Wednesday, 29 September 2010

TUBELORD - Tezcatlipōca

tez

Kingston-upon-Thames four-Piece Tubelord are an interesting bunch. They’ve self-described their music is “pop songs for rock kids”, but given its complexity (a complexity which never lapses into self-indulgence), that statement often seems far too glib. Their debut full length ‘Our First American Friends’ (released on the independent label Hassle Records in 2009) owed a debt to Mansun – in particularly their ambitious second album, ‘Six’ – with its combination of indie jangle, adventurous time signatures, occasional electronic leanings, oblique song writing and great harmonies.

For this follow up EP, Tubelord enlisted the help of legendary producer Steve Albini and relocated to Berlin. The opening number, at first, features sparse acoustic work coupled with a razor thin vocal (both courtesy of Joseph Prendergast) accompanied by bass drum. Once the whole band kicks in, harmony vocals really flesh things out. David Catmur’s drum part gets busier (more than a shuffle, not quite a full blown rock approach) and the acoustics get increasingly sharper. An okay number, but not quite the Tubelord you could have been expecting... Could it be they’ve scaled down their approach and gone for something a bit more user-friendly?

I’m pleased to say the answer to that question is a resounding no! If anything, on this EP, Tubelord have expanded their repertoire of influences and styles. The second track, ‘Ratchet’, is absolutely superb. Combining ringing bell keyboards and washes of darkwave synths (of which Gary Numan would be most proud) and a gorgeous harmony vocal, there’s something here which instantly pulls the in the listener. The between verse drum parts take on a more urgent rhythm, but still fit well. Following an unexpected trumpet break and quiet interlude, the band returned to the previously used musical themes, this time with trumpet accompaniment.

‘Bazel’ is the most aggressive number and undoubtedly the one which most resembles material from Tubelord’s full-length album. Driven by by Catmur’s busy drum arrangement and featuring a sound which finds itself between Coheed & Cambria and mid-period Mansun, if you came looking for Tubelord at their most uncompromising, you’ll enjoy this. The vocal is fairly high pitched and occasionally unsettling (particularly during the second half which utilises two or three different voices singing different lines against each other), the guitar work is sharp and the bass rumbles inconspicuously. Frankly, if anyone tries to tell you that Muse and Matt Bellamy’s tuneless untrained wailing represent the best progressive music of the early 21st Century, point them in the direction of Tubelord.

A demo recorded during the Albini sessions (and included as part of the download version of this release), ‘De2’ employs a Tool-esque drum part, punctuated with rhythm guitars. At under two minutes, it sounds a little abrupt. Maybe there was meant to be more, maybe not. Even though it’s not as essential as ‘Ratchet’ or ‘Bazel’, that drum part is great.

A couple of the songs here are better than anything from Tubelord’s previous work. Although only a stop-gap, naturally, it’s short length leaves me wanting to hear so much more...if you’re someone who understands Tubelord’s combination of art-school indie rock and prog, you’ll likely feel the same way. Although only an EP, ‘Tezcatlipōca’ is a gem; one of 2010’s recommended listens.

Monday, 27 September 2010

TWO FIRES - Burning Bright

two fires

Kevin Chalfant is no stranger to the AOR community. He first came to prominence with the band 707, contributing vocals to their classic third album ‘Megaforce’. His vocal similarities to Journey’s Steve Perry later bought him to the attention of Josh Ramos, who invited him to be the vocalist in his band The Storm (featuring sometime Journey men Ross Valory, Steve Smith and Gregg Rolie – who by coincidence had also been a member of 707). Chalfant cut two albums with The Storm, before landing the job as Steve Perry’s replacement in Journey.

The Journey job was only temporary, as Perry decided to return (at least for the time being). At the beginning of the 21st Century, Kevin Chalfant re-united with Ramos, releasing two albums under the band name Two Fires. Both albums were met with acclaim from the melodic rock press, but by 2004 Two Fires had called it a day. The ever restless Chalfant formed another band – Shadows Fade – with whom he recorded one album, before briefly becoming the vocalist with AOR legends Shooting Star. He also found time to record two solo albums in the middle part of the decade – one containing hymns and gospels, while the other (playing to his strengths and to the demands of his audience) was a Journey covers album.

At the end of a fragmented – but invariably busy – decade, Chalfant resurrected the name Two Fires, this time without the help of his previous musical partner Josh Ramos. The resulting album, ‘Burning Bright’, features a collection of songs which attempt to re-create the magic of the previous Two Fires releases.

The opening track, ‘Is It Any Wonder’ sounds a little strange at first, in that there’s something about the production which makes Kevin Chalfant’s vocal sound a bit squishy. Also, instead of soaring guitars and an unavoidable Journey influence, it’s slightly punchier – though not in an especially good way. Michael Gardner’s guitar work is very choppy and rhythmic in a style which recalls Josh Ramos’s playing on ‘I See Red’ from the previous Two Fires album, ‘Ignition’. In fact, the track’s only truly high point is a stupidly overblown guitar solo, played by guest musician Super Rex Carroll. It gets better after a few plays, especially once the chorus has had time to set in - but I’m unconvinced that ‘Is It Any Wonder’ is a winner. ‘Lost In the Song’ is better – Gardner’s guitar work still favours a rhythmic, almost mechanical edge, but there are more hallmarks of traditional melodic rock on show here. The featured solos are solid and the chorus is very strong, despite Chalfant over-singing a tad (sadly, his over-singing eventually works towards the album’s detriment, particularly on the ballads).

The album’s first power ballad ‘Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid’ opens with a pleasing guitar lead from Gardner, before descending into a predictable trudge through something which you’ll find done much better on any of your Survivor albums. Gardner’s guitar leads remain decent throughout this number, but his good work is spoilt by Chalfant – who, not content with delivering a shameless Steve Perry impersonation, insists on over-singing nearly every note. In an attempt to impress, he squeezes every drop of emotion from each line, only damaging his performance in the process. And while I’m here, what’s with that drum sound?! The drums sound like they were recorded in a corridor.

The opening riff of the title track gives the impression that it will be one of the album’s heavier numbers. However, once everything kicks in, it becomes clear the heavy vibe was caused by the collision of a muddy guitar tone and slightly muddy production. As it turns out, the song is a fine piece of melodic rock with excellent playing and a well arranged vocal – particularly on the chorus. ‘Still In Love’ is a respectable soft rocker featuring a simple arrangement, based largely around acoustic rhythm guitar and electric piano for the first verse, before going full electric for the chorus and beyond. There’s nothing particularly striking about it, but strangely that’s where its strength lies. A thoughtful harmony backs one of Chalfont’s most understated vocal lines.

‘Follow Your Dream’ features another great harmony-filled arrangement, a great guitar solo, pretty much great everything...and by the end I found myself wondering why the rest of ‘Burning Bright’ couldn’t have been this good. There’s a really feel-good factor running through the track which seems to be lacking on some of the other songs. It comes a little late in the proceedings, but it certainly goes a long way towards making ‘Burning Bright’ a better album. In terms of melodic rock pushing all the right buttons, ‘Answer My Prayer’ is another high point. On this mid-paced stomper, Kevin Chalfant keeps his vocal line this side of tasteful. He’s accompanied on a good chorus by well-placed backing vocals – the kind you hope for with all great AOR (there’s no big key change for the last chorus though, so a proper missed opportunity there!); the drums, once again, are a little wimpy sounding, but that doesn’t spoil an otherwise enjoyable number. I’d be lying if I said it was as good as ‘Follow Your Dream’, but there are more than enough great elements to for it to pass muster.

The closing number ‘All For One’ begins as a big piano based ballad, and naturally, Chalfant milks his Journey fixation for all it is worth. For the quieter moments his voice is powerful, but once the rest of the band joins, he steps things up - and by the track’s end, he’s over-singing again. Interestingly, there are backing vocals, but they’re really understated. This track has the kind of grandiose arrangement where only a huge choir will do. Too bad they couldn’t afford one...

This third album from Two Fires has its moments (‘Follow Your Dream’ and ‘Answer My Prayer’, mainly), but it has a few numbers which leave me feeling indifferent. it’s certainly not up there with Chalfant’s classic work (step forward The Storm’s ‘Eye of the Storm’). Although the second half of this album is far stronger than the first, I’d be hard pushed to say that this release is one of the best AOR albums released in 2010 – that honour would go to Terry Brock’s ‘Diamond Blue’.


September 2010

Friday, 24 September 2010

ROBERT PLANT - Band of Joy

robert

I’ve been a life-long fan of Robert Plant’s work. While his best recordings with Led Zeppelin remains his definitive work, I still think his best solo work is represented by a couple of his 80s releases – 1987’s ‘Now & Zen’ being a particular favourite. That album’s shiny pop-rock slant was almost the anti-Zeppelin, featuring a very forward-looking Plant. For 2005’s release ‘The Mighty Re-arranger’, Plant completely reverted to type; that album was the most Zeppelin-esque album anyone had released since that bands demise. It was as if Plant had taken stock of the huge influence his former band had on so many, looked around at the hundreds of Zeppelin sounding bands that had sprung up in their wake and realised he had the potential to do that better than anyone else. Fantastic as it was, I still preferred the 80s adult pop/rock Plant had explored previously.

In 2007, Plant’s career took an interesting turn. He teamed up with award winning country singer Alison Krauss. The resulting album, the warm and introspective ‘Raising Sand’ was critically applauded and undoubtedly bought Plant a new audience. His 2010 release, ‘Band of Joy’ (named after Robert Plant and John Bonham’s pre-Zeppelin band) explores roots and Americana styles further.

Firstly, ‘Band of Joy’ is a Robert Plant solo disc in name only. Plant has named his new backing band in honour of that old band from the Midlands, though the members themselves hail from much farther afield. For the new Band of Joy, Plant has enlisted some heavyweight roots musicians: vocalist and guitarist Buddy Miller has previously worked with country-folk legend Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin; multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott (who contributes most of the more traditional roots instruments here) is best known for his collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, while second vocalist/guitarist Patty Griffin is a star in her own right, having released several albums of her self-penned blues and folk music. The famous members of the Band of Joy are augmented by Byron House on bass and Marco Giovano on percussion, giving Plant one of the best bands he could hope for with regard to this album’s chosen musical style.

