Loud And Clear because melodic hard-rock this generic almost defies description. I recall that in a When Saturday Comes review of benighted reality show Wayne Rooney's Street Striker, Simon Tyers described the set layout as "an advertising copywriter's view of what constitutes a back street"; and there are parallels here. If you asked a competent session musician unburdened by too much knowledge of 1980s rock to knock out a few tunes reminiscent of the era, it would sound an awful lot like Loud And Clear.

Also, I know this seems gratuitously sneery, but in an age where frontmen had cool fucking names (if nothing else), Steve Plunkett just don't do it. Steve Plunkett sounds like the guy who organises the office rugby world cup sweepstake. Steve Plunkett makes everyone a coffee, even if he doesn't drink it himself. Steve Plunkett writes a column for the programme of his local non-league football team. Steve Plunkett is a massive dweeb. The bar that Autograph had to step over to have an acceptable 1980s frontman nom-de-guerre was not high - you make the cut by finding one better than Steve 'Sex' Summers in my estimation - so it's almost impressive that they managed to limbo spectacularly beneath it.

I don't even feel like describing the music at any length; it almost feels sufficient to say that I prefer Bad English. All the up-tempo songs are moronic, and feature the same uninspired freeze-dried guitar work that is mildly admirable from a technical standpoint and utterly forgettable. If I was forced to be charitable (oxymoron, I know, I know) I might actually pick the ballad-y 'Everytime I Dream' as a not particularly shit piece of music. Also, I am not entirely ill-disposed towards 'Just Got Back From Heaven', which boasts some cute keyboard work. It's a shame that they don't use the keyboard with a bit more flair, as it's mostly deployed to parp unimaginatively underneath equally pedestrian chord sequences.

Just some variety, that's all I crave. I don't know why Autograph even bothered with a drummer on Loud And Clear because some kind of machine would've been more than capable at replicating the dull, potatoes 'n' potatoes percussion. This is a problem endemic to much 1980s arena rock; they took the wallop from big the previous decade's big hitters like John Bonham and Cozy Powell but discarded the attendant skill and creativity. Perhaps it was a conscious decision; I remember a documentary where Def Leppard talked about stripping down riffs and fills to their basics to ensure clarity in cavernous venues. I find myself speculating as to whether this was also the thought-process behind Loud And Clear - uncomplicated, no rough edges, choruses that could be sung by the most tin-eared amongst us - but unlike the Leps, they forgot to write anything memorable. Def Leppard? They're not even vying with Loverboy.

So, yeah, that's Autograph's Loud And Clear I suppose. Not the most thrilling review, but I'm not working with much here. This one's destined to gather dust, although now it'll go back on top of the pile and I'm worried that a houseguest will see it and think I like Autograph. On a final note; I mentioned in my intro that I paid for three Autograph albums. Only two showed up. At the time I was vexed, but now I look back and see nothing less than a small act of mercy on the part of the vendor. Once upon a time, Autograph exhorted me to 'turn up the radio', and if that's the alternative to actually listening to Autograph's dreadful music it's an invitation I'd be more than happy to accept, even if the dial was stuck on a talkSPORT Danny Mills marathon.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

A Rockin' Decade - Sleepy LaBeef

Provenance: I first heard about Sleepy LaBeef in Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway, a highly readable survey of what could loosely be described as Americana. LaBeef stood out on the page; an interpreter rather than a writer, and something of a human jukebox (claiming to know roughly 6,000 songs by heart) which is impressive enough before you even reach the voice. In his prime the 6'7" native of Smackover, Arkansas must've been an impressive presence merely entering stage left, but what happens when he opens his mouth is something else. His is a clear, generous, country-bred baritone that has an almost physical quality to it - big, wide, deep, indomitable.

However, I never really imagined I would own any LaBeef recordings; he was too cult, too obscure to find without breaking sweat. If he had had anything released on CD, I figured it would be one of those eBay jobs that go for about fifty quid plus. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find this collection of Sun Records sessions from the 1970s lurking in the late-lamented Eastbourne HMV's bargain racks. Guess I underestimated the thirst for rockabilly in south-east England, eh?

Review: There is nothing original on this album, nothing. Not a single note was penned by LaBeef on A Rockin' Decade, and the 26 tracks that make up the compilation never stray far from the traditional rock 'n' roll template. In compositional terms there are zero surprises, and even the choice of covers cleaves very much to what could be considered a canon of the genre; 'Boom, Boom, Boom', 'Roll Over Beethoven', 'Mystery Train', 'Milk Cow Blues' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' all make appearances. The playing is competent and uninspired, the musicians sounding like what I imagine them to be - accomplished meat 'n' potatoes barroom pros.

So, seasoned readers of this blog won't be at all taken aback by the fact that I love this album. Love it, love it, love it.

