Monday, August 26, 2013

Orange Juice - You Can't Hide Your Love Forever

You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (1982) ***1/2

Rock'n'Pop has always fetishized adolescence, yet the lads in the Orange Juice find a novel angle of approach:  few albums have captured the gangly, awkward essence of growing up too fast so well, as your sprouting body seems to clumsily trip over itself, while your inexperience with social interactions and conventions causes you to trip over yourself even more embarrassingly.  The key adjective here is 'awkward'.  These are supposed to be catchy jangle-pop tunes, but the band can't (or won't) perform them in a straightforward manner.  The arrangements seem jarringly cluttered for such clean and spare music.  Sometimes the clattering drums or bobbling bass seem mixed too loudly, distractingly so, with the tinny hooks buried behind the fussy busyness.  More often is the case, the band have mis-mastered the art of the awkward transition, as once they settle into an acceptable groove for a few seconds they immediately and jarringly abandon it - going from smoothly crooned pop in the verses to hyperkinetically charged white-boy funk for the chorus, for one example, or trying to shoehorn a bouncy waltz and a militaristic four-four march into the same tune (at the same time).  On first listen, I couldn't take it all in; this was supposed to be pop music, not Captain Beefheart - you're not supposed to have to work at it.  Yet the band had at least some minor historical importance, being a key member of the wave of neo-pop post-punk bands that laid the foundations for the sound of Young Scotland on Postcard Records in the early '80s (the other two being Josef K and Aztec Camera - see those reviews).  So I resigned myself to a second listen, and it started to make a little more sense as I started to notice the details.  And finally after many repeat listenings, I got it.  What initially seemed like deliberately obtuse arrangement gaffes transmuted into quirks essential to the band's charm.  Frankly, I was wrong:  if this had been a catchy pop album that hooked me immediately, that's all it would ever amount to.  It is a catchy pop album, but one that's unusually eccentric and therefore more compelling. 

To put it "In a Nutshell," as Edwyn Collins croons (yes, that '90s one-hit wonder), Orange Juice's jittery post-rockabilly sound provides the missing link between the Talking Heads and the Smiths.  (Not to mention Vampire Weekend - yes, that's right, please don't mention them.)  James Kirk (no, not that James T. Kirk) plucks and strums away on the high end notes of the guitar scale, for a clean, spare hook foundation that self-consciously avoids macho rock cliches.  In fact, this album is downright fey, with the band wearing their collegiate nerdiness and wimpiness on the sleeves of their Cardigan sweaters.  O, Edwyn - even more initially offputting for the unprepared listener than the cluttery arrangements is his voice.  Collins' mannered vocals come across as a Bryan Ferry imitation on quaaludes, and a callow youngster's imitation at that - he's many years away from the deep soul crooner he would become on "A Girl Like You".  He takes some getting used to, is what I'm saying, and I still haven't entirely made my peace with the vocals on this album.  Kirk (the other main songwriter and creative force) takes a few lead vocal spotlights, and his more conventional but bland and characterless vocal style highlights the advantage of having a highly distinctive vocalist (love him or loathe him) in your band.  In addition, Collins is the sort of proto-Morrissey who deliberately slips in a word like "discourteously" into a verse no matter how awkward it scans.  (There's that adjective again.)

While the obvious influences of the Velvet Underground, Television, and the Talking Heads aren't surprising in an early '80s post-punk band, there's another crucial influence that sets Orange Juice apart from their Scottish peers:  classic soul.  This evidences itself not only in the Al Green cover ("L.O.V.E. Love"), and not just the slippings into light funk at times (on others they do a credible Velvets snapping-bicycle-chains jangle), but mostly in the sheer upbeat joyousness of this music.  "Upwards and Onwards," isn't sung with a trace of smirking irony, and it's not hard to see which part of the "Falling and Laughing," ultimately wins out.  It's also a bright and clean-cut sounding record - an innocent, romanticized '50s feel musically derived from '60s sources updated for the '80s.  In other words, the Smiths.  But a happy Smiths!  A 3.75 star rating, but I'm not rounding up, after realizing that while highly pleasant and enjoyable as a whole, there just aren't any true knockout tracks present.  It's special but not that special; just, in the end sum of things, another catchy jangle-pop album - albeit one that takes some time getting used to.

One more detail:  in "Untitled Melody," Collins talks about buying some sun-specs from a local hipsters' store.  See, kids?  For those whose memories extend beyond last week, they didn't spring out of nowhere in the past decade.  Hipsters were alive and rampant in 1982.  And in 1952, if you've ever heard of these fellas who called themselves the Beats....

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Steve Harley - Hobo With a Grin

Hobo With a Grin (1978) ***1/2

Well, Steve's finally put the left & right sides of his brain together and delivered his best album since The Best Years of Our Lives.  While it's primarily a heartfelt singer-songwriter album, Harley doesn't entirely ignore the musical side of things, nor does he flake out with too much poorly conceived experimentation.  Oh, and it's his first "official" solo album, but we all know that hasn't mattered since the first pair of Cockney Rebel LPs.  Anyhow, this is perhaps Harley's most soulful album to date.  Previously, Harley's lyrical motivations were shrouded in an enigma encased in a mystery, but the lyrics here aren't terribly difficult to figure out most of the time.  One aspect of Harley's persona to be noted is that the man apparently is a sincere Anglican and judging by some of his politically-oriented lyrics here and elsewhere ("Red is a Mean, Mean Colour," remember that one?), he's of at least a mildly conservative temperament.  Thus we get the worst track, the misguided funk excursion, "(I Don't Believe God) Is An Anarchist," which could be a specific rant about punk or a more generalized rant against nihilistic youth culture in general.  He's sick of revolutions that never improve the general lot anyway, but it's not the lyrics that let me down (the message is fine - Harley's just a conservative in the Edmund Burkean sense, which is to say the most respectable kind), it's the gratingly hamfisted funk.  When will Steve get it drilled into his dancing feet that the whitest of white Englishmen have no business shaking down like he's Sly Stone?  That track aside, the rest of the album will neither impress nor offend you, musically speaking, though it may bore you if you're not so inclined:  it's just standard-issue soft-rock, sometimes lively and rollicking (the lead single "Roll the Dice"), sometimes narcotically soothing ("Riding the Waves (For Virginia Woolf").  The message of the most overtly political tract, "Hot Youth," may seem a recitation of headline doggerel at first, but it's not too hard to figure out with a bit of concentration.  Harley's simply observing that politically disaffected youths will always be angry no matter what the specific political situation; if there wasn't a wall in Berlin, there'd be another wall to climb over.  The peppy "Amerika the Brave," employs Columbus as a metaphor for how the U.S. is a magnetic dragnet for modern day Europeans like himself.  And once you realize that the 'someone' in "Someone's Coming," is the return of Jesus, it all falls into place lyrically.  As if a title like "Faith, Hope and Charity," didn't make it clear where Harley's heart was around this time, spiritually speaking.  Which must have been a good place, if it produced such warm and soulful ballads as "Living in a Rhapsody," a tune that oozes the essence of Steve at his most tender, emotionally sincere, and moving.

The selection for bonus tracks are quite bafflingly random, as both of the two were nowhere near 1978.  "Spaced Out," was an early Cockney Rebel B-side; it's fine but nothing special fiddle-pop and is quite jarringly placed here.  "That's My Life in Your Hands," is a live recording of a number that would resurface nearly two decades later (in a studio version) on a '90s Harley comeback album.  It's breathlessly rushed folk-pop, but it doesn't come from this era, either - apparently recorded sometime in the '80s when Harley was on his decade-long recording-studio retirement.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Brinsley Schwarz - Hen's Teeth

Hen's Teeth (1998) ***1/2

Those interested in the early heydays of Brinsley Schwarz are advised to skip over the first pair of albums and go directly here, for reasons of both chronology and quality.  This grab-bag of tracks (most of which were not released under the Brinsley Schwarz name) spans from 1967 to 1975, broken down thusly:

1-10:  Kippington Lodge, the mod-era precursor to the Brinsleys
11-12:  The Hitters, the Brinsleys in dreadlocks as a one-off cover of Leroy Sibbles' "Hypocrite," which was credible.  The flip side, an instrumental dub version entitled "The Version," however was not.
13-16:  The contents of a pair of A/B-sides released under the Brinsley Schwarz name, but not placed on any albums, since the A-sides were covers that ventured too far afield from the Schwarz's laid-back country-pop.  A shame that the Brinsleys had hitched themselves to such a stylistic album-oriented rut, as both Naomi Neville's R&B roller "I've Cried My Last Tear," and Tommy Roe's bubblegum-glam stomp "Everybody," are fine tunes that prove the Brinsleys were adept at more than just hippie neo-twang.
17-20:  A/B-sides by the Knees and the Limelights, aliases for four Vanilla Fudged Beatles covers.  While it's practically impossible to improve upon the originals for even the brightest of talents, these are all good fun, and these Beatles chestnuts are amusing to hear to in a modernized (for 1975) context.
21-22:  The final Brinsley Schwarz single, released in the year after their final LP.  Both the A and B are fine little pop/soul confections.  Nothing earth-shaking, just well-crafted pop, which sums up the Brinsleys for ya.

