Saturday, 24 October 2020

Night Owl - Gerry Rafferty


Provenance: When I was in Year 4 I was selected to be one of three pupils in my school to appear on a breakfast request show at Hospital Radio Bedside in Bournemouth.

Selection was undertaken on the basis of letters we had written to the station manager, stating why we would make good radio presenters. I assume the other two wrote something funny or charming to secure their guest slots.

I, on the other hand, had written in saying that my favourite ever song was 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty. A pretty slick pick for a eight or nine year old in the mid-1990s. As it transpired, when I was asked to step up as selecta for the beleaguered and ailing patients of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, I opted for the pop-reggae of China Black's 'Searching'.

Nonetheless, my regard for 'Baker Street' never waned, and to this day I consider it to be almost perfect. It was, I think, for this reason that it took me a quarter of a century to follow up and investigate more of Rafferty's back catalogue. My fear was that 'Baker Street' was a wild one-off, and that everything else would either be bereft of any of the elements that made 'Baker Street' so special, or a pale imitation, albums clogged with desperate attempts to bottle that lightning once again.

However, I had read some heartening reviews of both City To City (parent album to 'Baker Street') and this, its follow up, 'Night Owl'. Lo and behold, both albums were available in a two CD set for some ridiculously low price, so I took the plunge. 

It doesn't end there! I played City To City and fell in love; I then faced the trepidation of spinning Night Owl (my fear of being disappointed is layered like an onion), especially given a casual remark by one of my five-a-side teammates - and local heavy rock legend - Kevin, that "nothing got close to City To City where Gerry Rafferty was concerned". Thus Night Owl sat on the shelf until a combination of lockdown and curiosity convinced me to bite the bullet. (NB - isn't that track by Temple absolutely ace?).

Review: To my mind, the best albums are those which, in addition to containing good music, impart a sense of feeling, mood, or place. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Night Owl, which is less rambunctious than its predecessor, doesn't cover as much ground stylistically but comes across as a more cohesive affair through consistently evoking a kind of autumnal twilight. Night Owl is an album to wrap yourself up in against the bite of the evening; it also feels like a consolation to the solitary listener, Rafferty's inimitable voice a sweet, shy presence rimed with a gentle melancholy.

The music itself is mostly mid-paced, classy soft rock, poised somewhere in the same soft rock wheelhouse as Steely Dan, inasmuch as the layers of instrumentation are meticulous and immaculate; and maybe someone like Richard Marx, insofar as there's an undisguised romanticism in Rafferty's writing. However, Night Owl is neither jazzy or tricksy, nor does it ever tip too far towards the saccharine end of the scale. Maybe add the - I can't put this any other way - 'grown-up' sensibilities of Bob Seger's best writing into the mix. I simply cannot imagine kids ever buying this stuff (notable exception: me aged eight). Night Owl sounds every bit the creation of a man who was, by then, in his thirties and had been around the block a bit.

When all elements come together, it's simply lovely. I've already mentioned Rafferty's seemingly low-key vocal delivery, but it's worth talking about again; mid-Atlantic with a Hibernian twist, warm, sad, confiding, and used with the deftness and artistry of a master calligrapher. 'Baker Street' is most notable for its huge saxophone riff played by Raphael Ravenscroft (though I think it also sports one of rock's greatest guitar solos), but Night Owl relies on the vocals for its hooks. Listen to the way Rafferty slides between the chorus lines in the title track, or the way he drags vowels around in 'Days Gone Down'. There's a beautiful push-pull quality to the singing, an instinctive kenning about where to stretch out over the beat or when to gild the melody with understated little variations.

Yet for all the acute intelligence and lush orchestration present, Night Owl is unmistakeably a collection shot through with notions of regret and resignation. Even the most forceful number here, the excellent 'Take The Money and Run', is more rueful than angry. Check out some of the other song titles: 'Why Won't You Talk To Me', 'Get It Right Next Time', 'Already Gone' and 'It's Gonna Be a Long Night'. The most upbeat track 'Days Gone Down' seems to suggest a double meaning, whilst 'Night Owl' is almost harrowing in its portrayal of loneliness in the midst of popular adoration. 'The Tourist' (a title in itself that hints at dilettantism) contains a repeated refrain, 'but it's alright', that sounds utterly unconvincing in the context of a lyric describing the grind of touring. To me it sounds like a coded plea for help.

