Saturday, 22 December 2007

Christmas - Low

I've never been one for Christmas songs myself. If I hear Noddy Holder screaming 'It's Christmaaaasss' I cover my ears and head for the hills. Unlike my fellow blogger Mondo I can fairly blaise about whacking on a Christmas compilation on the cd player in the weeks leading up to our favourite pagan ceremony. So when one of my all time favourite bands, Duluth, Minnesota's finest export Low released a Christmas album I was skeptical to say the least. Was this to be some half-arsed attempt to cover a load of famous Christmas songs that would taint my love of the band?

Well, no. It is a quite beautiful album and just right for Christmas morning whilst your peeling the spuds or even for playing during Christmas lunch. I know I've tried it on my family who usually cover their ears and beg for mercy when they hear most of my favourite records and my Mum at least loved it.

The most recognisable track on the album is a feedback driven version of 'Little Drummer Boy' that earned Low a few bob when it was used on a GAP tv advert. The wall of feedback is way down in the mix almost sounding like bagpipes. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's two part harmony is perfectly suited to this track. It is tradition with a twist. More straightforward is a beautiful low-fi acoustic version of Silent Night. It sounds like Mimi and Alan just jammed it sitting round the fire at home in Minnesota and its all the better for it. It's utterly gorgeous.

Low add their own Christmas songs to the album too. My favourite track is their own 'Long Way Round The Sea' which is features more of Low's two-part harmony and ultra slow delivery and in my opinion is one of their very best tracks. Mimi features on a straight, if slow and sparse version of 'Blue Christmas' and 'Taking Down The Tree' is reminiscent of Sparklehorse's later work. If you want something a bit different to listen too this Christmas lunchtime I'd strongly recommend this as it isn't just a great Christmas album, its a great album full stop.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Doolittle - The Pixies.

On the 17 April 1989 a wonderful thing happened. The Pixies released Doolittle. It blew me away then and it still blows me away today. From the opening track Debaser, Doolittle crashes, thrashes and tears its way through 15 tracks in a little under 39 minutes.
In his book 'Doolittle' Ben Sisario says: "Doolittle is, on the one hand among the most violent pop albums ever recorded,if not in body count then in the starkness of its calamities". How right he is. Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis, Frank Black) writes about rape, eyes being dissected (in homage to the great surrealist film 'Un Chien Andalou'), suffocation and vampirism to name but a few painful ways to die. Oh and neptune gets killed by "ten million tons of sludge..." Nice.
Thompson pushes his vocals towards mania on almost every track, whilst the grossly overlooked Joey Santiago rips the fuck out of his guitar until it screams for mercy. Kim Deal (later of the marvellous Breeders) pushes the whole thing along nicely with a thumping bass and David Lovering drumming is fantastic.
Any would be Indie kid worth their salt will own Doolittle. It is as seminal as Dark Side Of The Moon was for an earlier generation. Along with the aforementioned Debaser there are so many stand out tracks that it is difficult to pick any out for special mention. However, some of The Pixies best known songs come from this album. Monkey Gone To Heaven was the single that brought The Pixies to the attention of most of America (they already had a healthy fan base in the UK) as it was picked up by MTV and played extensively on the station for a while. Here Comes Your Man is the most accessible track on the album. It has a lovely 'Surf Guitar' lick that resembles early REM (when they were still good).
This album never fails to make me smile (despite its violent imagery). It is one of the very best albums from an era when there were bands how pushed the boundaries.There is talk of a new Pixies album following their recent reformation tour. In some ways I hope this doesn't happen as the heights of Doolittle were never quite reached on subsequent albums. Doolittle is a fine legacy to leave us. They were a great band and I'd like to remember them for being great.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Solid Air - John Martyn

The album I never expected to buy

Solid Air - John Martyn

Beardy faced acoustic based singer song writers have little appeal and minimal interest for me - John martyn was the bloke who wrote 'May You Never' on Clapton's deeply dreary album 'Slowhand'and one of thé performers I skipped on the marvelous Old Grey Whistle Test DVDs to get another performance.

I was always thought Nick Drake would be my token folky concession. So I bought all the albums, played all the albums and found him a bit like Scandinavia - isolated , icy, prone to extended periods of darkness - and not some where I wanted to spend much time.

