Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Before Hollywood

I've got a feeling, sounds like a fact

Before Hollywood (1983) ****

Finally, the Go-Betweens as we know them arrive, and would stay in near-exact terms of quality and more or less sound for the next quarter of a century.  Stylistically, it isn't a drastic departure from the debut, in fact barely a departure at all, as they stick to same dusty three-piece jangle; it's simply that the playing and production have improved a bit, and the songwriting improved immeasurably.  As usual, this album takes some time before it all sinks in - on first listen, once again the succession of tough jangly rockers blend into one another, but subsequent careful listens reveal the hooks that set each individual track apart.  And there's nary a weak track, even including the bonus.  Even the weaker tunes have their considerable merits to consider:  note how wonderfully tight and intuitive they sound as a band on "On My Block," as McLennan's show-offy complex bass lines counterpoint Forster's snakily subcontinental guitar lines, and Lindy Morrison's crisp, militaristic strums keep the beat propulsing along.  Perhaps the key to the rapid progress from album #1 to album #2 is the growth of Grant McLennan as a songwriter, a crucial step in the Go-Betweens' evolution, as he gets off with the two clear highlights of this disc, one of which is so strong that it threatens to overshadow every other tune on here:  yes, this is the one with "Cattle and Cane," on it, that beloved standard (in Australia only, of course) that ranks as the band's most famous and popular (among fans and Australians only, of course) tune.  A dreamily evocative slice of childhood nostalgia, in its own modest way a Queensland farm boy's "Strawberry Fields," it's airily evocative of late summer in the long tall grass.  Secondly ranks "Dusty in Here," a spare VU-style ballad that uses its quiet minimalism to echo like a mausoleum, as it evokes McLennan dusting off a bottle of wine in a dank cellar while contemplating his father's demise before he was old enough to know him.  A deeply personal song that like "Cattle and Cane," is rooted in childhood memories, and more emotionally moving.

Another reason those two songs are the standouts is that they standout:  they're the two acoustic ballads, and nearly every other track follows the same mid-tempo jangle-rock pattern.  Forster's moody, "As That," stands out as possibly the third best track for breaking the pattern with its brooding, measured gloom.  Of the jangle-rockers, the two best are the two first tracks.  "Bad Debt Follows You," immediately demonstrates how much progress they've made as a band since Lullaby, excitingly kicking the album off with its thumping bass line and swirling organ before it reaches its anthemic but understated chorus.  Even better is "Two Steps Out," with its, "I'd walk a hundred miles," refrain hitting the head like hot summer rain.  Hot summer rain sums up the vibe of this album, methinks - though recorded in England, this is one of their most deeply Australian albums in both sound and imagery.

If there were any doubts that this wasn't quite a four-star album, the bonus tracks mitigate any such doubt, as they are uniformly excellent.  Forster's "Man O'Sand to Girl O'Sea," was the "hit," clearly single material with its unusually straightforward rocksy drive and "I want you back," pleading chorus, but he adds an acerbic twist to his commerciality by opening the song with the lines, "I feel so sure about our love, I'll write a song about us breaking up."  "Hammer the Hammer," is a worthy artifact of their New Wave days, with its bubblesome bassline and pounding chorus that reflects the title.  "Just a King in Mirrors," could be an inferior rewrite of "Dusty in Here," for all I know, but it's a fine third VU-album pastiche in its own right.  "Heaven Says," and "A Peaceful Wreck," sound much more epic than their 4 and 2 1/2 minute running times, respectively, with the latter boasting a hauntingly cruel, "Throw him away," refrain.  "This Girl, Black Girl," is lovely folk-pop with a sprightly jingle in its crisp step, and deservedly one of their classic B-sides.  "Near the Chimney," isn't all that memorable compared to the others, while "The Exception of Deception," is a poorly recorded acoustic songwriter strum from a live date that isn't worth the bother.  10 songs on the original, 8 bonus tracks = 18 songs total, nearly all good.  The type of consistent quality the Go-Betweens have now begun and shall continue to deliver uninterrupted for the rest of their career.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Top 5 Songs From Your Native State/Province/City

I was teasing my best friend, who is a music geek same as me. We were talking about the the Top 5 songs from your province/state. The caveat is that these songs have to be actual hits. My friend is from Nova Scotia, and while I realize that there are a lot of good bands from Halifax - Sloan and Thrush Hermit to name two - none of them had genuine world-wide hits. Here is my Arkansas Top 5 - and all of these were international hits:

1. Fever - Willie John (better know under the cover by Peggy Lee)

2. Wichita Lineman - written by Jimmy Webb, sung by the guy who wrote the Arkansas state anthem, Glenn Campbell

3. Folsom Prison Blue - to choose the tediously obvious. Everybody loves this guy, yeah. But he was the real deal. He grew up 50 miles south of my hometown and picked cotton - literally - same as my grandparents and a zillion other white and black people in the South around that time era. Johnny Cash, if I didn't have to mention his name already.

4. Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens - there are a zillion songs I could have picked from Louis Jordan. This was his biggest hit, which is why I flipped a coin and picked it.

5. Take Me To the River - Al Green. The Reverend Al Green, of West Memphis. The only explicitly Baptist hymnal to make the Top 10 not once, but thrice (under different covers).

Arkansas is a minor, minor Southern state. Anyone from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, or Tennessee can whip out a much better list of songs. Not someone from Connecticut or Montana or Delaware or Florida (ha ha) however....

Anyway, there's the challenge. Greatest songs from your province or state! Must be actually hits, though! Every place has tons of great, obscure musicians, you know? So they don't count. Has to be a hit. That's why I didn't pick my favorite Arkansas band, the Angry Samoans, Little Rock's answer to the Sex Pistols ("They Saved Hitler's Cock," You Stupid Asshole").

I made the mistake of doing this challenge with a man from Detroit. I forgot that Detroit was the home of Motown....of course I lost!


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fischer-Z - Going Deaf for a Living

Going Deaf for a Living (1980) ***

Fischer-Z's second album is a noticable improvement over the debut, but not so much that I give a damn.  It contains their biggest hit, "So Long," a heartfelt lovelorn new wave mid-tempo ballad that made me fall in love with the band when I heard it on Just Can't Enough! vol. whatever, but listening to their albums has made me realize that they never had another song that came close to "So Long," in quality, and the three albums of theirs I initially downloaded with excitement are now a chore:  I've got the albums and have listened to them several times, but is this band worth reviewing?  Aren't they an obscure one-hit wonder whose best song shall remain eternal on '80s mix-tapes and the rest of their work slide back into deserved obscurity?  Thus is the fate of a good but not great band with good but not great songs.  This is actually a fairly good album with cute little new wave songs, the strongest material loaded up front and the worst saved for last - the second half is particularly rancid with the ugly "Crank," the eternally plodding "Haters," (gawd, whose idea was it that reggae had anything to do with New Wave, the whitest genre in human existence this side of polka?), and closing off with a pair of ugly psuedo-punk ravers.  There's some quite choice material on the first side, however, with the title track and the opener, "Room Service," particular standouts (along with "So Long," of course).  In fact, there's little I can complain about side uno.  Thus, the band earn the three star grade of acceptably fair.  I can get some pleasure out of these neat little new wave poptones when I'm playing the first half, but aside from "So Long," little here entices me back.  Have I mentioned "So Long," in this review yet?  Yippee, what a great song!  The problem with Fischer-Z is that they offer little that competing evaW weN bands like the Cars, the Talking Heads, and XTC didn't do better; they are breaking no new sonic ground here, despite having their own strong and solid identity.  Thus, Z-rehcsiF must rely solely on the quality of their songcraft.  Which is way too freakin' inconsistent for maximum enjoyability, unlike, say, Squeeze (1979-1982 era only).

Spirit - The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970) ****

Their fourth album, being yet another commercial failure, broke up the original quintet; too bad, since the final album by the original Spirit (several other incarnations would continue on into the '70s) is certainly their most artistically successful.  It's the one most hailed by the critics for what that's worth, and for once the praise is deserved.  It's not a psychedelic masterpiece - that would be The Family That Plays Together - as the band are writing tighter than ever before (keyboardist John Locke's rather uninteresting instrumental "Space Child" very much an exception).  It's rather a consolidation of strengths as the band have finally gotten a firm grasp on their own unique sound, while not ignoring the songwriting side of things as they did on their previous LP.  The songs are all concise and varied enough in their pop-rock folk-jazz styles to each remain distinctive (unlike the second album) and yet represent a cohesive collection, not an unfocused eclectic sprawl (unlike the first album).  The big news is that Randy California is taking up a lion's share of the songwriting this time out, penning a grand total of seven tunes, as opposed to former chief songwriter Jay Ferguson's mere four.  Nevertheless, Ferguson still manages to outshine the teen guitar prodigy by penning the four best tunes.  "Mr. Skin," is a delightfully brassy rocker (an ode to Ed Cassidy's solar-powered sex panel), and the uproarious "Animal Zoo," are clear highlights.  The dusky moodpiece, "When I Touch You," and the crackling "Street Worm," with its zig-zag arrangement setting up California fret-running, are nearly as fine.  California's tunes aren't quite as strong but only not as quite, opening the album with the two-punch of "Prelude/Nothing to Hide," with its quirky "we're married to the same bride," chorus, and the even better, "Nature's Way," a pretty and emotionally moving ballad that's clearly a hippie environmentalist admonition.  "Life Has Just Begun," is another touching acoustic ballad, balanced by following with the funky rocker, "Morning Will Come."  "Love Has Found a Way," earns the moniker, 'psychedelic love ballad,' as it gains its rhythm from a backwards tape collage courtesy John Locke while California's sweetly harmonized tune and lyrics are completely conventional - the juxtaposition is quite effective, if a bit dated.  The four bonus tracks are rather disposable this time - a couple of lackluster rockers and a pair of alternate takes.  The words 'lost classic' get bandied around a bit in regards to this album, and it's on the money shot - believe the hype.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Great Move! The Best of the Move