Why? Well, before getting onto LaBeef's individual gifts, I should point out that a lack of originality in rockabilly is pretty much what I hanker for. It is one of those genres that doesn't benefit at all from tinkering with the formula. I don't want some pointy-head turning 'Roll Over Beethoven' into a raga, I want it neat, all three goddamn chords of it, swinging like Tarzan on methamphetamine at shack-shaking volumes. That fairly sums up my attraction to lots of American roots music - be it rhythm and blues, country or rock 'n' roll; the basic ingredients don't change much, giving plenty of opportunity for the performer to stamp their personality on proceedings. This, LaBeef does with aplomb.

I love Chuck Berry as a songwriter and innovator but LaBeef's version of 'Too Much Monkey Business' absolutely smokes the original. As mentioned before, LaBeef's is a huge voice, so it's a delight to hear him negotiating a tricky little number with such nimbleness. It evokes the same joy as watching a burly centre-half tiptoeing his way through an opposition's defence before chipping the keeper. He does the same thing on Willie Dixon's 'You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover', with the additional achievement of rhyming 'cane' with 'man' (though Bo Diddley also did a very decent job with the same lyric).

I recall reading a biography of Orson Welles written by David Thomson, in which he employed a rather striking metaphor to describe Welles' voice during his days as a radio star. He described it as possessing the same qualities as a heavy dinner or of chocolate, somehow made incarnate by Welles, the richness, slightly cloying excesses of the voluptuary coming through over the airwaves. Let me try to do something similar for LaBeef; his is the voice of a lonely honky-tonk, of flickering neon lights, of liquor consumed straight and smalltown boastfulness. There's a brashness there, but it's offset by a complete lack of guile, which equates to a queer kind of charm. There's a couple of times where on 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' LaBeef is a step outside of his usual comfort zone, and it only serves to make him sound all the more honest.

A Rockin' Decade is a pretty lengthy document for such a monochrome palette as adopted by LaBeef and his buddies, so tossing it down in one go is not advisable unless you're hosting a sock hop or whatever the fuck people did for fun back then. I almost want to slap myself for advocating shuffle play, but it's the best way to enjoy the album, especially if it's stirred in with a bunch of other stuff. Just imagine getting hit between the eyes with 'Big Boss Man' or 'Flying Saucers Rock 'N' Roll'(!!) after wading through a load of Yes, Rush or Porcupine Tree. Blessed relief, one should think. Sleepy LaBeef is living history, and has greater claim to being part of what makes America great than a slew of more spurious claimants.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Bloodlust - Body Count

Provenance: I was only dimly aware of Body Count for many years, due to the notoriety of their 1992 song 'Cop Killer'. Nonetheless, quite by chance I stumbled across 'Black Hoodie' from Bloodlust on YouTube and was pleasantly surprised.

In any case, I prefer my rap-rock crossovers more of the Public Enemy and Anthrax flavour, as opposed to Run DMC vs Aerosmith. Can't particularly knock the latter, but it sounds tame compared to Chuck D and co. making an industrial sized ruckus.

Review: You don't so much as listen to this album as get beaten around the face with it. At times, the most accurate summation of the experience I can muster is that it's the aural equivalent of repeatedly taking a tyre iron to the bridge of one's nose. This is, of course, glorious. Heavy metal can be many things; slow, stately, symphonic, fast, virtuosic - but there's always space for a spot of the ol' ultraviolence, which is exactly what Ice T et. al. serve up for the discerning listener.

More albums should start with some kind of siren noise, incidentally. It's fucking cool. Doubly so if that song features Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, which 'Civil War' does; but it also contains a lyric that isn't too far flung from Frank Zappa's 'Trouble Every Day' in terms of message. Think of it as a twenty-first century update, but where Zappa seemed to meet the challenges of the day with a peevish lassitude, Ice T demands his audience take a side. Looking at what's unfolding in the body politic of the USA, how could it be any other way?

I was a bit worried that the entirety of Bloodlust would be a political diatribe - not because that is, in and of itself, a bad thing, but because Body Count aren't the most subtle operators. I was therefore delighted to hear that second track 'The Ski Mask Way' is brimming with all kinds of villainy and devilment. Basically, it's a paean to the practice of home invasion. Not something I imagine that we'll be hearing on BBC Radio 2 any time soon, I'll wager. Still, Ice T delivers it with a convincing aplomb. And why should popular music not be so matter-of-fact about objectively criminal pursuits? I recall seeing Ice T talking in a documentary about how he was influenced by the writing of Iceberg Slim, a pimp and all-round rascal who wrote books detailing his version of street life. I live in a society that tolerates any kind of awfulness if it's written plainly on a page, but recoils the moment it's depicted in song. Won't someone think of the babies?!

Aside from Dave Mustaine, a few other heavy pals are roped in to help. Max Cavalera (Sepultura) roars the refrain to 'All Love Is Lost', whilst Lamb Of God's Randy Blythe is on hand to lend some heft to 'Walk With Me', a true highlight. In truth, though, Ice T doesn't need too much window-dressing; his declamatory, hyper-aggressive delivery is the perfect match for Body Count's riffing. This is a band who make their instruments sound like power tools, and yet there's no shortage of finesse there. Indeed, 'Raining In Blood / Postmortem 2017' is probably the best Slayer cover I've heard, and it really works with (new) rapped verses. (NB - for those squinting at the tracklist, I am happy to report that 'Here I Go Again' isn't a reinterpretation of the Whitesnake arena-botherer of the same name.)

