Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Virgin Prunes - A New Form of Beauty (1982)


My first encounter with the music of the Virgin Prunes was at my friend Graham's house. We'd already discovered Throbbing Gristle, Alternative TV, the Residents, Faust, Wreckless Eric and Cabaret Voltaire through raids made on his older brother's frankly astonishing record collection, and this time it was A New Form of Beauty 3, the 12" component of an album released as a series of singles and a cassette. I didn't really know much about the Prunes, but the cover was great, and Beast (Seven Bastard Suck) sounded impressively terrifying. Unfortunately my funds - a combination of pocket money and what I collected from a paper round - didn't really extend to adding yet another band to the coterie of those whose records I would purchase immediately upon release and without question, so I somehow managed to miss out on this lot. I have since seen it opined on some blog that the Virgin Prunes could be roughly considered the most criminally underrated band of all time, and that this is in part due to their music having been out of print for much of the last three decades, which is probably a contributing factor to how long it's taken me to get there.

For those who weren't aware, the Virgin Prunes grew up in the same teenage gang as U2, feature the Edge's brother on guitar, and bestowed upon Bongo his nickname. Listening to their music and considering their enduring obscurity, it's difficult to avoid seeing them as either the repellent
Dorian Gray portrait in Bongo's attic, or at least a sort of dark karmic underside to U2's rosy cheeked optimism. Where U2 once stood atop a picturesque crag of God's good Earth with their youthful locks flowing cinematically in the breeze of passion, the Virgin Prunes writhed about in poo, smudged their make-up, and screamed and wailed as the more conservative members of the congregation asked one another is it a boy or a girl?

Gothic probably doesn't really cover it. Not only do they predate the term as a popular signifier of frowny faced bands with tastefully back-combed hair, but they made most of that bunch look like Buck's fucking Fizz. Drums bang, guitars scream and screech, and it all sounds very much like a performance, something closer in spirit to a story than a song in the traditional sense. For a while I was thinking Brecht or maybe Hogarth - something consumptive you can almost smell - but the more I familiarise myself with this music, it begins to sound positively iron age - primitive and weird beyond reason, Old Testament even, the kind of music with which one might praise a golden calf. There aren't really tunes so much as, I suppose, grooves, compelling and slightly fetid, and delivered with the force of sermons promising that you are all going to burn in hell!

I have a hunch that this may actually be how Porridge always imagined Psychic TV would sound, except of course they never did through being hamstrung by the presence of the selfsame oat-based William Burroughs' autograph hunter. This is the violent pre-Christian noise all those awful Crowleyite bands promised but never delivered because at heart, they really just wanted to sell their droning records to each other and get to hang out with the famous Porridge. This was the real thing, definitely underrated, and as the name promises, very beautiful in its own way. This disturbing, caustic racket really was a new form of beauty.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cosmic Rays - Cosmic Rays (2014)


I should probably own up to a certain potential for bias here, having known the drummer of this lot for the best part of the last three decades; so I'm favourably disposed towards their music before I've heard it. At the same time it may be worth pointing out that if it had turned out to be crap, I would probably have found the situation embarrassing and left it at yes, Charlie, it was just the sort of thing I like without bothering to either write or post a review here.

The Charlie in question carries the surname Adlard and will be known to at least some as the artist on, amongst other things, Image's Walking Dead comic. He's joined here by fellow comic artist Phil Winslade, known for various things amongst which was Vertigo's Goddess, as written by Garth Ennis. Wikipedia claims he landed the Goddess gig when he showed the aforementioned Ennis his portfolio at a comic convention in Coventry. Weirdly, I'm pretty sure both Charlie and myself were at that same convention. We too spoke to Garth Ennis - which was quite exciting - and I told him that the tone of Troubled Souls reminded me a little of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, which he seemed to appreciate. What a weird, small world it has turned out to be.

Anyway, Cosmic Rays are two comic artists and two of their friends. I think the name may have been intended as some sort of vague pun - comic and cosmic - but anyway...

For the record, Charlie was a phenomenal drummer even back when his drawing ability was more village fĂȘte than Eisner Award, so it wouldn't really be fair to call this a vanity project, should one be tempted to do so; and it certainly doesn't sound like one. What it does sound like is heavy rock - as quite distinct from metal - which acknowledges no strong musical influence of anything since about March 1982. I picked that particular date because that was when Iron Maiden released The Number of the Beast, and my initial impression of the Cosmic Rays album leant in that general direction mainly thanks to the histrionics of the two opening tracks. Closer and repeat listening reveals this comparison to be pretty flimsy, not least because whilst there's neither rapping, drum and bass remixes, nor anything which would startle Tommy Saxondale to any great extent, Cosmic Rays manages to avoid sounding like an exercise in nostalgia, working perfectly well as its own entity. There are moments I'm reminded of the Who or maybe the Kinks, and there's Shoes which could have been recorded by one of the bluesier incarnations of Jim Thirlwell's Foetus, but there are too many individual subtle touches which dispel such comparisons, too much which varies from the standard rock template - the buzzing fuzz of the bass, the ornate keyboard noodling, and sharp as a knife production which keeps even the noisier flourishes sounding clear as a bell and definitively stamps the collection as belonging right here in the twenty-first century. The closest I've been able to get to any sort of general comparison is that I can imagine a lot of these songs being performed by the Black and White era Stranglers, which is odd as Cosmic Rays sound nothing like the Stranglers, so I suppose it's some subtlety of chord changes or composition or the general vibe - a sort of pulsing black leather Englishness for want of a less comical simile.

Having known Charlie for a while, and enjoyed at least one of the previous bands for which he bashed the skins, so to speak, I knew this was never going to be terrible; but it's a pleasant surprise how genuinely good it is, and how fresh it sounds for something which could be considered a fairly traditional rock album in many senses. May this be but the first of many.

Available here and now in a lovely double vinyl edition too.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Madd Rapper - Tell Em Why U Madd (1999)


...which brings us to skits on rap albums. Aren't they just the best!?

Sadly no, which is odd considering that rap as a genre generally has a fairly well developed sense of humour, and so much so that I would suggest that humour of one stripe or another is pretty much an essential ingredient of the form, unless you're Lauryn Hill or someone. It is therefore puzzling - at least to me - why skits on rap albums are usually so fucking embarrassing. The prize for the worst probably goes to C-Murder whose comedy turns have mostly been on the level of a hapless fan phoning him in the middle of the night to which our man quips suck my dick, punk ass motherfucker, with hilarious consequences. Ha ha. Even Ice Cube, whom one might ordinarily credit with at least a modicum of wit, has been known to shoot himself in the big red clown's shoe despite the assistance of Chris Rock who actually causes mirth for a living. I'm thinking here of the skit in which Rock plays some sort of punk ass motherfucker trying to get in on Cube's not unimpressive game, washing his car badly or something of that sort and with hilarious consequences. Rock is genuinely funny, but the effect is spoiled by Mr. Cube sneering punk ass motherfucker just in case we listeners were too stupid to realise that Chris Rock was playing the role of a punk ass motherfucker in pursuit of comedy chuckles. We might of course have misunderstood and thought that Rock's incoherently yelping character was a real cool dude, but no, Mr. Cube sets us straight by identifying him, as stated, as a punk ass motherfucker so as to make absolutely certain that we get the joke. Great.

