Sunday, 22 August 2021

Born In The USA - Bruce Springsteen

 

Provenance: I bought this with my own hard-earned piastres but to this day couldn't tell you why. It was a music shop purchase, so I was surrounded by scores of albums I coveted more than Born In The USA; an aberration, then, like much of my life.

Review: Here's a strange one - an album I like a lot, perhaps even love, to the almost complete exclusion of everything else Bruce Springsteen has done.

I consider the E Street Band to be one of the most overrated bodies within the firmament of rock 'n' roll. I don't know how anyone could abide three hours of their dreary, churning mediation of the genre.

Furthermore, I don't think I can really talk to anyone about the Boss. Here in the UK, I've often found people who are big into Bruce Springsteen a bit suspect, like Tex from I'm Alan Partridge, the guy who "likes American stuff." Undoubtedly, in this instance, I'm the weird one projecting my anxieties about the romanticised version of the USA onto the uncomplicated tastes in music of others, but whatever; if you're a Brit and you like Springsteen, in my stupid mind at least, you're a rube.

But listen, don't let me get too high-handed here; I'm prey to exactly the same mythologies, and even attempted to justify getting misty-eyed about eagles soaring over the Tuvan steppe in my Huun Huur Tu review. Maybe, just maybe, I've found it easier to resist the allure of the whole 'cruisin' down Route 66' view of America because I've actually been to places like Kansas. As a visitor I can never truly grapple with the reality of life in the Midwest, of course, but becoming personally acquainted with a place and its people is the next best thing. 

On a vaguely related note, actually going to the Mississippi Delta brought me round to finding much of the mythos are blues music quite distasteful. The ink spilled on rather purple descriptions of living conditions of southern Blacks, coupled with an inference that in one or two instances a supernatural assist was required, creates a kind of gothic romance that thoroughly dehumanises the protagonists. Fundamentally, we're talking about talented human beings very much plugged into the commercial realities of the time and place they found themselves, as opposed to the ethereal musical cryptids that a few have become.

How to sum up these ramblings? Perhaps, that America tells good stories about itself. 

Bruce Springsteen also tells good stories, very good in fact, considering that he's had no firsthand experience of the lives led by the blue collar heroes and heroines who populate his songs. For all the guff about lumber yards and construction, he has about as much familiarity with the ins and outs of manual labour as Joan Baez. Which is fine, because he's a musician; we don't make the demand that KISS are actually kabuki space aliens, so why the purity test for ol' Bruce? He's the KISS of the workingman, with better lyrics and worse music.

At times, Springsteen's facility with a story is great - witness the mounting desperation and breakdown of 'Downbound Train', the best track on the album, or the knockabout update to Eddie Cochrane's sound on 'Working On The Highway' which masks a tale about contravening the Mann Act. The latter is fun, because much like Sparks or Cheap Trick, it demonstrates an ability to wrap a spiky subject in a sweet melody. You know, I'll even put 'Glory Days' in the 'great song' category, but the meditation on reflecting upon one's flaming youth only starts to make sense (like Bob Seger's music) when you've got a few miles on the clock. Now, the KISS song 'Flaming Youth'? You can enjoy that at any age.

However, much of the remainder gives me pause. Is 'Darlington County' anything more than a raucous pub rocker? Probably not. A couple of charlies drive to South Carolina looking for work, give it the big 'I am' with the locals and promptly fuck off - that's the song, albeit we've got cops, unions and the Fourth of July thrown in for good measure. Even some of the songs that come across as a celebration of male virility, 'Dancing In The Dark' and 'I'm On Fire', sound like the internal monologue of yer da sizing himself up in front of the mirror before happy hour at the Fat Ox.

The less said about the title track, the better. Just like N'Golo Kante is the least underrated underrated player in the Premier League, 'Born In The USA' is the least misunderstood misunderstood song in rock history.  The only reason it has its reputation is that idiots contrive to keep playing it in inappropriate situations. Or maybe they are appropriate, and the likes of Ronnie Reagan was providing a slick meta-commentary to his own neoliberal policy positions? Oh well, never mind, there are plenty of other tracks campaigning politicians can reach for that are far less problematic - how about Neil Young's 'Rockin' In The Free World', that sounds unambiguously fine...

The reason, then, that I still like Born In The USA is that when Springsteen finds his mark as a storyteller he's surgical in his dissection of not just the actions but the psychology of his subjects; and when he is a bit clumsy, you've still got a pretty decent racket backing him up. As much as I do find the E Street Band a fairly turgid proposition, their prosaic accompaniment suits the mood here, a few clangy keyboard tones aside. 

Ultimately, it's entertainment. The music coming out of my speakers does not distort due to a lack of literal truth or authenticity. Approach Bruce Springsteen as you would Alice Cooper - substituting the guillotines and sabres for tales of road maintenance and union dues - and you're golden.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Jazz På Svenska - Jan Johansson

 

Provenance: In a Classic Rock article about the music that influenced them, one of the members of Opeth mentioned Jazz På Svenska. The concept behind it - Swedish folk music played on piano and double bass in a jazz idiom - intrigued me, so I bought it.

Review: I like jazz, I like Sweden, I like the piano. What I don't tend to like is minimalism, particularly. Or, to be more accurate, its sparseness that tends to turn me off. I've bought music, damn it - so why would I be content paying for the gaps in between?

Of course, those gaps are as integral to the sound as all the noisy bits I treasure so dearly. Nonetheless, I would guess there is an impatience lurking within my heart that finds most music that is meditative and ruminative in nature to be lacking. It's not quite the "don't bore us, get to the chorus" celebration of hooks, melodies and concision that admittedly has worked as a formula for much superb pop music; rather, I think I just like stuff to happen. As much as I clowned Gryphon for their strange an unaccountable pretensions, at least their music constantly shifted and probed, at times to bamboozling effect. Fundamentally, I could tolerate being guided through a maze of keyboards and krumhorns due to the energy and propulsion that went into their dizzying souffle of sound.

Here, on Jazz På Svenska, we are presented with a very different proposition; Jan Johansson on piano, Georg Riedel on double bass and...that's it. Two guys playing jazzy folk music, with no virtuoso moments or dazzling solos. Or vocals. It's the most barebones sounding thing I own, because as far as I can tell everything is done live with nary a hint of an overdub or any other production wizardry. There isn't even a producer listed on the liner notes, just a recording engineer (shout out to my boy, Olof Swembel).

In the past I've made much of how I love the sound of jazz albums of a certain vintage - essentially, that the music lives and breathes through all ensemble members being in one room and playing with each other, as music has been performed for millennia. As basic a concept as this is, it's unlikely to feature on any music that makes it to the charts. As such I cannot help but feel that huge swathes of modern audiences are missing out on the pure and crystalline beauty of hearing music played without stultifying layers of studio 'magic' mediating the experience between performer and listener.

Of course, there's plenty of music that relies on this membrane of teases and tweaks to achieve the intended result, but there's a small thrill in hearing music being played the way its done on Jazz På Svenska. And hey, you could argue that I'm cheating, what with volume knobs, stereo equalisation, even the concept of microphones. "Listen Swinetunes," I hear you say, "why don't you just go and listen to some fucker playing a flute in the woods if you think it's so great?" and yeah, I won't do that. But I did see - before buying this album, incidentally - the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. Some might find their strictly trad repertoire hokey, but hearing it being played in a small room, with the musicians almost at arm's length, with zero by way of amplification, really brought home to me just how distorting a lens technology can be when in the service of music.

However, I'm not about to become the music blogosphere's version of the Unabomber (on this issue, at least); rather, this perspective on the creation and playback of music has, I feel, given me a greater appreciation for Jazz På Svenska as a work of art. Next to the congested sound of rock, pop and the rest, it's a lovely, refreshing thing, redolent of clear mountain springs and wide blue skies. One could quite easily have this playing at a dinner party or a dentist's waiting room, sure - but that's only because its understated, unobtrusive charm lends itself to such settings. Active listening is advised.

On a couple of numbers, such as 'Berg-Kirstis polska', there are echoes of Brubeck's playfulness with tricky time signatures in Johansson's playing. In the main, however, Johansson relies on the tasteful lyricism of interspersing the sparse arrangements with jazzy little touches, such as diminished and minor seventh chords that were unlikely to have existed in the original folk songs. Nonetheless, the playing is deceptive, with even a novice pianist such as myself being gulled into thinking I could replicate much of the right-hand work on tracks like 'Visa Från Utanmyra' or 'Gammal Brollopsmarsch' until I listen again. Combined with the strolling bass of Riedel, there's more going on than is obviously apparent in these sweet, mournful little songs.

Despite being recorded at the dawn of the post-bop era, there is nothing exploratory, swinging or dissonant on Jazz På Svenska; on that basis, one could charge it with being perhaps too polite and conservative. No matter - mood, subtlety and elegance are the watchwords here. A peculiar album in relation to the rest of my collection, but one I treasure immensely. 

