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albums - january 2014


   
 

The Len Bright Combo – Wreckless Eric Presents The Len Bright Combo/Combo Time

Eric Goulden (aka Wreckless Eric, as he was back in the day) is the British institution memorialized in the punk anthem '(I'd Go The) Whole Wide World'. His hit single of 1977 is surely one of the most covered songs of all time, and crucially, number 47 in the famous 'lost list' of John Peel's Festive Fifty for that epic year. Goulden also took part in the 1978 'Live Stiffs' tour, featuring artists like Nick Lowe, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello who all recorded for the London label in the infancy of their careers.

Goulden fell out with Stiff and left to pursue a solo career, recording a series of albums under different monikers in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, he poached Russ Wilkins (bass) and Bruce Brand (drums) from Billie Childish's Thee Milkshakes to form The Len Bright Combo, an explosive mix of garage rock and DIY punk nostalgia which was part of the thriving 80s UK Medway scene. Although only active between 1985 and 1987, the 2 albums the band left behind have gained cult status and at the time signalled a revival in Goulden's career.

The Len Bright Combo Present The Len Bright Combo By The Len Bright Combo (none of them were called Len Bright, by the way!) was recorded on a portable rig in Upchurch Town Hall in 1985, and it's the raw energy of these crude recordings the leaps out of the speakers at you. Goulden's guitar is blazing on 'You're Gonna Screw My Head Off', noise levels escalating with every beat, while 'Sophie (The Dream Of Edmund Hirondelle Barnes)' builds to a similar visceral crescendo, curious organ and electronic sounds buried in amongst the raucous playing.

The Wilkins and Brand rhythm section really drive the songs, but it's the pop hooks in Goulden's melodies which make them bite. 'Someone Must've Nailed Us Together' is surely one of his best songs, although with its old-time twangy rock'n'roll guitar intro and Attractions organ sound, 'Shirt Without A Heart' runs it pretty close.

'Selina Through The Windshield' and 'The Golden Hour Of Harry Secombe' have a harder edge to them, perhaps a slight nod to Weller and The Jam, the former with some shattering Townshend-inspired open chords, the latter faster with the singer's bellicose punk snarls. Wilkins and Brand again provide the solid backdrop for Gulden's attack, it's all so simple, garage rock delivered with the effusive spirit of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets series.

But the band show off a mellower side on 'Lureland', the strumming sounds like Oasis's 'Wonderwall' as Goulden recollects seaside holidays in his childhood:
“We were picking up shells while the tide was out/in a landslide of limpids and chalk/the tide came in as the steamers sailed out/my sister said let's take a walk”.

The strange organ whirring and swirling harmonics as the vocals disappear in the mounting cacophony of noise are very redolent of Joe Meek's lo-fi style of recordings. 'Young Upwardly Mobile ... And Stupid' is also easier on the ear, more rock'n'roll than punk this time, like Chuck Berry's 'Route 66', with an obvious sting in Goulden's tail as he sneers at Yuppies.

The band spent a lot of time on the road, playing up and down Britain in the most obscure and remote places. Goulden kept a fanzine at the time which he mailed to anybody interested. Amazingly, the album cost just £86 to make and is estimated to have sold only 2000 copies (released on the band's own independent Empire Records). Even John Peel jumped on board to assist in those free-spirited times. The bubble burst though, as the band suffered a number of misfortunes. You can read all the various happenings on the amusing liner notes which Goulden has put together for these re-issues (there's certainly enough for an amusing Alan Ayckbourn farce! More of this kind of banter in his autobiography published in 1998 'A Dysfunctional Success - The Wreckless Eric Manual').

The upshot of all this was that the band was starting to fracture by 1986 and the overall sound on follow-up Combo Time suffers. Goulden's sad words in 'Comedy Time' twist and turn with tragic 'canned' laughter in the background, while 'Club 18-30' is a much less glamorous holiday snapshot than his earlier recollections. The album literally crashes to an end in the chaotic Fall-sounding 'Ticking In My Corner'. 'Cut Off My Head' threatens to ignite, but the band sound half-hearted, and on 'Phasers On Stun' Goulden's vocal recedes into a sonic abyss. These songs sound under-rehearsed by a band that don't want to rehearse together!

The hopeful signs don't get washed away entirely, you could easily cull a good ep's worth of stuff from Combo Time. On 'The House Burned Down', Goulden's wailing lurches hauntingly from verse to chorus, while instrumental 'The Awakenings of Edmund Hirondelle Barnes' is a twangy riposte to 'Sophie' on the band's debut. 'All Charm' is a nice little rock'n'roll number to bring up some kind of rearguard action.

Alas, the album's standalone ballad 'Swimming Against The Tide Of Reason' probably sums everything up, Goulden sounding like he's given up the fight. The band announced they were splitting up in 1987.

This double re-issue by Fire is an interesting glimpse into the world of Eric Goulden in the mid-80s. Curiously enough, the band briefly re-united to support the Pretty Things in 1991, but with respective careers back on track, it wasn't until 6th December last year, on Fire's urging, that Wilkins, Brand and Goulden agreed to play a special gig at London's Lexington Pub. Among other things, The Len Bright Combo marked an important watershed for Goulden, the point at which he embraced sobriety after a long battle with alcoholism. With a newfound career and his marriage to US singer-songwriter Amy Rigby (who he now records with), the former punk hellraiser leads a more settled life in Upstate New York, now even with his own radio show.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Oysterband – Diamonds on the Water

Often a genre is declared dead and often it elicits a sigh of great relief, this is because innovation opens a door that allows inferior versions to see the light of day. It is rarely the genre that dies, more often it is the poor facsimiles consuming all their own oxygen and expiring. Everyone knows that poets have wings to their brain and can therefore soar on a reign less Pegasus. Up where the air is clear.

