Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mott the Hoople - Mad Shadows

Mad Shadows (1970) **1/2

As dark and unappealing as the rorschach test cover (I see a ram's head being split open, but that's partly influenced by the title of the opening song), Mott's sophomore slump has since been disowned by the band themselves, with Ian Hunter practically cringing as he admits that, "you can hear the band start to try to play..."  In short, it's a mess, and as the sound of a band falling apart before your ears, it has attracted its own perverse following (see Big Star's 3rd, Sly Stone's There's a Riot..., etc.) - well, Julian Cope at least (dunno who else, but I'm sure there are at least a dozen other people on this planet who really enjoy this record).  The debut's Blonde on Blonde-isms are more muted as the band aims for a harsher, more metallic approach, though most of the songs are piano-based ballads.  If that sounds contradictory - well, they're dark, abrasive piano-based ballads, and rather aimless at that.  Hunter & the boys once again stew up an intriguing atmosphere but still don't know where to take those atmospherics; which is to say, all of the songs meander about purposelessly in search of a hook or catchy melody line for far too long.  And since the songs are all originals this time out, that only underscores how feeble Hunter & Ralphs' grasp of songwriting was at that point in their careers.

The good news is that the album begins and ends relatively strongly.  The Mick Ralphs sung, "Thunderbuck Ram," is an exciting, if overly anarchic and unfocused, post-Cream rocker that holds up as a 'dark metal' neo-classic, alternating moodily between subdued verses and jarringly screeching choruses (vocally, he's a dead ringer for Dave Davies on this track).  The album closer, "When My Mind's Gone," is even more of a half-formed mess than the rest of the album (and that's saying something), consisting of little more than Hunter crooning and spitting at the piano, with Verden Allen's organ fills swirling in the background.  Hunter's bitter lyrics ("There ain't nothing going right / There ain't even nothing going wrong that's right") were apparently ad-libbed on the spot, as was the tune itself, at the perverse insistence of producer Guy Stevens.  He really wanted to go for that off the cuff Dylanesque feel, y'know?  And just as perversely it works, in a "soul-baring free association from a collapsed wreck of a man" psychological way.  Very Plastic Ono Band.

Sandwiched between those two highlights are occasional flashes of inspiration buried amidst mediocrity.  There's one other sole rocker, "Walking With a Mountain," a tribute to Leslie West that some reviewers pinpoint as a highlight, but does offer some much-needed upbeat energy to this collection of downers, but the main meat of the melody is just rote Chuck Berry gone metallic, and they couldn't even bother to come up with a memorable riff to hang their rocks on.  And simply chanting the title over several times (and flatly) does not constitute as a hook.  The only other track worth making note of is "No Wheels To Ride," and that is solely for rock trivia quiz reasons:  Hunter fervently emotes, "Can't get enough, can't get enough, can't get enough of your love," during the climax, which is only of interest because Ralphs shamelessly nicked that very same chorus a half decade later for one of Bad Company's biggest hits.

Addendum:  I appended an extra half star to my original two-star rating in order to distinguish Mott's second platter from their third LP offering, which may or may not be actually any worse in objective quality, but sure is a heckuva lot blander and more boring.  In its defense, at least this unglorious hot mess is interesting.  Like the proverbial drunk urban cowboy riding a mechanical bull in a china shop.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mott the Hoople - s/t

Mott the Hoople (1969) ***

A repeatedly failed never-has-been in the music biz (Ian Hunter), ancient by the standards of  don't-trust-anybody-over-30 longhairs (he was born in the year Hitler attacked Poland), is reluctantly thrust as frontman onto a band of hard-rocking youngsters (all a decade or so younger) hailing from the backwoods of some quasi-obscure Welsh/English border town.  And so begins the unlikely saga of one of the most beloved and legendary of early '70s hard rock bands, not to mention strangest and against-odds influential.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves, because Mott's first few albums can be heavy slogging even for diehards - it's not coincidence that the band temporarily broke up after the commercial failure of their first four albums, because they failed to reach the charts for the most honorable and explicable of reasons:  they just weren't good enough.