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Goodbye Girl, Girl Goodbye

TOTO, voted America's Sexiest Band 1982

A while ago I penned a review of the top ten songs on Spotify called 'Hourglass', prompted by a phase where I was listening to the Squeeze song almost obsessively. Undoubtedly, the format was a crashing failure, and I've never returned to that particular puddle of vomit...until today. We're back, baby!

This time around, it's TOTO's incredible 'Girl Goodbye' that's been getting the juices flowing. For those of you uninitiated to the pleasures of melodic rock, TOTO were the mightiest of musos, virtually carrying the entire US AOR industry on its back during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As well as massive songs like 'Hold The Line', 'Rosanna' and 'Africa', its constituent members guested on any number of smooth classics in the yacht rock wheelhouse; the discography section of drummer Jeff Porcaro's Wikipedia page is quite something to behold

The great thing about 'Girl Goodbye' is that not only does it retain TOTO's trademark facility with a soaring chorus, but it's got some attitude and aggression to it that one doesn't readily associate with the band. It got me thinking - there must be plenty of other kiss-off songs with the words 'girl' and 'goodbye' in the title, so I've fired up Spotify and given 'em a listen. 

Artist: TOTO
Song: 'Girl Goodbye'
Rivals both Boney M's 'Rasputin' and Squeeze's 'Hourglass' as the greatest song ever recorded. Singer Bobby Kimball is all over this piece; curiously, the lyrics fall into a strange yacht rock preoccupation of being a bad-ass criminal on the run, a la Boz Scaggs' 'Lido Shuffle' and Christopher Cross' 'Ride Like the Wind'. Sample lyrics:

Yeah I'm out on the run,
Got some heat, got a gun

Objectively very cool stuff I'm sure you'll agree. What's 'heat' doing here, I wonder? If it's the 'heat' that comes from police attention, fair enough; but it's a reference to a firearm, it's a tautology because he mentions that very fact in the next breath.

Oh there's smoke in the air,
And there's blood everywhere
But I'm hoping that the white man don't recognise me

Look pal, you're in TOTO - I say this as a man of almost spectral pallor, but if there's one thing us white people recognise and love, it's this kind of overblown bullshit pomp-rock! Nonetheless, this slams, Steve Lukather plays some cool riffs and I like the keyboard at the start. 10/10

Artist: Squeeze
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Making their second appearance in this format, it's Squeeze. And it's the usual wide-eyed kitchen-sink earnestness from these boys. This time, Squeeze are not ditching their old lady to make a run for the border, no - true to form, they're the sadsacks left on their lonesome, getting robbed for good measure. It's charming pop-rock with a percussion track that sounds like a commuter train pulling into a station with a short platform. 7/10

Artist: Go West
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
This features one of the most horrendous synth tones ever devised. I wouldn't be surprised if it was initially perfected as part of a secret non-lethal weapons programme. Anyway, it crawls along with all the energy of an arthritic snail, but I have to concede the vocals are good and there is a little bit of wobbly Mick Karn / Pino Palladino style fretless bass, which made me laugh. 4/10

Artist: David Gates
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Yup, it's the guy from Bread - I suppose TOTO owe him and his ilk for popularising a brand of mature soft-rock with a focus on chorus hooks and high production values. This is exactly as I had imagined it - a pretty soppy piano 'n' strings ballad with, yes, a big chorus hook. Gates sounds like a schlub, which actually works well given the context. It's okay. 6/10

Artist: Broadcast
Song: 'Goodbye Girls'
The most impressive thing about this slice of lo-fi postmodernism is that they get the word 'counterparts' into the lyrics. The vocals are faux-naif psychedelic, the electronics sound like a fax machine performing an extended death scene. Decent, I suppose, if that brand of hauntology floats your boat. 5/10

Artist: Luke Bryan
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Some 'cry into your whiskey' country corn-pone here courtesy of Mr Bryan. This kind of music sounds almost focus-grouped; just enough lap steel to offer a patina of regional authenticity, a lolloping pace entirely fit for such a mournsome subject and a vocals that conjure up a regular ol' boy who's tough, but hurtin'. In other words, the most horribly banal Nashville conveyor belt pabulum imaginable. 2/10

Artist: Rumer
Song: 'Goodbye Girl'
Does this have both a zither and a harmonica on it? That's neat. A little nondescript in the verses, but Rumer has a voice suited to confessional, intimate music, and the chorus is rather lovely, nodding as it does to the girl group sound of the Ronettes. Not bad! 7/10

Artist: Peter Criss
Song: 'Kiss The Girl Goodbye'
So it's KISS' very own street fightin' man on his first solo album here (which coincided of debut solos from the other three members of the hottest band in the world). I recall reading, once upon a time, that Criss considered his voice analogous to Rod Stewart; yeah, perhaps whilst he was getting his stomach pumped. What a fucking mess this is; this is like a Big Star ballad being played by a band who have never heard Big Star before. 1/10

Artist: Art Farmer
Song: 'Goodbye, Old Girl'
When I saw the song title I thought to myself, "is this going to be about a horse?". It's not; rather, it's trumpet player Art Farmer blowing a sweet, warm and emotional slow jazz number. It's a joy to hear this kind of unfiltered, in-the-moment playing, both from Farmer but also his pianist accompanist, who creates a bed of twinkling arpeggios for the lead instrument to ease back into. Beautiful. 9/10

Artist: Aaron Watson
Song: 'Kiss That Girl Goodbye'
What did I give the Luke Bryan number? Two out of ten? Well, it's twice as good as this noisy bro-country slurry. I once endured a nine-hour drive from Colorado to Kansas where the radio station was permanently tuned to this kind of dogshit, and I swear I could feel my IQ dropping in real time. At least Bryan tries to connect with some semblance of human emotion; this is eighty percent proof moonshine nihilism, and seems to revel in the fact. 1/10 for somewhat resembling music.

There's your lot - of course, TOTO emerge triumphant, but I could listen to that Art Farmer track again and again, plus I was pleasantly surprised by Rumer's offering in the 'goodbye girl / girl goodbye' stakes. Perhaps I'll give this format another go sometime? Maybe one day I'll actually make an entertaining fist of it? Who can say?

Sunday, 4 July 2021

High Voltage - AC/DC

 

Provenance: Somewhat murky; this is my first AC/DC album, and I suspect I bought it myself in Bournemouth's Essential Music

However, a tiny voice buzzing in the back of my mind tells me that my dad possibly bought this for me on a whim? Which is odd, as his tastes veer more towards Frank Zappa and the mighty Gryphon. Meat 'n' potatoes Antipodean rock was part of the household ambience until my brother and I indicated that we wanted to make a ruckus on drums and guitar respectively.

Incidentally, we liked AC/DC because it sounded simple to play, but then we could never get the rhythm of 'T.N.T.' correct and gave up. Does this suggest hitherto underrated rhythmic complexity on the part of messrs Young, Young, Scott et al? Or utter ineptitude from our side when it came to playing even the most basic of rock 'n' roll songs? You be the judge!

Review: Despite Twitter's brain-rotting qualities, around about the time of the 2016 US presidential election, some online wag once commented that "Donald Trump is probably the first president who likes AC/DC", meant to be a fairly unflattering comment on both. Intriguingly, whilst it appears that AC/DC may have actually written a song about Donny Deals, we don't know if the Trumpster has ever cranked 'Thunderstruck' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie' in the Oval Office, Trump Tower or Mar-A-Lago. We do know that the 45th president of the USA was one of the first people to purchase Guns N Roses' Use Your Illusion albums and that he rates the music video to 'November Rain'. Horses for courses - me, I think, like the song, it's excessive, tacky and overblown.

It's worth noting that High Voltage was not exactly a collection of original material; rather, it was a cut 'n' shut job of the band's previous two Australia-only releases. Let's just say you can't hear the join - there's no big evolution, Incredible String Band-style, between their first album (confusingly also titled High Voltage) and the next (which is called T.N.T. but is the first time we hear a song called 'High Voltage - keeping up?). Taking a gander at the two Australian releases, the material from T.N.T. that wound up on this album is stronger, though that does include 'The Jack', a song I consider utterly devoid of merit.

Were AC/DC really so primitive? Well, yes. This is pretty much an album of foot-stomping, blooz-based rockers without a particular surfeit of chord voicings to contend with. However, there's plenty going for it; for a start, the Young brothers somehow alighted on one of the meanest, crunchiest guitar tones this side of the International Date Line, which means even when they're vamping away on something simple like 'Rock 'N' Roll Singer' or 'She's Got Balls', the music has a kicky, muscular feel to it that is quite irresistible.