Great Move!  The Best of the Move (1992) ***1/2

The title is a complete lie; it's merely the entire contents of their run at EMI, one album (Message From the Country, 1971) plus some singles tacked on as bonus tracks.  Once again the Move prove as lackluster on their studio album as they were brilliant on their singles.  Message From the Country is a bizarre record which can't decide whether it wants to explore dark, medieval pop'n'roll or indulge in genre-hopping whimsy.  As expected, the gothic art-pop rules so far ahead of the country and '50s rock excursions that you wonder why Wood & Lynne even bothered with crap like the Johnny Cash parody, "Ben Crawley Steel Company," the music hall goof "My Marge," or the '50s sock-hopper, "Don't Mess Me Up."  Well, at least "Don't Mess Me Up," has the excuse of being written by Bev Bevan.  Why they let the drummer get away with foisting one of his songs on the band a second time is beyond me.  Perhaps he strongarmed them into it.  Did you know that rock drummers can be as fit as Olympic athletes?  Takes a lot of strength and endurance to pound away at the skins for a living.  As for the artsy rock tunes that make up the better half of the record, I wouldn't classify a single one as a Move classic, but they are all interesting:  Wood & Lynne had a knack for sprinkling all sorts of neat weirdness all over their constructions, so even when stripped down to the core the tunes themselves aren't all that strong, there's so much going on in the arrangements that you can still derive considerable enjoyment from the piece.  Take "It Wasn't My Idea To Dance," for example - it's not much of a tune, but it's absolutely brilliant in arrangement, with its rattling maracas and heavily upfront bass thud and sinister oboe (I'm guessing) solo carrying the primary melody.  Lynne outshines Wood slightly, again, but only slightly this time:  the gothic yet expansive title track, with its rattling bassline and multi-tracked, filtered harmonies gets the album off an odd and distinctive note; while "The Minister," pounds away sinisterly and sneeringly as the album's most effective rocker. 

The five bonus tracks knock it up a notch (there a couple of radio advertisements tacked on to the end as well; worth a laff).  The singles aren't as consistently brilliant as the bonus tracks tacked on to Looking On, but still well-outshining most of the album proper.

1) "Tonight" - A chipper slice of acoustic-based pop that encapsulates Wood's winsome charm.  It's winsome.  Not much else to say about this track.  'Winsome' sums up.  Very winsome!  Winsome it is.

2) "Chinatown" b/w "Down On the Bay" - The A-side indulges in Orientalism with a cuckoo-clucking Cathay melody and gongs to set off the fireworks.  Otherwise it's standard but most excellent surging power-pop - the Move at their finest.  Lynne's B-side is rockaboogie crap.

3) "California Man" b/w "Do Ya" - This time Wood writes the rockaboogie crap and Lynne writes the perfect power-pop song.  What the hell was "California Man" doing as the A and not B-side?  It's one of the most irritating songs in the world, to become even more irritating a half decade later under Cheap Trick's thumb.  "Do Ya," on the other hand, is a masterpiece.  If you've only encountered it in its neutered ELO remake (the one with strings), you might have no idea that it was originally a good song.  You don't know what you're missing - one of the finest hard-rocking power-pop rockers of the early '70s.  Easily the best song on the CD and bar none Lynne's finest four minutes and six seconds in the Move.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Move - Looking On

Looking On (1970) *** / ****

By this time the Move had gone through a few lineup changes, the major ones being the departure of Carl Wayne and the entrance of Jeff Lynne.  Of the seven songs on the original album, Lynne composes the two best:  the ominous "What?" that rumbles epically with vague birth-of-Christ alusions in apocalyptic but richly melodic style, veering from dreamy verses to suddenly fiery choruses of electronically-treated vocals.  Whew!  "Open Up Said the World at the Door," is a more complex multi-part construction, not as immediately catchy, with jerkily pounding piano and mass-choir harmonies.  Drummer Bev Bevan contributes a number, too, "Turkish Tram Conductor Blues," of which the less said the better.

