On the stereo

Not all my CD purchases and vinyl album converts-to-a-digital-format get a proper review (here or on the main blog pages) – though a lack of a review doesn’t mean that they’re no good.

Since the start of this blog in May 2010, the soundtrack to its life and that of its Editor has been the following new, new-ish and darnright ancient albums, with the obligatory five-star rating system which means, in my view, the strict application of the  following criteria:

***** Your collection is incomplete without it

****   Very purchaseable

***      It’s good

**        Liked some of it

*          It’s not a record, it’s a frisbee

Dr. Feelgood: Stupidity (***)

Graham Parker & The Rumour: The Up Escalator (***)

Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here (****)

Lissie: Catching A Tiger (****)

Various: Palenque Palenque – Champeta, Criolla & Afro Roots in Columbia 1975-1991 (catch a knowledgeable review here) (**)

Tracey Thorn: Love and Its Opposite (****)

Gogol Bordello: Trans-Continental Hustle (**)

Amy Macdonald: A Curious Thing (***)

Villagers: Becoming A Jackal (***)

Kit Downes Trio: Golden (***)

KT Tunstall: Tiger Suit (****)

Paul Weller: Wake Up The Nation (**)

Angelique Kidjo: Oyo (***)

Various: Caribbean Beat Vol. 7 (****)

Bombay Bicycle Club: Flaws (****)

Imelda May: Mayhem (***)

Various: Kenya Dance Mania (****) Sparkling guitars, punchy horns, jiving bass and drums and honeyed vocals. What’s not to like? Does exactly what it says on the tin – go on, sprinkle a little magic: you know you want to.

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge of Town Story (***)

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs: God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise (***)

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Voice of Lightness, Vol. 2 (***)

Sahara Smith: Myth of the Heart (****)

Adele: 21 (****)


And, with a bit of detail:

Dr. Feelgood: Stupidity (***)

I caught Julien Temple’s Oil City Confidential, the documentary of 70s pub rockers Dr. Feelgood, on BBC4 last month. I immediately dug out my copy of Stupidity, the band’s third, live album, digitised it and have been listening to it ever since. Lee Brilleaux’s half-snarled, half-spat vocals, gritty harmonica and, er, mic antics; Wilko’s guitar, with a tone so sharp you would get a nick if you stood too close to the speakers, and the manic, speed-fuelled stage presence of Wilko himself; and a rhythm section solidly locked together to found the artistic canvas – the Feelgoods were as good as it got in those dark, dark days of disco and pap music before punk came along and saved us all. Check out the pure simplicity of ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby‘ (complete with one of the world’s greatest one chord guitar solos) and ‘Roxette‘, both from the ‘Southend’ side of the album, and remember those nights when, if you stood in one place too long, your feet held fast to the carpet, stuck with the residues of spilt, stale beer. And when the term R’n’B meant something in musical terms.

If you get a chance, watch Temple’s documentary, too – honestly put together, with contributions from the three surviving band members, as well as with Lee Brilleaux’s wife and his mum, it tells the story of the band with verve and affection. Some great clips of the band in action, too. But it’s Brilleaux’s mum who steals the show; her filmed interviews call to mind Shirley’s delightful mum in the excellent Citizen Smith but the untimely loss of her son (to cancer, in 1994) has affected her deeply.

Gil Scott-Heron: I’m New Here (****)

Gil Scott-Heron’s new album was released, after heavy trailing from a sympathetic media, earlier this year and to a good set of reviews. The troubles that have stalked him (and which contributed to the hiatus) are well documented – and it’s clear that some of his addictions remain (the front cover portrays him having a smoke). Scott-Heron’s demons also clearly continue (the decision to cover Robert Johnson’s ‘Me And The Devil’, with one crucial change of word which makes Johnson’s original hard to listen to, was inspired) and the album is a dark and uncomfortable ride both musically and verbally. The title track (a cover) in Scott-Heron’s hands becomes a frank motivational tribute to the remarkable regenerative power of the human spirit, while the poetry which starts and closes the album – the first his tribute to Lillie Scott, the grandmother who raised him, is moving but unsentimental; the second, his re-statement of what it means to come from a broken home, is powerful and defiant – is vintage Scott-Heron.

