Adventures of a University Finalist

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Pub Rocker's Lament


Nick Lowe - Dig My Mood (Demon Records, 1998)

Nick Lowe - Faithless Lover
Nick Lowe - Man That I've Become
Nick Lowe - High on a Hilltop
Nick Lowe - Time I Took a Holiday

Member of Brinsley Schwartz, in house producer at Stiff Records, writer of some of the keenest pop songs in recent decades, friend and confidante of Elvis Costello... Nick Lowe can be regarded as the Lon Chaney Jnr of the New Wave movement. However, one of his many faces is often overlooked by the public: the Tony Bennett crooner crossed with Hank Williams melancholia.
From the first groan of "Faithless lover/Heartless thing/For you I'll swing/And for no other" of the album's opener, backed by Morricone tumbleweed guitar picking, it would be impossible for anyone not to expect something special from this effort. The sparsity of the arrangment on 'Faithless Lover' is a welcome change from Lowe's other production work with his time at Stiff, especially Costello's late 70s albums, often critcised for offering a suffocating mix. This would give the songs a claustrophobic and immediate feel whilst sacrificing any form of melodic subtlety. 'Dig My Mood', on the other hand, looks toward a calmer torch song style with the music echoing Lowe's new lyrical and vocal maturity with his crisp Dixie Chicken hybrid of a singing voice. People often point out the the import of the country influences in his music yet they often forget the intellectual soul behind his large proboscis: he's a man who understands that a few hummed bars of sadness can say more than a thousand words. It's an old Sam Cooke trick used to great effect amid the subtle washes of the rhythmic tide.
Listening to this album, you would more than likely expect Lowe to have decamped to Memphis, Nashville or any other such hubs of Southern Music, for months on end working together with wisened session musicians with calloused hands and cancerous tongues. The recording and mixing did take Lowe a year in the sunny locales of... St John's Wood, Wimbledon and Twickenham. To think that a man can perform a Johnny Cash pastiche such as, 'The Man That I've Become', amidst the grey of the South East suburbs of London with its favourite colours resembling that of a nasty bruise is at once both remarkable and rather fitting. It's stripped to the bone's marrow with its muted guitar flashes, hi hat chugs, and that inevitable moonshine riff pushing the song into second gear after every chorus. When I call it a Cash pastiche, I refer merely to the song's country tilt and the general subject matter for, god rest his soul, the Man in Black would never been witty or cocky enough to include such delicious couplets as "His heart is prune/When it once was a plum".
Whereas 'The Man...' is all country, 'Time I Took a Holiday' bows upon bended knee in the direction of that Mecca of songwriters, The Brill Building, in particular Messrs Goffin & King. It delights in its subtle Tapestry piano base which is cautiously admonished by delicate Cropper guitar licks, angelic accordion and wordless doo wop harmonies. It looks to rewrite Southern Soul, keeping with it the emotional power but replacing the raw edges with gilted alternatives. It's possibly the busiest composition on the entire album with its heavily textured blue eyed soul but somehow remains perfectly balanced keeping firmly away from the chest beating and heavy duty synth/organ fills of its compatriots. A fabulous song is created from the old school formula of identifying the basics needed for the song and then putting so much effort into those fundamentals so that what you end up having is a polished gem rather than a pocketful of stones.
The other day, I referred to Wire's 'Outdoor Miner' as having some form of archetypal quality to it. A song that is both new and a song that you have heard all your life in the efforts of others. 'High on a Hilltop' is such a song. Its production is yet again simplistic to an extreme with its uncomplicated drum beat, unobstrusive mahogany bass line, a soft patina of organ, pointed and direct guitar strikes, and wordless acoustic harmonies. The song is just your basic instrumental members layered in such a fashion so that they reach this wonderfully anthemic quality; both gospel-like and minimalist. This feeling is shared by the soft lamentations of Lowe as he returns the optimistic yet personal imagery of one day being far away from the city and thus in some form of peace. Ater all the work he's done in his life, who on earth would find at all meritorious to deny the man such a simplistic pleasure? Not I, that's for sure.

Buy - Nick Lowe - Dig My Mood
Visit - Nick Lowe's Official Website

Monday, August 29, 2005

Tell Me If You've Heard This One Before


Various Artists - Power Pop Anthems! (Virgin, 2005)

Squeeze - Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)
The Records - Hearts In Her Eyes
Hal - Play the Hits
Jellyfish - Baby's Coming Back

