Wednesday 28 February 2018

Jean Oliver - Little White Feathers

The phrase "recorded at home" either fills the prospective listener with dread that the CD they are holding is filled with demo takes of songs where all the vocals and instruments fight for attention, and the general feeling of being recorded in a cardboard box or a barn with no acoustic worth.
Or the recording may have gone through several computer-based doctoring processes (Pro Tools et al) fleecing it of any honesty or reality.

In this instance, Jean Oliver's wholly honest recordings were done in a home studio, but a very well appointed home studio, and produced by someone who knows how to drive the sliders, buttons and blinking lights in front of them.

This debut album is a collection of songs from a (sometimes deeply) personal perspective of life, love and loss.
I am not going to explain the gestation of these songs, because the author tells the story far better than any reductive tone I may place upon it.

The 10 songs here all adopt a similar style and tone - one that I identify to be rooted in the folk-ish singer/songwriter mould.
They are a collection of thoughts and feelings with an bit of autobiography underpinning them.
In some places, you feel like you are intruding on a personal moment.

I'm going to go reductive again (confusingly reductive?) and try to identify the musical comparisons I'm hearing here are:
A bit of 60s/70s folk-y stylings (Cat Stevens meets Sandy Denny?), with added Country and Western/Alison Krauss-ish inflections, topped off with a bit of All About Eve and a bit of The Unthanks-ish-ness.

And that may be a bit unfair, because what you have here is a group of songs with no particular root other than the personal, emotive desire to provide some form of cathartic outlet.

The acoustic guitar is firmly positioned as the lead instrument, with Jean's plaintive voice laying over the top.  Where there are other instruments involved, these are not intrusive and do compliment the musical landscape.
Weirdly (or maybe by design?), some of the other instruments chosen (recorder, dulcimer, cor anglais) set an almost medieval, madrigal tone to the songs.
But this is not about layering on the instruments to create a full, tight sound - this is basically the thoughts, feelings and musings of a girl and her guitar.

Opening track "Never Have I Felt This Way" is a strong start and sets the tone for the album.
"I've Cried You A River" is a fine tune and rawly emotional song.
The fuller sound of "Because You're Gone" lifts the album - it's still plaintive in tone, but just sounds more "present" in the latter half of the album.
If  anything, to my un-trained cloth-like ears, this is the best track on the album.

Apart from ...
the closing track "Little White Feathers" is a change of tone.
This track is not as closely personal in tone, but seemingly written from an empathetic view point.  It's almost like a third-person tale of hope and re-assurance, and closes the album with a good feeling.
Because it is less personal, but still personal in statement (does that make sense?), it is perhaps the easiest to listen to, and the one I would choose if someone asked me "what does this album sound like then?"

Jean Oliver on Bandcamp

Thursday 22 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - F: Focus - Hocus Pocus, The Best Of Focus

6 posts in to this ongoing activity, and we arrive at the first compilation album

But first .. a musing on the purpose and/or greatness of compilation albums

A compilation album tends to be viewed in two ways:
1.  An introduction to a band you may have a fleeting interest in (ie one or two songs)
2.  A Bit of a cop-out, and not necessarily the way the artist intended their art to be consume

Me?  I'm firmly in the former camp, and do love a good compilation.
It's a way in, a path if discovery, and when they're good may lead to open wallet surgery as you seek to fill your shelves with the entire catalogue.  Alternatively, a compilation may also lead to disappointment where the couple of tracks you do know remain brilliant, but the rest is all a bit "meh!".

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, the compilation album used to appear at the end of a bands career, or if they moved labels at the end of their tenure, often as a simple easy method of (a) signing off their career, and/or (b) fulfilling contractual obligations.
Fancy a bit of time off?  That used to signal a Live album as a "space filler" whilst the band had a rest and then re-grouped for a new assault on the listening public.
Now it seems the compilation can appear at any time, often bulked out by new and exclusive tracks, and often early in a bands career, so the title "Greatest Hits" really doesn't apply
(If you can find it (I can't find a link), Dave Gorman in Series 2 Episode 7 (I Like Hot Bananas) does a good job of explaining this using Scouting For Girls as his reference text)

Whether you consider compilations good or bad, there are 3 or 4 which are pretty much essential, and every home should have a copy.
These are:
  • The Beatles 1962-66 (Red Album)
  • The Beatles 1967-70 (Blue Album)
  • The Jam - Snap
  • Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady
  • Squeeze - 45s And Under
(and according to recent(ish) research, every home does have a copy of Abba Gold and Queens Greatest Hits *)

I've got 3 (4 if you include the copy bundled in the CD Box of Greatest Hits I II & III (The Platinum Collection))

Anyway, back to Focus ...