Of the album’s twelve songs, only one is written by Plant, although he is credited as having helped arrange the album’s three traditional cuts, the best of which is a dark and spooky rendition of ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, which is sparsely arrangened. Plant’s aching vocal set against Scott’s banjo and Miller’s echoing guitar work (underpinned by occasional bass drum stomps) calls to mind the work of Duluth, Minnesota minimalists Low.

And by no coincidence, Plant covers two of that band’s songs here, singing each one in duet with Patty Griffin. Stretching out just beyond six minutes, ‘Silver Rider’ (like the Low original) has a dark spirit, but never becomes dreary, slowly pulling in the listener in with its darkness. Robert’s hushed tones are full of longing, but it’s the heavily reverbed guitar and Griffin’s whispered harmony vocal which truly captures the feeling of the original – and Low, generally. ‘Monkey’ makes a strong feature of similar instrumentation and vocal styles, but is played much faster, anchored down by Marco Giovano’s drum and percussion work. If you enjoy both these covers but have never heard Low before, you should make checking out some of their work a priority. They’re certainly reason enough to get excited about this release.

Featuring one of Plant’s strongest vocals within this set, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Harm’s Swift Way’ features a great harmony vocal from Griffin, while being a decent rhythm based guitar showcase for both Miller and Griffin. The band sounds like a really coherent unit, as opposed to a bunch of musicians hired to back Plant, and here Plant sounds especially comfortable in his reinvented 21st Century Americana guise. A moody rendition of ‘House of Cards’ (a Richard Thompson composition, featured on the Richard & Linda Thompson album ‘First Light’) is equally well accomplished with Plant and Griffin tackling the lengendary couple’s work with ease. Even Miller’s guitar solo is a close enough approximation to Thompson’s distinctive and angular style to be a fitting tribute. A change in pace comes courtesy of ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’, which contains more than a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit; Marco Giovano gets an opportunity to play something a little busier and the whole band are clearly having fun. This is Byron House’s time to really shine though – his bassline wanders all over the chorus; his playing style is upfront and very confident.

The album’s only original composition, ‘Central Two-O-Nine’ (a co-write between Robert Plant and Buddy Miller) is essentially a banjo led blues workout, which blends seamlessly with the traditional cuts from the album. While Plant’s vocal is strong (albeit in an understated way, since the roots music Plant has made his forte here requires none of the overblown rock edges which made him famous), it’s Buddy Miller’s instrumentation which captivates. His plucked banjo leads the way, augmented by an unobtrusive bass and fairly minimal drumming (consisting of bass drum and brushes). ‘Angel Dance’ melds the album’s rootsy elements with a slighty more hard rock punch, making it the album’s only offering which nods to Robert’s past. Not that it’s really hard rock, of course – it’s just the guitars are a fair bit fuzzier and with a mandolin thrown over the loose groove, it’s hard not to think of Zep...just a little.

‘Band of Joy’ is a more than worthy follow-up to ‘Raising Sand’ (although takes a little longer to really get into) and by the time you’ve spent a while with it, it becomes nothing short of fantastic. Those looking for Plant’s rock styles may find themselves a little disappointed, but for the more open-minded listeners who’ve embraced his interest in exploring new territory, ‘Band of Joy’ will provide a huge amount of enjoyment.


September 2010

Thursday, 23 September 2010

BLACK COUNTRY COMMUNION - Black Country Communion

black country

Named after the part of the Midlands where two of the band members grew up, Black Country Communion is a supergroup featuring Glenn Hughes, one time Dream Theater keyboard player Derek Sherinian, blues prodigy Joe Bonamassa and Jason Bonham. As an admirer of all the band members, in theory, I thought Black Country Communion seemed like a great idea. In reality, things could have turned out better. By the end of the album, BCC have had a good stab at fulfilling their potential (even if the end results aren’t as classic as they could have been), but there are moments at the beginning where it feels like that potential might never be realised.

The opening number, ‘Black Country’ begins with a thunderous bassline, coupled with Bonham’s cymbals, before the band crash headlong into a galloping mess, over which Glenn Hughes delivers what he likely thinks is a emotionally charged vocal. In his attempt to be a nach for the juggernaut of sound, his voice becomes no more than painful rock shouting. The sad thing is, Hughes can sing and is often capable of blues and soul influenced performances which really hit the spot. Here, though, there’s no evidence of that at all. Joe Bonamassa’s guitar solo is the track’s high point, but even then, it’s all about speed and there’s no real emotion in his playing. Still, at least it keeps Glenn quiet for a few bars.

Despite being constructed around a choppy riff which sounds as if Bonamassa played it wearing mittens, ‘One Last Soul’ gains slightly more credibility due to an Eastern tinged mid-section, a semi-respectable vocal and a solid drum performance. But, although it’s an improvement over the opening track, it still doesn’t resemble anything which deserves repeated listening – and it certainly doesn’t sound like the work of four talented, highly respected musicians. Bonamassa hits a couple of vibrato edged notes during the intro of ‘The Great Divide’, before a crunchy riff takes over. The song’s verses have a slightly soulful feel and, thankfully, Hughes’s voice here is much more akin to what I’ve come to expect from a man who earned his nickname “The Voice of Rock”. However, by the time a heavier chorus takes hold, he’s wandered back across the line into tuneless warbling. Jason Bonham’s drums are far too loud (as they are throughout about half of this disc – but hey, he’s his father’s son) and the whole thing feels like wading through treacle. Underneath the barrage of sound, Derek Sherinian can be heard laying down some old-school Hammond organ, but with so much else going on, you’ll wonder why he bothered.

With the worst part of the album left safely behind, there’s an improvement from here on. BCC stop attempting to grab your attention with uninspired – and in Glenn Hughes’s case, unflattering – hard rock performances and go for a musical style rather more suited to their talents.

Taking its cue from Deep Purple’s 1974 classic ‘Sail Away’, a simple riff provides the foundations for ‘Down Again’ and, here, there’s plenty of chemistry here between the musicians. With Bonham’s drums acting as the dominant force and Bonamassa putting his great riff to equally great use, Glenn doesn’t feel the need to squeal anywhere near as much (although he’s not quite guilt free, as he overstretches his voice a tad towards the end). A closing section allows Bonzo Jr a little time for some effective drum and cymbal interplay and Bonamassa tinkers with his guitar in an atmospheric way. ‘Beggarman’ also captures the band playing to their blues-rock strengths, with Bonamassa’s adopted guitar style showing a heavy influence from Jimi Hendrix and one-time Black Crowes/Cry of Love man Audley Freed.

One of two numbers with Bonamassa taking the lead vocal, ‘Song of Yesterday’ could have been recorded by Free, circa their 1971 album ‘Highway’ - although the end result is slightly heavier. Bonamassa’s vocal has more than a touch of Paul Rodgers, particularly on the softer notes – and compared to Hughes’s overblown style, he’s certainly my preferred vocalist in BCC. With that emotive vocal coupled with a clean guitar tone (plus a fantastic solo), then held together with solid bass playing, surprisingly restrained drum work and some string sounds, this is definitely the album’s high point.

‘The Revolution In Me’ has an arrangement which sounds like a cross between Rainbow’s ‘Sixteenth Century Greensleeves’ and Uriah Heep’s ‘Gypsy’, so there’s no denying it’s punchy enough. However, there’s not much of a song behind that riffing and bombast, and while Sherinian’s occasional Hammond organ fills have a classic feel, the track really drags. ‘Sista Jane’ has a strong opening with a riff which sounds like AC/DC’s ‘Sin City’, before settling into a classic rock styled romp. During a dual vocal, Hughes continues his tendency for over-singing, which overshadows Bonamassa’s infinitely superior voice. An attempt at a chorus gives the number a half-decent hook, but it’s most striking element is Bonham’s drum interlude – starting quietly, then building until Bonamassa chimes in with a couple of power chords. There’s a definite nod to Keith Moon and The Who here. Taking a blues-rock riff and twisting it into something funkier, ‘Stand (at the Burning Tree)’ features one of the album’s more interesting arrangements. Glenn Hughes’s vocal is one of his best ones as far as this release is concerned (though as expected, that’s only true of the softer bits) and it’s great to hear Derek Sherinian get a featured solo, since most of his other contributions are limited to slabs of organ which don’t often make a great impact.

The opening numbers give the impression that this album is one of 2010’s worst releases. It’s certainly not the best work from any of the musicians involved. Luckily, a few of the bluesier tracks help save face – just make sure you start listening from track 4.


September 2010

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

PHENOMENA - Blind Faith

phenomena

The melodic rock fans among you who are over a certain age will no doubt remember Tom Galley’s Phenomena project. Phenomena featured a host of stars, creating impressive line-ups across three releases between 1984 and 1993. If I’m honest, I found the musicians involved more interesting than the songs actually featured on those albums, but even so, it’s hard not to be impressed by the idea behind it all.

While many of the Phenomena cast featured no introduction (Glenn Hughes, Cozy Powell and Mel Galley being heavily featured; even Queen’s Brian May found time to contribute), the project also gave increased exposure to a few lesser known performers, including Max Bacon (mostly associated with his appearance as vocalist on the Steve Hackett/Steve Howe vehicle GTR) and Keith Murrell of Airrace (a band still best known for featuring Jason Bonham on drums).

In 2006, some thirteen years after that third instalment, Tom Galley revived the Phenomena project. The resulting album, ‘Psychofantasy’, featured contributions from Glenn Hughes and Keith Murrell once again, alongside Tony Martin, best known for his stint as Black Sabbath’s frontman between 1987-1995. As with the first three Phenomena releases, Tom’s brother Mel Galley was one of the featured guitarists on all tracks, providing the Phenomena project with continuity, despite the long gap between releases.