The Kippington Lodge material deserves a paragraph of its own.  By the time the Lodge had changed their name to the Schwarz, of the original members only the guitarist Brinsley Schwarz remained - mystery of eccentric nomenclature solved.  Little of this material was composed by the band themselves, much to their chagrin, with songs shoved at them from outside 'professional' songwriters - but like a famous man once said, "Those were different times."  For factory pop, most of it's pretty dandy, and if their only artistic contribution to their debut single "Shy Boy," was the vocal track (session musicians sat in on the commissioned tune), that doesn't change the fact that "Shy Boy," is wonderful little slice of Brit-pop - it could've fit in fine on Something Else by the Kinks or even more appropriately The Who Sell Out.  Reminds me a bit of "Odorno," for some reason.  Must be the office setting.  The flip side, "Lady on a Bicycle," is even more intriguingly odd (for the times) lyrically - a gushing schoolboy ode to an older dame who'd most likely find herself on the Sex Offender registry these days.  She gives this teenage boy a ride on her bicycle every day to school, you see, goes the storyline....  While none of these early tunes sound like surefire hits, they're all good songs, comfortably entertaining on the B to B+ level of songcraft.  It's surprising that none of these wound up on the U.K. version of Nuggets box set - picking one or two for inclusion would've fit that collection just dandy.  The final Kippington Lodge single is of note for two reasons:  the A-side is the first of their several bombastically metallized Beatles covers ("In My Life"), while the B-side is notable for being the first Nick Lowe composition to make it to record (the urgently paranoid "I Can See Her Face").  Minor-league but entertaining (as usual), these odds'n'ends snapshots may be the best place to get first aquainted with the Brinsleys.

Not much of this material available on Youtube, unsurprisingly.  This underproduced, inferior BBC radio session version of "Shy Boy" will just have to do.

Neu! - s/t

Neu! (1972) ***

An enormously influential, beyond ahead of its time album that is half unlistenable, and I mean that in the literal sense:  Neu!'s debut schizophrenically splits its six tracks between the OMIGOSH IMA GOBSMACKED and the WHAT THE HELL IS THIS CRAP?!  Let me break it down for you:

No. Title Length
1. "Hallogallo" (Play on "Halligalli", a German slang term for "wild partying", with the word "hallo" being German for "hello") - MAYBE I'M AMAZED, NO NO MAYBE, YES I AM! 10:07
2. "Sonderangebot" ("Special Offer") - POINTLESS FILLER BETWEEN THE MAIN COURSES 4:51
3. "Weissensee" ("White Sea" or "White Lake"; Weißensee is a town in Carinthia, Austria, and a borough of Pankow, Berlin) - SLOW AS SNAILS, STILL GROOVY-TASTIC, MAN! 6:46
Side two - Jahresübersicht
No. Title Length
4. "Jahresübersicht (Part One): Im Glück" ("Lucky") - WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SHIT 6:53
5. "Jahresübersicht (Part Two): Negativland" ("Negative Land") - HOLY MOTHER OF #@!$%!, THIS IS WHAT I CALL NEO-AMBIENT GUITAR SQUALL! 9:47
6. "Jahresübersicht (Part Three): Lieber Honig" ("Dear Honey" or "Preferably Honey") WHAT THE HELL IS THIS SHIT?  SERIOUSLY, DUDES.  YO MAN THIS SHIT BE WHACK YO, THAT'S LIKE THE GAYEST RETARDED VOCAL I'VE EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE.      7:18

Danke, Wikipedia.  Michael Rother (credited to guitar & bass) and Klaus Dinger (credited to guitar, drums, and something called "Japanese banjo", if such a thing even exists and was not an in-joke in the credits) split from an early version of Kraftwerk, reasoning given that the Krafts were insufficiently experimental.  And while being the first full-fledged synth-pop, guitar-less outfit made the Werks the most influential German band of the decade (do I need that 'German' modifier?), Neu! might've been equally hallowed if not for their brief, aborted three-album career.  According to lore, their debut was recorded in a scant four days in 1971, the first two proving fruitless - which goes a long way to explaining why they only came up with 3 good songs.   To squeeze its influence in as tight a nutshell as possible, this sounds like a vocal-less 154 era Wire or late '70s Joy Division (in retrospect, both extremely obviously influenced).  Neu!'s basic formula. introduced on the opening track, is to lay a bedrock of hypnotic rhythmic repetition, with its unvarying 'motorik' drumbeat and two-note bass riffs providing the musical center.  Overlaid are treated guitars that at times sound like synthesizers, floating in and out and around the mix, to keep the music varied enough so that you're hypnotized by the beat instead of bored by it for ten minutes.  The spare, minimalist textures of this completely instrumental work keep the album completely contemporary, no matter what decade it happens to be - tell some hipster that this is one of the latest post-rock albums on the critics' year-end list of 2012, and he'll fall over pretending that it's cutting edge; and in 2022 or 2042 as well, I'm wagering.  Context counts for quite a lot in pop music, however, and what could this music have been categorized as in 1972?  Post-psychedelic and mind-bending - not a partaker of hallucinogens, so I can only imagine just how good this has to sound on drugs, and I do not mean that as an insult.  Perhaps I'll experiment someday with a reefer.  (Listening to this album, I mean.  Like 92.635% of Americans, I've partaken of that.)  Yet its mechanical beats, squalling guitar noises, and the icy, impersonal to the point of inhuman feel point the way to industrial.  But it's hardly a hard-rocking album, for the most part - Neu! know the value of space in music, leaving large sonic potholes that give a number of tracks a peaceful, dreamy effect.  So there's proto-ambient and post-rock in the mix as well.  And while, according to the credits (your ears deceive you), there's not a synthesizer present, it certainly sounds like a pioneering synth-rock album, and its emphasis on tight, driving, ferociously monotonous-minded rhythm - well, free your ass and your mind will follow, that's late '70s disco, tisn't it?

To recap:  this would've been a classic for the three mind-blowing tracks.  But no matter how mind-expanding and influential those may be, the other half of the album is painfully obvious found-sound and dicking around the studio filler.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Flamin' Groovies - Jumpin' in the Night

Jumpin' in the Night (1979) ***

More of the same, with a grand total of six originals and seven covers this time.  The tunes flowing from the pen of Jordan/Wilson are still fine, if no all-time great knockouts.  It starts off strongly with the jittery title track, which segues into the bruisingly Lennon-ish "Next One Crying."  The homesick "First Plane Home," and the joyously patriotic "In the U.S.A." flow well into each other thematically - got those London homesick blues, eh boys?  "Yes I Am," and "Tell Me Again," are again fine British Invasion originals, but there's not a lot of territory the Groovies have not well-mined on the previous two LPs.  The covers are particularly weak this time out.  Three Byrds covers are two too many, and while the band seems to have based their entire late '70s career on rewriting "Please Please Me," it's not one of their best stabs at the Fabs.  And "Absolutely Sweet Marie"?  What business do the Groovies have of covering Dylan?  Totally out of their comfort zone.  Speaking of which, most bizarre of all is Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London".  Idiosyncratic novelty tunes often verge on the uncoverable, and Zevon's fluke hit of the previous year was no exception - especially minus the swinging ragtime piano that was the musical bedrock of the original.  Rather pointless if you ask me, but so have the Groovies been since 1976.  Ouch - that was a mite too harsh.  Look, these are pretty groovy little rock'n'roll albums if you're looking for nothing other than a lightweight mix of oldies and like-minded originals.  I enjoy'em.  But that doesn't mean I have to take them seriously.