Ironically it was a song about Nick Drake 'Solid Air' that drew me into the world of John Martyn. This was a much broader musical geography the folky trappings of 'Over The Hill' and smoky trimmings of 'Solid Air' and 'Don't Want To Know' give it the weight and warmth of a late night Jazz club or intimate acoustic performance, all perfectly underpinned by Danny Thompson's gliding bass lines. And the echoplex reverb adding an almost dubbish depth to the folk funk of 'Dreams By The Sea'.

Solid Air the album is as rich, plummy and fruity as a bottle of vintage red wine, each note plucked drops glossily from the guitar and oozes out of the speakers on all tracks but particularly on the understated eroticism of 'Go Down Easy' and gentle lullaby of 'May You Never'.

May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

Davey Graham, Bert jansch and Nick Drake are are all genius acoustic technicians, but none of them have John Martyn's intuitive touch and feel for delivering the full flavour of a song.

I still don't have much interest in beardy faced acoustic based singer song writers - but 'Solid Air', John Martyn (the weighty Marlon Brando to Nick Drakes whispy James Dean) and his 70s albums are a joy. I don't skip John Martyn any more instead I sit and study his tone and technique - why not try it yourself?

Watch the fiddle finger moves at the very end of 'May You Never'.

Recommended Reading

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy by Billy Bragg

It seems that each generation has its troubadour. In the 1950's there was Woody Guthrie, the 1960's gave us Bob Dylan, the 1970's Nick Drake. All these artists were steeped in folk music and Guthrie and Dylan in particular were overtly political. Punk was meant to smash all that away. Gone were the hippy generation and gently strumming a guitar. The next generation's troubadour came along in 1983. Billy Bragg was an ex-member of the British Army and member of punk band Riff Raff and he combined a punk sensibility, a loud electric guitar and the song craft of a folk musician to really capture the spirit of Thatcher years. Bragg was a tireless performer and travelled the country with his guitar and his amp strapped to his back playing gig after gig.

Life's A Riot is in reality a mini-album. It is barely 20 minutes long and has just 7 tracks but it was so different from the scene at the time it was a breath of fresh air. It is raw, passionate and full of energy and still sounds as good today as it did when it was released. I first heard this on John Peel's show and I remember having to order it from my local record shop and I had to wait for ages before it was delivered. In those days you had to do things like that. There was no Amazon, Myspace or iTunes where music was instantly obtainable so if you wanted something you had to work at getting it. It was later reissued on the newly formed Go-Disc label and went into the Top 30 album chart.

The first track 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' is one of Bragg's brilliant love songs. He has always been able to balance his political work with gorgeous love songs which are humorous, clever and above all completely unsentimental. 'Milkman' is all of these and was an early indicator of just how good a song writer Bragg was to become. 'To Have And To Have Not' is a challenge to the mean Thatcherite dogma that was preached by the Daily Mail, Express and Murdoch's Sun. Lyrically it is as angry and passionate as you'd expect:

Just because you're better than me,
Doesn't mean I'm lazy.
Just because you're going forwards,
Doesn't mean I'm going backwards.

The song sums up the early 1980's in the UK. If you were not earning obscene amounts of money you were deemed as a lazy good for nothing despite the fact that you were almost certainly doing something far more worthy than the champagne swilling Yuppies in the City.

Another of my favourite tracks is 'A New England' which is probably Bragg's best known song. Kirsty MacColl had a sizable hit with a cover version of this song but Bragg's original is far superior. Another of Bragg's marvellous unrequited love songs 'A New England' has one of my very favourite verses:

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care.

Billy Bragg has now been around for close on 25 years and he is still making great music. His appearances on Question Time or Any Questions show that he has lost none of his political fight and his recent book 'Progressive Patriot' is a marvellous cross between auto-biography and Bragg's vision of a Socialist Britain.

Bragg is still touring extensively playing countless festivals and benefit gigs as he did 25 years ago. On Thursday 15 November he is playing a gig in Acton to commemorate a concert given to raise money for the Fire Brigades Union which was the final time Joe Strummer appeared on stage (and I'm going). He has just signed up to play some gigs for Mencap's Little Noise Sessions and he is touring in Australia and New Zealand in early 2008.