Four years on and with a lyrical theme of good against evil, ‘Blind Faith’ is the fifth instalment in the Phenomena story. It is the first Phenomena release not to feature Tom Galley’s brother Mel, who sadly died in 2008, although his presence is still here in the form of two co-written numbers.

‘The Sky Is Falling’ begins the musical journey with a heavy yet melodic offering, pairing Riot/Masterplan vocalist Mike DeMeo with Vindictiv/Firecracker guitarist Stefan Lindholm. To many, being the second man to fill the position of Masterplan vocalist, DeMeo is “that guy who isn’t Jorn Lande”, but to his credit, he has a great voice. A quiet intro leads into a classic rock arrangement with slow pounding drums. DeMeo’s slightly raspy delivery sits well against the backing vocals on the chorus, while his big vocal style is well suited to the piece as a whole. Interestingly, for all of its huge rock leanings, there isn’t a featured guitar solo, leaving Stefan Lindstrom with a rather lesser role.

You’d think since the title track features the vocalist and guitarist from Saga, the performance would have ended up with a bit of a proggy slant, but Tom Galley’s song-writing style is so deeply rooted in an old classic rock vein, there’s nothing really prog happening here. However, a Celtic jig creeping in between vocal sections adds an element of surprise. Rob Moratti’s vocal is effortless while Ian Crichton’s guitar work adopts a slighty dirty tone, heavy on the bottom-end, occasionally reminiscent of some of his work on ‘Ghettos By Design’ (Crichton’s largely ignored solo release from 1997). His featured guitar solo, although short, features his typical flashiness. Moratti makes a second vocal appearance on the huge ballad ‘House of Love’. Here, his delivery is horribly squealy and, if I’m completely honest, slightly painful, as he over-sings most of his lines to the extreme. Luckily, FM guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick and Salute guitarist Martin Kronlund are on hand with a decent set of guitar chops – the solo in particular is more than commendable, although never resorts to showiness.

‘Fighting’ is also noticeably weak. Its hammering riff at first gives the impression it might be exciting. With a strong old-influence somewhere between Saxon’s debut, very early 80s Gillan and a dash of Scorpions (albeit heavier than all of those), it has more than enough presence, but it’s repetitive nature makes the track feel overlong and the chorus is far too simplistic. In the hands of a classic vocalist it might just scrape by as decent filler, but sadly the heavily accented vocal of Primal Fear’s Ralf Scheepers just weighs the track down further.

‘Liar’ opens with a slab of keyboards which set the tone for a track featuring Stefan Lindstrom’s bombastic guitar stylings (marking his second performance here). Ex-Black Sabbath vocalist Tony Martin’s vocals are equally bombastic in places, though it’s likely his performance will be overshadowed by some of the other vocalists here. He deserved a chorus better than “Liar!” (repeat as often as necessary), but despite this, Tony makes the best of his number with a strong performance during the verses.

Contender for best track, ‘It’s Over (I Was Gonna Tell You Tonight)’ is a fantastic fist-in-the-air piece of AOR with Robin Beck (still best known in the UK for her number one hit ‘First Time’) at the helm. This is an equal match for most of the material from her classic ‘Trouble Or Nothin’ album from ’89 and her slightly husky vocal is a perfect match for Jim Kilparick and Martin Kronlund’s guitar work – in places clean and ringing in tone, in others hard and choppy (although the sleeve notes don’t give any specific details regarding the two differing styles, I’m almost certain that Kronlund is responsible for the edgier stuff, leaving Kilpatric to the clean, more refined playing). This gem is a four minute reminder of why you still like melodic rock and probably have done since the eighties...and in some cases, long before.

‘Angels Don’t Cry’ is much heavier. After a brief atmospheric intro, a chunky riff provides the base for Mikael Erlandsson (Salute/Last Autumn’s Dream) to deliver some horrible lyrics about child abuse. After a couple of minutes of the sledgehammer riffing and Erlandsson’s Euro-styled metal vocal, you’ll wish Robin Beck had been allowed more time in the spotlight! It’s not all bad, though, since a well-arranged backing vocal provides a lighter touch on the chorus – such a pity that chorus is another of Tom Galley and Tom Brown’s (almost) one-liners.

‘If You Love Her’ begins with a slow and brooding riff manages to be both heavy and melodic. Guitarist Tommy Denander’s work here is simple and direct and Chris Ousey (of Heartland and Virginia Wolf fame) is in fine voice. His strong lead provides this number with a key feature as his powerful lead vocals act as call-and-response with a simple harmony vocal. Tommy Denander gives Ousey a far heavier base to work from compared with the vocalist’s previous work, but Ousey more than steps up to the challenge here.

Aside from a few tracks from early albums ‘Indiscreet’ and ‘Tough It Out’, I’ve never been a great lover of Brit-AOR band FM. However, their vocalist Steve Overland takes lead on ‘Don’t Ever Give Your Heart Away’ – and it’s a track which is good enough to stand alongside Robin Beck’s performance. This is largely because I’m fond of very traditional sounding melodic rock and – like the Robin Beck number – this features none of the Euro-bombast which has a great presence on this disc. Also more traditional, Terry Brock’s performance is another winner. It may not have Mike Slamer’s golden touch, but ‘One More Chance’ could sit alongside some of the material on his ‘Diamond Blue’ solo album. With a musical arrangement which is faster than mid-pace, though never reaches the heights of pure rocker, Terry turns in a great vocal on a number which boasts one of this album’s strongest choruses. Steve Newman is this tracks featured guitarist and here, he offers great support in a classic, clean-toned style.

Given my indifference to Phenomena’s original three releases, I didn’t approach ‘Blind Faith’ with too much excitement. You know how it is with supergroups and all-star projects, they rarely live up to expectations. As for ‘Blind Faith’ – it could have been better, for sure, but the good bits far outweigh the bad. it’s worth checking out for Robin Beck alone. ...But factor in the other decent vocal performances from Terry Brock, Chris Ousey and Steve Overland and it definitely becomes worth forty minutes of your listening time, despite two or three really bad moments. It’s just a great shame that Mel Galley isn’t around to hear the completed picture.


September 2010

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

MANIC STREET PREACHERS - Postcards From A Young Man

manics

When the fourth Manic Street Preachers album, ‘Everything Must Go’ came out in 1996, it marked a turning point for the band. The first album recorded without lyricist Richey James Edwards (although a chunk of the albums lyrics came from notebooks he left prior to his 1995 disappearance), the album brought the Manics a far bigger audience, courtesy of the huge hit single ‘A Design For Life’. When its follow-up, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ was released in 1998, I hated it. Although they were a great rock band, this style “Manic Street Preachers with a safety net” weren’t the same. They just weren’t. From then, I kept my distance from the band, proclaiming (to the tune of their then recent hit, ‘If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next’) “If he tolerates this, then old Richey must be dead”.

Almost a decade later, while in my local branch of Fopp, I heard the Manics’ 2007 album ‘Send Away The Tigers’. While not as edgy as the Manics at their ferocious best, something seemed to be an improvement. I still couldn’t tell you what, though. I bought the album and really enjoyed it, and continue to do so (I also went back and bought the couple of albums I’d avoided, to find they really weren’t all that bad; they were just a bit too safe). Then, in 2009, using more of Richey’s notebook scribblings, the Manics released ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ – an angry collection of songs produced by Steve Albini – which was arguably their best album for some years. It was exciting to hear James Dean Bradfield yelping out previously unheard lyrics written by Richey. It was a sharp kick; proof that the band could still cut it - and a reminder why I loved the Manics in the early 90s, and probably why I still tell people I’m a fan.

With two decent albums under their belts following nearly a decade of disappointment, my expectations were fairly high for ‘Postcards For a Young Man’. Those expectations were kicked to the kerb fairly swiftly, after hearing the choir of vocals slapped across the opening track. In a reaction to the harshness and old-school Manics approach of ‘Plague Lovers’, ‘Postcards’ is it’s polar opposite, with the band backed by choirs and huge string sections on most of the album. If you were a late convert and were attracted to the band via songs like ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ then this album is for you. If you’re an old-school fan who wants to be challenged by provacative slogan-style lyrics, there’s not too much for you here. Okay, so some of the songs have a bit of social commentary at their roots (for example, ‘Golden Platitudes’ regards Labour’s empty promises and their subsequent downfall and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ concerns itself with the selling off of Cadbury’s and Britain’s decline), but as expected, none of Nicky Wire's lyrics have the same venomous bite as anything Richey Edwards left behind (and anything with any real edge is ultimately washed out by the aforementioned choirs and strings anyway).

Released as a single, that opening track, ‘(It’s Not War) It’s Just the End of Love’ features a decent chorus and vocal arrangement from James Dean Bradfield. The ringing guitar on the verses coupled with Sean Moore’s good time-keeping during the verses ranks it among the better, post-96, softer-edged Manics material. If anything, it would have sounded better without the strings...but it could easily be a track which gets better over time.

The title track appears to be an attempt at re-creating something anthemic; something in the vein of ‘A Design For Life’. It’s partly successful and the piano part is pleasing, but as the track draws to a close, there’s just a little too much going on and I’m reminded of the choir of vocals at the end of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’. A brave attempt – and it’s easy to see what the band were going for here, but sadly, for all of its potential, it sounds like a composite of a couple of older Manics songs (with a heavy influence from ‘A Design For Life’) and comes off worse for that.

The only track with lyrics written by Bradfield, ‘I Think I’ve Found It’ is a quirky pop/rock workout, driven by mandolin. Matching a decent guitar riff under-pinned by Hammond organ, this is sunny and upbeat – and interestingly, one of the only tracks which doesn’t feel like its commercial edge was forced. Maybe Nicky Wire ought to leave more of the song writing duties to Bradfield...

‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ is rockier than at least half of the album – not edgy especially, but in keeping with the slightly punchier end of the commercial styled Manics. James Dean Bradfield’s guitar solos are spiky (and not always completely in tune), Sean Moore’s drumming is solid and – guesting on bass – ex-Guns N’ Roses man Duff McKagan does a great job of holding everything together. It’s not a particularly distinctive bass line and I’m sure Nicky Wire could have played it just as easily. I’m pretty sure that around the time of their second album ‘Gold Against The Soul’ the Manics had expressed a liking of G N’ R, so, with that in mind, the fact that Duff stepped in to help is cool. With an intro which sounds like a badly played Rolling Stones riff, ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’ is one of those tracks your skip button was invented for. Nicky Wire steps up for a lead vocal – an extremely flat one at that – while drummer Sean Moore contributes some equally tuneless trumpet work. It would have been bad enough, but once the choir chimes in, their harmony work only serves to make Wire sound even worse.

Drenched in strings and a guitar which sounds multi-tracked, ‘Hazelton Avenue’ is by far the best of the lighter material here. Bradfield’s performance is one of the album’s best, during a song which sounds instantly familiar. The mid-section features strings playing an eastern motif, though it’s no more than a fleeting moment, as if it were an afterthought. ‘Some Kind of Nothingness’ would have fallen into the category of nothingness, but is saved somewhat by the presence of Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, who shares lead vocal. McCulloch’s Scouse-tinged lower register is a good contrast to Bradfield’s higher belting voice, and the end result is decent, even if not as striking as Bradfield’s duet with Nina Persson on the Manics’ 2007 hit, ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’. Sadly, although the appearance of McCulloch provides plenty of interest, the choir on the chorus is just too heavy handed and kills the song. I appreciate the Manics are attempting to grab your attention with the lavish production, strings and choirs, but sometimes less is more, y’know?

‘Auto-Intoxication’ features another guest performer – this time fellow Weshman and legend John Cale - whom, you have to wonder why, isn’t in the producer’s chair – and whose contribution here is limited to a few keyboards and some electronic noise. Like Duff McKagan’s guest spot, it’s an unassuming role which blends in well. Since John Cale was happy enough to lend his skills, it’s such a shame the band didn’t give him more to do. With or without Cale, the track is a decent rock number, with slightly more edge than a lot of ‘Postcards From a Young Man’. There are echoes of old style Manics here and there, especially as Bradfield hits the shoutier end of his performance, but it’s still more in keeping with the noisier moments of ‘Send Away The Tigers’ than anything from ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’.

‘Postcards From a Young Man’ is a mostly slick, well put together album which, from so many other “alternative” bands may have been a minor masterpiece. For the Manics, it’s a deliberate attempt at creating an album with huge appeal beyond their fan base, with both Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield claiming it “one last shot at mass communication”. Listening to the overly-shined safe rock music on the album, with the help of producer Dave Eringa they’ve certainly created something very commercial, but it’s a far cry from what I’ve found so enduring about the Manics most exciting works.

For me, this album ranks alongside ‘This Is My Truth’ and ‘Know Your Enemy’, in that it’ll get played once in a while and enjoyed for what it is...but once it’s over, I’ll be reaching for ‘Generation Terrorists’, ‘The Holy Bible’ and ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ and reminding myself why the Manics have spent so much time in my CD player over the years.


September 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

STATE COWS - State Cows

state cows

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Westcoast AOR scene produced some brilliant bands and musicians. While Steely Dan and Toto are probably its most famous associates, there are many albums released by lesser known artists which have remained close to the hearts of AOR fans. Airplay’s self-titled disc (a collaboration between Jay Graydon and David Foster) and the sole album by Maxus (a short-lived band featuring Robbie Buchanan and legendary session guitarist Michael Landau) are among the first which spring to mind when listening to this self-titled album by Swedish band State Cows (an anagram of Westcoast, if you hadn’t noticed!).

Strange as it may seem, Daniel Andersson and Stefan Olofsson (the core of State Cows) have replicated the sound of 1980 in summertime Los Angeles almost perfectly, despite hailing from Umeå in the north of Sweden. Everything you’ve ever loved about Westcoast AOR is here; so much so that, when listening to it, it seems almost impossible that this album was released in 2010.

‘New York Town’ features a great arrangement with the bass high in the mix, wonderful stabbing piano and a tasteful horn accompaniment (thankfully provided by real brass). There are hints of so much great Westcoast smoothness here – late seventies Doobie Brothers and Airplay spring to mind. One of the band’s great heroes, Mr Jay Graydon – a guitarist almost synonymous with the Westcoast scene – even guests on guitar. If you have any doubts about how authentic this album sounds, Graydon’s seal of approval should sweep them away. The easy pop-rock of ‘Come To The Point’ features some tasteful electric piano, jazzy guitar and a vocal which would be well suited to Richard Page (of 3rd Matinee, Pages and Mr Mister fame). Again, with hints of Richard Page, thanks to a keyboard on the verses sounding rather like 3rd Matinee’s ‘Holiday For Sweet Louise’, ‘Painting a Picture’ features another and a strong vocal, combined with clean toned rhythm guitar breaks and sublime electric piano work. Although not as immediate as some of the album’s tracks, State Cows make what they do sound so effortless.

During ‘Mystery Jane’ the horn section becomes a strong feature, while some stabbing keys add a lot of weight. The humour in this tale of a bar meeting may be somewhat silly, but musically, it’s provides another great example of the band’s spot-on musicianship. ‘Riding Down This Highway’ showcases the softest side of State Cows’ music and while the lead and harmony vocals are meticulously arranged, the great moments here are provided by Daniel Andersson’s slightly jazzy guitar leads. ‘I’ve Changed’ combines smooth Westcoast vocals with solid bass work, twin lead harmony guitars and upfront keyboards. The closing keyboard solo mightn’t agree with everyone though,since it combines the squealy tone favoured by Steve Winwood in the eighties with the excesses of seventies pomp! One again, it’s bound to appeal to fans of Maxus, Airplay and early Toto. If you want a track which combines all of State Cows’ best traits most effectively, this is a fantastic example of their signature sound.

An over enthusiastic horn intro begins ‘Tunisian Nights’, the song settles into an easy groove with elements of early Toto and Donald Fagen. The horns creep back in on the chorus (this track being the only one where the brass feels perhaps a little heavy handed), but despite their attempts to be the most attention grabbing, it’s the electric piano and a well-crafted vocal on the chorus which provides the strongest elements. The guitar riff which creeps in every so often is also notable, since aside from the odd solo, the guitar doesn’t make a huge impact in the band’s often keyboard-heavy music. ‘Lost In a Mind Game’ is dominated by a jazzy shuffle and muted horns, straight out of the Steely Dan songbook. The drum part is meticulously played and the vocal harmonies are spot on. It may lack Steely Dan’s dry sneer, but all the other elements are so close. Göran Tuborn’s guitar work is fantastic and when combined with the rest of the tight musicianship on show, it makes perfect sense that some of these guys had previously performed as part of a Steely Dan covers band.

What really comes across with this album is just how much love both Stefan and Daniel have for the Westcoast classics. This sounds authentic enough to stand alongside not only the aforementioned Airplay and Maxus, but also Bill Champlin’s ‘Runaway’ and Marc Jordan’s early masterpieces. If your stereo still gets graced by any of the artists mentioned here, then State Cows should be essential listening.


September 2010

Thursday, 16 September 2010

ORANJULY - Oranjuly

oranjuly

Fronted by song writer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Brian E King, Oranjuly’s brand of power pop is one which instantly sounds familiar. Packaged in a sleeve which looks like a Fuzzy Felts recreation of a 1970s kitchen, Oranjuly’s debut album’s influences may all be pieces from a musical past, but like so much great power pop, the end result is timeless - and thanks to great song writing, the album is one which stands up to repeated listening and gets better with every play.

After a gentle intro, the opening rock chords of ‘Her Camera’ would suggest that this debut is noisier than it turns out to be, with its wall of guitars (using a tone which very much recalls ‘Flagpole Sitta’ by Harvey Danger) but this soon falls aside, making way for stabbing keyboards, dreamy vocals and bass/drum parts which cheekily give to the nod to The Beach Boys, specifically ‘God Only Knows’. The Brian Wilson fixation becomes more obvious during a really tight vocal interlude. Keen to grab your attention, the second half of the song manages to combine all of these elements, which creates something a little hard to take in at first, but it works well as a whole. They swiftly follow this with ‘Mrs. G’, which is much more user-friendly. Again, there are lavish harmonies and a bit of a kitchen-sink approach to the arranging, but the stabbing keyboards and bittersweet Ben Folds-esque lyric should be enough to win you over.

‘Personal Ads’ marks a return to a more guitar driven style rock/pop. The verses are full of vocal harmonies overlaid with twinkling keyboard noises, but it’s the simple hook on its noisier chorus which is bound to stick in your head. Let’s just say someone here is a fan of Weezer! My personal preferences lean towards the album’s softer 10cc and Badfinger styled material, but this is still hugely enjoyable.

If you’re also someone who favours the seventies style of power pop, ‘South Carolina’ will please you with its McCartney/Wings inspired rumpty-tumpty rhythms. After an acoustic beginning and gentle vocal, a Ringo-esque drum fill leads the band in, including a bass line which, to begin with, sounds equally simple. As the song progresses, the bass line features a couple of great fills and the mid-section features an effective tack piano. The McCartney-isms here would have no doubt pleased the Jellyfish chaps too – though undoubtledly, they would have struggled to keep the arrangement so straightforward...

‘I Could Break Your Heart’ features one of the album’s best arrangements. The chorus here is pure bubblegum goodness, with a slightly sixties vibe reminiscent of Mark Bacino. Again, you’ll find harmony vocals in abundance, but one of its best features is a brief Matthew Sweet style guitar solo, which makes top use of multi-tracked guitars. ‘The Coldest Summer’ has verses which utilise some rather melancholy harmonies – again evoking so much great seventies pop - which musically, is incredibly strong, with flourishes of slide guitar, bell noises and handclaps. Throw in some subtle electric piano and twin guitar harmonies and - clocking in just shy of three minutes - you have a masterpiece. While most power pop provides a soundtrack for summer days, there’s always something mesmerizing about those moments tinged with sadness, especially when they are so well crafted.