Still, I think Bloodlust reserves its strongest meat until the final furlong of the album. 'No Lives Matter' is a provocative title, and true to form, it's a slamming dose of focused, righteous rage. It's preceded by a short monologue by Ice T on the vacuity of the phrase 'all lives matter', which is succinct and spot on. I don't know how anyone can tune into the news or scroll through a social media feed without coming away with the notion that institutional racism is not a bug but a feature of American law enforcement. In a similar vein, 'Black Hoodie' - the number that piqued my interest in Bloodlust - is a two-fisted take-down of racial profiling by, you guessed it, law enforcement (NB - I mention American policing specifically in this review, because that's what Body Count are talking about, but things are far from perfect here in jolly old England). 'Black Hoodie' is the best track on Bloodlust - a chattering verse riff married to a doomy chorus, and Ice T spitting like he wants to strangle a motherfucker.

I would not listen to this album whilst in charge of a motor vehicle. I could not listen to this album when reading a book. When would I indulge in a spot of Bloodlust? Working out at the gym, preparing to enter a cage fight, and doing my taxes. The Body Count of Bloodlust does not strike against its enemies with surgical precision - it sledgehammers them into submission, and doesn't let up. Strange, then, that an album shot through with such a bleak strain of reality is simultaneously as affirming - and fun - as Bloodlust is, but that's testament to the skills of Ice T and Body Count. Powerful stuff.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Death Walks Behind You - Atomic Rooster

Provenance: I heard a version of 'The Devil's Answer' on some completely random rock compilation that also featured INXS and Hootie & the Blowfish. I liked it, so when I came across a CD version of this album that included two versions of 'The Devil's Answer' as bonus tracks (as far as I'm aware, it was only ever released as a single in the UK), I thought to myself, what the heck, let's have a bash at some of their other stuff. Also, you can't fault using a William Blake monotype as cover art.

Review: After the gossamer-light ululations of Kate Bush, we're back down on terra-very much-firma with the clunking fist of Atomic Rooster. The band look every bit as typical and anonymous as you expect them too - like three replacement members of Steppenwolf, or indeed, absolutely anyone from Cactus - and don't make any surprise moves on the musical front either. Another early 1970s 'eavy and 'umble outfit with a few proggy pretensions. File next to virtually every other band of the era aside from Black Sabbath, who at least had the good grace not to lard their nascent doom-metal with lashings of organ. Every fucking band of this time thought a big ol' Hammond was the key to sounding portentous, when really the answer was feed your bassist too much cheese before bedtime and then let him write lyrics about the resultant experience.

This is all a bit unfair with regards to Atomic Rooster - or, at the very least, Death Walks Behind You - because I think it's a top quality album. Just because I've heard a gajillion bands crawling their way through the doped-up sludge rock ooze of the early 1970s doesn't mean that there aren't a few good'uns amongst them. It's true that I spent years trying to convince myself that Deep Purple were decent when they actually weren't, but some, like the Groundhogs, or Mountain, or the Edgar Broughton Band, or even Uriah Heep did something neat enough or funny enough to distinguish them from the patchouli-powered peloton. So, what distinguishes Atomic Rooster's sophomore effort from the likes of Leaf Hound, Elias Hulk, et al.?

The answer - songs, dear boys, songs! Whilst many of their peers seemed content so merely pen frameworks for their semi-improvised jamming (yawn), the Atomic Rooster lads had the good grace to actually write some tunes. I'm sure a goddamn Night Sun album sounds great when your whacked off your gourd, but in the mundane environs my front room in 2019, I'm unlikely to take too many journeys to the centre of the mind assisted by sparkling water and Glacier Fruits. And thus, the music has to stand or fall by its own terms.

Death Walks Behind You starts almost like something from King Crimson's Red, albeit not quite so wilfully oblique, a minor-key piano theme jutting against some dissonant ambient noise, but then it crashes into an unexpectedly funky chorus riff, one that manages to be both catchy and heavy at the same time. The verses are good as well; a descending chord sequence that sounds like a demonic inversion of Chicago's '25 or 6 to 4'. It builds tension admirably, with the release coming in a reprise of the chorus. This is cool! The next track isn't so great, seeing as it sounds a bit like a lumpen version of Yes' 'Roundabout', or perhaps a Focus outtake where Thijs van Leer forgot to bring his flute along, but it's okay as far as rock instrumentals of this vintage are concerned, plus it's called 'Vug' so I sense the band didn't think too much of it either. It is certainly 'eavy though!

