Saturday, 29 January 2011

CANDY BUTCHERS - Hang On Mike

candy butchers

There are so many under-rated geniuses working in the power pop field, but none more deserving of huge recognition as Mike Viola, whose fourth full length release ‘Hang On Mike’- released under the Candy Butchers moniker - captures the singer-songwriter at his absolute best.

The album begins with a tale of a hit-and-miss relationship, set to an almost guitar-less, bouncing arrangement with the piano firmly upfront. Its purely seventies arrangement features the best elements of early Billy Joel crossed with the sunshine vibe of ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ by Captain and Teneille. It’s one of those tracks which sounds eternally fresh; something about that particular style of stabbing piano is consistently pleasing (I mean, ‘Allentown’ by Billy Joel...it never gets old, does it?). ‘Nice To Know You’ continues the seventies vibe but has extra focus on vocal harmony; while ‘Hang On Mike’ showcases better songs than this, it holds up as a great example of how Viola knows how to write a simple, yet effective melody and how although fashions may change, the kinds of pop Viola loved in the seventies have an almost timeless appeal.

‘Not So Bad At All’ captures a perfect punchy pop feeling, hovering somewhere between Jellyfish at their most direct and New York’s Mark Bacino, but if it’s an instant pop frenzy you’re looking for, the Jellyfish meets Brian Wilson-isms of ‘Let’s Have a Baby’ will provide instant joy. The stabbing piano should be enough, but when combined with a quirky chorus vocal featuring potential baby names, the song hits a whole new level of infectiousness. At just under three minutes, the moment is gone before long, but it should be more than enough to leave you smiling. ‘Sparkle!’ is even more upbeat, with camp overtones as Mike’s trademark pop is driven towards show tune territory with a wry grin.

‘Unexpected Traffic’ demonstrates the flipside of Mike’s song craft. An acoustic based, introspective number, you get a sense of Mike’s voice cracking under emotional weight. In a similar vein, although lyrically far more direct, ‘Painkillers’ is heartbreaking, as it tells of the death of someone very close and the daily struggles of coming to terms with deep sadness. While the album’s acoustic numbers often give Viola more gravitas as a songwriter, it’s his poppier works which provide the album with its long lasting appeal and most memorable moments. ‘Kiss Alive II’ shows a sly humour, not unlike Ben Folds, where Mike tells the tale of musical discovery as he attempts to turn a friend on to the piano based mastery of 1970’s Elton John (specifically ‘Bennie and the Jets’) and in return gets a copy of KISS’s double live opus [It’s up to the listener to decide whom gets the best deal there]. The song’s structure is based around simple but fairly dominant piano chords – likely meant to evoke classic Elton, but somehow ending up a little more Billy Joel...which, of course, is more than fine.

The title cut features a slightly strained vocal on fragile verses, but is balanced by a perfect pop chorus in an autobiographical tale (“Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing you’re good for, it’s holding on / Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing your good for, it’s another song”). No-one is in a better position to recognise fame isn’t always an overnight success than Viola. He may have written the songs in the “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” movie and provided vocals in the Tom Hanks flick “That Thing You Do”, but somehow the accolade of being a true household name seems to have eluded him.

When Mike’s second album (‘Falling Into Place’) was released, I was convinced he was one of the greatest singer-songwriters I’d heard in a long while - and this fourth album leaves absolutely no doubt about his talent. If you still hanker after the days when things were as well crafted as Todd Rundgren’s ‘Something/Anything’, then this is essential.


July 2010

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

THE GO! TEAM - Rolling Blackouts

go team

Back in 2005 when the Go! Team’s debut (‘Thunder, Lightning, Strike’) was released, there seemed to be a genuine buzz of excitement among the indie/alternative community. However, despite having a broad musical taste, I just couldn’t take to their mish-mash of guitar pop, dance loops and occasional cheerleader-esque vocals. Within a few months of its release, I forgot about them. Their sophomore album (‘Proof of Youth’) bought them bigger chart success, and yet its release passed me by at first; even though I was mixing with the same people, for some reason, they’d stopped talking about the Brighton sextet.

At the beginning of 2011, The Go! Team returned with their third release, which presents a similar mix of styles as before; some parts of which, naturally, work better than others. The opening track ‘T.O.R.N.A.D.O’ mixes blaxploitation sounds with a danceable groove and ends up sounding like a Beastie Boys cast off. While that end groove has something of appeal, the beats are hard and the sampled horns are potentially headache inducing; this drowns out the vocal line – though I suspect Ninja’s bad rap stylings are of an empty sentiment. A swift u-turn in sound follows with ‘Secretary Song’(featuring Satomi Matsuzaki of Deerhoof)- a track which brings a mix of twee indie pop (a la Saint Etienne) and fuzzy guitar lines. There’s a sweet tune hiding within the hard beats and, once again, the vocals are a bit fudgy sounding, but there’s enough here to get a sense of what the band were aiming for musically.

The instrumental cut ‘Bust-Out Brigade’ really hits the spot with its huge (sampled) horns and general funkiness. There’s a sassiness which would befit a 1970s cop movie, even though the sounds of a glockenspiel occasionally gives the feeling of a marching band! As a long time fan of the Beasties’ ‘In Sound From Way Out’ compilation, this really appeals to me and I wish The Go! Team would do this sort of thing more often. Featuring a guest vocal from Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino (very much the indie/alternative pop flavour of the month by the end of 2010), the lead single, ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is a decent slice of guitar-driven indie-pop, all ringing guitars and sunshine – the kind you’ve heard hundreds of times before – but stylistically, it really suits The Go! Team.

‘Voice Yr Choice’ is a proper dud. Against a very synthetic sounding arrangement (bar some live drums, rather loud in the end mix), Ninja delivers a really awful rap performance. It’s the kind that’s so bad, you realise that maybe Betty Boo wasn’t so bad after all. Luckily, it becomes a distant memory quickly; as soon as it ends, The Go! Team swiftly move on to something more enjoyable. ‘Yosemite Blues’ is a busy (mostly) instrumental number which fuses funk, banjos, more glockenspeils and live drums in a way which sounds like a cross between alternative rock/pop and a 1970s theme tune for a western.

Following a slightly out of tune instrumental played on an old upright piano (‘Lazy Poltergeist’),the title track brings with it plenty of punch and fuzzy guitars. A hushed vocal gives the performance an odd contrast. Listening to it, it’s hard to believe it’s the work of the same band that has a penchant for bad rap, sassy horns and busy sampling. That diversity is either very cool, or The Go! Team’s biggest weakness, depending on your personal viewpoint.

For almost pure pop, ‘Ready To Go Steady’ is a standout, with twee sixties influences and almost surfy vibe. The sampled drum fills are put to good use and its simple vocal hook is effective, creating something sounds like The Postmarks meets Saint Etienne. Also, fully exploring kitsch, a short instrumental, ‘Super Triangle’ utilises a simple retro synth tune over acoustic guitars. To those of a certain age, its hard not to listen to this and visualise the old BBC Testcard.

Occasionally, you’ll get a track where all of most of The Go! Team’s elements come together, as they do during ‘Apollo Throwdown’. The live drums are punchy, the sampled beats drive things along and the music has a very retro vibe, echoing the disco era. The rap elements aren’t as embarrassing (though not entirely to my tastes) and a chorus employs an almost cheer-leading aspect. These elements feel far more natural here than on some other tracks.