Despite its title, ‘Hiroshige’s Japan’ has a very wistful English psych-pop quality. This harpsichord and brass number could have been from 1968. While it has rhythmic similarities to The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’, the focus on harpsichord makes it hard not to think about the deeply sad ‘A Rose For Emily’, from The Zombies classic ‘Odessey and Oracle’. While the harpsichord is the featured instrument here, additional trumpet work adds some great atmosphere.

Like Jellyfish before them, these guys have a gift for arranging that, when done well, is always a pleasure for the listener. ...And while Oranjuly wear each of their influences on their collective sleeves, this self-titled album is none the worse for it. With ten songs and no duds, this debut ranks alongside Owsley’s self-titled disc in terms of great power pop debuts. You owe it to yourselves to check it out.

<a href="http://music.oranjuly.com/album/oranjuly">Oranjuly by Oranjuly</a>




September 2010

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

GRINDERMAN - Grinderman 2

grinderman 2

After the release of his 1996 album ‘Murder Ballads’, the almost unthinkable happened to Nick Cave. The one-time wild frontman of confrontational Aussie goth-punks The Birthday Party had become a well respected performer and songwriter and, no doubt thanks to an unlikely duet with Kylie Minogue, a household name. With his post-Birthday Party band The Bad Seeds, Cave had often created albums full of dark storytelling and sometimes macabre beauty, but ‘Murder Ballads’ propelled Cave’s career into heights that few thought his extreme approach to song writing would ever take him. From that point on, every Bad Seeds album has been a gem; each one containing a combination of beautiful melancholy and multi-layered adult rock which is almost unique.

In 2006, looking to write the follow up to The Bad Seeds double set ‘Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus’, Cave began jamming with a few of his Bad Seeds bandmates. With Cave taking up guitar as opposed to his usual piano, the results were edgy, a little unhinged and possibly showed the most aggression since Cave’s Birthday Party days. They decided that the improvised, grinding jams just weren’t right for The Bad Seeds, yet the results were too exciting to leave behind. And so, Grinderman was born. Their 2007 self-titled album was thrilling, if slightly unsettling. With themes of sexuality abound, the album was the sound of a mid-life crisis (most notably on the second single ‘No Pussy Blues’), with Grinderman’s guttural instincts and sometimes simplistic approach exciting fans and the press alike.

Grinderman, in a sense, was a release of tension and anger for Cave and his cohorts, since, for some time, the Bad Seeds albums had become increasingly lavish affairs. I figured Grinderman was a one-shot deal - one album and back to the next award winning Bad Seeds project. Indeed, after touring the Grinderman album, Cave, drummer Jim Sclavunos, bassist Martyn P Casey and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis returned to the relative safety of their beloved Bad Seeds and created ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!’, which critics claimed was one of the finest albums of their career.

In the summer of 2010, Grinderman returned. Their second album, ‘Grinderman 2’, may have been created with a similar jamming-in-the-studio vibe, with no material pre-written before their arrival, but this time around, there’s far less of a ramshackle approach. More blues grooves, fewer garage rock assaults. This is probably because Cave and co approach Grinderman’s second outing with a pre-conceived idea of what Grinderman is, but possibly because attempting to out-do that first album would surely have been a mistake.

At just under three minutes, ‘Evil’ re-visits the anger of the first Grinderman disc. Amid Sclavunos’s pounding drums and the repeated backing vocal shout of “evil...evil rising”, Cave delivers his stream-of-consciousness lyrical concerns with an intensity rarely heard since his Birthday Party days. As he belts out lines like ‘Who needs a record player? YOU ARE MY RECORD PLAYER!’, as a listener you become aware that when their most extreme, Grinderman could implode at any second; although unlike the previous Grinderman release, the intensity and anger is balanced out by a greater use of humour. That humour is often dry (as evidenced throughout most of Cave’s career) but also occasionally base and childish. Loaded with thinly veiled penis references, and undoubtedly ‘Grinderman 2’s answer to ‘No Pussy Blues’, ‘Worm Tamer’ is a shuffling number which presents itself like an ugly, learing cousin of Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’. This is then given intensity by Cave adopting his signature sneer, but the real Grinderman signature quality comes from the distorted bursts of noise, which could come from Cave’s angular guitar work, but are just as likely to have been created by Warren Ellis skulking somewhere, mistreating his electric bouzouki. While penis references are childish, you’ve got to smile when Cave delivers the line: “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster...two great big humps and then I’m gone”.

As with the first Grinderman disc, the themes of sexuality and lust figure highly on the radar, although usually with a tongue-in-cheek sneer. ‘Kitchenette’ features another blatant example of Cave’s humour, as he tries to win over a woman by reminding her that her husband leaves his false teeth and glass eye out and the best thing he’s ever given her is “Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen”. Kitchenette is lucky to feature some of the album’s funniest lyrics, and when coupled with a bluesy drone, it’s a great example of Grinderman’s power to amuse and threaten in almost equal measure.

‘Mickey Mouse and The Goodbye Man’ is one of Martyn Casey’s greatest musical moment. During the verses, his simple, circular bass line is upfront with only gentle drum accompaniment and Cave’s dark vocal for company. As the verse pulls to a close, Cave hammers out distorted garage riffs on his guitar, given extra brilliance by the addition of ugly soloing with a fuzz-pedal. During the noisy parts, Grinderman are at full pelt, with their distorted brand of garage-blues an unstoppable force (given extra animalistic qualities by Cave’s higher notes resembling howling), but even so, the band are so much tighter than they had been on their debut.

The album’s first single ‘Heathen Child’ is classic. Shaking tambourines, punctuated by distorted guitar squalls provide a decent musical base, Cave’s lyrics name-check various gods, but just as interestingly, the abominable snowman appears for the second time on the album. This lends some weight to the band’s claim that the album’s songs are interlinked in some way (though with regard to revealing any details, they remain tight-lipped). Echoes of the noisy garage-blues duo The Black Keys can be heard throughout, but the track’s most striking feature are the distorted notes at the end – likely made by Ellis on his electric bouzouki. ‘What I Know’ has a spooky emptiness with Cave’s voice featured against some bells and scraping noises (undoubtedly the work of Ellis). It aims for spookiness in its starkness, but there’s so little happening, it ends up sounding lost amid the more interesting material.

With Cave accompanied by backing vocal oohs, and an altogether more lavish musical arrangement, ‘The Palace of Montezuma’ is somewhat surprising for Grinderman. The walls of guitar replaced by acoustic work, this could have been a Bad Seeds number. In terms of completeness and user-friendliness it’s one of the album’s best songs, but there’s something distinctly un-Grinderman about it. Until, that is, you look closer at its lyrical content. Whereby romance in the Bad Seeds’ universe may involve Cave crooning (and sometimes in a very traditional manner), here he attempts to prove his loyalty by offering a whole world of romantic promises – name-checking Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen on the way, the ridiculousness in the scenario arguably hitting its peak when he offers the woman in question “JFK’s spinal column, wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”.

In fact, although it’s never as obvious as it is during ‘Montezuma’, ‘Grinderman 2’ owes more to The Bad Seeds than their debut, partly through bits of it feeling less intense on the surface, but mostly due to its feeling like a complete work. Once again, though, most of the lyrics are far less poetic than any post-94 Bad Seeds work; but for Cave to release all of his musical demons, like a devil on The Bad Seeds’ shoulder, Grinderman needs to exist. As he says himself “...we wanted to get back to something with a really malign feel to it”. And if that malign streak means the release of albums as good as this, the world could be a better place for that.


September 2010

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

SKUNK ANANSIE - Wonderlustre

wonder

Back in the mid 90s, some of my friends were big Skunk Anansie fans. It took me a while to appreciate them though, since although their albums were solid enough and I recognised their frontperson Skin had a fantastic voice, sometimes I felt the music didn’t always have that sledgehammer edge the anger within their lyrics often demanded.

I saw them live a couple of times, though – once at the Phoenix Festival in 1996 and in a support slot for KISS the following year. In the live setting, Skunk Anansie were terrific; the music had that extra something and Skin proved to be one of those people who could hold an audience in the palm of her hand from the minute she stepped on stage. During their KISS support, they were especially good, even having the edge over the day’s other angry band Rage Against The Machine, whom, despite meticulously crafted, sharp rhythms and outspoken political views, played their fifty minutes on autopilot.

Skunk Anansie disbanded in 2001, but reformed eight years later. In the summer of 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing them live once again. Skin seemingly hadn’t aged a day and, as before, captivated the audience with her brimming confidence. Within minutes, it was hard to believe that thirteen years had passed since I’d last seen them.

I initially had mixed feelings regarding the release of a new Skunk Anansie album. Their early works were often overshadowed by their live performances and since that summer 2010 performance came as a timely reminder of how good Skunk were live, I feared that ‘Wonderlustre’ would pale in comparison.

This time around, that’s less of an issue, since ‘Wonderlustre’ carries a fair amount of softer material. You’ll find little here as overtly angry as ‘Little Baby SwastiKKKa’, ‘Yes It’s Fucking Political’ or ‘Selling Jesus’, with the band concentrating more on songs which really bring out the cry within Skin’s vocal range. This is demonstrated excellently during ‘Talk Too Much’, a beautiful combination of lush orchestration and rock guitars and ‘The Sweetest Thing’, a funk rock swagger where the vocal arrangement (strong lead counterbalanced by harmonies in a not-quite-call-and-response style) is the main focus. During ‘Feeling The Itch’ Skin’s hushed tones are delivered in a high register and with a great strength and despite the heavy usage of drum machine on those verses, a solid, guitar-driven chorus brings out the best of the harder end of her vocal.