Q:  What's the last thing a drummer says to his band?
A:  "Hey, why don't we try some of my songs?"

As for Roy Wood, once again he's in album-material writing slump.  This being released hot on the heels of a fellow Birmingham band entitled Black Sabbath earning some early success, the Move apparently feel the need to move in a heavier direction.  Not that they're bad as a heavy rock band; it's just that they are mediocre at it.  The songs are heavy enough, alright, but as a guitarist neither Lynne nor Wood are particularly adept at crunching out monster hard rock riffs - they're art-pop songwriters, for J.C.'s sake, and that's where their talents lie.  "Brontosaurus," is the only truly successful Wood composition this time out, with its lumbering bass-heavy stomp indeed mimicking some dredged-up prehistoric beast thrashing in the tar pit (is this where they got the term "dinosaur rock"?) until idiotically boogieing frenetically in the mid-section, but nevermind, it's still a great song.  Wood's other songs do have their touches of genius, but they're only side-touches - the scraping violin in the middle of "When Alice Comes Back to the Farm," the unexpected arrival of bagpipes in the middle of an alleged heavy metal number on the title track (AC/DC are the only other band I am aware of to have pulled off the same trick), and the....well, there's practically nothing positive I can say about the closer, "Feel Too Good."

So, a three star rating for the original album - it's got some interesting ideas but ultimately is only half-successful.  The bonus tracks push it up another star entirely.  If you've read my review of The Best of the Move, you'll find some of these tracks there, but since that compilation is impossible to find, I'll review them again.  For whatever reason, Wood was concentrating his best material into concurrent singles instead of album tracks, and nearly every one of these ten bonus tracks rules in its own way.  OK, seven of them do - we can leave out the Italian versions and the demo tracks that constitute the final three numbers.  Let's do this one by one:

1)  "Wild Tiger Woman" b/w "Omnibus" - Bev Bevan admitted in the liner notes of The Best of the Move that the B-side should've been the A-side, and I agree:  "Omnibus," is as delightfully Brit-poppy as they got, ringingly chimey and breezy and lightweight in the best of senses.  The A-side is more aggressively boogieing and the chorus is mildly obnoxious, but it's still a winner, mostly for the guitar hook.

2) "Blackberry Way" b/w "Something" - The A-side was one of the gloomiest and most glorious pop singles they ever cut, a sort of morbid flipside to "Penny Lane," and understandably the Move's only #1 U.K. hit.  It sounds exactly like something Paul McCartney could've written hungover and depressed in 1967 - yeah, that ace, mate.  The B-side is more of a light mainstream pop piece (circa 1969), a mid-tempo ballad crooned by Carl Wayne and written by some outsider named Dave Morgan.  Maybe it was something specifically requested from an outside songwriter to get Dads & Mums to like the Move along with the kids, but anyhow, it's a nice tune nonetheless.

3) "Curly" b/w "This Time Tomorrow" - The A-side is another wonderful slice of Liverpudlian Brit-Pop (it even mentions Liverpool in the lyrics), very very very early Lennonesque circa "I Don't Want To Spoil the Party" in its folk-poppiness, with those charming acoustic guitars strumming and that whistling recorder carrying the main, bright little melody.  The B-side is another Dave Morgan composition, much more gently balladic but still fine, and the last Move song to feature Carl Wayne on lead vocals.

4) "Lightning Never Strikes Twice," - the B-side of "Brontosaurus," and is the lone composition that new bassist Rick Price contributed to the band.  It's nothing special but it pop-rocks effectively in its odd mixture of chunky heavy rock and Beatlesque hooks/harmonies.

The Move - Shazam

Shazam (1970) ***

All new material, folks!

The Move's second album finds Roy Wood short on material and attempting to cover it up by a) relying overmuch on covers and b) extending the songs into psychedelic jam territory.  Of the six songs, three are covers, and of the three originals, only the gorgeous, "Beautiful Daughter," at 2:51 is at all concise; nearly every other track extends past the five-minute mark.  For once it works brilliantly, on "Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited," a remake of the old Move chestnut that vastly improves upon the original:  the light-classical borrowings on the extended coda almost justify the history of art-rock pretensions to fusing European 'highbrow' music with Anglo-American rock'n'roll.  But it is distressing that it is a recycling of old material (like I should complain, tee hee); what was up with Wood, one of pop's top-notch songwriters of the era, doing so strapped for good songs?  Perhaps he'd invested so much into the Move's concurrent brilliant singles that he'd blown his wad by the time he entered the studio to record an album, and only realized it until it was too late.  Nevertheless, as I stated above, "Beautiful Daughter," possesses an absolutely lovely translucent melodic Olde Angleland charm, enough so's you can easily ignore the slightly creepy lyrics, which appear to be about an older gentleman being refreshed by imbibing a bit of youth from a nubile maiden.  I hear that Gandhi tried a similar trick, sleeping naked with teenage girls to revive his youthful energies.  Did it work?  Maybe I'll try it out when I'm a dirty old man.  As opposed to merely a dirty young (OK, not so young anymore) man.  "Hello Suzie," kicks proceedings off with a direct and directly catchy slice of Movepowerpop, and would've been brilliant....if it'd had a minute or two lopped off its 4:51 length.