Their debut owes a lot to the heavy hand of producer Guy Stevens, who not only foisted Hunter upon this band of Herefordshire rednecks (formerly known as Silence), but foisted the band's ridiculous new name upon them (from the title of a novel he'd read while in prison on drugs charges), and also heavy-handedly foisted his own personal musical vision upon them, as well.  The audacious idea was to fuse late '60s hard rock a la Zep/Cream with a reinterpretation of Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, complete with roller-rink organ and Hunter croaking out his dead-on Zimmermanisms.  Which, surprisingly, they nail down well enough half the time, and the other half they look like clueless as hell amateurs fumbling around half-assedly imitating their betters.

The album thus displays a sporadically interesting and sporadically irritating schizophrenia, alternating between Hunter's Dylanisms and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs' proto-Bad Company-isms.  The first track roars out with an excitingly Cream-y update of one of rock's most over-covered standards, "You Really Got Me," sans vocals by some odd quirk.  And both the unimaginativeness of the cover choice and the fact that it's an instrumental mark this opening track as filler-ish, even if it is energetically and crunchily performed filler.  Yet already the band immediately switch gears by the second track, Doug Sahm's "At the Crossroads," which is an epically dusty and thoroughly Texan triumph, and then repeat the same trick with Sonny Bono's "Laugh at Me," which is a bit too similar in mood, approach, atmosphere, and laid-back performance - and you know how sequels that hew too close to the first installment do tend to be at least a bit weaker.  Perhaps they shouldn't have sequenced those two songs one right after the other, and the fact that the first three songs are all covers is a mite distressing.  But they're all good so far, eh?

The fourth track, "Backsliding Fearlessly," confirms those suspicions of distress by being a gross and unmitigated disaster:  it's a shameless rewrite (not even that - it's simply the same chord sequence played backwards!) of "The Times They Are A'Changin' " with added, and unfortunate, gospel overtones in the chorus.  So far, three credited covers and one shamelessly uncredited cover - can this band even write any of their songs?  Take a deep breath - "Rock and Roll Queen," which practically invents a brand of quintessentially '70s sleazy/crunchy hard boogie that the ilks of Aerosmith would ride on the saddle to the bank, answers that query in the affirmative.  Too bad it's the sole great original on this record.  You can safely lift the needle from the vinyl after this point, because the next track is two minutes of instrumental noodling that links Track #5 with Track #7, all eleven failed minutes of "Half Moon Bay."  Actually, it's not half-bad, despite the ludicrously inflated running time - as the band leisurely lopes along, Hunter slaps on his shades and delves into pure pseudo-profound Dylan mode, croaking an apparently meaningless but equally apparently heartfelt and soulful monologue about searching every day for....well, something.  He never finds it and it takes him eleven full futile minutes and a piano solo to get back to square one nowhere.  The final track is two minutes of nothing more than anarchic noise (literally), and does not merit further discussion.

Whew!  That's a lot of words for an album that is, in the ultimate analysis, simply not that great.  Perhaps the band's long-windedness has infected me.  A positive grade of three stars may seem a bit generous, lukewarm though it may be - however, this album somehow manages to hold up better than the sum of its weaker parts.  I like it in spite of its glaring weaknesses - which sums up many a critic's view of Mott the Hoople's career in the proverbial nut & shell.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Prefab Sprout - Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) b/w Radio Love

And it doesn't sum it up to say I'm singing the blues.....

I'm screaming because I've found something to lose

Sometimes a fine band with a lengthy, accomplished career gets it right the first time at bat, and while the Sprout released quite a few worthy singles and albums throughout the next three decades (they're still around, but haven't released much new material in the 21st century), nothing quite matched this, their self-released 1982 debut single.  Paddy McAloon (his real name, believe it or not) reveals himself as a precociously melodic tunesmith of sensitive jangle-pop - the crisp, clean Postcard Records sound favoured by such contemporaries as Orange Juice and Aztec Camera as an antidote to the overly lush, plastic synth-pop dominating the charts during the early '80s.  McAloon himself would gravitate towards over-produced, lush '80s pop when the band began recording long players in earnest; however, the spare production values on this self-released single check and balance McAloon's naturally lush melodicism, so that this particular extended sigh/swoon of a tune trots crisply rather than sogs down in syrup.  Line up the first letters of each word in the A-side and you spell Limoges, the French city where McAloon's then-girlfriend was studying on her semester abroad; and without reading too much snooping biography into it, it's plainly obvious from the clues that the song's a valentine to that long-distance affair.  McAloon pines with unabashed melancholy for his estranged love, crooning softly on the verses and then upping his register for an anguished but tuneful yelp on the chorus.  He's plagued by insecurities, failing to stop himself from saying too much and then realizing he may have been better off not saying anything at all; trying to convince her and himself that tonight, let's at least pretend that this relationship is going to last.  He realizes that calling his sufferings the blues would be a cliche, but that's exactly what it is; he's in turmoil because he's finally found something worth losing.  That is to say, not having someone to love spares you the insecurity of ever having to lose that person.  Being single and unattached is such a smooth emotional ride that way - being alone is really the only way to achieve true independence and freedom.  Because as soon as you let someone into your life, only then can you experience true loneliness.  Janis Joplin had made a similar point in her big hit a decade earlier; McAloon makes roughly the same argument, but from the other side of the vantage point.  That's what makes falling in love such a risky proposition - you'll find yourself screaming because you've got something left to lose.

