Sunday 27 December 2015

It's That Time Of Year Again

The moment when everybody is doing their Annual Roundup of "Stuff I've Done Which Was Better Than The Stuff You've Done", organising a ranking Albums, Films, Books, TV Programmes and Tea Towels into handy Cut Out and Keep Guides for the discerning (and not so discerning) public, and generally casting a warm glow over the nostalgic (or soon to be nostalgic) events of the Year.
I have always viewed myself as bit of a maverick.  Always out to do the unexpected, so I'm not going to do the the Yearly Compendium thing?

Actually I am going to do the listing thing, but first (and excuse the self-indulgence), it has been a bit of a sh*t year personally.
Starting with the completely insignificant failure of my new lighter, from that point on the months seemed to spiral downwards.
Along the way was a blown head gasket in my car, a broken fence, a water leak, and a complete meltdown in the middle of Brussels.
The summer offered no respite with the information that as a result of an organisational review, my job was "at risk of redundancy".  I survived, but it was squeaky bum time, and this information did little to restore my faith or confidence within myself.
The personal re-building started in Autumn, and I seem to have shaken off my feelings of self-hatred and paranoia.
Why am I writing this?
Along with possibly stupid belief that new glasses, cleaned up ears (I can finally hear properly again) and a new pair of shoes, this is another step in the Rebuilding Programme.

I know there are people who have had a tougher time, but it was not a comfortable 12 months for me.

Thank You for listening.

Now normal service will be resumed ...

Despite the personal tribulations, 2015 listening has been a rare old year.
Every magazine and website is publishing their Top 10s, and on cursory viewing I note 2 things:
1.  They're all wrong
2.  10 is not enough to do justice to many of the superb release of 2015.

So, Ladies and Genitals.  Please be seated/upstanding (whatever?) for the Rigid Digit Top 16:
(a brief note of explanation - no matter how objective I am, I just can't split the Top 3.  Each have their own merits, but none deserve to be be bumped to a lower place.  That is why, like a Primary School running race, I have 3 Number 1s)

1. Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space
How many males growing up in the 1970s were not fascinated by Space Travel. This album records the USA vs Soviet Union Space Race, and employs the Public Service Broadcasting rasion d'etre of laying music tracks over voice recordings documenting the first statements of intent to the final Lunar Missions of 1972.
Whilst I hate the phrase, this album really is a "journey" and best listened to in one sitting.  From the moment of "We WILL do it", the first man in space, the first space walk, the actual moon landing.

1. Cathal Smyth - A Comfortable Man
There are moments on the PSB album which are melancholic, but then the mood is immediately lifted by the next track.  Cathal Smyth's solo offering remains rooted in the melancholy.  It is dark, confessional, raw, and personal.  But yet also life affirming and oddly lifting too.  There's a story being told, and Cathal is telling it straight and true - one can't help but admire his honesty.

1. FFS - FFS
Franz Ferdinand and Sparks?  Together?  On the same album?  How does that work then?  Answer: absolutely brilliantly
There are moments when you hear each band independently, but then they come together and the result is "greater than the sum of it's parts".
This album contains everything you'd expect from these two - overblown bombast, spiky guitar riffs, narrative story, and with "Collaborations Don't Work" they are both (sort of) taking the p*ss out of themselves and creating a grandiose epic akin to the madness of Bohemian Rhapsody.

4. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Buying an unheard album on the strength of one track can often lead to disappointment.  Not in this case - "Dead Fox" was merely an introduction to the world of Courtney Barnett.  There's something here for everyone.  From 90s indie (with a dash of Americana) to a Blues Jam to a Suzanne Vega-esque navel gazing musing.  There are flashes of humour, clever use of lyrics and an almost deadpan, narrative vocal delivery, coupled to a freshness to the performance which never fades.

5. Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now
This is the sound of PiL doing what they want, and who would expect anything else from the band.  The only obvious difference to note is that this is probably the most accessible of all the PiL catalogue.  The opening track ("Double Trouble") sounds like an attempt to out-Sleaford Mods the Sleaford Mods, but PiL exist in their own universe and the is no way that that shorthand description is in any way a criticism.  You've got the snarling John, the musing on life John, the attacking the absurd and contradictory John.  And then to top it all off, in the middle you've got PiL delivering a love song.

6. Iron Maiden - Book Of Souls
Iron Maiden sort of "lost it" when Bruce Dickinson jumped ship in 1992.  The two albums with Blaze Bayley were interesting if not vital.  If I'm honest, it was sort of Maiden by Numbers without the focus on the Vocals.  Since his return, they've got better with each subsequent release culminating in this album which is pretty much everything you could want from 21st Century Maiden.  Where previous albums have gone down the Prog-like drawn out epic route, this album balances the proggy-ness with the galloping tracks of old, all punctuated with liberal use of Nicko McBrain's ride cymbal.

7. Frank Turner - Positive Songs For Negative People
Six albums in, each album has (to paraphrase one of the tracks on this album) Got Better.  OK, so perhaps the music has become shinier and more radio friendly, but no matter, what you've got here are 12 songs of joyous air-punching Folk-Punk mixed with more introspective musings.  Maybe not as strong as previous releases, my only fear is he may be becoming a bit "formulaic" (future albums may well prove me wrong).

8. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday
There is a certain familiarity to many of these songs, almost sounding like Noel's "partially solo" outings in Oasis, but add in some greasy saxophones, a bit of melancholy, a touch of attempted jazz-iness, and a dollop of psychedelia (think: Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, and even a smidgeon of David Bowie) what you end up with is an album of Noel being Noel, and thoroughly enjoying it.

9. Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase
The terms "Prog" and "Concept Album" can invoke thoughts of impenetrable stories and musical virtuosity bordering on self-indulgence.  This album is both of those aforementioned terms, but does NOT comply with the simplistic, apocryphal definitions.  Yes, it is a concept album which needs to be heard from start to finish to be fully appreciated, but it is time well spent.

10. Paul Weller - Saturns Pattern
One of the tracks on this album suggests a certain contentment with himself ("I'm Where I Should Be").  Well, since the release of 'As Is Now' ten years ago, every album release has been rooted in a different style.  And every time, he's come up with a winner.  'Saturns Pattern' is another diversion, and another winning collection.  Funk, soul, a Stooges meets Hawkwind thrash, electronica, psychedelia - it's all here, and all works.  The only question is: where next?  what is his next challenge?

11. John Grant - Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
I have huge admiration for John Grant's debut album 'Queen Of Denmark', not so much for the follow-up 'Pale Green Ghosts'.  The second album was too electronic-y and downbeat for my liking.  Although over time I have come to appreciate it more.
This album offers almost a perfect compromise between the two.  It has the wry songwriting of QoD, and the elctronic/80s washes and soundscapes of PGG.  Oh, and the track "Down Here" is probably the biggest, most insistent earworm of recent months.

12. Gaz Coombes - Matador
The album where the Supergrass frontman becomes Thom Yorke.  Too simplistic?  Probably, but there is a comparison.
Gaz does just about everything himself here and has produced an album a mellow tracks with an air of darkness in places.  There are moments when maybe the presence of bandmates may have helped him edit a bit more, but the album is a wonderful piece of work and deserves a wider audience than it probably achieved.

13. The Decemberists - What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
If you're going to release an album in January, make sure it is a corker to ensure that it will be remembered 12 months later.  That is exactly what The Decemberists have done here.  A great slab of Folky-Americana with slight stabs of Mumford and Sons (no, wait ... come back!), REM and Nick Drake (or at least that's how it came across to these ears)

14. Blur - The Magic Whip
'Think Tank' left Blur with a somewhat disheveled legacy.  Their 2009 reformation and Glastonbury headline offered hope of righting this limp ending.  Two singles have appeared since, but no full album.  Until now ...
'The Magic Whip' picks up where 'Think Tank' left off with added Graham Coxon, and 12 years experience.  There are moments where it sounds like a Damon Albarn album, but the rest of the band turn it into something more Blur.  "Ong Ong" has more than enough "Blur of old" about it, and in "Lonesome Street" there is another Blur classic in waiting.

15. Vaccines - English Graffiti
One of the biggest frustrations of being a 45 year old music obsessive is that there are very few "new" bands (ie young) that make you want to jump around like a nutter.  Enter The Vaccines - a band which offer hope to this middle aged curmudgeon.
Cleaner production and more "stadium rock" focussed than it's predecessors, it still contains the essential elements that you look for in rock music.

16. Tame Impala - Currents
The psychadelic overtones remain, but the guitars are stripped out replaced by synthesisers.  The sound is like a mash-up of Giorgio Moroder, Pet Shop Boys and Daft Punk, mixed with a bit of 67/68 vintage Beatles.  Influences and comparisons are all very well, but the songs are the most important part, and this album has them in spades.  Wonderfully written and constructed, and superbly arranged.

About time too: Dexys Midnight Runners - Don't Stand Me Down (The Directors Cut).
30 years I've been waiting to own a (legal/official) copy of this album, and never found one for less than the price of a small house in Doncaster.
This year, for no apparent reason, several copies became available on Amazon for less than £20.  Thank you very much, I'll have some of that!
Whilst not a new discovery, there is just a sense of achievement that I finally own this long sought after artifact.

