Saturday, July 30, 2011

New Model Army - Thunder and Consolation

Thunder and Consolation (1989) ****

Communities and the family unit torn apart by the effects of Thatcherism on the working class in '80s Britain, this is a bitter and harrowing testament to its time and place that may be an unpleasant ride but gets under your skin as the type of social protest that begs to be heard, a howl from the underclass that demands to be paid attention to.  If that doesn't sound like your idea of a good time or rock'n'roll, then you'd be right - while great, angry rock protest music from the Who to Pulp has often been danceably cathartic, this album is all catharsis and no dancing.  The NMA's fourth album finds the band punk in name and attitude only; soundwise (if certainly not attitude-wise) their cinematic, widescope fusion of traditional English folk music and anthemic hard rock sits closer to Jethro Tull than the Clash, heretical as that might sound.  From a strictly musical viewpoint, I don't hear a whole of inspirational genius in most of these songs; the hooks and melodies are rather basic, after all.  What puts this record across is the power of Heaton and Sullivan's forceful intensity of vision (co-writers of all the songs; former co-writer bassist Morrow had left the band to be replaced by Jason Harris prior to this album, and the change is noticable - no longer are any songs built around busy, throbbing basslines).  This is an album constructed by a trio of moderately talented, ordinary men who worked hard with a heartfelt passion on their sleeves, and at least for one album (generally considered their masterpiece) that's enough.  The very modesty of their talent perhaps enhances the power of this work, if you look at it a certain way:  after all, bog-ordinary working class strivers are the subject of these songs, the no-hopers who get swept under the floorboards as redundant in a Darwinian, cut-throat capitalist economic system.

And even the most ordinary of talents can in a flash of inspiration rise to genius:  "Green and Grey," easily the most masterful song of their career.  Did I mention the word cinematic?  This ballad sweeps over the ears like a movie; perhaps a grim, black & white film rather than technicolor, as Sullivan paints a desolate portrait of yearners staring at photos of tropical paradise while they endure grey English skies, an England where locals have nothing better to do than fill up pubs on Friday nights and mercilessly beat each other senseless to relieve their frustrations and boredom.  "Stupid Questions," however, was the lead single, as it's more of a forceful rocker, with Sullivan sneeringly spitting out rather than singing his vocals; the title should be self-explanatory.  "Family," comes off as another notable track, capturing the mood of teenage kids on a weekend night roaming the city, "looking for family, looking for tribe," with sympathy yet detached sociological analysis.  The kids have to find community in gangs of friends because "Family Life," (an incredibly desolate, musically spare, and bitter ballad) has been sundered; a subject they also address on "Inheritance," which with its plodding chopsticks-notes piano musically approaches Plastic Ono Band era Lennon.  The addition of a violinist to the spare rock trio sound gives the album more of a jig-folk feel on certain tracks, notably "Vagabonds," which dances like gypsies around cars on blocks in a Roma trailer park.  It's a rare track of upbeat danceability (well, relatively) on an album that's the opposite of any normal person's idea of fun.  Cathartic, though?  Yes.   

Dwight Twilley Band - Twilley Don't Mind

Twilley Don't Mind (1977) ***1/2

Benefiting from the comforts of a real major-label studio, the sound and performances on the Twilley Band's sophomore slump are a considerable step forward from the debut:  the cavernous, slap-back echo feels as deep as a canyon.  However, it's still a slump because there aren't quite as many good songs as on the debut - at a mere nine tracks (one of which, "Sleeping," drags on for over six minutes) this one feels skimpy.  (And nevermind the bonus tracks, they're just alternate mixes.)  So the best songs appeal more by way of meticulously crafted sound than sheer hookcraft, not that the likes of "Looking for the Magic," don't boast good'n'clear hooks (should've been a smash followup to "I'm on Fire," - dig that "oh mercy," Elvis tribute intro as the fatback bass slaps into the angular guitar riff that constitutes the main hook).  But mostly you'll remember the caverns of echoes that constitute the sound when this album shuts off more than any individual songs - which might be problematic for a reputed pop album.  Which is to say that if I break this album down track by track, I come to the objective realization that only about half of these nine tracks rise to the level of 'really good' ("Trying to Find My Baby," "Here She Comes," "That I Remember," "Chance to Get Away") which is indeed mighty skimpy.  But I enjoy this album from beginning to end despite the thinness of the material, because the active band sound, production, and performances are so pleasurable.  Only the corny "Invasion," actively irritates me; I can even make it all the way through, "Sleeping," since there are some interesting ideas in there, despite the overall effect being draggy and boring.  In short, the Twilley to get is clearly the debut, and while this is a definite step down that shouldn't be your first choice, if you dug the debut, this second course is almost as fulfilling.  That is if the portions were as big as they are tasty.  Why pay for a fancy meal that's so skimpy on portions that you have to run down to Burger King for a Whopper to fill your stomach up?

Michael Penn - March

March (1989) ***1/2

Michael Penn was another one of those tasteful singer-songwriters with a penchant for folky Beatlesesque power-pop who emerged around the turn of the '90s to bid the glossy synth-dominated '80s adieu.  His debut single and biggest hit, "No Myth," sounded like a fresh marvel on the airwaves at the time, with its crisp, sprightly acoustic strum and clever, literate lyrics best remembered for the troubadour's query, "What if I were Romeo in black jeans?"  The followup, "This and That," was nearly as good if not nearly as big a hit, and between the singles you have a string of subtler, less immediately catchy and somewhat less fulfilling cuts:  album tracks, in other words.  But no, just because the two singles outshine the rest doesn't mean that this is hit singles + filler:  give them a chance to sink in, and the remaining cuts peek out to show themselves as finely cut gems of craft.  "Half Harvest," suffers the most because as track #2 it sits uncomfortably between opener "No Myth," and track #3 "This and That," and thus amounts to the least memorable track simply due to its placing; when, in fact, if you listen to it in isolation, it leaps out as a thoughtful, well-constructed tune and one of the album's strongest cuts.  The entire first side of the album is consistently excellent, in fact, being rounded out with the rapid-fire Dylanesque wordplay of "Brave New World," and closing with the tender but rueful ballad, "Innocent One".  The second side is somewhat shakier, with the cleverness of "Cupid's Got a Brand New Gun," rather forced and excessive, and "Big House," rather ponderous, but the not-quite-bedlameque "Bedlam Boys," and the moody, "Battle Room," are back up the game, and the horn-infested closer, "Evenfall" is kind of fun.  Penn's sharp baritone and acoustic-based power-pop style bring Lindsey Buckingham comparisons to mind; so, anyone interested in a Fleetwood Mac album consisting solely of Buckingham songs, this one's a reasonable facsimile.  Well, you could check out one of Buckingham's own several solo albums, but I've heard all of those and they're all disappointing.  This one's better.

P.S.  I almost got through this review without mentioning the obligatory family ties.  Yes, Mr. Penn is indeed the brother of Sean and Chris.  And he later married Aimee Mann.


Friday, July 29, 2011

New Model Army - Vengeance: The Independent Story

Vengeance: The Independent Story (1987) ***1/2

One glance at the album cover tells you what you need to know about the tone of this music:  coming across as the missing link between the early Cure and early Fugazi, this is post-punk at its angriest, angstiest, and grimmest.  In retrospect, some of Margaret Thatcher's reforms were painful but necessary measures to forestall Great Britain from declining into a Eastern Bloc neo-Socialist basketcase, but it must have sure not as hell felt like that at the time;  as always with the transition from an industrial to post-industrial economy, there were going to be a lot of losers, and New Model Army sang for those losers.  Springsteen sang in the '80s for displaced blue-collar workers suffering the blows of the Reagan economy on the other side of the pond; NMA, being younger, poorer, and under the influence of punk (I mentioned the Cure, but there's one huge, massive influence overshadowing every other influence on the early NMA.  Give ya a hint:  name starts with a C and they were likewise singing about lack of career opportunities a decade earlier) were a hell of a lot angrier and bitterer.  Bitter, very, very bitter - this is some of the bitterest music I've ever encountered.  A spare power trio led by guitarist/vocalist Slade the Leveller (Justin Sullivan), bassist Stuart Morrow (whose busy lines serve, in classic post-punk fashion, as often as not lead instrument), and drummer Rob Heaton, the NMA took their name from Oliver Cromwell's militia.  So right off the bat we're aware that these are intelligent, historically conscious punks, and a while a listen demonstrates that they could pen a football chant as brutish as any of their Oi! punk peers, a listen to the verses demonstrates that their intellectual capacities were miles removed from such beer-swilling shaved-head rabble.  This compilation reissues their 1984 debut Vengeance and surrounds that with assorted pre&post-album singles, as well as a couple of Peel sessions.

