Friday, 31 December 2010

“Real Gone’s end of year round up: 2010”

We’ve reached the end of REAL GONE’s first full year online and it’s been great. I would never have imagined at this point a year ago the blog would have gained such momentum. REAL GONE has gathered increasing support from bands and music fans across the world and it’s getting stronger all the time.

2010 was a good year for music, but there were a few clear winners:

THE SILVER SEAS – Chateau Revenge
Such a fantastic disc - one of the finest examples of power pop/retro pop ever. Not a band song in the bunch and a couple that are so good they almost defy words. Review here.
(A big thank you must go to Leon, without whom I wouldn’t even have heard The Silver Seas, let alone made their 2010 disc ‘Album Of The Year’. You can find him on twitter @gabblerdictum)

ORANJULY – s/t
You’ll have probably read plenty of good reviews of this one over the Summer and beyond. Certainly deserving of its praise, Brain King’s fusion of Brian Wilson, Jellyfish, Ben Folds and Weezer features some great songs, earning it a place among the year’s finest offerings. Review here.

STATE COWS – s/t
Here’s one I didn’t see coming: a perfect homage to late 70s/early 80s AOR from Sweden. Smooth westcoast grooves haven’t sounded this good for years. In fact, despite being recorded in 2010, it sounds like an authentic vintage gem. If you’ve not heard it, it’s a must. Review here.

ROBERT PLANT – Band of Joy
I’ll admit this is an obvious choice, likely to grace many and of year lists. The fact is, though, Robert is a legend and he sounds so inspired and comfortable playing this kind of Americana. It could even be better than his ‘Raising Sand’ collaboration with Alison Krauss. Review here.

SKUNK ANANSIE – Wonderlustre
I liked SA as a live band before, but never found myself too excited by their recorded work. However, this comeback disc is so solid – and mature. Before it was released, if you’d told me it would be one of the year’s best albums, I may not have believed you. Review here.


Those were the winners, but there’s a bunch more which also made a big impression: Grinderman’s second disc (review here); certainly more focused than their debut, but lacking absolutely none of their ferocity. A great singer songwriter, Edward O’Connell, who proved with ‘Our Little Secret’ it’s still possible to record and release a major-label quality album without a huge budget. Stone Sour’s ‘Audio Secrecy’ was surprisingly enjoyable, full of great choruses – the kind I wouldn’t have dreamed anyone from Slipknot would be capable of writing, making it one of the year’s best metal discs. A rather personal album, Mark Bacino’s New York themed ‘Queens English’ was a little different from his previous work...a definite grower. I’ll also have to admit that I’ve warmed to ‘Postcards From a Young Man’ by Manic Street Preachers a great deal since writing my original review. Sure, I’d pick angry Manics over commercial pop/rock Manics most of the time, but there’s no denying ‘Postcards’ has some cracking songs on it. ...And lastly, a thumbs up for Sweden’s Genuine Fakes, whose debut showed great promise. Their super-charged rendition of Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’ was the year’s best cover version.


And now...the general backslapping and obligatory thanks list:

Thanks to the various blogs and websites that have been friendly and provided links and support; especially to all those who recognised we’re in this together and I’m not going to steal their audience (a concept that not all website owners understand)! Thanks to Curt at Powerpop Overdose, since many of his loyal supporters are now regular visitors to REAL GONE, and also to Dave at Left and to the Back (one of the most entertaining blogs out there) for also sending traffic my way. A special thank you also to Emma at M Is For Music, who kindly reproduced some of the work from this blog at her site and helped bring my writing to a bigger audience. My gratitude also goes to those who’ve supported REAL GONE by visiting regularly: I know there are a bunch of people out there who’ll read absolutely everything that gets published here.

Lastly, thank you to the various bands and artists who’ve lent support by sending out copies of their albums for review. Without them, it just wouldn’t be the same. Here’s to 2011 – cheers!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

BEN FULLER - Aquarian Son EP

aquarian son

Ben Fuller believes that every place he visits and every person he meets has a story and that visiting new places fills him with new energies he puts into music. It’s likely it’s that kind of wandering spirit, hippie ethos which gives his debut EP an upbeat vibe.

‘Ashes’ opens the EP with a 4/4 semi-acoustic workout which is musically strong. While the music is great (incorporating elements of Ryan Adams and the many other Americana-pop singer-songwriters and bands out there) and Fuller’s song writing seems to be built on solid foundations, his vocal is an acquired taste. There’s something about it which seems like a product of the studio – an unnatural shininess detracts from Fuller’s performance. Something which should have a natural sound feels a bit too “perfect” and in doing so has lost a lot of heart. ‘Handsome Lover’ offers a decent slab of pop/rock with a tougher edge than most of the EP; the lower end of Fuller’s vocal range steers away from the previous irritation. It’s hard not to listen to it and not be reminded of Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers, which, as most people know, is never a bad thing.

Although slightly slower, ‘Favourite Song’ hovers somewhere between the two styles of the previous songs. The chorus retains the decent punch and the verses have a gentle feel. With the help of its decent-ish chorus, this should have been a highlight, but Fuller’s voice isn’t that great here – as with the opening track, it sounds too clean; almost a little cartoonlike. I’m still unsure as to whether some studio trickery has been employed... There’s always a possibility his natural voice carries an unnatural timbre, of course – look at Paulo Nutini. Actually, let’s not.

Musically, ‘Inside Out’ is a great example of jangly, slightly retro pop - the kind Counting Crows are capable of, that is, on the rare occasions they’re not wading knee-deep in an overly wordy mope-athon. The ringing guitars and an unfussy drum rhythm keep things buoyant and the track has enough peaks and troughs to stop it from ever becoming stale. Once again, though, Fuller’s vocal style has a quirkiness which may not always appeal, but that’s easy to gloss over when everything else is decent.

As a sort of tribute to Fuller’s roots, on the surface, ‘California’ carries a chirpiness which strives for that perfect radio hit for the summer and in doing so it’s effective. Usually, I’m not a fan of the almost beach styled pop, but thanks to a simple chorus and a great guitar part, it manages to be a winner. However, if we look at that simple chorus a bit closer, this ode to California doesn’t necessarily seem to be all together positive. It appears to be a statement of how California thinks of itself as above others: “We don’t want nobody, we’re California!” It’s infectiousness ensures this is memorable long after listening, making it one of the EP’s strongest cuts.

‘Aquarian Son’ occasionally has a poppier edge than a lot of other stuff of a similar ilk and Fuller’s voice can be incredibly irritating at times. However, largely due to Fuller’s knack for writing uncomplicated melodies and having a decent band in tow, most of the songs really stand out. While it’s not as introspective as some of Ryan Adams’s gentler works, it’s not hard to imagine that some of his fan base could find something to latch onto while listening to this EP; or maybe if you’re a big fan of the lighter moments of Train’s work (most obviously their ‘Save Me, San Francisco’ album) this will have some appeal.


June 2010

Monday, 27 December 2010

WATTS - On The Dial

watts

Named after the Rolling Stones’ drummer, Boston quartet Watts make a sound that’s trashy, yet tight. If I were to tell you that the chief influences behind their sound are The Faces, mid-period Replacements and (unsurprisingly) 1970s Rolling Stones, you’ll know instantly what they sound like. Dan Kopko’s vocals have a slightly gravelly edge that’s well suited to their four chord, cranked up rock ‘n’ roll, and while the main ingredients of their sound have been heard time and again from similar outfits, Watts are a band more than worthy of your time.

After a great drum and guitar intro from Johnny Lynch and John Blout, ‘Fight Song’ grabs the listener with its husky vocal and spiky guitar riff during a two-and-a-half minute display of sweatiness which recalls the best Supersuckers material, before they insisted on playing country music. Throw in an angry rallying cry of “This is not a war I believe in” and ‘Fight Song’ becomes a number which captures Watts at their best, exuding a dirty rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Their Stones fixation comes to the fore on ‘Dancehall Days & Nights’ where the lead guitar work creeps farther into Keith Richards territory, with a crystal clear twang ringing out above the grubby riff. It may not be an original sound, but between the riffs and chorus (with great backing harmonies from guitarist John Blout) Watts really come alive.

A similar swagger carries ‘She Wants To Rock’, which features Blout stepping up for lead vocals. Also fantastic is their cover of ‘No Secrets’ (originally by Aussie rock band The Angels aka Angel City). A song which sounds almost tailor made for Watts, its infectious chorus captures Kopko and Blout in a moment of vocal unison, while its swaggering chords really hit the spot. ‘Afterburn’ features a couple of the album’s best performances: between the spiky riffs, John Blout’s guitar solo rips from the speakers and, here, Kopko’s raspy vocal style sounds absolutely at home on another number which occasionally nods at other late 70s Aussie rock influences.

There are a couple of moments where Watts slow things down. ‘Don’t Mind’ has a slightly darker vibe, but still with the emphasis on great garage rock. Although not one of ‘On The Dial’s more instantly appealing numbers, it has a solid arrangement – with some of Johnny Lynch’s drum work being particularly appealing. ‘The Times’, meanwhile, is a great showcase for key changes and backing vocals. With a relatively big hook and bar-room vibe, it’s not especially sophisticated, but you wouldn’t want it to be. ‘Girls On Holiday’ is slightly quieter than a lot of ‘On The Dial’s other songs, but a ringing guitar and great chorus are on hand to provide a couple of great hooks. The weak point here is undoubtedly Blout’s guitar solo where he noodles up and down the fretboard without breaking into anything important – but, I guess, to make up for that, you could always spin ‘Afterburn’ again!

The songs aren’t too varied, but the production values are great for a self-released disc (albeit slightly too much in favour of mid-range and treble aspects, but even so, the sound suits the music) and there are no obvious duds among the thirteen numbers. Watts are unlikely to win any new converts to the trashy rock ‘n’ roll cause, but for those who enjoy this style of music, ‘On The Dial’ is worth investigating.

Visit Watts here.