Truth to tell, the original material on the album is pretty sparse – one-third of the 15 tracks are spoken excerpts – and a couple of the others are tracks which, in terms of length, certainly don’t out-stay their welcome. Don’t get me wrong – this is not an album packed with filler – but there’s not a great deal of evidence on the strength of this that Scott-Heron is back to stay. The Guardian’s review of the Scott-Heron gig at the Royal Festival Hall also doesn’t fill one with hope that he’s still got it. At 61, perhaps that’s asking a lot for a man whose role in the development of modern black music is already assured. Steve Earle proves that its perfectly possible for a man to emerge from a personal hell and still produce great music over an extended period – but Earle continues to be inspired by the many injustices that stalk America whereas I’m New Here is exclusively a personal album. Time will tell whether getting this sort of album out proves cathartic enough to allow Scott-Heron to get back to producing his own insights into what is going wrong with the world. We need him.

Lissie: Catching A Tiger (****)

Caught Lissie on the national treasure that is Later… With Jools Holland earlier this year and I picked up the (more recently released) debut album just a couple of weeks back. Other reviewers have picked up the Stevie Nicks references (though I didn’t let that put me off) and certainly they are there: like a good whisky, some get things which others don’t, but I also picked up 60s Lulu and The Cardigans’ Nina Persson. This is, however, a really good album featuring a strong collection of original, self-penned songs and displaying a number of different musical styles ranging from straight ahead rock (‘In Sleep’, the first single from the album, features a cut-loose guitar solo) to 6os girl pop to country to the song that she sang so beautifully on Later… – a southern-style lament to the Mississippi which wouldn’t have been out of place on this N’Awlins benefit album (even if it is about the other end of the Mississippi, where she comes from). And, on ‘Record Collector’, she proves she’s a screamer 😉

I had expected a little bit more country and the pop/rock content came as something of a surprise. With the new EP featuring a cover of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, the pop direction seems to be the one being taken (although that might just reflect the need for sales) and, in truth, she probably does need to define herself a little more clearly. Later albums will probably do just that – especially as she co-writes a lot of her own stuff. But, being possessed a voice of great clarity and power means having the ability to take on and do justice to a range of material, and pigeon-holing can surely wait a while longer. She’s over here on tour again soon – and in a support capacity, too: get there quick so you can say you saw her before she became massive.

A word also for a great production job – Jacquire King has captured Lissie’s fresh sound and approach and produced an album which retains its power and brightness over repeated plays: a far better job than the one Rick Rubin did on the Gogol Bordello album, which I picked up at the same time – sadly, an earth-bound album when its guitars and fiddles should send it soaring.

Tracey Thorn: Love And Its Opposite (****)

I spent the early part of my 20s in a severe state of depression about the state of human relationships and it was all the fault of ‘Too Happy’, a track on ‘A Distant Shore’, Tracey Thorn’s first solo album.*

So, any return to an acoustic collection, while a welcome change from the electronica which mar(r)ked the last album, was viewed by me with a certain amount of trepidation – not least when the theme is divorce and heartbreak.

I needn’t have worried – our Tracey’s in rude health both personally and professionally. The title of this third solo album itself is both thoughtful and clever – what is the ‘opposite’ of love? Lust? Fear? Possessiveness? Loneliness? All, quite clearly are possible opposites to the conventional one in a mature world – and all are dealt with in a set of songs that feature tenderness, humour and Tracey’s trademark wry, but sharp, observation and compassion. As well as guitars, piano and strings and, over-riding it all, that voice – which remains as rich, deep, evocative and coolly analytical as ever: the embodiment of exhilarating sadness. Some of the lyrics might jar occasionally, but the vignettes presented are timeless and honest studies of people’s instinct and thirst for survival, whatever the mess they make of their lives and their relationships: the desire to get back on the dancefloor and have another go, to keep on trying.