Completing this third and weakest installment of the late '70s trilogy, the Groovies wisely called it a day.  Well, for the most part - rockers still gotta earn their bread with reunion shows, and who's gonna begrudge'em?

Flamin' Groovies - Now

Now (1978) ***

The previous album had kicked off with the immortal "Shake Some Action," and this followup begins with a cover of "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," which should underscore all you need to know concerning the differences between the two LPs.  I should end my review right here, because this is not a terribly interesting album about which there is a lot to say.  Essentially it is a carbon copy of the 1976 LP, the main difference being that while that album was bogged down slightly by a handful too many covers, this album is overwhelmed by the amount of sweatin' oldies.  Of the 14 tracks, only six are Jordan/Wilson compositions, one of which is the fine, deliberately mindless Dave Edmunds co-write "Yeah My Baby," which choogles along like a glue-huffing CCR.  The other Edmunds/Jordan/Wilson co-write, "Good Laugh Man," is similarly fine if insubstantial pop.  There's nothing here as life-changing as "Shake Some Action," though the snarling kiss-off "Don't Put Me On," comes close, with a venomous vocal and deranged fuzz-rockabilly solo - classic Groovies.  But oh, those covers.  Byrds, fine.  Beatles, finer - in fact "There's a Place," is definitive, gushing with energy (the original was cut near the end of a day-long session and the Fabs delivered a draggy, hoarse take that lacks all drive).  Paul Revere & the Raiders - um, OK.  "House of Blue Lights" and "Move It" - yeah, yeah, go on do your boogie raveup thing.  King Curtis - now that's what I call R&R, baby.  And while picking an undervalued Stones obscurity ("Blue Turns To Grey") was a choice idea, a sitar-less take on "Paint It Black" was not.  It's all harmless fun (moreso for the band than the listener, I suspect) and the Groovies do put their unique stamp on all the covers - how could they not with those patented six-strings?  But it's basically an up and coming bar band's set list - interspersing a handful of originals with the crowd-pleasing oldies - and that is simply not acceptable from a band capable of much more.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Flamin' Groovies - Shake Some Action

Shake Some Action (1976) ****

Just in time for punk, the Groovies minus Roy Loney had successfully retooled their sound and image as British Invasion revivalists, as one can tell from the sharp Mod suits on the cover.  Dirty hippie long-hair begone, it's bowl-cuts from now on.  The first installment of their late '70s Power-Pop Trilogy is easily the best; this and the two follow-ups are practically the same three albums in terms of style and approach.  The only substantial differences are the strength of the original material and how heavily the band relies on covers.  While the next two albums went overboard with reliance on oldies, only 5 of these 14 songs are covers.  Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Lovin' Spoonful, W.C. Handy - they're slight but fun, the definition of harmless filler.  Which is a pity since nearly every single original present in the Bicentennial Groovies' lineup either rocks, rules, or tears out your heartstrings, sometimes all three.  I went on about the title track and "You Tore Me Down," in my review of the previous Groovies' release, so no more here when I could be discussing "Yes It's True," a note-perfect recreation of a lost Help! era album track.  Or "I'll Cry Alone," which does the same for depressively moody Gene Clark era Byrds - perfect for moping around the dark streets alone, yet it's a driving "Paint It Black," style surger.  "I Saw Her," throws in some incense & peppermints psychedelia, while "Teenage Confidential," essays early '60s teen breakup balladry.   "Please Please Girl," and "I Can't Hide," come from the same place musically, both hyperkinetic jangle-pop that jumps out of its skinny jeans.  And have I mentioned that Cyril Jordan, now defacto leader of the Groovies, has polished to a T the perfect guitar tone for this sort of music?  It's light, not in the least bit heavy or distorted - clean and crisp, jingle-jangling like a harder rocking Byrds.  Not since Big Star have guitars sounded so shimmery, shiny, and colorful, with not a hint of stereotypical muscle-car '70s blooze macho, but still rockin'.  If not for the covers, I'd be tempted to rate this higher, slavish revivalism and all - these aren't just pale copycats of British Invasion classics, they stand up to the best of the Dave Clark Five and Hollies in their own right.

Oh, and have I mentioned the title track?  BLOODY FREAKIN' GENIUS.



Aztec Camera - Stray

Stray (1990) ***

It's time we faced the depressing fact that nothing Roddy Frame is ever going to release again will live up to the promise of High Land, Hard Rain.  You could excuse the second album as a well-intentioned misstep, and the third album as a sellout, but by the fourth time around, Roddy's an old pro, and this is pure product.  The diversity is both a blessing and a curse:  the album never falls into a predictable rut, but the 'try all the tricks in Frame's bag' approach means that the tracks live or die solely by the strength of the songs themselves.  Any sonically identifiable Aztec Camera sound has long since flown into the bush, leaving Frame merely one more talented singer/songwriter with a commitment to diversity - and little else.  There's nothing special about this music in either the sound or songwriting, and therefore has no other reason to exist beyond being a solid collection of mostly good to decent pop/rock songs.  One minute he's ominously introducing the album with a ballad that straddles the perilous line between prettily soft and snoozily New-Agey (title track); then he's delivering well-crafted surging power-pop ("The Crying Scene"); then he's channeling Combat Rock-era Clash ("Get Out of London"); then he's crooning blue-eyed torch music for the Holiday Inn; then he's dueting with the real Mick Jones of the Clash on the album's lowlight, the annoying faux-rap "Good Morning Britain" (ironically the album's biggest hit).  And that's just the first side.  On the flip, he's less convincing as a rocker ("How It Is") than as an Al Green acolyte ("The Gentle Kind").  The nearly seven minute "Notting Hill Blues," comes off like Dire Straits noodling off in the cocktrail lounge, alternately lovely and dead boring, but it does boast Frame's most soulful vocal on the LP.  The closer "Song for a Friend," which features my favorite side of Roddy - just him and guitar -  is pretty, soulful, tasteful, but insubstantial; if it's an attempt to close the album on as glorious a note as "Killermont Street," did on Love, it pales in comparison.  But it's nice, and it's short, which is a relief after the lengthy "Notting Hill Blues."  There, I've given a brief rundown of all 9 songs, and so there is no need for further explication, or reason for me to give this album another thought or listen now that I'm finished reviewing it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brinsley Schwarz - Despite It All

Despite It All (1970) **1/2

Better, if still not quite all there.  After the commercial and critical debacle of their over-hyped debut (bombing their U.S. concert debut before an audience of hungover rock journalists recovering their wits from a near plane crash), the Brinsleys retook stock and swiftly rushed out this superior followup by the end of the same year.  At a mere eight songs, they're still rushing out hastily recorded albums skimpy on time and material.  But the main news is that they've made a very conscious change in musical direction:  the country rock undertones only toyed with on the hippie debut have now taken over the entire band.  This is made immediately apparent on the opening track, which yes is indeed entitled "Country Girl," complete with fiddles and all, and stomps like Neil & Crazy Horse in hoedown mood.  Not that there aren't other influences.  The next pair of tracks parrot Van Morrison, specifically Moondance era Morrison (well, at least their ripoffs were contemporary, for better or worse).  The slow one, which is helpfully named "The Slow One," seems to borrow one of Van's melodies (title track of that Morrison LP, but don't quote me on that), and the livelier one, "Funk Angel," recycles bits of "Caravan".  I think it's fair to say that the band had not really found their individual voice yet.  "Love Song," isn't particularly country at all, being a ripoff of Sir Paul's "Silly Love Songs," six years before McCartney released that Wings tune (Nick Lowe isn't merely some sort of genius rip-off artist, he's a psychic rip-off artist!).  In the name of democracy, Bob Andrews gets to chip in his "Piece of Home," and predictably the lone non-Lowe composition sogs down for six desultory minutes.  The album concludes with the dusty Western epic, "Old Jarrow," that is impossible to take seriously:  Nick Lowe as a cowboy manfully riding against the menacing brush'n'sage wind, is not exactly convincing.  But it could be a parody of epic cowboy music:  after all, what kind of Western sage drawls out, "Why don't you financially back her?" as the main chorus refrain?  Knowing what we would later know of Mr. Lowe, that's more than likely the case.