We should all be thankful for Billy Bragg. He is a national treasure.

Billy Bragg - Official Website

Monday, 5 November 2007

Roxy Music - Roxy Music

The album from another world

Where in the name of Robert E Lee did Roxy Music come from? They seem to have appeared fully formed like highly intelligent Sci-Fi pop art aliens from some fantastic forbidden planet.

There's no clumsy stumbling through two or three albums finding and refining the Roxy sound. No roots in the blues boom or evidence of a hangover from the Hippy period. In fact, the only minor concession they make to life before Roxy Music are soundtrack's and cinematic's. It’s like the sixties never happened and they’ve arrived on earth crooning, cranking, squeaking, and bleeping all impeccably captured by Peter Sinfield.(how did he get that fantastic drum sound)

The champagne fizz of ‘Remake/Remodel’ sets out the Roxy stall in one blistering bundle, with each player taking a solo at the coda. ‘Ladytron’ is a rocket race with Eno, Mackay and Manzenara revving their instruments to be first past the post, and ‘If There Is Something’ captures some of the most desperate vocals ever heard on the section;

“I would put roses round our door
Sit in the garden
Growing potatoes by the score”

But on Side 2 it gets even deeper and darker with 'The Bob (medley)',and 'Chance Meeting' - inspired by 'Brief Encounter', but actually sounds like something from 'Nightmares In A Damaged Brain'.Each track is it’s own unique sketch and swatch of other worldliness, all enhanced by each player's part and grounded by Paul Thompson's (one of the most under rated drummers) earthy thudding style.

Read any Punk biography and Roxy Music are right there alongside Bowie, T. Rex, Iggy and the Velvets as an influence (The first nightclub setup for Punks was called The Roxy), and future Pistols collaborators Chris Spedding and Chris Thomas were both involved in later Roxy Music recordings. But this influence, and the evolution of the Roxy sound went much further than Punk. Chic’s 'high society' look was modeled on Roxy template. David sylvian and Duran Duran all borrowed from the bank of Bryan Ferry,(Ferry being one of the few who kept his cred' rating intact throughout the 80s). And then there's Eno - Ambient Music, Bowies Berlin trilogy, Talking Heads, 'My Life In The Bush of Ghosts'. All these threads can be traced back to the Roxy Music's debut album.

Which still sounds as remote, futuristic and alien today as it did when I first heard it 25 years ago – so what must have it sounded like when these space invaders first landed in 1972.

Recommended Viewing
Remake/Remodel - Beat Club
Ladytron - Old Grey Whistle Test

Recommended Reading
Viva Roxy Music Site
Roxyrama Site

Monday, 29 October 2007

Cut - The Slits

I bloody love The Slits. They were one of those bands that emerged from the early punk scene that really embodied the punk spirit. They were not the greatest musicians in the world but they wanted to be in a band so they just went and did it. Fourteen year old lead singer Ariane Forster (aka Ari Up) and drummer Paloma Romero (Palmolive) met after a Patti Smith gig in London and formed a band called The Flowers Of Romance (along with one Sid Vicious on saxophone!!).
As was the spirit of the times The Flowers Of Romance didn't last long and Ari and Palmolive went to form The Slits. After a couple of line-ups, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollit joined on guitar and bass respectively. They supported both The Clash and The Pistols in gigs in 1977 but it wasn't until 1979 that Cut was released.
It is heavily influenced by reggae and 'dub' in particular. In fact it was produced by Dennis Bovell who recorded some dub plates under the name of 'Blackbeard' and has the dubious distinction (to some at least) of being credited in inventing 'Lovers Rock'.
Cut was a far cry from the lilting apolitical soft sounds of Lovers Rock though. It is jagged, sharp, choppy and full of post-punk sentimentality. Songs about shoplifting (Shopping), Sid Vicious (So Tough, probably and Instant Hit, maybe) and all those girls who jumped on the punk bandwagon (Typical Girls) make up the album along with one of the most inspired cover versions ever. The version of Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' is a wonder. Deep and dubby with great guitar work from Albertine, Ari changes the lyrics to 'I Heard It Through My Bass Line' and warbles magnificently.
The cover may have caused a certain amount of controversy but the album should be remembered for much more than that. It still sounds fresh today and has attracted a new fan in my girlfriends seven year old daughter who loves this album. She plays in over and over again and knows all the words to the songs.
Ari and Tessa have recently started gigging again with a new line-up, including Paul Cook's daughter on backing vocals. There is no news of a return to the UK yet but we live in hope.