And if all this lyricism sounds a bit much, the tunes are largely upbeat, hummable and recall the rhythms and beats of the electronica with which Everything But The Girl revived its career and which dominated Tracey’s last set – but, essentially, without its plinky-plink tinniness. In short, this seems like a progression: going back to go forwards. More please, Tracey – and soon.

* An album I still play plenty, by the way – though I’m better now 😉

2010 Mercury nominees

The XX were this year’s Mercury Prize winners; I’m sure they were decent winners, but they’re not really my cup of tea. I understand completely what they’re trying to do and the minimalism is no doubt a bit of a zeitgeist for these times; it’s just that I tend to prefer my music to have a bit of kitchen sink thrown into the mix. But I have picked up the albums of three of the contenders and, a few months on from the award itself, here’s a brief review.

Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation saw a late rush of punters’ money, but in truth this is far from Weller’s best work. At its best, on a number of tunes which share a 60s psychedelic soul influence in common, it works well – but these moments are rare and the album is otherwise overlong and contains too much filler. Continuing the ‘chuck enough mud at the wall’ practice of the previous album, there are 16 tracks on here and, occasionally mercifully, none of them hang around for very long. A bit more selectivity and this could have made a decent album but, as it stands, it’s not one to listen to right the way through too many times. Sadly, not really a keeper, whatever the late Mercury money suggested.

The two stand out acts on the night – and the only two to make me look up with interest from my laptop – were the Kit Downes Trio and Villagers. The Kit Downes trio – a piano, bass and drums combo – are straight from the Blue Note studios, around the time of the great Alfred Lyon, and I had no idea people were still making this sort of music. With just one melody instrument in the band, the large bulk of the improvisational burden clearly falls on the band leader, but Downes is clearly capable of rising to the task. The set of tunes contained in Golden ranges structurally from the simple to the complex and, although the latter is likely to make the album a tough listen for a non-jazz fan, there are enough of the former to hold the interest. Coming from so far out of left field, it would have been an unlikely Mercury winner but, outside that, it remains a good album.

Becoming A Jackal is the contribution of Villagers – in reality, the collective guise of multi-instrumentalist Conor O’Brien – whose appearance at the awards ceremony somewhat blew the cover! Choosing to play a spellbinding acoustic guitar version of the title track, Villagers brought the whole show to a complete stop for me. A collection of tender and vulnerable songs about the failures of human relationships would seem to present some challenges to the stamina of the listener, but this is an album that repays repeated listening owing largely to O’Brien’s stated desire to treat his songwriting with ‘joy and humour‘. The result is that the music provides a frequently effervescent counterpoint to the dark lyrical poetry and the overall effect is a delight. Villagers would have been a worthy prizewinner this year; that they’re not perhaps owes more to the commercial imperative of Mercury to push records and, as good as the album is, I suspect it’s not going to be a top seller (at least, not outside their native Ireland). But that shouldn’t detract from what is a fine record.

Bruce Springsteen: The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge of Town Story (***)

On Backstreets, the Springsteen online fanzine, the thread on what should be included in the ‘Darkness’ boxed set for it to be considered to have been done properly ran to 480+ pages and 7,000+ posts by the time the set hit the streets – a remarkable achievement considering that the threat starter (some fifteen months in advance of the release) got the final content pretty much spot-on in his original post. The ‘Darkness’ album is the one that most Springsteen fans eulogise most, and the tour the one that most would make their first destination once time travel machines are invented, so the set has been keenly anticipated.

