Monday, 28 February 2011

NATHAN EDWARDS - New Season

new season

The acoustic based, uncomplicated melodies woven throughout Nathan Edwards’s debut album have an organic sound and occasional reflective quality. By his own admission, Edwards says the different seasons have an influence over his song writing; not only did this affect his choice of album title, but also meant three of the ten featured cuts are weather themed. Although those songs are about summer and winter, the over-riding quality of the music has a sort of autumnal feel. Rather like Tom Petty’s ‘Wildflowers’ album from 1994, Edwards’s ‘New Season’ has a sound which seems perfectly matched to his choice of album cover.

The lead track ‘Be OK’ sounds optimistic from the start with its combination of acoustic and electric guitar work, accompanied by organ and drums. Edwards has a soft, but strong vocal leading an arrangement which could perhaps be described as a cross between Jack Johnson and The Connells. The chorus isn’t perhaps as strong as it could have been, but each of the individual musical elements pull together to create something which sounds very complete. ‘The Broken Hearted’ pushes Edwards’ pastel shades into almost alt-country territory. Once again, although the song writing is okay, it’s the use of harmony vocal and a thoughtful arrangement which provide its most memorable aspects.

‘Little Soldier’ is one of the album’s weak numbers. While the uncomplicated chord pattern has a jaunty nature and Cassie Edwards provides a sterling harmony vocal, it soon becomes musically disposable and lyrically repetitive. On the other hand, ‘Shadows’ is an epic number, which not only captures Edwards in top vocal form, it builds slowly to a great climax featuring great guitar work, courtesy of Chris Champion and Tyler Steele. It’s a number which hints at Willy Porter (though without the flashy acoustic twiddles) and The Connells, and as such, is a fantastic example of its brand of pop/rock. While it’s certainly more forthright than most of Edwards’s work, it doesn’t stick out as being uncharacteristically aggressive.

‘Cold Winter’ is an acoustic shuffle, backed by simple drumming and washes of organ. Once again, the chorus could be a little stronger, but a key change and tuneful bridge section make up for any shortcomings. ‘Song For a Summer Day’ is a number based around hard sounding acoustic guitar strings. Edwards’s lead vocal has an easy tone which lends itself well to the style of acoustic pop/rock.

The live sounding ‘Strangest Ways’ captures the sound of twin acoustic guitars over organ sounds, backed by brushed drums. As before, an electric lead creeps in from time to time, but essentially its Edwards up front and centre on a number which sounds like it could have been around for years. I’m not keen on what sounds like quasi-religious imagery, but despite that, it has charm; the song sounds like it could have been inspired by personal experience, with Edwards’s voice providing the track’s biggest strength. The upbeat ‘Lonely Heart’ uses an electric lead as its main musical hook and here, Edwards can be heard in full on rock/pop mode. His lead vocal is very natural and the use of a backing vocal counter melody is very effective. With a much stronger focus on electric instruments, ringing guitars and organ fills, this is a number which could possibly be best compared to Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers.

Some of this album was recorded at Edwards’s home in South Dakota, some at an apartment in Illinois. Despite such homespun beginnings, it’s a warm sounding disc, worthy of a major label release (which again, begs the question: if lots of artists are capable of recording and releasing albums of this calibre on smallish budgets, when will small rock labels realise that marketing demos as finished works just isn’t acceptable?). Although there are a couple of musical missteps, most of the songs featured are of a good standard and in the case of ‘Shadows’ you even get a piece of roots-rock that’s near perfect.

Get ‘New Season’ here.

February 2011

Friday, 25 February 2011

ROGER DALTREY - Daltrey

rog

By the end of 1972, in addition to their heavy workload with The Who, both Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwistle had recorded solo albums. Townshend had been featured on two albums inspired by the spiritualist teachings of Meher Baba and also released the moderately successful ‘Who Came First’. Enwistle had two non-charting solo albums under his belt (1971’s ‘Smash Your Head Against The Wall’ and 1972’s ‘Wistle Rhymes’). Surprisingly late to the party, Roger Daltrey’s first solo album was released in April 1973.

As part of The Who, Roger Daltrey had occasionally written songs (most notably receiving a co-write on their 1965 hit ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’), but he wasn’t really known as a songwriter. With regard to his first solo album, Daltrey reprises his role as a gifted vocalist. Simply titled ‘Daltrey’, nine the album’s songs were written by David Courtney and the then unknown Leo Sayer, with another two written by Courtney with Adam Faith.

While Daltrey himself did not contribute to any song writing, some of the songs themselves are very much suited to his vocal style. From the off, it’s obvious that ‘Daltrey’ is not a selection of tunes that Roger could have performed with The Who, each of the songs markedly different to Townshend’s style. The album tests his instantly recognisable voice, with a softer selection of musical arrangements. While the music retains almost none of Pete Townshend’s usual bombast – settling more in the radio-friendly adult rock/pop field – Daltrey’s voice, for the most part, carries its distinctive bluster, but a greater focus on piano led tunes gives Daltrey the opportunity to stretch out a little.

The album opens with ‘One Man Band’ (a song which later would become a signature tune for Sayer). Daltrey is accompanied by an acoustic guitar, followed by a bouncy approach which combines elements of theatre (of the light-weight variety) with middle of the road pop. Daltrey’s vocal has an element of fun and in all, it’s an opening track which sets out Daltrey’s solo musical journey with something a little naive. This is followed by ‘The Way of The World’ (one of the Adam Faith contributions) which has a bias toward country music. Courtney’s piano leads things off in an almost waltzing time signature, and guitar fills from Argent’s Russ Ballard add depth. A guitar solo is well executed and a violin accompaniment courtesy of East of Eden’s Dave Arbus highlights the country feel. Sadly, its lack of bridge sections or middle eight makes its three minute duration feel more like five. Thankfully, the chorus features a welcome key change and while Daltrey does his absolute best with this song, he deserved far less cumbersome.

‘You Are Yourself’ exudes confidence, as Daltrey lends a very powerful vocal to an orchestrated arrangement based around Dave Courtney’s piano. As the vocal soars into the chorus, Daltrey hits the spot as he delivers notes which are unmistakable. While half a world away from Townsend’s songwriting, this is just fantastic, as the piano compliments the vocal and the strings rise swell to give emphasis. A closing section featuring a heavily reverbed vocal weaken the track ever so slightly, as Daltrey struggles to fight the temptation to shout a few vocal lines in a way only he can. On the whole though, it’s incredible.