Folk isn't dead, Rock isn't dead, Classical isn't dead and the Blues isn't dead. Eventually the derivative eats itself and everything else gets to soar a little easier. There will always be bad music, but every sign points to the fact that there will always be good music. There will always be subjectivity too, so it isn't necessarily a requirement that the good music will convince someone of a genre and it doesn't even need to convince everyone of anything. What we should remember is that simple songs are incredibly hard to make and simple songs that benefit from great talent, rather than become obfuscated by it, are often a joy. I came to the conclusion long ago that a review can only ever try to describe why one likes or dislikes something and if you do it well enough you will tell those that may have similar thoughts one thing and those that do not another.

Diamonds on the Water is an argument for the longevity of genre music, the value of choosing the type of music you love to be the type of music you play. It's an excellent lesson in the pleasure of simple songs and the wonder the world has for those who can draw out feelings, sound and words in such a way that people remember or understand better. Here's the thing: You don't necessarily have to share any of these emotions or think this way about this album. It made me think like this though and I enjoyed every moment. I want you to know that.

Christopher Carney

 
 

Danielson – Reissues

Songwriter Daniel Smith and his band Danielson must have been a challenge to America's Christian Right: indie pop with a gospel message set on a cosmic musical trajectory somewhere between Captain Beefheart and The Partridge Family (and I don't mean that in a bad way!). The New Jersey art school student finished off his thesis at Rutgers University with a collection of devotional songs to represent his visual work. By that time, the whole family were involved, and what Rutgers deemed 'low art' became the 24 songs on Danielson Famile's 1994 debut A Prayer For Every Hour. The songwriter has subsequently explored 3 main directions in his work, the so-called 'Tri-Danielson': the moniker Brother Danielson for his solo material, Danielson Famile (or Danielson Family) with his brothers and sisters, and most recently simply Danielson, rock music played with a group of musician friends. Smith's enthusiastically jumpy falsetto is the glue that binds all these projects together, and in its 20th anniversary year, Fire Records have re-issued his charming debut along with 2 other pivotal recordings which demonstrate an unusual arc to the songwriter's work: 2001's critically-acclaimed Fetch The Compass Kids when Danielson Famile upped their game moving from Seattle-based Christian label Tooth & Nail to Indiana's Secretly Canadian, and finally Smith's opus magnum, Danielson's Ships, released in 2006. The latter precipitated a 5-year hiatus before his most recent album, 2011's New Jersey-inspired 'Best Of Gloucester County' (actually a collection of new songs with the latest incarnation of Danielson) on his own Sounds Familyre label.

The home recordings for A Prayer For Every Hour feature guitars, bells, pipes, drums and a whole range of 'effects'. Various 'Famile' members chip in, and also include long-time friend and collaborator Sufjan Stevens. Opener 'Nice Of Me' is typical of the album's off-centre joyfulness as Smith pipes up “I'm gonna give you something that's already yours, it's already yours, you already own it. Ain't that nice of me?”. The song is typical of what follows, the fits and starts of a band struggling to keep up with all the ideas, Smith finally emerging with the pocket-size epiphany that “Bad news, that's yesterday's news!” This 24-hour prayer cycle of indie music had many people scratching their heads at the time. Smith promises to do 10,000 push-ups as a penance to God on 'Feeling Tank' and 'Like A Vacuum' is a further exploration of spirituality until he breaks down in fits of laughter at the end! The value of homelife is celebrated on 'Tell Me Oh You' and he turns to good works on 'Do A Good Turn Daily'. The Christian themes continue throughout the album: temptation ('Be Your Wildman'), devotion ('Pray 1995 Times A Day') and the need for family ('Naïve Child'), but the music has more in common with indie bands like Sonic Youth or The Pixies than anything traditionally associated with gospel music. Smith posted of cassettes of his recordings to various labels, his persistence finally earning him a deal with Tooth & Nail who sold copies of the album through their Christian bookstores. Local radio WFMU and John Peel hopped on board, and the songwriter teamed up with friend Chris Palladino to present his songs live.

Danielson Famile's sound evolved over a series of albums, and 2001's Fetch The Compass Kids for new label Secretly Canadian marks this growth, producer Steve Albini capturing a bigger and brighter sound with an atmosphere of carnival. The Christian family band are still on message, with themes of peace, forgiveness and family life, but the Christian symbolism is largely dispensed with to give the band a broader appeal. The musical quirks are enriched with a developing palette, including banjos, xylophones, even a toy piano at one stage, 'craft-songs' set to Smith's falsetto harmonies and marching band singalongs. On hook-filled 'Singers Go First' the singer doesn't exactly spare us the high register, but elsewhere he's finding other ways to express himself, like on the equally good 'Can We Camp At Your Feet' where the gentleness of his voice allows the piano ballad to grow into something majestic. You can hear the Smith-Stevens working relationship in songs like 'Wheel Made Man' with its sophisticated jazz time signature and the spiralling trumpet sound on 'Fathom The Nine Fruits Pie'. Along with the album's critical praise, Danielson Famile's eccentric live shows drew a lot of attention with their nurse uniforms conveying a message of the spiritual healing through music.
Working with an ever-widening circle of musicians under the moniker Danielson, 2006's Ships was Smith's most ambitious project yet. The album combined many styles of music with themes of friendship through nautical camaraderie. The band leader and driving force allows ideas to play out, creating a broad-based sound which has been compared with bands as far apart as The Smiths and Led Zeppelin. Explosive opener 'Ship The Majestic Suffix' delivers the sort of sucker punch of early Pavement albums, while 'When It Comes To You' is a beautiful romantic ballad with Smith's voice relatively calm and philosophical. There are nods to the older wackier Famile days, like 'Did I Step On Your Trumpet' with its nursery rhyme singalongs and oddly-titled 'Bloodbook On The Half Shell', but the rare combination of melody and dissonance make this album a sophisticated coming-of-age work. Sea shanty 'Cast It At The Setting Sail' and freakfolk 'My Lion Sleeps Tonight' sound like folk supergroup Bellowhead, while odd devotional gospel song 'Time That Bald Sexton' captures the explosive noise pop and colour of early Boo Radleys. Closer 'Five Stars And Two Thumbs Up' rounds off the album's maturity with a Beatlesy uptempo clarion call hinting at songs from The White Album. But can he top that?