The box which eventually emerged last month is a marvellously produced collection of a pleasingly compact amount of material for a six-disc (three CDs, three DVDs) set, with all the discs inserted in a facsimile of one of Springsteen’s (in)famous song notebooks. On flicking through, several times I catch myself running my fingers over the creases in the pages, the tape (or rusty-looking paperclips) pinning new pages or photos in, the ‘shadows’ underneath taped-in cassette cards, the yellowing sellotape and the stains and tears, only to find them running over nothing other than smooth paper (and even though I know what it is). There is a wealth of material here from song ideas through which you can trace the development of particular songs, or spot lines that were to appear in songs recorded later, to photos to handwritten instructions regarding the stage lighting on the tour, to several running orders for the album and debates about the songs which should be included on it – both a fascinating document and a superb production.

On to the music itself, and starting with the remastered version of Darkness – well, it was completed in a single day (an ironic reflection of the time originally spent in the studio) and, to be honest, I can’t hear a great deal of difference: yes, Max’s drums crackle and snap, Garry’s bass is much more up in the mix and Bruce’s guitar sounds cleaner, sharper and harder edged. Apart from that, Springsteen’s acknowledged over-sung vocals, which wreck ‘Something in the Night’ and ‘Streets of Fire’ and come close to spoiling ‘Adam Raised a Cain’, remain overwrought. Evidently, remastering can do little about that, but there remains a hiss on the recording and, listening closely, there are evident tape drop outs. That’s a little disappointing, and I had expected a rather cleaner product.

That apart, it is evident that the Paramount Theatre as-live performance of the album – recorded late last year in only two takes and including just the members of the band that were involved in ’78 (Charlie Giordano subbing in for Phantom Dan Federici, and without an audience other than the cameras) – is Springsteen’s re-statement of the album as it should have sounded. That he can still do this 32 years on from the original is testament enough to Springsteen’s ability not just to believe in his music but to live it, and in the first two numbers in particular, he appears particularly pumped up (what must he have been listening to before going on stage?). The two takes provides an ironic comment on the time taken to record the album in the first place (painstakingly reproduced on the ‘The Making of…’ DVD, also broadcast in an edited version on BBC1 this week (the opening shots of Springsteen engaged in jaw-breaking yawns tells of the difficult times in the studio)). Intense, emotionally raw and ferociously angry, but also brooding and with moments of great beauty, this is the album as it should have been heard and it might just, perhaps, stand as Springsteen’s best work.

The double CD of ‘The Promise’ (which has its own separate release) remains, even with some additional recording, mixing and production carried out earlier this year, a collection of out-takes of mostly complete songs, or alternative versions of songs that did make it to the album, and songs with different lyrics to some familiar melodies or titles. It’s clear that, with the final selection of songs for Darkness, they got it right pretty much 100% of the time – it does remain the ‘right’ single album out of the dozens of songs recorded at the time: there is a coherence to that album (for all its production faults) and a lot of these additional songs, many of which feature the nucleus of the Miami Horns, have a party feel akin to the first side of ‘The River’ (or else a lot of the core content of what would have been ‘The Ties That Bind’, the ‘lost’ album) and would have sounded out of place on ‘Darkness’. Whoever slowed down ‘Racing In The Street’ for the album was a genius (though the line about ‘waking up in a world that somebody else owns’, which doesn’t appear in the album version and which never made it anywhere else in Springsteen’s lyrics, is an unfortunate loss): it casts greater shade on the rest of the album than would otherwise have been the case from the faster version, and there are clear benefits to the beauty of the song from the more relaxed vocal approach.

That said, some songs clearly got away – ‘Because The Night’ is a great song (though only hinting in the studio version here at the fire breathing monster it became on the tour) and would have fitted the album well (Springsteen’s reasons for not finishing it are honestly explained in one of the most interesting moments in the ‘Making Of…’ DVD), as would ‘The Promise’ (known not only for its appearance in a different guise on the short version of ‘Tracks’ but also in a bootleg sneaked out of the production studios in 1978), which remains a haunting follow-up account some years on of the runaways of ‘Thunder Road’.