Holland hasn't produced that many BIG bands - Golden Earring being perhaps the best known.  Also mentioned in dispatches are Bolland & Bolland (writers of and original performers 'In The Army Now') and Jaap Eggermont (of Stars On 45 fame).

Focus formed in 1969.  Their early career included time as the band for a production of Hair in Amsterdam.  As a result, the first commercially available recording of Focus is on the soundtrack album of the production.
When the Musical ended, Focus had enough local gigs and a following to warrant a publishing deal and the chance to record their debut album ('Focus Plays Focus' (revised title in UK and US: 'In And Out Of Focus'). The album sold little outside of Holland, until the single "House Of The King" hit the Top 10 in the UK.
The single was added to the album, and relatively respectable (if not massive) sales achieved in the UK and US.The next single was "Hocus Pocus" and provided the commercial breakthrough.
Parent album 'Focus II / Moving Waves' sold in large numbers, and was followed by 3 more albums ('Focus 3', 'Hamburger Concerto', 'Mother Focus') before band relationships deteriorated, and the creative element of  vocalist (yodellist?), organist & flautist Thijs van Leer and guitarist Jan Akkermann parted company.

This compilation draws tracks from their five 1970s albums, and opens with their best known track "Hocus Pocus".
This is the full album version, and not the 3 minute single edit I knew previously, and contains more mad, possibly unhinged yodelling, flute blowing and Hammond organ interludes beneath the insistent guitar riff - a riff that will pummel it's way into your head.

16 instrumental tracks entrenched in moods of Prog, Jazz, Blues jams, more yodelling (the closest you'll get to lyrics on this wholly instrumental album).  A bit of a curates egg affair - something grabbing your attention, and then floating off somewhere in the middle of the next track, and then returning again at some random moment of listening.
In a neat circular thing, the album closes with the single version of "Hocus Pocus", but for me the key track (and the best they've done, if not the best instrumental rock track ever) is "Sylvia" placed slap bang in the middle of the album.

Personally, I prefer compilations with a chronological track listing.  This one isn't, but what the track , something as snappy and direct as "House Of The King" comes along and you're salivating for the next slab of Dutch invention.
I only own one other Focus album ('Focus 3') which I have not listened to for some time, but do remember it being "quite hard work".
Is this the best way to consume Focus?  In my limited experience, Yes.
It's a bit of a roller coaster, with some moments of lost interest or distraction, but like White Water Rafting, or Charity Volunteer work, it's ultimately rewarding.


Sunday 11 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - E: Eurythmics - Revenge

'Revenge' was the sixth album by The Eurythmics, and was released in 1986.
Their first album (1981s 'In The Garden').  The album was a statement of intent by the ex-Tourists, and marked the direction where they (are possibly more correctly Dave Stewart) believed they should be heading.
A co-production credit for Conny Plank and guest appearances from Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit (Can) sat the band firmly in the synth-pop/electronica/BritKrautrock camp.

Seemingly unconcerned by previous failure, RCA continued to sponsor the band, and after 4 more non chart or low chart placing singles, 1983s 'Sweet Dreams' proved to be the turning point.
Helped in no small part by the sales of the single "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" (UK Number 2), and it's accompanying video featuring Dave Stewart looking like a mad hippy professor-boffin, and Annie Lennox resplendent in a black suit and orange cropped hair.
Building on the breakthrough, a second album ("Touch") followed in late 1983.  Tracks from the album were remixed as "Touch Dance" in early 1984, and they also produced the soundtrack for the film Nineteen Eighty-Four.
All this activity was accompanied by regular appearances in the singles chart.
Their next album ('Be Yourself Tonight') saw the band moving to a more "conventional band", with the electronics taking a bit of a back seat.

By 'Revenge', the mutation was pretty much complete.
Here the Eurythmics are sounding like Blondie Meets The Beatles, and the album is an exercise in 80s studio sheen coupled with some very well written, well performed songs.
The only downside to this is that it does at times feel a little clinical.  It becomes the acceptable side of (slightly raucous) yuppie music, like it would sit comfortably in a loft apartment alongside Dire Straits 'Brothers In Arms' and Phil Collins 'No Jacket Required', or placed on a coffee table alongside Madonna's Sex book
(I know this album and Madonna's book are about 6 years apart, but hopefully you get the point of my inane ramblings)

The main focus of the album is the 4 singles lifted from it ("When Tomorrow Comes", "Thorn In My Side", "The Miracle Of Love" and "Missionary Man").  Of the remaining tracks, only "The Last Time" comes close to hitting the same spot.  That's not to say the other tracks are throwaway filler, but they just never really jump out of the speakers.