Funny story. Earlier this month, I was doing my two week research stint and felt that I should find a welcome distraction to alleviate some of the mounting tension growing as a result of reading the nasty words such as "hazard", "dead", "polluted" or "corporate social responsibility". I found this in the form of 6music, the BBC's alternative digital radio station, an old love that has now been spurned in favour of my fellow music bloggers. It was a brief but joyous union that resulted in me entering Gideon Coe's 'Paintbox Jury' competition. Having doen so, I promptly buggered off to have my customary pizza scattered with various unidentifiable meat products and thought no more of it. Fast forward one week and a package from the BBC arrives containing three CDs and the customary BBC pen (a red biro with no lid on it, I shit you not). This resulted in me a-yelping and a-hollering and running around the driveway in my underwear (that's true). THe CD package consisted of the latest Turin Brakes (better than I coul possibly have hoped it to be), the new Public Enemy best-of (needs some time to grow), and Virgin's poorly named compilation package of the week, 'Power Pop Anthems'. The latter of the three is the one that I wish to speak of today and for good reason too. For I wish to ask the question that has plagued man since the early 70s: what is Power Pop?
I will admit that at the beginning I really wanted to hate this compilation. It had cash-in written all over it. Even from the packaging, it was obvious that it was just an excuse to couple together some EMI artists under a vague misnomer masquerading as an all encompassing theme just to make a mint. Well, I have to say that I'm disappointed in that respect because this album is a little too obvious at points, it includes some people who have no right to be crowned with that exclusive title of "Power Pop", it omits some important bands, and has an all too obvious bias toward New Wave. However, it is ultimately an unashameably corking set of tracks.
Power Pop is often termed as a product of the seventies with its first major exponents being Badfinger, the Raspberries and Big Star. It is often termed as a mixture between Beatles melody and the rock of the Who. The main sign of a power pop band is a heavy power chord sound that is shifted down in the mix so as to let the melody breathe. Pure power pop has a preference for embellishments from organs or piano with the chief exponents of such a sound being Ric Ocasek's new wave group, The Cars (featured on the comp with their best known number that isn't a soppy Macarthur Park souffle) and the masters of 90s power pop, Jellyfish. Queen (who sadly kick off the first CD) are NOT proponents of power pop but rather of pomp-rock. Power pop is more often than not both a blessing and a curse. Power pop bands often extinguish themselves within two or three albums due to their inability to work beyond what is essentially a limited formula. The Romantics made one good album, Jellyfish made two, Big Star made two that could possibly be termed popwer pop, and even only The Raspberries could muster four before their leader Eric Carmen descended into MOR hell on the back of Rachmaninoff. There is often an extremely intense flame at the beginning before an incredibly quick ebb into obscurity or dullness. Queen, on the other hand, were scattershot with their operatic flair, dabbling with jazz fusion, disco, the Charleston, and ultra-ironic boogie woogie. The Beach Boys were not power pop. Power Pop did not exist when 'Fun, Fun, Fun' came out - that was it's predecessor, surf pop. The Beach Boys could maybe have been termed power pop in the days of 'Carl and the Passions' but even I'd be loath to say that. Pilot were simply crap and their presence is better left undiscussed. ELO are a more forgivable indiscretion but I would rather simply term them "pop" and leave it at that. Any band that dabbles with rock n' roll pastiches so frequently as they just doesn't fit the tag. The Jam, Any Trouble, Reckless Eric amd Joe Jackson are all New Wave rather than power pop looking rather to either rougher musical textures or a complete disregard for the constant need of a delicate merseybeat chime underscored by a power chord base.
A lot of the songs on here are obvious with Wings ('Jet'), The Knack ('My Sharona'), The Undertones ('Teenage Kicks'), and The Buzzocks ('Ever Fallen in Love?') all key examples of what I dislike to call the "duh!" syndrome of compilation sequencing. What about 'Good Girls Don't', 'Admiral Halsey', 'My Perfect Cousin', and 'Lipstick'? Well, I guess the first answer would be that they don't sell compilations quite as well to the average consumer. Andy Sturmer once said that 'Jet' was the sexiest song ever written.. he also refrained from mentioning that it's one of the best pop songs ever written. These songs, as I've previously mentioned, were chosen in the usual fashion with a flamboyant mixture of the false worshippers, the popular, and the true faith. The true faith here is represented by bands like The Records, The Rubinoos. The Barracudas, The Babys, and Martha and the Muffins (stretching with that last one) who all fill that wonderfully brittle construct of 70s blue eyed boys who never quite got out the starting blocks with their bright orange V shaped telecaster, brillatine hair, vaseline teeth and adoration of the Searchers. By all rights, they should have been joined by Dwight Twilley, the Plimsouls and The Romantics along with 90s exponents such as The Rooks and the incomparable Sloan ('Action Pact' is the best power pop album of the noughties - taut, melodic and spine tingling) but you can't have everything. And everything is all that this compilation tries to give. It does so in such an adorably mediocre fashion, with its idle searching in every nook and cranny of the easily identifiable pop universe, but that's why I find it so charming. For I now posses an album with 'Friday On My Mind', 'Fire Brigade', 'It's Only Natural', 'Echo Beach', 'Going Down to Liverpool', and 'No Matter What' all of which are stone cold classics that I enjoy each time they come on the stereo. Not many albums have such an enviable strike rate.
Before I finish, I guess I should give you guys the lowdown on the tracks that I've uploaded. Hal are the new boys out of Ireland who have been surprisingly ignored by the blogosphere even when they have such a brilliant single in the form of the Edwyn Collins produced 'Play the Hits' with it's cyclical guitar hum, infectious pre chorus, and delightful high register vocals. Sunshine pop for an early summer's evening out on the sun lounger with shades, a fat novel and too much multicoloured zinc on the bridge of your nose. Jellyfish are the 90s offspring of Steely Dan with their preference for a beautifully scented rose that blossoms with colour and fragrance only to reveal sharp lyrical talons disguised as innocuous thorns. The acoustic stroll is interrupted by tinny drum snaps, hand claps, buzzing bass and Roger Manning doing his best impersonation of Garth Hudson on the organ. You dance like a mad man and then start listening to the words before retreating to the corner for a quick sob into your pint of bitter. The only song that I've heard a harmony built around the words "buy a handgun". The Records are power pop at its most wonderfully undistilled with a standard Flamin' Groovies knock off that would have made Cyril Jordan a very proud man. And if you don't know Squeeze by now then I pity you and bid that you listen to what has to be their finest hour with Tillbrook pulling exquisite couplets like rabbits out of a hat whilst the guitars ring the changes never to come.

Buy - Power Pop Anthems!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Collaboration - Captain Planet Style!


Just a quick note here: Dodge at MOKB has got Luxury Liners and Foxymorons up on his site for all those poor fools who missed out first time round. He's also linked to my interview with David Dewese, the driving force behind both those bands. Even if you have them, go look anyway as it's one of the best music blogs out there. I may have another quick post tomorrow but if not I'll have something new on Monday. Peace, love and all that gubbins.

UPDATE: Whoops. Knew that I'd forgotten something. Go here and then click on 'Downloads'. Download 'Save It For Later' - an excellent Harvey Danger cover of The English Beat classic that I've previously featured on 'Adventures'. Dig that organ and pork scratchings break.

