Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Ja Rule - Pain is Love (2001)

Although my fingers have been conspicuously absent from anything which could be identified as the pulse for a long time, I have the impression of Ja Rule remembered as some third string also ran who shuffled off into obscurity following lyrical beatdowns from Eminem, 50 Cent, and others. My understanding is that it began with 50 Cent making a record upon which it was suggested that he'd seen Ja Rule do a poo in his pants in the queue at dinnertime and that he then saw Ja Rule put his hand into his pants to touch the poo and then Ja Rule sniffed his fingers and looked pleased; and 50 Cent made the record because that's the sort of record by which he customarily elevated his public profile and accordingly hit sales targets. Ja Rule retaliated, and then everyone else got sucked in. Eminem got to take a few lyrical potshots at someone harder than Morris Minor & the Majors, so that made for a nice change; and The Source magazine suddenly and coincidentally decided that Ja Rule was the true legit 4 lyfe face of da realness 'n' shit; and Death Row's Suge Knight weighed in, because obviously we'd all been wondering what his take on the situation would be - and his take was something about Dr. Dre being a homosexual and how Tupac would have loved Ja Rule had he not snuffed it, what with Suge having been established as the official organ of Tupac's legacy 4 real + tru 2 da streetz IDT.

It's all bollocks really. Ja Rule was never the next Tupac, if such a thing were ever required; and even if he was just one of many frowning tattooed baldies with shirt allergies who came to the fore in the late nineties, it's not like he didn't have enough of his own thing going on. Expecting generic rap landfill, I remember being shocked at how good this album was when Rodney Dell lent it to me; and I've finally picked up a copy for myself, and it still sounds way above the average.

Rule always reminded me of DMX more than Tupac, although admittedly there's not much in it, and the latter posthumously guests on So Much Pain, should anyone need to make the comparison. I must admit, on first hearing the track, I thought fuck, they were right, he really does sound like a Tupac impersonator, which I suppose means that he actually really doesn't, so that's good to know. Lyrically, Rule falls short of amazing, but he's decent - at least as much as 50 Cent ever was and without having to talk about what happened in the queue at dinnertime; and he can work up a mood as powerful as anyone with that bluesy growl.

What really makes Pain is Love is the contrast of the aforementioned bluesy growl with Irv Gotti's razor sharp and criminally underrated production - an elegant update of certain Motown era beats using a sampler without any of its usual angularity, resulting in songs which throb with life and sounded fucking great on the radio with no hint of compromise. Therefore fuck da haterz 'n' shit.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Neon Hearts - Popular Music (1979)

Here's a name which first lodged itself in my consciousness whilst watching Look! Hear! back in the early sixteenth century - as I believe I may have mentioned here - and it's somehow taken me thirty years to get hold of the album, a fancy red vinyl reissue by this point. Initial impressions, or at least this century's initial impressions are of a band resolutely of their time - sleeveless t-shirts, eyeliner, thousand yard stare, and honking saxaphone, and yet the shock wears off with just three plays as Popular Music nails itself very firmly to your soul.

Neon Hearts really are peculiar - a sort of punky Roxy Music with glam splashes of maybe X-Ray Spex or Cockney Rebel, and a strangely well spoken lead singer swooping all around the lyric with a wink and a smile much in the spirit of Neil Innes, of all people - or maybe Neil Innes with a hint of Adam Ant back when he still used to scare the life out of everyone. Specifically Tone Dial - as he is called - does that thing Neil Innes used to do where you can't actually tell if he's sincere or taking the piss in massive quantities. There's a mild preoccupation with the artificial, manufactured, and generally fake - as the name implies - and so we have Popular Music, the title track and single which should have been enormous. I recall a maxim about how the best way to have a hit on fabtacular seventies radio was to write a song about it, and Popular Music ticks all of the boxes so hard it almost foreshadows both Alan Partridge and Denim, right down to the preposterous exclamation of great song! Amazingly, and against all odds, the other nine tracks are at least as strong, and have since become so firmly ingrained in my mind's ear that it feels as though they've been there all along, and that I've crossed over into an alternative universe where this lot turned up on everything from Whistle Test to Cheggers Plays Pop.

Neon Hearts seem best remembered for having spawned Raven, Killing Joke's late bassist; and I have to say it's quite a pleasure to see him tarted up like the one with the earrings from Mud on the cover, given his later presence as a hurhurhuring chorus to Jaz Coleman describing Boy George and other purveyors of - ahem - pouffy music being marched off to some hopefully figurative gas chamber. So, much as I've loved Killing Joke, I've had my reservations, and this sort of redeems one of them. We really should have embraced the Neon Hearts when we had the chance. I guess you could say we fucked up.