The Slits Homepage

Good Slits Online Biography

Ari Up

One interesting footnote to The Slits story and to add another Sex Pistols connection Ari's mother is married to John Lydon.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks

The album that changed my life

It seems only right and proper that my first posting on this shiny new album based blog should be about the one record (or 'wreck-could' as Malcom Mclaren pronounces it) that had such a profound experience on me, it was my Garden of Eden moment. The Sex Pistols were the hissing spitting serpents and Never Mind The Bollocks was the apple that led me up the garden path into temptation.

I waa a just a nip too young for Punk in 77, and only liked 'nice’ music . A few of the album scraps in my pre-teen collection were the Beatles (Red Album and Help) Elvis (40 Greatest), K Tel (Disco Fever and Disco Stars) comps and the stomping Action Replay.

Punk had no appeal for me, the patchy, Punky clips and snatches of coverage I'd seen were all shouty, spiky and as scary as singing Daleks. Until my best friend played me ( possibly the swear-off selections from ) his older brothers copy of NMTB.On headphones.And at some volume.

It was like being blasted with gramophonic gamma rays. And when the ‘phones came off I was as fizzing and fired up as The Hulk. ‘nice’ had been atomized - all I wanted to do was rage in raggy togs to pumped up punk.

I cut and dyed my hair.
I made my own Punk T shirts.
I made pilgrimages to Kings Road.
I wanted to play guitar like Steve or Sid.

What me hit right between the ears was the walloping great wall of sound, the absolute anger 'anger is an energy '  as Lydon later sang, - venom and violence in rottens voice.The hand-in-knuckle duster fit of the music and lyrics. But I was a late developer, for the past four year the Pistols had been roaming the country like safety pinned Pied Pipers, and pockets of punks had been popping up like pimples all over the teenage face of Britain

And when the time came to capture and set in stone the full on ‘filth and fury’ of the Sex Pistols sound, I hate to think what would have happened if this explosive piece of nitro Rock history hadn't fallen into safe (but shaky in Bill's case )hands Of Chris Thomas and Bill Price. I've heard ALL the demos - Chris Spedding and later Dave Goodman did commendable work, but Chris Thomas and Bill Price sculptured and spit polished the teenage rage of Mclarens dead end street urchins into a highly layered and lacquered full on Panzer attack album.

I'm still amazed at how crafted and fully formed these songs are right from the very first fresh as a daisy demo stage. The song structures, the bridges, each track with its own exclusively unique intro - the jingle jangle chimes of Vacant, the minor chord menace of Bodies' the rip-start riffing of No Feelings.There are no weak links on NMTB and even the left overs Did You Know Wrong, Satellite, are cut from the same high quality cloth. Add to this Chris's mighty production ear for detail - The cymbals on GSTQ heighten the excitement, the 'guitar soup' which insulates this wall of sound - and Bills Engineering genius - the gated drum technique just add to the build quality. Think how many other albums from the first wave of punk - now sound thin, tinny and haven't endured. NMTB is a team effort and was crafted to last.

I don't know how many times I've heard NMTB since getting my first copy but I never get 'not in the mood ' moments. And if the mood is chipper it's like hearing a national anthem and I puff up with spikey pride.

God save the Sex Pistols, and thank God for Chris Thomas and Bill Price for delivering the end of the world from the worlds end

You can Read some Pistol packing facts

And my interview with Simone Stenfors
Recommended Reading
The Making Of NMTB DVD
The Making Of NMTB book
Anoraky In The UK
God save the Sex Pistols Site
Filth and the Fury - Sex Pistols Site
The Best Of Westwood and McLaren
Englands Dreaming - John Savage
Anarchy in Sweden - Sex Pistols Scandanavian Tour