Discovery #1: Hal - Hal
Released in 2005, but not heard until the opening track "What A Lovely Dance" was posted on a Music Website that I spend too much time on.  Bright, summery sound (think Beach Boys, Surf Music with added Nilsson, Beatles, Monkees and 1970s West Coast).
Perfect guitar pop?  Very probably (and only £1.59 on the Tax Dodgers website)

Discovery #2: Outlaws - Green Grass & High Tides (Best Of)
Fancy a bit of Countrified Southern Boogie?  Lynyrd Skynyrd may well be your first thought.  But wait ...  you can do a lot worse than delving into this lot.  Including one of the best versions of "Riders In The Sky", and with a guitar solo on the title track to match the enormity and magnificence of the accepted market leader "Freebird".

Should've been last year: The Strypes - Snapshot
Much like The Vaccines offering hope that there are still great new bands doing the rounds, there is also this lot.
Think Dr Feelgood mixed with equal parts early-Jam, and The Strypes will fill that gap.  From start to finish, this is a relentless assault of revved up RnB - whats not to like?  I just wish I'd not been so circumspect when I first became aware of their existence.

New Old: The Lambrettas - Beat Boys In The Jet Age
I only really knew 3 Lambrettas tracks ("Poison Ivy", "Go Steady" and "Cortina") - pleasant enough, but never considered the band to have much more about them.  Oh, I was very wrong.  The strength of this album shows that the band should be included with The Chords, Secret Affair and The Purple Hearts as being at the forefront of the Mod Revival.  May be a bit Mod-by-Numbers, but with added touch of Ska and strong songs delivered with energy and passion, this album lifts above many of it's contemporaries from the period.

Friday 16 October 2015

Alice Cooper

Detroit High School friends Vincent Furnier (later known as Alice Cooper), Dennis Dunaway and Glen Buxton first came together in the band The Earwigs in 1964.  Whilst they couldn't actually play, this did not stop them entering a local talent show and miming to Beatles tracks.  The experience of being on stage (and the fact that they won) inspired them to learn their chosen instruments, and renamed themselves The Spiders.
They released their fist single on a small, local record label, and the following year after graduating from High School and adding Michael Bruce to the line-up, released a second single to local acclaim.
1967 saw them renaming themselves The Nazz, recruiting drummer Neal Smith and re-locating to Los Angeles.
Another name change came in 1968 when it was discovered that Todd Rundgren's band had the same name, and The Alice Cooper Band was born.

The name Alice Cooper was taken from an American TV Series, and adapted/enhanced by the band with the addition of Baby Jane make-up and a lady killer back story.  This was the gimmick the band were looking for to add showmanship and theatre to their psychedelic-rock stage set.  The apocryphal tale, and widely accepted as fact (and not corrected by the band themselves) of the name coming from a Ouija Board has been subsequently de-bunked by the man himself.

Following an unsuccessful show which apparently cleared the venue after 15 minutes, the band were approached to audition for Frank Zappa's label Straight.  They dutifully arrived at the pre-arranged time and played their own brand of theatrical psychedelic rock.  The fact it was 7:00 AM, and not 7:00 PM as Zappa had intended did not dampen his enthusiasm and the band were signed to the label.

Debut album 'Pretties For You' was released in 1969 to limited response, and very little critical acclaim.  The album is a sort of American take on Pink Floyd psychedelia, but never breaks away and seems to remain pretty static (and, if I'm honest) and uninspired throughout.  It is listenable in the context of future offerings, but on its own it is not one I would return to.  The same can be said of 'Easy Action' (1970) - OK, but not devastatingly special.

Seemingly going nowhere in Los Angeles, the band returned home to Detroit and found themselves in the middle of an enthusiastic audience and burgeoning music scene featuring MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges.  The sound of the band toughened up too - psychedelia being replaced by a twin guitar hard rock sound.
In mid-1970, Frank Zappa sold Straight to Warner Brothers - so by default, the band found themselves with new paymasters.  "I'm Eighteen" was released as a single in November 1970 - performance of which dictated whether the band would/could record an album.
The presence of Bob Ezrin in the producers chair may be entirely coincidental, but the bands next album 'Love It To Death' was a huge jump in terms of songwriting and performance consistency.
Although not a world beater of an album, you can hear a band finding and exploiting their sound, and in the shape of "I'm Eighteen", "Is It My Body" and "The Ballad Of Dwight Fry" has three tracks that should form part of any Alice Cooper compilation.

As a result of continued promotion, including a tour featuring the execution of Alice Cooper (the first of many) and a hard rock (almost punk, before punk) band dressed up in burgeoning Glam Rock style, the public and the band and the Record company had high confidence of the next album "Killer".
Released in November 1971, the album is truly the beginning of the bands Imperial Phase.  Side 1 contains "Under My Wheels" (a dirty 12 bar blues on speed), "Be My Lover" (slower, still blues based but verging on Doo-Wop), "Halo Of Flies" is an attempt at Prog (King Crimsom-ish?) and "Desperado" is probably the best song The Doors never wrote (stick a Ray Manzarek keyboard on it, and it'd probably sit nicely on LA Woman).
Note: this is purely my opinion, and whilst it may upset Doors fans, then so be it!
Side 2 could never really compete after those 4 tracks, but they do manage to lever in controversy with "Dead Babies" and the title track "Killer" is as good as anything on Side 1 and closes the album pretty much perfectly.

'Schools Out' is perhaps the most well known (if only due to the single) of all Alice Cooper albums, but is not what you expect it to be.
It comes from a similar. but pushes itself with diversions/additions of Jazz and Broadway Musicals.
The title track doesn't necessarily fit with all the other tracks, but you'd miss it if it wasn't there.  And in this setting/order it works perfectly.
"Schools Out" opens the album on a high, "Luney Tune" keeps up the pace.
And then West Side Story kicks in with "Gutter Cat vs The Jets" - this is the point you think: "Heh?  This wasn't what I was expecting.  But I'm going to keep listening anyway".  The charisma and playing of the band keep you wanting more - it could almost be in any style, you're stuck for the next half hour or so, and want to hear what comes next.  "Blue Turk" continues the jazz-infused West Side Story musical theme, and nestled away in the middle of Side 2 is the best track on the album "Public Animal Number 9"
The album closes with the instrumental "Grand Finale" - almost like West Side Story meets big screen Cowboy movie - which never really breaks out into what you expect.  In fact it all sounds very restrained.
It's a strange album, because the title track suggests what is coming, but what the album does is confound you with a breadth of sound you weren't expecting, and walk away thoroughly satisfied.

And so to the pinnacle of the Alice Cooper catalogue - 'Billion Dollar Babies'.  Released in 1973 and hit Number 1 in the UK and US.  The band have never sounded this tight, or the vocals sounded this confident bouncing between characters and vocal ranges seemingly at will.
Many of the songs here have a "pop sensibility" about them (ie you wouldn't be too surprised to find them burned in your head, or absent-mindedly whistled by the Postman or Window Cleaner).  But there is also a darkness about the lyrical content and the delivery.  "Hello Hooray" opens the album in a properly welcoming style, if slightly on the edge of sinister, before the darkness descends with "Raped and Freezing".  "Elected" returns to sing-along (shout along?) style coupled with humurous, possibly sardonic and cutting lyrics.
The title track sees Alice Cooper inhabiting two distinct personalities - one in the form of a narrator, and the other sounding completely unhinged ("I'm so scared your little head will fall of in my hands").
"Unfinished Sweet" is basically a song about candy (or 'sweets' as they are correctly called in the UK).  It mixes distorted bass, trebly guitar stubs and thudding drum before opening into a straight rock song with stabs of psychedelia.  The effects employed, the seemingly disjointed instrumental passages (at one point deploying a close approximation of the James Bond Theme), the keyboard wash sound and eerie vocal sounds combine together to produce an intense, possibly disturbing whole.
The pop sensibility returns with "No More Mr Nice Guy" (which sounds a bit weedy after "Unfinished Sweet").  Whilst it is one of Alice Coopers better known songs, it does fall somewhat short when compared with the rest of this album.
A low bass and jaunty guitar heralds the introduction of "Generation Landslide", the song unfolds with simple acoustic guitar over a repetitious drum beat.  This is social commentary Alice Cooper style, and you can hear him growling through the song, and ends with an unexpected harmonica solo.
"Sick Things" is ultimately disposable, and perhaps trying a bit too hard to be dark and scary, but does add to the black, horror style of the album (albeit with tongue planted firmly in cheek).  This is followed by the seemingly simplistic piano ballad "Mary Ann".  Rooted in 40s/50s balladry, there are very few lines to the song which resolves itself in gender confusion ("Mary Ann, I though you were my man"), but you've gotta love the confidence in the band to stick a barrel-house piano song as the penultimate track on this album.
"I Love The Dead" is perhaps quintessential Alice Cooper - a sloppy bass introduction, a half-sung/half-spoken delivery and a subject matter straight from the graveyard.  The song is a celebration of necrophilia.  There a few lyrics, but a full atmospheric sound culminating in an anthemic sing-a-long, and ending with a couple of sharp horn blasts akin to Psycho, and then a sinister "Nothing!".
Surely it can't just be me that can see immense humour about 50,000 people in a field in Reading shouting and swaying along to "I Love The Dead"?

I realise 'Billion Dollar Babies' has been afforded more space in this write-up, but that's because it deserves it!