As before, it’s sometimes difficult to work out at whom The Go! Team are aiming their smorgasbord of sounds. Listening to ‘Rolling Blackouts’, I like them far more than I ever did before (even being inspired enough to revisit their previous works). There’s a lot here to enjoy, providing you can get past the often claustrophobic nature of the end product. As good as some of this is, though, there’s still a feeling that The Go! Team still haven’t fully realised their potential.


January 2011

Monday, 24 January 2011

VAN MORRISON - Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart

inarticulate speech

After his late 60s albums ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Moondance’ established Van Morrison as one of the greatest singer songwriters of the age, he entered the 1970s in very high regard and with great confidence. The rhythm and blues led ‘His Band and Street Choir’ kick started Morrison’s greatest decade, during which he released a string of superb albums – all strong in their own way and each one featuring a handful of genuinely classic tracks.

Like many of his peers, Morrison appeared to be out of step with the 1980s. He began the decade with the release of ‘Common One’, an understated collection of largely ambling and, at times, almost directionless songs. The largely forgettable ‘Beautiful Vision’ followed, although that’s very much worth checking out for the upbeat ‘Cleaning Windows’ featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar. In 1983, Van released the keyboard heavy ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, an album considered by some to be the nadir of his career.

The main problem with ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is obvious right from the start, as ‘Higher Than The World’ begins with a wash of keyboards (somewhat akin to those that Simply Red would drench their albums in a few years later) leading to an easy-listening mulch, not far removed from Sade or something similar. Given an arrangement that would befit a restaurant, Morrison does his utmost to create interest, as his gruff voice moves from moody mumbling to lumbering loudness at the drop of a hat. By a couple of minutes in, there’s a feeling that he may be over compensating, as he warbles off key in his “enthusiasm”.

Initially, the synthetic eighties sound is quite suited to ‘Connswater’, the first of the album’s instrumental numbers, but soon it becomes obvious that the eighties production comes at the expense of one of the track’s key features. The tune has a distinctly Irish feel, with Davy Spillane making a guest appearance on Uileann pipes. The jig element of the number is very pleasing, but the bridge sections - featuring a pounding drum - are lacklustre, due to the drum being far too low in the mix. You guessed it – the dominant sound over that drum is a keyboard, not too dissimilar to the one featured during the previous track. The sax driven ‘Celtic Swing’ follows suit and, as you’d expect, has a jaunty quality. Production aside, there’s nothing overtly dislikeable about either of these instrumental numbers, but they feel rather like filler – and if you consider that amongst ‘Inarticulate Speech’s eleven tracks you’ll find four instrumentals, that’s a lot of padding. I can only assume with the inclusion of these instrumental numbers, Van was hoping somehow to create a successor to ‘Common One’.

‘Cry For Home’ is a mid-paced soul pop number which appears well written, but loses a lot in delivery. ‘River of Time’ – although far from essential Van – is much better, due to the drum kit having a little bit of oomph behind it and the bass work sounding more live. As you may expect, Van’s delivery on these songs lacks subtlety – drowning out most of the backing harmonies at various points – but quite often, it’s the force of nature that is his love-it-or-hate-it voice which carries this album’s songs, especially when the music is pedestrian. Considering the great session musos who stopped by to lend a hand on albums like ‘Tupelo Honey’, you have to wonder how Morrison got saddled with the bunch of people featured here who sound like they’d be better suited to performing library music for TV wildlife documentaries.

The album’s title track appears in two parts. The first part is an atmospheric instrumental with a piano at the fore. The piano work is simple and is counterbalanced by human voices used as instruments (a technique re-employed at the end of the album, but achieving a far weaker result). The end section of part one features a loud drum sound, which is very welcome, especially considering the subdued role the drums play on most of the songs. The second part brings in Morrison on vocals, but there’s not a great deal to get excited about as, over a gentle, waltzing arrangement he repeats the same three lines (“I’m a soul in wonder” and “I’m just wild about it, I can’t live without it”) between a repetitive refrain of “Inarticulate speech, inarticulate speech of the heart”. There’s a decent organ solo midway, but it’s so low in the mix, you’ll wonder why John Allair bothered playing it at all.

‘Rave On, John Donne’ begins with a spoken vocal, delivered by Van with a typical Belfast brusqueness. The music lulls as Mark Isham’s synth creates a blanket of sound and Chris Michie’s guitar overlays a simple chord structure with a ringing tone. Once again, the eighties production cannot be avoided, but here, it’s very well suited to the overall feel of the track. When Van’s lead vocal begins, it has all the effortless power of his mid-late seventies work. Similarly, the better known ‘Irish Heartbeat’ (covered by Billy Connolly as the theme to his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ travel programme) captures Van in a confident mood, his vocal steeped in a soulful power. His unmistakable tone gives the song an uneasy beauty, which loses none of its appeal despite a thin arrangement and even thinner sounding drum kit. ‘When The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is the album’s most upbeat moment. David Hayes lays down a fabulous funky bassline, although thanks to the eighties production techniques, it sounds unnaturally compressed and almost like a keyboard. Van’s delivery harks back to his early seventies work from ‘Band and Street Choir’ and as such, it’s one of the only times on this album where the band step outside of middling balladry and actually sound like they’re having fun. By the song’s end (as with ‘Rave On, John Donne’ and ‘Irish Heartbeat’), you’ll likely find yourself wondering how much better it certainly would have sounded had Morrison written and recorded it a decade earlier.

With a little more care, the instrumental ‘September Night’ should have been as good as ‘Connswater’. Its majestic keyboard chords could have provided the album with an atmospheric closing number, but that atmosphere is ruined by the use of a wordless vocal. I’m not against the idea of using the voice purely as an instrument – and the female vocals give the track an almost European cinematic quality - but once Morrison’s vocal begins, the atmosphere is quickly broken as he wanders into tuneless abandon.

While I can easily understand why ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is so disliked, I’m actually more confused as to why 1985’s ‘No Guru No Method No Teacher’ is so highly regarded. And what’s more, I’m completely bewildered as to why ‘Inarticulate Speech’ is the Van Morrison album from the 80s I return to the most. Maybe it’s because ‘Rave On, John Donne’, ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ could have been classic Van. Sadly though, those good songs have had the life sucked out of them by too many unnatural sounding keyboards and an over-production which makes everything sound way too clinical. In addition, I’d say four instrumental numbers is far too many, when you consider that Morrison is best known for his status as a singer-songwriter. Somehow though, especially considering it’s extremely flawed, ‘Inarticulate Speech’ manages to stay more memorable than most of Morrison’s other works throughout the 1980s.


July 2010

Friday, 21 January 2011

“Steve Prestwich: 1954-2011”

It is with sadness I make this post, having just heard about the death of Steve Prestwich. For those of you who don’t know, Steve was best known as being the drummer with Cold Chisel throughout most of their career in the 1970s/80s and subsequent late 90s reunion. Between his work with Cold Chisel, he recorded two solo albums and also worked with The Little River Band.

In January 2011, Steve was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent surgery on January 14th, but passed away two days later.

Cold Chisel are a fabulous band and one that has meant a great deal to me for many years. While their keyboard player Don Walker was their principal songwriter, other band members wrote songs during the band’s career. Steve Prestwich wrote two of the bands hits and contributed to a third – as a tribute to him, I'm posting the videos for those songs.

‘Forever Now’ and ‘When The War Is Over’ were both written by Prestwich and featured on Chisel’s 1982 album ‘Circus Animals’. ‘Flame Trees’ was written by Prestwich/Walker and featured on 1984’s ‘Twentieth Century’.