The B-side, "Radio Love," comes at loneliness from a different, more abstract angle.  The lyrics are much more enigmatic, a string of imagery with shifting narrative points of view, and gratuitous literary namedrops (Timon of Athens, Bathsheba).  The music is even more spare and underplayed, giving the track a haunting air of wide-open spaces.  It's an ode to the airwaves, as many a great song has been, but the mood conveyed is that of late nights or early mornings when the only sounds beyond your own heartbeats are those wafting from the tinny, crackling speakers of your wireless.  You're driving alone at night, the wind rustling past as you slowly cruise to nowhere in particular; you're hunched next to your bed, tuning in to shakily transmitted pirate stations while the rest of the family is asleep; you're lying under the stars on some deserted stretch of hill, with only your portable for company - that's the sort of scene this song sets, that gentle melancholy of non-oppressive, wistful loneliness.

Caveat emptor: Neither the A nor B side is available on any regular issue Prefab Sprout album (I suppose by the time they released their debut LP, Swoon, in 1984, they considered these songs too old and unfresh). "Lions..." can be found on at least one Prefab career compilation, but as for "Radio Love," alas, 'tis never been released on CD.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The The - Soul Mining

I'm just a symptom of the moral decay that's gnawing at the heart of the country

Soul Mining (1983) ***1/2

The genre of singer-songwriter synth-pop isn't all that unheard of, but it is rare enough render Matt Johnson's oeuvre uneasy to pigeonhole.  Classic early '80s synth-pop tended towards hi-energy, bite-size tight, danceable. instantly catchy pop tuneage.  This album (bar the melodic pop tendencies) meets none of those adjectives.  With the average song length hovering around the six minute mark, as you'd expect these tunes meander a bit too long, taking their own sweet loping time:  Jools Holland's cocktail jazz piano solo closing out "Uncertain Smile," is one thing; the Afrobeat chanting coda to "Giant," that extends the song to a perilous 9 1/2 minutes (feels like 9 1/2 weeks minus the sexiness of Rourke & Basinger), is another matter altogether.  The songs aren't, for the most part, immediately accessible either; but as often the case, the hooks reveal themselves over time, and instrumentation is maximalist enough that there are more than enough layers to peel back on each fresh listen (I never noticed the burbling bass line in "The Sinking Feeling," until just this minute while listening/typing this).  The song lengths did initially put me completely off this album, however, as the opening six-minute track is bleeding awful (and repeated listens have not made it any easier on my ears).  So I'll pretend this album actually begins with the second track, "This is the Day," a sunny slice of pop optimism that belies most of the rest of the album by being, firstly, immediately catchy and soaring enough to work as the obvious potential pop single of the record, and secondly, unforced in its positivism.  The rest of the album charts considerably darker currents (excepting "Uncertain Smile," and the closer, "Perfect," that was obviously put there to counterbalance the preceding darkness and not end proceedings on a bummer).  