So after you've got to the top, where next?  Consolidate and incrementally improve?  Tread water and take the plaudits of expectation?  Lose yourself in alcohol and narcotics, leading to the loss of your producer and ultimately the break up of the band?

For their next outing, it was the latter of these options that the band chose. That is not to say that 'Muscle Of Love' is a bad album, far from it, it just can't compete with the previous 3 releases.
There are some strong songs here in the shape of "Muscle Of Love", "Never Been Sold Before", "Working Up A Sweat" and "Teenage Lament 74".  There is even an attempt to get a James Bond Theme Song with (possibly unintentionally hilarious) "The Man With The Golden Gun" - the band studied all previous Bond Themes and constructed this track for formal submission.  However, in true Spinal Tap style they submitted a day too late, so lost out to Lulu.

Internal band frictions, and the realisation that 'Muscle Of Love' would not reach the same heights as 'Billion Dollar Babies' convinced the band to take a break from each other - this break became a permanent split, with Alice Cooper retaining the name for his solo ventures and recruiting a new band (effectively what was Lou Reed's band).

The Imperial Phase is rounded off by a Greatest Hits compilation drawing material from the last 4 albums.  If you want to know about this phase of the bands career, this compilation will do the job admirably (although the only track from 'Schools Out' is the title track, so novice hunters may be in for a shock should they go deeper than the compilation).

The first fruits of Alice's solo career was 'Welcome To My Nightmare'.  This is a concept album charting the journey through the dreams/nightmares of the (later named) Steven.
The darkness of the lyrics and the vocals are taken up a notch (you feel like some of the tongue in cheek is missing, and he's playing it for real now), and the band plays straight, perhaps missing some of the chemistry/embellishments that may have come with the previous band members.
The fact that Bob Ezrin was back in the chair may (again) be entirely coincidental but there is a confidence and swagger about the album that was absent from the tired sounding 'Muscle Of Love'.
The title track "Welcome To My Nightmare" and "Department Of Youth" rank among the best songs he's ever released, but special mention should be given to the (seemingly out of place) ballad "Only Women Bleed" - a song of almost heart-rending confession and tenderness (is that the right word?) it is difficult to believe it has come from Alice Cooper.  There is an air of contrition and apology, and the song has been covered by many female artists including Elkie Brooks, Julie Covington, Lita Ford, Tina Turner and Tori Amos.  These covers tend to be from a female perspective (obviously) and offer a message of empowerment - who'd of thunk it, Alice Cooper: The voice of Female Rights.

'Welcome To My Nightmare' is the last truly great album Alice Cooper released.  After that it really was a case of diminishing returns.

Alice Cooper descends deeper into alcohol and narcotic abuse, and the albums do greatly suffer as a result.  There is a feeling of Contractual Obligation about the albums that followed - a case of not really trying too hard.  There are some high points, but these a few and far between.
"I Never Cry" from 'Alice Cooper Goes To Hell' is one such moment of light - the ballad is a virtual admittance of his alcoholism and you can almost feel the regret and helplessness.
In fairness, he did try a change of style with 1977s 'Lace And Whiskey' but it didn't really come off.  Likewise the return to the Comic Book Horror on 'From The Inside' just feels a bit cartoon-y, and trying too hard.  Not even the addition of Elton John's band can lift this much above "Average".
The first album of the 80s ('Flush The Fashion') is best described as Solid - there are some good songs on here, but could benefit form more work and they don't sound fully formed or finished.  The one exception that rises above the rest of the album is "Pain" - a song not to dis-similar from much of his past (and future) output but seemingly consigned to history (only Alice nerds seem to recognise it as one of his best).
Alice Cooper admits to having some recollection of the recording of 'Flush The Fashion', unlike the three albums that follow ('Special Forces' (1981), 'Zipper Catches Skin' (1982) and 'DaDa' (1983)).  Collectively, these albums are described as The Blackout Years - now, this may be a label of convenience or a revision of history, but there is very little on these records to redeem them, and even less to add to the Alice Cooper cannon.
This marked the end of his association with Warner Brothers.  After a period in rehab and a return to health and sobriety, Alice Cooper started writing and recording again - he was also invited to appear (in full make-up in a Twisted Sister video).  Renewed public interest resulted in signing to MCA Records, and the release of 'Constrictor', preceded by the single "He's Back (The Man Behind The Mask)".
Whilst not wishing to deride this album, and the follow-up 'Raise Your Fist And Yell', but beneath the glossy late 80s production, one can't help feel this is Alice Cooper By Numbers.
The decade is rounded off with the release of 'Trash' - a chance for Alice Cooper to translate his burgeoning "Legend of Rock" status into commercial shiny late 80s Hair Metal.
1991s 'Hey Stoopid' continued to play on this status, resulting in the album sounding laboured and drawn out - a real case of not trying too hard.  His appearance in the film Waynes World further consolidated this reverence, but also changed public perception of him from a Shock Rocker to be scared of, into a media figure.  He was portrayed as articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and restrained - those elements of his natural character which were hidden behind the make-up.

Alice Cooper continued to release records in parallel to his media activity, including numerous film and TV appearances, TV adverts, and his own Radio show.
As I don't actually own any of these, a quick trip to YouTube and Spotify suggests that whilst they are certainly listenable, there is very little there of any noticeable substance (except perhaps 'Welcome 2 My Nightmare' which is written in my notebook under the title "Explore Further ...")


Under My Wheels

I Love The Dead

Only Women Bleed


Sunday 13 September 2015

Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now

The debut album by Public Image is one of those un-impeachable debuts - every moment of every track sounds so vital, so important, so "real" - like the authors actually cared about what they were doing, not assembling stuff and then sticking in some filler to make up time and appease their record company overlords.
I have bought and enjoyed every subsequent Public Image Limited Release - maybe not on first listen, but they all get under your skin eventually.  But, to my ears, none have surpassed the debut outing.
However, with the release of "What The World Needs Now", I think there is some very close competition.

Opening with one of the many songs on this album which are unlikely to get played on the radio (only in edited form), "Double Trouble" sees John Lydon in fine over-enunciating form, backed by Lu Edmonds relentless guitar and solid, thundering, rhythm backing from Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith.
A broken toilet resulting in an argument with your partner may not seem like song material, but it works perfectly.  As does the invokation of mundanity "Domestos Is ... Domestic Bliss" - surely a phrase to adorn a thousand T-Shirts (or to put John back in the world of 30 second TV appearances).
The music is insistent, repetitious, looping and compliments the sometimes barbed, sometimes humourous, always onest and straightforward lyrics perfectly.
There is the snarling PiL on "Know Now" layed over a razor sharp metallic guitar riff, the attack on the hypocrisy of the US (and probably the world!).  There are musings on life, and what it has to offer ("C'est La Vie", "Spice Of Choice") and almost perfect pop (within the confines of PiL, obviously) with an echo of T.Rex and David Bowie ("The One").
"Big Blue Sky" is almost Prog-Dub with a spoken delivery, before exploding into a grandiose, almost epic chorus. "Whole Lifetime" finds our narrator still trying to make sense of everything, before two 'State Of The Nation' addresses under the titles of "I'm Not Satisfied" and "Corporate".
The album closes with "Shoom" - a tirade of confrontational swearing set over a insistent dance beat.  It is delivered with force and spite, but also contains great humour and doesn't sound like a purposeful or gratuitous exercise.  You get the feeling this could also be titled "I'm Not Satisfied Part II" and is a venting of all life's frustrations wrapped in in a collection of Bollocks, Tits and Fucks.

The whole album sounds more cohesive and complete than previous outing 'This Is PiL'.
The band sound in rude health - still railing against hypocrisy, stupidity and the perceived ills of the world.  Still imploring us all to think and be ourselves.  This album is proof of what being and doing what you want is the only way forward.
Leading up to the release, John Lydon declared that this was his best work for 30-odd years.  Common marketing speak it may sound like, but I think he was absolutely right
No-one can really say, definitively, what the world needs now, but what the world has GOT is Public Image Limited - long may they continue on this form.

Double Trouble

The One

Sunday 23 August 2015

Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People

An overly simplistic description of Frank Turner would be:
A Shouty Billy Bragg, without the politics

This is the sixth album from the Folk-Punk Singer Songwriter.  Each album has contained songs ranging from the confessional, to the rabble-rousing all wrapped up in folk-punk story songs, complete with uplifting choruses, and heart worn firmly on his sleeve.