P.S. The first two Brinsley Schwarz albums were reissued together on one CD, in case anyone's interested.  Which, after reading my reviews, I doubt any will be.

Brinsley Schwarz - s/t

Brinsley Schwarz (1970) **

The Brinsleys, or the Schwarzes if you want to call'em (sorry if that offends any of my Yiddish African-American readers) (actually the band was named after its lead guitarist, which doesn't make any sense, since he's not the creative leader and this is not exactly music to air guitar to) are remembered, if at all, for four reasons:

a) Nick Lowe's later solo career (bass, lead vocals)
b) Brinsley Schwarz (guitar) and Bob Andrews' (keyboards) later career with Graham Parker in the Rumour
c) Ian Gomm's later solo career (but he's not here yet)
d) Billy Rankin's (drummer) later career as a session musician roughly that order of importance, as you might've guessed.  However, anyone looking for embryonic pub-rock or New Wave, proto-Rumours or proto-Attractions, shall be sorely disappointed.  The cover should've clued you in:  this is more like post-Poco.  Bandwagon-jumping country rock that while reasonably crafted (this is Nick Lowe we're talking about) and unfailingly pleasant (this is country rock we're talking about) is also more than mildly derivative and bears the faint whiff of smarmy insincerity (this is Nick Lowe we're talking about).  From the very beginning, Lowe (who wrote'em all) possessed the natural knack for penning mildly catchy ditties in his sleep, and more than mildly catchy ones if he put in any elbow grease, but he's a lazy old sod.  The seven songs on the BS' debut (heh, I like that abbreviation best of all) are a melange of late '60s hippie rock cliches in vain quest for a distinct identity.  And believe me, some of the lyrics and presentation are laughably bound to the era beyond belief:  the extended bongo solo that concludes "Shining Brightly," (and let's not even get into the lyrics about hand-made urns and Grecian Apollos); the a cappella break in "Lady Constant," where for a few brief seconds they channel the sound and spirit of early Yes ("coloured serpent coiled around your wa-ai-aist!"); and so on.  Mostly, however, they come off as a slavish British derivative of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (except for "What Do You Suggest?" which rednecks like the Band) - exquisitely vocally harmonized tunes that are far too laid back for those who prefer their tunes non-snoozy.  This is hippie country rock as that genre's detractors would stereotype it - goofily hippie beyond belief, and dang it, where's the gosh-darn energy?  The occasional presence of heavy guitars livens things up a bit, but they're sideshows.  The ten minute concluding track, "Ballad of a Has Been Beauty Queen," sports a Vanilla Fudge-ish heavy intro that goes on for nearly two minutes, which has nothing to do with the melodic meat of the main section, and could easily have been detached with no harm done to remaining sections.  The music-biz sendup, "Rock and Roll Women," while it's no great shakes, does demonstrate the first hints of Lowe's trademark dry wit and deadpan cynicism.  Certainly nothing else here on this highly pleasant, not at all unlistenable (but quite skimpy - 7 songs!) album, bear any traces of the pints of pubs to come.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Adverts - Cast of Thousands

Cast of Thousands (1979) ****

That's right, 4 freakin' stars, and don't let nobody tell you different.  The Adverts' one and only followup to their debut was infamously trashed as a betrayal of punk promise when it was initially released, and for years it languished in supposedly deserved obscurity.  In the rock critics' history books, the Adverts remained a one album band - to hear it, you'd suspect this was Cut Out the Crap level bad.  The bad press is explainable, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't parochially narrow-minded and grossly unfair.  Ah, punks (or more specifically, punk-rock raised critics) - has there ever been a more blinker-eyed movement?  Always paranoia-mindedly on the lookout for sellouts?  Like all of the great first-wave UK punk bands, the Adverts swiftly outgrew punk once they'd learned how to play their instruments, and once you get over the shock that this is not in the least bit a punk album ("Male Assault," a holdover from the early days, excepted), what you get is a first-rate pop/rock album.  One can only imagine the shock of safety-pin mohawks in '79 when the needle dropped to the first (and title) track, and realized that someone had slipped the latest Boomtown Rats LP into the sleeve by mistake.  But no, it's the 'Verts, not the Rats.  Truthfully told, the production's faulty - too thin, out of focus, and over-polished, just like the cover artwork - but it's not as if the debut LP was a paragon of rock hi fidelity, either.  One definite advantage over the debut:  there's actual variety, with each song standing out from the others via shifting moods, tempos, angle of musical approach, etc.  With the expected backing off in raw punk excitement and intensity, so there's that tradeoff.  Anyway, like I said, for all their improvement the band still only reach Boomtown Rats pub-rock level of musicianship - musically, it's not setting the world on fire.  So once again it's TV Smith's songwriting that carries 95% of the load, and he's still writing'em with similar quality control, catchy & anthemic & instantly memorable.  And it's not as if he's backed off the intensity one notch - he still sings with feverous desperation, as if he either got these feelings off his chest or the world would explode (or never hear of TV Smith - same difference to him).  The difference is that last time around, he was penning punk anthems for a lost Blank Generation; this go, he's penning pop/rock tunes, and so the focus shifts from the political to the personal.  Not that there weren't plenty of both P's on the debut, and vice versa on the second LP - it's more of a subtle than drastic shift, but that lyrical shift is underlined more noticably because of the shift in musical direction.  Words reinforce music, music reinforces words - it's a symbiotic relationship.  "I Will Walk You Home," which concludes the album on a sinister, gloomy note, wouldn't have worked as anything but a waltz-dirge (musically unimaginable to fit on the debut) and would generational anthems be appropriate lyrically to fit such proto-goth creepiness?

However, neither critics nor the public agreed with this vault into musical maturity, and so the album flopped and the Adverts, never the most self-confident of youths (the raging insecurity clearly audible in TV Smith's voice was a crucial part of their charm), broke up soon after.  A pity.  Three decades later, we can reassess and rehabilitate.

Flamin' Groovies - The Rockfield Sessions

The Rockfield Sessions (1989) ***

Like a lot of great bands, the Groovies failed to make it in America, so they broke up (goodbye, Roy Loney), reconstituted the band with new members (hello, Chris Wilson), decamped overseas, and attempted a change in musical direction.  These 7 tracks, produced by simpatico retro-rocker Dave Edmunds in England in late '72, are the missing link between the greaser rock of the early Groovies and the power-pop jingle-janglers that the late '70s Groovies retooled themselves as.  4 covers and a scant 3 originals may not seem like much, until you hear what originals they may be:  "Shake Some Action,"  may indeed, without a trace of hyperbole from your humble reviewer, rank as the finest rocker ever performed or penned - at least it seems so while it's on, and that's what counts.  A vintage Byrds riff put across with the simmering intensity of vintage '66 Stones, sneering yet exasperated teen angst lyrical attitude - I'm sure that's all you need to make it alright.  In an alternate universe (my house) they overplay this as much as "Satisfaction" and Led Zeppelin IV.  "You Tore Me Down," - hipsters today may be most familiar from the Yo La Tengo cover; anyway, it's to shimmering power-pop what "Shake Some Action," was to pure classic rock - sheer perfection, revamping and rivalling Lennon at his '64/65 bitter-young-man-iest.  Both of those numbers wound up in nearly exact same form on the '76 Shake Some Action LP, which renders this EP somewhat less than essential for all but completists.  But wait, I haven't mentioned the third original yet, and amazingly, it's yet another classic - not merely a Groovies classic, but a great rock classic, simple and shut.  The slide-guitar bloozefest that is "Slow Death," wouldn't have fit in with the sound and image of late-period Groovies, but that's certainly the only reason it never wound up on a proper LP.  It's easy to hear why it's one of their most-covered tunes - it rocks the post-hippie modern world blues harder and tastier than all but the title track of the previous Teenage Head LP.  That leaves the four covers, only one of which can be called essential:   "Tallahassee Lassie," which likewise out-rocks anything off of Flamingo, sonically bridging the gap between "Can't You Hear Me Knockin', " Stones and "Surfin' Bird," Ramones.  Yeah, it rocks that hard, and yeah, I betcha didn't know such a gap existed.  Well, someone had to fill it.   The other three covers don't match that rockin' intensity, but they're good fun, and that never hurt nobody.  Only seven songs, two of which wound up on a later album, but they're all good songs, and there's more of'em here than on either Supersnazz or Flamingo (separately, not combined).