Some of Leo Sayer’s songs are very sympathetic to Daltrey’s voice, the best of the bunch being the absolutely gorgeous ‘Giving It All Away’. Beautifully arranged, this ballad allows Daltrey ample opportunity to wring the best out of every note, without resorting to bombast. His voice cries out against Courtney’s piano (backed by Bob Henrit’s drums on the louder sections), but something which would have been good is elevated to superb by the addition of unfussy orchestration. The strings are great – if a little obvious, but listen out for those couple of stings featuring oboe and flute. Quite simply, Daltrey’s reading of this song is a high point of orchestrated seventies pop/rock. (Daltrey scored a top ten UK hit in 1973 with ‘Giving It All Away’. It was later re-recorded by Sayer after his breakthrough, although I’d prefer not to think about Leo Sayer any more - especially since his 1976 appearance on ‘The Muppet Show’ is scary to the point of almost freak-show proportions).

‘It’s a Hard Life’ has a smooth arrangement, with Dave Courtney’s piano work laying the foundations, which is then overlaid with a lush string arrangement. Whereby most vocalists would treat this as a heart-tugging ballad, Daltrey tackles it a full bore, his loud voice even cracking as he hits the loudest notes. The closing section of the song introduces pounding drums and brass. Naturally, this is the part where Rog ought to have belted out at the top of his lungs...but it’s instrumental. The vocal ought to kill any passion carried within the song, but Daltrey is such a consummate professional, it works.

‘The Story So Far’ sounds like a quirky number at first, but it soon stumbles. Tackling a tune which wobbles somewhere between reggae and calypso, Henrit does a fine job behind the drum kit and Dave Wintour puts in a fine performance on the bass, but the other elements let the side down somewhat. Courtney’s piano playing could best be described as heavy handed, going from bad to worse as he hammers out a solo which barely stays in tune (or in time); there are strings thrown in where they don’t belong, alongside a particularly unpleasant brass section. And all the while, Rog is in there, trying his best to be a star. While ‘Daltrey’ features some great songs, this is bar far it’s worst – and possibly even one of the worst of Roger Daltrey’s solo career. ‘Reasons’ is a decent rock-based number, where Wintour’s bass work is one of the high points. Very high in the mix, the bass is really solid and played against an equally suitable drum part, this really helps the track to be one of the album’s greatest musical outings. Daltrey in turn sounds comfortable here, given ample opportunity to belt out a vocal more in keeping with his day job. Measuring this against ‘The Story So Far’ (and maybe even ‘One Man Band’), it proves there’s so much truth in the old saying that sometimes less is more.

‘When The Music Stops’ is steeped in sadness as Daltrey recounts the end of a relationship, his voice backed solely backed by a string quartet. Where normally Daltrey appears to only be capable of singing at two volumes (loud and louder), here, he offers a rare, thoughtful, almost even gentle performance, his voice really feeling the sad tones of the song. A reprise of ‘One Man Band’ (recorded live on the famous rooftop of Apple Studios) plays up the busking elements of the original opening number. Traffic noises accompany Daltrey’s vocal and acoustic guitar before he performs a scat vocal and imitates trumpets with his voice (very loudly). The sound of his voice drifts into the distance, bringing the album to a close.

‘Daltrey’ sold very well in the UK upon release, eventually peaking at #6 on the UK album chart, making it his most successful solo album. Anyone expecting something with a similar timeless quality to The Who at their best will possibly be disappointed, but anyone able to appreciate the album on its own merits will find some genuinely great songs here.


November 2010

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

YUCK - Yuck

YUCK

Yuck doesn’t seem to be the best choice of band name, but it is one which suits their ugly sleeve art, depicting a cartoon of an ugly man, possibly about to throw up. As far as album covers go, it’s hard to know what they were thinking when they chose it, but it certainly makes an impression. Of this multi-national band (comprising of British, American and Japanese musicians), two members, Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom have previously been members of little known alt-rock outfit Cajun Dance Party. Yuck’s core sound presents somewhat of a departure for them, largely trading in the feel-good, bouncy indie-rock of that band for something less subtle; this work often presenting itself in the style of Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth.

The UK newspaper The Guardian claimed that “to say [Yuck’s] debut sounded like it was recorded in a shed is probably a diss on the acoustic qualities of garden-based storage units”. They think they’re being clever, but to say that this sounds like a “shed recording” is more than unfair. Granted, if you’ve lived a sheltered life and all the rock records in your collection sound like they were produced by Roy Thomas Baker, Mutt Lange or Martin Birch, then sure, Yuck are lo-fi. But fact is, this album may be a teensy bit rough around the edges in places – in the same way its more direct influences could be – but it’s certainly not an album recorded on a tin-pot budget. You’d have to wonder what those Guardian chaps would make of ‘The Freed Weed’ by Sebadoh or the glorious Guided By Voices album ‘Bee Thousand’, if ‘Yuck’ is their ultimate idea of a lo-fi record.

For some of the album’s noisier numbers, the band’s principal influences couldn’t be more obvious. Parts of the opening number ‘Get Away’ obviously have early Dinosaur Jr as their blueprint and while Blumberg wisely avoids copying J Mascis’s Neil Young-esque whine, his vocals are still of the mid-90s alternative variety, coated in fuzziness. I should point out that while the tone is similar, neither Blumberg’s or Bloom’s guitar work has the edginess of Mascis at his best either, but even so, the end result is enjoyable, if predictable. ‘Operation’ utilises discordant riffs and a distorted vocal stolen directly from Sonic Youth, with almost nothing on hand which could be called original. Listening to the spiky rhythms, the influence is unmistakable to the point where you could almost be convinced you’ve heard Kim Gordon sing this herself.

When played loudly, ‘Holing Out’ will make you think your speakers have blown; its fuzzy guitars come at such a volume, you can barely hear the lead vocal. This doesn’t matter, of course, since the vocals are almost unimportant. There’s a sense of melody lurking beneath the wall of sound, but even so, Yuck appear to be more concerned with a general musical presence as opposed to any kind of intricacies. The general bluster here would either make J Mascis and Lou Barlow very proud or get them straight onto the phone to their lawyers. Even more extreme, ‘Rubber’ offers of seven minutes of ugly shoegaze drones, which barely deviate from their initial impact. There are reverbed vocals mushed under the barrage of noise, but in truth, the voice does not seem especially important. This is about maximum volume, minimal music, maximum impact. After about three minutes of this track, you’ll either be in your element, or hating it and thinking maybe My Bloody Valentine weren’t so bad. Try as they might, though, Yuck are unlikely to beat the New York outfit A Place To Bury Strangers when it comes to volume and reverb at this level.