As the opening track ("The Angel Islington") progresses, you feel that the title of the album may be a bit of a misnomer.  It starts slowly, and in a downward, almost naval-gazing tone, and never really lists.  Lyrically, however, you can pick up on the positive intent, concerning itself with picking one-self up and starting again. As openers go, musically this is a bit of a downer - it's nice enough, but lacks "something" to draw you in, and you can't help wishing it would actually go somewhere. Nice enough, but not perhaps a storming opener in the way "Discovery" from his previous effort 'Tape Deck Heart' was.
No matter, the second track "Get Better" is back into more noisy, bouncing territory.  There are points when you can almost hear his voice (and throat) breaking.
"The Next Storm" is a track that contains many familiar elements, but I can't for the life of me work out what they are.  Whatever - play loud, sing (or shout) along and this tune will bury itself in your head.
The mandolin-laden "The Opening Act Of Spring" maintains the feel-good affirmation apparent in the last couple of songs, but for me it was around this point I was overtaken by an unfortunate feeling of "saminess" about the album.  That is not to say what follows as any less worthy, just that it took more than the usual three listens to start finding more in the songs that followed.
"Glorious You" is cut form the same cloth as "Get Better" (maybe slightly more acoustic), and has that instrumental drop-out section ensuring it will be a favourite in a live arena.
"Mittens" is a curious one - a song of lost love based on the memory of a pair of woolly hand warmers.  It si both cringe-worthy and moving in equal parts.  Either way, the song starts in a fairly low-key sparse manner before building to the familiar rabble-rousing chorus, and then returning to the plaintive acoustic.
"Out Of Breath" is an apt title - full throttle, break neck tempo.  Complete with military drums, strings, pub piano (and probably the kitchen sink for good measure).  On first hearing, the guitar solo in the middle could easily be mistaken for a kazoo.
The riff to "Demons" sounds like it was nicked from Status Quo, but you can't help feeling that the album is perhaps running out of steam and the intentions, messages and tunes becoming all to familiar.
"Josephine" does nothing to change this feeling about the album, although it should be said that this is one of the stronger tracks in the collection.  Maybe it was an executive decision of sequencing so that Side 2 (in old money) would get just as much play-time as Side 1.
"Love Forty Down" is back to territory, employing a tennis metaphor a few more times than necessary to get the point across.  It's OK, but not a memorable track.
"Silent Key" is a fictionalised tale of a young Frank hearing the last radio broadcasts from Astronaut Christa McAuliffe.  Despite the additional vocals provided by Esme Patterson on the dual vocal coda, the track sounds confused, unfocussed and repetitive, despite its best positive intentions which (according to the author) are about: "celebrating and appreciating the luck of ever having lived".
The album closes with a live version of "Song For Josh" - the song is an open and honest tale of losing a close friend.  There is definite emotion coming through the voice as the track unfolds.  I'm guessing (and I may be completely wrong here?) that the track may have been recorded in the studio beut just didn't have that "thing" about it, so the live version was chosen instead.

Since his debut releases, rolling through to last years 'Tape Deck Heart' I would suggest that some of the early urgency has been replaced by a more "considered" songwriting approach and more shine in the production department.
Considered on it's own, Positive Songs is a great little album - one that could happily be played at full blast and sang long to on a boring road trip, or commute.  But by comparison to previous outings, it fails to hit the heights of 'Love, Ire & Song' or 'England Keep My Bones'.
I'm hoping the glossy production is confined to the studio, and Live he has lost none of the bombast.  But on the evidence of this album, I now have to term him as:
A (Slightly) Shouty Billy Bragg, without the politics, and a shiny production job

Saturday 1 August 2015


What do I know about Sparks?
Not a lot to be honest - the singles "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us", "Amatuer Hour", "Beat The Clock" and "Number One Song In Heaven" are hard wired into my brain.  I bought a copy of 'Kimono My House' on the back of an article about Morrissey and his letters to the NME praising the album.  It is definitely worth owning and listening to, even if it is not played with any great regularity.  But that's about it - I never explored their back catalogue further.
In my head, I have them marked down as purveyors of bombastic, slightly unhinged pop.

What do I know about Franz Ferdinand?
Not too much more than I know about Sparks.  I own the debut album, played it a lot when it was released, but lost interest in the follow-up and not been back on my radar.

So a joint effort may not sound immediately appealing, but, hey, its worth a punt.
And what a fruitful put that was.

Starting with an echoing piano. the opening track "Johnny Delusional" starts in Franz Ferdinand territory, and then Russel Maels voice chimes in, adding Sparks to the mix.  The track bounds along and you think: "Franz Ferdinand and Sparks together on one record is not a bad thing.  Maybe I should consider exploring their respective back catalogues".
"Call Girl" is a Franz Ferdinand track sung by Sparks.  "Dictators Son" is the track where it all gels, and you're not thinking or hearing either band separately.  "Little Guy From The Suburbs" is almost veering into ballad territory with a slow melancholic opening, and a slow, measured, sparse and acoustic delivery.  "Police Encounters" is the most overtly bombastic song here, and is likely to be stuck in your head for days after hearing it.
"Save Me From Myself" from myself has a passing nod to "This Town .." and is a solid, if not on the same earworm level as the preceding tracks.
"So Desu Ne". "The Man Without A Tan", "Things I Won't Get" also have the lack of earworm-y-ness about them, but there is no wrong with them.
The close of the album offer the 3 strongest tracks on the album.  "The Power Couple" opens with a barrel-house piano, and you feel it never really goes anywhere, apart from getting stuck in your head.

"Collaborations Don't Work" starts out sounding like a moment of frustration with the project, and the author was sitting in the studio with a guitar, noodling away and just tossed the phrase off over an arpeggio.  But then ... quick change of pace, and it starts to build to epic proportions.  And just as you get to the point of equilibrium, it changes pace again, and again, and again.

The closing track is unlikely to get much radio play being titled "Piss Off", and bounces along like a pub sing-a-long.  It's raucous, overblown, and ever so slightly amusing (or maybe that's just me still sniggering at swear words delivered completely straight faced).

The Deluxe Edition contains four further tracks - I've only got the standard 12 track CD issue, so a visit to Spotify was called for.
The extra tracks are worthwhile listening, but I don't believe that they would make the album stronger.

It's one of those albums that is getting better and better with every listen.
Yes, this was one of my better punts

Police Encounters

Piss Off

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Personally, 2015 so far has been a bit of a sh*tter.
Musically, there has been plenty of fine sounds attacking my lugholes.

And this release is another to add to the "(Potential) Year End Top 10"*

* or whatever number I happen to think of

The debut album release from Australian Singer/Songwriter is a bright sound punctured with humourous, deadpan lyrics, bolted to a folk-ish, indie sound.  The music veers into Garage-Punk, and stabs of The Doors and The Stranglers along the way.  Her voice is reminiscent of Sheryl Crow, and the final track, the plaintive "Boxing Day Blues" featuring just an acoustic guitar and voices, evokes Suzanne Vega.  So, that's pretty much all bases covered then?

There is wit and humour in the lyrics and all delivered in an open narrative, often deadpan, style.  The choice of words and the detail used provide vivid imagery of the storyline of the songs, and there is often a turn of phrase which grabs attention.  Considering the lyrical construction as a whole, when she sings "I'm thinking of you too" in "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)", you can't help but wonder is she actually singing "I'm Thinking of U2"?

Recorded in a two week period, where the songs were presented to the band only when they were finished, there is a freshness about the songs and the performances.
There are a variety of styles over the 11 tracks - indeed, if one track's style setting is not to your taste hang on, there will be something different along in a minute.

"Elevator Operator" has a touch of early Sheryl Crow, "Pedestrian at Best" is a fuzzed Garage Punk.  There is Indie Rock balladry on "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)", and a full on near 7 minutes Blues Jam on "Small Poppies".
Thats 5 tracks and 5 different styles already.
And it don't stop there. From the naval gazing mundanity of "Depreston" to more Psych/Garage on "Aqua Profunda!".
The track "Dead Fox" has been doing the rounds of 6Music for a couple of weeks, and I find it difficult to get bored of it.  Bright, shiny, jangly pop - just right for the beginnings of Summer at the moment.  More indie/Garage on "Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party", and a sort of Blondie/Stooges mash-up on "Debbie Downer".
"Kim's Caravan" comes along and seems out of place somehow - it is dark, almost haunting and bleak.  But it is an epic song and sequencing towards the end is the right place.
The album closes on the sparse (vocal and acoustic guitar) "Boxing Day Blues".

Debbie Downer

Dead Fox

Saturday 20 June 2015

Homogeneous Car Design

Car design has always been unique to manufacturers.
A particular manufacturer could be spotted a mile off by virtue of its particular character and style.
With one glance, you would never cofuse a Jaguar XJ12 ans a Skoda Rapide.

And then in the 1990s, car companies started joint-venture operations and the use common parts.  There were some minor stuling differences, and obviously the badge, but in essence it was the same panels, bolted together by the same robots, often in the same factories.

One of the first I noticed was the Ford Galaxy / Seat Alhambra / Volkswagen Sharan

The sharing of component parts and technologies is fairly commonplace.  But is usually limited to the bits you can't see.  Just about every small/medium sized Fiat is built on the Panda chassis and running gear.
In latter years, SAABs were basically Vauxhall Vectras with a different body.  And the Jagur X-Type and S-Types were built on a Mondeo chassis and running gear, with the bodywork and interior breathed on by Jaguar.

At a Motor Show in the late 80s, I was surprised when looking around an Aston Martin that the interior switches, indicator stalks and even the gear knob were straight out of a Vauxhall Cavalier.

When the Fiesta (and all other Ford Vehicles) were re-styled a couple of years ago, there was a noticeable similarity in the front-end to and Aston Martin DB9.

But, having recently changed cars to a Vauxhall Insignia, I am noticing more and more similarities between the front ends of a wide range of vehicles.
There seems to be a universal approach to the design of the front end of similar sized cars.  Indeed, at first glance, it is often only the badge that gives a clue as to what manufacturer it actually is.

And it's not just the front - the back (give or take a bit of chrome strip) and the profile view (particularly on Estate variants) follows the same formula.

Maybe the Design Studio is in Stepford?