Groove on, man.  Or flame on?  I forget which.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Flamin' Groovies - Teenage Head

Teenage Head (1971) ***1/2

Every single review of the Groovies' third long-player mentions the Stones' Sticky Fingers and the urban legend (?) of how Mick & Keith claimed that the Groovies actually did the Stones better, so I'm getting that out of the way first.  Not that I blame critics:  this indeed sounds like exactly like the American twin, or at least spittin' cousin, to the Stones' classic LP.  And while it is inferior (what were the Glimmer Twins smokin'?), being far too short at barely half an hour and nine songs long, and with less consistently knockout material (the title track is really the only true classic for the ages), it's not that far off from what the Stones were doing in the late '60s/early '70s - which means it's near-classic, swamp'n'gin-soaked, skeevy sleaze-blues & rock of the greasiest and grittiest order.  Easily the finest of the original Groovies' three early albums, with Cyril Jordan grease-frying his guitar in a vat of insanely overabused slide licks, but it's his songwriting partner Roy Loney who steals the show.  It was easy to not pay much attention to the lead singer on the first album, and pay mild attention to him when he did his funny exaggerations on the second LP, but now Loney's grown up into a real presence that you can't ignore.  The Elvis sendup ("Evil Hearted Ada") excesses the great man's excess with its ridiculously overcooked reverb and hiccups, and he even does a credible job of conveying some of the coiled menace inherent in Robert Johnson's "32-20".  That latter influence is more important than the former:  growing into the blues as opposed to the previous album's rockabilly, the album as a whole also displays considerable more variety than the one-dimensional Flamingo.  There's a fine balance between slower numbers such as the Charlie Chaplin inspired (?) "City Lights," (another excellent vocal performance - Loney operates almost as a method actor on this album, slipping into different character voices on each tune), and harder-charging rockers such as the ferocious title track, which both embodies and sends up angsty, angry, lustful teenage rebellion.  The amped-up wall of blooze guitars chomp at the heels like gallopping greyhounds, but the granite-shattering harmonica (of all things) rocks even harder, especially on the wallopping break.  "Yesterday's Numbers," is the Sticky-est track, with a jangle-blues guitar riff that's a blatant nod to "Street Fighting Man," and while's it's not quite up to that level of primo Stones, it's still an excellent growler, with Loney's tone attempting (and succeeding at) both Jaggeresque seduction and Jaggeresque sneering with a sinister smirk.  Two other tracks stand out, one being a Randy Newman cover that's expectedly well-constructed and lyrically hilarious ("Have You Seen My Baby?" a clueless cuckold's lament), and the other, the closer "Whiskey Woman," for sounding ominously close in melody and atmosphere to Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," - two years before Dylan released his tune.  (Knowing what we now know about Dylan's tendency for 'borrowing' traditional folk to contemporary pop material, I doubt that was a coincidence.)  And there's not much else to say about the rest - like I said, only 9 tunes that barely make the half hour mark, mighty skimpy if you ask me.  The reissue adds over a half dozen bonus tracks of oldies covers:  not particularly interesting, as those were obviously Flamingo leftovers, but they're mostly mindless fun and do their part in extending the running time to twice its previous length. 

The Adverts - Crossing the Red Sea With The Adverts

Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts (1978)  ****

'Anyone can do it' was one of the founding myths of punk, and yet this band proved that such mythology was not totally invented out of thin cloth.  Self-conscious minimalism was not just an artistic strategy for the Adverts; it was a necessity.  Their first single (re-recorded for this album) was entitled "One Chord Wonders," which might actually possess little more than half a chord if my ears tell me right, and while they improved with practice by the time of this debut long-player, their abilities were still not even up to the level of the Ramones.  To make up for such deficits, the band play as if punk was the meaning of life (and for them, it probably was), streaming by as fast as they can physically muster for all but a couple of token slower ones (which predictably bog down).  Given such limitations, the wonder is that this album isn't merely listenable, it's actually good, and not only good, it rules.  What separates the Adverts from the hundreds of identically incompetent Pistols-inspired bands of the era (and the tens of thousands to come later) is T.V. Smith:  one man with a vision and  (more importantly) the songwriting chops, can make it work even if the hired help are the best you can get at minimum wage.

There's no point in running down a track by track review, since with a couple of exceptions, the band's amateurishness renders all the songs sounding the same.  The bad exception is "Wheels," a juvenile little, "ooo, wouldn't it wickedly suck if you were handicapped," gross-out, but it's not the much that the lyrics offend, but that the band slows the tempo to a doomy drag.  You see, half of what also makes this album work is the speed - if the songs were slowed down even a micro-fraction, you get the sense they would all fall apart.  The Adverts were naive enough to take punk seriously, with T.V. Smith delivering his would-be generational anthems like "Bored Teenagers," "New Church," and "No Time To Be 21," with the straightest of faces and most passionate of yearnings.  Not to mention the anti-New Wave screed "Safety in Numbers," that at once sneers at punk naivety and yet wishes against hope that punk really could change things.  And so the naive flower-power spirit of 1967 arose phoenix-like in 1977, at least among some naive and bored British teenagers (i.e., half the punk bands of the era).  The other half of the winning formula is that Smith constructs all of these songs around instantly memorable choruses:  play this album through only once and you'll already have at least half the songs burned into your skull, like it or not.  He doesn't expend much energy on such extraneous details such as bridges or solos; no, he just dashes off a few hasty verses in an impatient rush to the main chorus, making this is the quintessential punk album in terms of spirited style if not substance.  'Hasty' is the adjective to best sum up this album; everything about this album sounds impatiently rushed, as if they had to get this album out now, before the punk rock scene or the band themselves imploded.  This album and the Adverts themselves could only have come out during a specific time and place; released a few years later, and it would not have captured the zeitgeist, because that zeitgeist was long gone.  If that makes Crossing the Red Sea as much of a sociocultural artifact as an excellent punk album, then so be it - half of how we hear pop music comes down to social and musical context, after all.

Addendum:  depending upon which reissue you get, there are quite a few bonus tracks.  Some are just single versions of album tracks, but there are several non-album A/B-sides as well, such as "Quickstep," "We Who Wait," and "New Day Dawning," that are no different in style or quality from the LP proper.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - Love's a Prima Donna

Love's a Prima Donna (1976) **1/2

C-c-c-c-cocaine!  Well, I have no idea what Steve was strung out on, if anything, while recording this album, but this was the '70s and I think if you squint hard enough you can spot an inflamed nostril on the cover.  As if that embarrassing cover wasn't bad enough, the rest of the album lives up (down?) to its mixture of the tawdry and the tasteless.  It's as if Timeless Flight and Prima Donna, released within a short time span of each other, schizophrenically split Harley's musical personas:  one the overly sincere singer-songwriter, and the other the wildly experimental oddball.  And if you've got a definite preference for the latter over the former, then fine - reverse my ratings for your own personal pleasure.  I've always thought that the worst artistic crime was boredom, but I may have to rethink my aesthetics:  crass and tasteless sometimes loses out to bland tedium.  Anyway, this album finds Steve desperately reaching back into his bag of cheap tricks to harken back to the first two Cockney Rebel LPs' glory days of weird'n'flakey out-there pop:  but the rather faceless musicians here are no match for the original Cockneys, and the attempted oddball hooks are little too gaudy and obvious to be truly hooky.  Harley is clearly straining to be weird and experimental here, and you know what?  Genuinely eccentric people don't have to go overboard to prove that 'I'm not like everybody else' - natural non-conventionality just oozes out.  Generically average people are the ones who have to dress up in costumes to prove that they're 'different' - y'know, like this Lady Gaga dame I keep hearing out.  Mark E. Smith didn't have to wear anything more shocking than a beige sweater for it to be obvious that he was some sort of clinically insane, demented semi-genius.

