Friday 28 February 2020

The Humdrum Express - Ultracrepidarian Soup

Imagine Half Man Half Biscuit with a Midlands accent and a whiff of ska.
That is a really simple description of The Humdrum Express.
Very possibly unfair - there is more to the band than that - but I've got to start with a bit of a hook.

Ian Passey (for it is he) has been casting a wry eye over the world on a couple or 3 albums before.  It was the last album ('The Day My Career Died') and more particularly the song "Leopard Print Onesie" which drew me in - and an enjoyable time it is too.
As before, every listen to this album has so far revealed another smart turn of phrase, a raised eyebrow, or a the very least a knowing smile.
The content is very much rooted in the ordinary (the humdrum I suppose?) and you're immediately comfortable in this world of pop culture references and musings.
And on the subject of Pop Culture Musings, there is a track by that very name here - one where he may have written his own review of the album opening with the line:

"Before I wander off to check how many times the word sardonic has been used in reviews ..."

or. possibly more cleverly, preventing the use of that word to describe this offering in all reviews (including those written my ham-fisted wannabe writers on their interweb blogs).
So if I can't use sardonic (which is a good fit), I'll have to say: witty, acerbic, observational, insightful, and just a little bit brilliant.

 This album is a full band effort with a fatter sound than previous.  Before it was effectively a voice and guitar, and the songs make the transition from "studio busker" (?) to full band with no loss of impact.

12 tracks covering important aspects pf life including motivational wall art, online beer clubs, the wearing of a novelty tie, video cameras in coffins, those who go onto message boards just to stoke trouble and the Grammar Police.

"Coffin Cam" is basically a set-up for a bad/great joke - "remains to be seen", "Chased By The Grammar Police" advocates the death penalty for a misplaced apostrophe, and "Fading Stars On Social Media" deals with the tribulations of being barraged by messages from a once popular artist, still doing the rounds and desperately craving attention.

Since the turn of the year, we have been constantly in a state of Storm Watch, with a new letter of the alphabet being used every week.
But amongst the cold and the damp, The Humdrum Express have provided plenty of relief.

A couple more more witticisms from the album:
"A misconstrued complexity.  Craving authenticity.  An elusive, bitter quality.
Not sure if that’s the drinkers or the ales"
"Online Beer Club"

"Its like finding a bogey in a library book, it really puts you off you're reading"
"The Curse Of The Modern Musician"

"I like Bob Marley, but he was a bit of a big-head to call his album Legend"
"Pop Culture Musings"

Online Beer Club


Sunday 16 February 2020

Happy Mondays versus The Stone Roses

'Pills n Thrills and Bellyaches' vs 'The Stone Roses' (aka The Battle Of Madchester)

These albums may be separated by 18 months (Stone Roses appearing in May 89, Happy Mondays in Nov 90) but they are both probably the definitive articles of Madchester.

The mass-market introduction to Madchester came in Nov 89 when both bands appeared on Top Of The Pops - Stone Roses performing "Fools Gold" and Happy Mondays performing "Hallelujah".
Before recording, there was apparently discussions between the bands of mixing it up a bit so Ian Brown would've played drums for the Mondays and Shaun Ryder take the lead vocal for Stone Roses.  After all, outside of NME readers, no-one really knew these bands, and how would anyone know the wrong people were in the wrong band.
Unfortunately (fortunately?) it didn't happen, and what we did get was Ian Brown's bad miming (understated anarchy?) and an introduction to the Morecambe and Wise of Madchester - Shaun and Bez.
The Happy Mondays were 2 albums in by 1989 - both met with minor Indie Chart success, but had not crossed over to mass-market.
1987s 'Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)' introduced the world to the Mondays melange of indie-rock, psychedelia, funk and dance music, inspired by the burgeoning club culture in Manchester and one or two narcotic enhancements.
1988s 'Bummed' continued and refined the formula - featuring some of Shaun Ryder's most striking lyrics - and added a smoother (madder?) production job from Martin Hannett.
Soon after came the reinforcement of dance floor links with "Wrote For Luck" and "Lazyitis" (both form 'Bummed') being given the re-mix treatment by Vince Clarke and Paul Oakenfield.
And the Oakenfield influence continued (if not directly from the production chair) for their next realease - the EP that was to change their fortunes
Was the 'Madchester Rave On' EP a follow-on from debut album 'Bummed' or a clarion call/pre-cursor to Madchester madness and the genesis of 'Pills ...'?
I think the latter.  It's the same band, but a big jump forward in professionalism and presentation.  Still ragged round the edges, but smoothed enough to make an impact.