When they're on, they're on, delivering punk with a savage, almost psychotic intensity, not so much in the music (which is actually quite measured; there's no mindless raving up, but rather a constant tension & release dynamic throughout of seething verses exploding into violent choruses) but in the lyrical outlook.  The title track is, for better or worse, the clear highlight:  when Sullivan bellows, "I believe in justice / I believe in vengeance / I believe in killing the bastard / Killing the bastard!" his intensity and conviction are genuinely frightening.  He really does want to see those drug dealers peddling to 14 year olds, escaped Nazi war criminals, bent lawyers, and corrupt businessman swing high.  Unlike the Clash, the NMA are devoid of a crucial humanizing factor:  they completely and totally lack any sense of humor.  They're far too angry and self-righteous for that.  This means that the music, while extremely powerful, too often slides into thundering preachiness.  Which is fine and peachy-keen if you happen to agree with Sullivan and Morrow's targets:  "worshipping the Devil in the name of God," is how I've always felt about the "Christian Militia," and the condemnation of narrow-minded, go-nowhere routine in "Small Town England," crosses internationally to speak for anyone who's grown up in a rigidly conservative backwater.  On the other hand, the exaggerated sarcasm of "Spirit of the Falklands," feels dated, despite once again the power of the anthemic chorus.  The songs mentioned are all highlights; the other problem with this disc (actually, I have this on cassette :>}) is that for every genuinely powerful grunt of anthemic rage such as "Great Expectations," (a sarcastic sneer at a spoiled generation of brats with a sense of entitlement) or "Notice Me," (a sarcastic sneer at attention whores) there's either a song that pales in comparison or is an outright mess like the awful "Sex (The Black Angel)" (I don't think they're anti-sex, actually; I can hardly pay attention to the song to figure out what it's about, to tell the truth).  If only the entire album had maintained the standard its six or seven great songs, this would count as one of the essential punk albums:  this is the Sex Pistols' No Future generation come to fruition.


Peter Gabriel III

Peter Gabriel (1980) ****

In my original review I claimed that all the drums were electronic, which on second thought isn't true - those are clearly real drums being played by Phil Collins on "Intruder".  However, computerized drums are clearly being used on at least half the other tracks, and I don't want to rewrite the entire review to factually correct a crucial sentence, so....

Is Kate Bush singing, "She's so pop-u-lar," or "She's so funky now"?  Actually, it's "Jeux sans frontieres," which translates as no borders or something in that silly land of mimes and mustached men carrying baguettes over their shoulders; whatever, my French is probably as good as Bush's and I don't even parlez vous any of the lingua franca.  Pete's third solo album is generally regarded as his best and who am I, predictable as my middlebrow tastes in music are, to disagree?  Gabriel was one of the rare (only?) prog-rock dinosaurs of the '70s to completely integrate and update his sound into the Big '80s, as this album incorporates some clear New Wave influences (particularly the paranoid, nerdy David Byrne-ish lyrical outlook, and maybe a bit of XTC's complicated games - Steve Lillywhite did produce both acts).  And there's that processed drum sound - no real drummer, just electronic drums all the way through, which for once works to the benefit of the music.  The tinny, clipped drum sound embues the music with a cold, distant edge that complements the chilly effect Gabriel was going for:  even his vocals sound oddly impassioned yet robotic, and though he doesn't use any filters that doesn't make his voice sound any less inhumanly processed.  The vocal hooks are one of the strongest elements on this album, actually - even on first listen the choruses of "Not One of Us," "Games Without Frontiers," "No Self Control," and "I Don't Remember," are instantaneously memorable enough for quick singability.  Slow piano-based ballads "Family Life," and "Lead a Normal Life," are meandering and seemingly aimless in structure, as if Gabriel were poking around for a clear melody line and not finding it; however, "Family Life," is memorable and intriguing in spite of itself, perhaps because of the lyrics, while "Lead a Normal Life," - hell, I can't remember anything about that tune at all.  But you'd barely remember it anyway as it has the displeasure to precede the closing track, "Biko," which perhaps overdoes the vocal chorus hook too repetitively, but remains the second best track on the album, presaging Afro-beat fusion experiments of the '80s in an impassioned protest against police brutality in apartheid-era South Africa.  Likewise, the album gets off on an inspired beginning, with the spooky, atmospheric "Intruder," in which Gabriel impersonates a burglar, or perhaps a creepy stalker - it's a metaphor for fear and invasion of privacy, and sets the unsettling tone for a dark, paranoid, moody album.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Julian Lennon - Valotte

Valotte (1984) **1/2

The brilliant title track is a haunting, stately piano power-ballad that not only evokes his father's late-period style but almost nearly lives up to the high standard that was Julian's bane of birthright.  The rest of the album is bog-ordinary '80s pop, some of it not bad (the breezily lightweight, too faux to even call faux-reggae hit single, "Too Late For Goodbyes," which actually sounds much closer to Stevie Wonder than anything else), but nothing worth my investing more than a couple of listens or analytical scrutiny.  What's notable about this album is how eerily Julian evokes John, almost as if he were a complete clone and not merely recipient of half of a Beatles' DNA.  The lad can't help it; his voice is his voice, exactly like his father's, and I'm sure that he cried under his old man's shadow all the way to the bank (inexplicably, or perhaps explicably given the charitable feelings and subconscious desire for John to rise from the dead in this Holy Ghost incarnation of Julian a mere four years after his death, this album became a massive bestseller and Julian won best new artist awards at the Grammys).  It's somewhat interesting to speculate on all the great music the world was robbed of by John's premature death, and this album sort of answers that question:  this sounds exactly like the sort of record that John would have likely recorded if he'd lived to see 1984 and dated synths & canned drums & '80s glossy production values.  Let's face it, John was already moving in a boringly conventional, MOR mainstream pop sound by Double Fantasy.  Those wishing that John had lived to produce more music in the 1980s, be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

XTC - Skylarking

Skylarking (1986) ****

It's not quite the masterpiece proclaimed, but it's easily the 5th best XTC album (after the classic '79-'82 trio and the Dukes side project).  Washed away completely are any New Wave jittery affectations; partial credit may go to producer Todd Rundgren smoothing away the dissonant edges into easy-listening pop, but XTC had been attempting to go pastoral since Mummer.  The result is the most cohesive album XTC have ever made; intended as a song-cycle tracing the pattern of springtime birthjoys to the fading embers of death, magically Partridge and Moulding tie the concept all together with a collection of tunes that rarely falters - an achievement for such a previously jarringly inconsistent band.  Their previous albums often were rough rides in their restless shiftings of moods, genres, and up/down song quality, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing; here, by contrast, the songs all flow together evenly in quality (more or less; there are highlights and lowlights) but more importantly, style of sound.  Getting the freakbeat mid-'60s affectations out of their system with the Dukes of Stratosphear, the mood of Skylarking is post-psychedelic late '60s:  the Kinks' village green, the Beach Boys' Friends, Paul warbling about mother nature's son, Donovan sending a gift from a flower to Syd Barrett. 

Not that it's all for the better.  Stripped down to musical basics and simply delivering straightforward, unaffected pop songs reveals some of XTC's songwriting to be a bit....well, simple, and not in a good way:  tunes like, "That's Really Super, Supergirl" can sound shockingly basic in the songwriting department this late in the band's career - childish, even, if I dare use that word.  This is not, however, a huge problem on this album (but trust me, it will be on the next one).  A song like Moulding's "Grass," may rely on more on texture than actual tuneage, but in this particular case that's no big deal - mood-setting is what it's there for, and it's clearly the winner of his four contributions, hazily evoking a roll in the picnic on a hot late summer day.  "Big Day," celebrating the great wedding, is Moulding's other standout track, but shouldn't it come before rather than after Partridge's "Earn Enough For Us," which frets over the husband's ability to support the wife and kids?   Nevertheless, it is appropriate that Moulding's morbid "Dying," should be the second to last track on the album - would be a bum note to end matters on, wouldn't it?  The conclusion then goes to Partridge's "Sacrificial Bonfire," considerably more upbeat but not exactly what I'd call UPbeat.  And how come no one ever mentions "Another Satellite"?  I have no idea what it's about or how it fits into the theme - it could be a digression lyrically for all I can tell, as it certainly is a digression musically speaking:  sounds spacey like Bowie (egads, yet another rewrite of "Major Tom"!  Ah well, this one's a good'un).

