Saturday 15 December 2018

2018 Round-Up

The Annual round-up of 5" bits of metal that have been filling my ears in 2018 (and some others which I never got round to buying, but have been enjoying through the medium of Spotify et al, and will no doubt be slapping my money on the counter before Auld Lang Syne is sung).
I've not written about these this year (apart from 2) - not that there hasn't been the enthusiasm with the product, mote there hasn't been the enthusiasm to write stuff based on a couple of listens, preferring to savour the content over a period of time, make a considered opinion, and then finding that I've left it too long before going into print

It's not a ranked list (the first few are, but after that it all becomes a bit arbitrary), and contains 16 things that I've enjoyed (plus 1 special mention (ie it's an album of covers rather than original material), 1 re-issue, and 2 that properly disappointed)

Spiritualized - And Nothing Hurt
Manages that rare thing with an album - is unique, stands on it own, but damn near every song is recognisable from somewhere but completely of itself.
It also manages to be both a guitar album and an electronic album in one package.
Every song feels crafted, laboured over, re-crafted and only then when it is perfect placed on the album.  There is not a moment wasted, and no whiffs of filler.
His master work - 'Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space' - was released 21 years ago.  Here finally is a Spiritualized album equal to that work.

Suede - The Blue Hour
Epic, sweeping, Prog-Indie.  A bit like a hybrid of 'Suede' (the debut album) and 'Dog Man Star'.
Dark tales from a far from idyllic countryside (at times, a feeling of an almost dystopian countryside).
You get echoes of the guitar fuzz of Suede of old, with a bit of Scott Walker, a bit of TV drama soundtrack, and even a moment of an un-used Bond Theme.
Whilst I dislike the term, this album does take you on a journey - there is a certain immersion to it, where like most, if not all, Prog (or Prog-lite?) it demands to be consumed as a whole piece.  Although, at the same time there are many tracks here that could be cherry-picked without losing the atmospheres or tone.
As a final statement: So much better (streets ahead) than the last outing - the disappointing 'Night Thoughts'.

Wreckless Eric - Construction Time And Demolition
Still touring, still writing songs, still putting out albums as good as anything else out there.  Always presented and often looked upon as the underdog, his catalogue of lo-fi recordings, high quality songs continues with this album'
OK, his voice may not be for everybody - but this album is a stream of fuzzy bass, tinny guitars, mad piano, assorted horns, all bolted to narrative, conversational lyrics about whatever appears to be happening around him.  'Construction Time And Demolition' is stuffed full of tunes and melodies that would be the envy of many (if only more than a couple of hundred people get to hear it).
"Whole Wide World" was 40 years ago, and it would be a shame if that were his only legacy when he can produce stuff like this.

Paul Weller - True Meanings
He's back (as every year).  But this time he's released an album that will last after initial enthusiasm, and you want to return to.
The album initially feels like a re-visit (with updates) of 'Wild Wood'.  But this is no simple re-hash of past glories.
Most of the tracks set themselves in the pastoral, acoustic mould, but are then layered and lifted with strings, taking them somewhere unexpected for a "straight" Paul Weller album.  This is of course no surprise, as each album of the last 10 years or so has driven down a different road.
The difference here is the he is working with a co-write, and one does wonder if there is now an element of both quality control and competitive pushing going on.

White Denim - Performance
Swampy blues boogie with a bit of Glam-Rock/T.Rex going on, some soul excursions thrown in, and a bit of even a bit of proggy madness in places.
Own studio perhaps giving the freedom of time and a chance to try a bit more.
It is in a similar vein to previous release - 'Still' - but goes broader and deeper in it's influence (whilst staying in the same place ???) - it just feels like they have a bigger palette (or more tracks on the mixing desk).
The whole thing is just the right side a ragged, with riffs, and boogie stomps all over the shop.
From start to finish, a joy to behold.