There's also a kind of genius at play in the sheer economy of the sound - it's raw and uncluttered, and to my ears all the tones from guitars and bass come solely from amplifier settings being tweaked. This really stands out in 2021, given the amount of preamp and production-stage effects most guitar parts are wrung through in modern music. Every instrument and voice thus has room to breathe, the biggest beneficiary being Phil Rudd's drumming, which is basic to the point of being Stone Age, but is executed with a truly organic sense of feel and groove.

I will admit that the combination of Bon Scott and AC/DC's lyrics are an acquired taste. Personally, I like his winking, leering good-time delivery, but at times the words make me want to hide. Aside from, 'The Jack', the most tedious and wretched joint here, 'Little Lover' and 'Can I Sit Next To You Girl' set my teeth on edge. However, Scott comes into his own when yelping about how hard AC/DC rock (always a fertile subject), especially 'It's A Long Way to the Top', 'Live Wire' (my favourite Scott performance on High Voltage) and 'High Voltage'. He's also good at playing the dangerous gunslinger on 'T.N.T.', the best track here - from its chewy guitar hook and the chanted 'oi!' intro to the braggadocio of the lyrics ("So lock up your daughter, lock up your wife / Lock up your back door, run for your life / The man is back in town / So you don't you mess me 'round") it simply whips ass.

Oh, and whilst the colour palette may be a little spare, AC/DC do achieve one notable feat, which is making the bagpipes sound bearable in popular music. Something even the maestro, Paul McCartney, failed to do. Undoubtedly a nod to the Scottish roots of half the band (Forfar-bon Scott is, apparently, the bag-botherer in question), its inclusion in 'It's A Long Way...' is extraordinary, propulsive, droning and huge. I have seen another band, Finnish folk metallers Korpiklaani, do an okay job with bagpipes, but this is the only example I actively like (NB: it seems that Korpiklaani have ditched the instrument; it seems that only one of the thirty-four people to have been in the band could blow pipe; they've kept the accordion, though - hmmm).

AC/DC would, of course, go on to dominate the world of hard rock, most notably with the record-breaking Back In Black, and would arguably compose better music. However, as a manifesto for a tough, scrappy bunch of barroom rattlers, High Voltage hits all the marks. Yes, they got bigger - but did they ever sound more vital?

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Willing - Lady Nade

 

Provenance: Idly browsing Twitter on evening I saw an account I follow had posted a link to 'Ain't One Thing', a track on Lady Nade's forthcoming album Willing.

Ten minutes later and I was into my third listen, and had pinged out the link to about five WhatsApp chats. Not something I do very often.

This is one of the very few albums I've pre-ordered (trying to think of others - maybe Ghost's Prequelle?), but I knew I wanted to hear more of the what I'd heard on 'Ain't One Thing'.

Bottom line - I hadn't been this excited about a voice in donkey's years. And it all came from a Twitter recommendation I clicked almost at random.

Review: I've always appreciated good singers, but I'm also big on imperfect technicians who nonetheless have character in their vocals. Lady Nade is both a wonderful singer and someone who brings heaps of personality to the microphone. One of the most joyous aspects of Willing is hearing an unalloyed voice that, for the most part hasn't been teased 'n' tweezed to the point of blandness. You hear every catch and quaver in Lady Nade's remarkable performances, which is rare, human and altogether rather intimate.

There are a couple of exceptions to this on Willing, such as 'One-Sided', where to my untrained ears the words, delivered in a variety of sprechgesang, have been multi-tracked to mildly psychedelic effect. It feels like a clever move to use such trickery so judiciously, because within the context of the wider album it opens up new colours and textures to the soundscape. As an aside, it's also primo to hear a distinctive regional accent in popular music! (Is it Bristolian? I'm useless at these things.)

I could, truthfully, listen to Lady Nade sing my car insurance policy to me and I'd be pretty happy. Better yet is the marriage of voice to these lovely, unfussy arrangements; ranging from fingerpicked folk to rocky Americana, the breathing space in the production allows for some tasty little instrumental touches to come to the surface, like the swirling guitar that wraps up 'Rock Bottom' and the sprinkling of - what, pedal steel? - on 'Willing'. 

Something I haven't even mentioned yet is the songwriting - Lady Nade takes the listener through a variety of moods on Willing and it's all done with a directness and sincerity that is utterly, utterly charming. It's genuinely moving to hear a lyric like "You're so damn perfect / In every kind of way" sung with an audible smile; I suppose what I'm grasping at here is that, at the heart of Willing there seems to be a purity of spirit and emotion. The overall impression is that Lady Nade is letting you in on her innermost unfiltered thoughts, albeit set to music.

I cannot recommend this enough; highlights for me are 'Willing', 'Wildfire', 'One-Sided' and 'Ain't One Thing', but the whole kit and caboodle is superb. Warm, uplifting, tender, beautiful - Willing is all these things, plus a lesson in what can happen if you take a chance or two where listening habits are concerned.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

60 Horses In My Herd - Huun Huur Tu

 

Provenance: I developed a fairly low-key interest in throat singing after watching the amazing documentary Genghis Blues. Did a bit of research and Huun Huur Tu were a name who kept cropping up. They are from the Russian federative state of Tuva, a south Siberian state that borders Mongolia - which is where the action of Genghis Blues happens to take place.

I don't really know a whole lot about wealth and status in Tuvan society, but I'm guessing that 60 Horses In My Herd is quite the brag. I don't even own a single horse.

Review: I have never been to Tuva. I've seen one documentary that focused on a very specific practice - throat-singing traditions - and I own a couple of albums featuring music from the region. I know nothing of the place, its language, its people and possess only the most minuscule appreciation of its music.

It's very easy, I imagine, to put on an album like 60 Horses In My Herd, close one's eyes and visualise mounted warriors in elaborate costumes sweeping across the rolling steppe. That's the kind of trick music can play on you. One thus conjures up a world of freedom, open plains and endless horizons; what doesn't come through are the bald statistics, such as Tuva being the state with the lowest life expectancy in Russia, or the problems relating to alcoholism in the region. 

We're all prey to this though, aren't we? One or two parps into an oompah number and it's all lederhosen and foaming steins of bier for me; gimme a hint of slide guitar and I'm in the Mississippi Delta (albeit, this is a place I've actually visited). I wonder - do non-Brits experience this with regards to England? What kind of mental imagery is wrought by the Beatles, Shakespeare, Doc Martin? And does the inevitable, disappointing reality of out-of-town shopping centres and fights in pub car parks invoke a domestic variant of Paris syndrome? Answers on a postcard.

I do understand that the soaring eagles and smoking yurts I picture when listening to Huun Huur Tu aren't real, but a part of me thinks "why not indulge?", because from about 1944 Stalin's administration really did a number on Tuva, ushering in a period of persecution against Buddhist and Shamanist practitioners. In addition, collective farm policies and centralised directives around agricultural productivity were brought in, which clashed with the nomadic lifestyles of the Tuvan people. This was, in sum total, little less than an attempt to destroy a centuries-old way of life - and for what? Cattle yields?

Perhaps, then, if I get misty-eyed when I hear the keening of an igil or the still-remarkable 'sygyt' style of overtone singing (hard to describe, but a kind of springy whistle sound), I shouldn't feel so guilty. Music is supposed to be bigger than we are, after all. It's not wrong, says I, to think of verdant pastures when one hears 'Jerusalem', or to picture the tumbling blue peaks and deep hollows of Appalachia when you hear the music of Dock Boggs or Ola Belle Reed. One of the most exciting aspects of music is that it takes you to places that you've never been to, or might not even exist. 

It's difficult to talk about highlights of individual songs when one's knowledge is so slim, but 'Kongurei' evokes a rare, delicate air of mournfulness; 'Tuvan Internationale' uses 'kargyraa', a low, rumbling chest voice, as a drone throughout, making it sound like one of the more doomy Ennio Morricone spaghetti western compositions; and 'Ching Soortukchulerining Yryzy' is a rhythmically hypnotic number that features a variety of singing styles but starts off sounding a little like Mike Oldfield's 'In Dulce Jubilo'. Mostly, though, 60 Horses In My Herd is a beguiling window into a universe of sound so remote from what I am used to that, when I first heard Tuvan music, I was left in something akin to a state of shock. That's no bad thing where art is concerned. 

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Melissa - Mercyful Fate

 

Provenance: This one's easy - as a consequence of hearing the Mercyful Fate medley from Metallica's Garage Inc. album, I really had no choice but to get this bad boy by Denmark's finest.

Review: This whips ass.

Genuinely, I could leave it there and consider it a suitable review. Why expend a bunch of bytes and bloviation on Melissa when anybody with one working lughole could tell you that this smokes?

The album cover is cool; King Diamond (lead screamer) looks like some unholy mashup of Ace Frehley, Rob Halford and Dave Vanian; and a simple rundown of the track listing should give one a flavour as to how motherfucking incredible this platter is going to be: 'Evil', 'Curse of the Pharaohs', 'Into The Coven', 'At The Sound of the Demon Bell'...it goes on, but I could just halt here and let those marinade in your brainbox for a while.