Another one I bought from the very wonderful Overground Records, if you're interested.

Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club - English Garden (1979)

Much like a newly hatched duckling, I fixated on Bruce Woolley's Camera Club at an early age, albeit briefly. Graham lent me his Devo album, heralding my realisation of there being bands which made good records that weren't played on the radio, and which sometimes didn't even get in the charts. Somehow I'd assumed that all records made it into the charts. This was around the time that Look! Hear! first aired on the telly, Look! Hear! being a regional BBC magazine show presented by Toyah Willcox and featuring the sort of stuff which the kids on the street were into, yeah? Look! Hear! featured a few of those bands who weren't played on the radio and didn't even get in the charts, and so I began compiling a list in the back of one of my school books. I needed to remember the names so I could look out for their records. I've a feeling the list wasn't actually very long, maybe just three or four of them. Neon Hearts were in there, having made a big impression on me, as was Bruce Woolley, but I don't recall any of the others.

So there was a bit of a gap between my taking down the name and finding the record - purely by chance - probably about thirty years. I couldn't remember what I'd thought was so great about the Camera Club at the time, and initial spins left me puzzled. It was power pop with a skinny tie and an overly ornate keyboard, really just like a lot of other stuff which had been around at the time and which had struck me as interesting mainly on the grounds that it wasn't ELO, that it hadn't been played by Dave Lee Travis on his smugly flabby show, and that it didn't sound like it would rather be in California; and yet, the more I listen to this record, the more I discern its own unique identity.

English Garden is of its era, more or less prog rock hopefuls moving with the times by incorporating a few jagged edges into their sound, but at least for the sake of an interesting record. In terms of musicianship, it has more in common with Genesis and that lot, which probably shouldn't be too surprising given the involvement of Thomas Dolby before he'd even started shaving, and that Woolley co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean with Trevor Horn and the other Buggle. Camera Club renderings of both songs are included here. Radio Star seems a bit too smooth for its own good, but the latter improves on the better known version. What makes the album is personality and good old fashioned proggy song-writing plucking all manner of esoteric subjects or angles from the ether. In this respect, English Garden makes me think of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with a noseful of speed - on which subject, I can't help but notice a parallel between the back cover of this record and the front of Harley's The Human Menagerie.

Considering this was the guy who wrote Video Killed the Radio Star, it's surprising how little of it you could really describe as immediate, but it really rewards the effort if you give it time - vaguely punky and yet lyrical with Queen style vocal harmonies. English Garden occasionally sounds like the theme music for regional news programmes of the seventies, and I'm thinking Weekend World rather than Midlands Today. This one really creeps up on you and ultimately it feels a more rounded, satisfying work than anything from Woolley's more famous writing partners.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Stone Breath / Mike Seed with the Language Of Light - The Ætheric Lamp (2011)

Stumbling across a copy of this in the racks at Hogwild, I only really understood what it was through having met some of those involved, namely Language of Light; and I only knew Language of Light through their performing live on some bloke's allotment here in San Antonio. My friend Alan, formerly a big cheese at World Serpent distribution, told me he was coming to Texas to play live, so we met up for a drink and he was accompanied by Rebecca Loftiss - whom he since appears to have married - and Frank Suchomel, collectively Language of Light. So the three of them performed a sort of improvised thing in, I suppose, the general direction of maybe Pink Floyd, and it was atmospheric and very enjoyable; and personally I was just relieved that it shared no discernible heritage with Death in chuffing June or any of that bunch, seeing as how we're all older, wiser, and keen to move on from the days of simply exploring contentious ideas and imagery.

Alan slipped me a stack of CDRs, which I mostly enjoyed, but I've never had an entirely happy relationship with CDRs because each time I play one I'm always aware that it could be about to remix itself into something sounding like Farmer's Manual; so it was probably guilt which made me pick up this album when I saw it, and clearly it needed an appreciative home.