Danielson's recent return with The Best Of Gloucester hints that he can, the bright lights and shiny new compositions of the re-grouping an appropriate paean to New Jersey bands. This busy songwriter continues to work on his family-based label Familyre Sounds, with a number of upcoming releases scheduled for this year along, no doubt, with more spontaneous family gatherings … fetch the compass, kids!

Matthew Haddrill

 

Wooden Shjips – Back To Land

The cover like Led Zeppelin III, a collage of surreal images floating against a white background, suggests psychedelic rockers Wooden Shjips are branching out on their latest album Back To Land. The recent move to Portland, Oregon, may have precipitated a richer fuzzed-out sound, but each release since the band's eponymous debut in 2007 has seen successive refinements. Gone now are the combo's wilfully obscure dusted-off versions of minimalist psychedelia and meandering freeform Krautrock jams. In their stead, de facto leader Ripley Johnson has set the controls for the heart of his side-project Moon Duo, with their signature bass-heavy riffing and immersive production very much in evidence on Wooden Shjips previous outing West in 2011. Back To Land continues this trend, grooving out and shifting the musical terrain to the rock overground.

Openers 'Back To Land' and 'Ruins' set the tone, nice blasts of desert rock set to pulsating hip-swinging rhythms. With bass and drum locked together encircled with wah-wah guitar and a revolving psychedelic organ, resistance would seem futile! Ripley's guitar is brighter and melodic, although there are bouts of nice elongated distortion, like on 'Ruins', a beast of a song which rocks unrelentingly. 'Other Stars' is out of the same box, powering up like Stereolab's classic 'French Disco'. Influences rise from the etha in this heavy trance-like music, ZZ Top and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club springing to mind, a heady of mix of stuff.

That's not to say Back To Land isn't nuanced, but it would be stretching a point: put the record on, lie back, enjoy the ride! 'Ghouls' has teen-horror organ and garage-rock trace elements, finally graced with some nice fuzzy guitar shredding. 'In The Roses' also takes the high road, speeded-up drums driving it along, Ripley's ghostlike mumblings like Alan Vega of Suicide while his guitar pokes holes through the dense swampy sound. 'Servants' sounds more late night and dreamlike, the psychedelic 'twists' very much in keeping with Moon Duo, and 'Everybody Knows' comes as close as you'll get to a Wooden Shjips ballad, a winding campfire trail with howls at the moon and a serenading lead guitar to close the album, the ghost of Woody Guthrie surely lurking nearby.

But pride of place should surely go to 'These Shadows', another dreamy piece evoking the aching blues of Crazy Horse and the Americana of Mazzy Star. It's these softer edges, with acoustic guitars and a little more space in the overall sonics which give the album a neat counter-point to all the bass-drum lockdown. It may not exactly be Led Zeppelin III, but Wooden Shjips' Back To Land is the band's most rounded and accessible album to date. A lot of credit for the sound should go to Portland producer Kendra Lynn and Larry Crane at the mixing desk at Jackpot Studios. Grooved-out psych-hypno-minimalism never felt so good!

So there are some promising moments, but Peak Twins' first official solo album lacks depth and breadth. To get a fuller idea of what the band are about, you'd need to hear the split-LP they released with fellow Aussie slackers Scott & Charlene's Wedding last year, which includes a version of the Sonny Bono classic 'Needles & Pins', psychedelic 'Only Sun', and the more ambient and experimental-sounding 'Orange Tree'. Both albums are released by Brisbane indie label Bedroom Suck and distributed by Fire Records. Put them altogether and you have a much more rounded selection of songs showcasing the band's talents. In fact, listening to both slim editions suggests Peak Twins may have been a drunken idea that snowballed into something more promising: be careful what you wish for!

Matthew Haddrill

 

The Broken Family Band – It’s All Over (The Best of The Broken Family Band) (The state51 Conspiracy)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate press release (well done www.inhousepress.com ) - it’s most tempting just to paraphrase the whole thing. But that probably wouldn’t do adequate justice to what has been one of my favourite bands of the past few years so I’ll stumble on with my no doubt far less eloquent version of events.

Ok – let’s get the obvious comparative alt-folk references out of the way early doors. The Broken Family Band make Mumford and Sons sound like the noisy, eager to please Victorian chimney sweep lookalikes that they probably are. In a bizarre combination, although ‘It’s All Over’ is full of tracks which I definitely love, I always got the (what turns out to be correct) impression that The Broken Family Band weren’t really in it for any reason than having a bit of fun for themselves. Surely that’s a far more honest outlook to start with and this honesty shone through in their records and gigs in a way you can’t manufacture. Having had the privilege of promoting one of their shows in Leeds a few years back, I saw first hand a level of warmth and appreciation from the audience that I don’t think I’ve ever seen matched since.

The songs on this records largely include themselves – the big hits from the live shows, the slow builders, the pretty ballads, the laments and the brazen hussies are all represented. Personal favourites include the beautiful simplicity of the title track and brushed drums and doleful lament of the vocals on ‘A Place You Deserve’. Clearly Steven Adams vocal style gives the band an inbuilt flexibility from quiet to raucous and he creates a deep pathos without seeming to need to try. His lyrics also perfectly epitomise the band – part serious, part playful but always clever without being smartarses. And Adams’ cunning ruse of twisting a line to re-appear in a bastardised version later in the same song appears more than once (for example where the line ‘duck each other under’ is swapped for ‘fuck each other over, just for fun’ in ‘Happy Days are Here Again’).

There will always be favourites which have gone missing in action when compiling a best of album and here I would have included the raucous ‘I’m Thirsty’, the achingly pretty yet sad ‘Behind the Church’ and the lyrically inspired ‘The Last Song’ ( I don’t think there is another single song in existence which sends a shiver down my spine every time like this one). But hey, I won’t quibble as it’s bloody lovely as it is – just get listening to it because of the fact that, as the band themselves say, they were very, very good.