The Stone Roses appeared (to this southerner) to come from pretty much nowhere.  Their singles, prior to their debut album, had not scratched the Indie Charts but they were filling column inches in the music papers and attracting of strong following in and around Manchester.
"Made Of Stone" was released a couple of months before the album, and started to pick up airplay on Radio 1 (albeit in the evenings, but national airplay is national airplay), and the "buzz" continued.
By the time their debut arrived in May, the inky music papers were falling over themselves, and there was no disappointment with it's contents.  It really did deserve the rave critical reviews it received.
The debut album was rooted in indie rock guitar jangle (think early Primal Scream, or others from the C86 generation) with more of a debt to The Byrds than to Paul Oakenfield.
The dance beats were present, but not to the fore - these would become a lot more explicit on the stand-alone single that came in November.  "Fools Gold" was a floor-filler at clubs like The Hacienda, Cream or even various Ibizan clubs, as well as any self-respecting Indie-Disco.
"Fools Gold" may not have been on the debut album, but the exposure of the song and the band ensured that sales continued, and the Roses legend continued to grow.

Both The Happy Mondays and Stone Roses albums contain a similar arrogance and swagger.  Both are as tight as f*ck, and loose/baggy (to coin a phrase) at the same time.
In both cases, all is held together by the respective drummers - Reni (Stone Roses) and Gary Whelan (Happy Mondays).
And the supporting musicians have a part to play too - both bassists (Mani and Paul Ryder) add rock-solid under-pinning with the odd flourish ensuring that everything is spot on.
Where John Squire's guitar veers to rock (amply displayed on follow-up album 'Second Coming') it is not without jangle and massive melody, Mark Day keeps the Mondays in check and keeps the funky riffing coming.

There is no historical doubt of the musicianship of The Stone Roses, the one thing that is often forgotten is how tight as a band the Happy Mondays were.  Shaun and Bez could not have been Shaun and Bez of legend without the rest of the band being and staying at the very highest levels of commitment and capability.

Whilst the Happy Mondays album is closer the the Dance floor than most indie-rockers felt (initially) comfortable with, The Stone Roses album was much more a straight indie-rocker with psychedelic overtones.
By appropriating the sounds and rhythms in their immediate lives, they both evoke a similar culture, and it is only right for someone to pit each album (track by track) against each other.

So let's do it ...

"Kinky Afro" vs "I Wanna Be Adored"
Right, two absolute bangers to start with.
Some of Shaun's best lyrical couplets over a loose rhythm - I can't dance to save my life, but this makes me feel I want a bit of a strut (OK, more of a Shaun "dance" whereby you just sort of sway).
"I Wanna Be Adored" is a slow builder - there's 40 seconds before the bass rumbles in, 1 minute before the guitar starts chiming, and the song doesn't properly fill out until 1 minute 30 seconds.  Ian Brown's vocal may not be the greatest, but it's perfect for the Stone Roses - he is just sounding so convincing.
Happy Mondays 0 Stone Roses 1

"God's Cop" vs "She Bangs the Drums
Blues-y squealing slide guitar heralds the arrival of Gods Cop before it settles into a groove.  You feel there's more tune than Shaun is letting on here, and then the chorus kicks in and briefly the song rises, before settling back to where it came from.
"She Bangs The Drum" is just joyous from the tinkling hi-hat , the rumbling bass and the sppiky trebly guitar.  Ian Brown's voice is low in the mix.  Like the Mondays track, the chorus just lift's the whole thing, but the verse part is stronger than the Mondays offering.
Happy Mondays 0 Stone Roses 2

"Donovan" vs "Waterfall"
Apparently inspired by the actual Donovan - Shaun Ryder even gave Donovan a grand-daughter.  But the song itself is a bit of a wig-out that never really goes anywhere.
"Waterfall" on the other hand just chimes away - it's bouncing and laid back at the same time.  And that incessant riff has the ability to stick in your head long after you've turned the CD off.
Happy Mondays 0 Stone Roses 3

"Grandbag's Funeral" vs "Don't Stop"
"Don't Stop" is just "Waterfall" played backwards, isn't it?  Yes it is, but it is literally played backwards (not just reversed in the tape machine) but with new vocals over the top. The effect is a weird one, because you feel the vocals are backwards too (which they aren't).
I want to enthuse about "Grandbag's Funeral" - it is a great track, and in the flow of 'Pills ...' one of the stronger tracks here.  But up against "Don't Stop" you just want a bit more invention and surprise.
Happy Mondays 0 Stone Roses 4