But now I have to deal with the album's big hit and most controversial track, to fans and non-fans alike.  Fans hate it because it was originally a B-side that displaced "Mermaid Smile," on the American editions and thus disrupted the thematic flow of the LP.  I can see their point, but I can't see XTC fanatics' point in writing off the song as complete rubbish because of that.  It's a classic case of fan snobbery to run down their favorite band's biggest hit simply because it's their biggest hit.  "Dear God," and not some other tune off this album, was a hit for a good reason.  Do any other tunes here, beyond "Earn Enough For Us," (which should've been a hit in a just world) scream 'hit single'?  Nope.  They mostly sound like a collection of good album tracks.  "Dear God," possesses one of the most direct and accessible melodies of XTC's career, an inventive if repetitive acoustic-then-electric Simon & Garfunkel-ish arrangement, and bitter, angry lyrics that speak to the hearts and minds of a lot of people.  There are very, very few popular songs written from an agnostic or atheistic perspective, and as far as I'm aware this is the only God-questioning as opposed to God-worshipping tune to ever actually receive substantial radio airplay.  It is the one song that XTC, if they have any song legacy at all decades down the road, are certain to be remembered for, for that reason alone, strictly musical worth aside for a moment. 

Televison - s/t

Television (1992) ***

Remarkably, their comeback after a decade and a half layoff picks up right where they left off, with all of the classic elements of the Television sound intact; it says something about the enduring timelessness of Television's spare, angular guitar rock stylistics that they manage to fit snugly as a velvet glove into the '90s alternative rock scene.  So, good news first, now here's the bad news.  If you ever wondered what classic Television would sound like without the passion, warmth, energy, soul, or reason for existing, this is the record for you.  This is exactly the kind of smooth, self-satisfied professionalism that '70s punk stood in opposition to.  The tone is cool to the point of being cold, the sound of professional musicians so easy and relaxed in each other's intuitive company that there's no spark of creative tension - just Lloyd and Verlaine trading licks off each other:  imagine Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler guitar dueting, only not quite as boring.  Verlaine's voice dropping a register doesn't help, either; his dry, tune-deaf vocals are even more off-putting than ever, as he intones everything in an emotionless monotone that sucks any potential energy from the songs - in short, he sounds bored.  The songs and performances never achieve the transcendent lift-off to make this album seem much more than a self-conscious genre exercise in lovingly, painstakingly recreating the classic Television sound.  Nevertheless, the first half or so contains some relatively solid songs, with "Call Mr. Lee," the clear highlight with its Middle Eastern snake charmer hook; the first track, "1880 or So," gets the disc rolling on a promising start; "Shane, She Wrote This," ain't bad love-pop; and "No Glamour for Willi," works because of not in spite of its cool, relaxed vibe.  But spoken-word tracks like "Rhyme," seem to exist soley to take up space (see:  filler, definition) and the final three tracks are all awful.  Kudos for so brilliantly recreating the Television sound - lots of holes and empty space, it's so rare for modern music to deviate from the wall of density and give the music some breathing room.  Those who've waited since 1978 for the return of Lloyd and Verlaine weaving their web of interlocking tasty licks, this is manna, as you won't be disappointed - tasty licks aplenty to waft in.  But this is the type of album that will only appeal to you if you were already a huge fan of Television in the first place. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Dukes of Stratosphear - Chips From the Chocolate Fireball

Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (1987) ****1/2

This album is every '60s fanatic's strawberry alarm clock dream, a loving parody of Sgt. Pepper's era mod psychedelia that amazingly pulls it off not merely as a picture-perfect tribute but also the finest collection of tunes that Partridge & Moulding ever penned.  I know, I know, you hate those smarmy ain't we clever bastards with hiccupy vocals in XTC, but seriously - even if you hate the band, you need to check this record out.  I wouldn't go so far as to say need NEED, but any fan of '60s British Invasion and psychedelia has a hole in his collection that isn't complete until he's heard this compilation (1985's 6-track 25 O'Clock EP and 1987's full-length, 10-track LP Psionic Sunspot).  Actually, you know what?  It's actually better than any psychedelic album actually released during the flowerpot power era, excepting the Move and the Beatles themselves, but not excepting the lightweight and inconsistent Piper at the Gates of Dawn and certainly not the psychedelic efforts of B-listers the Hollies, the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, or the Rolling Stones' great folly.  Oops, forgot about a certain LP by the Zombies I recently gave five stars to.  And there's Love's magnum opus which rivals this platter, but let's forget about that, as the Dukes are content to more or less completely bypass West Coast psychedelia and concentrate exclusively upon the U.K. variant.  I said almost, as the closing track on the CD, "Pale and Precious," is a loving Beach Boys tribute - and not the surf-era BB's, but the post-Pet Sounds  Manson-era BB's.

Which is an anamolous track anyway, being a clearly clear direct tribute to a specific band's sound.  Most of the rest of the tracks swipe specific elements of specific songs from the Beatles, Kinks, Move, Stones, etc., as well as one-hit Nuggets blunders - "Bicycle to the Moon," clearly derives lyrical inspiration from Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle," and there's at least a couple of "She's a Rainbow," piano line cops, and the clock chiming intro to the CD obviously was swiped from the Floyd, and etc. etc. etc.  We could play this game all night.  But better to go straight to the horse's mouth and read Andy's info in the XTC biography where he lays out the specifics of which Dukes track stole from what '60s songs.  I'm sure you can look it up for freebies on one of the more comprehensive XTC fan sites.  The point is that Andy and Colin took a grab bag of elements of psychedelic cliches, from backwards instruments to vocal phasing to stereo panning to fake Indian sitars, lit the lava lamp and pushed the GO OVERBOARD! button.  For once Partridge & Co.'s devotion to studio gimmicrackery that throws in the production tricks kitchen sink not only works, but actually feels like it flows naturally and unforced.  The tracks don't so much specifically pinpoint any specific band as they lovingly recreate the devil-may-care-let's-try-it ethos and spirit of the era.  Spirit?  Nah, I don't really hear any steals from them.

What makes it work doubly is not just the excessive production job, which in and of itself would make this side project worth a few giggles and not much else.  No, XTC have given the Dukes some of their finest-ever tunes, directly catchy and more easily accessible than most of their "real" XTC work.  "The Vanishing Girl," isn't psychedelic at all - there aren't any production gimmicks in sight, it's simply a straightforward pop song, and the most instantly winning song on the CD for that.  The growling "25 O'Clock," the swishy-swooshing "Mole From the Ministry," the winsomely bouncing "Brainiac's Daughter," the barrelhouse rollicking, "You're a Good Man Albert Brown," - these are simply excellent XTC songs of the first order.  In sum, this is far, far more than merely a novelty record.  It's not only a brilliant conceptual coup but a great, very fun barrel of tunes.  Perverse as it is to think about, XTC's greatest triumph was a side project intended as a joke.


Tommy Keene - Isolation Party

Isolation Party (1998) ***1/2

There's a cover of Mission of Burma's "Einstein's Day," on here - a rather left-field choice for Tommy, and while I can't say that he improves upon the original, he more than does the song justice, with blazing guitar work that would do Roger Miller proud (the MoB guy, not the "King of the Road").  Let's talk about Mr. Keene's guitar slinging for a moment:  it's a crucial and underrated aspect of his sound.  His voice (which I like) can be thin and reedy to the point of off-putting some less tolerant (read: Top 40) listeners, but the guitars in his music are always sharp, cutting, well-toned, and very professionally played.  In fact, the more I think about it, the strongest aspect of Keene's sound is his guitar; certainly not his vocals and perhaps not so much his songwriting as the way that those lovely-jangly yet metallic-biting guitars put those tunes across.  It's by far the most interesting subject I can think of to discuss in this review, because, as you guessed it, Keene offers nothing remotely new on this disc.  At over 50 minutes and 13 tracks, it can easily get wearying sitting down to absorb it all in at one long take; you'll definitely want to play something totally different by the end of this disc.  But perhaps that's also because Keene shoves the strongest material upfront, wisely leaving the weaker tunes for second half ("Weak and Watered Down" is rather self-descriptive, though I doubt entitled with that in mind intentionally).  The first three songs are all highlights, with the album roaring out of the gate not once but twice with a pair of one-two smashing anthemic rockers, "Long Time Missing," and "Getting Out From Under You."  Then he dials it down a notch with the excellent, wistful mid-tempo nostalgia ballad, "Take Me Back," and from there on in there aren't really any more tunes that he truly knocks out of the ballpark, but he does consistently hit the ball each tune up at bat, with nary a bad song in sight.  Some boring and forgettable songs near the end, which isn't the same.  He's got this formula down cold.  Sometimes moody ("Happy When You're Sad"), sometimes jauntily '60s ("Tuesday Morning"), at his best when he's performingly an intensely driven rocker ("Love Lies Down").