"Death is not the answer / For your soul may burn in hell," - Johnson's lyrics are clearly the dominant attraction (there are other musicians guesting, but Matt is for all intents The The), unusual for synth-pop.  In fact, synth-pop is too limited a pigeonhole, musically speaking: while there are indeed synthesizers and drum machines on every track, Johnson is also constantly throwing an eclectic variety of instrumentation into the kettle for his maximalist gumbo - Cajun accordions, xylophone vibes, jazzy piano, kettle drums, etc.  Which paradoxically gives this album at one time a timeless and dated air - the synth-pop elements and thwacking drum sound ensure that no one will mistake this for anything other than early '80s dance-pop album.  The other major obstacle for most listeners is, as often is the case with many bands, the singer's voice:  it's rather affected in an unpleasant way (and no, Johnson's vox has definitely not grown on me over time, either).  His lyrical preoccupations have, however, and as the album title evokes, this is some deep mining of Matt Johnson's soul:  religious guilt and torment ("I'm afraid of God / I'm afraid of hell") giving added weight to the typical singer-songwriter concerns of failing relationships ("The Twilight Hour," presents a vividly twisted case of a man afraid to leave his girlfriend because he's given up all of his friends for her, and now she's his only hold on normal social relations) and sour snipings at a failing society ("The Sinking Feeling").  Upbeat as some of the music may be, Johnson's dour baritone and even more dour lyrical outlook easily pigeonhole this into the troubled troubadour vein.  A little more song to song consistency and less '80s might have made this a neo-classic of the genre.  Or as Johnson himself puts it in the brooding title track, "Something always goes wrong when things are going right."

On edit: Contrary to what my ears told me, apparently Johnson employed an actual, real live drummer on most of these tracks (Zeke Manyika of Orange Juice to be precise). The '80s production only makes them sound like drum machines!

Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers - L.A.M.F.

L.A.M.F. (1977) ***1/2

If you likes yer R'n'R raw, basic, and kickass, this whopper does indeed live up to its cover, featuring our sleazebag cadre of murder junkies ready for a switchblade rumble: '50s juvie delinquent rock amped up for the gritty Mean Streets of '70s NYC.  Led by the titular character (lately of the NY Dolls) on his leather-patented sludgy, slashing guitar (but you likely already wised up to that), sidekicks Walter Lure on extra guitar and also ex-Doll Jerry Nolan all by himself on drums, plus some dude on bass (replacing ex-Television/future Voidoid/ripped-shirt pinup Richard Hell, who was in the band five minutes before his ego clashed with Thunders').  If you enjoyed Thunders' vocal spotlight in the Dolls, "Chatterbox," you're in for a treat:  this is an album comprised almost totally of songs that sound exactly like it!  Indeedy, this is one of the most kickass rock'n'roll records ever slabbed to vinyl (having never owned nor heard this on an actual record player, I have no opinion on the legendarily poor mix that allegedly led to the band prematurely breaking up in disgust -- sounds fine to me on Youtube, as most 21st century listeners are gonna experience it).  Thunders' guitar tone is wonder of nurture, oozing chunky chonk chunks of pulverizing sleaze, offhand swagger, and trebly grit.  The rhythm section swings and pounds away with relentless propulsion - tight the band is, even if I can't distinguish where Thunders' guitar ends and Lure's begins (they seem to doubletime each other's riffs half the time, creating a twin-rhythm guitar pulverizer that makes the music that much denser and heavier - the punk answer to Thin Lizzy's twin harmonized leads?).

Problem is that, as Wilson & Alroy pointed out in their review of AC/DC's Back in Black, the most kickass rock'n'roll record doesn't necessarily equal the greatest rock'n'roll record.  The primal influence of '50s greaser rock - Eddie Cochran bop, Chuck Berryisms soaring by like streamlined Mustangs, early '60s pre-Beatles Motown pop stomp - is worn on these boys sleeves' (no junkie pun intended).  But as the Ramones demonstrated better (perhaps because they had soaring melodies in their arsenal in addition to kickassitude), there's a difference between simple and simplicity.  Constructing a song around little more than a repeated chorus of, "Baby I love you, I really do," ain't the brightest of moves unless you indeed are Dee Dee Ramone, and even then.  The paradox of the Heartbreakers is that they are revered as one of the founding legends of Class of '77 Punk, and yet this LP rarely shows up in any list of Great Year of '77 Punk Classics. Their songs almost never show up as totemic covers for latter-day punk bands - which speaks volumes about the classic endurability of their songs. And for one simple reason:  junkie scumbag Thunders apparently was rarely non-nodded out enough to bother composing anything more than readymade throwaways.  So while the band sounds as rough and exciting as your R'n'R nightmares, the songwriting's awfully thin.  Obviously the glass is tilted more towards the half-full side of white-hot performances than half-assed songwriting, judging by my positive grade:  this is hard rock, after all - you don't expect heartbreaking works of staggering genius (pardon pun and contemp lit reference), you just wanna stomp, air guitar, and dance.