The Damned - Evil Spirits
They were there at the start of Punk - 'Damned, Damned, Damned' remains an essential item - they went off the boil and split up before 1977 was over.  They reformed with an album of perfect punk-pop, and eventually 9 years later (with a modified, smoothed sound and some line-up alterations) finally got a Top 10 hit and got paid.  After that, things started to go south, but never to be beaten, they kept touring, kept reforming, and kept releasing albums.
This stands as their very best since The Black Album (in 1980) - sounding probably tighter than ever, sonically in control (the Tony Visconti production credit is often a mark of quality), and full of Psychedelic Scott Walker-isms.
They may be heading towards pensionable age, but they remain an awesome live band, and their DVD (Don't You Wish We Were Dead) is definitely worth a watch.

Manic Street Preachers - Resistance Is Futile
From a band who started influenced by the past, but not wanting to update the past rather than revisit it.  Throughout their career, the Manics have constantly strove forward, and rarely look back (apart from a couple of Richey-tinted specs moments).
This album then is something of a surprise - another move forward, but this time echoing past glories.  It sometimes reads like a canter through their back catalogue (with a couple of near nicks of someone elses songs thrown in).
26 years they've been recording, and they're still producing anthemic quality material, and don't look like stopping anytime soon.

Roger Daltrey - As Long As I Have You
Follow-up to the collaboration with Wilko Johnson (see below), and Rog still showing what a fine voice he has.  A decent collection of songs, and a supporting band including Mr P Townshend.  Since Pete's autobiography set the record straight, these two do not appear at odds that the media suggest and are happy to be working together.  Could be considered a new Who album, but it's more thatn that - it's a new Who album, where they've actually tried to make a decent Who album (rather than going through the motions)

First Aid Kit - Ruins
I'm a lover of loud guitars, high tempos and other stuff that usually garners the response: "Turn it down!"
So what is this doing on my list?
Well, no-one can ignore the harmonies, melodies, and indeed the brittle emotion running through many of these songs.
Need to kick back against the world and relax a bit?  This may very well be the album to soundtrack that experience.
The first half of the album maybe stronger than the second (I admit there is a bit of a lull in the middle), but It does not distract from the sheer enjoyment of it.

Chris Pope & The Chords UK - Nowhere Land
Chris Pope's moment in the sum came briefly as part of the Mod Revival, and was over inside 3 years.  Undeterred, he kept going - he has released a number of fine solo albums, and has recently re-adopted the Chords moniker.
This album was funded via PledgeMusic, and the content is as deserving of your ears as any major label release.  Whilst the musical landscape may not go too far beyond the 12-Bar RnB influence, the songs are well arranged, solidly played with exuberance and urgency (even a spot of anger at times) and report on Chris's world, his frustrations, his tribulations and his triumphs.
It's definitely one of those "turn it up loud and watch the speakers shake" albums

The Vaccines - Combat Sports
They've only gone and done it again - 4 albums in and they still produce a release of instant gratification and enjoyment.  You really don't have to overstretch the "listening to" muscles with this band.
"Indie by numbers" may be an apt description, but there is a passion and energy that cannot be ignored, and the songwriting is a couple of notches above other landfill-esque competitors

Gaz Coombes - Worlds Stongest Man
Locked in his own studio, experimenting, trying stuff, labouring by himself - Gaz may no longer portray the cheeky, smiley, pre-Britpop "scamp" he once was, oh no, he is an "artist".
Ignore the pretentiousness of this statement, and one listen to this album will confirm that blokes sitting in sheds do produce very good things.
A Step up from 'Matador' (which was pretty darn fine) ...

Frank Turner - Be More Kind
My concern is that Frank Turner is (was) becoming lazy, predictable and shiny (here's a slow song, here's some politics, here's an air-punching affirmation etc).  Whilst 'Be More Kind' does contain all those elements, the studio sheen applied to his last album has been docked, and he's sounding more valid and passionate in his output.