(Here endeth the Rigid Digit Text Audition to be the next presenter of Top Gear)

Friday 5 June 2015

Cathal Smyth - A Comfortable Man

In  a past life, Cathal Smyth traded under the name Chas Smash, and was perhaps the nuttiest of the Nutty Boys (except maybe Lee Thompson?).  He was also the author, or co-author of some of the most exuberant moments of the bands releases, as well as some of the darker tinged moments.

The first obvious statement to make about the album is if you come to it expecting a 21st Century Nutty Boy shouting "Hey You! - don't watch that. watch this..." and prancing round the stage, then you're in for disappointment.
This album as a collection of stories from a man who has been through the mill, come out the other side, and is willing to share his experiences.
The past is represented by the involvement of Alan Winstanley, and particularly Track 2 "Shabat She Comes" which is perhaps the closest to later period Madness of all the songs here.

The songs on this album have been gestating and developing since 2005 (the time of Cathals marriage breakup, and followed by a life of hedomism, Ibizia, booze and stimulants).
This period led to a clearance of the mind (via a hallucinogenic experience with a Peruvian shamen, and the practice of transcendental meditation).
The album is plaintive, mellow, raw and introspective and personal.  No doubt there is a healthy dollop of catharsis mixed in too.
Opening with the eerie, almost funereal sound of a simple piano, and then Smyths cracked voice appears almost pleading.
The production is never "busy" with minimalistic  instrumentation and arrangement throughout even with strings and choirs layed over some of the tracks.
The lyrics are raw and tinged with sadness, yet delivered in a conversational style.  There’s a darkness and melancholy, yet a certain affirmation and redemption too - the term “bitter sweet” is probably too simple a catch-all term.

It is an album that should be properly listened to, ideally in one sitting, probably accompanied by a beer or two and a few moments of personal reflection.
There’s a darkness and melancholy, rawness and sadness, yet a certain affirmation too (dare I say “bitter sweet”?).
In short, it is a truly great album, and (I feel) an incredibly brave undertaking, knowing Chas Smash of the past - the man is now grown up, grown wiser, comfortable with himself, and willing to share his experiences.  It is difficult to say “enjoying it” because I’m not sure that is what you do?

You're Not Alone

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Goodbye Jaguar

Exactly 3 years ago (I know this, because I've just made the last Finance Payment), I had the opportunity to ease myself into the drivers seat of an X-Type Jaguar.  My previous car had been effectively written-off - whilst still running fine, it was showing it's age and bits were starting to drop off, and the trim looking decidedly grimy and knackered.
Looking around for a new car, this vehicle was found on offer at the right price, right age and with Interest Free Finance.  Only drawback was it was in Hull - a bit of a trek, but I'd never been to Hull before.  The drive there was uneventful, if hard work due to the faceless, flatness of Norfolk, and the boredom that is the M1 and M62.  But the drive back would be in a Jag.

Jaguar, Jaguar, Jaguar - the one car that I always wanted to own, and here I was about to sit behind the wheel and lord it over other road users.

Apart from it being in Hull, there were two other considerations:
  1. It was an X-Type, which is effectively a Ford Mondeo with a body kit, and
  2. It was a Diesel - previous experience of Diesel was not great.  One car suffered a permanent oil leak seemingly from nowhere, and the other died completely with no warning, and never re-started
Mondeo-Schmondeo, Diesel-Schmiesel - this is a Jaaag, let me at it.

And yes, the drive home was a thing of relative joy, comfort and refinement.
I now owned a car with the badge I'd long coveted - what could go wrong now?

Well all was fine for a couple of months, and then I suffered two punctures in a fortnight (the first was due to driving over a bolt which became embedded in the tyre, the second due to a cracked Alloy Wheel which a local trader managed to get fixed up.
Then about a month later, the Turbo pipe split leading to a lack of power and a big white plume of exhaust under acceleration, and the EGR valve became stuck open causing a mis-fire at anything over 2000rpm.

A mere inconvenience - the car is 7 years old after all, and these sort of mechanical issues are to be expected.  A short visit to a local garage fixed the problem, and I was back owning the road.
So, that was that sorted and for the next 6 months or so, nothing disrupted the sheer driving pleasure (even taking into account the Diesel engine).
And the it happened - my  near side wheel found a deeper than average pothole, and changed shape from its usual 100% round to a sort of wobbly oval.
Fortunately it was only one wheel, so I was able to replace with the spare wheel and continue on my way.  Except the Spare Wheel was a skinny space saver, good for 80mph, but absolute;y rubbish at retaining ride comfort and cornering ability.
A visit to a local Wheel outlet was arranged, where I was informed that those particular wheels are not easy to get hold of, and aren't manufactured new anymore.
Bugger!  More expense, but it has been 6 months and the Tyres would need replacing soon anyway.
OK, four new wheels and a set of boots for each corner - and it was a worthwhile purchase, because the new wheels were markedly better looking than the originals.

The vehicle ahd already had one MoT in my ownership, and it passed with flying colours (no reported issues, no advisory statements. no "just keep an eye on that").  So why would the second MoT be any different?  It now had new wheels and tyres and had been running trouble free for nigh on 12 months.

Oh how wrong was I - "Rear Suspension bushes are excessively worn, they'll need replacing".  My immediate response was: "At least its not the front ones as well".
"Funny you should say that" was the reply.

Result: more open wallet surgery

Leastways, I now had (relatively) new wheels and tyres, no mechanical issues, and the whole thing felt tight, strong and responsive,  There can surely be no more issues on the horizon.

Tyres are renowned for wearing out, it is after all what they do - and a proper set should always be there (sensibly boring and safety obvious, but it has to be said - from experience, having nearly killed myself several years ago driving round on virtual slick tyres, I can't emphasis the importance enough).
I knew I needed two, so went down to the Tyre Fitters and bought two "name brand" tyres.  It was during the fitting, that the state of the inner walls of the other two tyres were highlighted - so they would need replacing to.

Any more, for any more?  Oh Yes!

In Autumn last year, om a cold dank wet night, the key fob decides to give up the ghost.  This is not just a battery issue, oh no, the whole fob has decided for reasons best known to itself to lose all programming and signalling capability.  Yes, I can open the car, but I can't get in the boot.
And the only place that repair these things is the Main Dealer.  On the plus side, I wasn't fleeced, and got a full valet out of the deal too.  An unwanted expense, but with a positive result, as I managed to secure a full service and MoT for less than I ever thought possible from a Main Dealer.

In retrospect, I think the Main Dealer Service was the most expensive Car Wash I've ever had.  When the vehicle was returned, it just didn't "feel" right.  Starting from cold became an issue, and the acceleration seemed stunted and the gearchange far "notchier" than I remember.
Driving to work one morning, I put my foot down and the dashboard lit up like a Christmas Tree.  Just about every Warning light was illuminated.  In true IT style, turning it off and on again seemed to cure the fault, but it re-occurred a week or so later.

I took it to a Specialist Garage (having first approached the Main Dealer to be told "This has nothing to do with us"), and failed Injection system diagnosed.
Yet more expense, but I was running again.  The car felt strong, and pulled like a train.
And then, reversing into my driveway one day, I noticed a trail of water on the road.  I've seen this before and it is usually a result of condensation from the Air Conditioning system.  Driving to work next morning, there was no heat coming from the Air Conditioning.  On further investigation the Header Tank for the Radiator/Cooling System was empty.  I refilled it, but when I checked it again later that day it was empty again.

Oh dear, this ain't looking good.

This time, the diagnosis was far more severe - the Head Gasket has blown and all the water is being sucked into the engine and ejected through the Turbo (odd, because I have seen no white smoke, or water in the oil, which are the usual tell-tale signs).

The blown Head Gasket is the Death Knell - I have read it it's Final Rites, and will be disposing of it somehow (Spares and Repairs at a fraction of the prospective re-sale price probably).
I admit to have a tear in my eye when final sentencing was pronounced.

Fortunately, as it is now paid for, the saving that would of been had from the Jaguar Finance is now being diverted to the purchase of a new car.  So now it is a case of:

Goodbye Jag - Hello Vauxhall!

3 years of (sort of) trouble-free, comfortable motoring has now gone (it was running more than breaking down, honest!).
The Car of my Dreams fairly rapidly became a nightmare.  But, in a couple of years time, if I was offered the chance of another Jaguar, despite the experiences outlined above, then I would jump at the chance.

Adam And The Ants - Car Trouble

Monday 6 April 2015

The Thrill Of The Hunt

OK, we live in world of multiple-connections, and everything is available at your fingertips with just the aid of a few mouse-clicks.
On the one hand, this is brilliant, because anything we need to know, want to hear or see, or fill gaps in our knowledge is all stored in a massive database called the Interweb.

But the grumpy old git inside me says: do we no longer need to learn and retain knowledge, when we can just Google it?
And what of the basic "Hunter Gatherer" instincts?  Do we still retain the urge to hunt down records, films and books that are not easily findable on the high street?

This affliction started many years ago, when you would try and out-do your friends by finding more interesting stuff than they had.  For example, they may have procured an a copy of Iron Maiden's "Sanctuary" in an uncensored picture sleeve, but did they have a Greek version of "Flight Of Icarus"? There is no distinct difference between the UK and Greek versions, but it is just a case of smug one-upmanship.  And so the hunt continues ...