Yuck’s debut isn’t all noise, however. There are a few of tracks on hand to demonstrate the band’s softer side. Listening to ‘Sunday’, it’s clear at least one of Yuck’s members has an ear for melody, for this is a track that delights with its chiming guitars and sunny vocal, recalling moments of The Posies and Teenage Fanclub. The influence from the latter is even stronger on ‘Shook Down’, with its gentle alternative pop leanings and use harmony vocals; there’s certainly nothing lo-fi here! Even lighter still, ‘Suicide Policeman’ has a slacker-pop quality, with Blumberg and his sister Ilana harmonising in a way which recalls Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield. ‘Stutter’, meanwhile, brings a wave of melodies akin to Sonic Youth meets Billy Corgan. Twangy guitars and soft rumble of the bass combined with a vocal so hushed it almost floats. The general tone of ‘Suck’ brings more Corgan-isms with its almost mechanical rhythm guitar parts. The way those guitars interact with the rumbling bass are almost a dead ringer for the softer material from The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Gish’ (‘Rhinoceros’, in particular), although with slightly more tuneful vocals.

Occasionally, they seem content with meeting the listener halfway. The pop-fuelled ‘Georgia’ has another shared male/female vocal, but while the song has a sugar-coated vibe, it’s drenched in distortion and reverb, making Yuck sound like a band whose calling is to perform Velocity Girl covers produced by Steve Albini. With an equal measure of pop hook, alternative rock and feel-good qualities, it’s one of the debut’s more immediate numbers.

Each of Yuck’s different (largely borrowed) styles work well for them, and the band seem to be smart enough to realise that at the beginning of 2011, the sounds of this debut could be considered cool and retro. While it’s fairly short on originality, it should bring a glow of nostalgia to those listeners of a certain age.


February 2011

Monday, 21 February 2011

THE MAN - Lake, Ocean Or Sea

the man lake ocean or sea

Fronted by Andreas Johansson, Swedish outfit The Man began life as a three-piece band, bought together by their love of 70s pop. Their debut album ‘A Space Waltz’ was picked up for release in Japan by Philter Records. By the time of the recording of this sophomore disc, The Man had slimmed down to a duo, with various other musicians dropping by to lend a hand. ‘Lake, Ocean or Sea’ has plenty in the way of 70s vibes, but those expecting the usual ELO, 10cc and Wings type influences (as per Oranjuly or the rather wondrous Silver Seas) are likely to find themselves feeling a sense of indifference, if not disappointment.

After an intro, ‘Hold On To Nothing’ begins an ambling journey across four minutes, threatening to build to a climax without ever getting anywhere. The vocal is clear but uninspired, and while the use of drums and glockenspiels add occasional depth, it’s never quite dramatic enough to create a long-lasting impression. ‘It’s a Fever’ is a little more instant, but while it’s well-arranged chimes of bells and ringing guitars do their best to recreate a retro-pop sound, The Man have clearly forgotten to write anything memorable by way of a hook – a weak attempt at a chorus would have made a great pre-chorus, but there’s nothing to follow that and take things to the next (necessary) level. ‘What I’d Do’ has a dreamy pleasant vibe, combining Teenage Fanclub styled retro grooves with a gentle trippiness. The swooning sound evokes summer days, but far too much of a drowsy slant means that a track which started out as pleasant and almost other-worldly drifts into dullness by its end.

‘A New Song’ presents a far more upbeat slant to The Man’s sound. Moving away from previous melancholy atmospheres, this number has a more throwaway pop feel. The verses are jaunty with a huge focus on stabbing keyboards; though their sound is a little harsh. Rather than being those of a Jellyfish and 10cc variety, these have the air of a hastily hammered tack piano, and as such, can become grating. Even so, there’s a sense during the verse that we’re building up to a big chorus – and it’s one which doesn’t disappoint, with harmony vocals and bells a-plenty. On its own, it would certainly be a winner, but somehow, The Man have decided that an ugly new-wavish synth would be the icing on the power-pop cake...and it damn near kills the good elements.

‘These Streets’ presents mid-paced singer/songwriter pop with a heavy seventies slant. It’s one of the times The Man’s melancholic pop truly works. The harmony vocals are smooth and the piano playing understated. The main riff is used to bring together the elements, which in the middle section, build up a gentle, yet brilliantly arranged atmosphere. By the time of the vocal reprise, you’ll be left wanting more. Even Johannson’s lead vocal here is among the album’s best. ‘At Home In Water’ comes almost as close to being as good, with atmospheres and keyboard loops which feature a strong influence from Mercury Rev at their peak – an influence reinforced by slight reverb across the vocals.

By the tail end of the album, though, things tail off again. ‘Thinking About Leaving’ lollops along in a disinterested manner; its ringing guitars as dull as its uninspired vocal. The sound of harp strings and harpsichords of ‘Never Grown Up’ should have provided a good closing statement; had it been left as an instrumental, it still might’ve been. Once Johansson starts to sing (again, singing in his oft-used twee style that carries little to no weight), his voice masks the musical layers.

Some of The Man’s atmospheres can be enjoyable (especially, when they settle into their occasional Mercury Rev inspired stuff), but the songs themselves are often left in need of those vital, recurring and instant melodies. While a couple of songs are more than worth seeking out, when approached as a whole album, ‘Lake, Ocean or Sea’ is a little too downbeat. Too much reliance on chill-out summery atmospheres and a distinct lack memorable choruses leads to a mostly wishy-washy, rather forgettable experience.

Visit THE MAN at myspace here.


January/February 2010

Friday, 18 February 2011

FRANKIE & THE HEARTSTRINGS - Hunger

Frankie

This debut by Sunderland five-piece Frankie & The Heartstrings was produced by the legendary Edwyn Collins. Throughout the disc his production brings a gorgeous clarity, a great bass sound and plenty of separation between the instruments. Sadly, that seems to be the band’s biggest strength. Here they are with a brilliantly produced disc featuring a bunch of songs which aren’t always worthy of such technical brilliance. The bulk of their work resembles a sub-standard Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand, but often manages to be warmer than that of fellow Mackems, The Futureheads.

‘Photograph’ opens the album with atmospheric oohs and sparing guitar work, though this quickly gets replaced by spiky indie-pop. It might want to make you jump and down (albeit briefly) and showcases a decent amount of energy, but closer inspection uncovers a weakness in the song writing department. A one line chorus provides a refrain, while a stupidly repetitive second half wears thin very quickly. ‘Ungrateful’s slower approach highlights Frankie Francis’s vocals as being an acquired taste. While there’s still nothing hugely memorable here, the pace suits the band a little better. While, as before, the end of the track descends into repetitiveness, it’s ultimately saved by some great drum work from Dave Harper; while no Stewart Copeland, he’s pretty handy with a hi-hat. With a busy bass riff, ‘It’s Obvious’ has an edge that’s not often present elsewhere. The rumbling bass sound combined with some occasionally angular guitar work presents one of the album’s darker numbers; although, once again, The Heartstrings bring little to back up the riffs.