Wilko Johnson - Blow Your Mind
Upfront, I will concede that this offering is (unfortunately) the lesser partner of the Roger Daltrey collaboration from a coupe of years ago.  The same tricks, the same drive and passion, damn near the same band and song constructs are all present and correct, it just lacks "something".  A great listen if the mood is right - at the right time, all is dandy in the world.  If the moment is wrong, you get the feeling that the voice is just not strong enough to carry it, and look to move on quicker than you probably should.  Perfect pub music (and probably it's natural habitat)

Father John Misty - God's Favourite Customer
The pretensions of 'Pure Comedy' are stripped away and FJM delivers a corker.
Previously he tried to be Billy Joel, this time out the touchstone is Elton John, and it works marvelously.  No real stand out tracks (well, maybe a couple), and best consumed as one big whole

Glen Matlock - Good To Go
Former Sex Pistol (is there any review that doesn't describe Glen Matlock as that?) goes full-on rockabilly, ably supported by Slim Jim Phantom.  Like Chris Pope (above) Glen is too long in the tooth to pander to "styles", "demographics" and even expectations, and is happy doing what he wants (but even happier on stage by the look of it)

Special Mention:
Matt Berry - Television Themes
A collection of 1970s TV Themes from the 1970s fleshed out to full length and given a slight psychedelic-y, jazz-y coating.
Anyone who watched TV in these years will be familiar with the tunes in their shortened form, but here you can marvel at a full length version of "Sorry!", get creeped again by "Picture Box" and enjoy the sound of "Are You Being Served" without being told what each floor sells.
There is also a Pub Bore trivia reminder: the theme to Wildtrack was a John Barry tune called "Florida Fantasy" and used in Midnight Cowboy.  I think your age can be defined by upon hearing it you picture Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, or Tony Soper and Su Ingle.

Give Out But Don't Give Up: The Original Memphis Recordings
This re-release is the 'Give Out ...' album presented in it's original guise - a sleazy, bluesy, country-rock album.  Stripped of the Funk excursions and 90s US Rock production, what is left is The Stones meets MC5 meets The Stooges meets Muscle Shoals.
A recent documentary suggests that if this version was released in 1994, it wouldn't have sold.  And that's probably true. After  'Screamadelica', the audience was probably expected more of the Funky stuff, and the "clean" Rock sound.  This "trying to meet market expectation" may also explain why "Give Out ..." is not always considered be on the Primals finest moments.  Have a listen to this - it is indeed a fine, fine moment.

Not enjoyed as much as I hoped:
John Grant - Love Is Magic
I may have to admit that since ;The Queen Of Denmark' John Grant is unlikely to align to my particular tastes.  Yes, there are moments, and one cannot deny the songcraft and heft of delivery.  It just feels each album is moving further away from my core tastes, and ultimately leaving me disappointed.
Could I see this one coming? The couple of early tracks I heard, and the reviews I read, suggested that 'Love Is Magic' could turn my attention.  Sadly, this din't happen.
Great singer, great songs, but not really for me.

Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
Another band with a sliding scale of Rigidly Digital interest.
This debut was, is, and will remain a sterling piece of work.  Each subsequent album has become more and more removed.  And fair play, why would anyone expect them to standstill?
Problem for me was that as album releases increased, song interest and longevity reduced.  There was a brief 'blip' around 'AM', but then it was back to normal service.

Those that aren't yet in my possession, but have still enjoyed:
Aah ... Spotify.  The gift to those of us without enough disposable income (or in my case, serving an expenditure penance for some over-spending misdemeanor.
These albums would, no doubt, have been in the long list if I had more time with them.
Parquet Courts - Wide Awake!
Idles - Joy as an Act of Resistance
Paul McCartney - Egypt Station
Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel

Spiritualized - I'm Your Man

Wreckless Eric - Gateway To Europe

Parquet Courts - Total Football

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Bat Out Of Hell

It's mad, it's overblown, it sounds like Richard Wagner meets Phil Spector recast for Broadway, the story is out of order, and it has been on the charts for something like 9 million years.
And 40+ years after it's release it remains a phenomenal piece of work, and a truly great album (if often derided by those who obviously know no better).