December 2010

Thursday, 23 December 2010

SCRATCHED MATINEE - Notes From The Incurable

matinee

Chris Francis is a guitarist from south east England. He will be familiar to melodic rock fans as being the man who replaced Vinny Burns in TEN, playing on their ‘Return To Evermore’ and ‘Twilight Chronicles’ releases. In addition to that, he’s released guitar instrumental albums under his own name.

Moving away from the guitar instrumental format, Chris’s third release is an album of actual songs. Although released under a band name, Scratched Matinee is essentially just Chris Francis (providing all musical aspects) and Phil Philsworth on lead vocals. The album, ‘Notes From the Incurable’ is a concept piece, of sorts, which supposedly touches on themes of depression, warfare, psychosis, murder and triumph. I say supposedly, since the album is mixed badly and as a result, most of the vocal details are drowned out by Francis’s loud guitar work at least half the time. I suppose, being a guitarist, the guitars will often be his main concern, but the volume of his guitars combined with a small budget makes this album sound overly trebly and rather harsh. The recording is almost without any bass and the drums are programmed - and that’s a great pity, since some of the material here sounds like it should be absolutely amazing.

So, what about the songs? A bit of a mixed bag – but more often than not, Scratched Matinee deliver the goods with maximum intensity. A gentle intro with the sounds of acoustic guitars and orchestral leanings leads into ‘The Scarlet Ice’. You want bluster? You want bravado? You got it. The guitars are so dirty; in fact, the overall arrangement has little in the way of subtlety - and somewhere in amongst it all, you’ll find vocalist Phil trying his best to be heard. Not the best of openings, but things get better, at least intermittently. Huge vocals splashed across a late 80s guitar riff can be heard at the beginning ‘These Long Winter Evenings...’ - a track with not only a good chorus and melody, but also features Philsworth’s vocals much higher in the end mix. It provides an insight into Francis’s melodic rock roots, but just as things appear to be settling down, ‘Horror Show’ presents itself with a huge, dirty swaggering riff. Its intro promises a lot, but once you get past the Peter Frampton-esque talk box noises, it seems to be all oomph and no lasting substance. Once again, I’m struggling to hear a clear vocal delivery behind the wall of guitars.

‘New Moon Monday’ offers something a little more restrained. Philsworth delivers a reasonable performance on a pompy song which has hints of early Queen with its piano base. By the time the lead guitars kick in, Francis has chosen his usual tone – and, once more, the guitars appear to be so loud, they mask everything else that’s going on. ‘Mother Medicine’ provides the start of some proper respite from the guitars, sounding a little like the Beatle-obsessed rock as practised by Ty Tabor (but heavier, naturally). Throw in a couple Jellyfish-esque vocals - resplendent with a chorus of backing vocal harmonies, with a bunch of shameless ‘na na’s and ‘la la’s – and it quickly becomes of the album’s best tracks. Similarly, the hard rock waltz of ‘Theatre Insane’ features some great moments. The ringing rhythm guitars provide a decent base; Francis seems to be rather more restrained here and this means that Phil Philsworth gets a chance to be heard upfront once again. Things build until we reach a spooky, carny-influenced moment, which is bolstered by various samples of voices and keyboard strings, before everything falls away and Francis delivers a solo. Here, he wisely chooses something a little quieter, with a few classic moments to be heard – there’s a fair amount of feel, a bit of vibrato and not too much ugliness – a quick reminder of why I always loved his work previously.

There’s a reasonable amount of mid-range aggression and all round hugeness to be heard on the closing tracks of the disc, so it’s likely if you’re still digging the album by this point, there are a few more thrills to be had. Thankfully, there are a couple of great musical aspects lurking between the full-on rock moments: ‘Mr Spencer’ features a brilliant rumpty-tumpty arrangement (again, more than reminiscent of early Queen) while ‘Summer Days’ has a fantastic acoustic intro. It’s beautifully played – such a shame Chris Francis doesn’t lean towards acoustic work more often. Enjoy it while you can though...the fuzzy electric guitars stomp over anything too intricate before long...

I’d heard a lot about this prior to its release and it sounded like a brilliantly adventurous project, and in many ways, it is. There are some decent songs here and some potentially very interesting arrangements, but the good parts are absolutely wasted on an album with such a small recording budget. Sadly, a bad final mix combined with the (at times) almost relentless bombast of Scratched Matinee’s approach toward most things made my head hurt. It’s a full-on experience, but not always in the most enjoyable way. Still, if the world needed an album that sounded like 80s guitar rock, crossed with early Queen and the pomposity of ‘The Black Parade’ by My Chemical Romance, this is it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Chris Francis and are curious to hear a gifted musician, here’s some advice... Rather than wading your way through Scratched Matinee’s foray into something nearing theatrical self-indulgence, as a first listen, may I suggest you visit the Chris Francis website and pick up his solo release ‘Studs n’ Sisters’ instead?

www.chrisfrancis.net


December 2010

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

“Christmas...”

More reviews coming later, but first, to get you in a Christmassy mood, here are a few festive videos!




I know people who hate this, y’know – the fools. It’s one of the best Christmassy songs ever, even if Jona hadn’t intended it to be.






Like Jona Lewie, it’s only a mention of Christmas which gets this lumped in with Christmas songs, but I’m posting it because it’s great. The Pretenders never made a video for this, so watching them mime on Top Of The Pops with gurgly sound will have to do.






Who said disco couldn’t be educational? Okay, so this isn’t a Christmas song at all, but it is from a Top of The Pops Xmas Special...and Bobby Farrell’s stupid dance will never stop being funny. If you search YouTube, there’s a funnier clip than this, where Bobby’s beard falls off midway. (Warning: the above clip contains an intro by Noel Edmonds when he looked slightly different.)



...and finally, something which could be the best Christmas video ever.

Bob Dylan - Must Be Santa Claus: Just brilliant – look at the fun ol’ Bobby is having! Although, this is the most Jewish Christmas I have ever seen (oxymoron).

(Embedding has been disabled for this one, so you’ll have to click the link to go to YouTube. Trust me, though, it’s worth it!)

Monday, 20 December 2010

BLEU - Four

bleu

I have to admit, despite often reading good things about his 2002 album ‘Redhead’, I was late in discovering Bleu, first hearing him as part of The Major Labels with Ducky Carlisle and Mike Viola. The Major Labels album had some great tunes on it, but I still hadn’t been moved enough to check out Bleu’s other work. After that, I belatedly stumbled across L.E.O. – a note for note E.L.O. pastiche featuring original material written by, once again, Bleu and Viola. Somehow, though, I still hadn’t managed to hear any of Bleu’s solo output. Listening to ‘Four’, I realise I ought to have listened earlier. While ‘Four’ isn’t perfect, there are some fantastic songs to be heard.

Funded by fans, this album is a roller coaster ride full of great influences from the sixties and seventies. ‘Singin’ In Tongues’ is a rousing rock/pop number to get things underway, with Bleu’s quasi-aggressive vocal sounding a little like Gregg Alexander in places (albeit in delivery rather than tone). Among the general busyness, some of power pop’s key hallmarks are present: namely the big chorus driven by na-na’s, tinkling bells and an occasional nod to Phil Spector in the drum department. If it doesn’t grab you at first, subsequent listens pay off. The bells make a second appearance on ‘B.O.S.T.O.N.’ which is a great nugget of pop. Its chorus is a little repetitive by the end, but the overall vibe makes it a winner. Once again, musically Bleu favours an almost wall of sound approach; he played almost all of the instruments on this number himself...and it sounds superb. I challenge anyone not to have this lodged firmly in their head after hearing it a couple of times.

‘How Blue’, on the other hand, is really horrid. While the music conjures up Beatle-esque dreaminess and the strings are arranged brilliantly, the track is spoilt by Bleu’s insistence on wailing in falsetto. While this isn’t the only instance of falsetto on ‘Four’, there’s something particularly jarring about it here. Without such a vocal, this could have worked, but even then it’s not the album’s most inspiring cut. During the largely acoustic ‘Everything Is Fine’ (co-written by Jellyfish head honcho Roger Manning Jr), Bleu favours some (unnecessary) falsetto in places once again, but this time, just about carries it off. Against the acoustic work, there are string quartets, a few good vocal harmonies and even the appearance of Manning’s beloved harpsichord. While the falsetto moments may not be my bag, this number has plenty of charm, due to a definite Jellyfish influence rearing its head toward the end of the chorus.

‘When The Shit Hits The Fan’ is moody, rather powerful number. With a heavy orchestration (brilliantly arranged, it must be said), it’s a number which demonstrates the breadth of Bleu’s musical influences. The strings occasionally hint at the heartbreaking soul ballads of the sixties – and it’s their presence of those strings which makes this track so great. The strings and vocal are augmented by Ducky Carlisle on kettle drums (again very effective), while Paul Ahlstrand’s saxophones are on hand for extra colour, but are so low-key they don’t always appear necessary.

‘Evil Twin’ is a wordy, twisted drone which has an Eastern vibe. A voyage into the dark side of Bleu’s psyche, this is a number which listeners will either love or hate. The drums are heavy in places, but never dominate, while Led Zeppelin-esque acoustic guitars which provide some of the best moments. Throw in some vocals which are are impassioned, but not always friendly (their slightly threatening manner reinforced by a few unexpected backing vocals ‘ooh’s) and you have something about as far removed from retro pop as you’re likely to find on an album of this kind. The vibe stays fairly moody throught ‘Ya Catch More Flies With Vinegar’ - a long, drawn out affair constructed around a drum part played by Seth Kaspar. Its wandering nature allows Bleu to stretch out his vocal – and here, he sounds supremely confident. While, again, the arrangement has some good moments, there’s no immediate hook to pull in the listener. With its veering towards something more experimental in places, it’s obvious there’s far more to this man than some of his power pop and singer-songwriter contemporaries.