Visit - The Foxymorons
Visit - The Luxury Liners

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Basement Tapes


Hamell on Trial - Choochtown (Evangeline, 1999)

Hamell on Trial - When Bobby Comes Down
Hamell on Trial - Choochtown
Hamell on Trial - The Long Drive
Hamell on Trial - Judy

Sorry folks. As much as I would love to wax lyrical on the might of Ed Hamell, I have the biggest hangover upon the planet and would very much like to wonder upstairs and lie down in front of the comforting cathode glow of the cricket. So this may be briefer than usual.
I've been a fan of Ed Hamell since I first got into music when I came into contact with "Go Fuck Yourself/Choochtown" on an Uncut cover CD. Hamell may be familiar to some of you from his regular column for the aforementioned monthly mag. Despite this admiration, I only just bought my first Hamell CD, 'Choochtown', after discovering it in a HMV bargain bin for a hideously undervalued price tag. Man, was it worth it!
"The Long Drive" is Marlowe caught in a compromising position with Capote and Kerouac. Recorded live into a boombox, it coasts along on the wings of a muted acoustic doing its Johnny C thang and a trumpet joining in for the choruses. It tells the tale of a Private Dick put on a case to find a woman who is "brilliantly doomed" stumbling into a spicy jambalaya of ashes, drug dealers and strychnine. I've personally always had a major soft spot for tunes with a cohesive narrative so this song in particular really tickles my pickle. It's a brilliant album closer thrown out on to the plate earlier than expected just for Hamell's own morbid kicks. The fact that the song is immediately followed up by the uptempo stomp of "Judy", the ultimate answer to Springsteen's "Kitty Back", makes it all the more macabre.
Actually, Hamell has a big thing for a narrative flow in his lyrics with possibly the greatest being the autobiographical "John Lennon" off 'The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword' which you simply have to hear. Ed's made it available with plenty of other album tracks, albeit very low quality (around 24k), on his web site here. Hamell even experiments with the songwriting medium with "When Bobby Comes Down" and "Choochtown" telling two sides of the same story with Bobby the guy who is "fun to hang around here when he's high, couldn't find a nicer guy, he would give you his own shirt/he starts to crash and you get hurt" whereas Chooch, the protagonist of "Choochtown", is the foul mouthed enforcer who accidently bumps into Bobby whilst on a sordid celebrity paedophile case. "When Bobby..." is a loud mouthed acoustic shout-a-long but "Choochtwon" is a completely different animal that seeks to masquerade as a lost Stones number; all incidental riffs and swagger that finally ends up with Chooch taking the song over and berating Hamell for not writing a song about him early. HEaring about the man's misadventure, I figurethat the man has a point.
Well, that's Hamell mapped out for you. But before I reach for the warm flannel to lay upon my aching brow, I just want to point you toward Will Robinson Sheff's post on Tim Hardin. 'Lenny' is a underground classic that's only available on the hard to find Tim Hardin III (aka Tim Hardin Live) or covered by that teutonic beauty and fellow lover of opiates, Nico. Read the article, download the music, but don't buy the CD unless you want stiff competition from yours truly.

Buy - Hamell on Trial - Choochtown
Visit - Hamell on Trial

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ipod Maths

Chilton + Cary = Westerberg

Regina Spektor - Ode to Divorce
Paul Westerberg - Boring Enormous
Nicolai Dunger - Hey Mama
Sloan - Chester the Molester
Culture - The International Herb

I have finally found my own special game to occupy myself whilst playing around with Maybellene (my Ipod, for the uninitiated) and her lovely shuffle function. It's the sensation that will soon be sweeping the nation! Ipod Maths! Well, it'll shuffle around my creatively dulled cerebellum for at least a week before I brand it a folly and run back to the sweet comforting bosom of the mix tape.
Ipod Maths starts with kicking your Ipod into shuffle mode and jotting down the first ten tracks to appear (which can also be used in Ipod Wars). Here's the ones that I got:

1. Joni Mitchell - In France They Kiss On Main Street
2. The Pine Club - Straightaway
3. Jason Falkner - Mr Future
4. Essex Green - Chester
5. Wire - Outdoor Miner
6. Van Morrison - Redwood Tree
7. Edna Wright - Oops There I Go Again
8. Cary Brothers - Skyway
9. Pearl Jam - Brain of J (Live)
10. Alex Chilton - Can't Seem to Make You Mine

What then happens is an arbitrary selection process pairing up each of the ten tracks until you have five pairings. I did this off the cuff looking to put together songs with disparate influences so that I could have more fun later on. Having paired up, comes the ultimate purpose of Ipod Maths: if you put these two songs together, taking in their influences, the band's background, the tempo, the lyrical content... what bastard creation would emerge. I think it's brilliant as not only do I get to pour over music lists but I also get to justify my idiotic beliefs. Mariah Carey + Lindsay Lohan = Ice Cube? Why the hell not. So without further ado, here are the pairings that I came up with to decide what I'd let you have a listen to this fine summer's day:

Joni Mitchell + Wire = Regina Spektor
Alex Chilton + Cary Brothers = Paul Westerberg
Jason Falkner + Essex Green = Sloan
Pearl Jam + Edna Wright = Culture
The Pine Club + Van Morrison = Nicolai Dunger