However, here's a decent joint on the docket - 'Tomorrow Night', which actually gave Atomic Rooster a UK top twenty hit. Thematically it's a slight departure from the rather chesty boasts about sexual conquests made by many of these spectacularly hairy groups, as it introduces notes of doubt and insecurity into the mix. It's still delivered with stridency by guitarist / vocalist John Du Cann (whose rich low tenor delivery is very appealing), but it fits in with an undertow of existential confusion that runs throughout Death Walks Behind You. At this juncture, I feel I should also mention that Du Cann's rhythm work on the album is really fine, abhorring anything too finicky in favour of a sledgehammer attack, often barrelling huge power chords at the listener in ack-ack bursts. If anything, drummer Paul Hammond is the busiest, his combination of heft and jazzy nous a welcome contribution. Somewhere in the middle is the talented, tragic Vincent Crane (organ / piano), who often complements Du Cann but allows himself the odd Keith Emerson-flavoured wallop on the keyzzz.

I guess it's the forward motion, the propulsion behind many of these tracks, that makes Death Walks Behind You such a listenable confection. 'Sleeping For Years' is a proper standout; in other hands this could have devolved into some interminable head number, but here it whacks you around the chops a bit and then lets you go to enjoy the next offering. That offering is 'Can't Take No More', which sounds a helluva lot like the Electric Light Orchestra's 'Don't Bring Me Down'. Songs sound like other songs, I get that, but Jeff Lynne of ELO fame was added as a writer to The Hives' 'Go Right Ahead' after it was recorded, because the band thought it sounded so similar.

'Go Right Ahead' was released in 2012. 'Don't Bring Me Down' was released in 1979. 'Can't Take No More' was released in 1971.

Death Walks Behind You doesn't really falter in quality as an album until right at the end - 'Nobody Else', the penultimate track, is built around a lovely, plaintive piano theme from Crane - and it's only with closing instrumental 'Gershatzer' that it's a bit ragged and disjointed. It's the kind of thing I guess The Nice did fairly well, and I don't like The Nice. Still, if you can stomach the odd indulgent instrumental for the sake of a collection of high quality, slightly foreboding and melodically strong hard rock, Death Walks Behind You should be on the Crimbo list.

Oh, and 'The Devil's Answer' still rocks!

Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Kick Inside - Kate Bush

Provenance: Ever since I was young I loved 'Wuthering Heights'. My parents had it on a CD compilation of 1970s hits, and along with cuts by ELO, CCS and the Tom Robinson Band, I would play 'Wuthering Heights' incessantly. Even at a tender age I could detect there was something a bit off-kilter about it.

Did I get The Kick Inside before I went to university? Odds are that I did, because our student bar had a video juke box containing about three songs (seemingly), one of which was 'Wuthering Heights'. It was on all the time, and began to drive me nuts. However, I did make a friend through a shared appreciation of Kate Bush, and I was able to introduce her work to a housemate who became an ardent fan.

Anyway, it was a bit of an anomalous purchase for me around that time, as I was busy having my brain smashed to cottage cheese by the likes of Judas Priest and Dio.

Review: A perfect album. I can't fault it. The worst thing you can do if you're not already familiar with The Kick Inside is to stop reading this bilge and give it a play. Nothing I can say can do this magical platter justice. Even when reviewing the most workmanlike collection I am nagged by the sense that writing about music is akin to dancing about architecture, a suspicion only heightened by playing through this album.

What could one possibly object to? I've been met with naysayers in the past who don't like the high register Bush sings in throughout much of The Kick Inside. I find this to be one of the most appealing aspects of Bush's execution here, however; the sheer ease with which she soars up to the most dizzying heights only serves to bolster an overall sense of ethereality. Here is a voice that celebrates the sensual, the weird and the uncanny elements of life with an almost explosive joy. It's the same breezy virtuosity one feels that they see in sporting performances like those of Simone Biles or Ronaldinho, when the seemingly impossible is delivered with all the thrust and playfulness of a person revelling in their own ability.

Oh, I also think the saxophone sounds a bit blatty and high in the mix on 'The Saxophone Song'. That's all.

How, though, can you gainsay the quality evident in the floaty, woozy opener 'Moving' (dedicated to Bush's dance teacher, the late Lindsay Kemp), and the herky-jerky carnival ride that is 'Kite'? How does one wrap their head around the fact that Bush wrote 'The Man with the Child In His Eyes', an achingly beautiful song pregnant with quiet mystery, at the age of thirteen? Without wishing to dwell on age too much, it's worth remembering that Bush hadn't even reached twenty when The Kick Inside was released. I barely knew how to put two chords together at that age; meanwhile, Bush was creating miniature masterpieces and name-checking freakin' Gurdjieff.

One aspect of The Kick Inside that might put off some listeners is that it's a very self-contained universe. Which doesn't mean that it leaves no room for interpretation; Bush's allusiveness and readiness with esoteric subjects compels the listener to fill in the gaps. However, everything feels like it exists within the world of this album, and has little relationship with a tangible world of things. In much the same way that HP Lovecraft's or Emily Dickinson's writing seemed a step or two away from regular human experience, so Bush sounds like she's singing into existence a Neverland realm. Personally, I find this aspect of Bush's work utterly addictive, but I can see how it may also seem obtuse.