That goes double and even triple and in the case of the nearly eleven minute "Fields of People," quadruple or quintuple for the three covers that take up the B side of the original vinyl.  Not that "Fields of People," isn't excellent for the first few minutes: weird, vaguely troubling in a mass hippie cult kinda way (not just the dippy lyrics, but the unsettling monk-medieval harmonies that segue into the chorus), but it's hard not to get swept along by the folkily-melodic tidal wave of it all, the way the sprightly Celtic verses give way to the forceful Benedictine chorus.  Ars Nova were another one of those ultra-obscure bands completely lost to history, and being covered by the Move is apparently their lone claim to any sort of fame - more's the sorrower, judging by the evidence of this fine song.  If only the buzzily guitar-sitaring coda didn't extend for so freakin' long!  It's not as if it's some prog epic with non-repetitive song structure or fluidly dazzling solos; there's really no excuse for extending a relatively simple pop song to eleven minutes' length.  The other two covers, "Don't Make My Baby Blue," and "The Last Thing On My Mind," are barely worth discussing; the Move don't do anything interesting with either of these '60s MOR pop standards, yet irritatingly extend them to 6:02 and 7:36, respectively. 

The bonus tracks aren't worth much, either:  it's simply a tacking on of their 1968 Something Else live EP, with a handful of other live tracks slathered on as addition.  It's all covers, and the Move do justice to but don't improve upon Eddie Cochran, Spooky Tooth, Love, Janis Joplin, the Byrds, the Moody Blues, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jackie Wilson.  In other words, check out the originals, this live LP is kind of a waste.  An interesting waste, and worth a listen if you're a fan and want to hear how the Move run through some of their favorite oldies and contemporaries, but not the sort of thing I'll ever feel the need to listen to again.  Much like the rest of this album, with the first three tracks and maybe 1/3 of "Fields of People," very much excepted.

P.S.  Almost forgot to mention it - this album's gimmick is splicing man on the street interviews with older Britishfolk about their opinions on pop music.  "Well, it's all right in its way, except when they go naked," from some old granny, is the keeper.

The Best of the Move

The Best of the Move (1974) *****

Another bit of recycling.  This compilation that I've enjoyed for years really doesn't inspire any new thoughts.  Curiously, this still doesn't have an AMG review, despite being easily the finest collection of Movemusic collected on a single disc!

Originally a double vinyl package now handily fit on one CD, the first disc consists of the Move's 1968 debut (never released in America), and the second of concurrent singles, A's & B's. The Move's '60s singles range from the really good to the flat-out brilliant; most of these were substantial British hits -- in the liner notes, drummer Bev Bevan notes that the Move had a string of #2 hits, but only one #1, "Blackberry Way," (their somber rejoinder to the Beatles' "Penny Lane,") because in a publicity coup, the Move threatened to break up if their next single didn't reach #1. It probably would've reached #1, anyway; one can envision a brigade of British schoolboys strolling, arms in stride, singing in unison, "Goodbye, Blackberry Way," at the end of a school semester. Their first single, 1967's "Night of Fear," contains the cleverest rip-off of the "1812 Overture," in pop music; which, as far as I'm aware, is the only example of Tchaikovsky-rock. Roy Wood penned equally impressive B-sides, as "Night of Fear"'s flip, "Disturbance," proves -- a hard rock ode to madness that ends with the screams of producer Tony Secunda pretending to go insane. "Wave the Flag and Stop the Train," is, as Bevan admits in the liner notes, a deliberate Monkees imitation (really! - the guitar line apes "Last Train To Clarksville), but "I Can Hear the Grass Grow," is the band's psychedelic peak, a monster of a single that pounds the repetitive title chant to bizarre, mantralike effect, riding the current of the Move's powerful, thumping rhythm section. The Move's most sonically key signature is the way they manipulate the mix so that the bass steps out into the forefront, creating a powerfully heavy, lumbering roar of a bottom that's balanced by Wood's high-pitched harmonies and song melodies on top. Two ballads written by Carl Wayne's associate Dave Morgan, "Something," and "This Time Tomorrow," are fine, though too cabaret in sensibility to really suit the heavy pop stylings of the Move. "Curly," possesses one of those insinuatingly catchy English folk-pop melodies that would have fit fine on Roy Wood's first solo album, and though the band denies it, it really does sound like it's an ode to Carl Wayne's pet pig. "Wild Tiger Woman," became one of the band's first real flops as a single (it charted, but not in the Top Ten); it's good, but is really a bit too hard-rocking and bombastic for pop single material. As Bevan points out, they realized in retrospect that they should have released the B-side, "Omnibus," as the A-side; it's clearly superior, with all the elements of a classic pop smash, even if (or because?) it's a blatant Hollies imitation. Fans of '60s Brit-pop should definitely check this collection out; the Move were a great singles band, and most of their best are contained here.