For starters, yes, the Falkner/Essex Green is a cop out. Pristine power pop sprinkled with a piano led ditty named 'Chester' was always going to result in Canada's finest wasn't it? I won't elaborate really other than to say firstly that The Essex Green are certainly worth investigation on their own and that I have this theory that 'Chester the Molester' was inspired directly by John Irving's 'Prayer For Owen Meany' and the narrator's cousins habit of calling their female counterpart, 'Hester the Molester'. Just an idea. Maybe it's a coincidence brought about by the wonders of rhyme.
Wonders may be abound as a result of Pearl Jam's more bruising screamathons being married to coy bubblegum soul and birthing one of roots reggae's more radical outfits, Culture. Culture take Pearl Jam's left wing populist politics and wrap it in penny whistles, horns and falsetto harmonies. Gil Scott-Heron or The Impressions would have been other possible results of this particular equation but the clincher was the fact that I not only get to mention that I saw Culture live at Womad (they were brilliant) but that I also recently purchased the essential four CD 'Frontline Box Set' which tells the story of Richard Branson's short lived Virgin reggae affiliate. I also wish to push forward the maxim of: the kookier the result, the better.
Cary Brothers/Chilton was another gimme that meant such a maxim had to be ignored because any chance to play The 'Mats or their offshoots must never be passed up. If you have a 'Mats cover and their greatest influence (so much so that they named a song after him) then it would be criminal to not instantly reach come to such a conclusion. Admittedly, anything from 'Pleased to Meet Me' would be a far more conventional choice than Westerberg's solo 2002 effort, 'Stereo/Mono' but "Boring Enormous" has everything. It has that delicious acoustic cantering rhythm which is so similar to 'Skyway' although clearly not as magical. You can no longer hear the snow crystalissing on Paul's brow but you can hear him growing older much as his idol did. He fails to recapture the heavy rock n' roll strut that Chilton carries off on "Can't Seem..." preferring to take on the role of the man has tried on such a persona before and ultimately been crushed by it. The bubble and hiss are restrained; dormant before being unleashed at a more appropriate juncture.
Joni/Wire leading to the queen of anti-folk, Regina Spektor, also has the feeling of the inevitable about it too. Now, Wire are a band who have never taken my fancy before. 'I Am the Fly' annoys the crap out of me to be perfectly frank. 'Outdoor Miner' is completely different. It is one of the only songs that I've ever heard that sounds like it's ripping strips from music history as it goes and in doing so creating a new future in the process. It's a song that you hear in so many others; a perfectly shaped Jungian archetype that gives me chills. Joni's has more than achieved the impact of "Outdoor Miner" on me but not in such a clinical way. Her songs manage to maintain a scruffier, more individualistic existence even her more poppier, jazz-lite songs such as "In France..." the opening track on what Prince would term "The greatest album of all time", 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns'. Regina occupies an earlier incarnation of Joni, around her sparser 'Blue' period, with her preference for sparse instrumentation subsidiary to Regina's voice and piano. It's all rather a case of the life of the narrator of "Last Time I Met Richard" thirty years on. Still mourning that last night in the cafe as she, like Wire, seeks to dissect an increasingly complicated musical vision to its spare parts. As a result, "Ode to Divorce" is an intoxicating concoction.
So, finally, we come to the meeting of minds between Van the Man and the Louisville art pop of The Pine Club leading to a goalkeeper turned Swedish folker. How? "Straightaway" skitters around like a cat through a side alley pakced with trashcans (introduced to me by Dodge at MOKB). All snare and stratch. "Redwood Tree", on the other hand, is Van at his most mellow filled with soft jazz percussion, acoustic cuts, and marauding soft rock piano. It's like The Band on downers accompanied by a gospel choir which just fell out the back of a van. What Dunger does is take Van's legendary scat ramble and slows it down into a belligerent honeyed drawl and mixes it up with snare and post-punk guitar uppercuts creating his onw hybird of country punk.
So there you have it: Ipod Maths. Go try it at home. You'll enjoy it much more than sunbathing in the hot sun.

Buy - Sloan - Navy Blues
Buy - Regina Spektor - Soviet Kitsch
Buy - Nicolai Dunger - Tranquil Isolation
Buy - Paul Westerberg/Granpaboy - Stereo/Mono
Buy - The Frontline Box Set
Buy - A 1Gb Ipod Shuffle!

Friday, August 19, 2005

How Do You Know They Women?


The Miracles - City of Angels (Motown, 1975)

The Miracles - Love Machine
The Miracles - My Name Is Michael
The Miracles - Night Life
The Miracles - Ain't Nobody Straight in LA