‘Dead In The Mornin’’ is a punchy, horn-filled piece of brilliance, and is one of the album’s most shamelessly upbeat numbers. Sounding like ‘Wake Up Boo’ by The Boo Radleys augmented by a gospel choir, it’s a little over the top for sure, but its enthusiasm makes it impossible to ignore. While this doesn’t have the depth of some of the album’s other material, the horn section and female vocals add plenty of energy. The jaunty music is juxtaposed with lyrics regarding Bleu’s will: ‘To mom I leave my polaroids / To dad I leave my baby boy / To my friends I leave my power chords...’ A brilliant arrangement and Bleu’s slightly skewed sense of humour make this one of ‘Four’s key tracks. For those looking for something more introspective, ‘In Love With My Lover’ presents Bleu in a more fragile mood, accompanied mostly by his acoustic guitar. He’s in good voice here, clearly capable of decent delivery on the soft stuff as well as the complex. There’s a moment midway where loud drums and horns punctuate the gentle air (again, with a soul influence); although brief, it somehow fits the piece, providing a bit of contrast.

Fans invested $40,000 and a lot of faith in Bleu to deliver a new record that was worthy of their contributions. Listeners who are willing to invest listening time are likely to discover an album that’s varied, and home to a few absolutely cracking tracks. It’s not always fun, but during those downbeat moments where the hooks aren’t always obvious, the arrangements are often fantastic. Bleu has spent his fans’ donations wisely.

Watch lots of Bleu video stuff here!


December 2010

Thursday, 16 December 2010

ERIC CLAPTON - 461 Ocean Boulevard

461

By the tail end of the 1960s and having recorded three seminal studio albums with his power trio Cream, Eric Clapton was at the forefront of guitarists. By 1970, Blind Faith (the supergroup featuring Clapton, Steve Winwood, Family’s Ric Grech and Ginger Baker - who’d previously worked alongside Clapton in Cream) had imploded.

Clapton had grown tired of aggressive music. Instead, he spoke fondly of the Canadian retro outfit The Band. He, in turn, wished to make music with a similar smooth, rootsy feel. Enlisting a cast of musicians (including Delaney Bramlett, with whom Clapton had previously played as sideman), work began on a solo album. Released in August 1970 and titled simply ‘Eric Clapton’, the resulting disc was a reasonable stab at something with more pastel shading than guitar based aggression or purist blues. While never cited as one of Clapton’s great works, the album featured a couple of early Clapton classics: ‘Blues Power’ (a track which would become a live favourite for many years) and ‘After Midnight’, a shuffling boogie written by the then unsigned and unknown JJ Cale.

This desire to perform laid-back music could have been written off as a fad, since by the end of that year, Clapton returned fronting a full-on rock band, Derek and the Dominos, who’s sprawling double album ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ featured a sound very different to that of Clapton’s solo disc, with many of its tracks sounding more typical of Clapton’s previous works. Despite now being heralded as one of the classic albums of the age, upon its release, the album failed to chart in the UK. Despite this, The title cut became one of Clapton’s signature numbers and eventually became a belated UK hit single when an edited version was issued in 1972 (reaching #7) and again a decade later (reaching #4).

Like Blind Faith before them, the Dominos did not enjoy a long career. By the end of 1971 they had fallen apart, with Clapton getting bogged down by a heroin dependency. This low point in Clapton’s life would stretch across the next two years, until Pete Townshend encouraged him to return to live performance, by organising a handful of star studded gigs at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1973. With Clapton substantially cleaned up and his fans delighted by his return, the time was right for him to work on a new album.

His then manager, Robert Stigwood, arranged for Clapton to rent a house in Miami where he would work upon new material. Some new music had already been demoed by Carl Radle (previously of Derek and The Dominoes) with keyboardist Dick Simms and drummer Jamie Oldaker - the three gentleman who would become the core of Clapton’s new band. They, in turn were joined by second guitarist George Terry and vocalist Yvonne Elliman (with whom Clapton later became romantically involved).

The resulting album – ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ – is largely made up of covers and a couple of blues standards. It is unclear as to whether the arrangements for these tracks came from those demo tapes presented by Clapton’s band members, but what is clear is that ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is a great album. It adopts the semi-laid back approach that Clapton had hankered after back in 1970, but the performances are far more memorable than those featured on his debut. It may have something to do with a great choice of material, but it’s just as likely down to Clapton’s backing band being absolutely superb. [They were, perhaps, Clapton’s greatest ever band of session musicians – especially once vocalist Marcy Levy was added to their number the following year].

With regard to Clapton’s original compositions on the album, two are very strong, introspective affairs. The gentle longing of ‘Give Me Strength’ is especially telling of his state of mind. While the main base of the number is provided by Simms at the Hammond organ, it’s Clapton’s dobro playing which grabs the listener. With an absolutely crystal clear sound, the music harks back to Clapton’s blues roots while the pain in his voice highlights his vulnerability – the song itself an obvious ode to his dark, then recent past and how he desperately wants to leave those times behind and start anew. ‘Let It Grow’ has a message which is also inspired by a desire to move forward, but this time, the aching is replaced by an almost misty-eyed optimism. There’s absolutely nothing angular here and nothing for guitar fans to sink their teeth into, but the final arrangement is gorgeous. Clapton, Terry and Elliman join in harmony on various vocal moments to great effect. Clapton and Terry ten hammer out a gentle twin guitar riff over the closing minutes, creating something which would be more suited to George Harrison than Blind Faith, Derek or Cream.

The third track to feature a Clapton writing credit, ‘Get Ready’ (co-written by Yvonne Elliman) has a great groove, but little else to back it up. Capturing Clapton duetting on vocals with Elliman, lyrically, it sounds like it could have been improvised; not necessarily on the featured take, but certainly, the actual feel of the number is more important than the lyric. There is a verse, but half the song is taken up by both vocalists labouring the line ‘Get ready, he’s the one who’s gonna break your heart’. A more confident Clapton would have almost certainly punctuated this with a couple of sharp guitar runs, but as it stands, we are left with a half-finished vocal performance to carry the song. Clapton plays a couple of pointed notes at the end, but then the groove stops, as if he only played those notes in order to tease us...to remind us that the guitar god is waiting around the corner.

A take on the Elmore James number ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ lacks the fire of Fleetwood Mac’s version recorded a few year previously. Despite the relative smoothness, it’s still a great number with Clapton’s syrupy vocal tackling the song in a half-asleep back porch manner, befitting of JJ Cale (with whom, Clapton’s career would soon be often linked, thanks to a hit version of ‘Cocaine’). Although taken at a laid back pace, it’s a high point with regard to guitar playing on the album, with Clapton turning in a couple of solos (slide based, naturally, since firstly, this is an Elmore James number and secondly, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ isn’t really about solos or musical prowess). Great accompaniment is also on hand from Dick Simms on the Hammond organ. After the band pulls the track to a close, one of Clapton’s band men can be heard shouting with glee and then asking ‘Is he all right?’. Although this could have been edited, its presence gives an insight into the energy at the session.

Clapton pays further homage to his blues influences with a rendition of ‘Motherless Children’ - a now traditional blues number, often associated with Blind Willie Johnson and covered by seemingly hundreds or artists since the 1930s. While Clapton had more than enough credentials to approach this number in a blues purist’s fashion, he chooses instead to approach it as a very 70s sounding blues-rock shuffle. His band pick up most of the musical weight, with Jamie Oldaker’s shuffling approach and drum fills providing most of the better moments. I could perhaps suggest that the band’s upbeat arrangement isn’t quite suited to such bleak subject matter – and the chirpy manner in which Clapton quips ‘When you’re mother is dead’ sounds especially inappropriate as a result. However, Clapton’s slide guitar work isn’t without merit and across four minutes, this acts as a snapshot of how great Clapton’s backing band is – and more importantly, how relaxed they sound playing together. At the close of the track, Oldaker bashes his drums in a manner which would certainly suggest that - like ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ - this had been recorded live in the studio. [A couple of other numbers featured on a 2004 expanded version of the album were studio jams, so it’s likely a couple of the bluesier numbers featured on the original album were from the same session].

Perhaps ‘461’s most famous number is the cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, a number which featured in Clapton’s live set for many years. While the recorded version doesn’t quite have the power of some of the live recordings (particularly those from the 1970s), Clapton and his band treat the song with great respect. Yvonne Elliman’s counter harmony helps beef up the lead vocal and a gentle reggae approach allows Oldaker to lay down a tight drum part with a few fantastic fills. Clapton occasionally punctuates the rhythm with a lead guitar note or two, often echoed by Dick Simms at the organ, but his piano fills which create the biggest impression. It must be tricky being a bunch of white rock musicians tackling the work of a reggae legend, yet somehow, Clapton and co hold onto their dignity.

‘Please Be With Me’ is a pastel shaded acoustic number, featuring Clapton sounding somewhat content with his current situation. While the twin guitars of Clapton and Terry make for great, rootsy listening - Clapton’s dobro work here particularly charming, once again - the track’s shining moments come from Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals. A take on Robert Johnson’s ‘Steady Rollin’ Man’ works its way through a funky riff that nods towards The Allman Brothers with its easy funkiness. Over that groove, Clapton’s vocal is slightly harder than on much of ‘461’. Jamie Oldaker, meanwhile, carries most of the weight with a drum groove that’s busy without ever becoming intrusive. There are a couple of guitar solos featured; though these are relatively busy, they’re certainly not aggressive in the way Clapton had been in his Cream or Derek and the Dominos days.

‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ (originally by Johnny Otis) has a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm slowed down to almost a reggae pace. Oldaker’s drum fills are great, as always and Simms maintains a middling presence on the organ. Bassist Carl Radle features higher in the mix than on most of the album, but doesn’t manage to do anything wholly remarkable and Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals are understated. Clapton and his band could have tackled Johnny Otis with a bit more enthusiasm; in this form, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ is filler material at best. [Clapton doesn’t have an especially good track record with regard to Johnny Otis numbers: On his 1983 release, ‘Money and Cigarettes’, Clapton covered ‘Crazy Country Hop’. The end result was a horribly low point on an already patchy album].