‘You Saved Me’ is probably ‘Wonderlustre’s greatest track, one absolutely made for radio – and probably one of the greatest tracks Skunk Anansie have ever recorded. Clean toned guitars, understated bass work and sharp but gentle drums back Skin, who delivers a really soulful and honest performance. Subtly multi-tracked vocals create an extra layer on this great rock ballad, which encapsulates georgeousness without ever becoming sappy. Even at its most powerful moment, the band resists any temptation to give this track any aggressive qualities.

The lead single ‘My Ugly Boy’ has a hard rock edge, a truckload of confidence and a memorable, but simplistic hook. It’s more in keeping with a more “traditional” Skunk Anansie style. That said, although it’s punchier than at least two thirds of ‘Wanderlustre’ it’s still rather less urgent than some of Skunk’s previous works. In their nine year absence, Skunk Anansie have matured a great deal and mellowed, possibly to their advantage. ‘Over The Love’ features a quieter verse, where Skin demonstrates her full vocal range, where between the power and passion, she occasionally hits notes which are so loaded with pain, they almost don’t register. This is contrasted well by the rock chorus, which manages to remain hard without getting heavy. ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ captures Skunk rocking out with staccato rhythms and a spiky, bouncing riff. It’s notable for being one of the times Skin’s vocal style most closely resembles its angrier performances of the 90s. In many ways, this sticks out a little as part of ‘Wonderlustre’, but its inclusion means this album comes close to covering nearly every musical style within Skunk Anansie’s repertoire.

One of the album’s most interesting numbers, ‘You’re Too Expensive For Me’ employs a distinctly London style vocal against a choppy rhythm which incorporates elements of new wave, funk and reggae – and as such, is slightly reminiscent of early work by The Police. The chorus falls into a more standard rock territory, but is none the worse for that. The guitar parts with their moderately loud approach (but once again, clean tone) provide a decent enough backdrop for Skin, who in turn, drops the almost spoken delivery of the verses for an effortless wail, nearing full belt.

It takes a while before you realise how good ‘Wonderlustre’ is. There are some great songs here. No doubt some of you would have preferred something with consistently more bite. However, what ‘Wonderlustre’ does, it does well, marking a very welcome return for Skunk Anansie, who on this album, are content with moving forward and aren’t attempting to recreate a carbon copy of their past sounds.


September 2010

Monday, 13 September 2010

WEEZER - Hurley

hurley

With its well constructed songs, great hooks and dorky themes, Weezer’s self-titled debut (released in 1994) is a power pop classic. Fact is, back then, Rivers Cuomo and Matt Sharp knew how to write songs. And those songs combined with great production from Ric Ocasek (best known for being one of the key members of 70s/80s new wave band The Cars) have undoubted gone a long way to paying the bills for Weezer ever since. After all, nearly everyone of a certain age has seen that Spike Jonze video for ‘Buddy Holly’ set in the Happy Days diner...right?

‘The Blue Album’ (as it is often called) featured not only that monster hit, but some other songs which have rightly become cult classics, becoming a triple platinum seller in the US and double platinum in Canada. How do you follow such success? If you’re Weezer, you don’t even try. ‘The Blue Album’s successor, 1996’s ‘Pinkerton’, features little of the perfection Weezer had displayed on their debut. Ric Ocasek had been ousted from the producer’s chair and in place of the debut’s easily accessible power pop songs, ‘Pinkerton’ was a slab of discordant darkness, questioning songs and the sound of troubled souls. Naturally, it wasn’t what most people were expecting.

Weezer then took an extended hiatus, eventually returning after five years (minus Matt Sharp) with their third disc – a second self-titled album (again produced by Ric Ocasek). ‘The Green Album’ sounded very much like ‘The Blue Album’, but not as strong. The fact that it contained a lot of the spark that made me like Weezer in the first place was a step in the right direction, but still, it wasn’t a patch on the debut. It’s really then – circa 2002 - that Weezer began their downward spiral of releases containing substandard material, culminating in the release of 2009’s ‘Raditude’ - an album loaded with autotuned ugliness and almost entirely bereft of songs.

It was important, therefore, to put their 2010 release ‘Hurley’ into some sort of context. With their last four releases made up of songs ranging from forgettable to flat out awful, Weezer have seemingly let down fans time and again, with only the re-release of ‘The Blue Album’ (released as a two disc deluxe version in 2004) alleviating the ever escalating disappointment. Weezer don’t have a great track record, it’s true, but there’s no way that ‘Hurley’ is as bad as ‘Raditude’...is there?

‘Hurley’ (housed in a wordless sleeve featuring a photo of Jorge Garcia) is Weezer’s eighth album and the opening moments of ‘Memories’ (the album’s lead single) might lull you into thinking things could be okay, but before too long, a distorted noise kicks in and makes a half-arsed chorus almost unlistenable. The bridge section after the second chorus features a spark of what used to make Weezer great, but this in turn is also spoiled. Here, Rivers Cuomo shouts out the last line of his vocal in a manner which is unrestrained and nasty. ‘Ruling Me’, on the other hand, is power pop brilliance: a great chorus (and pre-chorus too) and simple harmony vocals give the track all the elements of classic Weezer, a feeling reinforced by the use of the kind of chord patterns which swamped their ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ discs. The fact that they can still do this just makes those years they wasted by not doing it all the more unbearable... Similarly, ‘Hang On’ employs a huge chorus and some fantastic harmony vocals and a really solid arrangement. Cuomo’s lead vocal could do with being tightened up and toned down a little, but there are so many great power pop hallmarks here, it should appeal to all but the most curmudgeonly of Weezer sceptics.

‘Where’s My Sex?’ falls somewhere in the middle. Chugging downstrokes recall early Weezer, but while its big chorus demonstrates that the band can still cut it when they want to, silly lyrical content lets it down. Here, “sex” is actually “socks” – and Cuomo can’t go out without any. It’s a brave attempt at bringing back the geekiness that made so much of ‘The Blue Album’ fun (and a change of pace near the song’s end is surprising) but after so long, its sounds like too much like a contrived attempt at re-creating the band’s early signature sound. A tongue-in-cheek tale of being a rock star, ‘Trainwrecks’ is very commercial, but not commercial in the geeky power pop way Weezer’s best work has been previously. There’s a shininess and an 80s AOR edge to be found beneath the chugging chords; the sound of something bigger than Weezer. It’s a co-write with Desmond Child (co-writer of some of Bon Jovi’s big 80s hits), so that should give you a clue as to where that “something bigger” comes from. Opening with the sound of a choir, the song then opts for a riff that sounds like John Waite’s 80s radio classic ‘Missing You’, although played with a trademark Weezer chug. Rather more mature than you’d associate with Weezer, certainly; better than you’ve come to hope for from Weezer by this point? Definitely.

‘Run Away’ begins with a lo-fi intro, before the whole band come crashing in on a tune which shows promise. The chorus isn’t as strong as it could have been, and Cuomo’s slightly shouty delivery grates a little and the riffs aren’t quite as good as those from ‘Trainwrecks’, ‘Where’s My Sex?’ and especially ‘Ruling Me’. But despite all of these negative qualities, the song manages to hit the spot somehow – partly due to the simple ‘oohs’ on the backing vocal. Certainly not the best song ‘Hurley’ offers, but so, so much better than most of Weezer’s post-2001 recordings. The thin, wobbly vocal and drum machine during the verses of ‘Smart Girls’ are horrible, but the chorus has enough oomph to win you over. The production here is great; there’s a mini wall of sound to rival Ric Ocasek’s style on those earlier Weezer discs and, as with the album’s other great choruses, there are enough backing vocals and harmonies to balance out any misgivings you may have. To begin with, ‘Unspoken’ provides some respite from the huge blocks of sound. The intimate setting of Rivers Cuomo, his acoustic guitar and harmony vocal make up the bulk of the song. There’s a happy and confident vibe here – the heartache and emptiness of ‘Pinkerton’s closing number ‘Butterfly’ a distant memory.

‘Brave New World’ (a co-write with Linda Perry) features the classic early-Weezer-by-numbers sound present on at least half of this album (though, in their hearts, that’s surely what most fans want). It’s not quite so simple, though, this is heavier than any of its ‘Blue’ or ‘Green’ album counterparts, though for all of its density, it carries none of ‘Pinkerton’s darkness. ‘Time Flies’, on the other hand, is a little bit more interesting. Driven by distorted acoustics and a bass drum marking time, it closes the album with an upbeat stomp which manages to sound halfway decent, regardless of an iffy vocal and the feeling of a Cuomo demo experiment. It’s one of those tracks which is infectious in a good way at first and then after a few spins becomes slightly annoying...

Despite being disappointed by Weezer so often, every time they release something, there’s always that part of me which hopes that there are going to be some decent songs. It would be stupid to believe that anything they release could be a complete return to form, but I always hope for something halfway enjoyable. After ‘Raditude’ that didn’t seem like too much to hope for. Maybe, at least in part, that’s why ‘Hurley’ sounds better in places. For it have been worse than ‘Raditude’ would have been impossible - if not career suicide.

Go to the link below and download ‘Ruling Me’, ‘Hang On’ and ‘Trainwrecks’. They’re better than anything on ‘Raditude’ and possibly better than anything Weezer has released since 2001.


September 2010

Friday, 10 September 2010

OFFTOPIC - Backstage EP

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Generally, Spanish bands don't tend to get much coverage in the UK. However, this progressive metal band from Madrid are the second Spanish band to get featured at Real Gone, since the rather excellent Idealipsticks received a review of their album ‘Radio Days’ in June 2010.

This third release by OffTopic marks a turning point in their career. Their first two releases (released independently in Spain) feature the band performing their material in Spanish. 2010’s ‘Backstage’ EP finds the band attempting to broaden their listening audience by releasing re-recorded versions of songs from their second album, ‘A Fuego’, with the lyrics performed in English. Since it’s unlikely you’ll have heard OffTopic previously, this is undoubtedly a good move.