One song about Michael Jackson before he lost his nose, a disco stomper with the most uses of the word "chick" you're ever likely to hear, the greatest outro of all time, and a classic in every sense of the word. Yes, it's the Miracles post-Smokey 1974 concept album, 'City of Angels', which can be found in its entirety on Spectrum's best of, 'Collection' (great name, eh?).
For starters, you should all know 'Love Machine'. A massive hit when it first came out the song has slap bass, Sam Clayton "ooh yeahs", hot and heavy gasps, and superb modern doo-wop harmonies. It's a flawless disco gem that can even be spoilt by Billy Griffin, the Miracles' replacement lead singer's awkward use of the metaphor of "lover as robot" nor his androgynous vocals. The requisite horns aren't even the best part of the song and that doesn't happen very often.
I adore the song but you've all probably heard it before. It's only hear for perspective and those poor fools that haven't sampled its oral delights in full. 'Love Machine (Part One)' just isn't enough! 'Ain't Nobody Straight in LA' its follow-up single, as you can probably tell from the title, was both controversial and a bit of a commercial flop. However, before I'm pelted with metaphorical rotten tomatoes for uploading it I have to make clear that in no way is the song homophobic. At least not on purpose. 'City of Angels' was a concept album on LA society and its newfound liberal culture. It covers the resurgence of Hollywood and the superstar ("My Name is Michael"), the environmental pollution ("SMOG"), freedom of expression ("Free Press"), and the emerging gay culture. It really tries to cover all the bases in terms of scope as all concept albums have a tendecy to do. If you ever doubt my assertion that the group isn't donning their intolerance hats just skip to the hilarious outro where the group begin to plan a night out only to discover that all the good clubs are gay bars. This leads to the exclamation of "You know, some of the finest women are in a gay bar... Gay people are nice people too". As long as the boys have a chance of schtupping a lady or three then they're happy bunnies. Also, to hate a song that flutters along so nicely with its Felicano Spanish guitar, gurgling synth, twittering flutes and clicking percussion just for being of its time would be a bit of a shame. The repetition of the lyrics in Spanish by the the harmony vocalists, especially considering the subject matter, makes this even more of a must hear if only for the sheer hilarity of it. It carries the torch, lit by The Coasters and carried on by the likes of Kid Creole and Prince, of creating music that is both danceable and nowhere near as po faced as any of the competition.
"Night Life" is the uptempo stomper that really should have equalled "Love Machine" in popularity. However, its doesn't quite work out. It has the horns, the exultant "doo doo bahs", and propulsive beat of its predecessor but is spoilt by Griffin's overenunciation of the song's lyric which is frankly craptacular. "Swinging cabarets" is a term that should never ever again be used in any form of pop song unless there is a large spoonful of sugar to help the bile stay down. At around 50 seconds in, we get to the prechorus and it starts rather well with Billy singin "Nightlife in the big city..." as the arrangment reaches its minicrescendo. Sadly, he decides to add " my cup of tea". Last time I checked The Miracles weren't The Kinks and it just doesn't come off well. I think they only used it because it rhymes with "me" but that's still no bloody excuse for it. However, the worst line has to be "If your intentions are to get a chick to share a lovely evening spell/There are several shops that carry a variety of incense." The song has been completely pussy whipped by the demands of radio. It can't even bring itself to hint at anything vulgar or when it does so it carries it off in such a horribly camp/English manner. I want to hear about trannies again! The arrangement swings like a cat though and would have caused the kids on Dexys to tear up the floorboards as they spun like whirling dervishes in sunny Wigan.
I know that I've been highly critical of the songs that I've put up but they all have a special place in my heart. "Ain't Nobody Straight..." always makes me cackle like a youthful crone, "Love Machine" makes me want to strip my undies and slide across the floor like Tom Cruise does in 'Risky Business', and "Night Life" is just too goofy to not enjoy immensely. They weren't as good after Smokey left but they could still belt out a tune if they wanted to. So I raise my glass to Warren, Clarence, Donald, James and Billy. May they boogie on down forever more.

Buy - The Miracles - Collection (so that you can blast "Night Life" out your car stereo whilst crusing through the slumberin streets of suburbia. There's much fun to be had in such pursuits!)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The King of Ze Swingers


Kid Creole and the Coconuts - Off the Coast of Me (Universal Island, 2002)

Kid Creole and the Coconuts - Mister Softee
Kid Creole and the Coconuts - Darrio
Kid Creole and the Coconuts - There But For the Grace of God Go I (12" Mix)
Kid Creole and the Coconuts - He's Not Such A Bad Guy After All (12" Mix)

These songs are strong competition for the grand prize of being the greatest demos masquerading as an album to ever be committed to vinyl. The debut album of the maverick Kid Creole, leader of the Michael Zilhka's rag tag band of troops representing the New York label, Ze Records, is a magnificent effort despite the fact that I've only included two tracks off the original cut. The other two, "There But For the Grace of God Go I" and "He's Not Such a Bad Guy After All" would later become disco classics when they became big hits for Machine in 1979.
Although I am normally loath to quote over writers, whilst brushing up on my knowledge of Machine, I found that Allmusic described "There But For the Grace of God Go I" as every bit as compelling as "Inner City Blues", "Freddie's Dead", and "The Message". Now that's a compliment if ever there was one. Not that you'd think of those songs for a millisecond if you listened to the Kid's original arrangment. With its subdued piano led tropical shuffle and the Coconuts, the Kid's three valkyrie backing singers, uttering comical faux-Mexican "ay yay yays" it is essentially a very light confection. This instantly shows the touch of a the Kid's status as a musical idiot savant as he seeks to mirror a playful musical side with a gritty narrative giving the song a fascinating chimera quality. Machine may have given the song structure a more claustrophobic groove but it keeps that brilliant chorus that compromises simply of the song's title chanted in a sharp Brooklyn drawl before speeding into a collision with an exasperated set of howls and crooked curses. The man even has the temerity to litter the song's instrumental guitar workout with the whistles of traffic cops and his own shout of "You're at the top of the heap/the top of the pile/the top of the low" before the song's lyrical fable ends in tragedy. In a song that at first sounded so buoyant the hum of the steel drum suddenly turns ghostly and sick. A trick has been played on the listener and this time there's no-one to comfort you with the knowledge as to how the magician pulled the proverbial wool over your eyes.
If ever you wonder why the August Darnell, the Kid's real life alter ego, gave the Coconuts equal billing with himself when they're just a glorified set of backing vocalists then you must be crazy as in every single song they shine like Tiffanys diamonds. Their greatest moment, for me, would come later on the third breakthrough album, 'Tropical Gangsters' with their caffeine drenched chatter of "Onomatopeia" throughout the band's biggest hit, "Annie I'm Not Your Daddy" but they were also given lead duties on the other Machine prototype, "He's Not Such A Bad Guy After All". Any song that begins with handclaps is always going to be something rather special but this B-Side (!!) with its spoken word introduction of "Sure he's a bad guy/but he's good bad" really delivers on its promise. It's full of funk guitar, programmed drum machines, and drawled Betty Boo vocals that attempt to smother the message of a woman forgiving her partner's domestic abuse out of dependence and naivety. It should be as harrowing as "There But For..." but this time it's all so frothy in complexion that you're giggling rather than crying. The bridge, with it's chants "I give him what he wants" supplements by ecstatic moans, doesn't help stopping the corners of the mouth from slowly upturning either. It's a classic case of the tease quickly followed by put down that leaves you exhilirated but a bit dirty at the same time.
As good as those two tracks are, the opener of the album, "Mister Softee", is a novelty that always leaves me laughing and reaching for the 'repeat' button on the stereo. It begins with a milky white Coconut sigh of "You're no good for me" leaving the piano to gambol happily along accompanied by some subdued horns toward Kid Creole who has a feather in his hat, crocodile shoes on his feet and rubber in his hand. Darnell is summed up perfectly as a musical entity when you think that Bambiesque atmosphere is crushed by his first words of "I've got a funny feeling, baby/ that tonight you want to sleep with me". This whirlwind won't even be stopped by the others attempting to restrain him with their pleas for him not to elaborate; to push for answers that no man wants to hear. From then it's all knowing double entendres about his own sexual prowess hinting at both erectile dysfunction (the title of the song for goodness sake!) and the size of his member ("Don't you make an issue over something that's as small as this"). It's all rather dreamlike with the Coconuts' insults framed by this wonderful synth effect giving them the impression of imagined slurs raging through Darnell's sexually fevered mind. By the end, he's on his knees and the listener's rolling in the aisles. As a result, listening to any of the Kid Creole albums are an exhausting affair with you either being left quietened by his hidden socio-political agenda, dry heaving from sheer mirth, or exasperated at how he manages to do it at all. He'd come off the rails later with his entry into the purgatory that comes from a life of self-parody but he should always be for this: his first steps into the New York underground music scene in his own gaudy fashion.