Another thing; this is definitely music for the head, and not for the hips. In fact, the only people who can dance to the music on The Kick Inside are drunk goth girls and Kate Bush herself. Stylistically, it shares with Carole King's Tapestry (another triumph, incidentally) both earnestness and intimacy, and if you strip away some of the more maximalist flourishes of Bush's work, a solid piano-led pop sensibility; but where King's articulated experiences are somewhat more earthbound and recognisable, Bush zags towards cerebral and arcane subjects. What of this pop-sensibility? It's probably closer to the baroque pop of a band like the Zombies, and a dash proggier by my reckoning, but Bush's keen ear for a quirky - but catchy - melody results in an album laden with vocal hooks. A favourite of mine are Bush's interpolations in the chorus of 'Oh To Be In Love', which skims over the top of the music in a way reminiscent of Ry Cooder's sublime guitar work on Captain Beefheart's 'Abba Zabba'.

I don't have much else to say. Just buy this, or virtually any of Bush's other albums, because even when the quality is uneven, there's something interesting there. But first, do yourself a favour; dim the lights, light some candles, run a bath, bust out that family-size mint Aero you've been saving and soundtrack your self-care with The Kick Inside.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

A Capella - Todd Rundgren

Provenance: My brother bought this for me as part of a three-album set of Todd Rundgren's Warner Brothers releases.

Having dwelt a fair bit on some pretty straightforward classic rock releases, I asked my brother what I should review next. His suggestion was A Capella, which certainly fits the bill of being a wee bit left-field, because...

Review: ...every sound on this album was created using Todd Rundgren's own voice. It's not entirely free of instrumentation - the liner notes of this release note the use of the Emulator sampling keyboard, which was deployed to manipulate those sounds into chords or percussive noises. On the other hand, this was put together back in 1984 and used entirely analogue recording techniques.

Of course, a capella performances are nothing new. The phrase 'capella' derives from the Italian 'chapel', and so the root of unaccompanied singing in western tradition is linked to sacred choral performance. This gives me a good excuse to embed the following video, which I regard as rather remarkable:

In African-American traditions there is, of course, gospel; its own overt religiousness hardly proving a barrier to becoming popular, both in the past and epitomised by modern ensembles such as Sweet Honey in the Rock. (NB - for a provocative take on the origins of gospel, jazz musician and academic Willie Ruff has got you covered, claiming that its roots can be found in Hebridean line-singing.)

Cutting across ethnic lines, although again beginning in African-American communities, the doo-wop explosion of the middle of the 20th century began with corner singing, though instrumentation was often added in the studio. Typically, doo-wop groups would feature a lead tenor taking the melody, a bass voice to provide rhythmic underpinning, and a combination of high tenor leading down to baritone to fill out the backing sound, going 'top to bottom' in range. Hit up groups such as the Orioles, the Moonglows and early Drifters if you want a taste. I haven't even gotten onto barbershop quartets, floor singing in folk music, field hollers, or non-Anglo ensembles such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo - but the world of vocal performance is rich and varied.

However, what Todd Rundgren has done here feels almost ridiculous. My first reaction, when my brother told me about the concept behind A Capella, was "why go to all the bother?". Especially if you're going to mash and twist your vocals through a series of electronics just to produce the desired effect. On reflection, I have an inkling that it was precisely this ability to manipulate sound in such a way that appealed to Rundgren; that, and the sheer challenge of creating such a weird album. For someone who has genre-hopped his entire career, it does seem of a piece.

The best thing about A Capella is how damn fun it is. Opener 'Blue Orpheus' is absolutely stunning; the audacity to produce something that sounds so startlingly odd still has me laughing every time I hit play. I can't easily describe it; perhaps like a cut from Yes' 90125 album, if Trevor Horn made the band ditch their instruments. It's all the more remarkable that it has such a strong melodic sense, the lead vocal soaring over a backing more multi-layered than anything Queen or 10cc ever managed to conjure up.

Indeed, even after repeated listens, the sounds leaping from the speakers can still surprise; the chorus to anti-war paean 'Johnny Jingo', on its last pass, is overwhelming in its immensity. The effect is dimmed a little on the ballad 'Pretending to Care' and the only cover in the collection, if only because it's are the kind of song one can imagine performed on piano in a nightclub or cocktail lounge; low-key, and only a slight shuffle away from being sung unaccompanied. Nonetheless, the curtain of wordless 'oohs' and 'aahs' Rundgren stitches together to recreate what might've been a lush string arrangement is killer.

My personal favourite on A Capella is 'Hodja', a dizzying admixture of doo-wop and gospel, its meticulous creation shot through with a lively sense of spontaneity thanks to some delightful scat singing. Some of the joints on this piece are pretty tough to categorise - 'Lost Horizon' is Sensual World era Kate Bush meeting So's Peter Gabriel crossed with the shiny white soul romanticism of Hall & Oates. Meanwhile, 'Something To Fall Back On' sounds like one of Kenny Loggins' dancier numbers, if he had the Bee Gees backing him up. I'm at a complete loss as to how Rundgren was able to recreate the organ on this track, given the technical limitations he was dealing with at the time (though, of course, actually at the time, Rundgren probably found the Emulator to be an incredible, labour-saving piece of kit).