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Revolver vs. Face to Face


Well, as far as album covers go, it's easy to call the clear winner here, hmm?  But we are here to judge music, not visuals.  I'm technically legally blind, so being a rather non-visual person I couldn't care less that every single Kinks album cover is bloody awful (bar Muswell Hillbillies) and most of the Beatles album covers are iconic.  Ray Davies reviewed an advance copy in 1966 (you can find his review here) and so it seems appropos to sit the klassik Kinks LP released the same year side by side with the Beatles' masterpiece and let'em duke it out, track by track.  The rules of this game are so simple that I won't even bother explaining, I'll just get to it.  Both consist of precisely 14 tracks (I'm going to discount the bonus tracks to the Kinks reissue, which handicaps them as the bonus tracks such as "Dead End Street," and "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," in general outshine the album proper.  If only the Beatles had tacked on their '66 singles and B-sides onto Revolver as bonus tracks then this would be a fairer and more representative competition).

1.  "Taxman" vs. "Party Line" - Both are terrific, exciting openers.  "Party Line," is one of those bouncy, ultra-singalongable party rockers that defined the early Kinks.  It's F-U-N.  However, fun as "Party Line," is, it's up against "Taxman," with its iconic riff and psychedelic freakbeat guitar solo.  "Taxman," like a lot of George songs, lacks a sense of humour and is therefore less fun, but it's more substantial.  This was a very, very tough call, but I've got to call it:  Beatles 1, Kinks 0.

P.S. Hmm, both albums kick off with songs by the secondary (Dave vs. George) rather than the primary (John & Paul vs. Ray) songwriters.

2. "Eleanor Rigby" vs. "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" - Well, this seems pretty unfair to the poor Kinks.  One of the stronger tracks on this LP has to go head to head with "ah, look at all the lonely people."  Beatles 2, Kinks 0.

3. "I'm Only Sleeping" vs. "Dandy" - Now we have Ray's favourite Beatletune from this LP (hint: it's because it clearly sounds like a Kinks-fluenced tune, exactly the sort of thing that Ray himself would write) up against an actual Kinkstune.  Again, a very, very close call.  Melodically Lennon's tune is stronger and it boasts neat backwards guitar soloing near the end.  However, vocally Ray dominates with alternately sarcasm, envy, rage, sympathy, and wise advice.  And need I add that the lyrics are much better, some of Ray's cleverest.  Beatles 2, Kinks 1.

4. "Love You To" vs. "Too Much on My Mind" - I've never been a fan of George's excursions with sitar to India.  The Kinks song is a melancholy masterpiece that perfectly captures a scatter-brained, weary emotional state.  Easy choice.  Beatles 2, Kinks 2.

5. "Here, There, and Everywhere" vs. "Session Man" - Ray's satire of the music industry has bite and wit.  However, Paul's Beach Boys tribute is breathtakingly lovely.  Beatles 3, Kinks 2.

6. "Yellow Submarine" vs. "Rainy Day in June" - Ugh, both of these songs sort of suck.  The choice comes down to a cheery children's singalong suckiness or a miserable, plodding suckiness.  The Kinks if I must choose, because of the atmospherics - nice plodding piano line, if nothing else.  Beatles 3, Kinks 3.    

7. "She Said She Said" vs. "House in the Country" - One of the most striking masterpieces of the Beatles catalogue, and therefore of  20th century popular music, vs. a rather pedestrian Kinks hard rocker.  Which doesn't even rock that hard.  Beatles 4, Kinks 3.

8. "Good Day Sunshine" vs. "Holiday in Waikiki" - Here we encounter a quintessentially breezy but insubstantial McCartney pop roller vs. a quintessentially pissy'n'grouchy Davies social commentary on the soullessness of the modern world.  Really, I've never been much of a fan of the Paul tune - let's admit it, this sounds like Wings.  Beatles 4, Kinks 4.

9. "And Your Bird Can Sing" vs. "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale" - Really, the Kinks song doesn't have that much going for it beyond that britely ascending guitar hook.  John's at his most rocking and snippily biting.  Beatles 5, Kinks 4.

10.  "For No One" vs. "Fancy" - Ray's excursions into the heart of India are considerably better than George's because Ray happened to write actual songs, not just run up the scales on the sitar without bothering to write a tune.  (Also, the Kinks released this several months before the Beatles incorporated Indian elements into their songs.)  However, it's up against one of Paul's most emotionally effective laments of a failed marriage.  Beatles 6, Kinks 4.

11.  "Doctor Robert" vs. "Little Miss Queen of Darkness" - Both are minor efforts, but while the Beatles song is clearly filler with little to recommend it beyond the "Taxman"-esque sharp'n'sour guitar riff, the Kinks track is a fine little story song.  Beatles 6, Kinks 5.

12.  "I Want to Tell You" vs. "You're Looking Fine" - Well, at least this competition looks fair, in that in general it seems that the strongest/weakest Beatles/Kinks tracks are paired up against each other.  The George tune is actually pretty good, even if he's decidedly bringing his B-game.  The Kinks song is atrocious.  It literally sounds like they wrote and performed it in five minutes.  Beatles 7, Kinks 5.

13. "Got to Get You Into My Life" vs. "Sunny Afternoon" - Once again, the Paul song sounds like it could be freakin' Wings.  A lot of Beatles tunes get overrated simply because they are the Beatles, and this is one of them.  The Kinks tune is a klassik.  You've heard it and it is awesome.  Paul wouldn't be caught "telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty," and that's why Ray was the better songwriter.  Beatles 7, Kinks 6.

14. "Tomorrow Never Knows" vs. "I'll Remember" - If "I'm Only Sleeping," sounded like the Beatles imitating the Kinks, here we have the Kinks clearly imitating the Beatles.  Only it's the Beatles of 1964 they're imitating, and the Mop Tops had already evolved far beyond that.  As John's multitracked, screams of the Tibetan Book of Dead, bad-trip psychedelic masterpiece makes clear.  Beatles 8, Kinks 6.

The Beatles are the winner by two points.  Perhaps I should compare the bands' 1966 singles to be more comprehensive and fair, but nah....that's for another day, I've had enough as it is.

P.S. If I ever get to 1967, Something Else by the Kinks clearly trounces Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, song for song.  Just so you should know.

XTC - The Big Express

The Big Express (1984) ***

Whoa-hoah-hoah Nelly, talk about OVERPRODUCED, and I don't toss that term around lightly:  this may, ladies (I'm sure there is at least one member of the female species who reads this music geek's blog) and gentlemen, constitute - without overstatement - the most insanely overproduced outpouring of musical product ever released.  By overproduced I don't just mean glossy (which it is).  I don't just mean LOUD (WHICH IT DAMN WELL IS, THIS ALBUM IS THE MUSICAL EQUIVALENT OF TYPING AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN ALL CAPS).  I don't just mean overranged (which the busy-busy-busy-busy-busy-clockwork working overtime tunes most certainly are).  I don't just mean headache-inducing (which it....oh, you get the picture).  WHALLOP!  WHALLOP!  WHALLOP!  THAT IS WHAT THIS ALBUM FEELS LIKE.  YOUR HEAD IS BEING INCESSANTLY POUNDED UPON BY DRUMS MIXED WAY, WAY, WAY UP IN THE MIX (NOTABLY THE WORST SONG OF ALL TIME [OK, ARGUABLE, BUT WORST XTC SONG OF ALL TIME?  INARGUABLE] "SHAKE YOU DONKEY UP" WHICH SOUNDS AS RETARDED AS YOU'D EXPECT FROM THE TITLE).  IN FACT, EVERY INSTRUMENT IS MIXED WAY, WAY UP HIGH, FROM THE OPENING POUNDING PIANO CHORDS OF "WAKE UP," WHICH COMPETE WITH COLIN MOULDING'S MULTI-TRACKED, BEERILY SHOUTED VOCALS.