Surprisingly, the oeuvre of Puff Daddy - which is what he's still called so far as I'm concerned - for all its faults, fares generally quite well in terms of wacky interludes, most of which manage to at least raise a chortle even if we're not exactly in the realm of crying whilst banging ours fist on the floor. The Madd Rapper, for the sake of argument, emerged as a running joke on various Bad Boy albums, a character brought in to complain about whoever album he was appearing on, to generally more amusing effect than you might anticipate. I could be remembering this wrong but I seem to recall reports of Bad Boy producer Deric Angelettie, usually trading as D-Dot, being pretty pissed off when someone outed him as the secret identity of the Madd Rapper. This seemed odd as I thought it had been common knowledge for a while, and it wasn't like he'd really gone to any great lengths to cover his tracks; and with the best will in the world, The Madd Rapper was never going to be the hip-hop answer to the Residents, because were there ever such a thing it would have been much stranger and would almost certainly have involved Kool Keith. But anyway...

An entire album from the Madd Rapper, Madd spelt with two Ds just to up the wackiness to the level of a bumper sticker reading don't follow me - I'm lost too! Just how good was it going to be?

Astonishingly, it's actually pretty decent. I suppose this shouldn't be too surprising given that D-Dot has been behind some of the crunchier Bad Boy tracks, but rhyming - as opposed to just gurgling angrily between numbers on a Puffy album - he's pretty tight and with a distinctive voice. The beats are doubtless very much New York at the end of the last century, caught somewhere between turntable and sampler - punchy kick drums, skipping pace and a nice deep bass kept simple, orchestral stabs and grimy piano loops promising that it will be a great day in the big city, but you should probably wrap up warm. It isn't jazz by any description, but it has some of that feel.

Anyway, last century or not, it still sounds great to me. This being a producer's album, there's a ton of guests, which keeps it moving along although probably wasn't strictly necessary as Madd holds his own with the best of them - Raekwon, Black Rob, Ma$e, Eminem when he was funny, and even the pre-fame-and-shooting 50 Cent whose How To Rob promises a hell of a lot more than he eventually delivered on albums comprising bank statements read out over sampled gunfire. That said, the assembled lyricists of D-Dot's own Crazy Cat stable are featured heavily for obvious reasons, and whilst none of them are exactly bad, most of them may as well be those members of Murder Inc. who weren't either Ja Rule or the lady with the nice hair, whatever her name was. They're okay, but nothing that shines too bright, although at least none of them are Jermaine Dupri, the stumpy capitalist who is called in to ruin only one of these tracks with the usual whiny voiced crap about his wallet and his penis.

Tell Em Why U Madd presents itself as the rap Barron Knights probably because no-one told it not to, but turns out to be a thumping good set for the most part, and not really a comedy album, or at least no more so than any rap album you care to mention is a comedy album. Come to think of it, it's probably a significant improvement on most of the records this guy has made for other people.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Box @Doublevision (2014)


It seems peculiar that the Box should have fallen so dramatically off the radar given how they were, roughly speaking, the best version of Clock DVA but with different people on bass and vocals; and by the best version of Clock DVA I mean the line-up which recorded Thirst. Even without the patronage of Cabaret Voltaire, that has to count for something, surely? Maybe they just weren't sufficiently industrial - whatever the hell that really means - or maybe their legend has endured in places other than those in which I've been looking.

For anyone who might not be sure, the Box refute the hypothesis that traditional instrumentation is necessarily a barrier to innovation, that guitar, bass, drums, and vocals recorded pretty much without perfumery or embellishment need yield prosaic results. Okay, so there's also saxophone, but the principal still stands. These are songs with verses and choruses, sure enough, but considering that this is the same basic instrumentation of Rock Around The Clock, this be some weird angular shit right here, lemme tell ya. There are touches of rockabilly, slide guitar, jazz, swing, all chopped up and stapled back together in screeching and yet nevertheless elegantly synchronised chaos, a spiky groove with tunes which get right into your veins before you've even noticed that there are tunes to be had. A slightly less wanky way of putting it would be, I suppose, just to say that the Box remind you just how great music can be when it's done right by people who know what they're doing; and who have the confidence to play without hiding behind walls of effects. The guitar is in particular beautiful and crunchy, funky and elastic, like a jazzier Steve Albini. The whole reminds me superficially of the Cravats at their wildest, although the resemblance isn't particularly strong, and I might find better examples were I to extend my listening habits back further than 1977.

You remember that glut of slightly sweaty new wave dance bands who showed up around 1982, always with some bloke in a fedora and a vest playing the trumpet and a flat-topped singer who had always been into Coltrane, presumably even back when he was the more conspicuously safety-pinned Simon Bollock of the Barking Toilets? Anyway, the Box were what those bands always thought they sounded like but sadly never did.

...and here we have some of the material they recorded for Cabaret Voltaire's Doublevision label, eight tracks and a couple of different versions bearing no resemblance to the work of either Mallinder or Kirk, and yet sounding somehow perfectly attuned to the general vibe of at least Red Mecca and 2X45. The remixes are, quite naturally, longer, pared-down versions with a ton of echo because it was the eighties, and yet they succeed where almost everyone else failed with the same tricks, again I suppose due to the sheer potency of the source material.

This is a fucking fantastic collection. Now all we need is a reissue of the material they recorded for Go! Discs.

Available here, but don't wait around as it may not be for much longer.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

NATAS - Wicket World Wide.Com (1999)


Excepting possibly Whodini's Haunted House of Rock from 1983, rap as a genre rarely dipped its toe into any vaguely gothic waters until the nineties when certain artists apparently concluded that the only way to take it any place beyond Straight Outta Compton was to just go all out and get with the man downstairs. It's still an odd mix, served best by Three-6-Mafia in the south, and probably NATAS from Detroit in the north. NATAS was formed around Esham, sometimes Esham the Unholy, who released his first solo album at the age of sixteen and pretty much invented Detroit rap. Specifically he termed it acid rap, drawing inspiration and imagery from the weirder, more theatrical end of rock and metal, returning again and again to dark, supposedly Satanic images as metaphors for the shittier aspects of human existence, and possibly because it pisses people off. The short version is that there probably would never have been an Eminem or an Insane Clown Posse were it not for Esham. He did it first and best where this sort of psychologically warped stuff is concerned.

NATAS - standing for Nation Ahead of Time And Space - comprises Esham, Mastamind, and TNT, the man with enough game to make the Virgin Mary suck dick and stash cocaine, it says here. They're part of the reason why I can no longer take so many of those power electronics acts seriously. Stood next to NATAS or Three-6-Mafia - both of whom it should be noted transmit their horror by means of toe-tapping beats and tunes that even the most musically inept milkman could whistle with ease - Whitehouse and their kind sound like some testy art gallery installation, everyone stood around sipping fizz and congratulating each other on how shocking are their t-shirts. Stuck in a room with Whitehouse, one is left with a bit of a headache and the faint nausea of having scoffed too many vol-au-vents. Stuck in a room with NATAS, there's always the nagging fear that they might actually mean it. Even if it's all naughty words and exaggeration and comedic bragging amounting to a nutcase waving a gun in your face, and a gun that is quite clearly only a water pistol, the threat is voiced with such force that whether the weapon is real or not is probably the least of your worries. NATAS is fucking crazy; but in a good way, possibly.