Thursday, 20 January 2011

STRAY CATS - Stray Cats

stray cats

Back in 1981, aside from a few heavy metal bands, the charts were dominated by effeminate lads with foppish hair and make-up. Visage and Ultravox were riding high with their brands of new romantic electronics, Soft Cell were big news with their Soho synth-pop and seedy lyrics while Adam and the Ants were at the height of their popularity with fun pop songs and dressing-up-box, panto-style theatrics (hard to believe now, but they were very cool at the time). In short, thanks to a new generation of pop stars fixated with David Bowie’s ‘Low’, early Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, pop music had become very androgynous.

Step forward, three guys from Long Island, New York. Stray Cats were unlikely heroes. They championed a brand of no-nonsense fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll which was heavily influenced by Eddie Cochran. At a time when that style wasn’t so popular, they represented something altogether tougher and undeniably masculine. They first made waves at the end of 1980 with their first hit single ‘Runaway Boys’. When their self-titled debut LP (co-produced by Brian Setzer and Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds) appeared in record racks in 1981, it was almost totally out of step with the musical climate.

‘Runaway Boys’ opens the album, and it’s here that Stray Cats put most of their cards on the table. Energetic rockabilly rhythms, fantastic upright basses and a simple but thumping drum part ensure the track shows Stray Cats at their best – these key features play a major part in most of the album’s greatest moments. ‘Rock This Town’ is a perfect example of the band’s style – Brian Setzer’s guitar twang evokes the late fifties and is meticulously played, while Lee Rocker’s upright bass drives the track at a jumping pace, while once again Slim Jim Phantom hammers the drum with a musical heartbeat that’s hard to ignore. For ‘Stray Cat Strut’, things slow to a sleazy groove. This provides a closer look into Setzer’s retro guitar style. He really is in a class of his own, as a couple of great guitar breaks prove.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the hits which are the big draw here. The rock ‘n’ roll twang of ‘Rumble In Brighton’ is suitably menacing; the standard rock ‘n’ roll vibe of ‘Fishnet Stockings’ provides upbeat fun and a cover of Warren Smith’s ‘Ubangi Stomp’(a song written in the mid-fifties, which shows absolutely no understanding of other cultures) makes excellent use of the drums, pounding out a basic rhythm. It’s a little heavy-handed in places but works well – provided, that is, you can put up with its racist tone.

‘Storm The Embassy’ is a political song about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. It’s the only time ‘Stray Cats’ obviously deviates from its classic rock ‘n’ roll style. Slim Jim’s drum sound loses its reverb and Lee Rocker’s bass is warmer. In fact, the whole thing sounds like something more modern, even though it retains a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Its political lyric also feels a little out of place up against the other, more fun material.

A cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Jeanie, Jeanie Jeanie’ is tackled at full-pace and has been updated for a demanding post-punk audience by making the lyrics edgier with a liberal use of the f-word, but despite that, it’s a fairly faithful rendition of the song. ‘Crawl Up and Die’ slows things down a little once again and sounds like something based around the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme and is suitably sneering. As you’d expect, ‘Wild Saxaphone’ [sic] is a fast workout featuring brass. With the addition of saxophone to Stray Cats’ trademark rock ‘n’ roll, the end result sounds a little more complex than some of the other material. For a wild saxophone, the brass section isn’t quite punchy enough on this number, coming across as “slightly quirky” as opposed to “wild”, but it’s a minor complaint.

‘Stray Cats’ is a cracking debut album (which interestingly never got a US release, despite the band hailing from New York). It may have a couple of moments which are questionable lyrically, but musically it hits the mark nearly every time. The synth-pop music of the early eighties may come in and out of fashion, but it’s full of dated sounds. Stray Cats (the band) sounded timeless back then and they sound the same now and ‘Stray Cats’ (the album) is a great snapshot of their talent.



Watch their 1981 appearance on the German Rockpalast show:
Got Sweet Love On My Mind
Double Talkin Baby
Rumble In Brighton
My One Desire
Ubangi Stomp
Drink That Bottle Down
Storm The Embassy
Stray Cat Strut
Fishnet Stockings
Important Words
Rock This Town
Runaway Boys
Somethin' Else
Gonna Ball

Watch various other clips from 1981:
The video for ‘Runaway Boys’ here.
‘Stray Cat Strut’ live on US TV here.
‘Runaway Boys’ live on US TV here.
Various clips from Japanese TV here.


March 2010

Monday, 17 January 2011

HEARTJET - Goodbye, Stan

heartjet

Formed in Lahti, Finland in 2006, Heartjet is a power pop duo comprising of Tuomas Strandman (vocals, guitars, drums) and Mikko Levonen (guitars, bass, keyboards). Combining the best elements of the work of 90’s singer-songwriter pop/rock with a heavy influence from The Posies, their debut EP ‘Goodbye, Stan’ features five numbers which seem familiar almost instantly.

With their slightly dark vibes, ‘Do You Doubt It’ and ‘Are You Coming’ could fit snugly alongside some of The Posies’ ‘Frosting On The Beater’ era material. The slightly distorted guitars on ‘Do You Doubt It’ are in great contrast with the upbeat vocals. Smooth harmony vocals add further contrast against the hard jangle of the electric guitars. During the verses, the vocals are left to almost stand alone against a solid bass (in very retro 90s style). After a quiet intro comprising electric piano, plucked guitar and gentle vocals, ‘Were You Coming’ utilises a loud chorus where power pop vocals are pitched against slightly edgy, chiming guitars. The Posies influence here is as subtle as a brick, but for those who still enjoy Auer and Stringfellow’s best works, this should raise a knowing smile. Musically, it’s Levonen’s solid bass at the heart of the number which provides most of the musical interest.

The title cut relies heavily on a semi-acoustic jangle which is instantly uplifting. With its punchy pop-rock sound, clean vocals and twangy electric lead, it borrows from The Posies’ work,once again, but features a much stronger influence. This time, it’s a strong influence from the 90s Boston scene driving the song. Not too far removed from ‘Big Red Letter Day Era’ Buffalo Tom or the more commercial works of The Lemonheads, ‘Goodbye, Stan’ is full of sunny harmonies, which sound great when set against the semi-acoustic jangle. Being a big fan of the works of Evan Dando, Bill Janovitz and John Strohm, it’s often been this track which has kept me coming back to this release.

‘First Day’ begins with chiming guitars which fall away on occasion to allow harmony vocals more space. Without those harmonies, the track’s verses might’ve felt a little laboured, but Heartjet’s gift for arranging things in a very Posies-like manner means they pull it off with ease. Strandling’s lead vocals are easy and provide decent melodies against the otherwise slightly heavy-handed guitar work. Acoustic guitars come to the fore for ‘Memories’, showcasing singer-songwriter pop influences. With tight vocal harmonies and strong melodies, its core is very strong, but maybe a little too simple as Heartjet do little afterward to build on its initial promise: as a song, maybe it’s just a little too simple. A couple of gentle guitar leads from Levonen fill a couple of empty spaces, but look past those harmonies, a quiet keyboard drone adds a small amount of depth, but it’s not quite enough. This track isn’t a skipper by any means, since its good elements are very enjoyable, there’s just a feeling it required a bit more embellishment.

While most ‘Goodbye, Stan’ shows heavy influences from The Posies (one which is too obvious in places to be avoided), Heartjet prove to be solid song writers. With just enough of their own style to make this release worth investigating, this EP should give you just enough of a taste of their brand of power pop.