To increase your chances of finding the "best" stuff, it was necessary to make pilgrimages to London, spend hours stuck on trains or stuck in traffic trying to find Record Fair venues, or spend Sunday mornings at Jumble Sales and Car Boot Sales - all in the hope if finding something that no-one else has got.  Or even better, were un-aware of its existence, or had never even heard of.
When you did get something new and interesting, whether it be record, film, book of video of "unseen" footage from foreign TV, the shout would go out and all would gather round for the unveiling and congratulations.  Copies may be produced, and a "Conditions Of Borrowing" contract drawn up.
And this competition as not just limited to music - films, videos of old TV shows, books, even Football Programmes were sought out, displayed proudly and generally coveted by on-lookers.
I once bought a pile of old 8-Track Cartridges, purely on the basis that "no-one else has got these!"
(Interestingly, a similar set of rules applied to videos and books of distinct "Gentlemans Interest" often found under hedges in the local park).

Visits to Record Fairs and Jumble Sales also taught the art of haggling.  You're obviously not going to get a first pressing of The Beach Boys 'Pet Sounds' for £1, but you may baulk at the £40 price-tag and offer the seller a lower, but still sensible, price.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose - but it's all part of the game.
There are of course other times, when you will pay the marked price because (a) it is an absolute bargain and the seller obviously doesn't know what they are doing, or (b) you any never see another copy, so will gladly handover a weeks housekeeping money to ensure you own it.

This was a time when you were judged by your ability to hunt down and procure the interesting and (seemingly) unattainable.
In the early 80s, a friend of mine had a complete set of Monty Python Videos (not recorded off the telly, the proper, pukka ones only available in Video Rental Shops) - he was like some sort of God in our eyes.
Another friend had the first pressing of The Beatles 'Please Please Me' album - highly desirable, but it was not Monty Python was it?
I played my part in this "willy waving" contest by owning a copy of Johns Children "Desdemona" single (bought for £20 in 1988).
Another friend claimed to have a copy of "God Save The Queen" on A&M, but no-one ever saw it, and he was a lying git anyway.
Any new town or city I visit, I retain the ability to sniff out local record shops and/or second hand shops where I try to find collection fillers, and often stuff I never knew I wanted.
There is little to compare to the thrill of stumbling across a long sought after album or single, or interesting, yet possibly unnecessary, memorabilia.

But now, it's all too easy.
I can be taking care of my morning ablutions whilst browsing eBay looking for more copies of Stiff Little Fingers "Suspect Device" (I already have 4 different versions/variants), or driving to work and listening to something on the radio, and by the time I have logged on to the work computer have just bought the new stuff from Amazon.
No more the need to write it down and/or remember, no more the need to plan a weekend away to coincide with a Record Fair (I still do, of course), no more trawling second-hand shops in the vain hope of finding a gem.
Well, none of the above is actually true - both worlds co-exist quite happily, I'd just rather live in the former world where it is more of a challenge and hence more of an achievement when The Undertones "Teenage Kicks" EP (on Good Vibrations) is found and filed away on your shelf.

An just a couple of curmudgeonly observations to finish:
* A quick note to sellers on EBay (et al):  Most people ain't daft and can spot a re-press/re-issue or dodgy copy a mile off.  Don't go sticking stupid price tags on what is essentially cheap crap
* Charity Shops/Jumble Sales (and EBayers again) - just because it is on vinyl and released more than 10 years ago does not immediately mean it is valuable.  £30 for 'War Of The Worlds' or 'Now Thats What I Call Music 7' just means you will be left with a pile of unsold records.
A Charity Shop I used to frequent had a fairly blanket pricing policy of 50p to £1 for singles, and £3 to £8 (£12 if a double) for albums.  And then someone either looked on EBay or bought a copy of Record Collector ...
* There is no such thing in the world as "having too many records"

Happy Hunting!

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Noel Gallaghers High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday

The two biggest facets that Oasis had in their locker were Liam Gallagher's wild man of rock frontman schtick, and Noel Gallaghers songwriting ability.
Beady Eye provided an outlet for Liam's frontamn persona, and the first High Flying Birds album housed Noel's latest batch of songs.
Of the two, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds produced the better album, containing a clutch of songs that developed, and in many ways enhanced and possibly eclipsed, the latter days of Oasis.

And so to the second album.
  • Will it continue to show growth in Noel's songwriting.
  • Will the influence of the planned (but now indefinitely shelved) collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous have a bearing on the song construct and overall sound
  • Will the songs contain elements of the promised "stretch" and use of unexpected instrumentation
The answer to all the above is "not really" (well, "no" if I'm being blunt).
What you get is 10 tracks (14 on the Deluxe Edition) of the tried and trusted, with the odd musical diversion.  What it is a second collection of songs that are written for Noel Gallagher's voice and are very familiar and reminiscent of the "partially solo" stuff released on Oasis records.
NOTE: This is not a bad thing

The familiarity (and the plagiaristic tendencies) are there right from the start with "Riverman" (which is not (perhaps unsurprisingly) a cover of the Nick Drake track).
Commencing with another approximation of the "Wonderwall" riff, before continuing in an almost melancholic tone, this track sets the scene for the record.  Despite the inclusion of some nice greasy Pink Floyd-esque saxophone, the familiarity is most welcome, and keeps you wanting more (possibly in the hope something new/unexpected comes along).

The same tone of comfort continues through "In The Heat Of The Moment" and "The Girl With The X-Ray Eyes".
"Lock All The Doors" bounds in like a proper rocker from the Oasis debut.  "Dying Of The Light" returns to the melancholic delivery, complete with a continuous stream of rhyming couplets that you can see coming a mile off (but this is what we expect from NG, so this is not a criticism).
"The Right Stuff" offers a welcome diversion in sound and pace - almost droning, Eastern in intent.  Its very laid back and jazzy.  It is a track rescued from the Amorphous Androgynous collaboration.  Its a great track, with a great feel.  For me though, this one track is enough - I'm not sure I want a whole albums worth of this (each to their own I suppose, but not for me).
"While The Song Remains The Same" offers a quasi-religious opening, and just rolls along without ever really engaging or changing gear, but you come away from it knowing you've just heard something good.  Always restrained, it feels like its being held back - which may be for the best as it would to too obvious (and too messy) if it were to explode in a cacophony of thumping drum, bass and guitar soloing.  Probably not single-fodder, but would sit nicely in a Live set - maybe with lighters in the air.
"The Mexican" is a melting-pot of Led Zeppelin riffage, cowbell, synth noodling - theres an almost psychedelic-funk thing going on here.
"You Know We Can't Go Back" opens on a Pink Floyd sounding shrill arpeggio, before banging into a relentless plodding rocker that really was/is what Noel (and his previous band) did best. 
The narrative of the song "While The Song Remains The Same" re-visits his past in Manchester (a theme seemingly apparent in other tracks to (whether by design, or not, who knows?).  On album closer, "The Ballad Of The Might I" re-visits a time a lot closer with a vague re-tread of "AKA ... What A Life" from the debut High Flying Birds album.  What sets this offering apart is the inclusion of Johnny Marrs guitar solo, before closing the album with a flourish of synth noise.

There are moments when you feel Noel Gallagher is breaking free from the standard template, employing new sounds, instrumentation and song construction - but you get the feeling he never wants to stray too far.
On the whole, this album is a consummate piece of work, featuring some great and not so great songs.  They are strung together in a way that shows that it was conceived and delivered as a whole, rather than a series of recordings thrown together and sequenced for best effect.

This second album is not as immediate as the first - there is nothing on here that makes you want to reach for the 'Skip' button, but by the same token you are not inclined to press the 'Replay' button either.
I wouldn't say I'm cock-a hoop about the album, but remain mildly satisfied - I don't think it will be consigned to the "I forgot I bought that" pile, but may not be making as many visits to the CD Player as its predecessor.

"You Know We Can't Go Back"

A title which leads neatly to (and probably answers) the ever-present question, especially in this the 20th anniversary year of "(What's The Story) Morning Glory?" - will there ever be an Oasis re-union?

Thursday 5 March 2015

Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space

On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon (or not if you go along with the conspiracy theories).
12 months to the day later, I popped into this world.

As a result of this chronological quirk, there may be a chance that I have an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of all things space-y, astronaut-y and SciFi like.
Not a bit of it - I can appreciate the scientific and engineering advances, but I prefer SciFi when it is debunked via Airplane II, Spaceballs or Red Dwarf, or similar.

But this in no way reduced my anticipation for the new Public Service Broadcasting.
Previous release 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' took old Public Service Broadcasting Films and provided them with a soundtrack.  The juxtaposition of the BBC English, plummy-voiced Announcer fighting for air-space with guitar, drums and electronic beats worked so well, the apparent strangeness of the concept was gone.

The "difficult" second album continues this conceit, and uses voice tracks recorded in the 50s/60s documenting the competition between the super-powers to get a man on the moon.

On first listen, it didn't immediately "grab" me the way 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' did, but further listening reveals more depth and cohesion than the previous release (I just needed to re-calibrate my expectations).

Opening with a John F Kennedy speech of intent to go to the moon over a haunting choir, second track "Sputnick" starts up as the applause fades.  From a relatively desolate beat, the track starts slow and moody, gradually building with more sounds and atmospheres, before tailing away and launching into "Gagarin" - a throbbing funk track built around an insistent guitar riff and horn work-out.
The whole mood is brought down a notch with "Fire In The Cockpit", where you can almost feel the claustophobia and helplessness of the situation it describes.