"Loose Fit" vs "Bye Bye Badman"
Maybe "Grandbag's Funeral" is a turning point - here the Mondays employ a Roses-esque chiming riff, and stay in line with the title - the groove here is really loose, but as tight as anything they've ever done.  Shaun's voice is stoned down too, ably supported by Rowetta's vocal.
"Bye Bye Badman" is good, but can sound like 2 songs bolted together.  It works, but it just jars a bit when they move from one to another.  .
Happy Mondays 1 Stone Roses 4

"Dennis and Lois" vs "Elizabeth My Dear"
Happy Mondays go funky NY Disco - and it works (eventually).
Initially, I'm not convinced, but by the end it is definitely one of the high points
It is clear that with "Elizabeth My Dear", the Stone Roses want to make a statement of belief, but it just feels clumsy. Truly the inverse of The Beatles "Her Majesty", but does it really deserve a place on this album?
Happy Mondays 2 Stone Roses 4

"Bob's Yer Uncle" vs "(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister"
Happy Mondays sit in loose funky tones, with a touch of salsa going on.  The almost hushed vocal adds to the air of mystery about the track.  Yes, they have done better tracks, but this one is not far from their prime cuts.
Meanwhile The Stone Roses are in deep psychedelic-jangle territory - the sound is pretty dense, but triumphant at the same time.  A minor criticism, but I always feel it just needs a little lift (truck-drivers gear change perhaps?) to make it truly brilliant.  But it's still great enough to secure another point.
Happy Mondays 2 Stone Roses 5

"Step On" vs "Made of Stone"
Another collision moment of two fantastic tracks.  Two tracks which stand as (possibly) the most representative of each bands sound and attitude.
The "twisting my melon man" lyric is almost quintessential Shaun Ryder, and the whole construct of "Made Of Stone" is ripe for shorthand of a Manchester Indie band in the late 80s/early 90s.
In line with the lyrics, sometimes I fantasise that this task is easy and it doesn't twist my melon as much as this.
All I can do is declare a score draw
Happy Mondays 2.5 Stone Roses 5.5

"Holiday" vs "Shoot You Down"
"Shoot You Down" is brilliantly effortless, relaxing and withdrawn.  Not filler, but maybe sequenced wrong.  Maybe swap places with "Elizabeth My Dear" (or even replace) would be a better place for this track.
"Holiday" - swaggeringly superb, with lyrics to match.  Sounds very much like it was written from direct experience.
There is a very good chance that this track is the most under-rated and unrecognised the Mondays ever threw out.
Are the Roses slipping up?  The Mondays are fighting back.
Happy Mondays 3.5 Stone Roses 5.5

"Harmony" vs "This Is the One"
No, they're not.  "This Is The One" is the forgotten classic of this album (maybe not forgotten, but not as regularly trotted out as "Adored", "Resurrection" or "Waterfall").
This track takes all that is expected of The Stone Roses so far, and bounds it up inside an almost prefect package (even with a slight Abba-esque guitar trill).
"Harmony" by comparison just can't compete.  "Harmony" is the actual closer of the album (but not here where I had to lever in an extra track).
And it's got everything it should have - arpeggio indie guitar, funky bass, blissed out vocals.  There's even a touch of Velvet Underground about it.  The track builds to a virtual fight between instruments to be heard, and then just stops - no fade, no meandering to a close, just a dead stop..  It may not be the most focussed of tracks, but it is a fine closer to the album.
It just had the misfortune to come up against "This Is The One"
Happy Mondays 3.5 Stone Roses 6.5

"Hallelujah" vs "I Am the Resurrection"
This is the track that probably brought the Happy Mondays to national (or partially national) attention.  And deservedly so.  Built around another loose funking dance riff with Shauns' pert sung/part chanted vocal over the top.  Anthemic?  Yes it was.  Instantly recognisable and instantly repeatable.
The Stone Roses closed their debut album with an 8 minute track (were they going all Prog?).  The track may be 8 minutes, but the majority of proceedings is an instrumental whig out.
Pounding drums and ominous bass with a slight background vocal building to a crescendo in the chorus.  And then there is that breakdown and instrumental section, and the euphoric moment when they just stop and come back in all together - who knew one and a half seconds of silence could be a defining moment of the record?
"Resurrection" takes this one (just)
Happy Mondays 3.5 Stone Roses 7.5

One question remains: are these truly great albums, or a perfect moment in time?
Of the two, 'Pills n Thrills and Bellyaches' is probably the most "of it's time" offering, whilst the Stone Roses debut has a certain timelessness about it.
'Pills ...' is one you have to be in a certain mood for, whereas the opening notes of "I Wanna Be Adored" just set the mood and get you ready for 50 minutes of aural enjoyment.