‘Hunger’ employs a ringing rhythm guitar part (one which is somewhat pleasing), set against some rather ordinary drums. Well placed oohs provide something of a hook, but that’s as far as it goes. There’s no chorus – and one would have proved useful here, if not essential. The rhythmic qualities – matched with Frankie’s slightly irritating vocals – call to mind early Kaiser Chiefs, only without the charm. All the same, its sunny feel (and the fact that those oohs lodge inside your head after a while) make it an obvious choice for single release. ‘Want You Back’ opens with a drum riff which tips the hat to sixties girl bands and Phil Spector, but what follows is a really horrid song – one of the album’s worst - being full of parpy trumpets, over which Frankie wails gratingly. There could have been a half-decent arrangement here, but it falls flat once the vocal kicks in - and whoever decided on the final keyboard tone and horn sounds should’ve been taken out and shot.

‘That Postcard’ works fairly well, thanks to Steven Dennis’s solid approach to the bass and Frankie Francis’s slightly quirky vocal sits well here. In the left speaker, most of Michael McKnight’s guitar leads resemble disjointed noises as opposed to a proper riff. A lack of chorus here, once again, lets the side down. The closing number ‘Don’t Look Surprised’ also fares better than most, featuring busy drum work (particularly in the cymbal department), an upfront bass with a tone which recalls early New Order, plus an urgent vocal. The claustrophobic brass noise creeps in towards the end, but not in a way which damages the song.

Throughout the album, the tight rhythm section of Steven Dennis (bass) and Dave Harper (drums) bring consistently good performances (helped no end by that Edwyn Collins knob-twiddling), but often, looking beyond that, ‘Hunger’ feels lacking in anything truly memorable. There’s more than a chance that those who got excited about Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and their ilk will find some enjoyment here, but for everyone else, Frankie & The Heartstrings are likely to bring a feeling of indifference.

Watch the video for ‘Hunger’, featuring the superb Robert Popper:




February 2011


Thursday, 17 February 2011

MICK TERRY - The Grown Ups

the grown ups

With its lyrical themes and stories from the past loosely inspired by a diary from 1982, you could say this debut by London based singer-songwriter Mick Terry has been a long time in the making. ‘The Grown Ups’ is a personal record, but not in the soul-baring sense. It’s an album of lost friendships, relationship and closure which always retains a smile of optimism.

‘Hoxton Son’ opens the disc with simple, stabbing pianos with a gentle bass accompaniment. At the point where you think it’s about to elevate into Jellyfish ‘Ghost at Number One’ territory, Terry goes for a key change, but little more. Naturally, the rumpty-tumpty drums appear eventually – and by the time they do, the sound of the whole band is warm and inviting, without becoming intrusive. The sampled brass near the end isn’t entirely necessary, but on the whole, this paean to a London town has a charming quality, effectively pulling the listener into Terry’s musical world. ‘Northern Exposure’ follows suit with a similar marching feel – this time bringing more focus to the acoustic guitar. The mix of guitar and organ is effective and unfussy.

The acoustic based ‘Comets’ features slide guitar and accordion, but the heart of the song is provided by guitar and brushed drums. Terry’s storytelling approach comes with a heart warming quality and often unassuming manner. The chorus has a vocal approach which at first feels like it may irritate, but after a few listens becomes oddly endearing. The lead vocal has an intimate feel and a sound which reminds me very much of another London based singer-songwriter, Rich Barnard. I’m not sure whether that’s down to song writing style, or just the work of his English accented delivery. ‘Ringing Like a Bell’ has a very seventies feel, with tasteful electric guitar leads to punctuate the acoustic work. The warm bass and handclaps lend themselves to a tune with a very complete feel.

For the last couple of songs, the quality tails off. In keeping with the 1970s,
‘Tinseltown’ is pure easy listening; it doesn’t have the cool or song writing chops to make Mick Terry an heir to Billy Joel’s vacant piano stool, but certainly tips the hat to Andrew Gold. While Terry’s soft vocal and tales of jaded seaside towns and days past show strength, the music could have done with a little more embellishment - more than the ambling keyboard and drum machine featured.
Normally, I’m much more critical on singer-songwriter material which relies on programmed elements as opposed to more organic sounds, but Terry’s song writing has enough charm to get away with it here (but only just). Similarly, the keyboard string sounds which propel ‘Safe From Sound’ sound cheap, but an understated bass accompaniment and decent vocal performance (including a Brian Wilson inspired interlude) make the best of what could have been a dud. References to Small Faces’ ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ and especially “The first Dexys album” reinforce the Englishness of Mick Terry’s teenage years. If viewed as a demo sketch, it’s easy to see what he was intending here, but this number doesn’t sound like a finished work – and certainly isn’t up to the quality of ‘Hoxton Son’, ‘Northern Exposure’ or ‘Comets’.

Featuring just eight songs and a reprise, ‘The Grown Ups’ is a succinct work, with the strongest tracks front-loaded; but the two or three absolute gems held within provide more than enough reason for making it an album worth visiting...and revisiting.


February 2011

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

INXS - Original Sin

originalsin

After the release of ‘Kick’ in 1987, I became a massive INXS fan. It was soon obvious I had to hear the rest of their albums. ‘Kick’s immediate predecessor ‘Listen Like Thieves’ offered me more of the same, but their earlier albums took a little more time to get into; although they still contained lots of great songs, the overall sound had more in common with new wave than the stadium rock which gained INXS their international stardom.

When vocalist Michael Hutchence died in 1997, I figured that would be the end of INXS, since they’d not only lost a distinctive vocalist but also a great frontman. They carried on, however, firstly with Terence Trent D’arby – a union which (I’m glad) amounted to nothing. Then came the news that ex-Noiseworks vocalist Jon Stevens would be touring with INXS as vocalist. Coming from another respected Aussie rock band, this was a move which seemed to make sense. Sadly, Stevens only held the position briefly and INXS found themselves without a vocalist once again.

In 2004, they held auditions for a full time replacement via a TV talent show. I despise TV talent shows, and the fact that a band I loved were about to whore themselves in such a way to find a new frontman reeked of desperation. However, the band hooked up with the winner JD Fortune and recorded an album, ‘Switch’ (released in 2005). Against the odds, the album was solid – if never destined to be a classic – but INXS’s glory days seemed to be over. In the UK at least, ‘Switch’ went straight into the bargain bins.

As half a decade passed, seemingly without a word or any new material, I thought I’d heard the last of INXS. And then, in November 2010 Atco Records released ‘Original Sin’ – an album of INXS classics re-imagined and re-recorded with guest vocalists. Since the project featured a couple of performers I enjoy, I’d hoped the results would be interesting (as per Ray Davies’s ‘See My Friends’), but sadly, you’d have to be an absolute die-hard fan to want to spend money on this.