I often have the albums on loud when I'm reviewing them. This one, however, was cranked to distinctly un-neighbourly volumes, and I'm banking on either being taken down by an armed response unit or being worshipped by the locals as the true spawn of Wotan. 

Perhaps you might appreciate some context around this sulphurous little beauty; this is Mercyful Fate's debut album, released in 1983 just around the time that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was losing momentum. However, this makes Melissa contemporaneous with some important Euro-metal developments, not least of all the release of  German outfit Accept's Balls To The Wall. I highlight this album in particular because Accept shared with Mercyful Fate a sensibility that includes classical influences. This represents something of a break from most NWOBHM bands, who still looked towards the pentatonic-based hard rock of the 1970s for musical cues.

Which isn't to say that Melissa doesn't sound like a NWOBHM release - it absolutely does for the most part. However, unlike the Roundhouse mob, who flirted with demonic imagery without ever really going the whole hog, the Mercyful Fate of Melissa definitively choose the left-hand path, and in doing so would influence bands like Morbid Angel and one of my faves, Death. They're probably just pipped to the post of black metal pioneers by Venom, but as a listening experience Venom suck whilst this slaps, so let's call Mercyful Fate the first good black metal band.

Why? Because they're songs are full of Tonka-truck sized riffs, banshee screams and some inventive soloing from guitarist Hank Sherman. Really, King's vocals cannot be emphasised enough - his mid-range is characterful (and not unlike fellow Scandinavian Tobias Forge of Ghost, tonally speaking) but it's the Halford-esque falsetto that powers these tracks to new heights. There are great King Diamond moments all over the shop, but probably the bit that tickles me most is on 'Black Funeral' where he first sings "Oh, hail Satan" in his chest voice, and then replies to himself with "YES, HAIL SATAN!" in his ghoul-shriek. Stryper never did anything half this fun, and that's why Lucifer, Son of the Morning, is winning the rock 'n' roll stakes.

As mentioned before, the riffage is supreme and each song has about a million great examples. My favourites are probably those that underpin the chorus to 'Into The Coven' (one of the wretched PMRC's so-called 'Filthy Fifteen' songs) and the bit in 'Satan's Fall' where King spits "Bringing the blood of a newborn child!", plus virtually every moment in 'Curse of the Pharaohs' (sample lyric: "Don't touch, never ever steal / Unless, you're in for the kill"), a song that should be the Danish national anthem. (NB: having said that, Denmark's national anthem does have some pretty heavy metal lyrics; don't let "There is a lovely country" fool you, the rest of it rips.)

All this winds up with the strange, chilling tale of the title character, Melissa, who we are told is a witch and it is heavily implied that she's been executed for her eldritch practices. But is she truly gone...? Great business, all told. I can't get enough of this. As it so happens, King Diamond used to own a human skull he named Melissa; par for the course, one could surmise, for guy who also has a microphone stand made from human leg bones. Plus, after leaving Mercyful Fate he did a bonkers track about his "grandmaaaaaa!". Essential heavy metal.

 

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Millennium Gold - Various Artists

 

Provenance: This goes back to the days when I was a weekend drone at WHSmith. Like an oasis in the desert, Millennium Gold felt like the only halfway listenable music (I got to choose what went on the in-store stereo) amidst the shifting dunes of Blue, Russell Watson and True Steppers & Dane Bowers ft. Victoria Beckham.

Back then we also enjoyed a handsome 25% staff discount, which put this compilation firmly within my budget. At the time, I felt, it featured enough artists whom I liked a little, but not enough to go beyond their 'best of' offerings. Millennium Gold represented decent value for money, you know?

Review: So, we have a digipack double-CD that, I suppose, commemorates a whole millennium's worth of music! If by 'millennium', you mean 'the last four and a bit decades of the 20th century', the oldest tracks here appearing in 1967. Back in 2001 I didn't really grasp what conceptually links together all the songs on these discs, and twenty years later I'm still stumped. Maybe some music biz Thucydides dipped his or her toe in the stream and said "fuck it, let's just slap something together that feels timeless". Let's go.

Disc one: The first thing that should be observed is that in many instances, these aren't what I, nor many fans of the artists herein, would consider to be their best tracks. They are arguably up there in terms of collective affections; and perhaps that's the real key to Millennium Gold, namely, alienate as few people as possible whilst still putting out a marketable product. It's why so many compilations feature the same old chestnuts, I suppose. Putting together Millennium Gold feels less like the product of someone's musical passions (unlike, say, the incomparable Nuggets collection) and more like a focus-group exercise in compromise. In that respect, it's the perfect album of the New Labour era.

I think most people - and I do mean most people, not music obsessives like me - will hear Queen's 'One Vision' or Extreme's 'More Than Words' and think "yes, that's nice", whilst I'm seething away in the corner that some wonk at Universal wasn't bold enough to put 'Seven Seas of Rhye' or 'He-Man Woman Hater' on here. However, as much as I do like to go deep on artists I like, I don't exempt myself from the everyman in my ability to enjoy the biggies. I do like Prince's 'When Doves Cry', Steve Miller's 'The Joker', Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain' and even the much-decried 'Lay Lady Lay' from His Bobness. In terms of songs I positively love, here's 'Money For Nothing' (that guitar tone is stone cold!), 'The Boxer' by Simon & Garfunkel, Seal's 'Crazy' (though it ain't no 'Kiss From a Rose', right guys?), and I'm impressed that the Velvet Underground's droning paean to sadomasochism made the cut.

There's stuff I don't like here, too! One must experience a degree of tonal whiplash when, two songs on from the dead-eyed Velvets art-rock, we're subject to David Gray's 'Babylon'; and for some reason I've never quite rubbed along with the Pretenders (but I concede there's really nothing wrong with 'Brass In Pocket'). As fun as Meat Loaf's vocals are on 'Dead Ringer For Love' - all histrionics and eye-popping hysteria - I'd forgotten how clattery a track it is; the farty guitar on the Face's 'Stay With Me' is too much of a distraction to be dismissed; and I'll happily live the rest of my prescribed three-score 'n' ten if I never heard 'Brown Eyed Girl' ever again.

Disc two: Despite my fairly mean-spirited mitherings, I can listen to disc one without skipping anything. The same can be said for disc two - mostly. I'm no U2 fan but 'Pride' is great; likewise, I don't own any Paul Weller but 'Changingman' is effective, catchy rock 'n' soul. Again, I look at some of the artists and think to myself that the options are too on-the-nose. If I told you Alice Cooper was here, you'd probably think it was a toss-up between two songs and, yes, it's one of them. Likewise, if you think of the biggest tunes for T Rex and Fleetwood Mac, it wouldn't take you long to alight upon the selections that the mind behind Millennium Gold (disc two) opted for.

That said - I really like 'Substitute' by the Who, really really like the tumbling arena rock of Bryan Adams' 'Run To You', and find that 'Imitation Of Life' has prompted me to be a bit more thorough with REM's back catalogue, given its ability to charm me. Look, even the obvious ones are, more or less, alright. The first half of disc two is listenable without offending.

However, 'I Shot the Sheriff' stinks up the joint, because it ain't Bob Marley; it's Eric Clapton (who, like Paul Weller and Sting, appears twice on MG through membership of Cream, the Jam and the Police respectively). It is, as we all know, crap. Not long after that we've got 'Long Train Runnin'' from the Doobie Brothers, except that, inexplicably, it's some godawful 1990s remix. It's the final fucking furlong that really gets my goat though - a Pulp's 'Disco 2000', a cheap record if there ever was one, and then a gallop through New Order, Simply Red, Everything But The Girl, the Corrs and Sting. Galloping trots, more like! I don't think I've ever listened to this sextet more than three times in my entire life, and certainly never through anything other than sheer accident.

Listening to Millennium Gold again after so long is akin to wakening from a draught of sleeping potion; I emerge into the light groggy, discombobulated, and asking myself "how did I get here?" As much as individually some of these tracks are passable, agreeable even, they exist in such an awkward cheek-by-jowl configuration here that it's tough to swallow in one sitting. It's as if the sequencing was done on Dice Man principles alone. Kids, this was the pre-shuffle life. 

Another thing that makes this feel quite redundant is that, as means and opportunity came my way, I've built a rather large CD collection that includes many of these artists. I simply don't need 'School's Out' on a comp when I have the School's Out album. I had to literally blow dust off the case after picking Millennium Gold off the shelf. Still, it was nice to hear 'Changingman' again! 

Sunday, 9 May 2021

In One Eye And Out The Other - Cate Brothers

 

Provenance: Saw these cats playing on the title track on a BBC4 compilation show called Southern Rock at the BBC. I'm reasonably sure it was from The Old Grey Whistle Test.