Written by guitarist George Terry, ‘Mainline Florida’ comes with a pleasing guitar riff, but like so much of ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ it leans towards a sunny, jammed out vibe with no sharp edges. Letting his hired hands do most of the work here, it becomes obvious what a great band Clapton has in tow. Elliman’s backing vocals have a real presence; Dick Simms’s organ style throughout the number is limited to big chords with nothing fancy, but yet he still manages to leave his mark, while Jamie Oldaker’s drum style goes the distance without breaking beyond a solid shuffle. Each musician knows his or her role and never fights for domination. Clapton, meanwhile, never fights for domination either, with his unthreatening vocal delivery almost lost in the mix at times.

In all of its shiny eyed optimism, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ may not bring much in the way of original new material, but it presents Clapton at one of his career peaks - and in good shape. It’s interesting in that, for a guitarist, the album features so few obvious guitar solos. In this respect, the album’s arrangements are left to stand with relative simplicity, with no show-boating or none of the featured musicians taking a deliberate place out in front (Clapton included).

If you’re a fan of Clapton’s more ferocious work with Cream or Derek and the Dominos, it’s highly likely you’ll think of this album as lightweight or slight. While it may not carry much of a bite, despite a couple of misses, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is one of Clapton’s best releases. With regard to his solo work, it may even be the best.


December 2010

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

SEBASTIEN - Tears Of White Roses

white roses

Sebastien is a band/project based in the Czech Republic, specialising in metal with many symphonic and progressive influences. Their press release claims their music is a breakthrough in progressive and symphonic music, but with regard to their chosen musical field, I’m struggling to hear anything that doesn’t sound like a bunch of safe, tried-and-tested ideas.

I’d hoped that the roll-call of guest performers may go some way towards making this a worthwhile listen, but sadly, their performances aren’t anything special either. Take for example the guest spots by Amanda Somerville – on ‘Femme Fatale’ she gets no more than a few lines in the spotlight while on ‘Black Rose Part II’ her potentially very strong harmony vocal is left hovering somewhere in the back of the mix, somewhere behind Cornerstone’s Doogie White. Thankfully, on this big, theatrical ballad White’s vocals are strong enough to carry the piece (just as they had been on the previous ‘Black Rose Part I’). More should have been asked of Somerville, though, especially since her voice shines among the barrage of male metal voices.

‘Dorian’ and ‘Fields of Chlum (1866 A.D.)’ feature vocals by Rhapsody of Fire and Vision Divine vocalist Fabio Lione. His slightly more restrained delivery is well suited to both pieces. While a (far, far too loud) church organ dominates ‘Dorian’, a chorus where Lione harmonises with Roland Grapow provides what is easily this album’s best moment. Both vocalists are in fine form, and the melody itself is far more memorable than anything else here. ‘Fields’ is a power ballad, and while it contains a similar amount of power, thanks to a decent mid-pace, it doesn’t end up as stifling as most of Sebastien’s material.

‘Voices In Your Heart’ (featuring Masterplan’s Mike DiMeo and Roland Grapow) offers plenty in the way of speed, but far too much macho posturing and relentless double-bass drums make the end result rather unpleasurable. ‘Silver Rain’ (featuring Firewind’s Apollo Papathanasio) is slightly better as it carries a great down-tuned guitar riff riff in places and a great bass chug. The bas could have been put to far better use, mind; the upfront playing disappears after the intro. Once Papathanasio starts to sing, though, any promise is swept away. His loud, heavily accented vocals (delivered at full bore) are just too full on – and not especially tuneful.

The couple of performances featuring Fabio Lione are the only numbers preventing ‘Tears of White Roses’ from being completely forgettable. A couple of the guitar solos are decent and Roland Grapow’s production is solid, but since Sebastien have favoured complexity over memorable material and obvious hooks, they’re never going to be able to compete with Euro heavyweights such as Jorn Lande or Arjen Lucassen when it comes to this kind of thing.


December 2010

Monday, 13 December 2010

MOTÖRHEAD - The World Is Yours

worldisyours

Twenty studio albums and various live albums into their career, it’s only Lemmy who remains from the “classic” Motörhead line up, but in many ways, that’s all you need. On 2010’s ‘The World Is Yours’, Lemmy, drummer Mikkey Dee and guitarist Phil Campbell (celebrating seventeen years together – Motörhead’s longest serving line-up) add little to their back-catalogue with regard to new ideas. However, this far into a career which has stuck almost rigidly to Lemmy’s original musical vision, they’re preaching to the converted. If you didn’t get the Motörhead ethos by now, you never will. And if you are someone who doesn’t get it, it’s likely Lemmy doesn’t care.

Recycling an already familiar title, ‘Born to Lose’ opens with a solid riff from Phil Campbell and it soon becomes clear very quickly that this isn’t a re-recording of an earlier Motörhead number. The riff may be decent, but it’s Mikkey Dee’s drumming which provides the moments of real greatness. Here, Dee pulls out all the stops, delivering something worthy of “classic” early Motörhead. His kit thunders out of the speakers with a great amount of power - I suppose spending so many years playing the intro to ‘Overkill’ must have left its mark. The guitar riff from the opening bars is replaced by something more rudimentary during the verses, but makes a timely return on the chorus sections. Campbell’s featured solo is full of wah-wah goodness and features a decent level of aggression. Meanwhile, the rhythm guitar riff placed underneath beefs things up further by delivering something reminiscent of ‘Mars: The Bringer of War’ from Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets Suite’.

‘I Know What You Need’, ‘Devils In My Head’ and ‘I Know How To Die’ are archetypal examples of the sound which made Motörhead world famous. Although short on surprises, Lemmy, Dee and Campbell sound as tight as ever on these tracks – the furious solo on ‘I Know How To Die’ is possibly one of the album’s best and there’s a catchy edge present on ‘Devils In My Head’ thanks to a great shout along chorus.

With most Motörhead discs, there’s a slower, chugging number and ‘Brotherhood of Man’ offers one of their most threatening. Over a brooding riff, Lemmy recounts the fate of a world ravaged by war; a corrupt place where everyone has blood on their hands and murder is law. Lemmy’s vocal delivery steps down from its usual shouting croak and drops to an even lower register. In an almost spoken word delivery and Lemmy growls his way through some incredibly heavy lyrical content. A mid-section picks things up briefly as Dee sounds as if he’s gearing the band up for Campbell to deliver a killer solo, but after a couple of bars, the band drop back into the main riff in time for Lemmy to deliver the last verse. Naturally, Campbell squeezes in a solo at the close, but it’s quite understated. The chugging riff and doomy vocal are the big draw here – and this ‘Orgasmatron’ inspired number really hits it’s mark.

Lemmy and co sound at their most enthusiastic when they’re let loose upon a couple of numbers which are less influenced by hard rock and metal and lean farther towards old style rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ does exactly what it says on the tin, with Lemmy rasping his way through a number which borrows a musical aesthetic from very early AC/DC. It ends up sounding unavoidably like Motörhead, of course (especially on the choruses), but there’s a sense of fun delivered with a slight arrogance that’s often absent elsewhere. ‘Bye Bye Bitch Bye Bye’ takes the love for such rock ‘n’ roll tendencies to a whole new level as Motörhead speed their way through something which sounds like Status Quo’s take on Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, but played with twice the aggression, served up with some mildly distubing misogyny. While Motörhead can often be accused to recycling tried-and-tested musical formulas and lyrical ideas, the energy behind this number proves the sparks of brilliance are still very much there.

Measured up against a few of their other 21st Century releases, ‘The World Is Yours’ may not match the greatness 2004’s ‘Inferno’, or deliver it’s songs at the blistering speed of the best moments of 2000’s ‘We Are Motörhead’, but it’s almost certainly as good as ‘Kiss of Death’ or ‘Motörizer’. The unconvinced are likely to remain unconvinced, but for the dedicated Motörfan, there are more than enough gems here.


December 2010

Friday, 10 December 2010

ONE DAY AS A LION - One Day As A Lion

lionEP

One Day as a Lion is an alliance between Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. That’s it. Two guys: one with a loud drum kit and the other with a message. No band. ...And ultimately, very little in the way of music – just vocals, lots of very distorted Fender Rhodes keyboard noise and that aforementioned drum kit.

This EP lyrically contains the anger and passion of the best Rage Against The Machine material. Witness Zack during the title cut: “Blood soaked earth that you call home, close your eyes but don’t sleep / We comin’ like a people’s army for those who don’t eat” [...] “smashed in his dome with a club of a white fed / No food, no water, no rights read”. Elsewhere he says “Your god is a homeless assassin who roams the world to save / He’s digging for buried treasures, leaving nothing but fields of graves” (‘Last Letter’). There’s enough lyrical bite to potentially make this thrilling.

This EP could have been great, but falls very short of mark, since musically, One Day As A Lion have relatively little fire and in addition, the keyboard drones become grating over the course of the twenty minute playing time. While Theodore’s drum work is aggressive, it’s just not enough to carry Zack’s message effectively.

Zack’s socio-political rants certainly work far better with Rage Against The Machine’s more sophisticated musical style. ...And as for the rest of Rage, judging by the Audioslave releases, their musical tricks and style sound tired and lame without Zack. Although Zack’s 80s hardcore band Inside Out had their moments and Tom Morello’s melodic rock/funk metal outfit Lock Up showed signs of greatness, the release of that first RATM album truly raised the bar. For best results, all four guys really need to work together, but you hardly needed me to tell you that...did you?


February 2010

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

THE GARY MOORE BAND - Grinding Stone

gary moore

After the breakup of Irish power trio Skid Row (not to be confused with the popular US band) in the early 70s, Gary Moore embarked on a solo career. This, the first release with Gary as band leader is credited to The Gary Moore Band. The Gary Moore Band released one album together – 1973’s ‘Grinding Stone’.