Buy - Kid Creole and the Coconuts - Off the Coast of Me
Visit - Kid Creole and the Coconuts

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Legacy of the HMS Birkenhead


Loudon Wainwright III - History (Virgin, 1992)

Loudon Wainwright III - Men
Loudon Wainwright III - The Picture
Loudon Wainwright III - Hitting You
Loudon Wainwright III - A Father and A Son

My recent viewing material over the past week has been a steady diet of Judd Apatow's clasic (and much missed) TV series, Undeclared. I could talk at length at the brilliance of the show and my surprise at the number of Freaks and Geeks regulars who bothered to turn up. All I will say though is that the sight of Kim Kelly and Ken Miller being lovey dovey is one that I certainly wasn't quite prepared for. If you can call "crotch blocking" being lovey dovey that is.
So how does this show link to the mercurial Wainright Snr? Why because he's a recurring cat member as the lead character Steve's mid-life crisis suffering dad, Hal. And, boy, is he brilliant! Sharp, funny, natural and quick on the ball - to be honest, it's just Loudon playing himself at a slightly higher tempo without going all out wacky tobbacy. The man is clearly having fun which is, surprisingly, something that can't be said for this wonderful 90s album (except from the hilarious 'Talking New Bob Dylan'). Rather than a one note set with tongue firmly wedged in cheek, Loudon has opted for a wonderfully varied album with hand firmly on heart.
A lot of guff has gone on following Martha Wainwright's 'BMFA' and Rufus' 'Dinner at Eight', both songs that I admire despite the belief that Martha's is heavily overwrought in its "Difranco X 10" way. Talk of the Wainwright clan's familial problems have thankfully seen a new interest in its patriach which I applaud - 'A Father and A Son', for one, uses a concealed dagger to do its dirty work where Rufus uses a stiletto and Martha a clumsy sledgehammer. "Now you and me are me and you/ And it's a different ballgame though not brand new/ I don't know what all this fighting is for/I don't want to die and you want to live/It takes a little bit of take and a whole lot of give." Parenting is broken down beautifully into some kind of horrific Catch 22 that the parent ultimately understands due to the fact that "When I was your age I was a mess [too]".
The songs that I've chosen all follow this theme of family with 'Men' talking eloquently of the legacy placed upon men's shoulder by the Birkenhead with it's weary declaration of "Every man's a general/Men go off to war/The battlefield's a man's world/Cannon fodders what they're for". If the song had been around in the 60s protest era and sung by one of the folk greats like Fred Neill, Phil Ochs or Tom Rush, it would be a classic despite its overt anti-feminism. However, even though it's a child of the early 90s it's not lumbered with any over production (unlike another classic of domestic trouble, The Boss' 'Tunnel of Love') with an organic arrangement dependent on just a multi-tracked acoustic and Loudon's distinct vocal that somehow manages to go beyond his normal vocal quirks to something approaching heart aching. 'The Picture' is a wonderful ancedote, supported by guitars and a sole violin, that draws from Loudon finding a picture of himself and his sister when they were young and drawing from it what the base and true elements of having a sibling are. Eventually it gets to the couplet that that will always make me miss my own sibling however thousands of miles away she may be. Having set out the fact that siblings fight he adds "But a brother will defend her/For a sister's love is pure/Because she thinks he's wonderful/When he is not sure". Much better than a string of insults methinks.
My favourite of all these remarkable tracks though is 'Hitting You', one of his more controversial numbers about a time that he smacked Martha when she was young and how he believes that this one incident has morphed into an entity of hate and disregard. By the end, all he can do is apologise and, with that apology, take the blame for all the wrongs that he knows that he has unknowingly wrought. The lyrics transcend the ordinary subject matter through both its unerringly frank details and its thoughtful delivery creating a song that ultimately leaves you will the feeling that Loudon is a father much like any other, loving but flawed, and that Martha is a bloody motherfucking brat. So there.