There are exceptions, of course - the co-write that Thunders either stole from Dee Dee or the Ramones stole from the Heartbreakers (like either dead junkie is a trusted source), "Chinese Rocks," the bruising punk standard that's the clear A-side of this record.  The other tune to make the cut as a totemic standard for the rest of Thunders' career is likewise autobiographical sketch of self-inflicted self-pity, "Born to Lose".  And there's the sole musical exception to this album of soundalike hard rock rifferamas, the Stonesy (what else?!) ballad, "It's Not Enough."  It's excellent, and a few other tracks like "Pirate Love," and "All By Myself," also sound like they had a bit of actual  thought and care put into them.  Unlike several tracks, where the band apparently thought that coming up with a riff and chorus was, "hell, good enough for government work."

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Members - At the Chelsea Nightclub

At the Chelsea Nightclub (1979) ***

Whether you hail from the soulless suburbs, the stifling small towns, or the barren backwoods, kids from Bucksnort, TN (actual town) to Camberley, Surrey, all agree - nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.  But when I get free from living in my parents' basement in this nowheresville and hit bright lights, big city, things will be different.  I'll find a job and a flat of my own sweet own.  I'll go out at night and meet interesting people, and maybe even pick up nice girls - sophisticated babes, not like the hay-fed hicks at my old high school.  Pity life isn't that simple - sure, the Big Black Smoke has its undeniable attractions and for most bright and/or ambitious and/or creative and/or simply misfit young people, it's a wise and even necessary geographical move.  But it's not as if there aren't loads of snags and inevitable disappointments along the process, and this 'too late for pub rock' new wave artifact addresses those concerns with the right admixture of wry humor and bemused bitterness.

Musically, the Members proceed from a bedrock of '66 Stones/Kinks ("19th Nervous Breakdown" b/w Face to Face): sturdy, spidery Stonesy guitar lines supporting lyrically insightful/clever verses that routinely leap up to sturdily shouted pub-sing-along choruses, all in the dedication to biting, street-level social commentary.  Since this is 1979, to stay trendy there's a reggae/ska influence greasily sliding in and out of the traditionalist punky R&B.  This is most obvious on the bonus track, the "Offshore Banking Business," single that tackles an obvious economic injustice (the Cayman Islander, Panamanian, and Swiss readers of my blog may beg to disagree) - an unjust loophole for the filthy rich and corporations that politicians have never bothered to close, perhaps because....hey, politicians have to have a place to stash their ill-gotten loot, too.  (See the Kinks' "In a Foreign Land," the Stones' tax-exile status).  And the skanky (no, I'm talking about reggae, not loose women) "Stand Up and Spit," which might as well as be titled "Stand Up and Shit".

Which is to say that, frankly, it sucks, as does....err, roughly half this album.  Found on this disc are two of the cleverest, catchiest post-pub (hey, if we can have post-punk, we can have post-pub) singles of the late '70s: "Solitary Confinement," which sums in a little over three minutes the suburban naif in Skyscraperland dilemma essayed in my first paragraph; and "The Sound of the Suburbs," which says more about the genuine reality for most teenage kids in Britain at the time than any Clash, Jam, or Adverts tune.  There are several nearly as strong album tracks as well:  "Sally," (the prettiest and snootiest girl in high school heads off for a modeling career, only to meet tragic but poetic justice); the corrupt vice-cop saga, "Soho a Go Go,"; and the irresistable pub sing a long (literally) title track that closes the proceedings on a drunkenly festive note.  (Well, did on the original vinyl, but now we have to deal with the bonus tracks, which are mostly inessential save for the "Offshore Banking Business" single).  But even starting with the opening track, the album is padded out with a pointless instrumental surf number that the Members don't have the chops to make interesting; "Love in a Lift," presages a certain odious Aerosmith hit about sex in public transportation devices nearly a decade early; but the true low point is the radio call in show with "whacky" banter concerning a teen with no pubic hair.  The hits are definitely more than worth a listen; just keep the skip button handy for the misses.