The album possesses a fair amount of power, but not always much focus. ‘Time To Heal’, with a driving, almost southern boogie approach is one of the album’s better tracks, even if it’s more Allman Brothers than Gary Moore. The only down side is that Gary chooses to deliver his vocal in his rock style voice, which seems an odd choice given the nature of the material. It’s not like he’s not found his blues voice yet, either, as he uses that to great effect elsewhere on the album. The title cut is an instrumental (just shy of ten minutes) which fuses bluesy shuffles and faint hints of jazz rock, creating something which Carlos Santana would’ve been proud to have grace one of his mid seventies albums. Gary’s fuzzy guitar playing has a sometimes bluesy edge, but no real soul. It’s aggressive, sharp and fairly unrelenting. Jan Schellhaus (later of Caravan and Camel) helps create some softer counterbalance here; his piano and electric keyboard work is decent enough given what he has to work with. As something which sounds like it was born from a blues-rock jam, it’s pleasing enough, but you’ve heard this done so much better. ’The Energy Dance’ is a short keyboard instrumental leading into ‘Spirit’. All I’ll say about this is that Jan Schellhaas spoils decent piano work by overlaying what could be the most disgusting synth noise I’ve ever heard.

The seventeen minute tour-de-force ‘Spirit’ could’ve the high point for musicianship, although by the halfway point there’s a feeling that it could’ve been truncated. There’s a fine line between tasteful showmanship and self-indulgence...and this track wobbles across that line regularly. Starting with a tight workout (which again has an Allman Brothers Band feel) it certainly starts promisingly enough. Then, during a rhythmically pleasing section which sounds like another Santana cast-off (featuring solid interplay between Moore, Schellhaas and drummer Pearse Kelly), there’s a decent groove. However, the track falls apart at the seven minute mark as it descends into spacey keyboard and guitar noodling. At this point, it ultimately becomes something which feels like unnecessary filler. Even when the drums come back and the band fall into something which carries the spirit (no pun intended) of a threatening 70s film soundtrack, the momentum never really returns, despite a half decent guitar solo.

‘Boogie My Way Back Home’ is a standard blues workout, pre-empting Gary’s main musical focus by some years. It’s a track which features a simple, but direct use of slide guitar and Gary is in fairly strong voice. The vocal high point of the album, though, comes during the ballad ‘Sail Across The Mountain’. One of Gary’s greatest early achievements, his voice ranges from soulful to pained and passionate, again hinting at his future musical direction. In many ways, if ‘Grinding Stone’ makes any long lasting impression as an album at all, it’s one which leaves the listener asking why there couldn’t have been more of this?

Not long after the release of ‘Grinding Stone’, Gary’s solo career was put on hold, as he would be drafted in to replace Thin Lizzy’s departed guitarist Eric Bell. This tenure with Lizzy would be short, with Gary finishing their 1973 tour and contributing guitar parts to three songs from their 1974 album ‘Night Life’, before joining jazz rock outfit Colosseum II. He would later return to Thin Lizzy in 1979, as a full time member, appearing on their classic LP ‘Black Rose: A Rock Legend’.

As has been well documented, Gary would go on to achieve great things. His solo career - spanning several decades from 1979 onward - going from hard rock to blues and occasionally back again - has moments of sheer brilliance... ‘Grinding Stone’, meanwhile, is still no more than a curio which shows glimpses of greatness.


January 2010

Sunday, 5 December 2010

THE GREAT AFFAIRS - Ricky Took The Wheels

greataffairs

Any band that mentions The Black Crowes in their bio are likely to get my attention. In the case of Tennessee’s Great Affairs, bassist Matt Andersen “only needs his Black Crowes bootlegs to survive”. The Great Affairs may cull their sound from various rootsy sounding bands, but on this second album ‘Ricky Took The Wheels’, it’s not really the Crowes who are the over-riding influence. You’ll certainly hear traces of the Black Crowes moments within the album’s twelve cuts, but no more than you might hear an influence from the latter day work of Replacements or any other number of semi-acoustic/jangly retro outfits.
None of the tracks on ‘Ricky Took The Wheels’ are particularly groundbreaking, but within its grooves, Smith and co offer twelve songs of familiar pop/rock which stand up well to repeated listens.

‘Feels Like Home’ opens the album with a decent upbeat number, full of retro jangling guitars. The music recalls ‘Don’t Tell a Soul’ era Replacements, with its great chiming chords occasionally overlaid by slide guitar. The music may have a familiar ring, but Denny Smith’s slightly ragged vocals ensure they don’t sound like clones of Minneapolis’s favourite sons. Part of the main opening riff from ‘Inside Your Head’ resembles The Black Crowes number ‘Remedy’, but that’s as far as any real influence goes. For the verses, The Great Affairs settle on a funky groove. Smith’s vocal performance is well suited to the arrangement and Andersen lends an unobtrusive harmony vocal where required. Its punchy approach makes it one of the album’s stand-outs. With a mid-paced delivery, ‘No Heart Left To Hold’ showcases The Great Affairs in a very comfortable musical setting. With uncomplicated acoustic guitars and the return of the slightly countrified slide, The Great Affairs deliver a great piece of roots rock, which, although lacking a big hook, has a very pleasing sound, with Patrick Miller’s electric guitar work providing the best feature.

‘Good Flyin’’ begins with a rumbling bass intro from Andersen, soon accompanied by a few unfussy guitar chords. Anchored by Tim Good’s basic drum pattern, this is a snapshot of The Great Affairs in a more moody setting. While the bass carries the greatest presence during this number, it’s the occasional guitar fills which create it’s best musical moments – the retro bluesy tone calls to mind a slight Hendrix influence, but more discerning listeners may hear an influence from Audley Freed, (particularly from his work on the first Cry of Love disc, ‘Brother’). The Great Affairs follow this relative aggression with a track which is almost the polar opposite: ‘You’ll Never Know’, has a strong acoustic base, and with the acoustics overlaid by subtle electric twangs, this provides a really intimate moment for the album. A hushed, slightly cracked vocal from Smith only highlights the fragile nature of the song; it’s a great number, on which, the reserved performances from all concerned should be applauded.

The stomping nature of ‘You’re Not Funny’ comes with a sharp edge and a sneer which would befit Tommy Stinson’s Bash & Pop (whose sole album is a great mix of Stones fixated material with a hint of attitude borrowed from New York Dolls). The twin guitar attack from Denny Smith and Patrick Miller is instantly attention-grabbing, and the song barely lets up over the course of its four minutes. I’m a sucker for trashy rock ‘n’ roll ethics – and like that aforementioned Bash & Pop disc, this more than fits the bill. ‘Bastard Son’ captures The Great Affairs rocking out in a retro way, it’s mix of acoustic and electric guitars creating a sound which evokes the classic rock/pop of The Connells during their more upfront moments. It features one of Smith’s best vocals; he sounds perfectly at home fronting this simple, gently rocky arrangement. Once again, it’s nothing you won’t have heard before with regard to this particular musical niche, but it’s played very well. For guitar playing highlights, the finger-picked acoustic work on ‘My Apologies’ is recommended listening. This low-key number rolls along with the intricate guitar work taking the lead, as the band’s rhythm section take a back seat. As with the album’s other quiet moments, Smith’s vocal style finds a sympathetic place within the arrangement.

On the whole, while this album may not sound wholly original, it has plenty of heart. The Great Affairs show a high level of enthusiasm and have the ability to pen decent tunes. if you own albums by The Connells or any similar semi-acoustic rock/pop bands, ‘Ricky Took The Wheels’ could be for you.

Visit The Great Affairs here.


November 2010

Thursday, 2 December 2010

STRATOSPHERE - Fire Flight

stratosphere

Göran Edman will be familiar to some of you as the man who provided vocals for Yngwie Malmsteen between 1990 and 1992, appearing on his ‘Eclipse’ and ‘Fire and Ice’ albums. More recently, he’s been the frontman with melodic rock outfits Street Talk, Brazen Abbott and Escape Music signings Vindictiv. He’s also stepped in as vocalist on various other projects, including a couple of releases masterminded by Flower Kings bassist Jonas Reingold. In short, in the world of European rock music, Göran has always been an “in demand” vocalist. This debut release by Stratosphere finds him fronting yet another symphonic melodic rock band; this one the brainchild of Scandinavian keyboard virtuoso Jeppe Lund.

In addition to Edman and Lund, Stratosphere features Anders Borre Mathiesen on bass, Jim McCarty on drums and Jonas Larson on guitar. While Stratosphere is credited as being Lund’s band, it’s certainly Larson who is the real star. His guitar work throughout most of the disc is top notch, provided, that is, you like your playing with a Euro neo-classical bent. It’s somewhat unsurprising that Stratosphere’s music takes the bombastic Scandi route, but the end results are, for the most part, about as good as can be for this style of rock.

‘Russian Summer’ opens with a crunchy mid-paced riff which is unmistakably European. Göran Edman takes the opportunity to make his presence felt as he hits some great notes. Jonas Larson’s solo features plenty of sweeping notes; there are plenty of great features here if this kind of hard rock is your bag – the only minor flaw being the chorus: it sounds like it should have a major hook, but try as it may, it’s not especially memorable despite carrying a decent core melody. ‘The Battle Within’ takes things up a gear with a busy guitar riff which would be typical of Yngwie Malmsteen at his best. The vocals are fairly grandiose with plenty of ‘whoah’s as backing. Honestly, given the song title, I’m sure you know what you’re getting here! ...And if that’s what you want, it does not disappoint – particularly during the pre-solo bridge, as Larson hits upon a Celtic motif, backed by Lund adding pompy string sounds as backup.

I’d hoped ‘Princess of the Night’ would be a cover of the popular Saxon number from 1981, delivered with a suitable amount of energy. Instead, it presents Stratosphere’s chance to slow things down with a big power ballad. Fairly sizable backing vocals are on hand in the relevant places and Lund’s blankets of keyboards work well throughout, but it’s Edman’s lead vocal which provides this number’s best feature. He belts out his lines with effortless grace and although the pomp element to the music attempts to drown him out in a couple of places, he holds his own. Larson’s solo is a little too busy for the space it occupies, but it doesn’t spoil what’s otherwise an album standout.