[Visiting the below link and downloading the title track is strongly recommended]

January 2011

Thursday, 13 January 2011

PETE TOWNSHEND - Who Came First

townshend

In the mid 1960’s, beat groups and rhythm ‘n’ blues changed lives, and with their bombast, The Who had become one of the era’s most popular bands. Pop music had constantly re-invented itself and psychedelia had pushed pop’s boundaries even further. As part of The Who’s second album (1966’s ‘A Quick One’) Pete Townshend contributed a theatrical piece, ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’, which suggested there was more to the band than their previous work may have suggested. But things were going to get bigger. Much bigger.

As the lead track from Mark Wirtz’s ‘A Teenage Opera’, Keith West scored a hit single in the summer of 1967 with ‘Excerpt from “A Teenage Opera” (Grocer Jack)’. EMI pulled the plug on the release of the complete ‘Teenage Opera’, but between Wirtz’s grand musical vision and the rock musical ‘Hair’ making its off Broadway debut at the end of the year, some important musical seeds had been sown. Via experiments with psychedelia, The Who released their career defining rock opera, ‘Tommy’, in May 1969.

This was not only a career defining moment for The Who, but for rock music in general. After an appearance playing ‘Tommy’ at Woodstock and the release of their seminal ‘Live at Leeds’ album, Pete Townshend (alongside a few famous chums, including Small Faces man Ronnie Lane) recorded ‘Happy Birthday’, an album of music inspired by the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba. The Who returned in 1970 with a re-recording of a track from this release, ‘The Seeker’, which became a UK top ten hit. Pete Townsend intended The Who’s next album to be an ambitious concept piece called ‘Lifehouse’, though the project was abandoned in favour of a more conventional album release. In 1971, The Who released ‘Who’s Next’, an album containing a solid collection of rock tunes (some of which were intended for ‘Lifehouse’. ‘Who’s Next’ is rightly regarded as a masterpiece; one of its many stand-out moments is ‘Baba O’Riley, a track which would also appear in extended instrumental form on a second collection of spiritual material, once again dedicated to Meher Baba.

After live shows for ‘Who’s Next’ wound down, many musicians would’ve taken the time to step back from such an extraordinarily busy schedule. But not Townshend. He returned to the studio to record a second album of songs inspired by Meher Baba, ‘I Am’, and ‘Who Came First’, an album of personal material; a collection of songs which is widely regarded as his first official solo release.

As expected, the album showcases Townshend’s skill as a songwriter, but also highlights his talents as a studio hand. With the opportunity to have the final say with regard to this project, Townshend not only takes on vocal and guitar duties, in addition to playing various keyboard parts, but also becomes producer, engineer and mixer too. Where The Who had previously enlisted either Kit Lambert or Glyn Johns to produce, ‘Who Came First’ was Townshend’s opportunity to oversee all technical aspects of the project in an almost Orson Welles like fashion.

He’s not so arrogant as to not enlist other musicians where necessary though (even letting them take the musical reigns on occasion). Old friend Ronnie Lane contributes vocals and guitars, Caleb Quaye (best known for his work on Elton John’s albums from a similar period) is enlisted as bassist, drummer and sometime guitarist, and Billy Nicholls adds guitars and vocals. As for the material itself, it’s very much a rag-bag of stuff; some which is instantly enjoyable and some which requires work on the listener’s part to get to grips with.

The album opens with one of its most familiar numbers. Originally intended as part of ‘Lifehouse’, ‘Pure & Easy’ made its debut here as a Pete Townshend solo recording, but was re-recorded by The Who a short time later (eventually appearing on their 1974 compilation of rarities, ‘Odds & Sods’). In the hands of The Who, the song features some great harmony vocal moments in addition to Daltrey’s commanding lead. Townshend’s original take is weak in comparison. The harmonies are all but absent, and Townshend’s vocal during the opening verse is almost painful to listen to, as he hits notes which are far too high for him. Thankfully, he settles down by the pre-chorus, and the song finds its stride. Despite Townshend’s vocal shortcomings in various places ‘Pure & Easy’ is a great song and his band is solid throughout (if never remarkable). Since the song features some great moments but never quite reaches its potential, it makes sense that The Who re-recorded it so quickly, improving it a great deal in the process.

‘Evolution’ presents one of the album’s best numbers. Here Ronnie Lane takes the helm in an acoustic reworking of ’Stone’, an old Faces number. Lane’s vocal is easy and natural, the perfect fit for the rootsy, blues-folk hybrid of the music. The main acoustic part is fairly basic, but a few complicated runs and some fantastic soloing really bring style to the number. Having long been peers by this point in their careers, there’s a mutual respect between Lane and Townshend and the space each performer affords the other on this recording highlights that. [Lane and Townshend would work together five years later on a completely collaborative album, ‘Rough Mix’].

‘Sheraton Gibson’ tells a tale of life on the road and of how it takes its toll upon the artist. Townshend’s gentle vocal is full of aching and longing and set against a beautiful plucked acoustic arrangement, it’s certainly one of his best performances. A few electric guitar overdubs during the chorus flesh things out unnecessarily – as if to remind us of Pete’s usual background – but essentially, this solo performance (without bass or drums) has an air of fragility - of feeling lost. Whether the home he refers to is literal, or whether home refers to the spiritual teachings of Meher Baba is unclear.

‘Time Is Passing’ is a rumbling pop-rock number, which has echoes of The Who, only without any of the power. The guitar parts are somewhat understated, but there’s some great organ accompaniment. Townshend’s vocal style makes this number sound far more twee than it ought to be, but the end result still has more in keeping with The Who than most of the numbers present on ‘Who Came First’. Townshend may be star of his own show, but it’s Caleb Quaye’s bass and drum work which is this number’s strongest feature. Granted, his drumming might not carry the breezeblock subtlety of Keith Moon, but it’s powerful enough; his bass style is very upfront, giving this track an anchor.

‘Forever’s No Time At All’, written by Billy Nicholls sounds like filler material. It has a similar-ish vibe to ‘Time Is Passing’ (clearly that kind of rock-pop was Townshend’s band’s forte) and Townshend’s multi-tracked guitar parts are fabulous (lending themselves to a great use of stereo). Sadly, his great contributions are almost eclipsed by handclaps which are far too loud in the mix. Since it was his number, Billy Nicholls takes lead vocal and his high tone kills any enjoyment this song may have had.

‘Heartache’ is an acoustic cover of the Jim Reeves number ‘There’s a Heartache Following Me’. Hearing Townshend lumber his way through this old, crooning number is just bizarre. Recorded just after the most inventive part of The Who’s career, it seems so out of step with Townshend at his best. However, with ‘Who Came First’s main focus being on more introspective and personal material, it almost fits here. Why did Townshend choose to include it, when the sessions included better cuts which were originally left behind (such as the basic blues workout ‘I Always Say’ or the wonderful film-score-like piano instrumental ‘Lantern Cabin’)? The answer is simple: it was one of Baba Meher’s favourite songs.

Released as a single by The Who the previous year, ‘Let’s See Action’ appears on ‘Who Came First’ as alternate recording made by Townshend and his band. Having Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon on hand may have improved ‘Pure & Easy’ but interestingly The Who’s rendition of ‘Let’s See Action’ isn’t as good as Townsend’s solo take. With Townshend up front, this rolling bar-room rocker feels more natural; his softer vocal appears far more understanding with regards to its mid-tempo, mid-volume arrangement. The Who’s single version appears to drag in places, despite only a four minute duration; by contrast, this six minute extended arrangement stays the course, with Caleb Quay’s rhythm work carrying just enough punch to keep it flowing.