The track was really fresh, true, but the best bit was that the Cate Brothers appeared to be near-identical twins - a couple of healthy looking lads with haircuts seemingly achieved by using each other as mirrors. Criteria enough for me to hunt down the album.

As a sidenote, although I wrote my X-Ray Spex review to coincide with the anniversary of Poly Styrene's passing, I'm mildly pissed off that I didn't do this one beforehand, thus continuing the run of eponymous bands that began with Van Halen and continued with Santana


Review: One of the best things about Southern Rock at the BBC was that it really did play fast and loose with the word 'rock'. Taking a rather catholic approach, it wound up including, of course, the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Atlanta Rhythm Section (playing 'So Into You' - cool), but also Dobie Gray, Charlie 'Benghazi ain't going away' Daniels and the Cate Brothers. There is a rock edge to the track 'In One Eye and Out the Other', true, but it's more a funk number, and going by this album, the brothers' true metier was funky blue-eyed soul. 

Fortunately for them, and me - and perhaps you, dear reader, if you decide to check the Cates out after this review - on In One Eye... they do this very, very well. Brother Ernie tends to take lead vocal duty and plays the keys (including some real 'come to church' organ), whilst Earl works the guitar and harmonises nicely. It's a pretty hot bunch backing 'em up too - Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn of the M.G.'s, sax greats Jim Horn and Bobby Keys (literally everyone), Jay "I played the solo on 'Peg'" Graydon and David "I've won sixteen Grammy Awards and I'm Tommy Haas' father-in-law" Foster. With this kind of talent onboard, you'd think it was impossible to make a bad album, right?

The opener 'Start All Over Again' sets the tone, a widescreen soul weepy with Ernie emoting over a river of organ, but things really get cooking on the title track; a slippery, stuttering funk number featuring cute chromatic runs, a crackerjack solo from Earl and a monstrous chorus. Honest to God, this is one of my favourite joints not only on the album, but in the entire funk genre.

I recall when I first heard In One Eye... I was ever so slightly disappointed that, title track aside, it lacked any other real stompers, and altogether was a little soft. I should get my ears syringed, because whilst that it true in a formal sense, closer inspection reveals so much that is warm and accomplished. The closest the Cate Brothers get to replicating 'In One Eye...' comes right at the end of the record, the barrelling 'Where Can We Go' wrapping things up in exhilarating fashion. 

What I hadn't properly appreciated was the brothers' facility with writing nagging, ear-wormy parts that don't always hit in the obvious places. Yes, their choruses are hooky, but on tracks like the prowling 'Give It All To You' the chewiness is in Ernie's tough singing in the verses and the incredible groove the band lay down. The breezy catchiness of the chorus to 'I Don't Want Nobody' works, yes, but it's amplified through rubbing up against the nervy chicken-scratch guitar of the verses. It's just well-crafted material played by crack musicians. When I try to explain the appeal of Nils Lofgren's music to me, I always fall back on "good singing, good playing" and the same applies here. I should point out that Ernie Cate is a much, much better singer than Nils (no offence dude), and one of the most underrated soul vocalists out there.

Really, the only track that still does little for me is the sappy 'Music Making Machine', which just about tips into schmaltz with it's self-pitying lyric. You want to shake them, and point out they've already done their 'road song', 'Travelin' Man', a bouncing horn-powered rave-up that would've slotted nicely onto Dr John's In The Right Place. I guess they went for Al Jarreau but ended up more... (NB: I've no idea where I was going here - Al Pacino? Al Qaeda?)

One minor blemish aside, In One Eye... is superior stuff, an album I play frequently, which is something you should look into doing also.  

A bit of fun trivia for you here, by the way - Jay Graydon and David Foster would go on to collaborate in the short-lived AOR band Airplay, and together with Alan Thicke would write the incredible theme music to Thicke of the Night

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Germfree Adolescents - X-Ray Spex

 

Provenance: I borrowed this album from a chap I worked with (alongside Crises by Mike Oldfield) and really enjoyed it. If memory serves, I loaned him Ted Nugent's Free-For-All. A fair exchange?

Review: I had no idea what I'd be reviewing today. I had noticed that I was on for a hat-trick of eponymous band names if I were to continue in the Van Halen / Santana vein, but I've already done Montrose and never quite plumbed the depths of owning a Bon Jovi record, so my options were limited. Would the Von Hertzen Brothers count?

Nonetheless, a tweet alerted me to the fact that today is the tenth anniversary of the passing of X-Ray Spex singer and bandleader Poly Styrene. I've wanted to do Germfree Adolescents for a while now, and here's the perfect excuse. 

Beyond all musical considerations, X-Ray Spex were an important force in punk history; how many women of colour can you think of who fronted, or continue to front, a rock band? Now ask yourself how many of those preceded X-Ray Spex? Not many, I'd wager (well done if you remembered the existence of Fanny, though!). It's easy in retrospect to discern some of the more conservative elements of the first wave of punk music, and whilst it's fair to say that bands like the Slits and the Raincoats offered new templates for the role of women in music, it was still a pretty white caper. The transformation of Marianne Joan Elliot-Said into Poly Styrene mattered.

Of course, all of this would be dulled somewhat if the music wasn't up to snuff. Fret not - Germfree Adolescents is a thumping album,

Yeah, a little bit of the sloganeering is a bit dusty (but it's effortless to forgive when delivered with such youthful gusto), as are a couple of the production choices - what's with all those echoed song intros? Those are going to be the only two quibbles you'll hear in this review.

I love that it's a punchy thirty-five or so minutes long; I love just how chunky and solid the guitars are; I love Styrene's police siren voice; and above all I love, love, love Rudi Thomson's saxophone, a quirky choice of instrumentation for a punk band but one that pays off over and again. I've long been a sax advocate - forget the cheezy stuff from the 1980s, forget even my beloved Steely Dan, and think of how exciting it sounds in the Rolling Stones, or skronking away behind Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, or when it cuts like a scythe through Roxy Music's 'Editions Of You'. In fact, that's what I'm feeling here, a lot of the time; just check out the ending of 'I Live Off You' for proof. Saxophone is also used to double the chorus melody of 'Warrior In Woolworths', one of the (slightly) more sedate tracks here, and it elevates the whole enterprise; so much punk music trades on being abrasive or energetic, but Germfree Adolescents retains those elements without compromising on being a bloody fine listen.

Those moments that are just smash-mouth rock music are, however, simply exhilarating. 'Art-I-Ficial' sounds like a missile launch, and 'I Am A Poseur' is what would happen if Motorhead incorporated a brass section into their ranks. It's easy, amidst the sturm and drang, to miss the lyrics being hooted out with such exuberance by Styrene, but closer inspection reveals how pleasingly surreal they are, bespeaking of personal alienation in an increasingly synthetic, consumer-oriented world. When Styrene fantasises about becoming Hitler on 'Plastic Bag', it's telling that after proclaiming herself "ruler of the universe" she sounds even more excited to be "ruler of the supermarkets".

Could such an album as Germfree Adolescents appear today? I think not. It's too guileless, too freewheeling and the product of too singular a vision to be midwifed in such an interconnected age. Someone in a suit would say "fewer songs about department stores, please", or a producer would try to 'fix' some of the singing or playing to make it more palatable through a laptop speaker. Never mind - what matters is that X-Ray Spex had day-glo boots on the ground at the right time, breaking down barriers with a gleeful, shack-shaking abandon. Safe journey, Poly Styrene.   

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Abraxas - Santana

 

Provenance: If you ever slapped on a rock compilation or two, it was near-inevitable that you would encounter Santana's version of 'Black Magic Woman' at some point. A good song which stood out from the pack thanks to its sinuous Latin rock rhythms. In comparison, much else sounded altogether a bit 'meat 'n' potatoes'.

Around the time I was first trying to wrest a noise from a guitar my mum worked at a library, which meant that I'd get free access to whatever was on the shelf at the time. Well, one day that happened to be Santana's Caravanserai album, which I really dug. Again, it sounded like little else I had hitherto been exposed to.

So, when the chance came to purchase Abraxas (second hand) for a fiver, it felt like I was hardly gambling with my admittedly meagre earnings from my weekend job. That said, a fiver was big money back then (and still is, right?).

Review: When will Santana undergo the kind of critical re-evaluation that the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan have enjoyed in recent years? Perhaps never; because although the two latter examples probably have stronger overall back catalogues, Santana remains tragically unhip. Yes, he became wildly popular again, for a New York minute, right around the turn of the millennium but even that unlikely comeback was tinged with snobbery. And since then, Carlos Santana hasn't helped his cause with a series of guest-packed, cover-heavy collections that have tried to ape the success of Supernatural with diminishing returns.

Perhaps it's time he engaged a business manager with a little more nous than the Archangel Metatron.