With Lund’s keyboards providing one of the key musical features (thus taking the focus away from Larson’s guitar a little for a change), ‘Streets of Moscow’ offers plenty of melody. On this mid-paced rocker, Edman sounds at ease, as if he’s sung the song a thousand times. Of course, it sounds rather like something which would have graced a Malmsteen album way back when, but given Edman’s presence and Larson’s guitar style, that’s more than to be expected. I’d certainly rather listen to it than the instrumental which follows... ‘Rendezvous’ is a lightning speed neo-classical workout where Larson and Lund take turns to show off their musical prowess to levels of self-indulgence. I appreciate these guys can play (and very well at that), but once you’ve heard the opening riff, it doesn’t deviate too much from there and after four minutes, it’s quite draining.

‘VIP’ opens with an wonderful intro full of sweeping guitar lines capturing Jonas Larson on top form. After such a promising start, it’s downhill from there as the band hammer forward at full speed with predictable Yngwie Malmsteen-esque bombast. This alone wouldn’t make it too bad, particularly given the effective backing vocal arrangement, but man, some of the lyrics are appalling. Featuring lines such as “your cold eyes are bigger than your belly boy / Sobriety is a virtue, god knows / Gluttony stepping on his toes / Stand in line, not the cup of tea for a VIP”, it doesn’t bode too well. It reads badly, but as Edman works his way through them at full volume it sounds pretty ropey too. A fairly energetic guitar solo which leans towards the neo-classical works quite well, but not enough to save ‘VIP’ being a skipper. For the neo-classical fans among you, the album closes on a high note. Beginning with a huge keyboard intro which would be worthy of Don Airey, the title track is a no-nonsense instrumental number which features fantastic guitar work throughout. Granted, Larson may not have the finesse of Ritchie Blackmore, but as far as these kind of neo-classical chops are concerned, he’s got more than enough clout to match Malmsteen and many others at the top of their game. While it has it’s busy moments, it’s far classier and more restrained than ‘Rendezvous’.

‘Fire Flight’ is certainly an accomplished debut. While there are moments where some of song writing is a little hit and miss, musically, Stratosphere hit their mark with a fair amount of consistency. As such, fans of Scandinavian rock music (and fans of Göran Edman’s vocals in particular) should find this album enjoyable.


December 2010

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

JENNY AND JOHNNY - I'm Having Fun Now

jenny

I first became aware of Jenny Lewis in 2005 when her band Rilo Kiley’s second album ‘More Adventurous’ gained a cult following. As good as parts of that album were, it was only with the release of the following year’s ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ – an album recorded by Lewis with The Watson Twins - I became truly convinced of Ms Lewis’s brilliance. That album’s lush songs, full of three-part harmonies steeped in old country and gospel traditions, captured her voice beautifully.

The third Rilo Kiley disc, 2007’s ‘Under The Blacklight’ was also loaded with great songs and it seemed like Jenny Lewis was on a roll. In 2008, Lewis’s first proper solo album ‘Acid Tongue’ had a similar rootsy feel to her previous outing with The Watson Twins, but stripped of the three part harmonies, the songs felt a little starker in places. Also, Lewis’s repetitive choruses meant the album wasn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been, although a suitably over the top performance from Elvis Costello comes recommended.

I always figured that Jenny would next be seen fronting Rilo Kiley once again, who by 2010 were certainly due a new release. It wasn’t to be. Instead, she teamed up with singer/songwriter Johnathan Rice, who’d previously produced her ‘Acid Tongue’ album. I’d hoped Jenny and Johnny’s song writing style would be of a similar retro, heart-tugging style to that of M Ward and Zooey Deschanel – the kind featured on their She & Him albums – but instead, Jenny and Johnny offer a bunch of mostly sprightly rock-pop numbers, befitting of the album’s title, ‘I’m Having Fun Now’. Although this album has a slightly disposable nature, it’s great to hear Lewis tackling material that’s upbeat and not quite so self aware – a polar opposite to her mature side previously showcased with The Watson Twins.

‘Scissor Runner’ opens with Johnathan Rice taking lead vocal over jangly indie pop verses, which musically aren’t far removed from ‘Lovey’ era Lemonheads. This works well enough, but naturally, once Jenny Lewis adds her counter vocal and chorus harmonies, it becomes rather more special – even though the arrangement is fairly basic, with no real climax. It’s this style of 90s indie pop which Jenny and Johnny have made their forte for a good proportion of the songs featured. ‘My Pet Snakes’ has an old rock ‘n’ roll twang in places – albeit delivered in a late 90s style. While it’s music may not be as instantly enjoyable as the opening number, vocally it’s a winner. Jenny takes lead on the verse, stepping aside for Johnny for the chorus. Due to a few rather over the top ‘oohs’ placed in the backing vocal this sounds a little hit and miss, but Jenny delivers a great lead.

One of the stand out numbers ‘Big Wave’ features an upfront vocal from Lewis (with a brief harmony from Rice at the end of the chorus). With rhythm guitars crashing against a great bass line, this sounds a bit like a Rilo Kiley leftover, but more than that, it’s hard not to find more than slight influence from Juliana Hatfield and John Strohm’s work with Boston legends Blake Babies. Taking things at a slower pace, the acoustic based ‘Switchblade’ features some top harmonies. In terms of arrangement it’s very strong, with each element given more than enough space in the mix. Sounding great together, Jenny’s breathy vocals harmonize with Johnny’s plain yet enjoyable delivery.

Against a gentle, echoing guitar, ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ offers the album it’s only number which could be compared to the aforementioned She & Him. Jenny’s multi-tracked vocal lends itself well to the song’s naivety, while Johnny’s voice has been used to create a strong counter-vocal which features obvious a cappella stylings. It definitely would have worked as a true a cappella number, but the guitar adds some great textures. ‘While Men Are Dreaming’ is at odds with the rest of Jenny and Johnny’s material, but due to Jenny’s charm, it works well and lends the album a little variety.

‘Just Like Zeus’ is a sixties-inspired number where Jenny and Johnny’s harmonies are at their best. In fact, the whole band are tight – the simple drum part working particularly well – creating a number which would suit the twin harmonies of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It’d be great to hear them sing it, but it’s extremely unlikely we ever will. Speaking of Matthew Sweet, an influence from his ‘In Reverse’ era work can be heard throughout ‘Animal’ and ‘New Yorker Cartoon’. Maybe it’s the chiming, sixties influenced guitars; maybe it’s Johnny’s vocal style; it could even be both – there’s a confident air and a greater depth during these Sweet influenced numbers than the album’s first few tracks would ever suggest. Whatever, it’s on these numbers where Johnny really comes into his own and proves himself a more than worthy companion to Jenny’s shining vocals.

At this point, things tail off... ‘Straight Edge of the Blade’ returns things to the jangly defaults of the album’s opening numbers, albeit with weaker results. There’s nothing wrong with Jenny’s vocals here, but there’s a sense you’ve already heard this done in a superior way. The country twang of the guitars in the left speaker add a nice flourish, but on the whole, it’s little more than an okay number. With a greater focus on keyboards to flesh out the sound and an over-reliance on handclaps, ‘Slavedriver’ is upbeat enough to hold its own, but the song writing isn’t too remarkable, and also a greater focus on keyboards plus an over reliance on handclaps means the song doesn’t quite work. The closing guitar driven number, ‘Committed’, is almost as throwaway. The tune itself sounds oddly familiar and certainly provides an upbeat end to the album (with both Jenny and Johnny sounding like they had a great time), but there’s a feeling that, once again, you’ll have heard better numbers on ‘I’m Having Fun Now’.

You won’t find much originality in Jenny and Johnny’s sound; but you’ll find plenty of enjoyment if you’re a Jenny Lewis fan. The end results are often solid, and the album’s relative brevity at under 40 minutes ensures a breezy, good time affair. It’s likely the presence of Jenny Lewis that’s attracted you to this album in the first place, and as such, if you’re a Jenny Lewis devotee, you’ll certainly want to have ‘I’m Having Fun Now’ in your collection.


November 2010

Monday, 29 November 2010

THE SILVER SEAS - Château Revenge!

silver seas

In 1996, Daniel Tashian (son of country-folk duo Barry and Holly Tashian) recorded a country rock influenced album named ‘Sweetie’ with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett. Despite being created with Burnett and featuring a cast of top notch session musicians (including Larry Knetchtel, Jay Joyce and the legendary Booker T Jones), the album was not a commercial success.

In 1999, following a change of musical direction, Tashian teamed up with producer Jason Lehning to form the core of The Bees, a band with a retro pop fixation. Their debut release, 2004’s ‘Starry Gazey Pie’ features some good, hooky songs and a few wandering ones. Their sophomore album ‘High Society’ has a bigger focus on 60s and 70s style hooks and is instantly enjoyable. ‘High Society’ secured The Bees a record deal with Cheap Lullaby Records who reissued the album the following year. The reissue of ‘High Society’ was credited to The Silver Seas, a moniker chosen after a British band named The Bees had gained popularity and held the rights to that name. [‘Starry Gazey Pie’ was reissued as a Silver Seas album too, though only in MP3 format].

With some of the more lightweight sixties influences taking a back seat and even more seventies power pop and pomp influences coming to the fore, this third Silver Seas release ‘Château Revenge!’ takes those influences and bends them into something near retro pop perfection.