A newly recorded track ‘Drum Opera’ does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a couple of minutes of percussion, before trip-hop king Tricky arrives to put his stamp on ‘Mediate’. What ensues is a dull performance over an electronic dance loop which, in places, is completely uninspired. As the track progresses, the dance loop becomes more energised, eventually morphing something you might want to dance to, but Tricky’s performance continues to hover somewhere between flat and flat-out grating. I’d hoped that Rob Thomas would perk things up with his rendition of ‘Original Sin’ (one of INXS best “pop” tunes), since the sometime Matchbox Twenty frontman has a great voice. Instead of tackling in it in a respectable Matchbox Twenty manner, someone decided that getting Rob to team up with DJ Yaldiys would be a better plan. This results in another dance track – and somehow, it ends up worse than Tricky. It’s awful, uninspired rubbish which not even Thomas can save – and when you think it couldn’t get any worse, he’s joined by a woman speaking in French. (I’m not being xenophobic; this just seems to be a rather pointless exercise).

Next up is the classic ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ – which not only is one of the absolutely classic INXS tunes, but possibly one of the best songs written by anybody. It’s re-imagined here by French singer, actress and author Mylene Farmer, who, naturally, sings a good proportion of it in French. For the epic sounding choruses (which have been given a subtle-as-a-brick string backing), she’s joined by Ben Harper. Normally, I’m a fan, but Ben over-sings and wails his lines; his attempts at breathing life into this absolute mess are almost laughable. Nikka Costa’s reading of ‘Kick’ is unrecognisable; the punchy arrangement of the original is replaced by a mid-pace, heavy on keyboards and drums – over which Costa stetches her vocal. He voice isn’t unpleasant, but all the same, the end result isn’t spectacular. If you’re a firm believer in artists making covers their own, then Costa is likely to present one of ‘Original Sin’s standout tracks, even if it lacks the spark of the original version.

Train’s Pat Monahan tries his absolute best with ‘Beautiful Girl’, and yet, his best still doesn’t seem quite good enough. The musical arrangement features an impeccably played acoustic guitar, accompanied by sparingly used piano, which is joined in turn by other keyboards and electric guitar flourishes. By the time Jon Farriss’s drum kit kicks in, Monahan’s breathy vocals sound very comfortable. This version dispenses with the programmed drum elements from the INXS original, but that’s the only real improvement, since it also loses Kirk Pengilly’s emotive sax work and adds a big rock finish which the song never really needed. The original version of ‘New Sensation’ is an eighties classic – its choppy guitars still sound great after so many years. The version recorded here with model/singer Deborah De Corral is reinterpreted as an acoustic stomp. Such an arrangement, with its slight country twang manages to be sympathetic to De Corral’s vocal style and, for once, the band hasn’t wrecked a great tune. [INXS appeared previously on Australian television with former Baby Animals vocalist Suze DeMarchi performing ‘New Sensation’ with the same arrangement. Video clip featured below.]

Aussie singer/songwriter Dan Sultan takes the helm for ‘Just Keep Walking’ and while his husky delivery suits the song, the music is a little muddled. A reggae-ish lilt bolstered by a horn section which sounds like a marching band isn’t especially effective. The whole package almost works, but feels a little claustrophobic. Similarly, Eskimo Joe’s Kav Temperley’s take on ‘To Look At You’ almost hits the mark. With a strong vocal delivery, he shows signs of understanding what made Hutch a great singer, even if he doesn’t sound like him.

The closing numbers feature INXS recreating their old tunes without the help of guest performers. This makes for better listening, though still doesn’t offer any improvement over the original recordings. Kirk Pengilly and Andrew Farriss take the stadium classic ‘Don’t Change’ and reduce it to a passionless, semi-acoustic trudge, absolutely lacking any of the power or passion of the original 1983 recording. However, if it’s power and passion you’re after, look no further than JD Fortune’s treatment of ‘The Stairs’. The original rock/pop arrangement of the INXS original is beefed up considerably with strings, an extremely loud drum kit and a vocalist hell bent on getting absolute “rock star” posturing from every note. It’s stupidly overblown, yet somehow it works. He gives a similar performance on ‘Love Is What I Say’ [an Australian iTunes bonus track], but clearly his overwrought theatrics can’t stretch to a second track without sounding forced.

Although a couple of these tracks are okay, based on the last couple of numbers, the band would have been better off issuing a whole album of re-recorded INXS classics fronted by JD Fortune. But even then, you still wouldn’t choose them over the original recordings – not in a million years. INXS have been struggling as a band since the death of Michael Hutchence. ‘Original Sin’ is the work of a still struggling band – maybe they ought to have thrown in the towel in 1997.


Watch INXS with Suze DeMarchi here.


February 2010

Friday, 11 February 2011

PJ HARVEY - Let England Shake

PJ Harvey

Over the years, Polly Jean Harvey is an artist who has gathered lots of great press. While never gaining status of national treasure, she’s gained a loyal fan base. She’s recorded a handful of tunes I like [‘Sheela-Na-Gig’, ‘Down By The Water’ and especially ‘Henry Lee’, though the latter has almost everything to with the presence of Nick Cave], but I must confess as to never having understood the fuss. A couple of people suggested I check out her 2000 release ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’, claiming it’s smoother edges could provide an easier entry point to her music, but I found that rather dull. (A live show from the same year was enjoyable, but again, didn’t set my world alight).

Her eighth studio disc ‘Let England Shake’ is anything but dull. But sadly, it’s not particularly accessible either, though I suspect that Harvey has no interest in drawing in new listeners with this release. Accompanied by long time collaborators John Parish and ex-Birthday Party man Mick Harvey (no relation), PJ offers the listener twelve tunes of relative uneasy listening; twelve songs mainly concerned with England, her decline and the effects of war.

Sometimes these feelings are more forthright than others, rarely more so than on the title cut where a soldier is called to “pack up [his] troubles and head for the fountain of death”. The hard-hitting lyrics are given a musical arrangement which at times can appear almost as relentless; angry without resorting to heaviness. With almost carny-like percussion, it has a fairly original sound. It’s a shame that she approaches the number sounding like a second rate Siouxsie Sioux. ‘The Last Living Rose’, musically, is one of the album’s most accessible numbers, with fantastic bass work and baritone saxes. Overlaid by a clanging autoharp and live sounding drums, this provides a great base for one of PJ’s more restrained vocals.