Building from 'Be Yourself Tonight', 'Revenge' reveals what a fine Rock voice Annie Lennox possesses.  She is equally adept at the slower, emotive, ballad-y stuff, but one forgets (certainly in the light of her chosen output in later years) just how strong her voice is.

Last Eurythmics album proper?
Later releases became more of a vehicle/showcase for Annie Lennox's voice (and why not?  she has a very, very fine and clear voice), and a production exercise for Dave Stewart - all competent, but just don't seem to have "it"

I've not heard this album all the way through for about 15 or 20 years.
There is no doubt it falls into the "thoroughly competent" category, but it may be a similar time before it's pulled from the shelf again.

When Tomorrow Comes

Thorn In My Side

Sunday 4 February 2018

Record Collection Random Choice (RCRC) - D: Dexys Midnight Runners - Searching For The Young Soul Rebels

Despite it's avowed intention to destroy all that had gone before, Punk Rock always had a "back-to-basics, looking back to the past for inspiration" element.
The basics were three chords, and if thats all you've got then Chuck Berry, and those that followed in the 60s are going to be your guides.

The original set of the Sex Pistols included The Who's "Substitute", The Monkees "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" and Dave Berry's "No Lip".
The Jam's adrenaline fuelled output had it's roots in 60s R&B, The Who, The Small Faces and The Kinks.
Although not part of the initial explosion, The Specials and Madness updated Reggae and Ska for the late 70s/early 80s listeners.

Dexys Midnight Runners joined the "looking back" party providing an update of 60s Northern Soul Revue (indeed their name was inspired by the drug of choice - Dexedrine - used at All Nighters to keep energy levels high and dancing constant).

The band was formed formed from the remnants of Birmingham Punk band The Killjoys in 1978.
Becoming increasingly disillusioned with Punk, Kevin Rowland and was listening to a diet of 60s Soul, including one of the first artists he'd seen perform live (and the soon to be more widely known Geno Washington).  With Killjoys bandmate Kevin Archer, he formed Dexys Midnight Runners.
By 1979 they had adopted their New York Docker gang look (all Donkey Jackets and Woolly Hats, inspired by the film On The Waterfront) and were being managed by former Clash supremo Bernie Rhodes
Their first single "Dance Stance" came courtesy of Bernie Rhodes independent label, which was distributed by EMI.
However, despite scraping into the lower end of the Top 40, EMI noted that the production was not great, and advised the band accordingly.  Kevin Rowland (always single minded, and fiercely protective of his band and music, wasted no time in dumping Bernie Rhodes and signing with EMI.

They had the vision, they had the sound, they had the look, and now they had the support of the big boys.
Second single "Geno" put the band at the top of the charts (despite EMI's belief that "Geno" was the weaker track, and the B Side "Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache" should've been the lead song).  The first stand-off between band and label resulted in Kevin Rowland getting his way.
The band then began recording the debut album,and on the last day of recording locked themselves in the studio in protest at their low royalty rate from EMI.
They took (stole?) the Master Tapes from the studio and returned home to Birmingham.
The Tapes were returned to EMI after an increased royalty rate was agreed, and the album finally came out in July 1980.

Opening with the sound of a radio tuning to various music stations, and then Kevin Rowland stating "For Gods Sake - Burn It Down", it really has that feeling like this is a new era dawning.
The song is a re-recording (and restoration of original title) of their first single "Dance Stance".
It's full of brass hooks, a thumping bass line, and lyrics namechecking a number of Irish literary figures.  Over this highly polished, exceedingly tight backing sits Kevin Rowland's voice - a touch of thuggery, a touch of theatricality and a soupcon of Bryan Ferry.

The brass riffing continues to form the basis and hook of most (if not all) tracks, with a couple of slower paced tracks (moments to catch a breath?).
Yes, there are a couple of points where Kevin Rowland's voice begins to sound strangulated and breaking when he goes for the high register, and depending on your mood at the time, the arty pretensions of the spoken word poetry recital of "Love Part One" is either completely disposable, or totally tolerable because straight after comes the magnificent closer to the album "There, There My Dear".

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is a brilliantly enduring debut, and a damn near perfect melange of 60s Soul, Stax, Ska, Mod, Punk attitude and Hard Pop/Rock music - it almost "demands" to be listened to from start to finish.  And there aren't too many better ways of spending 40 minutes.

Burn It Down

There, There, My Dear