‘Another Bad Night’s Sleep’ is an incredibly busy number driven by wall of ringing guitars. Daniel Tashian’s vocal is confident and sounds superb against the many guitar parts and tight rhythm section. It’s a strong opener and one which captures many of the best aspects of The Silver Seas’ sound. ’Jane’ is slightly simpler, very much in a jangle pop vein. With more space for the song to breathe, against a gentle backbeat, there are great fills on the electric piano. Once again, it’s Tashian’s vocal backed by crystal clear guitar work which is most likely to pull in the listener. When that voice meets well arranged harmony vocals, it’s really hard not to be captivated by The Silver Seas’ brand of power pop. During ’The Best Things In Life’, Daniel Gherke (drums) and Lex Price (bass) prove themselves as a rhythm section, with a punchy approach which barely lets up throughout the song. Again, a full band sound is padded out with string sounds. Here, there are 10cc influences bought to the table and a slightly funky vibe.

Featuring a gentle vocal delivery, solid bass and multi layered sound, ‘What’s The Drawback?’ uncover an absolute love of Jeff Lynne. While they’ve not stooped to the squishy drum sound and vocals that sound like Sparky’s Magic Piano, there are definite influences from ‘Evil Woman’, ‘Sweet Talking Woman’ and other 70s classics. Bringing the point home with a nod and a wink, ELO even earn a namecheck in the song before a quick burst of strings recalls an old ELO tune. A beautifully played guitar solo shows a great amount of restraint and sounds like a cross between ‘That Lady’ by The Isley Brothers and classic Steely Dan, all in all making this one of the best songs on the album. Equally fantastic, ‘Somebody Said Your Name’, offers plenty of similarly busy 70s pop, as a slightly distorted bass and electric piano lead a confident feel-good number. Tashian is in great vocal form here, but it’s the music which makes it so captivating. There’s a musical tightness and perfection here worthy of Todd Rundgren’s 1973 masterpiece ‘Something/Anything’.

‘Home & Dry’ changes the mood, bringing things down from a level of 70s brilliance to more sedate singer-songwriter territory. At first Tashians voice and acoustic guitar dominate the arrangement. As the track progresses there’s backing from mandolin (obviously an influence from Tashian’s parents), and then with the band joins – the fuzz bass and drums adding a punch, string sounds adding colour. Also more subtle, ‘From My Windowsill’ provides the album’s melancholy AM radio moment, strings, organs, a twangy guitar solo and soft harmony vocals are all delivered with The Silver Seas’ magnificence – creating something big, but without bombast.

‘Candy’ is full of Todd Rundgren-esque grandiosity. The musical arrangement has everything thrown at it – including the ubiquitous strings and huge backing vocals, hovering somewhere between The Beach Boys and ELO. Buried within the kitchen sink approach, there are the sounds of sparingly used glockenspiels. Granted, it doesn’t feature the retro-pop sleigh bells which have a habit of creeping in with things like this, but frankly, there just isn’t room! ‘What If It Isn’t Out There’ showcases soul influences in its vocal stylings. While the huge harmony vocals provide a big hook, it’s Lex Price’s unshakable bass playing which grabs the attention. By turns both solid and warm, the bass sound here is fantastic. The slightly fuzzy, noisy guitar solo feels a little out of character for The Silver Seas, but this has been balanced out by the addition of string backing and the fact it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

‘Help Is On The Way’ makes decent use of a twangy guitar, an uneasy string break and a busy keyaboard loop. While parts of the arrangement are great (some nice backing vocals), this is one of the weaker numbers, due to the band not really cashing in on a potential hook. It’s weaker than most of the album for sure, but measured against most band’s standards it’s still better than filler material.
‘Those Streets’ has moments where the ringing guitars and electric pianos from other Silver Seas numbers are present, but its punchiness is more in keeping with 90s style indie-rock than 70s pop/rock. Daniel Gherke’s drumming takes the reigns for an upbeat number with a decent chorus. Tashian adopts his preferred ringing guitar tone again, and throughout this number it becomes rather insistent - almost relentless – despite only being present on the right channel, in an old fashioned stereo display. [In fact, this album would have sounded superb presented in a 5.1 mix, since it’s as multi-layered as any of the better known Flaming Lips recordings which were issued in that format].

The album closes on a rather more subtle note with ‘Kid’, an optimistic ballad, with Tashian leading things with his acoustic guitar. By the songs end, it’s transformed into a piece of sweeping beauty, with lavish strings. In a slightly tongue in cheek moment at the albums close, Tashian introduces the band members like a Vegas showman. As the album ends, as a listener, it feels like the end of a great journey into a world of cool retro pop.

It may sound like a big claim, but ‘Château Revenge!’ is one of the finest power pop albums ever. Each of its twelve songs offers the listener something great - and it really sounds like an album in the old-fashioned sense, as opposed to a collection of songs. Since the Jellyfish albums became the yardstick by which all power pop releases were measured in the 1990s and forever beyond, in a perfect world, ‘Château Revenge!’ would be the album to which all others aspire to in the 21st Century. An indispensible disc.


November 2010

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

ISSA - Sign Of Angels

issa

‘Sign of Angels’ is the debut release by Norwegian born singer Issabell Oversveen, otherwise known as Issa (not to be confused with Jane Siberry’s alter-ego of the same name). It would be more than fair to say Issa’s voice is strong, but it isn’t remarkable by any means - you'll certainly have encountered better female rock vocalists in the past... Combine that with the choice of album artwork and the fact that the record company press release talks about how “beautiful and sexy” Issa is before it attempts to state how talented she may be, it would suggest Frontiers Records may have been swayed somewhat by the Scandinavian blonde’s looks. Let’s hear it for equality in the 21st Century. That aside, with input from a team of song writers (including members of Hammerfall and Candlemass), the album itself delivers some great moments, which should be enough to please long-time fans of melodic rock, even when the end results are often workmanlike workwomanlike and a little predictable.

Combining staccato guitar work against slightly pompy keyboards, the verses of ‘I’m Alive’ present the song with a strong base, but it’s the huge chorus which makes it a winner. Simple, predictable, but suitably feel-good, it lifts the track considerably. Multi-tracked vocals lend a classic sound for a number which would have suited many of the melodic rock greats had it been written a decade earlier. The chorus of ‘Give Me a Sign’ offers a sweeping majesty and the rest of the number offers decent performances from all concerned, though it’s odd that Peter Huss wouldn’t take the opportunity for a guitar solo – especially given that there’s an almost perfect opportunity for one at the 2:20 mark.

The big power ballad, ‘Unbelievable’, sounds like a soft-metal version of Amanda Marshall. Here, Issa utilises the softer side of her vocal style during the verses, which makes for good contrast against all of the Euro-rock power-fisting elsewhere. Not that this track lacks an element of that, of course; in fact, its chorus is the very epitome of the great fist-clenched 80s style power ballads. Adding a choir of backing vocals takes things up a notch, but not in a way which upstages the lead – and that lead is one of Issa’s finest. ‘What Can I Do’ takes one of the album’s heaviest riffs and does very little with it. Despite best intentions, the plodding nature - complete with stabbing keys representing the sound of strings – provides a textbook example of Euro-metal. With a better chorus, there’s no reason it couldn’t have worked, but as it stands, it’s rather leaden. Similarly, ‘How Will I Know’ tries its hardest to be a decent rocker, but Tim Larsson’s keyboard work approaches similar sting-influenced territory. Here it’s much worse – interfering with what could have been a relatively good hard rock number. Featuring a very strong pre-chorus, this track promised so much, only to be let down by a slightly clumsy arrangement.

There seems little point in going into any greater detail regarding the rest of the songs, since there’s not a great amount of variety within the album’s twelve numbers. Depending on your personal viewpoint, that’ll either be the album’s greatest strength or eventually work to its detriment. On the whole, though, what you’ll get here are a bunch of (largely) unobjectionable songs with a few really great choruses on hand to give things a boost. For the diehard melodic rock fans, this’ll find a deserved place as collection filler. For the rest of you: if you’re starting to look beyond Journey, Survivor and Foreigner for similar undemanding rock thrills, there are a whole world of second division artists who deserve your attention before you even consider Issa as a contender, no matter how good parts of her debut may be.


November 2010

Thursday, 18 November 2010

GRINSPOON - Guide To Better Living

grinspoon

In Europe and the US, Grinspoon have never achieved any more than cult status, and yet, in their native Australia, they’ve been hugely successful. Although Grinspoon’s debut full-length release was released in Australia in 1998, I first heard it when it received an international release the following year. I was instantly taken with their brand of post-hardcore music, especially the album’s opening number ‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’ [sic]. Although Grinspoon had enough talent of their own, I heard more than a trace of other great post-hardcore bands like Quicksand and Helmet within their music, even though the music press at that time had been quick to label them an Australian grunge band.

‘Post Enebriated Anxiety’, in many ways, is the track which best captures the early Grinspoon sound. The band throws down a pounding rhythm and angry riff, which could have easily been a Helmet number – and anyone who wants to be influenced by Page Hamilton should be given the thumbs up. If you’re looking for similar post-hardcore material, ‘Repeat’ offers plenty of slow grinding, but retains enough quirk to never sink into unnecessary sludge and ‘Sickfest’ works well coupling a simple punchy verse with a quirky riff during its intro, while it’s chorus stands out with its use of tuneful harmony vocals backing a shouty lead. It also features a guitar solo, which is almost entirely out of character, as ‘Better Guide...’ isn’t big on that kind of old-style musical showing off. ‘DCX3’ shows a slightly more fun side of the band. First off, its main riff resembles White Zombie’s ‘Super-Charger Heaven’, though I’m sure any resemblance is purely coincidental and lyrically it concerns a dead cat. It features another metal-style lead guitar solo, but it’s nowhere near as accomplished as the one featured in ‘Sickfest’. ‘Black Friday’ utilises Joe Hansen’s Helmet-influenced bass style and is another of the better examples of Grinspoon’s take on the post-hardcore movement. ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is noticeably weaker than most of the album’s material; here, the sharp edges are a little too sharp and Phil Jamieson’s vocals wander into slightly uncomfortable territory. The second half of the song moves towards a more pleasing slow and heavy approach, but Jamieson’s vocals remain at their most extreme.