Which brings us to Wicket World Wide.Com - wicket here being wicked shit as the term referring to acid rap or whatever you want to call it, as distinct from anything to do with cricket, or for that matter musical theatre, vodka-based alcopops, or the hearty endorsement of Sophie Aldred. I'm not sure if this is the best NATAS album, but it's the best I've heard, and it's difficult to imagine one better. Musically it has its own sound, existing at a sort of tangent to the rest of hip-hop, a crisp electronic production invoking the likes of Front 242 as much as any of the more obvious sources of inspiration. The rhythms feel like knives sharpened, contrasting neatly with a deep, warm bass and the sort of virtual arrangements that don't quite exist in nature, or at least didn't when this came out; and it rocks like anything recorded by the Rollins Band without much in the way of guitar or even anything resembling the dynamics of six-strings and an overdrive pedal. Also, it's convincingly terrifying for the most part, at least up until the last few tracks which begin to take a less screw-faced tone, coming as something of a relief after the first somewhat intense hour; and the nutcase with a water pistol factor described above means that even minor instances of dating - Cyberkill, WWW.COM and others which no doubt seemed pretty fucking futuristic in 1999 - retain their menace regardless.

All of this Wicket World Wide.Com does without sounding too much like anyone else, inspiring any skips towards the next track in line, or whilst standing in an art gallery wearing leather trousers and screaming. You've gotta kill us to stop us, they promise on Metropolis - the song that Godflesh probably would have recorded had they been young black males growing up in Detroit - and this album, exhausting and addictive as it is, leaves you in no doubt of the fact.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Hog Molly - Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip (2001)


As I've argued elsewhere, Tad were probably the greatest rock band of all time, at least for my money. It isn't simply that they sounded heavier than anything before or since; after all, any dummy with a fuzz pedal can usually manage that one, hence all those mystifying death, thrash, black, or whatever metal bands grunting their way through slabs of undifferentiated noise which may as well be Consumer Electronics for all the difference it makes to any milkman in search of something to whistle of a morning. Tad were different, having remembered to include tunes amongst all those crushing minor chords, and with some strangely bruised and fragile quality swaddled somewhere within the radius of the blast zone making the whole appear all the more extreme through contrast. Unfortunately they were also probably the unluckiest band in the world, as is evident from watching the excellent Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears documentary, from which it becomes clear why they might have felt like throwing in the towel, as they did in 1999.

Between 1989 and 1995, Tad released four frankly astounding studio albums without so much as a single weak track to be heard; and so left a substantial hole in the general rhythm of my listening habits once the well ran dry. Then in 2000, Tad Doyle - after whom the first band was named, in case that wasn't obvious - resurfaced with some new guys and released Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip. Unsurprisingly it's roughly the same territory as Tad, Doyle himself having a highly distinctive approach to composition, and with Jack Endino producing as he had done on Tad's Infrared Riding Hood and God's Balls.

Squint those ears and it could almost be the fifth Tad album, but not quite. I'm tempted to believe it may be the absence of Kurt Danielson that has shifted the emphasis here, but that's probably an oversimplification, if not just plain wrong. Hog Molly seemed a sharper, more streamlined animal than Tad, less given over to subtleties, and yes, I do maintain that there are subtleties to be found in something invoking the experience of a monster truck reversing over your head. Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip bludgeons, and keeps on bludgeoning for the full fifty minutes, but never becomes overwhelming, never sludges out into the usual big grey wall of grinding guitar. Even at its most thermonuclear, the recording is beautifully spaced, keeping even the squeak of a bass drum pedal intact as the band drop rocks onto your head, thus allowing one to appreciate every last sweating pore.

There's still nothing that quite tears out your heart and stamps on it like Stumbling Man or Glue Machine, but there are a few that come close enough and, as with Tad, there are still no duff tracks to be heard. Even so, this came out a while ago, and fifteen years has been a long time to go without fresh servings from this particular spigot. There's supposed to be a Brothers of the Sonic Cloth album out some time next year - that being Tad's current band - and it can't come too soon.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Mia X - Good Girl Gone Bad (1995)


It would be a huge exaggeration to say that this album was why I gave up on rock music about half way through the 1990s, but it was definitely in there somewhere as one of a number of reasons why there didn't seem to be much point in listening to noodling guitar wankers with floppy hair ever again. I'm not sure how far Mia X's fame spread beyond American shores, or even how much it spread beyond her native Louisiana. Mama Drama, her third and sadly final album at the time of writing went gold, but I'm not really sure what that means. Anyway, however big she made it, she almost certainly deserved to make it a whole lot bigger.

You could probably call this gangsta if you really felt the need, but you'd be missing the point, which in Mia X's case rudely underscored Chuck D's claim of rap being the black CNN. You might even say she took it a stage further to something bordering on counselling. If the black man in America so often tends to find himself with the shitty end of the stick, then it seems to be the lot of the black woman in America to wash his pants after he's wiped his hands on them. Mia X, clearly no stranger to tough times, tells it like it was two decades ago and almost certainly still is for all those trapped in that demographic which usually makes it onto the telly as either a crime or poverty statistic. I know it probably sounds a bit wank to say she tells it like it is, but she really does, or did - unscheduled pregnancy, selling illegal substances in a bid to make ends meet, boyfriend led astray by ne'er-do-wells, chaps declining to go south, keeping your hand on your ha'penny when himself is in the stripy hole for a while, how to deal with the death of your closest friend, and there's not much room left for the make-believe stuff everyone always seems to expect from a record of this kind. If the subjects mean little, then it's possible that you may not be a young black woman and that these tracks aren't specifically directed at you, although that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to appreciate them all the same. I can imagine there are a few young girls out there who really might have benefited from listening to this album at certain points of their lives in the absence of better advice or education. Come to think of it, the woman who lives across the road from me probably could have benefited from this one given her somewhat weird understanding of pregnancy and belief that contraception doesn't really make much of a difference.

All this hard-edged edumacation works so well on Good Girl Gone Bad because it's so obviously told from direct experience and without either sentiment, sermonising, or being blinged up as ghetto fabulous poverty porn; and because retired or otherwise Mia X remains one of the all-time greats of the genre, certainly one of the finest female rap artists ever to pick up a microphone. Furthermore, the album benefits from having emerged during a period when the No Limit label was still working with a low budget variation on that Bay Area sound - the tinny ping of Roland drum machines contrasting with the warmth of a deep, organic bass and that sort of understated electric piano that always seems to invoke slow moving vehicles, hot weather and raw menace. Every single track here is a killer.

Apparently Mia X herself now runs her own restaurant somewhere in New Orleans, so rap's loss is probably seafood's gain. It would be nice to hear her back in the booth, but I'm sure she's happy as she is. Not many people ever get to record a debut album quite so good or quite so enduring as this one.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mex - Alternative Pop Music (1980)


A few months back I suggested that by rights some boutique vinyl label should be battering down Mex's door for permission to reissue his entire back catalogue. Well apparently that didn't happen, so here we are with Alternative Pop Music once again available from the label which first put it out all those years ago.