Buy - Loudon Wainwright III - History
Visit - Loudon Wainright III
Visit - Undeclared

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Most Overqualified Second Guitarist in Rock


Grin - The Very Best of Grin (Sony, 1999)

Grin - Moon Tears
Grin - Love or Else
Grin - Everybody's Missin' the Sun
Grin - Rusty Gun
Grin - Nobody

Never in my life did I think that I'd ever have a mouth dropping to the steering wheel, pull over to the side of the road moment when an unknown song came fizzing out of my car stereo. That thought was ended early in the morning last Sunday when 'Rusty Gun', the penultimate track on the Grin best-of thrown into my 10 disc changer as a last minute filler. Before I go on, I would like to firstly send a big shout out to Fire of Love who introduced me to the wonders of Grin. I'm a huge fan of the Boss, have listened to 'After the Goldrush' at least a thousand times, and 'Keith Don't Go' is one of my Dad's all time favourite songs. So it can be safely said that I knew who the scruffy little Grecian leprechaun known as Nils Lofgren rather well. But before 'Moon Tears' knocked me full on my arse I'd never imagined investigating Grin, Lofgren's short lived country rock power trio (later a foursome). Thank you Fire for showing me the error of my libidinous ways.
'Rusty Gun' immediately reminds me of another new favourite of mine (thanks to Cameron Crowe's trailer for Elizabethtown), 'My Father's Gun' by Tumbleweed Watchin' Tobacco Chewin' period Elton John. This is probably for several reasons: they both have the word 'gun' in the title (duh... but semantics are always a good mental primer); they're both a "I'm a little bit country..." in their instrumentation and vocal twang; and they're both steeped in melancholy follwing the death of a family member with the aforementioned gun representing a symbol of both loss and paternity. However, 'Rusty Gun' runs to only 2:21 and one verse (no chorus), lacking the sense of epic proportions that John clearly savours testing his musical chops out on. Sounds a bit crap doesn't it? Well, it's not. With it's accordion/wurlitzer carnivale feel battling against the abrupt acoustic strums and maraca clicks, it pushes along nicely with Nils putting in a strong, emotive vocal that battles against his normal reedier and waif-like verbal stylings. So we get to 1:16 as the verse ends with the intonation "He was my son/Now he's just a rusty gun". Silence falls. You think it's the end, turning your back on the snarling cur before you're shot in the back like John Wayne in 'The Cowboys'. Bang! The most accomplished, acoustic guitar solo comes chattering out of the speakers and begins to boil in keeping with the intesity of the situation. I have never heard harmonics used to better effect in my life than on this song. No, not even by Eddie Van Halen. It's like 'Runnin With the Devil' but without the high kicks, multi coloured leather pants, or Michael Anthony looking like a bit pervy (have you seen how he sticks his tongue out in the 'Jump' which, coupled with his awful lip synching makes my skin run for the hills). Pretty good for someone who's not old enough to get soused at the local dive.
'Nobody' is an old forgotten B-side, unavailable on any other CD (though that may change with the new album re-issues), so be glad that I've made it available. It bristles with professional slickness that would be eventually co-opted by guitar slingers like Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, and J Geils. Tight, intelligent, but still poppy enough to get the shoulders bouncin' and the fingers running along air fretboards. The same could be said for 'Love or Else', another real favourite. It' essentially soft rock but without the ensuing pretensions and melodrama that often spring from that particular fountain. Maybe that was the problem with Grin's lack of any real success in their time. They were just too nice. When the chorus comes round with its demand of "Gimme gimme now baby/Love or Else" it's gotten to the point where its all become rather enjoyable. The tune's light but distinctive much like Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. 'Cept the drummer's probably even more of a womaniser than Animal if Grand Funk Railroad are to be believed. If Iggy was singing those words in his atonal drawl, I would be readying myself for a swift lie down so that I could recuperate, rather than remembering my strange attraction to Janice, the Electric Mayhem's naturalist, big lipped, pot smokin' guitar player. At this point, I should reaffirm that I think all these songs are fantastic much like I think Boz Scaggs mid 90s album ' Some Change' is a masterpiece. I'm a bit of a sook like that.
If my fandom has put you off then I recommend that you listen to the handpicked favourite of Mr Love, 'Moon Tears', by far the most supercharged number Grin ever performed. Starting with two bars of industrial sized chords it immediately plunges into Nils growling a tale of completely barking mad nonsense which I of course find dazzling. "Ask me if it's right to love another guy/First I say yes then I say why?" are the last words you'll hear before being plunged into the 'gooey gooey rich and chewy' goodness of the chorus. It has barrelhouse piano cantankerously rolling along at the fastest seppd it can muster and Joe Dante howls before another sub-ten second circuit of the verse. It's as if Lofgren is just itching with the fever to let loose with his guitar which he finally does to magnificent effect with a wonderful twin guitar solo that Wishbone Ash, the Allman Brothers and Thin Lizzy would all willingly tip their collective fedoras to.
Personally, I think Bruce should start letting Nils sing some of the songs at his shows. The things are becoming marathons so why not inroduce a nice bit of levity. Fuck ten minute versions of Sam Cooke. Hand Nils a Stratocaster, push him into the spotlight, and ask him to sing that ditty he wrote about a letter that he had to main right away to his great inspirer in the USA. Incidentally, the man himself is touring the UK soon and I'm sure that I'll be at the Shepherd's Bush Empire to see him. Anyone wanting to meet up is more than welcome to drop me a line. Disco may suck but country rock kicks derriere, mon frere.

Buy - Grin - The Very Best of...
Visit - Nils Lofgren

Monday, August 08, 2005

It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Loney To Bring the House Down


The Flamin' Groovies - Groovies' Greatest Grooves (Sire, 1996)

The Flamin' Groovies - Shake Some Action
The Flamin' Groovies - Slow Death
The Flamin' Groovies - In the USA
The Flamin' Groovies - You Tore Me Down

