Sunday, 16 February 2020

11 - The Smithereens

Provenance: I'm screwing my eyes up in concentration here as I struggle to work out how I've ended up with only one Roy Harper but three Smithereens albums at the time of writing. Hell, I have two (should've been three) Autograph albums.

There's a mere wisp of an idea blowing around in my brainbox that it relates to a message board thread about great local bands who never really got the national exposure they were due. I believe the Smithereens received a couple of mentions from New Jersey based posters; enough to pique my interest at any rate. Autograph aside, that message board's hit rate has been decent, and evidently Smithereens albums weren't exactly going for a king's ransom as I bought three in one fell swoop.

First impressions aren't good though, are they? That's some really desperate cover art. Why they even went with an Ocean's 11 theme is mystifying, as there's nary a hint of Rat Pack to be found anywhere in the Smithereen's back catalogue, as far as I'm aware. The only thing I can think of is that the New Jersey-based band shared a home base with some of the Chairman of the Board's friends, associates and acquaintances.

Review: Not bad. Not the kind of thing I would usually go for, but 11 is listenable enough to be on my iPod as a change of pace. 

How would I describe the sound of the Smithereens on 11? They are right up there in the 'superior bar band' category that is topped by the E Street Band, and often includes acts such as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Graham Parker & the Rumour. Definitely, then, an impression that this is music played by blue collar strivers, though with less of the soul influence than some of the acts in the genre. You could also say that they're college rock-adjacent, though at the noisier end of the spectrum; you could imagine the Smithereens playing on a bill with Camper Van Beethoven before slinking off to the bus to listen to AC/DC. Lastly, there's a discernible power-pop strain to 11, as most of the tracks are built around strong, catchy melodies. 

So, some nice influences in the mix, but the fact that I can so readily locate them probably contributes to why they were never world beaters - a lack of originality. Undoubtedly decent crafters of song, the Smithereens just lack that spark or originality or a signature twist that says "this is a Smithereens record." No great shame in that at all. Instead, we get rock music with its foundations on display, rendered here very competently, sometimes superbly, and almost always enjoyably. 

Oh, oh, I'm so downbeat! Look, here are the good things - firstly, singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio devotes himself to writing about love and loss in an admirably single-minded manner. Romance is always a good topic in popular music, and it's served very well here on the quieter tracks such as 'Blue Period', tracks that invariably use the cool major-minor trick I consider to be the hallmark of all the best love songs. I've been listening to a lot of 1960s pop recently, and I'm hearing a lot of what makes the best of that era so appealing; alongside the cute chord changes, there's some neat harmonising and judicious use of female backing vocals to be found - 'Baby Be Good' features all three.

The late DiNizio also wins out as the front for all this material, as he sounds like the kind of guy who had his heart broken a few times. He can sound defiant, such as on the stadium rocker standout 'A Girl Like You', but mostly he's the friendzone incarnate. Perhaps not the most flattering characterisation, true, yet 11 would suffer if the Smithereens' singer was some alpha-male heartthrob. All this comes to a head on the curious 'William Wilson', which despite being in possession of an ambiguous lyric, comes across like a Gen X retread of the Kinks' hero worship number 'David Watts'. (DiNizio's own explanation of 'William Wilson' hardly helps - it's variously about Brian Wilson, an Edgar Allan Poe story and the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another point in the Smithereens' favour is that 11 benefits from a punchy, chunky production sound. Just as the best power-pop often possesses a hint of venom amidst all the prettiness and candyfloss, DiNizio's wimpy descants strut from the speakers like puffed-up beachfront beefcakes. It's all rather larky! 

It's just a shame, then, that even on such a short collection - it clocks in at under 35 minutes - 11 runs out of puff on the last two numbers. Firstly, 'Maria Elena' features what sounds like an accordion. I don't even care if it isn't an accordion (I think it is), I dislike accordions in rock music almost as much as I dislike whistling. Leave accordions to zydeco musicians, French street performers and Peter Sarstedt, that's what I say. Finally, 'Kiss Your Tears Away' means that 11 wheezes to its conclusion - no amount of jangly, raga-inflected guitar can save what is a soporific and low energy workout, even if DiNizio is at his most sensitively simpering best. My advice would be to skip back to the start and give 'A Girl Like You' one final blast - it's just that good.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Beggars Banquet - The Rolling Stones

Provenance: I received this as a 17th birthday present from two friends, Stef and Amy. Pretty good going for two 16 year-olds who admittedly didn't share my taste in music.