As each track unrolls, one can't help but be awed at Rundgren's facility and expertise, even if the song doesn't quite strike home. I'm not overly keen on either the Bloody Mary fable 'Lockjaw' or 'Miracle in the Bazaar' and its cod-Orientalism but these are rare moments of filler, and in fairness 'Lockjaw' did sound like fun to put together (but - if it was just a few notches less goofy it could easily have been a cut from a late-era Tom Waits cut). 'Honest Work' is a touching and poignant folk ballad, that's the 'straightest' thing on A Capella and I can't figure out whether it would benefit from a more maximalist approach or whether it would ruin the sentiment. The confection ends on a high, the bouncy, joyous 'Mighty Love' (originally by the Detroit Spinners, the only cover here) taking us home with gospel-inflected soul power.

What a peculiar artefact A Capella is. It certainly stands out as unique in my collection, if only because nobody else that I rate would be bonkers enough to put in the Stakhanovite effort. In any other hands this would be 'experimental' (=unlistenable) but Rundgren has too keen a pop ear to fall into that trap. A dazzling, baffling testament to a singular and restless genius, I can't recommend A Capella enough.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

(Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Provenance: As a young guitar player I wanted to play 'Free Bird'.

Review: I almost decided to go with something by Electric Wizard or Lee Dorsey this week, as I couldn't be arsed with this album title. Even the band's name gives me a minor headache. So, henceforth, (Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd) will be Pronounced..., and I may well just stick to 'Skynyrd' for the band.

It's my belief that Lynyrd Skynyrd are one of the more unfairly maligned bands out there. Certainly, their current incarnation does them little favours, having seemingly succumbed to the temptations of the Nuge crowd a decade ago with a wretched platter called God & Guns. In all probability it was a savvy move; it resonates both with the classic rock crowd (a conservative old bunch) and the fans who didn't quite get them the first time around. A victim of their own success, one might say, as Skynyrd are often portrayed as the archetypal white trash favourite, their semi-idiot fans drunkenly braying for 'Free Bird' a whole two songs into their shows.

At least in the early days, before little brother took over as the frontman, Skynyrd were a more nuanced operation. 'Saturday Night Special' was as anti-handgun as anything out there; 'Tuesday's Gone' and 'I Need You' are wonderful slices of balladry, teetering just about on this side of maudlin; 'Sweet Home Alabama' is much more ambiguous than its title suggests; and of course, they beat the Sex Pistols to the punch by slagging off their own record label with the incredible riff-monster 'Workin' For MCA'.

So, here's where it all began - with some wonderfully greasy drumming that kicks off both Pronounced... and 'I Ain't The One', a tough blues-rocker that serves as the template for a raft of Skynyrd tunes. They would get a little more complex on subsequent releases, but it's really all here; swaggering riffs interpolated by wiry, slippery blues soloing and Billy Powell's honky-tonk piano. The cherry on top is Ronnie Van Zandt's vocal; he has no real range, aside from a switch-up to a country falsetto holler, and one imagines his speaking voice wasn't too far from his singing voice. But that's the charm! His voice is no more or less 'honest' or 'authentic' than Jobriath's, or Gladys Knight's or Ian Curtis', but here it feels entirely at a piece with the style, context and ideas behind the music.

It is this unpretentious and plaintive delivery that entirely elevates the otherwise slightly pedestrian 'Tuesday's Gone' - a big ol' ballad about leaving your woman in the 'By The Time I Get to Memphis' mould - into a real heartwrencher, and good enough for Metallica to cover. It's also an effective deadpan, as on the comic-buffo 'Gimme Three Steps' (about approaching the wrong guy's woman in a bar); you can almost picture the raised eyebrow as he intones "ah said, excuuuuse me" just before a lead break. If I am going to bring authenticity into play, it's that as a native son of Alabama Van Zandt totally gets away with the couplet "Hey there fella / With the hair coloured yella". And by 'gets away', I mean it's a real kicky little moment in an already knockabout number.

Now, I know that 'Free Bird' is part of the gilded iconography of southron rock, alongside 'Whippin' Post' by the Allman Brothers, the band's very own 'Sweet Home Alabama' and Charlie Daniels' deranged Twitter feed, but for my money the better song is 'Simple Man'. It's in the same vein of cornpone balladry as 'Tuesday's Gone', but features some satisfyingly crunchy choruses and a sentimental lyric that's atypical in classic rock which recounts the advice the singer received from his mama about living a good life. Nothing here to rival Montaigne in terms of profundity you understand, but it's direct and sincere.

It's about this time that Pronounced... sags into a rhythm that approaches the formulaic, but there's nuggets of gold strewn throughout the back end, such as Powell's Dr John impression on 'Things Goin' On'. Of this little bunch of tracks that lead up to 'Free Bird', 'Poison Whiskey' is probably the most interesting for Skynyrd fans as it most obviously points towards the sound on their next album, Second Helping. There's a muscularity and aggression in the attack, and it introduces the knotty turnarounds that festoon Second Helping, which incidentally make some of the best Skynyrd songs deceptively tricksy to play.