Does it matter, when everything sounds so effortlessly smooth? The lack of rough edges means that all the musical surfaces of Night Owl slide around each other with the serenity of a mah-jong game, which should be boring. Maybe to contemporary tastes, it is. No matter - I'm the one listening, and writing this review, and when I tune in I'm left with the powerful impression of an artist who treats his music as a refuge from a world he can't quite get to grips with. Remarkable.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Odyssey: The Sound Of Ivor Raymonde Vol. II - Various Artists


Provenance: I bought this at Resident Music in Brighton (no trip to the city is complete without a visit) as a little birthday gift to myself this year.

Review: Stupendous.

I could leave it at that, if I'm honest, but that would be cheating. However, if you don't track a copy of this curate's egg down (it's even on Spotify) before reading on I'd seriously urge you to consider your life choices.

There are, really, three types of albums I end up reviewing on this blog. The easiest of the lot are those that are utterly rancid, because the job is to simply give 'em a shoeing. Then there's those that possess a hard carapace of inadmissibility, either because they are baffling or I'm delving into a genre that I'm not hugely conversant with. The challenge here is to try to get into a headspace to make some form of semi-comprehensible assessment, and to relax about my lack of omniscience (but I'm getting there, folks).

By far the most difficult are albums I like. I find I fall into a kind of set rhythm for these pieces, lavishing praise whilst desperately searching for some hook or wrinkle so that I may introduce some grit into the oyster. Worst of all are albums such as today's offering, Odyssey, which in my estimation is almost faultless. I feel a hesitancy to waste words, when a simple exhortation to listen to the bloody thing should suffice.

So: this is the second volume of songs arranged or produced by Ivor Raymonde (father of Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins, who demands credit as the album's compiler), mostly culled from the 1960s. On the basis of these twenty-five tracks alone, one must conclude that Raymonde pere was one of those semi-mythical beasts within the music industry: the man with the golden ear. From cowlick rock 'n' roll through to Philly-style soul and all pop points inbetween, Odyssey is a kaleidoscope of sound and a sumptuous testament to Raymonde's genius as an arranger.

The one commonality that exists betwixt and between the selections on Odyssey is the absence of rough edges. Probably the closest we get to anything vaguely edgy is the strange, wonderful acid rock-lite of Twinkle's previously unreleased 'Michael Hannah'. However, if you feel that denotes a kind of staidness or politeness, think again; for bubbling under the surface of many of these cuts is a simmering, smouldering passion that every now and again threatens to boil over. Por ejemplo: the throb of the bass propelling Los Bravos' 'Brand New Baby', or the brass punching and pummelling its way to the front of the mix in the Alan Price Set's enjoyably gusty, knockabout take on Randy Newman's 'Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear'.

What does come through loud and clear, to me at least, was Raymonde's love of the human voice. It didn't hurt that he worked with some of the best - Roy Orbison, the Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield - one feels you just had to give them a nudge and sit well back. Springfield's track, 'Little By Little', is a juggernaut, her ice-cool delivery rubbing up against incandescent horn charts to stunning effect. There's a sense that the impeccable framing that Raymonde helped to provide could be a space where an artist was allowed to subsequently cut loose, if they so desired; Susan Maughan conjuring up the mettle of a young Helen Shapiro on 'That Other Place'; the lisping sensuality that ignites The Cryin' Shames' 'Please Stay'; and the brawling, grunting run at 'Loo-Be-Loo' that makes the version by The Chucks so damn fun. 

The true highlight of the vocalists, however (and this isn't to dismiss Kathy Kirby's mountain-sized crescendo on 'The Way of Love') is the truly demented 'Tower of Strength' by Frankie 'Mr Moonlight' Vaughan, which I've mentioned before now (or rather, left the heavy lifting to the scribes of Freaky Trigger). It bears repeating, though, that this absolutely fucks anything Tom Jones did out of the water. One can picture Vaughan writhing around on the studio floor as he forces every iota of his being into powering this most electrifying slice of soul, albeit in an almost unrecognisable format. Recorded in 1961, it feels like a moment where a quirky British offshoot could have developed, before the genre was fully submerged, as per one commentator on Freaky Trigger, into the musical vocabulary of its American originators.