Older readers may recall my recently enthusing about Mex's current album -  Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde in case you haven't yet bothered to stop him and buy one - whilst waxing in a vaguely lyrical tone about its predecessors and lamenting the fact of my copies being presently stuck in a cardboard box on a different continent thus making it quite difficult for me to listen to them. When this turned up in the mail - in both shiny faux-vinyl compact disc and highly collectible cassette formats - I experienced a natural moment of fear that it might not be so good as remembered.

Mex was amongst a small number of DIY types whom I first discovered on home produced mail order cassette at the age of sixteen, a key point at which I suddenly understood punk rock, weirdy music, and all the exciting associated possibilities of the medium. Mex is distinguished as one of the people whose work I actually played a lot, like you would play that record you just bought, the one which had you wobbling with anticipation for at least a month in advance and which had just turned up at your nearest WHSmiths or wherever. I may have flapped my long coat and muttered darkly about the latest important recordings of Test Dept or Mnemonik Korpse Brigade, but at home I was hammering those Mex tapes.

Momentarily listening with an objective ear, I am of course fully aware that these songs appear to have been recorded on a humble four-track of some kind; and that the rhythm section alternates between what sounds like Bontempi organ presets and those tapes of studio-recorded drum tracks you used to be able to buy from the back pages of the music paper, and tapes which in this case had been played a few times by the sound of them; and that the keyboard sounds a lot like a Casio job; and that Mex himself never quite appeared to settle on a vocal style with which he was happy on this tape, so the singing sounds a little odd in places; and there are false starts, mistakes, bars where the guitar struggles to catch up with everything else. None of this comes as a surprise because I'm so familiar with this group of songs that it seems weird to consider how many years have passed since I last heard them. Even at the time it was obvious that Mex was finding his way on this first cassette, and that's part of what made it sound so great, at least for me. This was immediately recognisable as pop music, but it was our version, and therefore distinct from all that pastel coloured hairdresser crap on the telly. Whispers in the Night, Into the Eyes, The Valley of Mystery, Evil Creature and the rest - played with the wind blowing in a certain direction, they make Katrina & the Waves sound like Fudge Tunnel.

I've often thought of Mex as a sort of underground version of Haircut 100, which is partially the breezy acoustic guitar pop aspect of the Happy Life era songs, but is more just a coincidence of timing. Alternative Pop Music could be lazily compared to anything from a cheerier Joy Division to the less broody end of psych-garage with a bit of Motown thrown in there somewhere, played and produced with fewer basic amenities than such points of reference might suggest. It's probably just me, but for something that may as well have been recorded in the cupboard under the sink, Alternative Pop Music has a big sound, and if you listen closely, maybe you'll hear it too.

Now can we have Intense Living?

Alternative Pop Music is available here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Full Blooded - Memorial Day (1998)


Here we are again with some more evidence in support of our thesis quantifying just how badly the No Limit label screwed up at the peak of its success towards the close of the last century. The story, so far as I understand it, runs with No Limit blowing up against all expectations around 1996, shifting shitloads of records on newly minted reputation alone, then assuming this situation would continue indefinitely, the No Limit brand having effectively become a license to print money. I recall the Full Blooded album being relegated to one tiny corner of a two page spread in one of those glossy rap magazines, taking up not even a sixteenth of the advertisement as a whole, more like a thirty-secondth or something. So Memorial Day bombed because apparently its being on the No Limit label wasn't enough to guarantee nationwide sales, and it doesn't seem like it really had a lot of promotion.

Whilst we're here, the inlay of those No Limit discs were always abrim with in-house advertising, specifically promising forthcoming works from upcoming artists for which Pen & Pixel had already done the covers, possibly before the things were even  recorded; and yet so few of them ever dropped so we never got to hear those albums by Short Circuit, Two for One, DIG, QB, Popeye, Porsha, A-Lexxus, Samm, Tank Doggs or any of the the rest; and I always thought this seemed a bit crap - maybe not quite a broken promise, but like the diamond encrusted No Limit sphincter just couldn't cash the cheques its mouth had been writing; or even worse, like somebody somewhere didn't quite have as much confidence in the material as claimed and was terrified of backing anything less than a triple platinum disc. This looked bad - to me at least - because ideally you want a label which gets behind its artists rather than its shareholders, artistically speaking.

I wouldn't ordinarily give a shit, but it nevertheless seems a shame because Memorial Day is a fucking good record, and at least as distinctive as anything by Fiend or Mystikal or any of those other No Limit regulars who might be credited with changing the face of rap by some definition, or part of that face.

Memorial Day lurches into gear with weird swells of strings and nothing quite pinned down to a rhythm as Full Blooded loses it in front of a microphone, rapping with all the desperate menace of the guy in the parking lot who staggers towards you begging a dollar or a cigarette or the fuck whatever you got, man...

It's a dark album, in case that isn't obvious from the cover, and probably dark enough to qualify as gothic in some sense. In fact, fuck it - screw gothic, this is more like the real thing. Gothic may as well be kids in black clothes for whom a crap drawing of a skull and a shitty Neil Gaiman comic will serve as metaphor for the endless torment and pain of your dad expecting you to get a job so he can have his basement back; whereas this is more concerned with surviving day to day whilst trying to avoid being shot at, and with bereavement as a daily event of such crushing familiarity that singing pretty songs about it whilst wearing eyeliner somehow just doesn't seem quite enough. Oddly, whilst Memorial Day is hardly an uplifting album, neither is it entirely in the vein of grunting black metal types, and probably because it's all about surviving under grim circumstances rather than celebrating the details of the same; and this is greatly helped by the music, a dirty, sweaty, sludge of bluesy southern gospel with a few arcade games thrown in.

Wikipedia refers to this guy in past tense which seems a shame as he clearly had a lot to say, and was saying it entirely on his own terms without really sounding like anyone else out there, gruffly cramming those bars into beats with just the rhyme at the end of each line to let you know it was still entertainment, that we were still listening to a compact disc, and we hadn't quite crossed over into real life. Memorial Day may not quite represent some lost and unappreciated masterpiece, but I have trouble comparing it to anything else which has happened since, and it really deserves to be heard.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Andrew Cox - Past Imperfect (2014)


To get the usual disclaimer out of the way, I used to know Andrew Cox fairly well, or at least as well as it was probably possible to know him. Back when I was living in Chatham in Kent, Glenn Wallis of Konstruktivists gave me a large carrier bag full of cassettes which people had sent to him, and the best of these were Vice Versa's eight track demo - a damaged copy as individually stamped upon by an irritable member of Cabaret Voltaire after some show in Sheffield - and Andrew's Methods C60. I had vaguely heard of MFH, the band Andrew formed with his friend David Elliott, as a name from the fanzines, but Andrew Cox himself was unknown to me. Several years later shortly after moving to London, I found that by unlikely coincidence, Andrew Cox and David Elliott lived around the corner and so I introduced myself. Andrew and I became good friends, but he died in 2009 which was incredibly shit, all things considered.