The next track for me was the pivotal moment of the album - "EVA" opens like a collision between a Pink Floyd riff and Television for Schools and Colleges, and continues in that vein at moments sounding like TV and Film "production" music.
This is the track documents the first Space Walk, and for me encapsulates the point of the story - a statement of achievement  Built around a Tubular Bells-like base, the track bounds along, and then slowly fades, before the monotonous, almost Krautrock, opening to "The Other Side".
"Valentina" retains the musical template, and adds actual vocals, courtesy of The Smoke Fairies (albiet in the form of a choir-infused atmospheric chant).

"Go" is probably the most immediate track on the album - this track marks the actual moment of the moon landing, and includes possibly one of the most famous human utterances "The Eagle Has Landed".  This therefore should represent the conclusion of the story.

Or it would do, but ... the final track "Tomorrow" is a slow, almost melancholic account (complete with glockenspiel) which recounts the final Apollo mission of 1972.  It may mark the end of an era, but retains the suggestion that if mankind has done it once, why not do it again.
All goes quiet for about a minute and a half, and then a rousing tone begins to rise offering a rousing, almost triumphant, conclusion to the album (although many may nor get to hear this and switch the album off at the 4:00 minute mark when "Tomorrow" seemingly ends.)

The conceit of the band remains the same - to apply a contemporary soundtrack to archive voice tracks.
Both the predecessor and this album follow this pattern.  However, the tracks on 'Inform - Educate - Entertain' could be considered as stand-alone entities strung together by the idea, this album is a true concept album built around the narrative of the title.
As a result, it makes for a stronger, more complete work.

Although, I do fear for the future - there are only so many archive recordings that could lend themselves to the PSB treatment.  There may be a danger of either repeating themselves, or not finding a truly emotive, or resonant, subject to base future releases upon.

Where next?
  • A celebration of 1970s TV Adverts (including a trip-hop remix of the Shake n Vac advert)?
  • Match Of The Day Commentary tracks from John Motson over a three-chord punk rock thrash?
  • The speeches of Margaret Thatcher set to a Brian Eno inspired ambient soundscape?

Whatever they do next, I'm sure it will be as eagerly awaited, and as well received as both full albums released to date.

Public Service Broadcasting - E.V.A.

Friday 13 February 2015

The Year So Far - AAARRRGH!

2015 got off to a fairly bad start when I decided to try abstinence for a month, and then fell into a state of anger, upset, annoyance, sickness and general listlessness from which I'm only just recovering.
Also in January, the new lighter I received for Christmas decided to pack up ("Hey ho", I thought,"it's only a lighter").
But little did I know this was just a pre-cursor for the headaches to come.

In mid-January, I took my car for a Service and MOT at the Jaguar Main Dealer - it passed, not necessarily with flying colours, but it passed.  As part of the Service, the garage carried out a Vehicle Health Check, and the car was given a clean bill of health - "nothing of concern there sir" (I like this garage, because they call me "Sir" - they obviously recognise my importance in the world).
So, I was a bit miffed when 10 days later I go to accelerate, and the dashboard starts flashing at me.  I pulled over, stopped, switched the engine off, re-started and all seemed fine (maybe it was just freaking out due to the cold weather).
2 days later it happens again.  This time the whole engine cuts out.  It still re-started but just didn't feel right.
Took it down to the local garage (I know the owner, and they don't charge Main Dealer prices).  Diagnosis: "Injectors have had it, and you need a new Fuel Pump - that'll be £3grand please".
Oh, and the Main Dealer deny all culpability as the parts affected weren't part of the Service or Health Check (fair enough, but still bloody annoying)

No, no, this can't be happening!!

Thing is, you know how there is unconditional love for your children?  Well, now my kids have grown up and left home *, I have passed these feelings to my dogs and my car (yes, call me shallow, but thats just the way it is).

* well, one is living with my parents because its nearer her work,  and the other is with her mother because its nearer her college

In short, if there is something wrong, then I'd pretty much do anything to solve it.
So, speaking to mechanics/technicians at work they advised me to try a Specialist Garage they have used.
Phoned them up, go it booked in, got it checked, same diagnosis (without the Fuel Pump) - still expensive, but not so much wallet-aching as before.  5 days they've had it now, and I should be getting it back tomorrow.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, earlier this week I awoke to see Penguins, Eskimos and Polar Bears waddling around my house - the Central Heating has decided to pack in.

I REALLY don't need this!!

Fortunately, the addition of Homecare to the Home Insurance has proved to be a good idea.  The Homecare people rode up to my house this morning, replaced a fuse in the boiler and now the house is warm.

So who says Friday 13th is unlucky?
Got my car fixed, got my heating fixed - and Mrs D has forgiven me for shouting and bawling at her about the Heating on Thursday morning (I think?).
Result all round seemingly - except I still haven't sorted out a new lighter.

As far as it is possible for a proper grumpy old sod to be content, I am actually (fairly) happy.

The Aliens - "The Happy Song"

Saturday 31 January 2015

Thank **** That's (nearly) Over

Dry January, or my own peculiar spin on it, is nearing completion.

My version of Dry January has been to deny myself the pleasure of buying new music for the course of the month. It has been an exercise in self-awareness, self-denial and extreme stupidity, which to be honest I wish I'd never embarked on.

Thing is, this is a self defeating exercise - as the calendar lurches slowly towards February 1st, I am sat, eagerly brandishing a Credit Card ready to binge on the aural pleasures I have been denying myself for the last 30 days.
(I wonder if the "No Alcohol Dry January-ers will be doing the same thing?  Downing 15 pints and half a bottle of Vodka as the clock ticks past midnight?  Probably not.)

The expansion of the Amazon Wish List is testament to my achievement.  As is the self-control displayed when following recommendations I have landed on Spotify or YouTube, thoroughly enjoyed what I'm hearing, and not followed up with a physical purchase.
But the constant headaches, shakes and bouts of nausea have become unbearable.
Little did I realise that after that first 7" single purchase in 1981, I was on the slippery slope: Work - Get Money - Buy Music.
At the start, I would be limiting myself to 2, maybe 3 purchases, in a month.  As time went on, I found myself hoarding more and more, and indulging in an increasing wide range of musical delights.  I thought, like most others I'm sure, "this is not a problem, I can stop at any time".  But the cravings continued, and more purchases were needed to be made to satisfy my hunger.

Through fear of temptation, I have changed walking routes to avoid Record Shops and Charity Shops.  I have purposefully avoided the (often laughable) Music section in Supermarkets.  And I no longer drive past the Leisure Centre for fear of seeing the bright yellow "Massive Record Fair This Weekend" sign.

But I have not waivered - it is now nearly 6 weeks since my last purchase, and I will not let these last few hours beat me.  Positive Mental Attitude - I will tell myself "I Can Do It!"
(The Rubettes, 1975 - I wonder if that is available anywhere on Amazon?  ... No! You must resist)

Do I feel any better for this period of abstinence?  Not really, no.
Would I do it again?  Absolutely Not!

Monday 19 January 2015

Celebrating the conventional

Cars are one of the mainstay of Rock n Roll lyrics.
From The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe", "And she'll have fun fun fun, 'Til her daddy takes the T-Bird away" to Bruce Springsteen ("Thunder Road", "Racing In The Streets(just about every song that isn't about blue collar workers and /or their relationships).
The Beatles weighed in with "Drive My Car" whilst Status Quo responded with "Don't Drive My Car".
The Clash watched as their baby drove off in a Brand New Cadillac, and Gary Numan felt safest of all in his Car.
Prince had a small red Corvette (this is not a euphemism), whilst Bruce Springsteen was resplendent in his Pink Cadillac.
Queen drummer Roger Taylor expressed his love for his vehicle, and Janis Joplin merely dreampt of owning a Mercedes Benz.
Even Marc Bolan (who couldn't drive) offered "Mustang Ford" and stated that he "drove a Rolls Royce. 'cos its good for my voice".
In terms of aftercare, all the above could've paid a visit to Rose Royce who would've given them a thorough clean at the Car Wash (they may never get rich, but its better than digging a ditch).

But what of more common, possibly less romantic car marques?
Is there a song somewhere immortalising the life changing impact of owning a Vauxhall Viva?  or maybe a crooning love-letter to a Datsun Cherry?

There is however one of these lesser cherished vehicles which has made its way into popular song - step forward John Shuttleworth and his Y Registration Austin Ambassador. 

Now you may laugh and think he is just a one-dimensional creation singing about the mundane, mediocre and insular moments that affect his world.  But you would be wrong when you consider the heartbreak and frustration conveyed in a song such as "Two Margarines On The Go" or the quandary faced at meal times when you've eaten your main course, tucked into dessert, and then a second helping of the truly delectable main course becomes available (as outlined in "I Can't Go Back To Savoury Now")

Thursday 8 January 2015

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood

"New" - a new or current album
"Old" - a previous release (possibly lost in the mists of time)
"New-New" - a new or current album from an artist that is unfamiliar to you (either partially (ie you know the name and what they sound like) or completely (ie never heard of them)
"New-Old" - a new or current album from an artist you know well
"Old-New" - a previous release from an artist that is unfamiliar to you
"Old-Old" - a previous release from an artist know well

This is, perhaps, a simplistic classification method.  Indeed, you could further the classification with an additional "New"/"Old" referring to ownership/purchase status - but to be honest it all starts to get confusing than (as if it wasn't already?)