Anyway, this album reeks of coke in a very specifically '70s rock star way, and you know exactly what I mean.  It's a "let's throw a bunch of halfbaked ideas against the wall that sound great when we're stoned and see if any of it sticks.  A lot of it doesn't?  Oh, what the hell, just leave it on the record, we're running late for another party," kind of album.  The first three songs rush by as a mini-Abbey Road suite, fragments that can't really stand on their own but sort of work stitched together.....I said sort of.  That said, that's probably my favorite stretch of the record, unless you count, "(Love) Compared With You," a nearly hookless Lennon-ish piano ballad that sounds like it accidentally wandered in from the previous album.  It probably did - it sounds like an inferior outtake from Timeless Flight - but for all that, it's still a relief from the ADD-addled flurry of the rest of the record.  The title track was an obvious bid for a hit single in the "Make Me Smile" vein, and while it's more than a few notches inferior, it's effective in its crude, classless way.  That hook is way too obvious and in your face for a man who once counted subtlety as one of the chief weapons in his arsenal.  The cover of "Here Comes the Sun," was an even more obvious shot at the charts, and sadly, a successful one:  the gracefully flowing George Harrison tune is drowned out by a tacky armada of dated synths.  There's some painfully obvious filler in the form of soundtrack muzak, and the preposterous 7-minuto epic, "Innocence and Guilt," which combines some cringe-inducing electronically-treated vocals with state-of-the-mid-'70s sound effects; it comes across as almost sublimely silly at points, but mostly is just silly.  And horribly dated.  And overall, Harley's in noticeably weak vocal form throughout - he strains so soulfully that you can sometimes hear his voice crack.  Anyway, he can still come up with lines like, "You give me loving like wanking in a dream," on the not-bad-at-all "(If This is Love) Give Me More".  But after all these years, I'd still like to know why the man overabuses hyphens.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Aztec Camera - Love

Love (1987) ***

In 1987, a young, handsome, vocally talented British neo-soul singer released what was to be his biggest-ever selling album, gracing the charts with a commercially potent blend of tasteful acoustic guitar based pop and suavely crooned state-of-the-'80s R&B.  But enough about George Michael.  Yes, this album is the definition of the word sellout, and if you're looking for Roddy Frame the acoustic troubadour, you'll find that old spirit present on only one track (not so coincidentally, far and away the best).  The various producers (hint:  you know it's an attempted sell-out when there's a different production team on nearly every other track) glossed Frame's ditties into almost generic '80s mainstream pop; the concerted attack on the charts failed to break AC in the U.S., but did land punches with four U.K. hits.  Thus, Frame was able to live the upwardly mobile part of his young, urban professional ambitions (isn't it funny how nobody ever uses the word yuppie anymore?  I think it's because in today's economy, anyone with a decent job is nothing to sneer at.)  So this isn't classic Aztec Camera, and about as "alternative" as Dave Matthews & the Hootie Blowmefish.  It's still a well-crafted and listenable album with a few exceptionally bright spots (as well as some stinking low spots).  Frame's pop instincts are not only intact but actually seem to serve this sort of commercial pop vein better than the singer-songwriterisms of the last LP.

Math:  one great song, one excellent song, two bad songs, and five fair to fairly-good songs.  And thus any grade higher or lower than three stars is completely out of the question.  There is a system to what I do.  Bad news first:  the soul duet, "One on One," which reeks of dance-floor cheese, and "Everybody Is a Number One," cloyingly Up With People, a generically universalist uplift anthem that wriggles even more generically musically speaking.  "Somewhere in My Heart," was the biggest hit, and deservedly so; it provides the genuine soulful uplift that "Everybody Is a Number One," so failed to do.  But it's the closing "Killermont Street," that is the album's lone masterpiece:  once again, Roddy proves that all he needs is an acoustic guitar and his angelic voice to knock you overboard with his naturally oozing talent.  The rest of the songs range from smoothly sung, soulful adult contemporary to.....well, they're mostly that, and while mostly fine, not particularly interesting or quirky enough for me to find interesting things to say about them.  But they're fine.  If you like that sort of thing.  Am I equivocating enough?  I do tend to do that when it comes to three star albums.

O, but "Killermont Street"!  Go listen to that one - it's a classic!  And "Somewhere in My Heart" ain't too bad, neither.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flamin' Groovies - Flamingo

Flamingo (1970) ***

Are you ready for some good rockin' tonite?  The opener, which yes indeed is entitled "Gonna Rock Tonite," tells you all you really need to know:  this is Regressive Rock with a capital R, a self-consciously gonzo-primitive throwback to the primordial psychobilly stew years before the Cramps were moaning about strychnine and human flies in CBGBs.  Yet once again the Groovies haven't tightened their songwriting chops as tightly as they've screwed in their grooves.  "Gonna Rock Tonite," boogies as mindlessly as its title, which certainly indicates a calculated self-consciousness to such regressive boogie - true boogie morons would never rock this stoopidly.  Bad news first:  there's a cliffdrop in terms of variety, as the Groovies concentrate on one facet of their sound - good rockin'! - with a couple of sidesteps into excessively sneering country send-ups (the faux-Jagger vocal in "Childhood's End" is literally painful in its smirking insincerity, managing to make the real Jagger of "Faraway Eyes," sound like George Jones in comparison.  And that was one of the most condescending of Stones country send-ups!) and a flaky, recorded-in-a-toilet-stall excursion into pop-psych, "She's Falling Apart".  OK, good news next:  the Groovies have finally discovered their trademark guitar tones - their raison d'être, if you pardon my French.  No, they don't rock as hard as the MC5 (catching a concert of them inspired this change in musical direction), but they do so a lot more colorfully.  Cyril Jordan's guitar snaps and bends with rubber-band crunch - yeah, I know, that's a poor and contradictory description, so I'm just going to fall back on the rock journo cliche re: dancing about architecture, because I'm lazy and not very good at describing things.  What do you take me for, a musicologist?  If I knew more about music I'd probably bore you to death, anyway.

Lyrics are more my speed - I was an English major, y'know. (ROCK CRITIC CLICHE ALERT!  90% of the rock critics that have huffed cough syrup in the shadow of Lester Bangs have been English majors!  Except for Bangs himself, I think.  I'm pretty sure that guy barely had a high school education.  Hell, just look at his stuff, he could barely write even when he was on drugs.)    It's the lyrics, along with the zippy guitar tones and hi-NRG, that make this record amount to more than just Sha Na Na with worse haircuts.  (No wonder these guys never became famous.  Just look at that cover!)  "Gonna Rock Tonite," aside (and it was meant to be mindless), the words to the tunes are fairly clever (all originals except for "Keep a Knockin' " which is actually kind of pointless).  Sure, Jerry Lee Lewis would have lusted after his "Second Cousin," but he'd never have been so explicit.  And "Comin' After Me," is a wryly humorous send-up worthy of Chuck Berry's pen, satirizing druggy paranoia with uproarious lyrics about getting pneumonia from holes in your shoe and all your friends telling you to give up the glue.  And then....uh, yeah, well like I said, the songwriting's still too damn thin.  And the rent's too damn high.  So what?  You hear me complainin'?  The sound's good, and if you want a whole album of mindless post-Yardbirds boogie raveups (with a couple of crappy country songs half-baked in for token variety), then you could do worse.  If you expect or ask for anything more, such as depth, originality, artistic ambition, etc., you're barking up the wrong pool hall.  The reissue adds some bonus tracks, but it's all the same - just six more slices of greaseball psychobilly.  Man, I think this album just gave me heartburn.