SB

 

Josephine Foster – I'm A Dreamer

Josephine Foster pulls together apparently loose strands in her dreamy take on old-time music: albums dedicated to poets, re-workings of children's songs, distant 'voices' and ghostlike themes married with instruments to explore pan-American rhythms and culture. The questing Coloradan even sojourned recently to record a pair of albums in Spain (in Spanish!) with her husband the musician Victor Herrero. She followed up 2010's Anda Jaleo, a reworking of Frederico Garcia Lorca's 'Las Canciones Populares' banned under the Franco Dictatorship, with Perlas in 2012, a personal collection of songs drawing from the traditional music of northern Spain. Returning to more familiar ground in Colorado, last year also saw the release of solo album Blood Rushing, a whole host of musicians on hand to respond to the songwriter's mercurial talents, including fiddle player Heather Trost (Hawk And The Hacksaw) and Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) playing Indian flute. However, it's Foster's unusual vocal style which binds everything together, a rare mezo-soprano defiantly shaping the timbres of her voice to fit each song, whether it's a gospel number, some old-time blues, gentle meandering folk or more contemporary psychedelia.

Foster ghosts her way through post-war American country and blues on her latest album I'm A Dreamer. Recorded in Nashville, with Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes) at the controls, it's a smoother collection of songs than its predecessor, although hardly what you'd expect from the home of country music. Shaped by another impressive entourage of players, both friends and session hands, an album clearly marked for the past has that peculiarly contemporary feel about it, a rare trick Foster's able to pull off.

Songs range from the swinging country of opener 'Sugarpie I'm Not The Same' or 'Pretty Please', both with their clanking acoustic guitars and brushed drums, and the 'colourful' honky-tonk piano flourishes of Micah Hulscher (Alabama Shakes), through to mournful ballads like 'No One's Calling Your Name', Chris Scruggs' pedal steel plucking tears out of the sky, or the Billy Holiday-esque title track graced with sad harmonica like The Pogues 'Dirty Old Town'.

The devil's in the detail, of course. 'Magenta's acoustic guitar and vocal at the beginning are eventually joined by cello, brushed drums and piano along with the barely audible razorlike guitars, a sort of bled-through mix which sounds like Wilco at their bleakest. 'My Wandering Heart' starts off conventionally enough, the easy saloon bar piano and slapped bass played in a jazz signature with the soft brushed drums again, but somehow Foster's warbling bends everything out of shape, vocals held back subtly so they seem to ooze out into the song. The musician's are soon joined by Victor Herrero's garage-rock guitar, not a million miles from Mark Ribot's playing on some of Tom Waits classic early albums, and there's a lovely change of pace in the middle of the song to lodge itself in the psyche.

'This Is Where The Dreams Head, Maude' is more 30s speakeasy jazz, basically piano-driven (Hulscher excels throughout the album), as is 'Blue Roses' the Rudyard Kipling poem set to music, and her cover of Vernon Duke's 'Cabin In The Sky', from the 1940 musical of the same name, which closes the album.

Ultimately, the sweetness of this songwriter's musical vision is shot-through with the bleeding-hearted Americana of singers like Karen Dalton or Kath Bloom, and the lonesome blues of Hank Williams. There are many imponderables in such a remarkable collection, the one certainty on I'm A Dreamer is Josephine Foster's ingenious artisty.

Matthew Haddrill

 

oOoOO – Without Your Love

'Witchhaus' (or Haunted House) must have been some kind of private joke, a sort of hip-hop from the grave, but groups like Salem changed all that with their 2010 release King Night. The Michigan-based band pioneered the drag sound, taking chillwave and house music in an exciting new direction. Nobody said it would be easy, this dark concoction of drum samples, ghoulish vocals and nuclear blasts of synth aimed somewhere into the abyss, but the new genre has spawned a coven-like scattering of very listenable electronic artists. Loners with laptops, blurring the lines between DJ and artist, they include more high-profile artists like Burial and Fever Ray, but North American electronic label Tri Angle has grabbed most of the spotlight recently. Balam Acab's ghostlike R&B tropes on Wander-Wonder and The Haxan Cloak's bleak and cavernous Excavations released earlier this year stoked the fires, and now Chris Dexter trading under the name oOoOO throws his hat into the witchhaus ring. After several promising eps, remixes and collaborations, the electronic artist from San Francisco releases his long-awaited debut Without Your Love, also on Tri Angle, but does it really justify all the hype?

It's been a while coming, with Dexter touring the sound extensively through clubs and major electronic events. He's generated a real buzz with his textured dark moody soundscapes of chilled atmospherics and unconventional vocal samples in this slowed-down variation of the modern hip-hop idiom. He also occasionally steps out of the loner persona and taps into the pop end of the oeuvre with guest singers like Laura Clock (the duo combine as the house-driven synthpop duo Butterclock). It's a juxtaposition very evident on his debut album, with probably no better example than the opening segue 'Sirens-Stay Here'. The former wafts in ghostlike with great ambient brushstrokes and glitch sounds scratching beneath the surface, then breaks into gothic chant before it seques neatly into the latter, crunching rhythms and a shadow pop exterior. Dexter shares the vocals with Clock and they play out with this hazy disco tune.

But drag music is an exercise in the gentle art of disappearing, as oOoOO's identity becomes more and more submerged in all the layers of effects. Although 'On It' sounds like 80s synthpop, there's something rather manufactured and non-descript about it. 'Crossed Wires' is raw and experimental, with harder electronic sounds and backward messages riding with its oddly-disorienting echoey sounds. The seance-like effect is unsettling, a bit like the weirder end of Tara Burke and Fursaxa's witchie folk. 'Mouchette' blasts away with a slow intense bass and unusual out of focus female chanting set to its arching big beat, while 'The South' rests on a big technoey 808-State keyboard and again a neatly-sampled soul diva. oOoOO is a master of sound effects, but these offer little in the way of a song.