Ok, enough of this nonsense, I'll shut the caps lock key off for the rest of this review, but perhaps that opening paragraph might give you a sense of how annoying listening to this album can feel like.  Studio hideboundness was obviously not doing Partridge and Moulding any favours, as this album and Mummer suffer from what feels like a pair of grown man-children run amok constructing train sets in Santa's elves' worshop.  The actual sound of Mummer, obtuse as the tunes were, was actually pleasanter than this over-the-top fruitcake; however, this album's considerably better, as the tunes are more direct and poppily accessible and just plain good.  However....however, however, however, getting past the production is a huge, huge, huge hurdle  Partridge's lunatic excess gets so excessive that he almost buries the hooks and melodies by parodoxically overemphasizing the hooks and melodies:  the aural equivalent of shoving a rich, creamy chocolate-with-sprinkles cake in your face like a clown.  Sure, cake is sinfully delicious, but not particularly enjoyable when it's rammed in your face.  Words cannot express my relief when track five rolls around, "This World Over," a (relatively) low-key adult contemporary ballad concerning the aftermath of nuclear armeggedon.  If that sounds like the sort of thing that a solo Sting might pull, well, you'd be right - it does sound like a leftover from Dream of the Blue Ghost in the Synchronicity Machine Which is Nothing Like the Sun.  Then comes more pounding whallop! in "The Everyday Story of Smalltown," which is Ray Davies in lyrical outlook and feel if not precise presentation (garish, garish, garish, and damn aren't those drums mixed way too high?), and along with "This World Over," you've got the two genuinely great, prime XTC tracks on this album paired right next to each other.  Then they have to ruin the winning streak by following that up with "Liarbird," a go-nothing song with worthless vocals.  There's something so nails-on-chalkboard about this tune that I can't quite put my finger on.  Sifting through the dross and drivel, there remain three pretty good songs:  "All You Pretty Girls," the musical excesses of which are salvaged by a brawnily puffing chorus;  the flutteringly surging piano pop, "You're the Wish I Never Had," which structurally reminds me of the Pretty Things' "Walking in My Dreams,"; and Moulding's Kinks-gone-lounge jazz "I Remember the Sun."  Of the three bonus tracks, only one is worth salvaging:  Moulding's "Washaway," cutely pounding pianner-poppy little thing; of the other two bonuses, "Red Brick Dream," is a pretty nothing, and "Blue Overall," bluesily grating chalk-on-cheese.  

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Fall - The Frenz Experiment

The Frenz Experiment (1988) ***

One misconception about the Fall is that they have always been merely Mark E. Smith plus backup musicians; this album, which is as close to a solo Mark E. album as the Fall had yet released up to that point, points up that fallacy by demonstrating what a Fall album would really sound like if that were really the case.  In contrast to previous albums where a glance over the songwriting credits showed clear collaboration (at least on paper), most of the songs on this disc bear the stamp "Smith" and no one else.  And you can tell from the music, or rather the lack of it:  the musical backing clearly takes a backseat, with the Mark's vocals shoved upfront, and the tunes' hooks consist almost solely of Mark repeating a chorus word phrase over and over and over and over ("get a hotel room today, you gotta get a hotel room today, get a hotel room today, get a hotel room today").  The musical backing to Mark's rants, which are much clearer and more comprehensible in the mix than previously, is dry, rudimentary, and spare - which isn't to say that music doesn't exist, it's just irrelevant.  Naturally I hated the damn thing on first listen and concluded that as their worst album since Room to Live (and bad for similar reasons), it couldn't deserve more than a couple of stars.  A few listens later and I've knocked it up a notch, as I realized that Mark's chorus hooks ("my friends don't add up to one hand,"; "I love the carry bag man, I am the carry bag man,"; "Oswald Defence Lawyer, bla bla bla mumble mumble MARK TWAIN!") bury themselves inside the cranium, and it's not just because of the extreme repetition, repetition, repitition (remember the 3 R's, these are the 3 R's....).  So the fault isn't Mark's:  he's living up to his part of the job; it's his bandmates that aren't.  Whether that's because they were lazy, or more likely that Mark the tyrannical egomaniac bandleader wouldn't let them, I dunno.  As you might have guessed, the 9:19 centerpiece, "Bremen Nacht," is an unendurable, intolerable farce, as Mark repeating the same German phrase for over nine minutes while the music never, ever, remotely begins to change or vary.  Perversely, it's followed by 39 seconds of "Guest Informant," - an instrumental.  Was that some sort of sick joke?  "The Steak Place," is the most musically advanced piece on the record, boasting a naggingly memorable slide-abilly riff - the only memorable musical riff on the record, actually.  The lyrics are great, too - Mark observing patrons in the cheap'n'greasy - making it probably the standout track for meself.  Unless you count the cover of the Kinks' "Victoria," which doesn't particularly better the original but does add a neat fuzzed-up riff to the klassik.  And it did gain them their first bonafide Top 40 entry (U.K., of course).  "Hit the North," was the other big single released off this album, and it sucks.  The clipped, mildly distorted horns simply scream, "late 1980s!" waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much for my tastes, though I do admit that the title chorus is mighty catchy.  In fact, most of these songs are mighty catchy.  Spin it a couple of times and you'll have at least three or four of the song choruses lodged in your eardrums.  Problem, as I've said at length, is that the songs amount to little more than catchphrase choruses.  Also, that cover?  Ttl sht. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Television - Adventure

Adventure (1978) ***1/2

So, you've just released one of the Greatest Albums of All Time, and as a followup you release an album that's.....pretty good.  Actually, it's more than "pretty good," it's close to excellent (a 3.75 would more precise, but I ain't rounding up this time.  Because I just don't feel like it.)  It's initially underwhelming because Television go for a softer, mellower sound, and in contrast to Marquee Moon's stark audio fidelity, the considerably lusher production job here sounds overproduced.  The problem, though, comes down to the songwriting:  the clear (far and away) highlight is a Richard Lloyd tune, not one of the seven other of Verlaine's.  "Days," is transcendently wistful, glorious pop, quality enough to rival even Ray Davies' tune bearing the same title (yeah, that good), though closer in spirit-if-not-quite-sound of the Gene Clark side of the Byrds than the Kinks.  The rest of the songs simply aren't transcendent.  Adventure doesn't (can't) reach the stellar highs of "Venus" or even "Guiding Light,"; Verlaine's songs are either pleasant trifles such as the boppy opener, "Glory," or the boppy "Careful," or the boppy "Ain't That Nothin' " (wait, wait I think I'm beginning to see a pattern).  Or they are overblown epics such as "Foxhole," (love that "soldier boy!" yell smack in the middle) which works, and "The Fire," which doesn't (nice eerie atmospherics, though).  The album closes with the drifting, almost listless, yet lovely "The Dream's Dream," which at 6:39 is the longest track with the longest guitar solos; "Marquee Moon," it ain't, not by a spitting shot, but leave that comparison aside (which frankly I doubt was possible of any listener in 1978) and you've got a fine composition in its own right.  In short (and this review is much shorter than my review of the debut, because it is a much more lightweight, far less revolutionary, and less substantial LP than its predecessor) this is a good album.  Just not a great album.  It's a sleeper of an album that gets underrated because it gets unfairly shadowed by its counterpart, and listeners coming in with underwhelmed expectations might be shocked out how pleasant and in spots excellent this album is.  But let's not get carried away (reference intended) and overrate it just because it's underrated.  Whew!  Perhaps we should just shutup, forget about the relativity of ratings, and just listen to the music.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Televison - Marquee Moon

Marquee Moon (1977) *****

Let's face it, you buy this album for three songs.  First there's the garage-rock raver, "See No Evil," that kicks off the album like an updated "Satisfaction":  chunky but snakey guitar sound, that is, certainly not attitude - Verlaine's virtually sexless pseudo-nihilism is a million miles removed from Jagger's sleazily wheedling frustrated horniness.  The whole album is quite sexless, which is one differentation that makes this post-punk (the most sexless white rock music this side of prog-rock) not traditional '70s classic rock; and generally not very danceable, which differentiates this from their NYC CBGB peers Ramones/Blondie/Talking Heads and stamps the album as post-punk not New Wave.  It does sit them comfortably next to boho fellow traveler Patti Smith, whose music was as well non-dancey and non-sexy/ist; both she and Verlaine come across as leftover hippies who'd missed the Summer of Love a beatnik too late.  Oh, Verlaine "understands" punk's "destructive urges," but he views the Spirit of '77 from a cooly detached remove.  The second track, "Venus," is pure pop to "See No Evil"'s straight-up rock, and reveals the beatnik romantic in Verlaine's soul:  it's nothing more or less than a paen to the Big Crapple seen from the smitten eyes of a Maryland small-townie as he lifts his gaze to skyscrapers on Broadway.  It's as steely, majestic, and gorgeous as its subject, and the second best song on the album.  That honor goes to the lengthy title track, a stunning tour de force that isn't so much of a tune (though there is indeed a small pop song hidden inside the kernel) as a platform for Verlaine and Lloyd's expressive guitar soloing.  Like I said before in other reviews, I'm no guitar mechanic and I won't pretend to waste time blathering about things I know nothing about.  All I know is that a ten-minute prog-rock track full of extended guitar solos has me hanging on every transcendent chord, and I'm usually averse to those sort of indulgences.