David Elliott's efforts to get the work he recorded with Andrew as both MFH and Pump heard have been commendable, as is this latest release gathering a selection of Andrew's solo work harvested from old tapes, not least because the poor old bugger deserves wider recognition even if it's unfortunately posthumous, and because Andrew recorded some great stuff in his time.

Much of what is gathered here was ground out on primitive equipment, some of it home-made, but is of such quietly inventive composition as to render concerns about sound quality entirely superfluous. It has that stressed quality of those very early instrumental Throbbing Gristle jams with Albrecht D - at least prior to the member of that particular group most resembling Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served? deciding he wanted to be Lou Reed; so Past Imperfect is too abrasive to be considered entirely ambient without being necessarily harsh, or being as limited in terms of mood as anything which might ordinarily be labelled industrial or - God forbid - dark ambient. My friend Carl described this disc as the Forbidden Planet soundtrack as recorded by Nurse With Wound, a comparison which works quite well and which I believe Andrew would have enjoyed. If - I suppose - lacking sophistication in certain respects, this is music which nevertheless could not have been made with more modern digital technology. It's all about getting the most evocative atmospheric effects out of that which is to hand, and in this capacity Andrew worked some real magic.

Lordy - how I miss him.

Available from Forced Nostalgia.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Tears - Here Come The Tears (2005)


Almost regardless of quality of music, I usually experience varying degrees of unease with anything veering too close to nostalgia, specifically anything which sounds a little too much like it's pretending that a day spent twiddling around with state of the art analogue sound synthesisers will conclude with a well deserved pint of Double Diamond and the latest hilarious episode of Mind Your Language on a brand new Grundig colour telly; but then again I have a lot of time for Stereolab who are in essence the krautrock Showaddywaddy, I always preferred the Dukes of Stratosphear to XTC, and so far as I'm concerned Back In Denim is probably one of the greatest debut albums ever recorded.

Accordingly whilst I was very much a fan of Suede at the time, and even to the point of seeing them live more than once, I always had reservations, at least regarding the level of acclaim squirted in their direction. Sure they were good, but I couldn't help wonder whether there might be a subtext to the praise as a nation of geezers in skinny jeans breathed a collective Hurricane Andrew scale sigh of relief to have the guitars and drums and some bloke pretending to be David Bowie back after the wilderness years of homosexual synthesisers and that weird thumpa thumpa rappers' housey music or whatever the fuck that was supposed to be. It was a bit like Roxy Music crossed with the Smiths but without having to hold your nose while Morrissey reads out yet another list of everything which has ever failed to meet up to his exacting standards. Moreover, whilst there were some great songs, and Bernard Butler is clearly a talent, he tends to write arrangements in the sense of Burt Bacharach rather than tunes in the sense of Steve Jones serving up big chunky chords and then burping the word bollocks in your face. Subtract the trimmings and Butler is - at worst - some bloke endlessly noodling away in a guitar shop, which is probably why Coming Up was always my favourite Suede album.

I found this one in a cardboard box outside someone's house in Landells Road in East Dulwich. There were a few books, odds and ends, and a stack of compact discs most of which were decent. Either someone had moved, or been forcibly moved out as a relationship imploded, which if true would be appropriate given Brett Anderson's preferred subject matter - the poetry of the depressing details, unrequited love and discarded rubber Johnnies gathering dust under the bed. As kitchen sink drama, it seems appropriate that the music to which he scores his tales of almost-woe should carry a faint whiff of 1974 or thereabouts, the years during which it had become obvious that there was no bright future ahead, yet with mainstream culture still grinning away in fat day-glo lettering as though there might be; and if that's too wanky a way of putting it, let's just settle for stating that the music really does its job, nostalgic or otherwise.

Having spewn forth from the Butler spigot, Here Come The Tears takes a few plays to do its job. As ever he noodles so much that it's difficult to really latch onto what he's doing until you've given it a few spins, but it's worth it when you get there, and his lack of immediacy should not be confused with predictability. Anderson as ever pushes the lyrical details so far that they border on parody, or would do were it not for the delivery which dares you to laugh at such small, inevitable horrors as the bin bags in which the clothes of a dead partner are left out for collection by the Salvation Army. It's inevitably not so immediate as Coming Up, but still at least as good as anything these two did together as Suede.

So there you have it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

U2 - Zooropa (1993)


Where did the time go? With each passing year, Bongo of U2 becomes ever further removed from that soulful wide-eyed Muppet Baby version of Joy Division which sounded so fresh and so utterly devoid of artifice in 1980, and ever closer to that which John Doran of The Quietus amusingly described as Smaug the Dragon with a mullet and two grand wrap around shades sitting on a giant mountain of gold, dressed like Che Guevara, talking about us and making peace signs any time someone gets out a camera.

More surprising for me has been realisation of the fact that they were never really so amazing as everyone thought they were. A Day Without Me and I Will Follow sounded like the greatest songs ever recorded that time I first heard them on the radio, but for some reason I never bothered to buy the album. The somewhat overwrought but still reasonably convincing Pride (in the Name of Love) was an - ahem - our tune in the Simon Bates tradition for myself and my first ever girlfriend, but then we were both pretty young and our other our tune was Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat, so Lord knows what was going on there.

More recently I found that the song which Bongo's humble Oirish farmhands recorded for some Batman film had become lodged in my head, whatever the hell it was called; so screw it, I thought, and promptly Amazoned me a greatest hits disc. Unfortunately it turned out that U2 have had so many greatest hits as to require two volumes of the same, and I was sent the wrong one. No problem I decided, recalling the passion with which I once loved the three listed above, but listening to the fucker was another story. A Day Without Me, I Will Follow and Pride still sounded okay, but I'd forgotten about the rest, all those exhausting anthems, lonesome prairie-scale epics dedicated to being just a straightforward kind of fellah who, much like the Murphy's, isn't bitter, striving for the grandeur of a Thomas Cole landscape but coming closer in spirit to one of those hokey old west paintings full of noble savages and homespun horseback heroes. Never has anything with such celestial aspirations sounded quite so lard-arsed and stodgy, so lacking in basic nutrients as the never ending and pretty much interchangeable wailing ballads which comprise most of U2's back catalogue. By the time they recorded Rattle and Hum, it had begun to seem like even U2 were sick of it, at least revealing themselves to be a competent rock band once someone had taken away their fucking chorus pedal and told them to stop being such wankers.

I have most of Zooropa nailed into the back of my skull because my girlfriend of the time - not to be confused with the earlier one with whom I shared Pride as an our tune - had the album and played it to death. I didn't mind as it sounded good to me, and in fact it sounded so good that we went to see them live at some massive park in Leeds, a concert which I recall as immensely enjoyable despite costing over a hundred pounds a ticket once we accounted for missed coaches and resulting taxi fares. Weirdly, listening to it now, Zooropa still sounds good. The U2 of Zooropa and Achtung Baby - its predecessor - had apparently tired of being the aural equivalent of a plate of school mashed-potato ten miles in circumference and had asked Brian Eno to help them to be less crap - and I believe those were their actual words. I can't be bothered to verify whether or not this is true, but I seem to recall that as the recording for Achtung Baby began, Eno pointed out that the songs were rubbish and made the boys go away and then come back again after they had written some better ones.