I feel like it's a hopeless task writing about 'Free Bird', thanks to its ubiquity and notoriety. I'll say this, then; the verses, underscored by Hammond organ, are Skynyrd doing their best Allmans impersonation, and I like 'em best when they're sounding like Skynyrd. It's not bad, but on an album with two slower-paced numbers already in the mix, it drags a little. The lengthy coda, however, consisting of a galloping guitar dual, remains a treat. What impresses are not the pyrotechnics on display - it's not actually a particularly difficult solo in technical terms - but how it's constructed. The different motifs locking together, weaving in and out of each other, building both momentum and tension - and then the final release (albeit slightly anticlimactic) are what makes 'Free Bird' a perennial. You want proof? Here's some proof.

Pronounced... is a minor classic, albeit one that exists in the shadow of the monster it spawned. In this scribe's humble opinion Skynyrd actually get better on Second Helping, but that's all for another time. Yeah, this is really first-rate deep-fried southern rock, and not half as boneheaded as you may have been led to expect.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

J Geils Band - J Geils Band

Provenance: During Sixth Form I formed a group, to play at our school band bash, called Centerfold. The ostensible reason for doing so was to play stuff that wasn't punk or metal (the two flavours of music available at the band bash), but really it was so I could play the J Geils Band song 'Centerfold' to a large-ish audience.

In that respect it was a success, but in most others the performance was not just an abject failure, but a litany of failures. Nevertheless, today I am able to battle through the still-present fug of embarrassment to get back on the J Geils Band horse. Here's their first album, and won't you just look at these cool rockin' daddies - hotcha! Hotcha!

Review: Basically, I became mildly obsessed by the song 'Centerfold' after hearing it at a pub quiz. Not long after this revelation, I learned that the band once invited Lester Bangs onstage to play a typewriter solo. A band worth following up with, you'd think - and I duly did, a mere sixteen years later. Other stuff got in the way I guess. Anyway, I had come to be aware of the fact that early on, the J Geils Band were more a gritty R&B band than the slightly New Wavey 'Centerfold' would suggest. That's fine, as my tastes certainly skew towards gritty R&B, plus they had a harmonica player called Magic Dick, which frankly ticks a lot of boxes.

I'm partial to a spot of roughhouse blooz 'n' roll, and that's essentially what this is. Somewhere west of Dr Feelgood and north of Albert King circa his Born Under a Bad Sign Stax release, it's unpretentious, knockabout fun with not a little craft. I like the fact that vocalist Peter Wolf doesn't confuse histrionics with expression, and I'm delighted by Magic Dick's fluid, buzzy interpolations. He even gets his own showcase of his own called 'Ice Breaker', which has hints of Booker T & the MGs. It's a bit odd to sequence this in at track two, though. Was Magic Dick their big selling point? He certainly blows a good harp.

Despite J Geils Band scoring precisely nul points in the originality stakes, it's testament to the band's facility with a twelve-bar that their original compositions stack up well to their interpretations of others. The gear-jamming anthem 'Hard Drivin' Man' (gotta drop that 'g', baby) is the highlight of side one, and has a suitably top-down, open-highway feel to it. It is, however, run quite close by the crawlin' king snake strut of 'Serves You Right to Suffer', and it's nice to hear John Lee Hooker done well in a band setting. Part of JLH's charm was his looseness, which was often the first thing that bands covering his songs would discard. It's great to hear the J Geils Band have the confidence in the material to stretch out and keep proceedings simmering away at the right temperature.

However, having praised the songcraft evidently in existence within the J Geils Band, the true standout of the whole album is the cut that gets side two cooking. I already loved the Otis Rush original of 'Homework', but this hard-charging, snakey version is solid gold. To follow it up with a bippin' and boppin' version of 'First I Look at the Purse' (a hit in 1965 for The Contours) is pure filth. The start of side two of J Geils Band can go toe-to-toe with anything. Likewise, when you decide to round off proceedings with the Albert Collins instrumental cut 'Sno-Cone' (according to the liner notes here, co-written with The Big Bopper - helloooooo baaaaaaby!) you could've packed the intervening ten minutes like a sock of shit and I'll still be giving this disc a rave. Okay, so 'On Borrowed Time' might not be the greatest blue-light ballad ever written, but it's a welcome change of pace. I love everything else.

As I mentioned before, there is nothing new under the sun here, but when it's this muscular, unpretentious and tightly arranged (all words that can describe me, incidentally) there's nothing to do other than sit back and admire a job well done. The J Geils Band might sound like a bar band, but it's the best damn bar band west of the Danube. Buy this album.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Liege And Lief - Fairport Convention

Provenance: My memory is fuzzy on this, though I recall buying Liege and Lief for my dad at some point. That's how I first heard it; and it obviously left an impression, because I bought it for myself many years later.