However, going back to the material that put Santana - the man and the eponymously-named band - on the map is a rewarding experience. Albums like Santana III, the aforementioned Caravanserai and today's subject - Abraxas - is to take a trip through some very groovy musical landscapes. The bald fact is that nobody had knitted samba, rock and psychedelia together so successfully, so organically as Santana, and arguably their early run still sets the standard. It also helps matters that Carlos had an instantly identifiable electric guitar tone and a facility with sustain techniques that gave his playing a rich, weeping quality.

Some of it also sounds resoundingly modern; the hypnotic bassline beneath windchimes and hand percussion of opener 'Singing Winds, Crying Beasts' could quite easily be pumping from the subwoofers as the dawn breaks over HawkFest or Bimble Bandada. Another aspect in Santana's favour is that the lightness of the percussion prevents this music from sounding lumpen in a way that, say, Cream or Black Sabbath sometimes do to contemporary ears. Even the lead guitar work hasn't particularly dated, in the sense that it frequently works in the service of the song and never disintegrates into the undisciplined wig-outs that were de rigueur at the time. Jeff Beck is a fine, very fine guitarist but how anybody can endure an entire Beck, Bogert & Appice album is beyond my ken. 

Did anybody attending gigs in the 1970s really enjoy it when Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin took their audience on half-hour noodle odysseys? I would genuinely like to know.

Only three tracks, really, sound rooted in the distant past. Two of them - the acid-rock of 'Hope You're Feeling Better' and 'Mother's Daughter', I like a lot. They're the most straight-ahead numbers here, but with little imagination could be a Shocking Blue and Mountain tracks respectively (again, no bad thing in and of itself). The other one is 'Samba Pa Ti', which has fallen victim to its usage in one of those horrible, soupy Marks and Spencer adverts that turns food into softcore pornography. True, it's the closest to elevator music on Abraxas but along with Fleetwood Mac's 'Albatross', any charm it used to hold has evaporated through its association with pretentious nosh.

However, that does leave a whole heap of really strong material that still sounds fresh - slinky 'Black Magic Woman', the gang-chanted version of Tito Puente's 'Oye Como Va', the jazzy 'Incident At Neshabur' (a reference to Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, apparently) and the aggressive chord-stabs of 'Se A Cabo' all possess a sprinkling of magic. Incidentally, my Duolingo Spanish tells me that the latter should be called 'Se Acabo' ("it's over") - pero, es posible que estoy incorrecto! Anyway, Abraxas is great, a supple counterpoint to the chest-beating testosterock that was in vogue, and, like the band itself, is long due reappraisal.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Van Halen - Van Halen

 

Provenance: One of those albums I felt I "had" to have as a rock fan, along with Boston's debut and Appetite For Destruction. Can you be a rock fan without listening to Aerosmith, Guns N Roses and Van Halen? Sure, but that's like being an English Literature scholar and dismissing the canon of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens et al. There is a (sometimes) Dead White Men reading list for longhairs, and Van Halen is on it.

I bought this from Essential Music in Bournemouth, probably my favourite music store of all time (though Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo runs it close). Part of the fun was the perma-scowling proprietor, who would no doubt much prefer if we spent our money on the Smashing Pumpkins or the Violent Femmes, but had to seethe in silence as my friends and I kept bringing Metallica and ZZ Top jewel cases to his desk. 

Review: The first couple of times I heard Van Halen, I didn't get it. Ask me now and I think it's not only one of the most important milestones in hard rock, but also an incredible listening experience. One of my favourite albums, for sure. However, the first few spins left me puzzled. Yes, it rocked, and the guitar work was phenomenal, but it seemed different in a slightly uncanny way.

Listening again, I can hear what confused the teenage version of myself; it's the tactile qualities of the sound, which was unlike anything else I'd hitherto experienced. Everything else I'd listened to had a kind of solidity to it that Van Halen lacks. Which isn't a mark against Van Halen - on the contrary, it's one of the more extraordinary elements to this album. We are talking about the late Eddie Van Halen's famous 'Brown Sound'. Whereas other electric guitar tones sound wiry, metallic and often harsh, here's a sound that is unctuous, splashy and warm. This was guitar as plasma - a shift from the earthbound, prosaic tones that had previously dominated, yet there was nothing unsubstantial about it.

Of course, this wouldn't be too much to write home about if it weren't for the fact that the individual wielding this space-age sound wasn't a virtuoso. I've had a good twenty years with Van Halen and it remains probably my very favourite 'guitar' album. Successors to the guitar god crown, like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert may have been technically more accomplished, but none of them get close to the sense of freewheeling abandonment that EVH conjures up with his seemingly off-the-cuff pyrotechnics. As evidence, I would submit 'I'm The One', an up-tempo rocker kicked up a few notches from 'good' to 'outstanding' by the pop-eyed way Eddie wrangles his instrument, coaxing out ever more outrageous sounds with the most wild swing feeling to his playing. You know what it sounds like? A shit ton of FUN.

Speaking of which, that's another aspect to Van Halen that comes through loud and clear. Although the fabled Punk Year Zero had already happened by the time this platter dropped, many of the big stadium beasts endured. Fat, lazy and complacent, yes, but still lurching their way around the arena circuit, plying their constipated brand of blooz rock with ever diminishing returns. Above all else, these bands sounded altogether too serious, too pretentious by half - one gets the impression they'd not only sniff their own farts approvingly, but also recommend they pair nicely with a '68 DRC pinot noir.

Van Halen - and Van Halen - swept that all away. Of course, there were bands who understood rock could be a laff before Van Halen - Slade, Kiss, the Dictators, Alice Cooper - but something changed with this doozy. On top of a warmer sound, you also had the one-man party that was David Lee Roth, a gorgeous blonde apparition who karate-kicked and back-flipped his way through the live show. He might not have been the best singer around - hell, there's a case to be made that bassist Michael Anthony was the best singer in Van Halen - but even on record, he had the same spark evident in Bon Scott of AC/DC, which gave the impression that he was always having a grand old time.

An amusing part of looking back at Van Halen is seeing how critics at the time reacted. Fairly unfavourably, as it turns out! Robert Christgau, who couldn't review hard rock or metal to save his life, predicted Van Halen would go the way of Deep Purple et al into turgidity (which, whilst Roth was in the band, never happened), whilst another compares Eddie's playing with that of Jimmy Page or Joe Walsh. What the fuck? Okay, Van Halen didn't spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus, but to put a trotter like Walsh next to EVH is so off beam as to be laughable. If we're talking antecedents, the big one for me is Montrose, which also did quirky and playful things with guitar, and the good-time sensibilities of 'Bad Motor Scooter' or 'Good Rockin' Tonight' would've fit snugly onto Van Halen (the beginning of 'On Fire' actually resembles Montrose's 'Space Station No. 5', to my old ears anyhow). You could also make the case that David Lee Roth was like a turbo-charged version of Black Oak Arkansas frontman 'Big' Jim 'Dandy' Mangrum, another flaxen-haired barnstormer who brought an aw-shucks charm to proceedings. 

However, neither of those acts could've pulled off the feat of making bar-band stalwart 'You Really Got Me' sound so fresh and exciting, nor could they have dreamt of the headrush craziness of 'Atomic Punk'. Returning to the theme of 'fun', who else would've slammed down a composition like 'Eruption' on the table? This was, pure and simple, Eddie and the boys saying "can your favourite guitarist do this?", and the answer was, no, absolutely not. However, because everything is kept so light and breezy, the braggadocio and confidence on display make you smile - there's no side, no pretension, just four guys kicking out the jams.

One could, if gripped by a bilious mood, also point the finger at Van Halen as the inspiration of the many deep crimes committed by the hair metal genre. It's fair to say that without Van Halen, there wouldn't have been a slew of hair farmers finger-tapping their solos and squealing about havin' nuthin' but a good time. So what? Every important cultural artefact inspires a clutch of lesser imitators. Many tried, but none were able to match the gusto, the ambition and the controlled lunacy of Van Halen. I've enjoyed listening to it so much whilst writing this review, I'm skipping straight back to the beginning.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Long Good Friday OST - Francis Monkman

 

Provenance: Unlike most good movies, this one is going to be heavy on exposition. How I obtained the soundtrack to The Long Good Friday is simple enough - I bought it from an online retailer - but the journey leading to that point was somewhat longwinded. No fan of brevity I, so I'll indulge myself a little.

As a youngster I was an avid listener to late night radio. This initially meant falling asleep to the strains of oldies station Classic Gold (828 AM!), later graduating to Talk Radio (1053/1089 AM) before settling on BBC Radio Five Live (909/693 AM), a habit I continue to observe to the present day. My first encounter with the theme to The Long Good Friday was as the intro music to one of the Talk Radio presenters, whose name escapes me now. I do recall, however, that James Whale used 'Junkie Chase' from Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack as his theme.