‘Content’ is an interesting choice, particularly for a rock star of Townshend’s usual posturing and bravado. For this track, he uses a poem by Maud Kennedy as a lyric, which he then sings rather gently over a simple piano arrangement. The piano chords are played slowly and very clearly defined in an unfussy style. There’s almost not quite enough happening to make the music gel, so an overdub of Townshend’s buzzing guitar strings is used to add extra musical depth. Again, it’s a world away from the then most recent Who album (‘Who’s Next’), but what is a solo album for, if not to release pieces of music which have no suitable home for a main project? The idea of including poetry just wouldn’t sit right with The Who, although it is very much in keeping with the hippie ethos of the early seventies [See also the old woman reading poetry at the end of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bare Trees’ LP].

‘Parvardigar’ is a reworking of a track from the second album for Meher Baba. The lyrics are based upon one of his prayers, but it’s the music which is of greatest interest. Multiple ringing acoustic guitars make up the core of the main tune, but it’s not always gentle. There are moments where Townshend just cannot resist throwing out huge ‘Pinball Wizard’ style chords and during the moments where the band provides complete support, it sounds like a Who demo. Even Caleb Quaye’s drum fills are a nod to Keith Moon (albeit played with far more subtlety). While I don’t care especially for the spiritual aspects of the lyrics, or the general praise lavished upon Meher by Townshend, it would have been great to hear Daltrey at his peak absolutely belting his way through this tune.

‘Who Came First’ only achieved limited commercial success at the time of release, spending just two weeks on the UK album chart, its highest position just #30. Over the years, the album has been re-appraised and is often seen as one of the best Who-related solo ventures.

While I find ‘Who Came First’ features some good songs, I feel Townshend’s vocal approach doesn’t always bring out their best qualities. Over the years Daltrey breathed a great amount of power and presence into Townshend’s songs and, in comparison, Townshend’s high voiced (although more than competent) style is often unremarkable. While some people have heaped praise upon ‘Who Came First’, for me, it’s more of an interesting curio than an essential album.

[An expanded version of ‘Who Came First’ features most of Townshend’s main contributions to the Meher Baba albums as bonus tracks, as well as a few other choice cuts].


November 2010

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

HELL IN THE CLUB - Let The Games Begin

hell

Although ‘Let The Games Begin’ is Hell In The Club’s debut release, a few of the band members are well-known faces on the Italian metal scene. Vocalist Davide “Dave” Moras is best known as for his work with fantasy metal outfit Elvenking, while bassist Andrea “Andy” Buratto and drummer Federico “Fede” Pennazzato are both members of power-metallers Secret Sphere. Rounding out the line-up is session guitarist Andrea “Picco” Piccardi. This side-band was put together after Andy decided he wanted to move away from the sound of Secret Sphere and perform sleaze-rock anthems inspired by Skid Row, Mötley Crüe and Ratt.

For the most part, if that’s the spirit they were attempting to capture, then this album is a success. Although some tracks work better than others, the love of the band’s original influences shines through – and often without sounding like flat-out imitation.

Of the best numbers, ‘Raise Your Drinkin’ Glass’ is a mid-paced stomper, where Dave gets to stretch his vocal a little. The opening riff has a slight AC/DC vibe, but as the song progresses, it carries a great amount of the spirit from ‘Shout At The Devil’ era Mötley Crüe. Underneath the crunching riff, an acoustic rhythm overdub has been added, thickening out the final sound; Andy’s bass work is rock solid and very high in the mix in places. Throw in a decent solo and and a slightly groove-oriented bridge and it makes a great rock workout. A funky riff lies at the heart of ‘Daydream Boulevard’ where Hell In The Club are extremely tight. The rhythm work is unfussy but great, the solo work even greater. The band already packs a hefty punch, but Fede’s occasional drum fills are immense. Dave’s vocals more than hold their own against the verse riff, while during the chorus, there’s an effective interplay between his lead and the backing vocals. I could point out that a few of the lyrics are a might sexist, but there’d be little point. If you’re still reading (and interested), you’ll already have a fair grasp of Hell In The Club’s schtick and know what to expect!

‘No Appreciation’ is much harder with heavy riffing on the verses, giving way to a shout-along chorus driven by gang vocals. It’s impossible not to think of early Guns n’ Roses on occasion, especially as Dave slips the words “Sunday dress” into the first verse! The funky mid-section has a G N’R slant also – which is very welcome here – and Picco’s soloing is fluid, if a little short. ‘Natural Born Rockers’ carries another sledgehammer riff that’s pure eighties sleaze rock and, like ‘No Appreciation’ the reverbed shouting gang vocals which creep in from time to time really capture the mood. While there are better numbers on ‘Let The Games Begin’, this one highlights the energy the band are capable of generating, as does ‘Rock Down This Place’ with its sweary refrain. I’m not a fan of songs with the word “rock” in the title, but it’s clear such numbers here have been designed to energize a live audience.

Among the no-nonsense rockers, the album features couple of slightly lighter numbers. ‘On The Road’ highlights more melodic leanings. The clean-toned guitar work during the verses is superb, against which the lead vocals are well delivered. The chorus itself contains another big hook, making it one of the best tracks on offer. Although the influences are obvious, ‘Star’ showcases another fantastic group vocal arrangement. For the opening section of the song, Picco’s electric guitar work rings out over the acoustic base, while during the numbers closing moments, the group vocals collide against a full-on, electric melodic rocker, where Picco’s soloing is top notch. It may never gain the accolades of Poison’s Every Rose Has It’s Thorn’ or Mötley Crüe’s ‘Home Sweet Home’, but this track certainly deserves to find a home among cult classics like Tuff’s ‘I Hate Kissing You Goodbye’.

I must confess, when I saw the band name and album art, I expected leather-trousered 80s metal played in a tired fashion with nothing much to recommend it. I take it back. While my album collection contains a whole bunch of albums which sound not unlike this – mostly purchased between 1987-92 – Hell In The Club deliver almost as well as those heroes and inspirations. If the sound of the late 80s LA scene still does it for you, then hopefully, most of this album should really hit the spot.


January 2011

Saturday, 8 January 2011

AUGUST CHRISTOPHER - A Brand New Day

AC

August Christopher is a Nashville based band which has a sound which encompasses many different elements, but could best be described as rock/pop with a leaning towards country rock. They’ve gained a reputation for being a hard working band and have secured support slots in the past with Lynyrd Skynrd, Train, Seven Mary Three and Nickelback among others.

This third August Christopher release is a concept disc about “a man struggling with his alter-ego, walking a tightrope of good and evil”. As always with concept albums, this isn’t always completely clear; concepts aside, though, ‘A Brand New Day’ features some good quality material – a couple of tracks fall short of the mark, but generally, the album presents a solid set of tunes.

The opening number is almost totally driven by Corey Boise’s very rhythmic drumming. While this dominates most of the song, Criss Cheatham’s confident vocal delivery helps make this a great opening number. A few angular guitar chords create a bouncy feel midway and overall, it has the swagger of something which carries the spirit of the New Orleans powerhouse Cowboy Mouth. ‘Midnight Summer’s Rain’ presents something slower, with a more understated vocal, coupled with great ringing guitar work. It’s a fine number, but once a guest vocal from Crystal Cheatham kicks in, things are taken up a gear. Ms Cheatham’s vocal is strong with a slight country twang and provides a great counterpoint to Criss’s lead.