Certainly, if it wasn't for dad I wouldn't have an inkling about the folk rock scene. The first band of that ilk I remember hearing were Steeleye Span, probably their Below the Salt album. I was less familiar with Fairport Convention but distinctly recall Babbacombe Lee being in my parents' vinyl collection. In a slightly odd twist, during my MA I would live a few yards from the prison where they tried to hang John "Babbacombe" Lee - three times, if I recall correctly - before a halt was called to proceedings.

But enough rambling about Babbacombe Lee, it says at the top of this article that I'm reviewing Liege and Lief, so I'd better start paying some attention.

Review: Iconoclastic. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of Liege and Lief, it's worth noting a bit of context. I would direct any reader with the slightest interest in the British folk scene to pick up a copy of JP Bean's oral history called Singing From the Floor. This book both manages to dispel and enhance the perception that folk is an austere, scholarly pursuit riven by purists and gatekeepers of the worst kind. I say enhance, because a few major figures certainly fit the bill. Ewan MacColl in particular comes across as something of a martinet, obsessed by the technicalities of folksong and running the rule over which songs were 'acceptable' to be performed at his clubs. I should say that despite his stated orthodoxies and the faintly ridiculous 'finger-in-the-ear' style of singing that entered popular culture, MacColl and others like Bert Lloyd did much to preserve a dying tradition, and in MacColl's case to contribute some fine songs of his own.

Where Singing From the Floor dispels the notion of folk as altogether too stuffy is in its depiction of the Soho scene. Here, young British performers mingled with American counterparts such as Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank; ideas around tradition and authenticity were a little looser, and I don't think its surprising that the more innovative musicians in folk - Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Roy Harper et al - emerged from this crowd. This is also the crowd that gave birth, in stuttering form, to Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief is Fairport Convention's fourth album. Founding members Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were here joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick, singer Sandy Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks, the replacement for Martin Lamble after his death in a road accident in which every member of the band at the time except Denny were involved. Whilst coming to terms with loss and injury, bassist Hutchings buried himself in researching traditional music archives housed in Cecil Sharp House. Denny was already familiar with much traditional music, and Swarbrick had a knowledge of folk that Thompson would describe as 'encyclopaedic'. What they subsequently did - take music that stretched back centuries in origin and electrify it - would prove to be a game changer.

From the perspective of 2019, where it feels like every genre has been run through the electro-wringer (though electro-swing definitely shouldn't be a thing), Liege and Lief might be considered quaint. Certainly, some early rock 'n' roll sounds a bit tame to my ears, even as I strain to discern its importance in the development of popular music. Given that folk already has a somewhat unthreatening patina to it, I was worried that a reappraisal of Liege and Lief would be full of caveats. I'm happy to say that they're not necessary.

In some ways, this record is wilder than anything floating around at the moment, even in the edgier 'hard folk' circles. Firstly, the electric backing to songs that already sound unearthly transport Liege and Lief into the realms of psychedelia. This weirdness is heightened by the fantastical nature of some of the lyrics - 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin' being standout examples of songs that read like trippy, twisted fairy tales. The playing is exemplary - Mattacks' backing to 'Reynardine', for example, which consists of little else than slow swells on the cymbal, is breathtaking in its simplicity and ability to create a sense of otherworldliness. The truly mindbending element in the mix is Swarbrick's electric fiddle, which at times drones away like John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'; at other times, it simply kicks free from gravity and takes flight. The mid-album medley of 'The Lark in the Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunter's Jig / Toss The Feathers' is a blistering showcase of Swarbrick's enormous talent, but the band behind him is no less facile with the shifting tempos and time signatures.

And yet, in my opinion Swarbrick's incandescent talent is eclipsed by that of Sandy Denny. Hands down, Denny is my favourite female vocalist. My dad might argue for Maddy Prior's powerhouse vocals, others might highlight Annie Briggs' almost bell-like purity. Both excellent singers, but neither could inhabit a song with the same expressiveness as Denny does on Liege and Lief. Tender, strident, doleful, commanding, playful - whatever the song - hell, whatever that particular lyric demands, Denny delivers. The most dazzling example is the murder ballad 'Matty Groves', which Denny tackles as if it's a play and she's somehow wound up acting as every character.

Furthermore, just in case you weren't convinced, she repeats the trick on 'Tam Lin', a 16th century ballad that's transformed here into a spiky, ominous, lysergic rocker. There comes, at around two minutes, the moment where Swarbrick's violin opens up in delicate counterpoint to Denny's vocal melody and the feeling it engenders can only be described as blissful. The constantly changing dynamics of 'Tam Lin' means that the song seems to morph around Denny's moods, making it the most sophisticated track on Liege and Lief and the one that, for my money, packs the most wallop. I don't think that I've ever heard anything quite like it anywhere else.

Have I convinced you? Do you still automatically associate folk with fustiness, beards and real ale? Or can you begin to imagine it - at least in the guise of Liege and Lief - as a gateway to that which is inherently and indigenously strange about British folk ways? Folk can sometimes seem hobbled by its homeliness and rather old-fashioned insistence on telling stories; Liege and Lief serves as a startling reminder as to the power, vitality, violence and peculiarity of British traditional song. Hell, it should be on the National Curriculum. A peerless, important work.