From the beginning of this EP, guitarist Toni Sánchez-Gil has a strong presence, his heavy and chugging style (in a typical approach for the genre) provides more than enough for OffTopic. One of his heaviest riffs lies at the centre of ‘Mask’, where, combined with Cristian Millán on drums and José Luis López on bass, there’s more than enough musical weight. Vocalist Rosa Ibáñez’s has a style which is somewhere between striking and slightly harsh. Her voice has strength throughout most of the EP, but it’s an untrained style. That said, it’s interesting to hear a voice which hasn’t fallen into the trap of studio perfection and tweaking of any kind, even if it isn’t always the easiest to listen to. ‘Mask’ presents her voice at its hardest, though – it seems slightly more at ease on the other numbers.

Similarly heavy, Cristian Millán’s drums are the main focus of ‘Game Over’. There’s very little here you won’t have heard from prog-metal bands before (particularly those of European origin), however, this track features one of Rosa’s best vocals and a rather pleasing guitar solo, as well as a classic sounding and very welcome melodic chorus. Driven by a solid riff, full of downstrokes and the occasional horsey squeal, ‘How Many Times’ is a great Euro-metal offering. Utilising another melodic chorus, it’s similar to ‘Game Over’, but features a soft bridge section where Sánchez-Gil gets to bring his quiet ringing tone back to the fore, before turning in a decent guitar solo. I’d really like to hear Jorn Lande cover this...although it’s unlikely he will.

‘Because of You’ – the EP’s big rock ballad – provides a change in pace. Sánchez-Gil’s guitar work adopts a perfect, ringing quality during the verses, before reverting to the usual havy riffing on the chorus. During the quiet verses, the band is accompanied by Nexx’s keyboard player Fran Rodríguez; his keyboard work is incredibly understated, sounding at first like woodwind instruments. Although appearing as a guest, Rodríguez proved very important to the release of this EP, having provided help with the English translations as well as arranging a reprise of ‘Because of You’ – a reprise which focuses on the song’s softest elements. The guitars are eschewed completely in favour of Rodríguez’s beautifully played piano part.

Stepping aside from their progressive influences, ‘Time Flies’ features OffTopic in a traditional metal guise. While the music isn’t always as complex here, the slightly faster and far more direct approach suits Rosa’s voice. Coupling a hard vocal with a riff which sounds rather like Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’, this track proves that sometimes a tried and tested classic rock formula is hard to beat.

‘Backstage’ features some top notch musicianship and it’s undeniable that making the transition to English lyrics will only benefit the band. If you’re a fan of progressive metal, you’ll certainly want to give this a listen - especially as OffTopic have kindly made it available to everyone for free!

Visit OffTopic at MySpace here.


offtopic

September 2010

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

BRIAN WILSON - Reimagines Gershwin

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Having one of pop music’s master craftsmen arrange and record an album of tunes by one of the world most celebrated pre-pop songwriters is a bit like one of those social experiments where twelve children are fed a bunch of E-numbers and then left to play together. It was never likely to be boring, but there was always the possibility that it could get a bit out of control.

With the help of his trusty band, Brian takes classic Gershwin numbers (including two unfinished by Gershwin at the time of his death) and twists them into his own image; on a basic level, you’ll probably have a grasp of what it’ll sound like, but the big question is: is it any good?

Bookended by a chorale arrangement of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, naturally, ‘Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin’ will never top Wilson at his absolute sharpest – and is unlikely to be as fondly written about as ‘Pet Sounds’ or the much documented ‘Smile’ - but there’s more than enough material here worthy of investigating. More importantly, this album stands as proof that Wilson is still a truly gifted arranger, even on those occasions when the material doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Of the two new songs, ‘The Like I Love In You’ is a gentle ballad, with a beautifully arranged vocal; by Wilson’s standards it’s not too “kitchen-sink”. While the vocal is the high point, a special mention must be given to a tasteful string and percussion arrangement, using the triangle and Wilson’s beloved woodblocks. Overall, this track is a little bit Disney-esque, but sets the mood for album quite nicely and is likely in keeping with a style Gershwin would have enjoyed. It’s less likely Gershwin would have enjoyed the other new number, ‘Nothing But Love’ quite as much. Here, in contrast to ‘The Like I Love In You’, Wilson grabs the opportunity to create something more complex. Sleigh bells, baritone saxophones and washes of harmony vocals drive something which could have been written by Wilson alone, and could have graced his 2008 outing ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ quite happily.

Arguably Gershwin’s most famous composition, ‘Summertime’ is probably one of the album’s weak links. This has much to do with Wilson’s vocal not always quite being as sharp as it could be. However, the inclusion of strings and brass help smooth out any overt raggedness, while a fantastic xylophone chips in for atmosphere. Similarly iffy in places, ‘I Loves You Porgy’ meanders a little, but is saved by tasteful strings and trombone work. Things then pick up with a sprightly instrumental rendition of ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’’, where Wilson’s arrangement goes off the deep end. With a Southern canter, at first driven by harmonica and what sounds like temple blocks, it’s upbeat style provides a welcome difference to both ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Loves You Porgy’. The jaunty rhythm is then augmented by superb brass and strings, to create one of the album’s standouts.

A slightly bluesy take on ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ - featuring a wall of strings and brass and then topped with harmonica - provides another high point, since it doesn’t rely so heavy on choirs of vocals to fill everything out. Even Wilson himself sounds far more comfortable in his role of lead vocalist. The end result sounds both warm and inviting; the louder moments taking on the epic nature of a sixties film theme. The shuffling samba of ‘’S Wonderful’ also finds Brian in a more restrained mood, his arrangement here surprisingly similar to Diana Krall’s 2001 rendition of the song. While Wilson has avoided any temptation to reconstruct this number completely in his own style, there’s a multi-layering of vocals which adds a great depth and a jazz flute solo which sits rather well.

‘I Got Rhythm’, on the other hand, gets completely Wilson-ed. After an intro taken from ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, Brian and co launch into a Beach Boys-esque piece of doo wop, with slight surf overtones. The sax breaks echo late 50s rock and roll, while a chorus of backing vocal ‘oohs’ come straight out of Brian’s famous formative years. Fantastic...just fantastic. With a harpsichord at the heart, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ also ends up sounding like something from the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ sessions – ‘You Still Believe In Me’, in particular - a feeling strengthened somewhat by the inclusion of upfront (yet gentle) bass work. Once you’ve thrown in a string quartet and the ubiquitous sleigh bells and clip-clop percussion, this was certainly created with a knowing nod to ‘Pet Sounds’, and as such, seems as if it was meant for Wilson all along. For ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’, Wilson opts for a simple stabbing piano, complimented by strings and harmony vocals. While not as interesting as some of his re-workings, the subtle guitar work, with lots of echo, is particularly pleasing.

I was really concerned about the idea of Brian Wilson recording an album of Gershwin tunes, since I’m not always fond of crooning and really hate musical theatre and opera, but this album comes with so much of Brian Wilson’s signature stamp all over it, it’s almost impossible to dislike. Surely, that’s a big enough seal of approval?


September 2010

Monday, 6 September 2010

FIRST SIGNAL - First Signal

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I’ve been a fan of the Canadian band Harem Scarem for years. Their first three albums rank among the finest melodic rock releases of the early nineties. Occasionally, their lyrics ended up somewhat cryptic (for that read nonsensical), but among their band members they featured a first rate guitarist in Pete Lesperance and in Harry Hess, they had a top class vocalist. However, by the time of their fifth album, 1998’s ‘Big Bang Theory’ (rather confusingly issued with differing tracklistings in Canada and Japan), Hess’s vocals began to sound a little forced and their material wasn’t as instant as it once had been. Harem Scarem continued to release albums up until their 2009 break up, but despite each one containing some good material, none were as consistent as the band’s early work.

In 2010, Harry Hess teamed up with Khymera/Pink Cream 69 bassist Dennis Ward forming the core of First Signal, a band which ought to appeal to fans of Harem Scarem’s classic early work. This is clear from the opening bars of ‘This City’ which opens with an attention-grabbing lead guitar courtesy of Michael Klein, whom although not quite up there with Pete Lesperance, does his best to fill the album with enough guitar showboating to keep Scarem fans happy. While Hess’s vocal style isn’t quite as strong as it was back in the early nineties, he still contributes a decent performance here (as good as his performances on his 2003 solo outing ‘Just Another Day) and regarding the song, its chorus is very strong indeed. If you came looking for a bit of the old-style Harry Hess magic, you’ll find it here in abundance.

‘When You Believe’ follows in a similar vein with another top chorus, but it’s Eric Ragno’s keyboard fills which give the track it’s best quality. Although I’m a fan of 80s style stabbing rhythmic keyboards, Ragno’s rather more accomplished fills are really classy (in an 80s rock way, naturally), with their shiny edges. The upbeat ‘Into The Night’ provides plenty of bounce and Hess turns in a natural performance; here, Klein’s guitar work is rather more understated, his solo far simpler than he could have managed and in contrast to ‘When You Believe’ Ragno’s keys sound buried in the mix. Despite the production here not being quite as sharp as it could’ve been, it doesn’t detract too much from the song.

The title cut is a solid rocker, opening with muti-tracked guitars. Punchy without being heavy, it’s a timely reminder of what made Harem Scarem great back in the early 90s. Klein alternates effective staccato guitar work with some decent fills, before launching into another effortless solo (even if a little short). The chorus utilises some classic sounding harmony vocals, making it another track which ought to please fans of this style of melodic rock. ‘Feels Like Love This Time’ taps into a mid-paced, classic 80’s style radio-rock. Sure, you’ve heard it all a thousand times, but it’s hard to ignore when done well – and had this been written earlier and passed into the hands of Bryan Adams or Def Leppard, it could’ve been huge. Great to hear the mix of electric and acoustic guitars here and while Hess’s vocal sounds slightly ragged, the end result makes this one of the album’s best tracks.