The concept/genesis of Jim Steinman's work dates back almost a decade before it's release.  This album was effectively the third draft - keeping 3 of the previous songs and adding 4 more to create a 7 track album with an average length of around 7 minutes per track (so much for the 3 minute pop song).
But none of those minutes are really wasted - it's full-on scene-setting, atmosphere and drama from start to finish.

The idea was shopped around to prospective record companies, but there were no takers.
The album was recorded through 1975 under the guidance of Todd Rundgren in the producers chair.  Rundgren fell for a Jim Steinman story the they had already signed a record contract, and liking what he heard agreed to finance some studio time  (some reports say he loaned Meat & Steinman the money).  He also roped in his his band (Utopia) and some friends from the E Street Band as supporting musicians.
Despite the record contract story being untrue, Rundgren was now all in, and the success (albeit belated) of the album was down to his production and arrangement, as much as Mr Loaf's performance and Jim Steinman's songs.
When it finally was released, Meat Loaf was the headline name on the cover.  At the bottom is the legend "Songs by Jim Steinman" - arguably, a second sub-title should be added acknowledging Todd Rundgren's contribution.

More time spent trying to sell it to a record company than was spent writing and recording it
Only picked up by small Cleveland (a lowly subsidiary of Epic) with zero expectations (possibly as a favour to the E Street Band members and Todd Rundgren himself), and was finally released in 1977.

There was no great interest when released, hanging around the lower end of the charts (if it managed to get that far) and picking up few sales - in fairness, it suffered from both under-promotion by the Record Company (it was a last minute deal with a small subsidiary label), and (b) not really fitting with any prevailing musical trend, so didn't have a ready made target audience.
In the UK, it was nigh on a year before it picked up any real momentum after a live clip was aired on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
And it is probably really only in a live setting that 'Bat Out Of Hell' would appeal - the tracks are long, the names unknown, but the sheer theatricality of performance wins through.
At around the same time, a syndicated TV show played the '"Bat Out Of Hell" video (a live performance), and the album, or selected tracks, started to pick up radio play.

From slow beginnings, it went on to sell nigh on 50 million worldwide, and it's reckoned it still sells between 250,000 and 500,000 copies per year.

Vocal problems as a result of incessant touring (and straining his voice every night). couipled with a breakdown in the relationship of the 2 main players, put the mockers on the intended follow-up.
Jim Steinman did release 'Bad For Good' a couple of yesrs later - it's a pretty good listen, but Jim Steinman is not a singer in the same mould, and one wonders how Mr Loaf would've delivered these songs.

Fast forward to 1993 and the public get the chance to find out.
Bat Out Of Hell II was a brave attempt to re-ignite a monster, but the comfort of success (and in the case with the 'Bat ..' label it was pretty much an assured success) took away some of the urgency and/or the overblown nature of the original.
Yes this sequel was overblown, but overblown by a budget rather than performance.
Bat Out Of Hell III arrived a couple of years later, and with the best will in the world this really was a case of milking the cash cow until it was dry.

I am intrigued by the Musical and probably will go and see it - I have heard some good things about.   But ... and this may come as a shock to you, I'm not really one for Musical Theatre.  I did go and see We Will Rock You, but the experience was all a bit "ho-hum. is that it?"  - it felt like just an excuse to lever Queen songs into a flimsy storyline.
The Bat Out Of Hell Musical however, was actually written by Jim Steinman, and is based on his original vision of a retelling of the Peter Pan story set in some future dystopia.
Sounds cheery, but I think the songs were sort of designed for the Theatre setting.

The opening track of the album is the title track - I think to create a properly cogent storyline, it should actually be the penultimate track.

The original track listing:
  • Bat Out Of Hell
  • You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • All Revved Up With No Place To Go
  • Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
  • Paradise By The Dashboard Light
  • For Crying Out Loud

My re-jigged track listing to tell a clearer story:
  • All Revved Up With No Place To Go
  • You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth
  • Paradise By The Dashboard Light
  • Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
  • For Crying Out Loud
  • Bat Out Of Hell
  • Heaven Can Wait