Whether or not they did, Zooropa - and this works just as well for Achtung Baby - is a great album because it's a great Brian Eno album. Listen close and it's not hard to imagine Low-era Bowie singing over some of those tracks, or even Johnny Cash - welcome guest vocalist on the closing number, and known in this house simply as Uncle Johnny on account of Mrs. Wax Cylinders being related to him by marriage.

At the time we all thought U2 had reinvented themselves as Nine Inch Nialls, but the truth emerged as they gradually slid back into flag-waving anthemic landfill mode once Brian Eno took his knob twiddling abilities elsewhere. The clues were there all along, of course, particularly in the somewhat soporific Stay (Faraway, So Close) which no doubt tries to contrast its gentle Thomas Kincadisms with wife-beating lyrics so as to make a barbed point, but just ends up sounding like a paean to the admirable docility of women who stay with abusive partners; which is creepy. Then of course there's the politics trumpeted with all the passion of ten adult male Nelson Mandelas but which, on close inspection, mostly amounts to arguments ending well you can believe what you like but personally I'm against the killing of children. I can understand the logic of Bongo believing himself in a position to effect real change for the best, but standing next to Adolf Hitler with a big grin will only ever serve to make Hitler appear a little more humane, and so his band became the Judas goat by which those they purportedly oppose get to feel just a little better about themselves.

Well, that's how it looks from down here.

Even with this in mind, Zooropa remains a great album, albeit a great Brian Eno album.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Severed Heads - Gigapus (1994)


Much like Australia's flora and fauna, Australia's Severed Heads always seemed to inhabit some peculiar evolutionary tangent to everything else, not least to those artists generally but probably wrongly regarded as their kin through a shared habit of pissing about with drum machines. Formed in the late seventies, even the sarcasm implicit in their name was at least a decade ahead of its time - mocking the likes of Throbbing Gristle and SPK whilst later presenting the delicious contrast of something which may as well have been named after a horror film yielding some of the sweetest pop music you could ever wish to hear.

Seriously, Severed Heads were never merely an interesting band, one of those acts with which you might bulk up a tape of Skinny Puppy and Front 242 for the sake of variety. There was something absolutely vital and fundamental about them. My first Severed Heads record was Rotund For Success picked up at Greenwich market probably only a year or so before Gigapus came out. I'd heard the name and assumed it might be my sort of thing. It so transpired that it was my sort of thing, and within three weeks I'd obsessively tracked down every other record I could find by them.

In search of comparisons, it's a tough job where Severed Heads are concerned. Aside from an obvious lack of boogie-woogie piano, guitar riffage, or a man in silver trousers stood screaming from a podium, they never sounded or felt like any of those other electronic bands, except I suppose bits of Chris & Cosey if you squint a little. They peddled none of the usual drearily industrial fixations, never marched up and down a stage exhorting audience members to work that body, and early Brian Eno albums are the only records I can recall doing anything similar, although the resemblance is nevertheless thin. Leaving aside those weird understated songs which tear out your heart, I guess the clue to the Severed Heads sound was always their pushing forward, creating music some way in advance of its time, notably on the Big Bigot album which you would swear features sampling technology, although apparently most of it was done with tapes and elbow grease.

Gigapus was their last major release prior to Volition Records imploding, and with subsequent albums appearing as CDrs direct from the band - an inauspicious tail end to the story one might suspect, although it should probably be noted that even this was ahead of the trend, or at least ahead of persons such as myself developing the expectation of CDr only albums usually being shit. Gigapus sounds odd to me in so much as it seems to represent technology having finally caught up with the band's ambition, all of these sounds being tailored digitally rather than through sleepless nights of messing about with tapes and effects boxes. Nevertheless, Gigapus still avoids sounding quite like anyone else using the same clobber. It doesn't hold together quite so well as Rotund For Success, not least because the instrumental tracks are in the majority, but neither is it the disappointing last real album I feared. In fact, it's hard to believe that Gigapus was recorded two decades ago. At the risk of committing hyperbole, Severed Heads really were one of the greatest bands of all time, and even this - not quite one of their greats - serves as further evidence of the fact.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Bow Wow Wow - Girl Bites Dog (1993)


Ah - Malcolm McLaren: the madcap orange genius so often portrayed as a fiendishly playful post-Situationist mash up of Fagin and Guy Debord, and yet actually just a bit of a fucking twat, a failed art student who would have happily buggered himself with a sink splodger on national television if he thought there was a chance it might increase the stock of his fame by association; a manager of such talent that he failed to do anything interesting with the New York Dolls, saw the Sex Pistols as the next Bay City Rollers, and somehow bifurcated the band which had recorded the genuinely astonishing Dirk Wears White Sox into two considerably less interesting parts. What a fucking prick he was.

That said, I very much bought into Bow Wow Wow at the time, most of which was probably down to the band rather than the supposed tentacular influence of Gingerbollocks. However, as a grown man approaching fifty, they now sound quite different to my elderly ears, not least because I hadn't heard any of this stuff since I sold the cassettes to my friend Eggy back in 1982. Being fifteen at the time and somewhat slow on the uptake, the sexualisation of then fourteen-year old Annabella Lwin didn't seem that big a deal to me being as I knew a number of fourteen-year old girls and understood that they themselves very much enjoyed the Hunks in Trunks photo features in Jackie magazine. I took Your Cassette Pet into school because Miss Davies encouraged us to provide background music for our art lesson. It proved quite popular, and all the girls chortled at the orgasmic squeaking on Sexy Eiffel Towers, and that didn't seem like a big deal either; yet with hindsight, I find it difficult to listen to these songs without turning into Hank Hill, Louis Quatorze for example:

With his gun in my back, I start to undress.
You just don't mess with Louis Quatorze.
He's my partner in this crime of happiness,
'cause I'm just fourteen!
Oh I love it when he says so seriously,
With his gun in my back, 'Honey, make love to me.'

Oh la la - shagging an under-age kid at gunpoint, c'est tres romantique; and just to be absolutely clear on this, yes I'm being sarcastic. Given the sexual subject matter that once kept Adam Ant in square meals and pointy shoes before he got famous and ended up as Basil Brush's straight man, I can look past most of Bow Wow Wow's songs as either representative of the thoughts of at least some teenage girls, and valid in a sort of Max Ernst sense. That is to specifically say that they just about got away with it in the name of art, I suppose; but it's a tougher sell when you factor in the McLaren angle and recall that all of this ran parallel to his efforts to start a pornographic magazine for school age kids informatively entitled Chicken. I recall him coming on the radio to explain how children are sexual beings who love to hang around and pose and appear sexy, which may be daring, adventurous, and subversive, or may all be just a bit too close to Jimmy fucking Savile for comfort.

Now then, now then, now then...