While at first, the rumbling bass and jangly guitars give the impression that ‘The Glorious Land’ is going to be just as accessible, it’s quickly punctuated by a trumpet reveille, which appears at random intervals, caring not to fit in with the music. The unsettling nature of the arrangement is matched only by Harvey’s anger and her lyrics, which here, bare a frightening set of teeth – especially as she states that our country is ploughed by tanks and marching feet and bares the fruit of orphaned children. Similarly off kilter is ‘Written On The Forehead’s reggae backdrop, which appears very much at odds with the track’s electronic treatments and Harvey’s gentle vocal.

For ‘England’ PJ squawks about her never-ending love for Blighty in a particularly off-key manner, set against stark acoustic backing. As the track progresses, the acoustic guitar is met by a mesh of other noise and backwards tapes – none of which are used in a manner which makes Harvey’s vocal delivery any more palatable. For all but the most tolerant PJ Harvey fan, this represents the best point on the album to leave the room and go and make a very British cup of Rosie Lee. ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ employs a drum pattern which hints at tribalism, but set against a reverbed, old school guitar end up having more of a retro rock ‘n’ roll feel. The baritone sax makes a welcome return but is underused. Backing vocals from Squire and Harvey mesh with PJ’s lead, resulting in something very effective. With another political message and each band member given plenty of breathing space, this is undoubtedly the album’s best number – and certainly one of it’s most accessible. A tale of trenches, ‘Battleship Hill’ captures PJ’s voice at its purest, as she hits long, clear notes without resorting to shrieking or somehow being difficult. Backed with retro sounding guitars, an understated male baking vocal and piano, it’s the closest ‘Let England Shakes’ gets to something beautiful.

‘The Colour of The Earth’ is a plodding number which sees John Parish step up for a co-lead vocal. His tone has elements of a weary English folkie, but his slightly drawly delivery makes the already simplistic arrangement drag its heels even more. In harmony with PJ’s lighter tone (which here makes no attempt to unnerve) it sounds pleasant enough. It’s possible something relatively ordinary was placed at the album’s close in an attempt to wind things down from the preceding anger and intensity, but such an uninteresting arrangement makes for a bit of an anti-climax.

Lyrically, most of ‘Let England Shake’ is striking, but often the references are so linear – but even so, it could be the most vital release of Harvey’s career. It’s the work of an angry forty-something who wishes to share her grievances and attempt to address important issues. While the sharp edges are necessary here, Harvey’s shrill and often quirky vocal style can be difficult to listen to and at times this gets in the way of the album’s politics. PJ Harvey is undoubtedly preaching to the converted though – and her many fans will take the stark messages of ‘Let England Shake’ to their collective hearts.


February 2011

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

OUR LADY PEACE - Burn Burn

our lady peace

I’ve followed Our Lady Peace’s career since the release of their major label debut, ‘Naveed’. As far as debuts go, that album was okay; it showed a band who were more than musically competent and they had a great vocalist in Raine Maida. There was room for improvement though... Aside from the Cult sounding ‘Starseed’ and the title track (which was one of the only tracks to feature Raine’s brilliant vocal quirks), the rest of the album was made up of solid but ultimately ordinary post-grunge rock tunes.

By the time of their second album, ‘Clumsy’, Our Lady Peace had progressed substantially. The album had similar post-grunge roots to their debut, but the band had expanded their sound, lightening up in places and bringing in traces of power pop and occasional pianos. Their songwriting approach was far more varied and Raine Maida had really learnt to use his voice in an interesting way, changing pitch erratically at times – although never purely for dramatic effect and never at the expense of the songs. The band took those elements that made their second album great and really worked on them over the next few years, resulting in two brilliant albums, ‘Happiness...Is Not a Fish You Can Catch’ and ‘Spiritual Machines’.

The band resorted to a more straight ahead stadium rock sound, harking back to parts of ‘Naveed’ for 2002’s ‘Gravity’ – possibly at the suggestion of heavyweight producer Bob Rock, best known for his work on Metallica’s multi-platinum selling Black Album. While not as interesting as the previous three albums, it was better than ‘Naveed’ thanks to the band being more confident and turning in some great songwriting. At this point, it seemed the band could do no wrong.
And then, after a three year recording hiatus, Our Lady Peace released ‘Healthy In Paranoid Times’ - an album which has nothing of any real worth within its 12 songs. On that album, the band sounds as if they’re going through the motions. Raine Maida slips even farther away from the quirky vocal traits he used on ‘Happiness...’ and ‘Spiritual Machines’ and this only serves to make the album feel even more laboured. The sleeve notes claim the band wrote and recorded 43 songs during the album’s sessions, so I can only but wonder how they came to choose 12 really dull ones for the end product.

In the five year gap between the release of ‘Paranoid Times’ and ‘Burn Burn’, vocalist Raine Maida embarked on a solo career; his solo album ‘The Hunter’s Lullaby’ adopted more of a stripped down singer-songwriter slant. After a five year band absence, I had major reservations about Our Lady Peace’s return. Since they took three years to deliver ‘Healthy In Paranoid Times’, were they about to disappoint a second time after so long away? Would Raine Maida’s solo activities have any impact on the band’s sound? I knew if the album turned out to be as forgettable as ‘...Paranoid Times’ it would be time for me to part company with a band I’d followed for a decade and a half.

With a lot riding on it, ‘Burn Burn’ made an immediate impact with me. For a majority of the album, Our Lady Peace opt for a mid-paced rock sound; one that rocks stadiums and fills airwaves. Raine Maida steers away from his old style quirkier vocals again, but here, it doesn’t matter so much as it did before, since the songs themselves are incredibly strong. The simplicity running through ‘Burn Burn’s ten songs gives the album a solid backbone and with that, Our Lady Peace play to their strengths.

‘All You Did Was Save My Life’ begins the album with one of the more upbeat numbers. Driven by Steve Mazur’s choppy guitars, it’s a track which is unmistakably Our Lady Peace. I may still wish on occasion that Maida would revert to his old vocal style, but it cannot be denied that even with this more conventional approach, his voice is still a strong one, even if not as distinctive as it once had been. This track is also notable for having been co-written with Zac Maloy (one-time frontman with post-grunge band The Nixons – possibly one of the most under-rated bands ever).

The big chorus and ringing guitars during ‘The End Is Where We Begin’ call to mind a couple of the songs from ‘Gravity’; here each band member plays a key role – the rhythm section of Duncan Coutts and Jeremy Taggart drive the song with a gentle chug on the verses, but it’s the chorus where things shift up a gear. The song hangs on a giant chorus and if you need a timely reminder of why Our Lady Peace are great, this is it. Also adopting a stadium rock approach, ‘Dreamland’ is a high point. Another mid paced affair, it features a tack piano on the verses before resorting to a more predictable heavy guitar riff for the big chorus. It’s typical of the kind of thing 30 Seconds To Mars wish they could have written, but just don’t have enough chops.