As anticipated, I'm completely out of my depth here. It's folk, although thank fuck it isn't neofolk as I understand it to be. It might be psych folk, I suppose, but maybe it doesn't matter. The Ætheric Lamp is a split album - Stone Breath on one side, Language of Light accompanying one Mike Seed on the other - fairly different artists taking related approaches to music and doing unfamiliar things with tradition. The vocals are of the kind one expects to hear singing about horses, ploughs, gathering in the blackberries and so on, but the art feels very much of the moment - or at least as of 2011 - invoking traditional forms going back to pre-technological times without simply recreating. Stone Breath's blend of celebration and melancholia utilising all manner of plucked instruments suggests rivers of wine, Bacchus all a-prance, olives, and a generally pre-Christian Mediterranean mood. By approximate contrast, the growling synth and delay of Language of Light suggests some sort of peculiarly rustic analog of early Cabaret Voltaire, and doesn't sound quite like anything else in my record collection, which is why I'm scrabbling around with analogies that probably don't work. It all sounds kind of like how I hoped Current 93 would sound but didn't, because the music on The Ætheric Lamp at least seems to know what it's doing.

The thing to take from all this is, I suppose, the powerful atmosphere the disc brings to your listening space and seemingly without doing very much or pulling any funny faces. I guess this is what folk music was always supposed to be about - simple, moving, and performed with honest motives.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Josef K - Young and Stupid (1981)

The album is a compilation from 1987, but the songs all precipitate from 1981 at the latest - in case anyone was wondering about my dating. This is me catching up with a mental note made back in 1981 upon hearing Josef K's Endless Soul on the C81 compilation put together by persons at New Musical Express. I never bought NME, at least not regularly. Every time I saw a copy it irritated the living shit out of me. I think my friend Pete bought it because he really needed to know who was cool that week, so that's probably why he had C81, and thus was I able to borrow the tape because I wanted to copy the Cabaret Voltaire track; and Josef K's Endless Soul was about the best thing on there.

Yet somehow I never got any further. I think it was an impression formed of Josef K being one of those Postcard records bands, meaning they probably wore jumpers and sang twee songs about picnics and ginger beer, like Haircut 100 but without the tunes. I think this impression may have derived from the aforementioned Pete regarding Postcard as the most amazing stable of artists ever assembled, at least for a couple of weeks, which was tiresome and off-putting. I never worked out who he thought was impressed.

Thankfully, once I'm beyond my previously established comfort zone of Endless Soul, it turns out that Josef K sound nothing like I imagined they might. In fact, they sound a bit like how I always hoped Bauhaus would sound, but didn't - spiky, and angular guitar riffs mixed in with choppy funk, but more like a soul band than purveyors of the customary doom such a dynamic might ordinarily entail. The chords are weird, sharp, and jazzy, and the production is that bone dry post-punk thing falling somewhere between Gang of Four and Metal Box, aside from the cracking of an occasional, possibly conditional smile - as I suppose you'd expect of a band named after Franz Kafka's most beloved character. They should have been massive, but never mind.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Nine Inch Nails - Add Violence (2017)

This is apparently the second of a series of three EPs. I'd actually given up on the idea of getting hold of them and resigned myself to eventually picking up the compact disc collecting all three, having been told that one would eventually appear. I'd had a look on the Nine Inch Nails website, but I could barely work out what I was even attempting to purchase. There they were, Not the Actual Events and Add Violence, something about the download, and then the physical component with no clue as to what form it took. Having no wish to find I'd somehow bought a cake with instructions for recreating the music iced around the sides, I didn't bother. Even more galling was the presence of the mission statement on the same virtual page.

In these times of nearly unlimited access to all the music in the world, we've come to appreciate the value and beauty of the physical object. Our store's focus is on presenting these items to you. Vinyl has returned to being a priority for us - not just for the warmth of the sound, but the interaction it demands from the listener. The canvas of artwork, the weight of the record, the smell of the vinyl, the dropping of the needle, the difficulty of skipping tracks, the changing of sides, the secrets hidden within, and having a physical object that exists in the real world with you… all part of the experience and magic.

Digital formats and streaming are great and certainly convenient, but the ideal way I'd hope a listener experience my music is to grab a great set of headphones, sit with the vinyl, drop the needle, hold the jacket in your hands looking at the artwork (with your fucking phone turned off) and go on a journey with me.

That's canny good like, Trent, I imagined myself saying to the screen in a broad Tyneside accent, but I don't seem to be able to find the fucker in order to actually buy it. It was frustrating and perhaps even a little saucy considering Nine Inch Nails were about the only band whose stuff I was still trying to buy when vinyl went tits up first time around. My copy of The Downward Spiral sounded like it had been pressed on repurposed car tires, and then there were all those fucking bonus tracks exclusive to the CDs...

Well, never mind.