This is the last time I'll say this hopefully but sorry for the lack of posting. My sister has come all the way from Australia (and subsequently clicked together her ruby heels and transported herself back to Oz), I've been working the Dolly Parton, old friends have resurfaced and I've caught the mindnight train to Bedford or Chavistan as I like to affectionately call it. I have big plans for next week's posts and hopefully I'll have a week's respite to put them to work.
But on to the Groovies. They started as rock n' roll troubadours cooking up their own fetid brand of boogie from affectionate Jerry Lee rip-offs to the rhythm and blues equivalent of Tobias Funke's cut-offs. However, post-Teenage Head, they turned into the vanguard of US's answer to the British Invasion, a makeshift Dad's Army that had none of the revolutionary fizz of its UK counterpart. I love the Groovies but they never fully disguised their love of their direct ancestry, from Mitch Ryder to Bob Dylan, and as such were the masters of the musical pastiche. Like a brilliant band that you find in a run down bar in Arkansas that you mistake for covers band only to find out later that they were playing their own creations. When you stumble out into the desert night with rye in your nostrils and sticky bathroom door handle fingers you find yourself uttering under your breath, "I'm sure I heard that last song before!" The Groovies have the touch of both the unique and the strangely familiar. This is proven by their greatest song, 'Slow Death'.
The intro will melt your insides. It starts with a hot n' heavy blues guitar riff before the drumsticks start dolefully clicking the beat. It's a bleating question cut down by a vicious razor slide answer. The rhythm attempts a fight back but once again is driven down by the thimble cutter creating a crackle and drag building toward a euphoric climax. You are in bliss - listening to a perfect mess. Your eyes manage to open a little and through the slits you see the clean green of the stereo's LCD display. The song's only been going on for 25 seconds and it's one of the best things you've heard in your life. It gets even better. "I called a doctor/Holy Holy" has to be my favourite couplet of all time. Why? I have absolutely no idea but it just wants you to say ten hail marys, give yourself a quick session of self-flagellation and become a rock n' roll nun. Habit and all.
Through this nomadic desert of rambling we finally reach the song's chorus. What in all nine levels of hell is a "rongey bag o' bones". Translations will be not be greatly appreciated as I prefer the wonderous nonsense of it all. I know what it means in principle but appreciate the fact that Roy Loney isn't in the mood for a lecture on the benefits of enunciation. It just sounds so godammn cool. The crescendo finally reaches its peak as the chorus ends as a whisper turns into Munch's Scream with the repeated rambling of "It's a slow..." until the answer for ten materialised as a fibrous yelp of "DEATH!" is bellowed so hard that I'm surprised that lead singer's diaphragms have gone into shutdown attemtping to recreate its sheer animalism. We now return to the handclap induicng shuffle and apologise for the temporary loss of picture. Don't mainline morphine - it'll do you wrong in the end.
Yes, I have included three other offerings by the boys from the place you should supposedly wear flowers in your hair (though no-one told them that). All are excellent, of course, ranging from directly answering pre-Ding A Ling Berry ("In the USA") to creating this unbelievable wedge between glam and Merseybeat ("Shake Some Action"- it shoulda been a serious contender).
Before I leave I must recommend that you folks buy the compilation Yesterday's Numbers from the Camden label and this album and you'll have the definitive Groovies Desert Island Discs. Accept no substitutes... unless they're these guys.

Buy - The Flamin' Groovies - Groovies' Greatest Grooves
Buy - The Flamin' Groovies - Yesterday's Numbers (it's under three quid for god's sake and 'Heading for the Texas Border' is worth at least a grand on it's own)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I Shit In the Woods


Descendents - Two Things At Once (SST Records, 1987)

Descendents - Myage
Descendents - I'm Not A Loser
Descendents - I'm Not A Punk
Descendents - Bikeage
Descendents - Hope
Descendents - Mr Bass

Is there a greater message of intent on record than the first ten seconds of 'Myage'? No there isn't. Its stubborn "fuck you" of a bassline smacks you in the face before the razor wire guitar and shotgun drums coming in to finish the job. And to think that bass riff was not only my first
to Descendents but the whole LA punk scene in general; the fertile swamp that would spit out the tar encrusted forms of Black Flag, X... actually why am I firing these off? Just go to Strange Reaction; they have the required two week US punk rock course for a bargain price of $199.99.
I could describe to you every song I've put up for you but it'd ultimately be a waste as (a) you have to hear the rumbling rhythm section to believe them, (b) the lyrics are arcane with Milo brilliantly shouting why he wants to be abear so that he can smell his paramour's "muff", calling jocks "buttfucks" who think life is too tough when daddy won't buy them a new Porsche, and just generally mouthing off that both possesses a bratty chewing gum tongue (sample lyric: "Parents/Why won't they shut up/Parents/They're so fucked up") and a sharp as a safety pin intellect. I'll just say that "Hope" is heartbreakingly beautiful that, after consumption of a barrel of exotic "watermelon sweet" dark rum at the reception, will be played at my post-wedding disco and that "Mr Bass" is so stupid that you can't help but grin imagining it emanating from the fish lips of those irritating Billy Bass.
A quick warning though. I own 'Two Things At Once' which is essentially the classic hardcore of 'Milo Goes To College' (five songs are off that release) and the EP 'Bonus Fat' (just "Mr Bass"). It cost me a bomb but I'd heard all of "Milo..." so thought that it'd be worth it. "My Dad Sucks" and "Mr Bass" (and possible "Hey Hey" if I'm being generous and mildly deaf) are the only half decent tracks off the EP with two efforts under twenty seconds and three awful efforts squirted out before the band's legendary singer, Milo Aukerman, joined. Forget "Bonus Fat" as it'll just give you heartburn... and the clap. However, later efforts by the band, especially 'Everything Sucks' and 'Enjoy!', are well worth checking out if only for the "Hope" retreads, "Wendy" and the majestic "I'm the One".
Apologies, yet again, for the absence of golden nuggets masquerading as music commentary by a man who can barely the play a note (although I do know the entire guitar solos to 'Show Me The Way' by Peter Frampton and 'Bus Stop' by The Hollies). Have been rather busy with the Womad Festival, a review of which is coming when I can be bothered but don't hold your breath as I only saw three bands, my lovely Mum's birthday celebrations, seeing my lovely lady for the first time in three weeks and starting a two week tenure researching NGOs. Phew!

Buy - Descendents - Milo Goes to College
Visit - Descendents