Review: The Rolling Stones have floated around my consciousness ever since I can recall being aware of music, albeit in compilation formats. This was my first Rolling Stones studio album, and it was one of the few CDs that followed me to university. As such, I've listened to it a lot, and it's fair to say that I'm deeply smitten. However, as with many ageing partnerships, one party (me) is starting to get a little rattled by some of Beggars Banquet's peculiarities.

The first one is that I simply don't like what is probably the most celebrated track on the album, 'Sympathy For the Devil'. Just as I don't like whistling on record, neither do I enjoy the weird hooting that plagues half the track. I could possibly tolerate a few bars of hoots here and there, I'm not an unreasonable man; and I positively love 'Sympathy's...' sulphurous lyrics and the hypnotic, insistent candomble rhythm. Yet I almost find myself dreading the commencement of the hoots, because it smothers all those elements that otherwise make the lead-off number a corker. For what it's worth, those nabobs of taste and sensibility over at Rolling Stone rank this the 32nd greatest song ever, so what do I know?

The other issues I have go a little deeper than simply not liking a musical choice or two. A good fifty years and change has passed since Beggars Banquet came into being, so I wish to be careful that I don't slip into anachronism here, but I also claim it as my right in 2020 to find 'Stray Cat Blues' unpleasant. I wasn't too keen on glam-metal guttersnipes Faster Pussycat making approving noises about underage girls, and the same applies to the Stones, no matter that they're treated as the more august and accomplished act. The shame here is that 'Stray Cat Blues' is a smashing rock song, a grinding, swaggering thing, but it's completely undermined by the grim subject matter.

An extremely feeble justification, perhaps, is that 'Stray Cat Blues' is documentary-as-art, a chronicling of the spirit of the age. Because in the world of rock, vulnerable girls were undoubtedly being abused by men, many of whom we now consider to be national treasures. We're happy to (rightly) shun the predator who farted out bubblegum like 'I'm the Leader of the Gang', but less keen to mete out the same treatment to the guys behind 'Space Oddity' and 'Stairway to Heaven', whose transgressions may have been more opportunist or incidental, but which would hardly escape censure if they were carried out by the Average Joe living down the street. Will popular music face its reckoning, or are we just going to wait for these alleged abusers to die quietly?

My other big problem with Beggars Banquet is one that I feel is a little more complex. 'Prodigal Son' but just be my favourite cut on the album - a faithfully downhome recreation of Reverend Robert Wilkins' blues parable. It's the song that pushed me to try open tuning for the first time, opening up new musical vistas for this bodger. So what's my beef? Well, at what point does a tribute, or an attempt at authenticity cross over into something a tad more...problematic? The Rolling Stones made much hay from assimilating / appropriating / popularising (delete as applicable) black blues and R&B music, and in fairness to them Jagger and Richards have never hesitated to publicise the names behind the music. Undoubtedly, all blues-based music contains its own gestures and semiotics, one of which is the almost ubiquitous 'mid-lantic' voice adopted by British exponents, which I have no problem with. However, on 'Prodigal Son' it feels like Jagger takes it a step or two too far, and steps over a line into minstrelsy. One can be generous and hope that the intentions were pure, but the fact remains: it's an uncomfortable listen.

I always think of Beggars Banquet as the most bluesy of the Stones' albums, but closer examination suggests that only about half the joints qualify. We've got the aforementioned 'Prodigal Son', the grisly 'Parachute Woman', 'Dear Doctor' and the beautiful, pining 'No Expectations'. Maybe my mistake is down to these being my personal picks. Nothing else, aside from 'Sympathy For the Devil' is bad, but 'Jig-Saw Puzzle' floats by a little and the country gospel closer 'Salt of the Earth' feels a mite wan and insincere for my tastes. There's no fucking with 'Street Fighting Man' though, which contains a bit of welcome bite and snap, plus the cryptic lyric 'Well now what can a poor boy do / 'Cept for sing in a rock 'n' roll band / 'Cause in sleepy London Town there ain't no place for a street fighting man'. I wonder whether, given the unrest on the continent, and the protests against the Vietnam War in America, Jagger and Richards weren't throwing a couple of jabs at the relative torpor of London? The Stones do politics, eh?