OK, the last 12 months has thrown up a variety of "New-New" and "Old-New", and I've now run out of "New-Old".  So now it time for "Old-Old".
The next step is to stand in front of the shelves for a minute and wait for inspiration.

First off the racks:
Marillion - Misplaced Childhood

Aylesbury may sound like a non-descript, mudane, home-counties town, but was home to one of the most popular live venues (Friars, which has hosted performances by Free, Mott The Hoople, David Bowie, Genesis, The Police, Stiff Little Fingers and many many others).  It is also the hometown of John Otway, and in 1979 spawned the first incarnation of Marillion.
Formed in 1979 and taking their name from a J R R Tolkien book (how much more Prog can you get?) bu guitarist Steve Rothery and drummer Mick Pointer.  Derek Dick (better known as Fish to save sniggering at his surname) joined on vocals in 1981.  Mark Kelly (keyboards) and Pete Trewavas (bass) completed the line-up.

The band played Genesis/Pink Floyd/Van Der Graff Generator/Peter Hammill infused Prog Rock - probably not the wisest move against a backdrop of NWOBHM, Post-Punk New Wave, New Romantics and developing Synthesiser music and increased studio production techniques.
Probably not an immediately obvious recipe for success, but exposure, and positive reaction, on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show led to EMI taking a punt.

First single "Market Square Heroes" was released in late 1982.  Whilst the A-Side was more of an anthemic (almost air-punching) rock track, the B Side showed Proggy-pretensions with the 17 minute "Grendel".
Their debut album 'Script For A Jesters Tear' came out in early 1983 and continued the musical backdrop - 6 tracks around the 7 or 8 minute mark was not necessarily the order of the day for most albums in 1983.  For the two singles culled from the album ("He Knows You Know" (the shortest track at 5:30) and "Chelsea Monday" it was necessary to edit the songs down to 4 minutes to make them palatable for radio play.)

The second album was titled 'Fugazi' (1984) - the name can be translated as being derived from fugacious meaning fading or transient, or a military slang term for f**ked up.
This is perhaps a reflection of the lead up to the recording of the album with original drummer Mick Pointer leaving, and a succession of drummers auditioned before Ian Mosely got the job, and the number of studios utlised in order to get the job finished.
This album squeezes in 7 tracks, but is ultimately not as good as the debut.  It just doesn't feel as focussed as the debut.  Later in the year though, the Live album 'Real to Reel' was released which showed just how strong the band were on stage.
Also on this tour, Fish announced that the bands next album was to have only two tracks, entitled "Side One" and "Side Two".

The outline story/concept was the result of a 12 hour acid trip, where Fish faced up to lost childhood memories, failed relationships, the impact of becoming successful, loss of inspiration and, as is the way with all good stories, ultimate redemption.  Effortlessly strung together, and featuring recurring musical motifs.  Drop the needle and Side One, Track One and you'll be happy to stay until the end of Side 2, Track 5 - it is a great way to spend 40 minutes, and on CD it feels even more seamless.

At the outset, EMI expressed concern about the bad going all "70s Prog" and recording a concept album.  These fears were alleviated when initial single "Kayleigh" hit number 2 in the UK Singles Chart.

The album starts with a spoken passage which (sort of) outlines the story, before the now familiar guitar opening for lead single "Kayleigh".  This segues into the second single "Lavender" (which also hit the Top 10).  In a departure for Marillion, this song had to be extended to make it into a single.
"Bitter Suite" is a 5 part movement combining atmospheric music (there is a touch of the Pink Floyd about it) under spoken poetry ("Brief Encounter"), developing into sung lyric ("Lost Weekend") before reprising the guitar motif from "Lavender", the melody (or a close approximation) is also revisited for "Blue Angel".  "Misplaced Rendezvous" tells a downbeat tale of a lost relationship, before rolling into another spoken passage which serves as an intro to the third single lifted from the album, "Heart Of Lothian".  This is a nationalistic track, and perhaps the strongest of the straight-ahead rock songs on the album.  Personally, I think it is the strongest of he three lifted singles, but performed the worst (shows you what I know then?).
(if you haven't got a CD player, now is the time to get up and turn the record over (unless you've got one of those super-duper, fangly-dangly 1980s record players which could play both sides with no human intervention)

An atmospheric keyboard introduction followed by pummeling drums opens up into a full on rock song with impassioned, almost snarling vocals, crashing cymbals and guitar histrionics.  "Lords Of The Backstage" kicks in maintaining the rock sound, although the vocal is more toned down.  Cynically, the instrumental nature of the song feels like it was written as purely a linking passage with lyrics added to keep the momentum of the story.  This may not be the case, but it does segue into "Blind Curve", possibly the most complex and ambitious and potentially epic track on the album.
Again built on 5 parts.  "Vocal Under A Bloodlight" is another tale of lost (or possibly unrequited love).  "Passing Strangers" is another brief tale in a similar vein.  This is followed by a truly magnificent Steve Rothery guitar solo lasting near a whole minute - at no point does a note sound out of place or forced.  The next part "Mylo" is a song of loss, based on a the death of a close friend.  Towards the end you can feel the confusion growing in the mind (and the voice) of the narrator.
"Perimeter Walk" is slower-paced with some shrill picked guitar, and moody atmospherics.  The lyrics sit below the music and are dark and moody, yearning for a lost childhood, before erupting into "Threshold", which questions whether the return of childhood in such a hostile world is a good thing?.
There is a familiar guitar refrain, and more picking guitars lead into "Childhoods End" - the point here being redemption, and the realisation that childhood is not lost, it continues to reside inside ("There is no childhoods end").
"White Feather" rounds of the album on a high - a call to arms following the tried an trusted "together we stand" principle.  The album fades on the refrain "I can't walk away no more".

EMI's reservations were perhaps true when they feared an overblown, prog concept album, with a potentially confusing story would die a death when placed before the public.  Well, in this case those reservations were entirely misplaced (geddit?), when the album was lapped up by the public and hit Number 1, topping 300,000 sales by the end of the year and continuing to be the bands most bankable album (not that they earn that much from it) - worldwide sales are estimated to be in excess of 2,000,000.  Not bad for a niche band, playing the sort of music that was supposed to be killed off by Punk in 1977.

Childhoods End? / White Feather

Friday 2 January 2015

Whats Another Year

In my true curmudgeonly state, I can clearly say that 2015 will be much the same as 2014 (and pretty much every preceding year).
I am not expected any seismic changes in my life in the coming 12 months - so in the words of Curtis Mayfield I will just Keep On Keeping On.

Traditionally, a new year marks a time of taking stock, considering lessons learned from the past, and considerations/intentions for the future.  This may result in the formulation of New Years Resolutions, which will probably never happen, and by 17th February be all but forgotten.
I did consider the making of New Years resolutions based around personal health and intake, but hit a couple of walls with those:

  • Smoking - Yes, I probably should give up Smoking, but (a) I actually enjoy it, and don't actually want to stop, and (b) I was given a new lighter for Christmas and it would be rude not to use it.
  • Eating - Due to a set of incredibly bad teeth, and daft decisions like skipping lunch because I'm too busy to remember, I'm actually about a stone and a half lighter than this time last year.  So, if anything, I actually need to eat more over the next 12 months.  It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.  I suppose I could supplement my diet with healthier options.
    Salad?  Who eats this stuff and actually enjoys it.  Its just garnish and gets in the way of the Steak on the plate.
    Decaffinated coffee?  It promises so much and delivers nothing.  It's like Danny Dyer or Peter Andre - I know they exist, but fail to see why?
    Diet Coke?  All fizz and no substance.
  • Drinking - How can I possibly consider this when there are all these half finished bottles left from Christmas?  OK, so the concept of 'Have A Dry January' has been suggested.  And to comply with this I will restrict my intake to Dry Cider, Dry White Wine and Dry Gin.

2014 saw the fulfillment of a long held ambition when I got to see The Jam live (OK, it was From The Jam, but it does contain one original member).
2015 sees a new album due from Paul Weller, so I will hopefully get to see him perform live as too (if I can get my arse in gear and stop finding excuses not to visit that London or other metrpolises (metrpoloi?)).
And I also intend to set foot inside a cinema for the first time in about 6 years.  Not because there are any films I specifically want to see, just because I think it's about time I did.

Despite quizzical looks and protestations that "you can't possibly want anymore CDs, surely you have enough already" I will keep buying new stuff, and re-discovering old stuff.  Yes I know that I can't possibly listen to everything I own, but at least I know I've got it should the whim ever take me.

So there you go - the next 12 months will be a haze of Eating copious amounts (whilst continuing to argue that Doner Kebab is a health food because it contains all the major food groups in one easy to eat package), Drinking (probably to excess), Smoking, buying more Music & DVDs (that I definitely do need) and talking rubbish on the interweb - much like the last few years then.
Time to shave off the beard that has grown since Christmas Eve (I'm on holiday, why would I want to waste time shaving), get back to a more responsible frame of mind (rather than continuing to paddle in a sea of perpetual adolescence, and get back to doing something productive with my time (well, going to work anyway).

Curtis Mayfield - I'll Keep On Keeping On