At some point or another in my teens, I actually got around to watching The Long Good Friday, and I still recall registering the little jolt of surprise that it featured the Talk Radio music. Still, a good track is a good track, so I went to sniff it out at HMV, the only place pre-Amazon where I felt I had a fighting chance of getting hold of it. As it so happens the OST was in the dog-eared catalogue under the counter, so I ordered it, waiting a good two years for it to show up. Every time I went to load up on Joe Satriani or Bad Company albums, I'd enquire at the desk, and the same sad-eyed man in the scruffy polo shirt would tell me no, my soundtrack hadn't arrived.

And that, my friends, was that. I bought the DVD (one of about four films I physically own), have enjoyed the film a few times, recommended it to friends and then quite forgot about the soundtrack. Until, one day at work, I ventured an ill-advised Harold Shand impersonation, which opened the floodgates of my memory to the extent that the same evening I had found and purchased The Long Good Friday OST on CD. It arrived at my flat within three days.

As an aside, it's Easter Sunday and, hey hey, I'm doing The Long Good Friday. This is about the second time I've deliberately themed a review, not something I imagine I'll repeat in a hurry because I'm too lazy to look up birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Nonetheless, happy Easter.

Review: Before Amazon we had the HMV in-store catalogue (which to my mind, contained all the music worth owning); likewise, before we had Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels we had The Long Good Friday. I like both films, but the latter is the far more accomplished and intelligent gangster flick. Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Charlie from Casualty, it's the story of mobster Harold Shand (Hoskins) attempting to cut a property deal with an American crime syndicate whilst, simultaneously, doing battle with the IRA after a botched money-drop.

It captures a fascinating time and place - Shand as an avatar of the dawning age of Thatcherism, trying to go legit with the redevelopment of London Docklands. Footage of the Docklands area, portrayed here as a grimy wasteland dotted with scrapyards and abandoned wharves is in itself a time capsule of a bygone age; the expensive flats and high-rise offices now on the site of riverine industry are not uncontentious in themselves. Here, fiction and reality intersect - watch this fascinating conversation between Hoskins and Barry Norman to see where the emotional nexus of The Long Good Friday originates from.

Final note about the film - whilst not in-depth, writing from Brexit Britain it's interesting to hear East End gangster Shand waxing lyrical about how London soon be considered the capital of Europe. Later, when the Americans get cold feet, Shand threatens to partner instead with "a German mob - the krauts!" and parts with the rejoinder, "what I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a ’ot dog, know what I mean?" All rather strange, given the desperation with which the government of the day has tried, latterly, to cosy up to President Trump, the very epitome of transatlantic crassness that Shand so derides.

Wait - isn't this a music blog?

So, to Francis Monkman's (he of Curved Air fame) original soundtrack - a tough one to review, because outside of the main title theme, it feels unfair to comment on music divorced from the images it was meant to illuminate. This is nothing like, say, the aforementioned Superfly soundtrack, which Mayfield wrote as an impressionistic commentary to the film's action. It's straight-down-the-line stuff for the most part, aside from a sticky reggae number that begins promisingly but falls down on an ill-advised - and poorly executed - vocal by Hoskins, here doing a Jamaican accent

Having said all that, the incidental music is rather fun! Just like the main theme, many of the successive tracks combine keyboard and synthesizer with traditional instrumentation, a marriage that still feels fresh. Flutes compete with square waveform synths, slashing bursts of electronic static scythe through Philly soul string arrangements, all to great effect. There's the merest intuition that some cues have been taken from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, but everyone borrows from everyone, so why fuss? The exception to this is a delicate, and quite beautiful, solo guitar piece called 'Sarabande in B Minor / Guitar Flamenco'. 

Ultimately, it's Monkman's main theme I came for, and to this day it doesn't disappoint. Urgent, juddering synthesizers set the pulse of not only the track but also the ramping tension of the film, before everything is swamped with the exuberant blart of a showband horn section. Squidging (the correct technical term, I believe) these two disparate ideas together is a musical exercise in tightrope walking, but it works; the effect is electrifying. Crystal Palace used to run out to this music, don'tchaknow!

Don't worry about this OST - I needed to have it, a compulsion to right a (perceived) wrong of the past made me do it. Instead, experience this music in its proper context by watching The Long Good Friday. You could even treat yourself to a 'ot dog or two whilst doing so - know what I mean? 

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Essential Collection - Muddy Waters

 

Provenance: A question to those of you who play musical instruments - when you first started to squeeze out some sounds, what were you attempting to play?

For me, on a Hohner Rockwood Pro RP250 (one of the heaviest guitars I've ever played, incidentally), it was blues music.

Prior to picking up the guitar I had no real regard for blues music, albeit the majority of bands I was listening to at the time played material heavily derivative of the genre. I had - have - no natural musical ability, as friends, bandmates and neighbours can attest to; furthermore, there is a fine balancing act to be performed when learning an instrument relatively late on, inasmuch as the frustrations need to be tempered with the green shoots of progress.

For me, that proved to be blues music - as my guitar instructor showed me, with just three chords and knowledge of the minor pentatonic scale, a beginner can sound halfway accomplished. It worked, and twenty years down the line I still enjoy the simple pleasures of improvising over the three-chord trick, especially as working within such strictures makes you, the player, focus on how you're playing, every bit as much as what you're playing.

So, as a newly-minted bluesman, the future king of the Stour Delta, I needed to do some homework. Boy, did I. I became that most insufferable of individuals, a teenage blues buff. Knowing, at the very least, who Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and BB King were became something of a litmus test (though BB wasn't really my cup of tea, you see - a little too sleek and urbane for this adolescent purist!). I wouldn't even worry my fellow young millennials about the likes of Pinetop Perkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and the rest, however - from my lofty perch, I simply couldn't imagine the hoi polloi were able to tear themselves away from the pabulum of Mogwai, Creed and Linkin Park and join me on the blues highway. Think of the worst kind of black metal gatekeeper, multiply by about six, and you've got me, the 17 year-old blues fan.

Anyway, I obviously had to start somewhere, and I think this followed hot on the heels of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood (and there was me chaffing BB King!) as a formative blues purchase.

Review: Well, I suppose the first observation that needs to be made is that this album contains a good number of tracks written by the masterful Willie Dixon, performed by the legendary Muddy Waters, and backed by what is considered to be the greatest Chicago blues backing band ever assembled; Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Little Walter blowing harp, Elga Edmonds on drums and Otis Spann tinkling the ivories. That is, Little Walter of 'Juke' and 'Blues With a Feeling' fame, Jimmy Rogers, who popularised 'That's All Right' and 'Walkin' By Myself', and Otis Spann, who worked with Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker, to name a few. None too shabby.

But here I am getting ahead of myself - I am already assuming you know these folks, and can nod along with these achievements. For the uninitiated, I'll say this - these guys were giants, backing a colossus. 

I almost feel like ending it here and imploring you - ordering you - to hunt down Muddy tearing through tracks like 'I Got My Mojo Working', 'Baby, Please Don't Go', 'I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man', 'I Just Want to Make Love to You' and 'Mannish Boy'. It's the kind of canned heat we should be blasting off to Mars and beyond, because if any space aliens found this shit they'd soon a) realise that we're not an entire waste of galactic space and b) give pause about invading us. It'd a pre-emptive strike, folks, and by hittin' em with the low smoke (to borrow a phrase from Joe Frazier) we might just survive unscathed. 

For those of you unaware of the Muddy Waters experience, the man is one of those people - like Howlin' Wolf - who explodes out of the speakers, his singing an extension of his personality. And what a personality! He's already middle-aged by the time he's cutting numbers and heads with Chess Records, but that's entirely to his advantage - the swagger, the virility, the braggadocio is shot through with an effortless authority. His rough, soulful voice would be a great weapon regardless, but for Waters the blues wasn't about keening or moaning; no, for him it was a vehicle for boasting, for tall tales, for hairy metaphors, sawdust on the floor and guaranteed good times. Even when Waters is ostensibly playing the puppy-eyed wooer in 'I Want To Be Loved', it still sounds as if he's already got the hotel room booked and champagne on ice.

However, the rather bargain hodgepodge of The Essential Collection doesn't just focus on what is considered by critics to be his zenith; it also contains tracks from later albums, so we get two from his 'lions-in-winter' album Can't Get No Grindin'; and 'Mannish Boy' from his psychedelic effort Electric Mud, a collection that revels in a one-and-a-half star review on Allmusic but powerful enough a testament for Chuck D of Public Enemy to reassemble some of the session players to re-record the big numbers for a documentary (one I would love to see again, but cannot find online). There are some curios here, too, such as a solo performance of 'Rollin' Stone' and a 'She Moves Me' featuring label boss Leonard Chess accompanying Waters on bass drum with an almost majestic level of incompetence.

What more can I say? It's a 'best of', from one of the bests, whose electric blues was simply tougher, more raucous and, in the toss-up, more exciting than almost anything else going. I don't need to sign off with a 'buy this album' plea, just find any collection of his Chess recordings as a starting point and have yourself a ball.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Only A Lad - Oingo Boingo

 

Provenance: Oingo Boingo were a personal recommendation made to me. After a little research of my own, I bought today's album, Only A Lad, and a later effort called Dead Man's Party.