Note that I haven't so far even bothered with an intro to the band or a brief summary of their sound or anything else of the sort.  That's because I'm assuming that any of the small handful of readers stumbling across this blog are already familiar.  A rock crit list of Greatest Albums of All Time without an entry for Marquee Moon would feel hollow and incomplete.  It's a byline in the Rock Critic Manual that we must include it.  As a music geek (and only music geeks read obscure blogs like this) you've heard of this album a hundred times, and have likely heard it a similar amount of times.  The only reason I'm bothering to re-review this is that I need to get this out of the way before I can review Television's followup albums, which are much, much, much less celebrated and so I am presuming some of you may not have heard.

Oh, and yes, I add as almost an afterthought, as you can see from my five-star rating, this album does live up to its hype.  It may not be the greatest album of all time, but it is one of the greatest albums of all time.   It always makes every rock critic best-of list because it's a consensus album.  While I can hardly imagine any rock fan personally totemizing Marquee Moon as his or her most cherished LP of the ages (Verlaine's music is too cool and detached to really reach or speak for anybody's heart and soul, you know), I likewise can't imagine any serious rock fan not enjoying or cherishing this album.  It appeals to all while offending none.  It has a raw, spare sound to appeal to punks and keepers of the garage-rock flame.  It has complex guitar interplay and lengthy epics to appeal to prog-heads and feasters of guitar wankery.  It has shiny crooked hooks and bright little melodies to keep popsters happy.  It's sufficiently angular, barbed, and aconventional to allow cerebral post-punks to stroke their chins along to.  And while in general things that appeal as all things to all people are as a rule of thumb a recipe for bland mush, this album is anything but boring.

I might as well close this review by trawling through the other five tracks, which I'm sure you're dying to hear my thoughts upon.  Of the non-canonical greats that occupy the rest of the space, only "Prove It," I can bring myself to dislike - it's mildly annoying and the lone "prove it!" hook isn't that clever.  "Friction," choogles along in a similar CCR-jam mode, but it rubs me this side of the right way.  "Elevation," boasts a mildly sinister minor-chord entry hook and a nice tension-building chorus.  "Guiding Light," possesses the album's most straightforwardly pretty melody, but it could sorely do with a little tension - as is, it's all merely prettiness, which of course isn't "merely".  "Torn Curtain," closes the album on a moody, almost dark-jazzy note; the guitar crescendo hook immediately after the shouted, angstily anguished choruses is to die for.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Postcards From the Future... Introducing Be Bop Deluxe

Just give me your body and I'll give you my brain
It's a fair exchange

Postcards From the Future... Introducing Be Bop Deluxe (2004) ****

Be Bop Deluxe weren't so much a band as a showcase for guitarist Bill Nelson's guitar, songwriting, and sonic vision; in fact, he fired the original band and had them entirely replaced by the time they recorded their second album.  The 16 tracks on this CD boil down five studio albums' worth of material released in five years (1974-1978) down to the essentials (I'm assuming, as I've only heard the debut).  Be Bop Deluxe amounted to a relative footnote in the annals of '70s rock, a little too derivatively borrowing a bit from Ziggy Bowie and the Phil Manzanera side of Roxy Music, yet clearly defining their own unique style that combines elements of art-rock, glam, pop, and heavy metal.  A Thin Lizzy with O-levels might be the aptest comparison; like Lizzy, once Nelson had settled into his unique sonic turf he rarely ventured outside of it, at least not until the synth-pop of their final album, Drastic Plastic, rears its head (and that's only for a pair of representative tracks).  The songwriting as well stays consistent, at least on this compilation, and while as a songwriter Nelson is no Ray Davies or even a Ferry/Bowie, he displays enough adequate craftmanship in that category for the songs to more than sturdily get by.  Let's put it this way:  Nelson is a considerably better songwriter than most guitar virtuosos, who in general seem to suffer Jeff Beck syndrome (that is, a curious lack of ability to write truly memorable songs in inverse proportion to their ability to master their instrument).  Not being a guitarist myself, I can't comment on the technical aspects of Nelson's expertise, and even if I could I'd probably bore most readers, who don't read music either.  His style is sleek and crunchy, ductile and versatile, descended from art-rock forebearers Randy California (Spirit) and Mick Ronson (Bowie sidekick) rather than the more run-of-the-mill bloozy wankers spewing through their beards at the time.  He's heavier, though, which nicely balances the more lightweight pop songwriting, and fortunately Be Bop Deluxe didn't waste airspace on extended nine-minute jams and solos (though there are plenty of guitar solos - concise guitar solos, mind, and that makes all the difference).  The songs mostly fall into the 2 1/2 to 4 minute range, as Nelson's pop instincts force the guitar to serve the songs, not the other way around.  Still, it's the guitar riffs and pyrotechnics that serve as the main dish, not the '70s-rock songwriting-by-numbers.   Which is why, so far, I haven't named a single individual track from this compilation, and you know what?  I'm going to make this my first lengthy review where I don't review the album track by track.  It's Nelson's guitar and the overall sound that's the showcase.  You'll play this CD the first time and it's guaranteed to be very memorable on the ears, without your ability to hum a single tune after it's over.  OK, so that's an exaggeration.  Be Bop Deluxe were one of those hard rock acts of the '70s that defined but did not transcend their time, which isn't to say that if you've got a yen for '70s hard rock these guys aren't a blast.

The Go-Betweens - 16 Lovers Lane

So when I hear you saying that we stood no chance,
I'll dive for your memory.  We stood that chance

16 Lovers Lane (1988) *****

I could proffer the cliche about how all the elements have finally come together, only the elements had already been coming together since 1983's Before Hollywood; the crucial difference is the songs - nearly every one of these ten tracks (all of the classic Go-Betweens albums are precisely that length; good if you feel it's better to err on the side of skimpy than excessive - I don't) are perfectly dusted acoustic-based jewels of pop songcraft, with "Clouds," the only remotely close to dull track, and it's not dull at all - merely lackluster compared to the other nine.  Apparently Grant and Amanda were breaking up at the time, making this the '80s answer to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, a song from which is even covered in the bonus tracks, is the other obvious parallel).  Holding up to those twin masterpieces of the Greatest Breakup Album of All Time is one tall order, and the Go-Betweens succeed in rounding off the genre to make it a trio.  It's seriously that good, and while arguing which of those three is indeed the greatest when the love of your life has morphed into the bane of it, 16 Lovers Lane outmatches the other two in terms of depth and maturity.  This is music made by adults for adults and if the adjectives subtle, thoughtful, and mature don't appeal to your sensibility, this album (or hardly any of the Go-Betweens' catalogue) won't appeal to you.  At all.  The poetic yet plainspoken lyrics achieve a rare sophistication virtually unheard of in pop - not in any Dylanesque wordplay, mind, but in the nuanced, complex attitude towards love and relationships.  The vast majority of pop songs, even the best of the lot, rarely amount to or even aim for much more than soppy adolescent cliches, with a worldview of romance that basically's summed up as puppy dogs & flowers or "Fuck you, bitch!"  Forster and McLennan approach the subject of love as two adult, grown men.  That this should be such a shocking breath of fresh air virtually unheard of in the annals of rock'n'pop merely underscores the shallow vapidity of most pop music.  What would be unexceptional in literature or even film becomes by virtue of practically no competition exceptional in the words of the Go-Betweens.