So after the impressive start, I'm struggling to find a core of satisfying songs. 'Misunderstood' is very dense on the various glitched sounds, but I wonder if Burial wouldn't do it better by making more of a song of it. There's no doubt that on '5.51am', another late night soundtrack, the ghost of Massive Attack's Mezzanine lives on, but again oOoOO might have done better to follow the Bristol band's example of crafting pop tunes out of these impressive moods.

Without Your Love is better when he sides with melody over experimentation. Clock's vocals on the title track, for example, have a lovely melancholic hook in the chorus, reminiscent of bands like Hooverphonic and Telepopmusik from the last decade. Backed with Dexter's spiralling synth sounds, the song achieves some kind of spectre-like effect, and possibly nails the genre! '3.51am' floats around like the title suggests, and 'Across A Sea' is the album's drawn-out swansong, beats and heavily treated vocals reminding me of the much missed Telefon Tel Aviv.

Is the ep the natural resting place for experimental artists like oOoOO? Stepping up to the plate for a full-length album requires something a bit more coherent. At its best, Christ Dexter's debut is outstanding, but Without Our Love sends mixed messages with an apparently unresolved pop/drag split. The memorable highlights will be 'lifted' from iTunes like a typical ep, but unfortunately Without Our Love drags over it's 40 minutes.

Matthew Haddrill

 

Zachary Cale – Blue Rider

There's always a lot going on with Zachary Cale's guitar work: a neat finger-picking technique which incorporates many styles of playing and the open tunings of guitarists like John Fahey and Bert Jansch, which add to the atmospherics of the sound. Cale does seem as happy rocking out like Neil Young or Tom Petty as being a modern troubadour cast in the mold of Dylan or Cohen, but it was the quieter end of his oeuvre he showed off on the series of dates he performed in and around Europe in 2012.

So it makes perfect sense that his latest album Blue Rider takes this more stripped-back approach, after the full-on band of his most produced work to date, 'Noise Of Welcome' in 2011. The 35 or so minutes here is just Cale and his guitar: 8 beautifully-crafted new songs showcasing his energy for folk balladry and interpreting American primitivism, but at heart leaning towards the blues. And with the odd keyboard fill and background vocal, producer Matt Boynton's (Kurt Vile, MGMT, Bat for Lashes) 'less is more' approach leaves the overall sound as uncluttered and as cosmically lovely as possible.

It seems strange to hear a song like opener 'Unfeeling', kicking around Cale's repertoire for a few years, still sounding as fresh as it ever did. The folksy blues number evokes the spirit of the lone rider which Cale is so adept at: "Here it comes again, that cold unfeeling gloom/You best beware doll, don't let it get it's teeth in you/You know how it screws up your face, you know we can't have it that way/Shadows, block out the sun, you can't feel a thing when you bite on your tongue". Like many of the others on Blue Rider, it was written while touring in the last few years. His profile has remained stubbornly under the radar, despite much acclaim, but his latest album should change all that. 'Dollar Day' picks up the tempo with some country twang and old-time music set to a beautiful background chorus, the work song evokes the time of the cotton pickers out in the plantations.

'Hold Fast' is certainly one of the album's standouts, Cale's warm and intimate vocal matched with tender melodic guitar phrasing and the lightest of keyboard touches. A sort of riding song raising a canter from a gentle trot: “Hold fast to the ray that slips past the falling rain/Keep your dream beneath your hat, and the wind on your back". The phrasing is quite complex, combining the Brooklyn-via-Louisiana songwriter's love of the Piedmont finger-picking technique (the pre-war blues of Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie McTell) with 2-step country twang (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard). Another of these, 'Wayward Son', is brisk with the rhythmic slapping of his guitar, but he still adorns the song with a characteristic poetic turn of phrase ("On you run without a moment's rest, while your heart pounds against your chest/and in the twilight you awake to the whispering of the waves, washed up like a castaway").

'Dear Shadow' is more a conventional sounding-off, its humming riff unmistakably like U2's 'All I Want Is You', but Cale has it all set to primitive music and the blues, like his recent Robert Johnson cover 'Love In Vain'. 'Blood Rushes On' is helped along with atmospheric pedal steel, something like Neil Young's underrated 1978 Comes A Time album, a beautiful ballad with touching lyrics.

'Hangman Letters' would be my personal highlight, the marching band metronomic twang and the breathless phrasing relates a storm on the horizon: “Shadows walk across a jagged sky / Lightning strikes this heart I hold / My blood is boiling now / For I am the only sound.” Ironically perhaps, Cale rounds off Blue Rider with 'Noise Of Welcome', a song which didn't quite make it onto the last album. The vocals are long and more drawn out, an eery and atmospheric echo with the past.

After the lighter Tom Petty-inspired Love Everlasting pop single of last year, Blue Rider is a resounding return to the blues for Zachary Cale. The title also refers to a group of painters who were known for their wild jagged colours, but it's clear where Cale is really headed with all these songs. The best elements of his playing and songwriting soundtrack the autumn perfectly!

Matthew Haddrill

 

Mark Lanegan – Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 1989-2001 (Light In The Attic)

If ever an artist were prime for a collective anthology, this artist is Mark Lanegan. Light In The Attic’s Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 1989-2001 brings together tracks from throughout Lanegan’s solo career as well as unearthing 12 previously unreleased tracks. The resulting album is a fine showcase for one of America’s most revered songwriters.

For me Lanegan will always be remembered as the singer of the incredible grunge veterans Screaming Trees. Over the past twenty-five years however he has proven himself to be one of the hardest working men in rock. With a CV as diverse and eclectic as it is impressive. Working on numerous successful projects that have gained both critical and commercial success. As part of super group Mad Season, Lanegan, along with Screaming Trees band mate Barrett Martin, the late Layne Staley and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready produced one of the finest albums of the Nineties. He has also worked with hard-rock trailblazers Queens of the Stone Age. And has had a long-term and artistically fruitful partnership with Isobel Campbell. But as a solo performer he has also garnered astonishing critical acclaim. Has God Seen My Shadow? aims to capture the essence of Lanegan over two discs and 32 tracks.

