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.