The Idle Race - s/t

 Idle Race (1969) ***1/2
Influences: the Beatles, Hans Christian Anderson.  This young Jeff Lynne's '60s cult band's LP is less idiosyncratic, more straightforward and mature than the debut.  There's a considerable less emphasis on carnival whimsey and more on simply delivering finely crafted, tuneful pop songs.  Once again, the production and band performances are too thin and weak to truly compete with their Brummie compadres the Move; and the sweet little songs are too slight to rank this in any other than the AAA leagues (sorry, Brits - that's a baseball metaphor).  Quibbling aside, it's once again a highly enjoyable delight that there's no excuse for not enjoying if you fancy the Beatles gone bubblegum or the Bee Gees gone psychedelic.  Guitarist Dave Pritchard chips in a total of two songs, and while neither are exceptional, they're a fine change of pace from an album otherwise entirely dominated by Lynne compositions.  Of those, there are precisely two bummers, both for the same reason:  they're cutesy novelty bubblegum crap.  I can't decide which is less tolerable, the one about the ventriloquist's puppet coming to life a la Pinocchio, or the saga of Big Chief Woolly Bosher.  I can't stand children's music in either practice or principle, so your mileage may vary if unlike me, you can tolerate kiddy tunes.  Otherwise, Lynne's melodicism advances somewhat, more assured than on the debut, with band laying back a bit in contrast to the first album's hyperactivity.  The string of mid-tempo, lushly melodic tunes that dominate most of the record once again work fine as proto-ELO, with "The Girl at the Window," standing out brightly and clearly - it's one of Lynne's finest ever tunes, and my pick for obvious highlight of the album.  The closing number stands out as well, since it's the sole psychedelic rocker on the set - "Hurry Up John," would be worthy of Nuggets if there weren't a pair of Idle Race singles on that compilation already.  One nagging question:  why is Lynne so specific about the time he's "Going Home"?  If there's any symbolic significance to July 13, it's never adequately explained.

After this, Lynne was drafted from the minor leagues to the majors by joining the Move.  The Idle Race released one more album in the early '70s under the leadership of Dave Pritchard.  Given Pritchard's track record of competent but unexceptional songwriting, I have no particularly high hopes for that record.  But if I can find a copy to stream or download, I'll give it a spin and might review it someday.  (You didn't think I'd actually spend time and money going out and buying it, did you?  What do you think this is, 1999?)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Please Please Me vs. Mr. Tambourine Man


Two debuts by two iconic, highly influential beyond highly influential, legendary '60s bands.  The different career paths are obvious in retrospect:  while the Beatles continued to improve by leaps and bounds from such charmingly brash and amateurish beginnings, the Byrds never really got any better than this.  Oh, the Byrds did arguably release a few better albums (and that's quite arguable - considering their debut their best is hardly an unreasonable opinion), but the artistic progression between Mr. Tambourine Man and Sweetheart of the Rodeo is not particularly drastic (in terms of sheer song quality - we all know the Byrds practically defined the term 'diversity' for a '60s rock band).  I do not need to underscore the gulf between the Fabs in 1963 and 1969, and so will elaborate no further.  But at the time, these were two fresh debuts by young, inexperienced, exciting new rock bands introducing startingly new sounds to the world.  Both, in their own ways, completely revolutionized popular music; and both relied a bit too heavily on outside covers, when their own chief songwriters were already quite capable of penning their own pop/rock standards.  The choice in covers also underscore key differences between the bands - the Beatles were rooted in black R&B; the Byrds steeped in the whitest of whitebread folk.  Curiously enough, both did share a token penchant for covering schmaltzy mainstream pop standards, as well, so here their influences overlap.

One non-trivial problem for this particular match-up is that there are 14 songs on the Beatles' debut, and only 12 on the Byrds' first LP.  Luckily, I've found a way around this stumbling block:  the Mr. Tambourine Man reissue adds several bonus tracks, most of which are merely alternate takes, but a pair of which are previously unissued, original outtakes.  Thus, with a little "cheating", we get down to the actual scoring.

1.  "I Saw Her Standing There" vs. "Mr. Tambourine Man" - 1,2,3, FAWH!  The Beatles certainly kick off their debut on an exciting note with a classic, horny'n'hungry '50s style rocker.  However, it doesn't amount to much more than that, and the Byrds' debut single is pure, soaring magic.  And incidentally invented folk-rock, jangle-pop, whatever you want to call the aural template for tens of thousands of alternative rock bands.  Byrds 1, Beatles 0.

2.   "Misery" vs. "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" - Well, the Byrds are certainly starting off strongly at the gate.  One of the most muscularly chiming singles of the entire decade.  Up against a Beatles tune with not much more to offer than a superbly catchy vocal melody + harmony, and all Beatles songs have that.  Byrds 2, Beatles nothing.

3.  "Anna (Go To Him)" vs. "Spanish Harlem Incident" - A rather weak and maudlin Arthur Alexander cover competing with a Bob Dylan cover that's far, far less magical than "Mr. Tambourine Man".  I'll take rambling if sprightly Dylan over a ploddingly tempoed croon.  Byrds 3, Beatles 0.

4.  "Chains" vs. "You Won't Have To Cry" - A weak George vocal set to a repetitive, generic soul tune: this is the textbook definition of filler.  An unexceptional but sparkling early Gene Clark tune easily wins.  Byrds 4, Beatles 0.

5.  "Boys" vs. "Here Without You" - Once again, an obvious slice of filler sung by one of the lesser side members (this time it's Ringo).  But it does feature some clean'n'tasty rockabilly licks from George.  The brooding Gene Clark tune, which seems oddly too intensely moody for lightweight teen melodrama, sets the template for Clark's subsequent depressive balladry.  Easily Byrds 5, Beatles still 0!  (!!!) (???)

6.  "Ask Me Why" vs. "The Bells of Rhymney" - I'm hardly a fan of either:  one is a treacle and a bore, the other is somber-faced and a bore.  Ultimately what mitigates the Pete Seeger tune is the cowbell-drenched rhythm work and the wave of ching-ching-chiming guitars:  the Byrds could coast on sheer sound even when their songs were dull.  The Lennon tune has a catchy vocal melody - so what.  Byrds 6, Beatles still zero.  Yes, I'm as surprised as you!  I would have expected this contest to come out a lot more evenly.

7.  "Please Please Me" vs. "All I Want To Do" - Both songs are sung by guy begging a girl for sex.  Dylan's 'I'm a nice guy' proposal is too transparently insincere (he's OK with just being friends - yeah, uh huh, sure).  Lennon's exasperated plea with his lover to reciprocate sounds both anxiously tense and joyous, making it possibly the greatest ode to oral sex ever penned.  Byrds 6, Beatles 1.  The Fabs score a punch - finally!

8.  "Love Me Do" vs. "I Knew I'd Want You" - Let's face it, the first Fabs single was rather amateurish and too thin on non-repetitive melody.  Like a lot of Clark ballads, it's too weirdly morbid and molasses slow considering the teen angst lyrical subject matter, but it's miles more advanced melodically and harmonically.  Byrds 7, Beatles 1.

9.  "P.S. I Love You" vs. "It's No Use" - The Byrds track starts off with an exciting, almost hard rock-ish guitar intro, but fails to catch fire after such a promising start.  Not a terribly effective attempt at a rocker, though it is an admirable change of pace from the mid-tempo, soaring jingle-jangle formula.  You see, that's why these album battles are a little deceptive - they don't take into account the album listening experience as a whole.  The Beatles so far have been losing track by track, but their debut flows better for two reasons:  the sound isn't nearly as monotonous, and despite the excess of plodding soul ballads, at least there's some dang energy.  That was the Byrds' Achilles heel - lack of energy.  They sounded old before their time.  Anyway, the McCartney tune is Paul at his embryonic cuddliest - charm!  Byrds 7, Beatles 2.

10.  "Baby It's You" vs. "Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe" - Classic Burt Bacharach is as classic as pure pop for all-times people gets.  Despite a young and callow Lennon oversinging the chorus at points, and undersinging some of the verses.  Classic Jackie DeShannon - is there such a thing?  Well, maybe, but this hardly counts as one of her best - I hope.  Despite a fine stomping shuffle in the chorus.  Byrds 7, Beatles 3.

11.  "Do You Want To Know a Secret?" vs. "Chimes of Freedom" - Despite another nasal Harrison vocal, this is a fluffily tickling early Beatles neo-classic.  Certainly too lightweight to count as one of their best, but it's tuneful, catchy, and charming, with a deceptively dark-tinged intro - what's not to like?  Bob Dylan is at his least interesting when he's at his most sincere and propagandistic.  And the Byrds don't even bother to come up with a memorable hook to make this surging thumper any more than a yawnfest.  Byrds 7, Beatles 4.