As a songwriter Lanegan exudes poignancy. His lyrics tell of a man broken and scarred by life. Combined with his grizzled vocals Lanegan’s songs feel like the tales of an aging gunslinger. His voice crackles and burns with emotion in ways other singers can only dream of. When he sings his dark lyrics you know he means it; he has felt the feelings he sings about. But there is an overriding sense of hope that runs through the album. Lanegan portrays himself as a weathered survivor.

The musical arrangements are simple. That’s not to say they’re not fantastic however and they really accentuate the power of Lanegan’s lyrics. There is an extraordinary range of instrumentation on the album but everything is built around Lanegan’s voice and the tales it spins. The music is made to compliment the earthy tones of Lanegan’s voice. It is a voice unlike any other in music: deep and authoritative. This is a profound, dark and beautiful anthology full of humour and anecdote (just check out Bombed). This collection shows why Lanegan has penetrated the pantheon of the world’s greatest songwriters. He’s also a strong contender for the coolest man in music. With the attitude, look and voice of a rock ‘n’ roll cowboy. For man known for his fantastic assortment of collaborations, Lanegan gives the impression of being something of a loner. He can as well be a musical chameleon, as his songs constantly run the gauntlet from uplifting exhilaration to pure desperation.

From the cavernous bassy tones of Come to Me to the gloomy and reflective Lexington Slow Down, Has God Seen My Shadow? is packed full of songwriting of the quality Cohen or Dylan would be proud of. Lanegan is a true American great. The anthology is a fantastic place to start for anyone who hasn’t heard his music before. Buy this, then go out and buy everything else he has ever done. You will not be disappointed.

Robbie Bryson

 

Orchestra Of Spheres – Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music

Kiwi freaksters Orchestra of Spheres have all got funny names (Baba Rossa, E=M303 or EtonalE (some sort of identity crisis?), Jemi Hemi Mandala and Mos Locos), and play cute-sounding instruments like the biscuit tin guitar, sexomouse marimba or electric gamelan. But don't let that put you off: their sophomore release Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music is a seriously slinky and trancy psych-beast of an album, music scraped together from many parts of the planet skewed through a psychedelic blender to produce something both primeval (as the title would suggest!) and futuristically funky.

The band actually hail from Wellington, NZ, not Timbuktu, West Africa, although the sound of their latest offering owes a huge debt to African music, particularly in the scratchy guitar sound, vodoo chanting and vital bongo rhythms used throughout its grooves. 24-track recording to layer and texture this earthy tribal sound, and the mixing talents of Mojo Matt Bordin at Outside Inside Studio in Montebelluna, Italy, where the album was recorded last year, have ensured that Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music is a step up from the D.I.Y. Congotronics of the band's promising 2010 debut Nonoganic Now.

Songs like 'Electric Company' rock with a King Sunny Ade Juju-beat and Malian-style guitar matched with spacey synths and siren sounds, all finally swallowed up in dub. Equally riotous '2,000,000 Years' builds like Slits or Tom Tom Club scratch-funk before fuzz guitar and drum bring an explosive change of tempo. Baba Rossa's wah-wah pedals are again used to great effect on 'Journey', with a more conventional 70s prog guitar riff, shades of Hendrix's 'Voodoo Child'.

Elsewhere, it's the rhythms that hook you in. The carnival spirit of 'Moro Con' drives along with Mandala's spiralling quicksilver rhythms, a constant presence on Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music, while 'Smash Hits #1' sees a return to Congotronics and Ali Farka Toure's dissection of Malian music with North American blues, again an insistent rhythm playing out until its wild psych-funk conclusion.

The tribal chanting is more off-kilter than on the Sphere's debut. On 'Aby', the echo effect produced by the rolling tom-tom rhythms is shouted over with a megaphone, while chants clash in a strange dual on 'Numbers', set to dialling noises and EtonalE's wonky electronic bass. 'Kairo' has the feel of Dabke funkster Omar Souleyman with its clapping and space-age vocoder, while claps double and triple as percussion on the cleverly-structured 'Mind Over Might'. Intricately layered closer 'Bogan In The Forest' is more laidback, the melodious African guitar phrasing undercut by Mos Locos's subtle synth fills all set to an intimate Celtic charge.

More worldly than actual world music then, Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music is definitely one for the wonky mindset. Orchestra Of Spheres are mixing it all up to see where music and a cosmic philosophy like Sun Ra's Arkestra will take them. They toured Europe this November and December, so when you read this you will probably have missed them which is a shame … but I'm sure these Kiwi's will be back!

Matthew Haddrill

 

The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat 45th Anniversary Re-Issue

The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat isn't for the faint-hearted, a full-frontal assault on the eardrums with its swathes of white noise, ramped-up distortion and droning psychedelia, chief auteurs Lou Reed and John Cale intended nothing less. MGM/Verve Records would have had other ideas, however, and virtually disowned the album on its release in January of 1968. Posterity has deemed it a stonewall classic, to it's only a little strange for the same label to be celebrating it's 45th anniversary with a deluxe 3-cd boxset. The original album is accompanied with outtakes and other rare recordings made around the same time (there are still some left!), along with liner notes from David Fricke of Rolling Stone Magazine based on interviews with the band (also published in Mojo http://bigread.mojo4music.com/2013/11/velvet-underground/). The release has a certain poignancy in the light of Reed's recent death.

The Velvet Underground must be one of the most written about bands in the history of music. Brian Eno once commented that their debut in 1967 only sold about 30,000 copies, but everybody who bought one started their own band. While such stories pass into folklore before anybody has time to analyse their accuracy, The Velvet Underground certainly remain influential, the original proto-punks arrived even before The Stooges and New York Dolls.