There's a cat in the alleyway
Dreaming of birds that are blue
Sometimes girl when I'm lonely
This is how I think about you
There are times that I want you
I want you so much I could bust
I know a thing about lovers
Lovers lie down in trust

The opener, "Love Goes On!" is already beyond Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in terms of directly accessible poetry and common sense, not that the tune (or album) is all about the lyrics:  with its sprightly jangle and lilting if downbeat Brit-Invasion melody, and Amanda Brown's sawing violin, it immediately leaps out as a perfectly catchy means to jumpstart the record.  Whoah - did I say "catchy"?  Yes, for once - well, approximately half the songs, but that's a serious improvement - the Go-Betweens shove their hooks front and center enough that they're, I daresay, immediately arresting and likeable.  This is their poppiest and most mainstream album, easily, and if the only downside is that there's precious little quirk around the musical edges, well sometimes sacrifices must be made in the quest for perfection.  "Streets of Your Town," was the big "hit" (a minor, minor one that scraped the U.K. charts, actually) that might be a smash today in a more appreciative climate than the tacky big-boom '80s; it's so bright and boppy and immediately infectious that it sounds almost like a track from a sitcom commercial, until you notice the lyrics - "Watch the butcher shine his knives / And this town is full of battered wives."  If "Quiet Heart," borrows a bit liberally from U2's "With or Without You," (the band have admitted as such), emotionally it's the polar opposite - modest and unassuming in its slow buildup of intensity, where Bono was flailing in histrionics.  "Love is a Sign," is Forster's signature tune from this longplayer, a deeply literate and painterly evocative slice of talky jangle sans bridge or key change, with a chorus only perfunctorily differring from the longwinded verses - in style and mood somewhat reminiscent of Paul Weller's "That's Entertainment," Forster claims to have penned this in the back of a cab for a Norwegian couple, who praised it as sounding like a Blood on the Tracks outtake.  "Devil's Eye," is one of the lesser tracks only because at barely under two minutes, it fleets by in a blink; it doesn't amount to much but is sheer loveliness.  The album closes with "Dive For Your Memory," which may not be the strongest track but perhaps cuts the deepest, as McLennan waves goodbye to Amanda with a clear heartache that he's finally come to peace about; he's no longer bitter and in tears, he understands that it's over, but he still has his memories, and is firm in his conviction that if they'd worked a little harder, they would still have stood a chance.  It's a bittersweet resolution to an album designed to get you through hard times like those.  At this point, the best Go-Betweens songs sound like long-forgotten friends making a reaquaintance when the record makes its play - in other words, as the best songs should be.

But there are still the bonus tracks to get to, and get to them we shall.  It almost seems unfair to the other Go-Betweens albums that this, their finest collection of songs, receives by far the finest collection of rarities on the second disc as well.  The single version of "Love Goes On!" pounds with more oomph! and fuller, bouncier arrangement; as expected, it's no better than the more muted and sparer original, but surprisingly, this overproduced version isn't any worse, either.  Let's hear the great song in a different arrangement two times in row!  The dusty "Mexican Postcard," could've drifted in from an earlier Go-Betweens era, and if I were unconverted to its atmospheric charms, the line, "The ghost of Sam Peckinpah sits in his lonely room," makes me a believer.  There's a vastly improved version of "Casanova's Last Words," (see my review of Liberty Belle) and "Rock'n'Roll Friend," would've been a classic A-side for a lesser band - heck, it should've been more than a mere B-side for the Go-Betweens themselves, it's so softly yet insistently anthemic:  can I really get that, "Can you do something about me?" chorus out of my head?  "Apples in Bed," is sweetly domestic, one the rare songs addressing the winsome subject of secretly peeping at your partner as she slumbers naked in bed (as far as I remember, only Ian Dury tackled the same fare).  The disc closes with a crisp, excellent man'n'guitar live cover of Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now," but it's the similarly spare original, "You Won't Find It Again," that is the knockout.  A truly jaw-dropping number that oozes raw talent, if you don't instantly fall in love with the tune I don't even want to know ya; why or how on earth a song of such quality was consigned to the cutting room floor boggles belief. For consigned it was, for the band broke up in 1989, for Forster and McLennan to pursue solo careers for a decade, before reuniting in the early '00s under the Go-Betweens banner once again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Go-Betweens - Talullah

Taulah met a man at a newstand who asked her how does she dream

Tallulah (1987) ****

Yes, another predictable four-star rating, but it's not as if there aren't some problems.  Expanded to a five-piece with the addition of violinist and occasional oboeist Amanda Brown, the sound is fuller and busier than the spare Liberty Belle, yet also more dated - a fault that can in part be laid down to Lindy Morrison lazily laying down processed drum tracks in lieu of her usual crisp snares (I read that she had some sort of mishap that made that necessary for part of the recording, but that's no excuse).  '80s sound aside, which truth be told isn't that drastic (compared to, say, Spring Hill Fair), the real problem is the Go-Betweens slipping a bit with more inconsistent songwriting.  Yep, as expected for a song not sound band, the Go-Betweens are only really as good as the Forster/McLennan songwriting duo allows them to be.  All traces of edgily angular post-punk are now thoroughly bleached and scrubbed; the Go-Betweens are now conventional jangle-pop softly rocking alt.rockers, with the only twists and barbed kisses contained in the lyrics and unconventional structures of the songs themselves.  And oh, how barbed-wire those kisses can be.  The album leads off with "Right Here," perhaps the most straightforward gusher of lovestruck confession that Grant has ever written, but notice between the lines that while he's definitely smitten, it's not all rose-tinted:  he notes that she's 32 but looks 55 and wonders aloud if for once in her life she can live without a crutch.  Grant's songs are the poppily smitten upbeat love songs this time round, undoubtedly inspired by his blossoming love affair with the band's newest recruit.  Even the bittersweet farewell to lost love, "Bye Bye Pride," sounds uplifting, particular when Brown's beguiling oboe countermelody snakes its accompaniment in.  "Hope Then Strife," remains positive despite its title - how couldn't it with such a chorus? - and while "Someone Else's Wife," starkly and bitterly recounts a tale of adultery in an overall moody piece, the chorus is quaintly surging, and it's an anomaly for Grant.  Forster's tunes are more self-consciously literate than usual (only a bit):  the subject of the album title and "You Tell Me," is none other than Tallulah Bankhead (oh, just do a Wikipedia search), though Forster's literary aspirations are responsible for the album's biggest dud:  "The House That Jack Kerouac Built," despite some intriguing lyrics and a not-bad chorus, can't possibly live up to such a title, and doesn't.  Actually, no - it's only the second biggest dud, with the gold taken by "Cut It Out," an ill-advised foray in mild funk that is more than mildly grating.  Whether "The Clarke Sisters," is a dud or not is a matter of taste.  While musically and melodically it creates an absorbingly grim atmosphere - a cobwebs-encrusted wooden room in the back of a feminist bookstore, with Brown's sawdust violin - the lyrics have long split fans down the middle.  It comes down to whether you view Bob singing about menstration as a bold move of feminist solidarity or just plain icky. 

Half ot the ten bonus tracks are alternate versions, but this time they are sufficiently different in arrangements to justify more than one casual listen.  While I won't claim that stripped down demo versions of "I Just Get Caught Out," "The Clarke Sisters," and "Right Here," are particularly essential, they are arrestingly dissimilar (and not in a bad way) from the final, polished versions to keep the fan coming back to compare, contrast, and savour the flavours of both versions.  Of the five unfamiliar tracks, "Time in the Desert," and "A Little Romance," are pleasant if unexceptional, and would've fit in fine as filler-ish album tracks.  "Don't Call Me Gone," is a slight but not totally unworthwhile genre exercise, a venture into pure Appalachia fiddle-stomp swing.  These sunbaked Aussies aren't cut out for this sort of thing, but they make a game enough try to salvage the track just this side of charming.  Barely.  "When People Are Dead," is the lost classic, another in a long line of spare'n'lovely VU-ish Go-Betweens ballads, and a neo-classic eulogy to fit snugly alongside "Dusty in Here."  "Doo Wop in 'A' (Bam Boom)" is the odd duck, a delightful slice of proto-Pipettes girl-group chipper/exasperated mooniness that you'd swear was an early '60s oldie, but nope - it's actually the lone McLennan/Forster/Morrison/Brown composition in the Go-Betweens' canon.  I'm assuming by the looks of things that the girls, who sing it like troupers, wrote the tune and had the boys come in and tidy up the finishing touches. 