Stripped to a final selection of 10-12 tracks, and including some songs recorded at the time and which later appeared on ‘The River’, ‘The Promise’ would have been a decent immediate post-Darkness album, based around a theme of young working class males with a growing sense of responsibilities surrounding their working lives but still with time to spend growing up. But then, we already know this from the tracklisting that would have formed ‘The Ties That Bind’.Finally, the live ‘house cut’ DVD is an interesting choice of gig to put out: a couple of live bootleg films from the tour have been circulating for some time while from gigs that are, perhaps, more apparently representative of its energy and the dynamism of Springsteen’s own performance on it – otherwise evident thus far only in the plentiful and good quality music-only bootlegs. This is a touched-up version of what was a lo-fi film (befitting its origin as a ‘bootleg’ recording from the theatre’s own recording system): it’s dark and grainy, there are drop outs and out of focus shots, and some of the action is, simply, missing. Some elements have simply been cut. The sound is great, mind. But, in that it doesn’t represent the physicality of the tour that well, the DVD helps to build its aura that bit more while, at the same time, contributing to the clamour for the Springsteen organisation to dig that little bit deeper into the vaults for other, better, more representative, live films to release. But it’s still a very watchable performance of a decent gig and, until that time machine is invented, this (and the touched-up clips, continuity problems and all, from another ’78 gig on the Paramount Theatre DVD) is about as close as we’re going to get.

Will the set bring any converts? – well, not at £80 in the shops for a set featuring already released material or stuff from deep down in the vaults, it won’t. Sales are reported to have been disappointing, and I can only imagine what non-fans buying the separate release of ‘The Promise’ make of it all unless they know some of the history. Me, I’d have paid £80 just for the Paramount Theatre DVD alone – but then that could just be me. But, did they do it properly? Definitely.

Tabu Ley Rochereau: Voice of Lightness, Vol. 2 (***)

Vol. 2 of the superb collection by Stern’s of the music of Tabu Ley Rochereau, the giant of Congolese music, was published a couple of months back and has been on my turntable (OK, in my CD player) pretty much ever since.

Covering the period from 1977 where Vol. 1 left off, to 1993 and Tabu Ley’s virtual retirement from record making, Vol. 2 covers a complex musical period kicking off with Tabu Ley at the peak of his powers to eventual slow decline amidst a surfeit of the synths which did so much to wreck African guitar music (at least, for me). Ever sensitive to the issues here, the selection of tracks here skirts lightly around the latter (while not avoiding it completely), leaving us with – well, you know what to expect: insistent, driving rhythms; melodic, hypnotic guitar lines that ask, nay demand, you put on your dancing feet; and soaring, honeyed vocals that are an absolute delight to listen to (click on the link above – listen to Lisanga ya Banganga (one of his two collaborations on this collection with Franco, the other Congolese giant), and I utterly defy you to sit still!). You get Tabu Ley himself, you get Franco, you get Dr. Nico on his temporary reconciliation with Taby Ley, you get a succession of other fantastic guitarists, and you get quite insane drummers that leave you gasping for breath and you get smooth production values (and a nicely remastered set which doesn’t quite relieve itself of the clicks and pops of old vinyl and tapes!). And a bit of politics too, with Tabu Ley in exile and then, in Le Glas A Sonné (The Bell Has Tolled) an overt call for revolution against Mobutu which has strong echoes in which is happening in 2011 across north Africa and the middle East.

The package is, once again, beautifully put together, dovetailing neatly with the companion volumes in the Congo Classics series by Franco and by Mbilia Bel, encompassing not just two CDs crammed full of beautiful music but also a 56-page dual language booklet with an insighful essay by Ken Braun, former manager of Stern’s US shop and a Tabu Ley enthusiast, as well as rare photos and as comprehensive a listing of the personnel on each track as you’re likely to find (evidently, no mean feat given shifting personnel, individual clashes and egos and faulty memories).

Friday night music at its unstoppable, head-clearing, working week-closing best. Have a little drink, have a little dance, put a big smile on your face.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s