It also contains their signature hard-rock lumber, "Brontosaurus," but I'll get to that in my Looking On review!

The Move - s/t

The Move (1968) ****

This review is a recycling of an old Creative Noise review.  I'm going to review all the four Move studio albums in chronological order, and looking back at my original review of their debut, which I wrote over a decade ago, surprisingly I found little that I could disagree with in my original assessment.  Also, it's pretty well-written and non-embarassing (unlike some of my older reviews), and there's little new that I felt like adding.  I'm throwing in my old intro to my original Move page as a bonus track.

The Move split the difference between power-pop and art-rock. Assembling the finest rock musicians in Birmingham (from whence they got their name -- all of the musicians 'moved' from other bands), the Move acted like the Who onstage (smashing TV sets) and tried to ape the Beatles in the studio (smashing melodies), and from 1968-1972, scored several sizable hits in the U.K. while never cracking America. Led by eclectic eccentric Roy Wood, the Move dissolved after Jeff Lynne's offshoot, ELO, took priority over Lynne's original band. While Lynne racked up bombastic, ocassionally heavenly but 90% of the time drecky synth-pop hits with ELO, Wood split for a solo career that found brief success (in England at least) but gradually faded into obscurity. Today the Move are unjustly forgotten, not even have obtained the hip cult audience of, say, the Small Faces or the Zombies. Emerging as they did near the tail end of psychedelia and breaking up during the heyday of prog-rock, the Move's records are obviously stamped with their time, but are definitely too eccentric to really sound like anything else, before or since. And that's the adjective that keeps cropping up when I dwell upon Roy Wood's singular talents: eccentric. No, for all their quirkiness, the Move can't really be considered trailblazing innovators, though they are influential on a number of worthy bands (most notably Roxy Music, Todd Rundgren, and especially Cheap Trick; I can hear echoes of their twisted pop style in '80s bands such as XTC and the Dbs, too). The Move were far too eclectic to stick with one style and develop it to its logical endpoint; their totemic pole obviously was the Beatles' White Album. The Move's talent was finding odd intersections between genres, not creating any new ones of their own; perhaps this lack of groundbreaking historical importance causes them to get overlooked in the history books. Whatever, Roy Wood in his prime was an ace melodicist surpassed only in pure pop hookcraft by Lennon/McCartney themselves; his manic, sinister genius for offbeat pop was marred by two significant flaws -- first, as I said, he tended to overextend himself by plunging his chord-craft into too many directions at once; and secondly, he had nothing to say. Which doesn't just apply to his lyrics, which I can enjoy as harmless fun, but also his vision of pop -- or rather, lack of one; this elfin spritester of pop seemed to view rock'n'roll as a game to toy with all these neat tricks (Andy Partridge analogy, anyone?). Of course, the Move mercifully never went to the gruesome overproduction excesses of ELO (which was Jeff Lynne's vehicle, not Wood's), but their thumping hard rock's natural habitat was clearly the studio. The Move were gaudy and giddy, the most colorful and devilishly playful band of their era -- their appropriations of classical motifs were always done in a look-ain't-this-neat style, not the implied high seriousness of later, more dour art-rock bands. And they always placed their Beatlesque pop sense above all other considerations, which generally keeps them a good pace away from self-indulgence. The Move's splash of technicolor kaleidoscope, heavy pop-rock always keeps them interesting, even when they're boring (this sounds like a contradiction, but that's exactly the way I feel about their final album, Message From the Country).