I'm sorry I haven't talked about the music so much here, because much of it is really fun. Beggars Banquet is loose, shambling and a bit scruffy in places, but hangs together through will and personality. It also contains good examples of what Keith Richards called 'acoustic glue' in his autobiography, essentially keeping an acoustic guitar strumming away whatever is happening out front in a bid to force some cohesion to proceedings. If you can stomach the shit bits, Beggars Banquet is otherwise a tour-de-force of British R&B. It's a big 'if', though.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

S.F. Sorrow - The Pretty Things

Provenance: I can't imagine I bought this album without reading about it somewhere. It's very possible that it's another Classic Rock job, although what works against that theory is the fact that I like this album.

Review: I like this album, I love this album, and I think I instinctively knew I'd regard this as something special the moment I heard the weird bent note that serves as an introduction to S.F. Sorrow. As with many wonderful 1960s offerings, where the studio became a playground of the imagination, on this collection the Pretty Things conjured up a raft of sounds that I've yet to hear on any other recording. Thus, I can identify the song 'S.F. Sorrow Is Born' within about half a second.

It's worth noting at this stage that, alongside being a landmark in British psychedelia, S.F. Sorrow is a concept album - maybe the first concept album, as we recognise them, inasmuch as the songs are thematically linked and a narrative flows throughout. As with many of their counterparts dipping their two in the lysergic end of the pop spectrum, a debt is owed to Lewis Carroll's prism of surrealism. However, the biggest IOU needs to go to the Beatles. The Pretty Things went through quite some metamorphosis to reach this point; their first two albums were raw, almost troglodytic R&B, but third album Emotions combined this with a strain of freakbeat. S.F. Sorrow feels like a further filtering of sensibility, a dawning craftsmanship to go with their undoubted energy. Also thrown into the mix is Edwardiana, which no doubt coloured the decision to shape this album around the Great War.

As with the Small Faces, the Beatles, the Hollies and especially the Kinks (who would also look backwards with The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)) there is a sensibility to all this that is peculiarly British - again, perhaps derived from the readiness of the Beatles to place Music Hall influences front and centre in their music. Even when sung in the mid-Atlantic voicing unique to popular music, it sounds British - nay, English - and never more so when you're yanked back to this dreary little island by accents that seem to have faded somewhat over the past half-century. The verses to the wonderful 'Baron Saturday', for example, are sung-spoke in an uptight, campy sneer that's most reminiscent of Peter Cook (of all people), whilst the plummy voice reading the names of those lost in action at the end of 'Private Sorrow' sounds like it belongs in a museum.

(It's probably worth a quick synopsis of the plot - halfway through my review (I'm good at structure!) - as far as I can make out: a boy called S.F. Sorrow is born; meets a girl; serves in the trenches; is then due to be reunited with the girl who is travelling to meet him on an airship that suffers the same fate as the Hindenburg; and finally, overcome with grief, retreats into a bizarre internal world until he dies alone.)

It can't be overstated how much of a sway the Beatles of Sgt. Pepper has over this album. Both 'She Says Good Morning' and 'Baron Saturday' feature choruses that would bring nods of approval from Lennon and McCartney, whilst 'Bracelets of Fingers' (superb title) starts with a harmonised intro of blissed-out "love, love, love" that suggests to the listener that, perhaps, love is all you need. However, whilst on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band the Beatles' emotional lexicon ran as far as bittersweet, the Pretty Things embrace full on bleakness. 'I See You', a number that ebbs and swells like the Moody Blues at their most stately, describes a mind succumbing to dementia, and the pulsating 'Old Man Going', underscored by some Black Sabbath guitar (yes, really) is simply harrowing. The last few tracks on S.F. Sorrow are unutterably dark, and prefigure the boom of downer rock that signalled the sunset on the Age of Aquarius brought about by Altamont and too many bad trips.

However, if I've made it all sound rather derivative, don't be fooled; there's magic on this album. I mentioned Lewis Carroll early on, but the quasi-nonsense lyrics also tip a wink to Edward Lear (and there's even a mention of a 'runcible spoon' in 'Baron Saturday', the sneakiest track on here). As mentioned before, 'Old Man Going' does sound like an ur-Sabbath at times; 'Balloon Burning' feels like a journey to the centre of the mind with its nagging, horror-show lead guitar; and perhaps best of all is 'Private Sorrow', which combines a doddery martial beat with vocals so guileless and wide-eyed that the shrapnel flying overhead transform into objects of kaleidoscopic wonderment.

It would also be remiss of me not to return to the ultimate track on S.F Sorrow, which as I mentioned earlier, completes a trifecta of misery. Yes, 'Loneliest Person' is a glum meditation on solitude but it is also the most beautiful acoustic ballad I can recall hearing in a long while, flickering briefly like the flame of a matchhead before disappearing into smoke and silence.