The mid-paced ‘When November Falls’ features some decent staccato guitar work during the verses, before launching into a chorus which is gentle and simple. Despite sounding a little over familiar, it still manages to be effective thanks to great song writing. It’s been said elsewhere that this may have suited John Waite...and hearing it, it’s not difficult to understand why. If you’re a Scarem fan, ‘Yesterday’s Rain’ is a three and half minute snapshot of why you need this album. With verses dominated by Michael Kline’s hard and rhythmic chords, this paves the way for a solid pre-chorus, before the band hits the listener with a harmony-filled chorus which could have easily been a left-over from the sessions for Harem Scarem’s 1991 self-titled debut. Hess and the rest of the band are on good form, but it’s the great song writing matched with uncomplicated arrangements and harmonies which gives the track its greatest strength.

First Signal haven’t released this album with any dreams of being contemporary. It’s the work of musicians who love what they do and do it extremely well. In short, this First Signal album is the closest anyone associated with Harem Scarem has come to recreating the consistency of the band’s early releases. And if nothing else, at least it can be said that Harry Hess’s contribution to 2010 is certainly streets ahead of that of his ex-bandmates.


September 2010

Friday, 3 September 2010

TERRY BROCK - Diamond Blue

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Despite stints as vocalist with Kansas, Giant and Louisiana based melodic rock outfit Le Roux, Terry Brock will, to most people, be best known as the vocalist with Strangeways, the AOR band with whom he recorded two excellent albums – 1987’s ‘Native Sons’ and 1989’s ‘Walk In The Fire’. In 2003, Brock released ‘Back To Eden’, a solo album on Frontiers Records. Including material co-written by Survivor’s Jim Peterik, the album featured some great moments; however, as good as the songs were, the demo quality of the recording let the side down somewhat.

Early in 2010, the announcement came that Brock would be reuniting with Strangeways, which was good news for AOR fans across the globe. While fans anticipated the arrival of the proposed 2010 Strangeways “comeback” disc, Terry Brock paved the way with the release of his second solo album, ‘Diamond Blue’.
Teaming up once again with Frontiers Records, Brock’s second album is far stronger than his debut. This is not least due to ‘Diamond Blue’ actually having half-decent production values – there’s a lot to be said for releasing something which sounds finished, as opposed to polished demos (something so many small melodic rock labels seem to fall into). Take Brock and an album which sounds like a finished product, and then add City Boy/Steelhouse Lane man Mike Slamer on guitar and you have the right ingredients for a fantastic melodic rock disc.

Essentially, ‘Diamond Blue’ won’t give you any great surprises if you’re already a Terry Brock or classic Strangeways fan, but you likely wouldn’t have wanted it to... The title track, which opens proceedings, captures the brilliance of the Brock/Slamer team in an instant. Brock’s soulful vocal is the perfect foil for Slamer’s mid-paced riffery, which at first uses a couple of chords which appear slightly edgy, but he soon settles down. Good use of harmonies beefs up an already solid chorus – it’s the kind of stuff these guys have been doing for years and, by now, could do in their sleep. The same could be said for ‘It’s You’; while not as immediate as the opening number, it’s mid-paced riff and lead guitar harmony have the makings of absolutely classic AOR.

‘Jessie’s Gone’ (a title which, naturally, makes me think of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’) is special in that it was co-written with Strangeways man Ian Stewart. While it’s chorus isn’t quite as strong as I’d hoped for (just a little bit too simplistic), a detailed pre-chorus is proof enough that Brock and Stewart still have their old magic. Combine that with a decent punch on the verses and a superb Slamer solo it’s another of the album’s stand out cuts. ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ is heavier – giving Mike Slamer more opportunity to rock out – and while the lyrics are a quite silly, Brock delivers them with conviction – ever the absolute professional.

‘Broken’ is interesting in that the opening riff promises something quite heavy. This doesn’t last, as the riff gives way to a gentle mid-paced rocker, allowing Brock to use the softer edge of his voice during the verses. Its chorus, which makes full use of harmony vocals and the harder edge of Brock’s range, is faultless in its delivery. ‘Face In The Crowd’ provides the album with something a little more uptempo than Brock and Slamer’s usual approach, built around an acoustic jangle. Slamer contrasts this with some excellent electric counter harmonies (including a cracking solo). Brock, meanwhile, demonstrates that he’s vocally at ease with whatever is thrown his way.

The end of the album tails off a little for me. ‘Too Young’ falls foul of 80s rock “she’s jailbait” style lyrics; I could tell you that Slamer’s hard rock guitar riff packs a decent enough punch, but once Tezzer starts singing about the 16 year old who could be 30, the cringe-factor is just that little too high. While ‘A Soldier Falls’ is certainly heartfelt, its pro-American anti-war stance is so unsubtle it becomes hard to swallow and ‘Face The Night’ - the ballad which closes the disc - has too much of a saccharine factor to make it stand up with the album’s best moments. Minor complaints though, especially when you consider how superb the rest of the songs on this album are.

Despite my misgivings of the last few tracks, ‘Diamond Blue’ is one of the best melodic rock releases of 2010. Fantastic vocals, the inclusion of the god-like Mike Slamer and decent production for a small label make Brock’s second solo venture a winner. If you’re a fan of solid AOR, get this as soon as you can.


September 2010

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

HEART - Red Velvet Car

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Back in 2004, I was quite excited by the idea of Heart returning. The release of that year’s ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ marked the first new material released under the Heart name for nearly a decade. Ann and Nancy Wilson worked with regular collaborator Sue Ennis in the interim under the name The Lovemongers, concentrating on folky and pop-rock styles, but sadly, their one proper album release did little for me despite having been a fan of the Wilsons for many years. Heart’s ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ was a return to the band’s heavy Led Zeppelin influenced sound from the 70s, but tweaked slightly for the 90s. While it was great to have Heart back (even if in name only), the album contained little in the way of memorable material (it flopped, supposedly only shifting 100,000 copies). The supporting tour – which saw the band returning to the UK after many years without a visit – was absolutely cracking though, so that reunion wasn’t without merit. Heart continued to play sporadic live shows after that, but Nancy’s main focus became scoring her husband Cameron Crowe’s movies, while in 2007 Ann recorded her first full solo album.

Six years after ‘Jupiter’s Darling’, ‘Red Velvet Car’ continues to plough Heart’s seventies rock roots. Those looking for the eighties style power ballads which made Heart megastars outside of the US in the 80s will undoubtedly be disappointed, since bluesy Zeppelin-isms are the main order of the day here. Sadly, although the style is in keeping with Heart’s earliest work, a good chunk of the material lacks the spark and immediacy of Heart’s best 70s outing. The arrangements feel somewhat leaden in places (though nowhere near as much as those on ‘Jupiter’s Darling’) and rather more worryingly, Ann Wilson’s once matchless vocal shows signs of wear It’s slightly husky edge is well suited to the bluesier moments of ‘Red Velvet Car’, but her trademark wail appears to struggle on the rockier cuts. For the most part, Ann’s voice just doesn’t stretch beyond what sounds like an untrained mid-range any more...

This is obvious from the single release, ‘WTF’ which appears to be a deliberate attempt to give the album a hard rocker in the style of ‘Barracuda’. While it’s musically okay, Ann’s vocal has been fuzzed up to make it sound grittier (though most likely it’s an attempt to mask her inabilities to hit the huge notes the way she once did). While the main riff shows great promise, there’s no hook to back it up. Similarly, the deliberate driving nature of ‘Wheels’ is empty once you get past a promising heavily percussive rhythm. Also with a percussive nature, the slide guitar blues-rock of ‘There You Go Again’ works better due to a more understated arrangement – making decent use of Ann’s slightly cracked vocal in the process. You’d think that ‘Bootful of Beer’, echoing the bar-room rock of The Quireboys and The Faces would be well suited to Heart’s retro blues-rock shoes, but the end result is painful. Craig Bartock’s twangy guitars and Ben Smith’s simple drum work lay a decent foundation, but the song otherwise feels forced. There’s not even a boogie piano line to help sweep things along. While Heart were always first rate at Led Zeppelin style hard rock, whiskey soaked blues-rock just doesn’t work for them. Maybe this would have worked for Alannah Myles in the 80s or Sass Jordan in the 90s, but for Heart in the 21st Century...nah.

The high points of the album the ones with pastel shades, as Ann’s voice doesn’t take a hammering and the band sound far more natural. Particularly good are the couple of tracks where Nancy takes lead: ‘Hey You’ is an upbeat acoustic number which would have fit snugly on to any of Heart’s 70s masterpieces. The spirit of classic Heart is further strengthened once Ann provides accompaniment on the autoharp. ‘Sunflower’ has a semi-acoustic bluesy swagger, with Nancy’s acoustic work counterbalanced by Craig Bartock’s subtle electric lead. Not as sublime as ‘Hey You’, but another definite reason to check out the album. The gentle acoustic ‘Sand’ echoes ‘Dog and Butterfly’, with a soft summer feeling as Ann’s understated vocal really carries the song. The quiet moments are proof enough that Ann’s voice is still there, but midway as she attempts one of her Robert Plant inspired wails, the cracks appear again. Luckily, she’s backed by Nancy providing a great harmony vocal.

Like Heart’s 70s albums, ‘Red Velvet Car’ isn’t without it’s mandolin moment, as ‘Safronia’s Mark’ has moments which – as is quite often the case – sound like a direct lift from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’. While one of the album’s better moments, there’s still no doubt that Heart have done this before...and much better. And that, on the most base level is the album’s greatest fault. Like ‘Jupiter’s Darling’, ‘Red Velvet Car’ really doesn’t represent Heart’s brilliance.

While it was never going to be a release to pull in casual listeners, I have a feeling that lots of long-term fans are likely to also greet this with indifference. There are some good songs here – and even a couple of excellent ones (despite my mixed feelings, it’s certainly better than ‘Jupiter’s Darling’) – but it’s hugely unlikely anyone would choose to listen to this album when there are so many superior albums in Heart’s back catalogue.


August 2010