White Light White Heat is a lot about John Cale and Lou Reed vying for creative control within the band. “Here comes two of you/which one would you choose?” sings Reed on 'Beginning To See The Light' tucked away at the end of the first disc in this 3-cd collection. It's an early version of the song that would end up on the Velvets' eponymous third album released the following year, by which time Cale had left. The two artists certainly brought plenty to the table for these recordings, Cale the radical composition of John Cage and other early minimalists, Reed the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor married to underground literature of New York writers like William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. The Velvet Underground's second album was very much about New York's avant-garde.

By the time of the recordings for White Light White Heat in September 1967, the band had become a touring quartet, Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison on guitar and Mo Tucker on drums, having parted company with both Andy Warhol and Nico since their debut (Warhol left them the famous black cover, his sole creative input!). MGM/Verve had been disappointed with lack of success of the band's debut, but little would prepare them for The Velvet Underground's sophomore effort!

The album's blazing opener, it's title track no less, can lay claim to be one of the first genuine punk rock songs. 'White Light White Heat' was an open endorsement of methamphetamines, quite radical even by this band's standards (it's fair to say that what happened over the next 40 or so minutes was largely drug-induced!). The song's ending is convoluted and 'mental' as Cale's bass playing gets faster and faster until he thought his hand had dropped off! The noise levels very likely meant the band couldn't hear each other to know when to end the song properly! 'The Gift' was Reed's idea of having two things going on at the same time: the band warming up on one channel, while Cale reads a macabre tale (penned by Reed) on the other. In the story, Waldo Jeffer sends himself as a gift to his beloved but straying Marcia in another city. Frank Zappa is supposed to have suggested the stabbing of a cantaloupe to create the sound effect of a knife passing through a skull! Cale's rich story-teller's voice is strikingly at odds with the sound of a garage band in the other speaker. 'Lady Godiva's Operation' is an odd twist on the famous folktale presented in the format of a radioplay, with curious surgical 'effects' provided by Morrison. The album's only ballad 'Here She Comes Now' closes side one of the original album.

The rag-tag assemblage of compositions then gives way to a incendiary second half of blistering noise. On 'I Heard Her Call My Name' Reed dismantles a sweet Beach Boys-like harmony with a free jazz-inspired explosion of guitar violence. The end is a relief to the listener, but only calm before the droning psychedelic jam which is 19-minute 'Sister Ray'. Reed's spoken noir recounts a night of debauchery in uptown New York: 3 stories of sex, drugs, violence inspired by the writer Hubert Selby Jr (and a rumoured actual meeting with a black drag queen although memories are a bit hazy!). In Fricke's interviews with the band, Reed claims that engineer Gary Kellgren walked out of the studio because the noise level was just too much, the 4 musicians facing off against each other in a maelstrom of sonic hyperbole, Reed finally bringing the thing to a wonderful 'aural' orgasm:

“Rosey and Miss Rayon
They're busy waiting for her booster
Who just got back from Carolina
She said she didn't like the weather
They're busy waiting for her sailor
Who says he's just as big as ever
He says he's from Alabama”

Officially, The Velvet Underground only released 4 albums between 1967 and 1970, the point at which Reed left, although a lot of other material was recorded which appeared in retrospective albums, like VU in 1985 and Another View in 1986. MGM and Verve have steadily milked the cult status of the Velvet Underground until there's not much left still to uncover. This deluxe edition does however include a few rarities and items of interest which will satisfy more than just the Velvet Underground completist.

Disc 1 recaps the album, but also includes 'Temptation Inside Of Your Heart', a sort of Marvellettes with jokey banter, 'Guess I'm Falling In Love', rock'n'roll which probably didn't 'fit' with the original noise concept of the album, and 'Stephanie Says' and 'Hey Mr Rain', both notable for Cale's haunting viola alongside Reed's distinct vocal. These were the last recordings the Welsh artist would make with the band, in February 1968. The outtakes on Disc 2 are just leftovers from the album's original sessions, but Disc 3 features tracks made available by Cale from a famous live show The Velvet Underground played at New York's rock club The Gymnasium on 30th April 1967. The early airing of songs like 'The Gift' and 'Sister Ray' gives the listener a real flavour of the time.

On its release in January of 1968, The Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat sank without trace commercially. On its anniversary re-visit, however, the album stands as a proud and 'historic' artistic statement. As Reed remarked in the Fricke interview (in August of this year, one of the last interviews he gave): “No one listened to it. But there it is, forever - the quintessence of articulated punk. And no one goes near it.”

Matthew Haddrill

 

Simple Minds – Classic Album Selection (Virgin/Universal)

Reviewing this snippet of their career (if you can call 5 albums spanning over 11 years a snippet) you could get a really unrepresentative sample of Simple Minds. It seems clear from the choice of albums included that this collection is aimed at commercial success rather than giving a true picture of the Glasgow punk band which formed as Johnny and the Self Abusers way back in 1977. There’s no room for the excellent punk, proto-Goth, Krautrock and early synthpop albums such as Life in a Day, Celebration, Sons and Fascinations, Reel to Reel Cacophony or New Gold Dream. Opportunity for a future collection there perhaps but for now, on with the selection included.

If you had to throw an encompassing description over this box set then it would pretty much neatly spell out stadium rock years. Opening with 1984’s ‘Sparkle in the Rain’ (what would George Orwell have thought of that?) we are greeted by the ludicrously explosive production courtesy of Steve Lillywhite. This was clearly a statement of intent by Simple Minds – they wanted to be playing the gig stages and arenas that U2 were beginning to frequent so what better way than to use the producer of U2’s ‘War’ and ‘October’ albums. To some degree this seems to have worked – Sparkle in the Rain is like a turbocharged version of predecessor ‘New Gold Dream’, fully customised and revving to burst its massive drum tracks and arrangements onto the stadium circuit. Despite the overall success of the approach, the danger was always that a little of the earlier guile and craft would be lost in the decibels and this is probably the case. But the quality of the tracks is unquestionably good and BAM! - you get offered to record the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club which instantly breaks you into the worldwide market with one song. Arguably Simple Minds may have made it anyway but that teen flick certainly didn’t hurt.