A delightful artifact of pop-art, post-mod psychedelia, the Move's debut roars with 13 songs of snazzy, hard rocking pop that reads like the hyperactive love child of Magical Mystery Tour and The Who Sell Out -- only the three perfunctory covers (Eddie Cochran, Moby Grape, and the Coasters -- Cochran's "Weekend," is good fun, but all three are unnecessary) mar an otherwise near-perfect album. The Move at this stage are presented at their most pop and accessible, bashing out one potential single after the other; it's hard to choose between the sugary goodies. The bizarre juxtaposition of lightweight bubblegummy and heavy apocalyptic elements stakes an entirely unique turf for the Move, ensuring that no other band would ever sound quite like them -- the anthemic opener, "Yellow Rainbow," combines that hippy-dippy image with the earth falling into the abyss. "Kilroy Was Here," employs such a corny lyrical conceit to supremely catchy affect, while "(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree," and "Flowers in the Rain," (I get'em confused sometimes) are the type of mid-'60s nursery rhyme singles that you catch yourself stupidly humming while your rational brain in vain tries to reject such bubblegum rot. The two message songs, "Walk On the Water," ("Please don't drink and drive") and "Useless Information," (about, you know, useless information like some old lady telling you about her operation and the weatherman telling you it's going to be cold in December), are better. The two orchestrated ballads, "Girl Outside," and "Mist on a Monday Morning," are lovely, but the cabaret lizard in lead singer Carl Wayne is already obvious. "Fire Brigade," remains a stunning whirligig single that obviously had the blinding effect of fresh sunlight upon a young Bryan Ferry. Another single, "Cherry Blossom Clinic," was hastily withdrawn at the last minute due to its controversial subject of mental insanity; it was vastly improved on the next album, as the version here is much too muddy (plus it's only 3 minutes long, without the cool coda of "Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited"). All of the elements for rock stardom are here, and the Move were in England; but undoubtedly due to the fact that they only toured America once for three weeks, they went practically unheard on the other side of the Atlantic.

Spirit - Clear Spirit

Clear Spirit (1969) ***

This is clearly an uneven rush job that shows the band thin on material, but it's not without its moments.  The opener, "Dark Eyed Woman," is a fantastic thudding hard rocker that deserved to be a hit, and far and away the strongest track; nothing else on the record comes close.  The album is padded out with not one but three instrumentals, two of which are modestly amusing as background music, "Ice" and the title track; apparently these were intended for a soundtrack to a movie that never emerged.  The other instrumental, pianist John Locke's "Caught," is a jazzy shuffle, and since I couldn't tell a Miles Davis from a Thelonious Monk number if I'm not looking at the title credits, I'll shut my mouth about jazz instrumentals.  Another problem is that around half the vocal numbers are lazily written blues-rock numbers that rely on the by-the-numbers chord sequences that make most blues and country numbers so boring and predictable.  "Ground Hog," is sort of interesting in its gruntingly funky way, but it's also supremely irritating; "Apple Orchard," is just a bloozy waste, devoid of anything special; while "I'm Truckin'," which sounds like the Allman Bros. in tight three-minute blues-pop mode, starts off generically but is easily redeemed by the "just a little bit longer, longer," bridge.  "Policeman's Ball,"  is a novelty light swing number with vaguely politicized lyrics concerning the Chicago Democratic convention of the previous year (not that I'd know if I hadn't read the liner notes).  "Give a Life, Take a Life," and "So Little Time to Fly," are pleasant folk-poppy hippie mid-tempo ballads in the vein of the first album, and "Cold Wind," is a soporific ballad in the vein of the second album that has vocals but could have just as easily been another one of the instrumentals.  The album concludes with a joint band composition, "New Dope in Town," that functions as a rock/jazz micro-suite, beginning as an upbeat pop number before breaking down in the middle into jazzy swing mode, with tasty piano and slide guitar solos.  As for the bonus tracks, they easily redeem the album:  the A-side, "1984," a doomy but hard-driving and pop-catchy anti-dystopian anthem (based on George Orwell, but you knew that, dummy) is one of the band's greatest highlights, and its flipside, "Sweet Stella Baby," is another track well worth your time and likewise superior in quality to most of the original album it's attached to.  The other two bonus tracks are unreleased outtakes and considerably less stellar:  "Coral," is just another jazzy instrumental, and while, "Fuller Brush Man," shows some promise, it's yet another case where it's easy to see why the band left such an undeveloped number off their albums.  Why they didn't choose to develop it is another mystery.  In sum, this unfocused hodge-podge of bluesy filler, soundtrack instrumentals, and handful of decent pop numbers is easily their weakest album, but not entirely unworthwhile.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Suede - Singles