Thankfully Chicken never happened because McLaren was basically a twat who couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery, or at very best an extremely lucky twat who couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery; and so while his influence on Bow Wow Wow can certainly be heard, you can sort of ignore it. Annabella Lwin may not have been the greatest vocalist but she could hold a tune and yelped with conviction; and led astray or otherwise, this was still in essence the band who had recorded Dirk Wears White Sox. The affectations sound comical with hindsight - Native Americanisms apparently borrowed from old episodes of The Lone Ranger coupled with tribal sounds that may as well have scored films in which blacked-up actors point at cauldrons rubbing their tummies and smiling at their white captives; but it works as a sort of African influenced rockabilly, as music designed to sound great at a party without any real concession to any other context; and Gold He Said and I Want My Baby on Mars at least are genuinely fine songs.

I've an uncomfortable feeling that either Bow Wow Wow or someone of their ilk is ultimately to blame for the pervasive aesthetic of the scene in that crappy Matrix film with the big underground rebel cave and like everyone's grooving and raving to this like really wicked music and like they all have dreads and awesome tatts and like everyone's like off their faces, man, and it's like totally amaaazing... which probably isn't Bow Wow Wow's fault, at least not directly; and strangely it's W.O.R.K. which annoys me the most of all these songs in respect to subject, it being a nebulous critique of the work ethic predicated on the thesis that it's a drag having to do stuff which isn't like rilly cool 'n' shit, yeah? Conversely, I myself tend to regard the work ethic as a fairly healthy impulse which prevents one turning into a useless slack-jawed wanker, so again I must take the Hank Hill position, I tell you what.

Most surprising of all is that these songs sound pretty much the same on fancy compact disc as they did on my crap mono portable cassette player as taped off a medium wave radio station in 1982, which is to say that the production is unflattering and simple, but not even simple in the sense of Billy Childish cranking something out in front of a single microphone and it still making Led Zeppelin sound like Scott McKenzie. Had McLaren really had anything going for him in managerial terms, he might have spent less time trying to generate controversy and a little more making sure his band were getting their money's worth in the recording studio. So I say again, what a fucking prick he was.

Bow Wow Wow had much to recommend them, but none of it directly their manager's doing, and thirty years later, there's a portion of this compact disc which still makes me feel bad on behalf of everyone involved.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fiend - The Addiction (2006)


If ever proof were needed that the millennial success of New Orleans' No Limit Records was more luck than judgement, one need look no further than the bewildering estrangement of Fiend. I don't really care who failed to buy who a pint and a packet of cheese and onion crisps when it was their round; any label with its head screwed on would have moved heaven, earth, and all the damp bits in the middle to keep a rapper of this calibre on its books.

For those to whom the name may be unfamiliar, Fiend is a burping rap bullfrog, a voice full of bluesy gravel that's very much an instrument in its own right, in addition to which he's also a decent lyricist - definitely one of the southern greats in my estimation - and a formidable producer.

Anyway, I was quite excited - all those thousands of years ago - when this album was first announced as forthcoming from Ruff Ryders being as the New York label seemed like it might be a perfect fit for our boy, what with him having the kind of jagged edge that would perfectly complement the likes of DMX, the LOX and so on; but for whatever reason, The Addiction eventually came out on his own Fiend Entertainment label. We didn't get any of those weird Swizz Beatz rhythms as anticipated, and it's all kept very much Louisiana style with production divided mainly between Fiend himself and his former No Limit stable-mates, Beats By The Pound reborn here as the Medicine Men, but there's nothing to inspire disappointment.

Given the geography, it's become something of a cliché to describe this sort of thing as a gumbo, but you can hear why. The Medicine Men always had a distinctive sound, albeit one that became a little too familiar during their stay at No Limit, particularly during that era when it seemed like Master P decided that even the fucker who cleaned his pool probably had an album in him somewhere; but unburdened of the requirement to turd out four albums a week, and so allowed to create at a less demanding pace, the boys found their mojo once again. Everything is thrown in: tinkly piano, soulful guitar, brush drums, gun shots, cheap orchestral stabs and the sort of bass that makes you ill if you listen to it for too long; grooves are formed rather than songs as such, but weird grooves quite clearly cohered under the influence of something or other - not quite the sort of tunes one would find in nature. None of this will be unfamiliar to anyone who ever heard a track produced by this bunch, but they really go some strange and unfamiliar places on this album, at least as close as this sort of dirty, sweat-soaked menace ever came to early Pink Floyd with these tracks of mushroomy psychedelia or NyQuil-fuelled trains of meandering thought.

Oddly, I'm not even sure this is Fiend's greatest album, and it probably could have done with a change of pace here and there just to break things up a little, but three classics - Want It All, Thugg'n and Drugg'n, and Oprah - are nothing to be sniffed at, particularly as part of an album conspicuously lacking in weak material, and one that still sounds so different to others of its kind.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Sound - Jeopardy / From the Lion's Mouth / All Fall Down ...Plus (2014)


Here's an odd one, at least from where I've been stood. I was most certainly sentient between 1980 and 1982 - spanning the original release dates of these three albums - and not only was I sentient, but I was possibly at the most rabidly teenaged stage of my record collecting, a period during which I could pick even a Classix fucking Nouveaux album from the rack and wonder to myself what it sounded like. These years also happened to be the only time of my life during which I managed to keep diaries going right through until December. I'm presently transcribing some of these diaries for my own entertainment, and I have in particular noted firstly just how much I obsessed over certain bands at that age, and secondly, how little sense any of the rest of it makes thirty years down the line. I have therefore found myself having to look up quite a lot of stuff on the internets and the Googles in order to work out what the hell I was writing about, and it is during one such search that YouTube suggested I might also like to have a listen to New Dark Age by the Sound on the grounds of my watching something else that had happened in the same year. The cover art of both Jeopardy and From the Lion's Mouth - the first two albums - looked vaguely familiar, but I had never heard of the Sound. Then I recalled them as the band which had appeared on the front of issue seventeen of Alternative Sounds, the Coventry based fanzine produced by Martin of Attrition and which had been mentioned on Look! Hear! on the telly and everything. I went to the vault to investigate, but it was actually a band called the Silence who had appeared on said cover. Sound and silence - I suppose you can see how I might get them confused. Anyway, I recalled New Dark Age as something once recorded by SPK - a satisfyingly portentous title if ever there was - and so I clicked on the video to see what these Sound lads had been about.

A week later, I've developed such an obsession that I'm making my way through the four discs of this reissue of their first three albums, playing them over and over and over, and I'm seriously fucking bewildered as to how this bunch somehow escaped my attention. How they slipped past my teenage radar I will never know, given that they weren't particularly obscure, as indicated by the John Peel sessions and BBC Live in Concert bonus disc included here. The only explanation I have is that the Sound only exist in retrospect, their entire career having been retrofitted to the early eighties by some time-active power.

The excessive ghastitude of my flabber is down to the Sound being so much the distillation of everything I loved at the age of fifteen in musical terms that it seems inconceivable that I should only discover them now, three decades later. I suppose you might describe them as a cross between Wire and Joy Division with more of a power pop sensibility; except the more you listen, the poorer a fit such comparisons seem; and was there really ever a half decent band who suffered those Joy Division comparisons aside from Joy Division themselves? Maybe it would be better to suggest the Sound were quite clearly sprung from that same well of emotionally volatile post-punk which yielded Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and U2 - before they turned into Rio Tinto-Zinc - but then the Sound clearly pissed all over those bands too. Maybe the Sound were how we all hoped New Order would turn out, how New Order might have been had they not spunked up the entirety of their potential on that first album.