A cover of the Phil Collins classic ‘In The Air Tonight’ comes as an unexpected surprise (although it won’t be much of a surprise to anyone reading this). Naturally, it lacks the power of Phil’s performance - and massive drum fill - but August Christopher attempt to make up for any shortcomings by rocking out during the number’s second half. Criss Cheatham’s solo is certainly a stand out moment and if you listen very carefully, a couple of Steve Price’s bass fills are very smart. Despite their best efforts though, as much fun as it is, it’s hardly essential listening.

‘Supaheat!’ has a rock swagger and sneer delivered by what sounds like a great rock band. While the song itself isn’t immediately catchy, you’ll hear a tough sounding workout anchored by Price on the bass (gaining an upfront delivery for a change). While Price’s pumping bass provides the core of the song, its high points come via Cheatham’s guitar solos (his work throughout this disc is more than commendable). The second half of the track delivers all manner of concept voices and plot – I’m devided as to whether this is cool or whether it’s just fannying about which gets in the way of the music... ‘C’mon Li’l Honey’ follows; it’s a track with plenty of drive, but lacks the focus of the band’s better numbers, proving you can’t just get by on energy alone. Even the guitar solo isn’t up to Cheatham’s usual standard.

While I don’t really go for the slightly religious tone of ‘Brother Jesus’, it’s very strong musically with a heavy bias towards early 90s style funk rock. The wah-wah filled guitar parts are instantly pleasing and Cheatham’s slightly gritty vocal delivery suits the number extremely well. It’s cool and retro and captures each of the band members in good form. Hanging behind the up0front guitars, drummer Corey Boise’s hi-hat work lends itself well to the groove. It’s certainly one of ‘A Brand New Day’s more immediate tracks and one which sounds like it would be a tour-de-force during a live set. ‘All That Matters’ features a few musical elements which call to mind any number of rootsy rock outfits, but August Christopher sound very comfortable in such a setting. It’s retro in a different way to ‘Brother Jesus’, substituting funk for occasional reggae influenced breaks which work against the rootsy base. However, the shouty almost cod-rap breaks which occasionally read their head fare less well... If you wanted to pick a number which captured the band’s mix of styles in one place, though, this’d be the one.

The unfussy ‘Hold On To Me’ features a decent chorus and another country-rock accent, and even though it brings little new to August Christopher’s range of retro rock/pop, it captures them in good form. The title cut closes the album, and from the outset, it sounds like another retro rock work out with its upfront guitars and hard rock drumming, but as the chorus appears, the band change musical style almost completely and deliver something very country-rock influenced. The country moments feel slightly out of place though, especially as Cheatham launches into an absolutely blistering solo just before the number starts to fade. [Fans of the hard rock power-trio sound may delight in the uncredited number which follows shortly after].

Occasionally the between song skits (all part of the concept, y’know) can get slightly annoying and, in places, there’s not a lot of bass in the end mix of the album. In all honesty though, these are minor gripes which don’t detract from the overall enjoyment of ‘A Brand New Day’. For an unsigned act, August Christopher is a band with very professional approach which deserves them a larger audience.


December 2010

Visit August Christopher here.
Buy the album here.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

MORITZ - Undivided

moritz

I first became aware of Greg Hart in the mid 90s when he teamed up with ex-Ya Ya vocalist Sam Blue and Airrace’s bassist Toby Sadler to form the short lived band GTS. Their debut release ‘Tracks From The Dustshelf’ contained a few great pieces of Brit AOR, though I have to confess, as good as the album may have been, I much preferred the unfussy approach of their original demo recordings. I backtracked and checked out one of Greg’s previous bands, If Only, subsequently finding myself completely underwhelmed, despite having read good reviews.

A few years previously, Hart was the guitarist with Moritz, a Brit-AOR band who were contemporaries of Airrace, FM and Virginia Wolf. They released a couple of self-released singles and played regular shows at London’s Marquee, but failed to gain any record label interest. Various Moritz recordings dating from between 1986-88 were belatedly issued on a compilation album, ‘City Streets’ in 2008.

Following the cult success of ‘City Streets’, the original members of Moritz – Pete Scallan (vocals), Greg Hart (guitars), Mike Nolan (guitars), Ian Edwards (bass) and Andy Stewart (keys) – decided to reunite. Augmented by Mick Neaves on drums, and delivered long after their heyday, ‘Undivided’ is the band’s first full album.
It may have been delivered over two decades later than planned, but fear not, this album features all the hallmarks of mid-80s melodic rock and the original Moritz sound, with no other influences creeping in. While musically, it’s still has much in common with Moritz of old, fans may notice that Pete Scallen’s vocals aren’t quite as strong as they once had been, now sounding a little rougher around the edges due to the ravages of time.

The title cut is one of the strongest examples of Moritz’s songcraft, as they combine a hard hitting riff with huge chorus vocals. The mid-paced stomping style shows obvious influences from Survivor and while the chorus could have been a little more interesting, big backing vocals lend its main hook plenty of punch. The mid-paced power ballad ‘Should’ve Been Gone’ is top notch, making good use of choppy guitars and very 80s keyboard sounds. It’s almost certainly something you’ll have heard time and again (and quite often on songs called ‘Don’t Walk Away’), but Moritz more than give it their best shot. While the production is a little homegrown and Pete Scallen’s lead vocal style isn’t quite as smooth as some, the overall arrangement is classic AOR, and the featured guitar solo is superb.

‘Who Do You Run To’ features another great chorus featuring harmony vocals from Jackie Bodimead (ex-Girlschool) and acoustic guitars overlaying the electric rock elements. Listen beyond the obvious hook and you’ll also notice that Andy Stewart’s piano work is rather busy, giving an already fairly cluttered number an extra layer; when all thrown together it works rather well. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the album’s second power ballad ‘Can’t Stop The Angels’, which aside from a superb guitar solo, is incredibly stale. Scallen over-sings constantly throughout a rather cheesy number and as a result everything feels overdone. Swathes of keyboards open ‘World Keep Turning’ and continue to play a huge role as they pump their way through a great number which utilises the best elements of mid-80s melodic rock. It’s another number which brings a decent chorus and although it’s very by-numbers, it’s one which captures Moritz in good form. a great chorus. Against the keys, the rhythm section keep things grounded and the guitar riff is suitably crunchy. The hugely pompy ‘Power of the Music’ is also recommended listening, with its huge vocal arrangement and pumping bass, settling somewhere between Boston and Angel for a number which gives a knowing nod to AOR of the 1970s. Despite harbouring great feel good intentions, Scallan’s vocal style and a rather cutting solo make the track a little less smooth than its main influences, but overall, it’s a very tight performance.