‘Monkey Brains’ is another up tempo track; I’d say it’s not quite as memorable as most of the album but still has some great moments: Duncan Coutts’s bass work is aggressive and upfront during the closing section, but for me, it’s the acoustic mid-section which is the song’s best feature. It has a quality which will seem instantly familiar to anyone who’s followed the band for some time. There’s a moment I could swear Maida is about to break into ‘Superman’s Dead’; it’s great to know that despite the band having become more commercial over their previous couple of releases, this album brings out just a little of the Our Lady Peace of old. The falsetto vocal parts may be a past luxury, but maybe the world’s still a subway after all.

‘Escape Artist’ is a pop/rock track driven by a bass drum and tambourine rhythm during its verses, which is played against a subtle guitar part. The song’s hook isn’t anywhere near as big as some on the album, but the track still features some great elements – namely wah-wah guitar and understated piano work. Although not especially obvious in the overall mix, it’s great to hear the piano playing a role, since it was the piano part on the title track from the ‘Clumsy’ album which caught my ear and really pushed Our Lady Peace up in my estimation, back in 1997.
The piano comes to the fore for the brooding ballad ‘Never Get Over You’, a track with a very 21st Century “alternative” sound – and obviously, by that, I mean it fits in with the post millennium trend of labelling anything vaguely guitar driven as “alternative”. This is probably going to sound like a put-down, but the song’s slightly plodding nature reminds me a little of Snow Patrol, if they were slightly tougher and could write more interesting songs. Even so, if this track represents ‘Burn Burn’ at its weakest, it’s obvious that with this album Our Lady Peace are on a winning streak.

‘Paper Moon’ finds the band rocking out a bit more, but it’s still in the mid-paced mould of a lot of the songs on ‘Burn Burn’. It’s notable, since it’s one of the tracks which utilises backing vocals most obviously; they add weight to the chorus by mirroring the lead vocal, but can also be found bubbling under a blistering lead guitar courtesy of Steve Mazur. Since it’s probably Mazur’s most aggressive work on the album, you could be forgiven for not taking much notice of whatever else happens to be going on!

There are no dud songs here. Those who liked the more straight ahead approach of ‘Gravity’ (in particular, those listeners whom became fans with the release of that album) will find ‘Burn Burn’ enjoyable. It’s restored my faith in the band and while it’s not as inventive as some of the band’s earlier works, it’s certainly a very welcome addition to the Our Lady Peace catalogue.


June 2010

Sunday, 6 February 2011

“Gary Moore: 4th April 1952 – 6th February 2011”

Today, the world lost a true legend. Whether playing rock or blues, part of Thin Lizzy or as a solo musician, Gary Moore played with style. He passed away whilst on holiday in Spain, way before his time. He left us a wealth of great music.

RIP Gary.













Friday, 4 February 2011

MAKER - Run and Hide EP

maker run & hide EP

Many years ago, I saw a 60s covers band named Ready Steady Go, whom, as their name would suggest, specialised in those from the mod sub-genre. They were supporting a Jam tribute band who’d severely over-charged for tickets. Before their set, Ready Steady Go’s keyboard player told me they hadn’t been allowed a soundcheck because “the fake Paul Weller was acting like a prima donna”. He claimed that, in protest, he was going to go on stage and “stab knives into his keyboards, like Keith Emerson”. He was clearly in a very bad mood.

Five years or so later, I found myself in a pub watching my friend Rich Barnard play an acoustic set which so many people seem to insist on talking over – including the promoter. That night’s headline act was Maker – a band which played late 60s/early 70s rock, heavily inspired by The Faces and The Black Crowes, featuring Anthony Brooks (previously of Ready Steady Go) on keyboards. As Maker tore into their opening number, the volume was almost deafening, to the point where it became almost impossible to pick out the fineries of their performance beyond the sheet of noise (however, with a bit of distance and a couple of walls to deflect the blast, they sounded great – apparently, the ladies toilets were the best seats in the house). Even though their sound mix was less than flattering, visually, it was obvious Maker had the necessary qualities required to become professional musicians. Watching Brooks hammering away at the organ, he’d clearly improved as a musician in those intervening years.

Released four or so years after that rather loud gig - and on the back of countless other live shows, including some high profile support slots – comes Maker’s debut release, and it sounds superb. Right from the start of the opening track ‘Run and Hide’, driven by a pumping bass, the band displays a huge amount of confidence. Against the hard rhythm section, Brooks adds a great countermelody on the organ, giving the number a great groove. Alessandro Marinelli’s husky vocal features the perfect retro qualities for Maker’s sound, and in all, it’s a sound that’s more than solid. The guitars have a bit of a back seat for this track, but it provides a good showcase for Brooks’s Brian Auger style organ work; a swirling solo has plenty of character, if a little short.

‘Tell Me I’m Wrong’ is a moody piece which would fit squarely among Free or The Black Crowes’ slower material. Marinelli gets the chance to stretch out and deliver a vocal line with a little more soul. Andrew Donaldson’s guitar playing is understated, but his bluesy lines are delivered with plenty of feeling. John Austin’s bass work does a fine job in holding everything together, but essentially, this track is Marinelli’s finest moment – particularly as his vocals build to a climax at the close of the number.

#Closing the EP, ‘Pour Your Heaven’ is a great showcase for Gavin Donaldson’s hard drumming style. Built around a fantastic drum riff, the number captures Maker at their most spiky. The guitars punctuate the drum riff while slabs of organ add plenty of depth. Marinelli’s vocal performance is urgent and the guitar work is more aggressive than on the previous tracks. Of the three numbers featured, this is probably the most instant – it’s certainly got one of the better choruses. Repeated listens highlight some particularly good, fairly complex bass runs between the tracks more insistent moments.

If you’re a fan of 70s influenced rock, then this is more than worthy of your time. You won’t find anything here particularly original, but to expect such would be missing the point. Maker delivers music which feels good, with influences and a style that’s almost timeless. Clearly, that very loud pub band always knew what they were doing.


February 2010

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

COLD CHISEL - Circus Animals

cold chisel circus animals

If you live in Australia and happen to be reading this, chances are you own a Cold Chisel album already. Their brand of music, largely stemming from no-nonsense pub rock, made them megastars in their home country; for the rest of the world, however, Cold Chisel’s work is far less known, although they retain a strong cult following throughout the world.

Their early work showcases three chord rock ‘n’ roll, played in a hard rock style. From early on, white reggae influences were a strong part of the Cold Chisel sound, but it their third album, ‘East’ – released in 1980 – which saw the band branching out even farther. This was their most commercial disc to date; the earlier influences were still there, but were more often fused with radio friendly pop/rock styles. While not as raw as Chisel could be, it was a near perfect album. With ‘East’, the band truly came of age.