‘Bad Funk Stripe’ features the band in an uncharacteristically mellow mood, as the track winds things down to a lazy jangle, suitable for those summer days. It also features another lead guitar break, which also manages to be restrained, reaching no more than a bluesy noodle. ‘Champion’ pushes the band’s post-hardcore qualities into almost rap-metal territory without ever quite getting there, but even so, it’s a standout. ‘NBT’ and ‘More Than You Are’ have a sharpness which both bring more of a pogo element to the band’s sound, without resorting to being straight-up punk numbers and ‘Pedestrian’ also features the band at their spikiest, matching a riff-based verse with a sharp and angry chorus. The simple repetition during the chorus helps make it easily memorable, but it’s the return of the Helmet style bass work which is the track’s real draw.

It wasn’t until I’d had my international version of ‘Guide To Better Living’ for about a year, I discovered the original Aussie release not only presented the tracks in a different order, but also featured a few different songs. ‘Black Friday’ and ‘More Than You Are’ are not included on the (proper) domestic version, as they’d already been released in Australia as part of the ‘Grinspoon’ and ‘Pushing Buttons’ EPs respectively (both of which feature other non-album cuts, so they’re worth seeking out). In their place, the album features ‘Just Ace’, ‘Balding Matters’ and ‘Don’t Go Away’. Neither ‘Don’t Go Away’ or ‘Balding Matters’ are especially distinctive, but ‘Just Ace’ stands out as it doesn’t sound as mature as most of the other songs. It focuses largely on a lead bass part, joined occasionally by a fun sounding lead guitar part which instantly recalls a lot of mid-90s pop-punk stuff.

The only real downside with the Aussie version of the album is that ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ is the opening track! After being used to the international version of the album, ‘Post Enibriated Anxiety’ always felt like the perfect opening statement... For those unfamiliar with Grinspoon, ‘Pressure Tested 1984’ could be more than a little off-putting as an opening number.

If you’re thinking about buying ‘Guide to Better Living’, it’s likely the version you’ll find is the international release as (unless you’re native to Aus) it’s the most common pressing of the album. If you hear that and like it, then it’s worth looking for the original version to hear the album the way it was originally intended.


March 2010

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

“They say it’s your birthday...”

Well folks... Doesn't time fly? It's REAL GONE's first anniversary this week (yesterday, in fact).

Over the past year, it's been great bringing you all a mix of reviews, from new releases to cult classics; I'd like to think that REAL GONE has highlighted a few neglected gems out there. C'mon, you know you all want to hear the Jepp album!

Interest has slowly built up over the year and REAL GONE has had stuff published at M is For Music, a much bigger music site. Hopefully the next year will bring more visitors and even greater attention.

For those of you who visit regularly, thank you. I know there are a few of you out there who've followed from the very beginning.

There are still new reviews being written every week. In addition to those, there are already a truckload of reviews already written and waiting to go online over the next few months. Eventually, you'll get to read them all. Watch this space... Hopefully, you'll find lots more stuff to enjoy.

Until then, here are a few birthday related clips:

Watch Paul McCartney - Birthday (live at Knebworth 1990) here.
Watch The Birthday Party - Release The Bats (Live at The Hacienda) here.
Watch The Young Ones - Cricket/neil's birthday cake/Elephant Head here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

SLEEPER - Smart

sleeper

Although the exact date has been forgotten, I first heard Sleeper on a John Peel radio show on a Saturday night sometime in early 1994. On that same evening, he also played tracks by other relatively unknown bands Ash and Hopper. I knew that night that at least one of those bands would become fairly big. I was right on two counts. It never really happened for French band Hopper in the UK; their first album, ‘A Tea With D’ can be found occasionally in bargain bins, but frankly, they never sounded anywhere near as appealing as they had when Peely played them on his radio show. Ash, of course, became big starts with their pop-punk influenced brand of indie rock, while Sleeper became one of the most popular bands associated with the Britpop scene.

Sleeper’s debut album ‘Smart’ appeared in early 1995, following on the coat-tails of three earlier singles (‘Alice EP’, ‘Swallow’ and ‘Delicious’). A great combination of indie rock jangle, attitude and a curious sexiness – courtesy of Louise Wener’s breathy vocals – made it one of the must-have albums of the era. Granted, it’s unlikely to be remembered as fondly as Blur’s ‘Parklife’ (a strong contender for being the Britpop generation’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’) or those early Oasis discs, but with its relative simplicity, ‘Smart’ hits the listener square on from the start.

The opening track – and breakthrough single, peaking at number 16 on the UK chart – ‘Inbetweener’ combines Sleeper’s two guitar sound (Wener on jangly rhythms, Jon Stewart on lead) with enough bounce to get things moving. Stewart’s discordant lead guitar parts linking the verses provide the ideal contrast to the pop sheen lurking throughout the song. Lyrically, the song regards a boyfriend who’ll clearly “do for now”, laying the foundations for the themes of relationships and sexual undercurrent found within a number of the album’s songs. A video featuring Dale Winton (then the host of a crappy morning quiz, ‘Supermarket Sweep’, popular with skiving students) helped the song get extra exposure. That sexual undercurrent becomes more of a raging torrent of grubby feelings during ‘Swallow’ – a tale of conscience, adult relationships and ex-boyfriends, to which Wener’s vocal style adds weight to its seediness. The rest of the band (faceless to most of the world) settles into a jangly groove, which on the surface sounds like the standard indie-rock of the times. If you listen more closely, the guitars are severely multi-tracked: behind the main slightly heavy-handed jangle, there’s a counter-melody with sharp edges. By the song’s end, it’s like a mini wall of sound.

‘Delicious’ – the album’s edgiest number (previously issued as a single, though only just breaking the chart with a peak position of #75) – offers enough sexuality and sneering to grab the attention. Musically, its lead guitar riff is one of the album’s sunniest, and instantly perks up something which could have easily been quite ordinary. A closing section changes pace entirely to a slow stomp, which allows Wener to stretch her vocal just that little further. By the end of the three minutes, the band sounds like they’re fit to burst.

‘Poor Flying Man’ focuses on the nineties phenomenon of the LOUDquietLOUD technique of song construction, used to great effect throughout work by Pixies at the beginning of the decade. The verses feature a good use of Diid Osman’s quietly rumbling bass, overlaid by Wener’s hushed tones. The chorus is a crashing contrast, and while Stewart’s guitars add volume, the end result is somewhat predictable; unsurprisingly, this is one of the album’s more overlooked numbers.
‘Alice In Vain’ doesn’t veer too far from this tried-and-tested formula, but has greater strength due to a more impassioned vocal, slightly edgy solo and muted guitar strings on the verses. Looking at it in terms of a single release, it may not have quite the commercial edge over ‘Inbetweener’ or ‘Delicious’, but there’s enough enthusiasm on board to carry it off. Like ‘Poor Flying Man’, the LOUDquietLOUD approach drives the lyrically oddball ‘Hunch’. A story of a man who “looks like a frog” and “has six arms” and a hunched old woman “the size of a child”, there’s a feeling of guide vocal lyrics, as none of it really hangs together. The crunch on the chorus is enough to lend it charm, but it’s certainly ‘Smart’s most skippable track.

With its lighter quality on the verses and greater use of harmony vocals on the chorus, ‘Vegas’ looks ahead to the slightly modified sound Sleeper would employ on their follow-up album. While lacking the punch of ‘Smart’s best moments, it’s slightly refined tone allows the pop nature of much of Sleeper’s songcraft to shine. A re-recording of ‘Vegas’, featuring a fuller arrangement and Blur’s Graham Coxon guesting on sax (though credited under a pseudonym) was released as the album’s final single, eventually only reaching #33.

A sly humour runs through ‘Lady Love Your Countryside’ – its title making fun of a Germaine Greer essay - with tongue firmly in cheek. This story some teens’ day in the country (spent drinking, smoking and spray-painting paradise) provides little variety on the album’s other material. The more demanding listeners among you are bound to note that for all of their brilliance, Sleeper were nothing if not formulaic, although Andy Maclusky approaches his drum kit in a more interesting and rhythmic fashion than usual. The rocky ‘Pyrotechnician’ ensures the album closes with an energetic, positive number. Wener’s vocals have a sense of urgency as they compete against a wall of guitars, topped with Maclusky’s cymbals. While ‘Imbetweener’ is the pinnacle of Sleeper’s ability to write commercial, slightly alternative pop (at least on this debut release), ‘Pyrotechnician’ ranks alongside ‘Delicious’ as one of the greatest examples of Sleeper at their most vibrant.

‘Smart’ climbed to #5 on the UK album chart. It’s success led to Sleeper gaining a great deal of television exposure over the following year and - despite those eyebrows - Louse Wener became the closest the Britpop scene had to a pin-up girl (though, I suspect, after various appearances sporting a school uniform, fans of Echobelly’s Sonya Aurore Madan would like to argue). With nearly all the press attention focus on Louise Wener, the three men in the band became faceless (a fate that had also been the cause of much of Blondie’s internal turmoil a decade and a half earlier). NME, in particular were a little harsh, coining the briefly popular term “Sleeperbloke”, used to describe any men who happened to be in a band where the front-person garnered all the attention.

Sleeper’s second album, ‘The It Girl’ (a title presumably chosen as a tongue-in-cheek response to Wener’s poster-girl status) enjoyed similar success and displayed a slightly more polished sound. By the release of Sleeper’s third album, the largely forgettable ‘Pleased To Meet You’, the fire had all but gone. ‘Smart’, meanwhile, sounds as good as it ever did; an album loaded with great songs and, for people of a certain age, memories of an important musical movement. No collection should be without one.

[A 2CD reissue of ‘Smart’ adds all of the non-album cuts, bar the single version of ‘Vegas’. A 2CD deluxe reissue of ‘The It Girl’ was also released].

Watch the video for ‘Inbetweener’ here.
Watch the video for ‘Delicious’ here.
Watch the video for ‘Vegas’ here.
Watch a live performance of ‘Delicious’ from MTV here.


August 2010/October 2010