What happened next?
Happy Mondays contributed to bankrupting Factory with the aborted, drawn-out and chaotic sessions for the follow-up 'Yes Please' (despite the promise, it was not the monumental album that was promised/suggested).  As a band they limped to a close.  Shaun and Bez returned a year later with Black Grape, and delivered an album that would've been a more fitting epitaph for the Mondays.
The Stone Roses initially capitalised on their fame/notoriety and organised an open air festival at Spike Island.  Hailed as "The Baggy Woodstock", the legend of the event outweighs the weather, the organisation, and the reported experience.
They thaen ahd one or two legal disputes with their record company to attend to - the follow-up album 'Second Coming' did not appear for until 1994, by which time they had upped the Led Zeppelin quotient and guitar histrionics of their songs.  To this day, 'Second Coming' still divides the bands fans.
(Personally, I prefer 'Second Coming', but I believe I am in the minority)

Kinky Afro

This Is The One

Monday 10 February 2020

Green Day - Father Of All ...

(the full title is 'Father Of All Motherfuckers', but I didn't put it in the header just in case Blogger got upset and deleted my account)

Green Day may well have peaked with 2004s 'American Idiot'.
In truth, the preceding albums contained some moments of greatness, but when'American Idiot' came out, it really was a case of "where the f**k did that come from?".
It was a sort of Robert Johnson at the Crossroads moment, and it (for a time) made Green Day on of the biggest bands in the world.
And then they tried the political comment in a rock-opera thing again with '21st Century Breakdown', and all started to come unstuck.
The triple set - '¡Uno!', '¡Dos!', '¡TrĂ©!' was an attempt to get back to basics.  As it turned out, it was more an attempt to turn back the clock, and songs of angsty rebellion just don't work as well when delivered by three blokes knocking on the door of 40.  2016s 'Revolution Radio' was just a bit limp by all accounts.
So, 4 years on, are they just trying to milk the old cow again?  I really think they've tried to a bit a bit more thoughtful about this album, and tried to do something a bit different with their sound and approach, but still unmistakably Green Day.
Opener "Father Of All" is a bluesy-rock stomper owing a debt to the White Stripes, and 'Fire, Ready, Aim' adds The Hives into the mix - on first hearing the production treatment on the voice sounds wrong, but subsequent listens reveal it to be a worthwhile effect (if not essential) give a slightly ethereal feeling to proceedings.
"Oh Yeah" sounds like it could be a left over from 'American Idiot' and samples Joan Jet / Gary Glitter for the shout along chorus.
There are a couple of "Green Day by numbers" tracks here - not a bad thing, but not exactly mould breaking - these include "Meet Me On The Roof", "Sugar Youth" and "Junkies On A High".
"I Was a Teenage Teenager" is almost a reflective apology (if that's the right term) and the nearest to the teenage angst, I hate everything stock they once traded in.  And further re-visiting the old days of being a garage band, "Stab You in the Heart" is a thinly veiled re-tread of "Hippy Hippy Shake" with their own lyrics over the top
(And anyone who's been in a band will agree that one's earliest songwriting attempts are usually "nick someone else tune, change a couple of notes, and throw some other words over the top (or at least that's my experience)).
"Take the Money and Crawl" starts like a Spaghetti Western theme before the fuzz guitar and pounding drums get the album back on track after a slight lull, with events rounded off by "Graffitia".
I'm sure they tried, but couldn't leave out some form of comment backed with Ramones-esque drumming and a proper shout along anthemic chorus.  Probably the most Green Day moment in the album.

10 songs done and dusted in 26 minutes - it's fair to day they may be back to their old selves, and finally breaking from the shadow of 'American Idiot'.

Fire, Ready, Aim


Wednesday 5 February 2020

Albums Of Influence

I recently did another of those Facebook challenges
This was the challenge:

I've been nominated by xxx to choose 10 vinyl era albums that greatly influenced my taste in music. One per day. 10 consecutive days. No explanations. No reviews. Just covers.

What no explanations?  That's OK, I'll just use my other presence on the interweb (ie here) to do the explaining (because I think I should).
And I've changed the posting order to try and create a chronological flow to my listening habits

Day 1

This is a double album (quadruple album?) really.
Introduced via nicking the Red one it out of my parents record cupboard, and playing it to death.  The Blue album arrived a couple of years later.  And that one got just as much record player time
Still today, if you want a hit of those Beatle-y blokes, these 2 are the perfect entry point.
And one still marvels at how far they'd travelled in 8 short years.
It's basically the singles, plus choice album tracks (but not always the best album tracks from their parent albums) - and it's always surprising just how many great were left off.