Review: This is the full-length debt of a band with at least one member who would go on to do, shall we say, other things (I hesitate to use 'greater' in the usual formulation). Although a clutch of Boingo alumni would move into film and TV scoring, its vocalist and rhythm guitar player Danny Elfman whose work is the most immediately familiar. Aside from scoring many Tim Burton films (the best of his output, in my opinion, featuring in The Nightmare Before Christmas), there's also the small matter of the theme tune to The Simpsons.

All of which is totally banal and rather irrelevant, because aside from a predilection for quirky compositional choices, hints of the later career only surface sporadically in the sparky, pulsing New Wave rock on Only A Lad. It's a cool sound, too, marrying the punchiness of bass-driven pop with inventive horn charts, characterful vocals and dark humour.

And, oh yeah, they really 'go there' at times. By which I mean, if you're not familiar with the infamous lead-off track 'Little Girls', you might just want to apply some circumspection to the way you word your Google search. However, a lyric refracted through the twisted justifications of a (wannabe?) child abuser notwithstanding, it's a primo cut of Oingo Boingo; tense, claustrophobic, dancing on the edge of hysteria and yet grimly funny for all that. The video, which takes some of its cues from German Expressionism, is worth a shufti, discomforting as it is.

This isn't the only instance where Elfman and co. decide to shine a light into the murkier corners of society with a dash of irony and a catchy beat. The title track 'Only A Lad' is, if anything, an even better - and more excruciating - listen than 'Little Girls'; not so much the subject matter, which in this instance is a murderous child, but in the skin-tightening stress of the strangulated vocals and ominous electronics jabbing away at your cerebral cortex. Yet, once again, it's a corker of pop song.

These tiptoes into taboo represent the most transgressive material that Oingo Boingo cover, but that doesn't make the rest of Only A Lad easy listening at all. Much of the album concerns itself with feelings of isolation, a sense heightened by Elfman's hyperactive, madcap delivery. So we have 'Capitalism', dripping with irony and sounding like Duane Eddy crossed with Devo; the stuttering rhythms of the bouncy paean to alienation that is 'On The Outside'; and a deconstructive take on the Kinks' hoary old garage band fave 'You Really Got Me', with vocals that prefigure Eiffel 65's 'Blue' by almost two decades. In fact, it's in the midsection and coda to 'You Really Got Me' where you can, with finely-tuned ears (pay attention, children!) hear a nascent sound that would soon be fully realised and parping out of a billion TV sets to herald the start of a Simpsons episode.

A criticism I have seen about Oingo Boingo, and specifically about Only A Lad, is that they too often favour a 'kitchen sink' approach to production and arrangement, throwing all kinds of wacky sounds and whiplash tonal changes into the music. I don't get it. The only time I think this holds some validity is on closer 'Nasty Habits', although I would argue that the bells and whistles suit the knockabout atmosphere. Otherwise, Only A Lad shares some of its sensibility with Talking Heads, Discipline-era King Crimson, The Tubes, Japan and a few others who were unafraid to fill their records with discordance and interesting sounds without sacrificing the ability to write a tune. 

Yes, Tin Pan Alley this ain't - you'd be pressed to whistle too much of this, despite the catchiness; at times Elfman's vocal acrobatics can produce a faint ache behind the eyes, but the commitment to his role of a manic lord of misrule is almost actorly. Spoiler alert: the spikier edges are sanded away on later releases like Dead Man's Party (albeit, it's an interesting album in its own right), but for the quintessential Boingo, look no further than this kaleidoscopic circus of raw nerves, high anxiety - and quality music.    

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Welcome To My Nightmare - Alice Cooper

 

Provenance: I was already deep into my Cooper fandom by the time I got this album. A fandom, I should add, that my dad is directly responsible for.

Formative experiences with live music can be, if not always life-changing, then choice-affirming; I've mentioned it before but seeing Alice Cooper top a bill that included Orange Goblin and Dio was one of those instances where I felt everything clicked into place. I now own multiple albums of each artist.

Incidentally, I realise that I have yet to delve into the band Alice Cooper thus far on this blog, whose output many critics rate as superior. Guess what? They're probably right. Guess what? I don't care, this is my little corner of cyberspace and I'll happily keep on pushing the likes of Trans, Recycler and Chinese Democracy over and above more canonical works of those respective artists.

Review: Nobody's arguing the toss as to the position of Welcome To My Nightmare in the Cooper back catalogue; this ain't no DaDa or Zipper Catches Skin. Any Coop fan will have this in their collection, the only wrinkle being that this was the first record sans Smith, Bruce, Dunaway and Buxton. Which should be a big loss, as nothing else that I've heard to date has quite sounded like the original Alice Cooper band. Furthermore, if I was indulging in putting together a fantasy supergroup, Dennis Dunaway is probably the leading candidate in the bass slot.

But these are ruminations for another time! I'll hopefully get around to Killer and Billion Dollar Babies one day, which will give me ample time to blather about Dunaway; I wish no disservice to the bassists who actually played on Welcome To My Nightmare, Prakash John and noted rock slaphead / Chapman stick-botherer Tony Levin. Anyway, who's complaining about Tony Levin being up in your business? Not me 

Probably the biggest misconception about Alice Cooper is that he is a heavy metal artist. Yeah, he has been, now and again, especially when he relinquished the mantle of innovation to chase trends in a bid for relevance. Yet whilst there are elements of hard rock on Welcome To My Nightmare, if I may go all Jilly Goolden on you, there are also strong overtones of glam-rock, prog and even musical showtunes in the mix. In that respect, it's not so different from many other rock albums starting from the Pretty Things' remarkable S.F. Sorrow insofar as here is a version of popular music that is all grown up. Making the admixture of genres and influences come together to into a unified whole is a different kettle of fish, however.

I am happy, nay, gleeful, to report that Welcome To My Nightmare pulls off this high-wire act with aplomb. That the sequencing means we can bounce from the heavy riffing of 'The Black Widow' to 'Some Folks', which sounds like a demented twist on something from West Side Story, then onto the balladry of 'Only Women Bleed' - successfully - is testament to both the quality of the music and a kind of quiet internal logic holding it all together.

When I see Alice Cooper perform live, one of my favourite moments of the show is when he unhooks a set of supplementary 'arms' on his specially prepared jacket to signal the pummelling intro to 'The Black Widow', a genuine headbanger with a seasick bassline and weird lyrics about a spider-king that rules the earth. On record the effect is hardly diminished, and in fact it could be argued that this is the definitive version because it contains the lengthy spoken-word introduction, performed by the immortal Vincent Price. Truly, I feel a little kick of joy in my heart every time 'Devil's Food' begins to fade and I hear that lubricious, cartoon-sinister voice intone "Leaving lepidoptera - please don't touch the display, little boy...".

It's worth sticking with that trifecta of songs to reflect on 'Only Women Bleed' for a moment. In today's climate it seems like an impossibly clumsy song to be sung by a man, but behind the yuks of the double entendre lies an oddly tender song about the endurance of women suffering from domestic abuse. There has always been an intelligence behind Cooper's lyrics, something Bob Dylan has publicly acknowledged, but sympathetic takes for the victims of domestic abuse were rare in the era of 'wimmin'-dun-me-wrong' chest-beating mid-70s rock. Who else did something like this? Perhaps Cheap Trick with 'The House Is Rockin'', though they always had a knack of wrapping razorblades in bubblegum.

Anyway, not long after 'Only Women Bleed' is 'Cold Ethyl', a paean to necrophilia that landed him in hot water with the columnist Ann Landers. It also happens to be the best hard rock track on Welcome To My Nightmare, a song that Slash has claimed as his favourite. Catch me in the right mood and it's probably mine, too.

What comes after 'Cold Ethyl' is a succession of tracks that forms a mini-opera about an individual named Steven, who appears to be suffering from hallucinations, paranoia and a few other things. Whilst much of everything preceding has smacked of Grand Guignol fun 'n' frolics (bar 'Only Women Bleed'), the tonal shift to something edgier and darker makes this an uncomfortable listen. The tension, however, is broken by the album's final cut, the Kim Fowley-penned three-minute glam-slam of 'Escape', as bouncy and celebratory as it ever got for Coop. Still, the question lingers - is Welcome To My Nightmare a concept album in disguise? Has every musical turn and chicane been a wander through Steven's imagination? Does it matter?

When push comes to shove, these questions just add to the overall enjoyment of Welcome To My Nightmare. The fate of Steven is left unresolved, and so are my questions. I don't mind sitting with ambiguity, it doesn't feel like a cheat - especially if it's the price on pays to fully appreciate the five-star brilliance of this most colourful, sparkiest, imaginative artefact of 1970s rock.