Friends, there are treats everywhere! Check out Marty Wilde hiccoughing his way through the rockabilly drama of 'Endless Sleep', the warm, buzzy psychedelia of Christopher Colt's 'Girl In The Mirror' or the Martell's 'Time To Say Goodnight', and get blown away by the barmstorming rhumba-on-steroids of Paul Slade's 'Odyssey', after which this album is named. The last cut is hot, hot, HOT! 

How to sum it up? Well, once I've finished tapping away at my keyboard, I shall go back to the beginning and listen again without the burden of trying to add words. The world of Odyssey is a fully realised dreamscape, a place where two-minute pop is elevated beyond its inherent strictures into a realm of sheer emotion. It's rich, too. Imagine getting smashed at a wedding on dessert wine and propping up the chocolate fountain all night, and you might be halfway towards experiencing the pure glut of confection Odyssey provides. 

Resident Music didn't have volume one, titled Paradise, in store when I visited. Guess what's on my Christmas list? Let's hope I've been a good boy!

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Fang Bang - Wednesday 13


Provenance: My time at the University of Exeter was largely pleasant, but being out in Devon meant for slim pickings on the rock front most of the time. The one oasis was the Cavern, a vaulted cellar in the centre of town where I saw acts like The Answer, My Ruin and today's subject, Wednesday 13.

In fact, I think I picked this album up after seeing the erstwhile Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13 and Murderdolls frontman (not to mention his stint as a Faster Pussycat tour guitarist!). Wednesday 13 wasn't really my cup of mud, but when you're drowning in a sea of Newton Faulkner and Mr Scruff, you seize anything resembling a life raft.

Later, this would also extend to frequent trips to a Monday night goth night run by a living skeleton named Francis...but I'll save the story for when I review Judas Priest's Turbo.

In any case, Wednesday 13 put on a raucous live show, and I spent the night quaffing cheap beer with good friends, so all in all a massive success. I bought this more as a keepsake from a cracking night out, rather than an album I knew I'd get a lot of replay value out of. Years have gone by since that gig and I haven't spun Fang Bang (great name) very much at all, so it's due a reappraisal.

Review: If the name Fang Bang wasn't enough of a giveaway. song titles such as 'Morgue Than Words', 'My Home Sweet Homicide' and 'Happily Ever Cadaver' should give you a clue that this release is kindred spirits with Rob Zombie and mid-era Alice Cooper; good, wholesome, comic-book and MGM monster movie fun. However, unlike the industrial-powered ramalama of Zombie or the spray-glam of Cooper, Fang Bang is anthemic pop-punk with a sleazy edge.

And so I ask you, faithful reader, have you oft seen me extolling the virtues of pop-punk on these pages? No, you haven't. The closest I've come would be my encomium to Sloppy Seconds and their mighty Destroyed album, with which it shares some of its ghoulish sci-fi sensibility. That said, Destroyed works as a clever-stupid, ramshackle, knockabout celebration of all life's most egregious sins, and remains very much an outlier in my collection. 

Fang Bang simply isn't as cute, clever or as charming as Destroyed (but what is?); but I'm surprising myself with how easy it's going down. Songs all blend into one, and as catchy as they can be - especially at the choruses - they're all just one hook short of being proper earworms. One feels that if Cheap Trick or the Wildhearts got to grips with these tracks they'd wind up with just the right amount of acid and saccharine. Still, 'Faith In The Devil' has got a nasty bite, and you'd have to be a fucking sadsack not to smile at the 'oi oi oi' section in 'Happily Ever Cadaver'. 

I don't really know what else to say - everything rushes along at a nice clip, as it should, and production bears all the hallmarks of the early 2000s, which has never been my favourite era for capturing noises. One plus is that Wednesday's raspy sneer fits in with the loud 'n' compressed flavour of the age - of all the other singers I'm familiar with, he most resembles his former employer in Faster Pussycat, Taime Downe. It lends a suitably cloacal aspect to mascara-and-glitter smeared proceedings, although it has to be said that his range stretches about as far as Russell Grant attempting to dunk a basketball.

But, look, if you can't raise a smirk to a song called 'Buried With Children' (which is really good, in fairness) and the lyric 'I've got blood in my alcohol system' doesn't make the corners of your mouth twitch, I can't help you. This is rambunctious Hot Topic splatter-punk with no little heart and a smudge of dark glamour besides. Fang Bang may not quite blast the rafters on a sedate Sunday afternoon, but crank this in a poorly-ventilated sweatbox with £2 Carlsbergs on offer and you've got the recipe for a helluva good, gruesome time.