12. "A Taste of Honey" vs. "We'll Meet Again" - Two covers of pop oldies to please the grannies.  There is practically nothing to redeem this Paul-crooned slice of pure schmaltz, and it's easily the worst cut on the Beatles' debut.  The WWII era chestnut, revived for the Dr. Strangelove era, works surprisingly well  - out of left field, the Byrds' debut concludes with one of its strongest, most charming cuts.  Byrds 8, Beatles 4.

13.  "There's a Place" vs. "She Has a Way" - Almost a toss-up; both songs are highly undervalued, almost hidden gems in the respective bands' catalogues. However, it should be pointed out that the Beatles - amazingly - recorded most of their debut in one day-long marathon session.  And at this point it's clear that the band were growing tired.  The performance leaves something to be desired; it clops along too slowly and perfunctorily.  Just listen to the draggily straining vocal harmonies, the hoarseness in Lennon's voice, and the even more draggy rhythm section that just barely limps along.  It was nothing less than a crime that the Byrds never included this cut on their debut - it's a young, fresh-faced Gene Clark at his melodic pop best.  Byrds 9, Beatles 4.

14. "Twist and Shout" vs. "You and Me" - This is hardly fair.  The Isley Bros. cover, rushed in one agitated take as the final track of the session (saved for last because it was feared John would blow out his voice after straining for those screams - which he did, and that's why there was only one take) is a stone hot party rock classic.  Nuff said.  The Byrds track is just a throwaway instrumental.  Byrds 9, Beatles 5.

Wow.  Once again, I'm as surprised as you are - the Byrds shockingly trounce the Beatles.  I bet that's the first time in history that's ever happened (no disrespect to McGuinn & Co.).  But once again, I have to reiterate - the Beatles did get better.  Much better.  This is as close as prime Byrds as it gets.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mott the Hoople - The Hoople

The Hoople (1974) ***

....and right after they scale the artistic and commercial heights, it all begins to unravel.  Mick Ralphs departed prior to the sessions, leaving a gaping artistic hole that newly recruited guitarist Ariel Bender can't quite fill.  Actually, Bender's six-slinging abilities are not the problem - he's flashier than Ralphs' trademark gritty rumble; inferior but not drastically so.  It's the songwriting:  since Hunter's approach for penning rockers was to bounce ideas and riffs off of his guitarist, what does Ian do with his guitar-playing partner absent?  Hunter admits that he was forced to compose his songs on piano, which works fine on the ballads, but the more rockin' numbers - well, 'tis another story.   The pomp-rock piano-based rockers which take up a third of the record are overblown, overheated messes, and you can be sure that Queen were taking close and careful notes (that is not a compliment).  "The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll," with its ridiculous Quadrophenia horns, roars mighty dull compared to "All the Way From Memphis" - but at least it's mildly tolerable, unlike the barely mitigated disasters "Marionnette" and "Pearl'N'Roy".  Those three, and the record as a whole, come across as significantly more overproduced and thus stereotypically glitter than any previous Mott record, and thus naturally more dated and disposable.  There are precisely two crunchy guitar-based rockers, both sandwiched next to each other at the album mid-point.  "Crash Street Kids," rewrites the previous LP's "Violence," and once again presages the sort of Yob street punk the likes of Cock Sparrer would be peddling a few years down the line.  Overend Watts sneaks in a vocal spotlight, "Born Late '58," an ode to his car disguised as an ode to jailbait; an unextraordinary but promising songwriting debut.  Of the three ballads, "Through the Looking Glass," defines the term power-ballad in all the worst ways:  bombastic, oversung, overblown, and too short on an actual tune to justify its excess.  The very Lou Reed-ish "Alice," works better (o the irony - Hunter hated Reed's music).  It's about a NYC streetwalker, which leads to the question:  why the hell did Hunter pen so many lyrics about hookers?  He probably wrote more songs about prostitutes than any other major '70s rock songwriter.  The gentle and heartfelt "Trudi's Song," is a love note to his wife, who I'm assuming was not a prostitute.  The album ends with the verging on power-pop "Roll Away the Stone," which is actually a re-recording of a single they'd originally issued when Ralphs was in the band.  Unsurprisingly, it's far and away the best song on here:  pure, glorious Mott at their very best, and proof that if Ralphs had stuck around, they might likely have had another masterpiece in'em.  It's also an inferior take (Ariel Bender on guitar) better heard on the original Ralphs-played version.

The bonus tracks don't necessarily mitigate the sting of disappointment.  None of the B-sides can exactly be termed essential or even very good, while the Phil Spector tribute "Foxy, Foxy," was a baffling choice for a non-LP A-side (i.e., it blows).  "Saturday Gigs," the triumphant yet elegiac final Mott the Hoople single, bids the fans farewell as Hunter recounts the band's history and fades out on a repeated wave of "goodbye, goodbye, goodbye...." choruses.  The band had its day and knew it and decided to bow out gracefully.  Ironically, the ideal replacement for Mick Ralphs was sitting in on that very studio session:  Mick Ronson, lately estranged from David Bowie, had just replaced Bender in the band.  Ronson did stick around to tag-team with Hunter for Ian's solo career, which produced occasionally fine results but never quite up to Mott level.   The remainders of the band made the unfortunate decision to carry on, shortening the band name to just Mott, with Overend Watts in the driver's seat.  Any potential promise Watts showed with "Born Late '58," quickly fizzled out - the two mid-'70s albums released as Mott are complete wastes of vinyl, with virtually no traces of a once-great band to be found buried underneath the generic cock-rock bluster.  Perhaps I'll review them if a doddering Ian Hunter, now past 70, ever consents to a Mott the Hoople reunion tour.

.....oh f#@%, you don't tell me!....

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - Timeless Flight


Timeless Flight (1976) ***

Reviews are subjective by nature, and while I honestly enjoy this album a bit more (considerably more on a good day) than the three stars indicated above, that's simply because I like Steve Harley.  No, I don't mean that I know him personally - he could be an asshole in real life, for all I know or care.  He's got one of those rare voices that simply oozes warmth and charisma - a bit like Roger McGuinn does (did?), with a similarly friendly, slightly straining tenor.  The Cockney Rebels are present in name and perfunctory backup musicianship only:  this is the album where Harley apparently decided to make his gambit for serious singer-songwriter.  What that amounts to in practice is that we get an entire album's worth of mid-tempo, folky pop/rock songs stripped of any extraneous instrumentation that distracts from the words and the vocal delivery of those words - Harley's a man with a message, kids.  Exactly what that message is remains unclear, shrouded by metaphoric obscurity even at its most topical ("Red is a Mean, Mean Colour," character assassinates Bolshevik U.K. politicians with Cold War paranoia, but you'd never guess that unless you already knew to look for it - then it all falls into place).  Oh, "Understanding," is straightforward, alright -  in a rather gruesome way.  Harley had written love songs before, but never so bitelessly banal.  "Don't Go, Don't Cry," is the second album lowlight - mellow funk was never Harley's forte; it rocks so mildly it inspires little more than toe-tapping, never mind booty-shaking.   The rest of the album's six cuts are alright - just alright. nothing more; perhaps with the exception of the twilight loveliness of "All Men Are Hungry," the surefire cut-out for compilations.  Harley almost seems intent on sheer hooklessness, avoiding any of his trademark oddball hooks that made him interesting in the first place - perhaps he thought those too gimmicky and glam too juvenile, but now he's grownup and making mature music for serious consideration.  And if there's usually a recipe for a formerly exciting artist slipping into menopausal boredom, that's it.  The album initially comes off as drab and monochromatic as its cover:  classic Cockney Rebel swirled in kaleidoscope; solo Steve Harley steeps briskly in Earl Grey.  However, adjust yourself to the sad reality of a deeply ordinary, musically unadventurous singer-songwriter album and you've got quite a good one - that is, if you're predisposed to like Mr. Harley and his sense of songcraft already.  The album is too laidback by half - more Gordon Lightfoot than Bob Dylan, but hey I like Lightfoot, too, mellow easy-going melodics and all.  "Nothing is Sacred," essays the best of that Lightfoot/Dylan style, over five breathless (literally) minutes of verbiage with no room for any other than a torrent of words.  It's off-putting at first, but give it some time and it becomes cozy and comfortable.  Same as the rest of the album.