Singles (2003) ****

I had some harsh words for Suede's debut back when I ran the old Creative Noise back in the '90s, and while the intervening years have softened my attitude, it's still not a terribly good record.  So I never bothered with the followup Dog Man Star or the succeeding three albums they cut after guitarist Bernard Butler jumped ship.  As you can see from the rating above, Suede did turn out to be a most excellent band after all - perhaps their albums weren't consistent, but cherry-picking the gems from the pits makes for a supremely entertaining album.  I only wish it were more pruned:  at 21 tracks there's still some dross, and chopping six or seven songs off the cutting room floor would improve this compilation quite measurably.  It also might have been better to run the tracks chronologically instead of mixing it up on random play from their five studio albums, but in the end that's a bit of a quibble.  Suede display little artistic variety, reveling in the basic formula of glam-trash, with Bernard Butler spikily slicing crunchy Mick Ronson riffs and singer Brett Anderson moaning melodramatically like a Morrissey-damaged Bowie.  It's highly derivative and lightweight but a thrilling formula when they nail it down right, mostly on their early singles like "Animal Nitrate," and "The Drowners."  However, I find that certain post-Butler tracks such as "Trash," (as anthemic as they wannabe), "Can't Get Enough," (walks like a woman but feels like a stone-aged man), and especially "Obsessions," (reads Bret Easton Ellis, sigh, but at least it's a book) are my favorites; in fact, their third album, Coming Up, was their most commercially successful.  The world that Anderson creates is self-consciously one-dimensional, inhabited by goth trendy fashion models who snort coke at after-hours clubs and gender-bender decadents with New Wave haircuts and Soho attitude.  Nevertheless, they brought a little sex and sassy swagger (as opposed to macho swagger) back to hard rock, which might explain why they never broke America the way that comic-macho lunkheads Oasis did.  They never scored an ironic breakout hit the way Blur did with "Song 2," either, and thus are as underrated this side of the pond as they were overrated back in old Blimey.  Anyway, to wrap matters up, this is a tasty overview of one of the '90s finest Brit-Pop bands, and more than just a trip down nostalgia lane for the Blair (Blur?) administration. 

The Essential Radio Birdman: 1974-1978

The Essential Radio Birdman: 1974-1978 (2001) ****

Bands like Sydney, Oz's Radio Birdman proved, along with the somewhat more heralded Saints, that punk rock would've and could've and did happen anywhere on the planet in the mid-'70s; all the catalyst needed was an American kid immigrating from Detroit to Down Under with a clutchful of MC5 and Stooges records (lead guitarist Deniz Tek) to introduce a gaggle of sunburned Aussies to the glories of black leather amphetamine hard rock.  The title is a stretch of a lie:  the band's first EP didn't come out until 1976.  And being only one CD, it doesn't quite include the entirety of their career (one EP, two studio LPs, a live LP with unreleased songs) and skips over some allegedly scorching Stooges and 13th Floor Elevators covers that I'll never hear.  Nevertheless, at 22 tracks, this covers most of their somewhat confused discography (only one of their albums, the debut Radios Appear, actually was released outside of Australia, and that in an altered form).  To confuse matters even further, the tracks aren't sequenced chronologically, but mixing material randomly from their three studio releases, with the strongest material shoved upfront - the CD takes a serious nosedive around track #15, with the remaining tracks being nearly uniformly of "eh" quality, and concluding with three tracks culled off the live LP.

Yadda yabba yacca, but what do they sound like?  Mostly they sound like an amped up Blue Oyster Cult (the title of their debut album is a reference to a lyric in "Dominance and Submission"), but writing much more consistently than BOC ever managed, at least for the first half of the CD.  Surprisingly they're much more exciting on the extended epics "Descent into the Maelstrom," with its freakout guitar solos vying in the mid-section with clanging barrelhouse piano (a nice touch to their garage sound) and "Man With Golden Helmet," which sounds like BOC attempting to ape the Doors.  The sound is rough and exciting, a little dry and problematic in its relationship to hooks - when your catchiest song is a direct ripoff of the Hawaii 5-0 theme song, you've got a problem.  Nevertheless, the rockers pummel through on strength of electric intensity, and they show themselves equally capable of the slow, smokey BOC/Doorsy ballad on "Love Kills."  Like "Love Kills," the absurdly intense pop of "I-94," references Tek's nostalgia for his Detroit American youth, with its ludicrous chorus about Eskimo pies and verses about not hanging out with some dude because he keeps drinking Rolling Rock instead of Strohs.  Rob Younger's adequate but colorless vocals are the weak link in the sextet, but hey, this is garage rock; the point is that Tek is a smoking master of the Buck Dharma "stun guitar" school, and the rest of the band keep up.  Speaking of which, the band's legacy roared on long after they disbanded in '78, with members dispersing to various obscure to legendary '80s Australian underground bands.  The biggest problem with this disc is that the band is rather limited in style and at 22 tracks, it gets wearying, especially considering that the second half is cluttered with too many faceless and uninteresting garage rockers.  But yeah, the Birdman at their primo rocked, muh man.