Day 2

The Jam split in 1982 - being 12 I owned a few of their singles, but surviving on a paper boys wages (I'd just got my first paper round), albums generally remained out of reach (unless it was a birthday or Christmas).
When this arrived in early 1983, it rounded up the singles, many B-sides and some album tracks (like the Red and Blue albums above).  Plus and added bonus - the inner sleeve contained extracts from Paolo Hewitt's A Beat Concerto book.  I read this, learnt it, bought the book, and became a Jam expert by the end of 1983.

Day 3

I heard "Fields Of Fire" on Top Of The Pops, and it was one of those moments where everything stops and concentration is focused in only one direction.
The album did not disappoint.  I went forwards with Big Country, and backwards to The Skids - I'm happy to say I own just about everything commercially released by Stuart Adamson's bands (and a couple of bootlegs).  The 16th of December is still marked by the wearing of a tartan shirt.

Day 4

Albums were out of reach in early teenage years (see above), but I did get a copy of Iron Maiden's 'Number Of The Beast' in early 1982.
I'm a Heavy Metal Mod with a major appreciation of The Beatles - jeez, I was confused.
This Live album arrived in 1985, and my listening habits changed again (as did my attire and hair length)

Day 5

Which came first - the album or the film?
The album (obviously), but in my world I'd seen the film first, and I very quickly wanted to get hold of the album.
One problem: it was either nowhere to be found in Our Price, or hellishly expensive.
Solution: "Hello mate.  You like The Who, can you record that Quadrophenia album for me.  Here's a TDK D90".
I played it so much I wore the tape out

Day 6

The same person who gave me 'Quadrophenia' also supplied (of his own volition) a tape copy of this 1976 live album (recorded in Mono, trivia fans).
The sheer energy (and danger) of the performance remains a yard-stick for how I want a sweaty live show to be.

Day 7

Their first couple of albums were Goth focussed, but no-one can deny "She Sells Sanctuary" is one hell of a track.  Being Goth, it didn't really figure on my radar at the time, but by the time they got to 1987, Rick Rubin and some re-cycled AC/DC riffs changed my whole view of the band (and the genre).
And what's so wrong with re-cycled AC/DC riffs?  I like re-cycled AC/DC riffs

Day 8

Being 7 doesn't really get you entry to Punk - however, 10 years later I was bitten by the music (and the attitude).  I can keep doing the Heavy Metal Mod thing (with a bit of Goth thrown in), but now I can revel in the joy of amphetamine-fueled high energy noise.
In truth, it was a compilation called 'Burning Ambitions' that was my entry to Punk, but this album surely defines my listening.

Day 9

I want to own as much Punk music as possible, and a compilation called 'The Vinyl Alternative' presented a band that sounded as urgent, tuneful and aware as any I'd found (plus that rasping vocal sold it again).
On the strength of one track ("At The Edge") I bought this singles collection, played it once, and the S section of my vinyl collection expanded rapidly.
My absolute favourite band of all time.  I own everything they've released, a fair amount of stuff they haven't (officially) released, see them at least once a year, and even use their record label name to hide behind when writing stuff here, there and everywhere.

Day 10

When you've exhausted UK Punk, where do you go?  US Punk obviously - although tread carefully, not all of it is great.  But this lot are one of the original influences on the UK Punk scene - their debut album is an artefact of great significance, and their Roundhouse and Dingwalls shows in July 1976 were attended by just about anyone who had anything to do with the original UK Punk movement.
Surf music, bubble-gum, and buzzsaw guitar, all topped off with a fantastic vocal (one of the greatest rock vocalists ever?).  What more do these ears want.
I can even forgive the non-chronological running order - this album is that good and that important.

But wait - that only takes me to about 1988/89?
My Vinyl Era runs from the ages of 12 to 19 - after then, purchasing was a mixture of both Vinyl and CD.  Also, I was now working full-time and had disposable income.  Even more albums would be purchased, but maybe the deep influence, or seismic changes didn't occur as often.
Yes, there were moments where listening habits were broadened (rather than changed) - Richard & Linda Thompson's 'I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight' for example - or reinforcing habits like the first Oasis album.
They may cause similar flurries of excitement, enjoyment and expenditure, but do they have the same "influence" as those first heard moments by a moody teenager with bad hair?