As a reaction to the commercialism of that album, Cold Chisel’s follow up, ‘Circus Animals’ (released in April 1982; produced by Mark Opitz) was harder, occasionally angrier and often more adventurous. The anger and passion within its ten cuts is obvious right from the off, as lead single ‘You Got Nothing I Want’ tears from the speakers. Written in response to the lack of promotion ‘East’ received from their US record label, the number presents Chisel at their most brazenly angry.
Jimmy Barnes is captured in full-on rasp as he delivers slightly spiteful lines regarding the band’s position. The music has plenty of punch: while slightly more sophisticated than some of Chisel’s earlier work, it captures the essence of their rock ‘n’ roll ethic, with Don walker hammering out almost boogie-woogie piano lines underneath Ian Moss’s raucous chords. It’s from here on, though, that ‘Circus Animals’ becomes more interesting.

‘Taipan’ features one of the album’s most interesting arrangements. Prestwich’s pounding drums lend an almost tribal atmosphere, which when combined with Walker’s piano and an almost spooky vocal from Barnes, couldn’t be farther away from the pub rock which bought Chisel’s early popularity. Occasionally, the band breaks from this for more of a rock section, where naturally, Barnes lets rip vocally – and although that’s far more in keeping with the traditional Chisel sound, it sounds out of place here, especially when followed by gang vocals – again in a tribal-ish style (although the tune chosen has a touch of the Disney’s about it...). By the time Ian Moss adds a solo at the end, the listener gets a proper feel for the breadth of the band’s talent. His solo is vibrato-filled and full of anger and passion (with only a couple of moments stepping to far into overtly aggressive territory), which when backed by Walker’s heavily pounded piano chords, really helps bring the track to a superb climax.

‘Bow River’ – a number written by Moss, whom also steps up for lead vocals – has Chisel’s rock ‘n’ roll as a base. Moss’s vocal is a soulful one, a complete contrast to Barnes’s insistent and uncompromising approach. It’s particularly effective during a atmospheric intro, accompanied by Walker’s sparingly used piano chords, but it more than holds its own, even once the band hits full stride. Walker’s piano launches into pub-rock piano solos leading the band into a full-on, sweaty hard rock workout. As Moss and Barnes begin to harmonise, backed more than ably by Walker, Prestwich and a rock-solid, yet surprisingly busy bass line from Small, the listener gets to feel the full power behind Cold Chisel at their best – a sound almost unmatched by their peers.

‘Numbers Fall’ showcases Chisel in a moody, bluesy vein. Each member of the band contributes something of note. Moss’s guitar work doesn’t stretch his talents, but lays down a few pointed, vibrato filled notes here and there while Don Walker’s quasi-aggressive organ work gives a sense of volume. The rhythm section is hard, particularly Phil Small’s unshakable basslines overlaying Prestwich’s heavy thud. It’s during this number Jimmy Barnes really comes into his own; his raspy, ragged voice – like a hard rockin’ John Fogerty – ringing passion from almost every word.

‘Houndog’ brings anger back into Barnes’s performance, opting for a full on, full-volume delivery. The band counterbalance this with a very interesting arrangement. Moss’s guitar work leans towards a 60s twang full of reverb and Walker’s bar-room piano is high in the mix. For the mid section, there’s an about-face; a similar spaciousness to that of ‘Taipan’ creeps in and Moss and Barness share vocal duties as Small keeps things together with a decent bass line. When you first hear the track, it’s not something you ever expect. As the track builds to a close, the band reverts to the original musical arrangement, slowly getting more intense. Underneath the growing tension, Phil Small’s bass playing is very accomplished – he’s certainly someone who deserves far more credit for his musicianship.

For all of ‘Circus Animals’s adventurousness, it features two of the most commercial tracks in the Chisel back catalogue. ‘When The War Is Over’ and ‘Forever Now’ (both written by drummer Steve Prestwich and released as singles in Australia) are fantastic, unashamedly radio-friendly pop/rock tracks – the kind ‘East’ hinted at so often. During the ballad ‘When The War Is Over’, the listener experiences Barnes and Moss singing in great harmony – their contrasting voices working exceptionally well. Musically, the smooth simplicity of the number is the thing which makes it so unashamedly brilliant, with Walker’s piano providing some great moments. Moss’s guitar work, meanwhile, never steps out of line – his long flowing notes drifting to fade. ‘Forever Now’ shows the band’s fondness for pop/rock with a reggae slant, which coupled with a simple chorus made it an obvious choice for a single. Also here, Prestwich takes an opportunity to write himself a great drum part. It’s not great due to any flashiness; it’s it’s sparseness which is most striking. Throughout the verses, Prestwich concentrates on percussion and hi-hat, only using snare and toms for fills, saving them for impact on the chorus. While it’s the rhythm section moments which provide the best musical aspects (Small’s bass line also more than delivers), Moss’s lead solo coming at the tracks end is masterful albeit without diminishing the pop sensibilities of the track.

These tracks are so good, it’s almost possible to forget about the equally commercial ‘No Good For You’, which also comes with plenty of hit single potential. While a little lightweight musically, once again, Small’s bass playing is exemplary and the vocal harmonies throughout the chorus are among the album’s best. The AOR leanings here certainly have an influence upon the direction Barnes’s solo career would take by the late 80s. Don Walker’s ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ is one of the album’s weaker numbers, but even so features a top performance from Barnes and provides another Prestwich drumming highlight. Sadly, so much focus has been put upon these two factors, there’s very little else to back them up. There’s certainly no real chorus, and even a section which lends itself to the most obvious hard rock moment comes and goes without making too much of an impression.

The closing number, ‘Letter To Alan’ is a another Chisel tour-de-force, beginning with Barnes singing in a relatively restrained manner against Walker’s atmospheric piano work. Ian Moss then joins with some ringing guitars, while Prestwich (at least in places) favours a percussive style, similar to that of ‘Forever Now’. Moss’s soloing is busy and angular, lacking the bluesy vibrato so often heard from his work. Instead, he attacks his fretboard in an almost unrestrained way, pulling back slightly just before his fiery playing becomes in danger of careening completely out of control.

While ‘Circus Animals’ may not always have the all-round enjoyment of ‘East’ – and certainly isn’t a Cold Chisel album for first time listeners - it arguably captures the band at the peak of the powers. Like so many Aussie bands, though, it’s unlikely even at their best Cold Chisel will ever gain more than a cult following (albeit a large one) outside their home country.

[A remastered version of the album adds three bonus tracks]


January 2011