Vibrato-led guitars step to the fore for ‘Can’t Get Away’ – the album’s only cover tune. Written by Laurence Archer, the song has a history, having first been demoed by Phil Lynott in 1984 (recordings of which exist in almost unlistenable quality). It appeared regularly in live sets by Lynott’s Grand Slam (of which Archer was a member), but did not get recorded properly until 1986, when it finally appeared on Archer’s 1986 solo release ‘LA’. Listening to that recording, it’s clearly a great song, but is marred somewhat by Archer’s woeful vocal performance – he growls and croaks his way through its four minutes, killing any spark it may have had. Thankfully, Moritz give ‘Can’t Get Away’ the kind of treatment it really deserves: the guitar fills during the verses are perfectly balanced by some top keyboard stabs and the guitar solos (Nolan and Hart, bother differing greatly in tone) are a definite high point. Scallen’s vocal performance runs rings around Archer’s, though undoubtedly, it still doesn’t have that charisma it could have had, if only Lynott had recorded a definitive version. It’s pure speculation, though. Although most of Moritz’s own songwriting is okay (barring the pretty ropey ‘Same But Different’), in terms of arrangement and hook, this track is a cut above – a really classy example of 80s melodic rock.

Aside from their take on ‘Can’t Get Away’, you won’t find anything here from Moritz that could hold a candle to ‘Can’t Stop Loving You’ or as infectious as the ‘Hearts On The Line’ demo from their ‘City Streets’ release. However, it still contains some decent – albeit old school – rock tunes. It features a few clunkers too, but when the album’s good, it hits its mark. On the negative side, it has the sound of a polished demo and there are more than a few occasions I really wished they had a different vocalist. It’s unlikely to make Moritz stars in the genuine sense, but for die-hard AOR buffs – particularly those who witnessed the band live back in the day - ‘Undivided’ is a welcome release. As good as this may be in places, though, we can only but wonder how much better Moritz would have sounded, had they been given the opportunity to record for a major label and get an album released back in ’87...


January 2011

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

THIN LIZZY - Vagabonds Of The Western World

thin lizzy

By the end of 1972, Thin Lizzy had attracted a cult audience, but also had two albums under their belt which were commercial failures. Early 1973 bought a change in their fortunes when their reworking of the Irish folk song ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ (released as a single in November ’72) became a huge hit. Eventually reaching #6 in the UK chart, it gave them massive exposure on radio and even scored them an appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’. The song also became a German top 10 hit and a number one single in Ireland.

Work on their third album would not commence until the summer, with Lizzy returning to the studio in July 1973. Recorded in London, the resulting third album ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ was to be the band’s most coherent and confident work to date.

With their blues-rock leanings upfront,‘Mama Nature Said’ combines thoughtful lyrics concerning environmental issues (long before it was common) with a hard-edged slide guitar boogie. Eric Bell attacks his guitar in a way rarely heard on Lizzy’s first two albums, while drummer Brian Downey does a great job in keeping time in an unfussy manner. Lynott’s bass line is unwavering and his assured vocal delivery sounds better here than on most of Lizzy’s previous recordings. While the boogie nature of the track may have its limitations, Bell takes the opportunity to turn in a superb solo (again, slide based). The whole experience is rounded out by organ flourishes (courtesy of Jan Schelhass, then a member of The Gary Moore Band). In all, it’s a great opening number.

Due to its attempts at being theatrical, ‘The Hero and The Madman’ falls at the first hurdle. Between Lynott’s rather grandly sung verses, there are spoken word passages regarding the journeys of the two protagonists, performed by DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen. By including these, a track which once may have been quite decent, becomes a bit silly. If you can make it past these novelty sections, there are moments during the track’s six minute duration that are musically interesting. A warm bass sound and heavy reliance on wah-wah guitar work (even if sounding somewhat dated) both provide some listening enjoyment, and beneath it all, Downey contributes some great percussion.

After a bombastic intro combining huge drums, wailing guitar and a vocal belonging to a troubled soul, ‘Slow Blues’ settles into a groove which is closer to a funky strut than traditional blues. Like ‘Mama Nature Said’, you’ll find nothing overly complex here, but the live sound of the recording allows each of the three band members to shine. While most of the upfront moments centre around Bell’s guitar work, it’s Lynott’s approach to the bass which makes for the most compelling listening.

‘The Rocker’ is a hard hitting rock number which not only paved the way for Lizzy’s later 70s works, but would become a fan favourite, remaining in the band’s live set for many years. Its relative simplicity is it’s key. Eric Bell’s part jangling, part sharp-edged guitar riff offers the number’s first ear-catching hook, but it’s Lynott’s brilliantly cutting and slightly arrogant vocal delivery which provides the track’s real lasting appeal. A high level of confidence, combined with a storytelling aspect is present in most of Lizzy’s best work, but here it’s classic – a definite forerunner to ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ and ‘Warriors’. During an extended guitar solo, Eric Bell really excels. Beneath the lead work, Lynott’s bass runs are buoyant, though never attempt to upstage, since Lynott fully recognises that ‘The Rocker’ is Bell’s moment in the spotlight.

‘Vagabond of the Western World’ is another mid-placed blues-rock workout with storytelling vocals. Nowhere near as silly as ‘The Hero and The Madman’, nor as grandiose as Lynott was capable, it’s one of the album’s weaker numbers, though that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. Eric Bell’s solo is decent enough, but falls a little flat compared to ‘Mama Nature Said’ or ‘The Rocker’ (the latter, especially). The most striking feature here is the Irish-influenced ‘tura-lura-lie’ vocal refrain – but sadly, not quite enough is made of it; and in terms of Irish influenced folk-rock-blues, it will never come close to being as good as Lizzy’s (arguably definitive) version of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’.

A gentle and lovingly created ballad, ‘Little Girl In Bloom’ showcases Lynott’s gift as a lyricist, telling a tale of a teenage girl’s unexpected pregnancy. While the original three-man Thin Lizzy had some great tunes, this one is undoubtedly their finest. After a feedback intro, Bell’s guitar chimes in tandem with Lynott’s bass. Lynott’s vocal is aching – as if he genuinely feels for the girl in question. The harmony vocals on the chorus sections between Lynott and Bell are just perfect in their understated delivery; and with Lynott’s gorgeous, high in the mix bass runs backing him during the closing minutes, Bell’s guitar solo provides a particular high point. It’s one thing to talk about this as being the original Thin Lizzy’s crowning achievement, but honestly, it could even rank among the ten best songs recorded by any Lizzy line-up during their twelve years together.

‘I’m Gonna Creep Up On You’ is suitably aggressive, with Lynott’s bass thundering against Downey’s drums. Bell’s wah-wah driven riff is another of the original Lizzy’s hardest. This takes the power trio moments of their debut and delivers them in a far more uncompromising manner. Here, the music speaks for itself; with the groove acting as the main hook, the rather simplistic lyrics are almost redundant.

Closing the original album, ‘A Song For While I’m Away’ showcases the band’s wistful side. Lynott’s gentle vocal casts him again in the role of troubadour fronting a sublime arrangement, dominated by strings arranged by Fiachra Tench, (who would also work with Van Morrison and later be credited for the string arrangements on The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’). Downey plays a simple rhythm based around the hi-hat while Bell’s guitar rings out fantastically behind Lynott’s saddened vocal. It acts as a great closer for both the album and the first chapter in the Thin Lizzy story.

The first CD issue of the album adds a couple of non-album single releases and their b-sides as bonus tracks. A full length ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ is a most welcome addition, while the latin influenced ‘Randolph’s Tango’ rarely feels more than quirky, despite top notch percussion from Downey, a Spanish guitar solo courtesy of Bell and a typically wordy vocal from Lynott. Certainly an unexpected choice for a single release. Regarding their respective b-sides, both are excellent. ‘Black Boys On The Corner’ is a great, boastful number powered by a fantastic guitar riff. Another of the original Lizzy’s forays into genuine hard rock, this almost sounds like a prototype for their 1976 number ‘Johnny The Fox Meets Jimmy The Weed’. ‘Broken Dreams’ is a heartfelt blues workout capturing Bell’s fuzzy guitar tone in full flow and one of Lynott’s most impassioned early performances.