Pay special attention to the video for "Right Here," as we witness the sight of two people, Grant and Amanda, swooning sweetly at the camera as they catch the first blush of l-u-v.  This is the face of a man absolutely smitten.  Awwww!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Zombies - Odessey & Oracle

Odessey & Oracle (1968) *****

I reviewed this nearly a dozen years ago on my old site and time hasn't changed my opinion:  this is an essential pop masterpiece that in the mildly psychedelic, baroque-pop sweepstakes betters the somewhat overhyped Pet Sounds and track for track rivals the very best of the top tier Beatles LPs (yes, seriously - and recorded at Abbey Road, nonetheless).  Any complaints of lack of variety are mooted by the fact that the piano & mellotron pop style the Zombies perfected here is perfectly perfect in perfection:  harmonically and melodically Argent & White's tunes display a sophistication few of their British Invasion peers could match (John & Paul at their best, and maybe Ray Davies on an ambitious day).  It would be a lie to claim that the album sounds like nothing before or since (the Coldplay comparison in my previous review was not facetious); unlike most other latter-half of the '60s masterpieces, the Zombies aren't particularly experimental or interested in stretching any sonic boundaries - what you get are a dozen rather conventional keyboard pop songs of exceptional quality.  The melodramatic "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" breaks the monotony of the style, but not in a good way, and along with the rather hookless "Changes," counts as the album's two sole bummers.  The rest of the tunes are gorgeous mini-masterstrokes of melodious invention and pure pop craftsmanship, god bless us every single one.  Ironically, "Time of the Season," became an international #1 smash only after the band had broken up (they went in intending the album as their swansong), but is it truly any better than any other random tune on the album?  No, not really.  The opener, "Care of Cell 44," opens the album on a "Good Day Sunshine,"-ish poundingly anthemic note, surging a little too forcefully into the blaring chorus, but hang on, what are those lyrics about?  Greeting your girlfriend on her day of release from prison!  "A Rose for Emily," (inspired by the William Faulkner short story) and "Beechwood Park," (which some claim swipes the melody from "A Whiter Shade of Pale," but my ears can't detect it) are similar in a stately balladic piece, while "Brief Candles," (apparently about lonely alcoholics, from what I can make out, though I could be and clearly am wrong) and "Maybe After He's Gone," (after you break up with your boyfriend, will you please pretty please consider little old me? What a wimp!) employ the quietly intense verses/blaring chorus trick again.  "Hung Up On a Dream," veers the closest to psych-pop territory with its hippy-dippy kaleidescope technicolor lyrics and dreamy yet surging melodic structure - as gee-orgee-ous as the pretty girl you've got a crush on.  But it's "This Will Be Our Year," which is the sleeper - much simpler in structure and all the more effective for its relative simplicity; there aren't too many rousing yet understated New Year's songs to celebrate the incoming year, and for that alone this shall always rank as a classic:  what other song are you possibly going to play as midnight strikes on Jan. 31?  "Friends of Mine," bounces like a rolling puppy in its awe-shucks name-listing of couples in love, though it does make me cringe a little when my own name is listed ("Liz and Brian").  Well, you'd cringe, too, if the song listed your name as well.  Especially if your name was Brian.  Oh, I haven't mentioned "I Want Her, She Wants Me," yet.  That's because it's rather ordinary.  Not bad.  Just nothing special.

Now, on to the bonus tracks, which are the reason I'm reviewing this album twice (that, and my original review wasn't that great; this one's much more detailed - longwinded if you don't prefer).  Make sure you somehow obtain the German import on the Repertoire label, as the 16 bonus tracks make it the most fully packed and definitive edition.  The bonus tracks aren't universally excellent as the album proper is, which is to be expected, but I daresay there's hardly any track that doesn't have some bit of merit - the lone instrumental, "Conversation Off Floral Street," comes the closest, but that's just because it's an instrumental.  The two covers ("Gotta Get a Hold of Myself," and "Going Out of My Head,") are wisely pop not R&B covers; the Zombies were clearly much more suited tackling Burt Bacharach than Willie Dixon.  "Don't Cry For Me," leaps out as the Zombies' most excitingly convincing up-tempo raver - you could almost say it rocks.   "Girl Help Me," and "Smokey Day," are of a piece, sustaining a moody mood that smokily reflects the latter title; "I Know She Will," is a cloyingly touching Miss Lonelyhearts advice column; and the singles recorded shortly after the Odyssey sessions, "Imagine the Swan," and "I Call You Mine," would've fit swell to swell the original LP up to 14 tracks.  Oh, and there's the frothily bouncy-lovely "She Loves the Way They Love Her," as well as the measured-stately "Walking in the Sun," and.....what am I, going to review every single track?  I almost did but I'll quit while I'm ahead, I think I've covered all the essential stuff.  The bonus tracks essentially double the original album and thus double the original five star rating, which means that this album receives **********.  Combined with the 31-track Repertoire issue of Begin Here, these two discs constitute the complete recorded studio output of the Zombies' 1960s material (sadly, they would briefly reunite to spoil their legacy to record a pair of one-offs in the '90s and '00s - which would make them two-offs, technically, I suppose).  Minus BBC sessions and the like, but who needs those?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Zombies - Begin Here

Begin Here (1965) ****

The Zombies were a British Invasion beat group best known for the haunting, "She's Not There," which still stands up as one of the finest singles of the era (or any era).  Seminally you could call them pioneers of "keyboard rock", bespectacled nerds breathily cooing fragile mid-tempo balladic odes to unrequited love, and thus blame them indirectly for the likes of Coldplay.  Their debut album is certainly not rubbish, but it does suffer from first-album-by-seminal-British-Invasiion-act syndrome:  that is, waaaaaaay too many covers.  Half the original 14 track album, in fact, leaving only 7 originals to judge the band's merits upon.  As predictable, the revved up R&B rockers don't suit the band's style at all, and the best you can say about the likes of "Roadrunner," and "I Got My Mojo Working," is that they're harmlessly generic whitebread British Invasion covers of black American soul, hardly worse than what the Rolling Stones and Kinks were performing at the time.  And how many times do we have to hear Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me," with a nasal limey accent?  Only Gershwin's lazily laidback, "Summertime," seems to truly suit the lads' proclivities.  The originals are naturally much better, but half of those can be damned with the faint praise of "shows promise".  And what's half of 7?  Of the non-formative originals, I've already mentioned "She's Not There," which succeeds in doing something hardly any other British Invasion band of the era was capable of:  it swings, and quite jazzily.  "The Way I Feel Inside," which fragmentarily registers at under two minutes and is almost acapella with slight organ swelling and a coin clattering as the backdrop, haunts with its beautiful spareness; "I Remember the Way I Loved Her," is a bit more conventional of a ballad in a similar style, and is quite lovely as well.  Those three were written by keyboardist Rod Argent, who contributes another number, "Woman," that is once again too aggressively horny to suit the band's temperament.  Bassist Chris White chips in three tunes, but none of them are much better than, "Mmm, OK.  Shows a lot of promise.  Keep it up lad, someday you'll produce a real corker."  As such, the original 14-track album receives the grade I gave it in my brief review preceding.

The 2001 German import that appends 17 bonus tracks (grand total: 31 tracks - but you can do math, can't you?) is another story altogether.  Gathering up singles, B-sides, and precisely one outtake (the final track, "I'm Going Home," another R&B cover not worth your time), this is the definitive case of the bonus tracks outweighing in sheer gold bulk and worth the original LP itself.  Chris White's "Leave Me Be," (the first great song he wrote, apparently) is a paranoid, mopey teen-angst anthem worthy of Roy Orbison or Morrissey, with its swift modulation from dreamily sad chorus to shriekingly raging chorus.  Self-pity - ah, sometimes a wonderful emotional state to wallow in.  Hand me the tissues.  There's their second hit, "Tell Her No," which always seemed a bit headscratching to me, as it's never been a bit favorite of mine when the Zombies had superior material on the ready; but it's a fine single anyways, and darndest difficult to dislodge the "no no no no no no," chorus.  The pounding piano riff that segues into the chorus of "She's Coming Home," would've made for a finer followup to "She's Not There," in my world, but hey, it's not my world - it's Zombie World.  (Yes, I can hear you groaning at that pun.)  Moving on, we land upon track 23, "Whenever You're Ready."  My powers of critical analysis fail me at this point.  This is not only the Zombies' greatest song, it is literally as good as your favorite Beatles track, which is to say without any hyperbole that this is the greatest song ever recorded by man, living or undead.  If you haven't heard it, stop reading this review now, get on Youtube and listen.  I'll save you the trouble (you knew I would); see embedded Youtube below.  Anyhow, a 17-track song by song review isn't what you've got the attention span to read, so let me conclude that while there are a few bonus songs that aren't all there, they're mostly quality material - a considerable improvement over the debut album, if not quite Odyssey & Oracle quality just yet.  White has grown into a decent songwriter, and along with Argent's improving skills, the Zombies are finally able to tackle upbeat, organ-crackling rockers such as "Indication," convincingly.  But they're still at their best handling fragile balladry such as "How We Were Before," which is just cry-in-my-wine-cooler heartbreaking.  And a mid-tempo pop-rocker as "Don't Go Away," is.....