Anyway, there I was in Barnes & Noble looking for the February issue of the Wire, which I wouldn't ordinarily buy but there was a feature on the Ceramic Hobs for which the cheeky cunts have used a photo of the same lifted direct from my Flickr page. So they've given me a credit - although I've a feeling the photo was actually taken by Rob Colson, albeit with my camera - but a note to say dear bloke, we've just used your picture of Simon Morris, so ta in my Flickr inbox would have been nice. Anyway, Barnes & Noble still didn't have the magazine for something like the sixth week in a row, casting suspicions on their claim that the February one would deffo be on the racks soon, so I wandered into their music department, just out of curiosity. It was about as good as I expected - nothing less than 180gsm vinyl, bewildering reissues of seventies hairies whose albums never should have been released first time round, awkward teens stood self-consciously fondling Beatles records, the Cockney Rejects and Sham 69 sections looking predictably slender, and - much to my surprise - a couple of physical components by Nine Inch Nails. So I bought them.

To finally get to the point, Not the Actual Events is decent, and yet has conspicuously failed to glue itself to my turntable like I thought it would. Excepting remix albums, whatever Nine Inch Nails thing I've just got hold of will generally edge out all other listening material for at least the first two weeks. The music of Nine Inch Nails does pretty much one thing for most of the time and is as such immediately recognisable, so the new stuff will always be variations on an immediately recognisable theme; but the magic of Trent Reznor - and now presumably Atticus Ross - is his - or their - serving up that same basic recipe with just enough of a tweak to make it feel like the very first time you've heard it expressed so well, and so clearly. Not the Actual Events is mostly wonderful, and yet somehow sounds like it could be stuff left over from The Slip or one of the others, although it could be significant that it should be the platter to get the heave-ho once Add Violence glued itself to the turntable.

Add Violence does whatever it is that Actual Events didn't quite achieve, sounding very much like yet another Nine Inch Nails record whilst at the same time somehow sounding nothing like the others - angst expressed as the Stooges covered by Coil, or possibly the other way round, distressed tapes of synthesiser music from seventies kids shows amped up until it resembles Black Sabbath; and all of that good air-punching stuff. I'm sure Actual Events will grow on me, as do those tracks you always get on the album which aren't Ashes to Ashes or Paranoid or Questions and Answers, but as for Add Violence - it's fucking amazing.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Enhet För Fri Musik - Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig (2017)

There's A Heart That Leads You by the Free Music Unit, in case you were wondering, and I'll assume the freeness refers to improvisation rather any suggestion that they might just send you this record for nothing if you ask nicely. They're from Sweden, and I heard of this one through agency of Simon Morgan who insisted that it was great and that I should therefore get hold of a copy, which I did and it was.

Online research throws up references to both folk and improvised jazz in relation to Enhet För Fri Musik, so thankfully I began with what I could find on YouTube, because whilst both terms may indeed be extraordinarily broad in scope, I've been burned in the past. Observant readers will notice that the cover of Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig superimposes a skull over a national flag, and I accordingly had some fears grounded in it all being Swedish and thus beyond my obvious comprehension; but thankfully nothing here translates into anything suggestive of stiff right arms, and it's probably worth remembering that national flags tend to carry less contentious associations in countries which haven't spent the last century bombing the shit out of everyone else; which happily leaves us with just the music.

Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig features some improvised material in so much as that none of it is orchestrated into oblivion, and its folkiness is found in its simplicity - guitar, voice, sometimes a saxophone or a church organ - recorded without embellishment on what may as well have been a portable tape recorder; so there's rumble, tape noise, hiss and so on, all of which impose a powerful, possibly unintentional, sense of nostalgia over the music. They're not afraid of the occasional bum note or missed cue, and it sounds very much like the work of people who genuinely love what they're doing, and hope you will too, and who probably aren't going to beat you over the head with it or give you a lecture. You could probably call it lo-fi, if you really must. It reminds me a little of Ivor Cutler's musical forays, maybe with a faint trace of something from the first Residents album - mainly thinking of how Variationer Av En Längtan Till Gud, which is apparently Variations of a Longing for God, sort of reminds me of Skratz - but more than anything, it invokes that happiness which can only be experienced with a little bit of sadness, a kind of nostalgia without being an arsehole about it. There's something very warming about this record, which may not be a coincidence given its country of origin. Like a rich soup, Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig is good for you. It may not be obvious what they're saying, but somehow you can feel it regardless of the language barrier.