In 2010, almost three years after it originally appeared in the schedules of forthcoming releases, a deluxe 2CD version of ‘Vagabonds’ was issued. Arguably the definitive version of the album, not only does it sound better than ever thanks to a superb remaster, it features a wealth of bonus materials.

In addition to a remastered version of the original eight track album, bonus tracks include (as before) the ‘Randolph’s Tango’ single and ‘Broken Dreams’ b-side. Also featured are single edits of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘The Rocker’ and their respective b-sides ‘Here I Go Again’ and ‘Cruising In The Lizzymobile’ (aka ‘A Ride In The Lizzymobile’, a once incredibly rare b-side, issued only in Germany). Both tracks make their first authorised appearance on CD outside of the ‘Vagabonds, Kings, Warriors and Angels’ box set. An edited version of ‘Randolph’s Tango’ (originally the b-side from the edited ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ 7”) and an unreleased alternate/overdubbed version of ‘Slow Blues’ (dating from 1977 and featuring Gary Moore) are both welcome, but inessential. For those looking for previously unavailable material, the deluxe version of ‘Vagabonds’ offers a second disc of live sessions recorded for the BBC.

While this double set is excellent, fans may note that both the full length version of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘Black Boys On The Corner’ (found on the previous expanded release) have been omitted. [Both tracks can now be found on the remastered version of Thin Lizzy’s 1972 album, ‘Shades of a Blue Orphanage’]. For these not to be included when the single version of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ is still present makes little sense. Finally, the deluxe ‘Vagabonds’ includes ‘Little Darlin’’ - the first single recorded by Thin Lizzy Mk 2, with Gary Moore replacing Eric Bell – and the rather clumsy ‘Sitamoia’, which although dates from the same period, remained unreleased (and with fairly good reason) until 1976.

Those two tracks would represent the last completely original material Lizzy would record for the Decca label, though the band recorded overdubs for a few Decca era tracks during the Christmas period of 1977. Most of those overdubbed tracks saw release on a 1979 compilation LP, ‘The Continuing Saga of The Ageing Orphans’ [They subsequently can be heard as part the expanded CD versions of ‘Thin Lizzy’ and ‘Shades of a Blue Orphanage’. The version of ‘Slow Blues’ overdubbed at the same sessions remained unreleased for another two decades, eventually appearing on the 2CD deluxe ‘Vagabonds’.]

Surprisingly, after the huge single success of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ failed to chart at the time of its original release in September ’73. It would be their third (and last) unsuccessful album for Decca [Presumably, that’s why the label then attempted to cash in on the Lizzy legacy by repeatedly issuing compilations of their lesser known early material, totalling seven compilation albums released between 1974-82.]

By the end of 1973, Thin Lizzy may have gained popularity and ‘Vagabonds of the Western World’ certainly moved the band further in the direction of the hard rock style that would make their fortune, but any real worldwide commercial success was still a couple of years away.

(Philip Parris Lynott: 20th August 1949 – 4th January 1986)

Watch Thin Lizzy miming to ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ on Top of the Pops here.
Watch Thin Lizzy miming badly to ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ on German TV here.



November 2010

Saturday, 1 January 2011

DAG - Righteous

dag

It was the summer of 1994. It feels like yesterday, yet it feels like so long ago. One of my best friends had just opened a record store. I met new people, some of whom I still think about now, some of whom have been forgotten. It was there I met my girlfriend (I don’t remember that though; and she wouldn’t become my girlfriend until over a decade later). And it was there, I first heard this monster album by Dag. It became an in-store favourite for a long time.
So, why is that relevant? It’s relevant since this is one of those albums which always makes me think back to the first time I heard it…

Looking like Pearl Jam, replete with plaid shirts, Dag found themselves signed to Sony at the tail-end of the alternative rock boom. At that record store, we thought we knew what to expect as we put the disc in the player. We were very wrong. Instead of retro riffing, we got funk. Lots of funk.

Although featuring a few harder edges than than the 70s funk played by black musicians for largely purist funk audiences, the Parliament-Funkadelic influences are still very much there on this album - and not too sugary. In that respect, Dag went against the then current mainstream and opted for retro of another kind…and they were heroes for doing it - at least in that record store. As far as I know though, the album buying public remained apathetic.

Two of the album’s highest points, ‘Sweet Little Lass’ and ‘Your Mother’s Eyes’, feature a swagger and grubbiness on loan from Prince and George Clinton. Throughout the album, bassist/vocalist Bobby Pattison performs like a hero, but his brilliance is particularly evident during these two songs: his vocals are soulful; his bass playing has a solid groove and strong presence. ‘Sweet Little Lass’ is driven by a slightly distorted, dirty rhythm. Its grinding heaviness is instantly captivating and should appeal to listeners who enjoy the pre-disco vibes of Parliament and Funkadelic. ‘Your Mother’s Eyes’ is a little lighter, although still heavy on the funk. Pattison’s vocals are lighter too and the end result provides a decent snapshot of Dag’s best traits – even with a keyboard making odd squonking noises throughout.

There are moments when I’ve been reminded of Maggie’s Dream (another favourite which somehow fell through the cracks), especially on tracks like the wah-wah drenched ‘Home’ where the funk is still very much at the fore, but rather more subdued than the Clinton-isms displayed elsewhere. ‘Lovely Jane’ is closest in spirit to Jamiroquai (who, of course, were million sellers in the UK with their Stevie Wonder obsessed acid-jazz-funk grooves), but even Jamiroquai, in turn, would have been at odds with the then-current musical scene. Dag employ more guitar work in the overall mix than you’re likely to find on an early Jamiroquai or early Brand New Heavies disc. In fact, the track features a blistering guitar solo, which is surely another aspect culled from Parliament and ‘Maggot Brain’ era Funkadelic...after all, they were never shy of using a guitar to add some serious chops where necessary.

The title track has a wah-wah cop show style guitar played against parping horns (making their first obvious appearance) and it’s hard to hear it without imagining seventies blaxploitation movies about coke-fuelled law-enforcers with huge facial hair. The funkiest thing on the album (and possibly one of the funkiest things ever recorded) is ‘Plow’, which revisits a dirty bass and solid groove - but the real star is Doug Jervey, whose clavinet work really carries the song and gives an obvious nod of approval to Stevie Wonder. Fantastic stuff. ‘As’ features a James Brown horn sound and a groove he might have enjoyed during his Popcorn years, although far looser and not carrying the intensity he may have managed. Throw in an edgy horn solo and you’ve got Dag at their most sassy. Play this before or after ‘Plow’, then repeat as often as is necessary for best results.

The album only carries one dud and even then it’s only the high standard of the other stuff which makes it so. ‘You Can Lick It (If You Try)’ is more Prince meets Morris Day than anything. Although solid, if there’s a contender for “most likely to get skipped track”, this is the one. The music is straight out of one of Prince’s “romantic scenarios”, and although the lyrics aren’t anywhere near as suggestive as his one-time dirty mind (pun intended) could muster without trying, it’s the high vocals which make this one a little grating if you’re not fully prepared.

In short, though, you need ‘Righteous’ as it’s, uh, righteous. It should be cheap somewhere by the time you’ve finished reading this.


September 2007/July 2010