So how to follow? Naturally a heavily American soul and gospel influenced album – Once upon a Time – complete with Robin Clark providing co-lead female vocals throughout. This includes three tracks which all made it into the top 10 and at least one which you will be sick of hearing footballing montages on Sky Sports – ‘Alive and Kicking’. But it’s interesting to note that the band had pretty much already moved in this direction pre-Breakfast Club and this wilful flitting from style to style is perhaps something which encompasses the band as whole – they consistently acted like a touchstone to contemporary culture. Another theme running through ‘Once upon a Time’ is Simple Minds apparent fascination and respect for David Bowie. Naming your band after a lyric in ‘Jean Genie’ is a pretty good clue to start with. But time and again in Once upon a Time subtle nuances come in that are clearly borrowed from Bowie – the synth parts in ‘Oh Jungleland’ could be straight off ‘China Girl’. There are also less subtle clues such as using Bowies backing singers – The Simms Brothers and Carlos Alomar.

In achieving in just two years the commercial success that the band had apparently craved for so long, the band may have come under a different set of pressures prior to their next release. But in some ways I think that Street Fighting Years may be looked back on as one of their richest and most diverse. There seems to be much less agenda involved and a back to basics approach which conversely sprouted some of the most complex song arrangements the band has ever produced. More than half the tracks are over 6 minutes in length, a happy side affect of no longer having to pander to commercial concerns (though ironically although the label were panicking about the length of ‘Belfast Child’ it became the first and only UK Number 1 for Simple Minds). The flipside to this is that the songs have time to develop with bridges, codas etc and the overall composition is hugely improved – no more fade outs to end a song (which was a bugbear of mine from ‘Once upon a Time’).

‘Street Fighting Years’ is a great opening track, twisting and turning and ‘This is Your Land’ featuring guest vocals by Lou Reed also sees a deeper exploration of songwriting than can be achieved in a 3 minute pop song. At the same time there are some tracks which pick up on earlier styles (‘Take a Step Back’ would fit pretty comfortably on ‘Sparkle in the Rain’). The latter half of the album feels like a pseudo political EP tagged on the end of a standard album (it actually was ‘The Ballad of the Street’ EP). ‘Street Fighting Years’ isn’t perfect but it’s not far off – like a greatest hits album all in one.

While accepting Simple Minds’ shapeshifting nature, what is it that they have also had in common over the last, gulp, 30 years? Like most people I’d pin it down to the obvious Jim Kerr/Charlie Burchill axis but absolutely with Mick MacNeil providing a pivotal role on keyboards as well. Add to that some exceptional bass players (Derek Forbes, John Giblin) and the heavyweight drums of Mel Gaynor when power and volume is required and I think you’d have it. Burchill’s guitars tend to be on the simple (forgive the pun) side but they cut through the arrangements mechanically perfectly. Kerr has always been the extrovert charismatic frontman whose yelps, whoops and grumbles give him a sound that is both distinctive but annoying to some. What is understated is his quality as a lyricist – definitely not the most profound words you will ever hear (the band were often criticised in their later days for having a level of political vacuity) but on a musical level he knows exactly which words to choose to ensure the song really flows. At points he seems to follow the David Bowie cut and paste route (especially on ‘Sparkle...’) which really frees the onamatopaeic juices, making you want to sing along without having an inkling what you are talking about..’C-Moon cry like a baby...’ anyone?

But if Street Fighting Years marked a high spot, the final two albums on this collection illustrate a marked decline. No doubt coinciding with the departure of MacNeil, Gaynor and long time manager Bruce Findlay, ‘Real Life’ has all the energy of a runner at the end of a marathon. It also marked a point where grunge was a big deal and perhaps for the first time in twenty years Simple Minds no longer had the appetite to explore new ground. Aside from a couple of decent tunes ‘Real Life’ just sounds like the overblown death throes of a band steadily diverging from popular culture and consequently suffering diminishing commercial success in an unhappy spiral. As for ‘Good News from the Old World’, the final album included in this collection, well, there is no good news. It sounds like a series outtakes and re-hashes of previous songs which Kerr and Burchill put together in a studio somewhere armed with the latest production techniques of the day but no new songs. In fact I’m sure at least a couple of songs are direct rip-offs of ‘This is Your Land’ and ‘Real Life’. If the album ‘Real Life’ was waving the white flag then ‘Good News from the Next World’ is the body being exhumed and paraded through the streets.

So as a boxset – a strange choice of contributions. Three great albums then a couple by am exhausted band at the end of a very long, successful and diverse career – it’s like being a supermodel for most of your life then being remembered in an obituary accompanied by the photo from your bus pass. Remember the good times guys and forget the bad. But most importantly get those early albums re-released - frankly I don’t think my Agfa C90 cassettes will hold out much longer.

SB

 

Beastmilk – Climax

Some things are good because they remind you that something from a while ago was very good. Time can make you forget that something was once a little tired. Maybe everything actually does benefit from a good rest and absence makes the heart grow fonder? Maybe platitudes are brilliant.

Very often the “goth” element present in some bands has been one of the most exciting bits as far as I'm concerned. I love a good Evil-Elvis croon and songs about skulls and snakes and anyone who likes things will like dark puns. So you should be on notice that I am not disinterested. The strange thing about Beastmilk is that they seem to be such a fresh version and also a great example of gothy doom-pop that I get the impression that this album has been an influence on albums that came before it. Yes, that suggests that some of this is very familiar, and yet It doesn't sound derivative, more a fantastic example of This Kind Of Thing. Of course, it takes a good band, with a decent grasp of their identity, to pull off “like snakes in the skull of a child”

Climax is very good, at worst it's a very good genre album, but it may well be good enough to be the kind of album that people already into these genres will love while also bringing others along because their curiosity will always pay off. Curiosity will always pay off.

Christopher Carney