Well whatever, the Sound are - or I suppose were - sparse, punchy, tuneful, and intense, the song writing is of such absurdly powerful quality as to mean there's not a single track to be skipped amongst these four discs. Almost everything here could have been a hit single had we not been distracted by all the other shit that was around at the time, Bauhaus and the Cure and all those other sucked-in cheeks tosspots who somehow managed to forge out careers without a single decent album to their names. I Can't Escape Myself, Contact the Fact, Winning, Sense of Purpose, Party of the Mind, Monument, Calling the New Tune, Skeletons, Unwritten Law - one of those rare wonders wherein the bassline seems to bear no relation to the rest of the song and yet it all fits together with absolute perfection of intent, and Missiles - one of the most emotionally powerful anti-nuclear songs I've heard... all air-punchingly fine; and after a while you realise there's not much joy in picking out individual tracks, there being nothing which lowers the average, not even the four rare tracks recorded with Kevin Hewick who at first sounds like one of those horrible sub-Bowie types from some mushroom tea based Canterbury group. Even the live material sounds amazing, which is something very few groups ever managed on disc, in my view.

After three weeks of this lot on heavy rotation, I had to force myself to pack away the box and listen to something else. Absurd though it may seem, the Sound were just too good, too powerful. Never mind hairs stood up on the back of the neck, some of this stuff was beginning to bring tears to my eyes. I'm slightly fucked off that it's taken me thirty years to discover this group - particularly considering the tripe I've endured in a similar vein which isn't anything like so good - but better late than never.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Wire - Manscape (1990)


I'm not quite sure why I don't have more by Wire. I can appreciate them for sure, but for some reason, for all their dazzling brilliance, I've never found myself actively seeking out their records. Consequently those objects I do possess tend to have been picked up in bargain bins because it was Wire and it was cheap and I couldn't quite work out why I'd never got around to buying the thing when it came out. Manscape found its way to me by a friend in England who sends me money by converting pound notes into dollar bills at the bank, and then concealing these within the casing of a compact disc which he sticks in the mail. He lives off the grid, as the expression has it, without anything resembling a bank account, and this really is the easiest way for him to pay me for services rendered. He's also a fan of Wire, but I imagine this one wasn't so much to his liking.

Apparently recorded under the increased influence of dance music as it stood around the close of the eighties, Manscape differs from other Wire releases in sounding very much like they knocked it out in a studio recently vacated by Duran Duran. It has that same drum machine sound, those same McGeochisms in the guitar department, and a suggestion of brightly coloured suits with shoulder pads and promotional videos with everyone doing that eighties dance in which you keep your elbows still whilst jerking your quiff from side to side; but, it's still Wire, and it sounds like Wire. It took a good few plays before I stopped asking myself what is this shit?, but I got there eventually.

Obviously it's not a patch on Chairs Missing, but it's not actually bad once you get past the cognitive dissonance, and arguably constitutes a worthy exercise in seeing if gold can be wrought from the sort of hairspray fuelled production which keeps threatening to break into Addicted to Love; and surprisingly it can, although maybe not so surprisingly as I suppose PIL and Simple Minds usually managed the same trick well enough. Manscape is further aided by Wire's peculiarly self-aware lyrical concerns falling somewhere between those of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson, and the simple fact of there being some fucking great arrangements on here, particularly on Where's the Deputation? and What Do You See? both of which have more than a whiff of Severed Heads about them.

Thinking about it, Manscape feels like the work of a band who've just discovered Come Visit the Big Bigot in some respects, which can only be a good thing, even if it's not necessarily the first reason why you might want to buy a record by Wire.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

MOP - Warriorz (2000)


A couple of weeks ago I bought a box set of the first three albums by the Sound, a group I somehow managed to completely miss first time around. I'd stumbled across one of their tracks by chance and decided they sounded right up my street. They proved so much up my street that I've hardly listened to anything else since those aforementioned three albums turned up in the mail, and I've now played them so much that I've become almost over-saturated and sorely in need of a palate cleanser. I was going to write something about the Sound this week, but instead Warriorz found its way into my discman, which is about as far removed as one can get from the Sound without just listening to Cartoons, whom Wikipedia describes as a technobilly or glam pop band from Denmark, best known for their 1998 Eurodance cover of the 1958 novelty song, Witch Doctor by Ross Bagdasarian, as well as for their outlandish plastic costumes and wigs used in live performances as caricatures of 1950s American rock and roll stars.

Anyway, to get to the point, the greatest obstacles to a working appreciation of rap are, I would say, the failure to understand what rap does, and the misconception that rap necessarily does just one thing. This is particularly true of the sort of rap which relates sweary tales of villainy, once amusingly parodied by my friend Carl with the line I'm gonna cut off your face and use it to wipe my arse. Whilst Warriorz may indeed serve as a filmic glimpse of life on the mean streets of Brooklyn, a valuable insight into the world of society's most pooed-upon, it's probably worth remembering that this is also rap guys stood around trying to make each other laugh by saying outrageous shit. It's a conversation which has somehow ended up on a CD in the homes of people with very different lives to those of the originators, and which should be understood as such, and should be understood as something quite different to a broadcast message sent out to a bunch of strangers with slightly fatter wallets. I've probably said this before, but this is what distinguishes artists such as MOP or anyone else who was ever labelled gangsta from self-proclaimed edumacaters of the Native Tongues school and their disciples - this sort of material is not offered as lifestyle tips or guidance.

Okay, excuses aside, MOP have refreshingly little to say on most of the usual contentious subjects, concentrating mainly on how great they are, and how they're fairly likely to punch your face off for no reason whatsoever. Whilst this may sound something of a bore, the sheer joy they obviously had recording this album carries it along. Rarely has anything sounded quite so furious, so ready to bash your teeth in, and yet so raucously happy at the same time. It's like that weird moment where you find that, for no obvious reason, you're suddenly best friends with the most enormous and terrifying kid in the entire school, and he thinks all of your jokes are hilarious. Also, I don't think I've ever heard quite so much shouting on one album.

Musically it's definitively in the DJ Premier vein - although the man himself only handles a few of the cuts here - grimy east-coast nineties beats reversing over you like an unusually smelly garbage truck, old soul and film soundtrack samples ground into functioning tracks on the sort of sampler that leaves grease stains if you stand too close; and because, as I've attempted to suggest, the best rap generally does more than just one thing, there's something powerfully soulful about this collection even taking all the yelling and grunting and diarrhoea jokes into account; and never has a xylophone sample sounded quite so terrifying as on On the Front Line. This is easily one of the greatest rap albums of all time, pooface.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Bigod 20 - Steel Works! (1992)


I bought this having suffered a sudden awareness of greatly missing Front 242, and having somehow got my wikiwires crossed by means amounting to the mistaken belief of Bigod 20 being some sort of Front 242 solo project. Unfortunately this turned out to be entirely untrue, said crossed wires resulting from Front 242's Jean-Luc de Meyer lending both lyrics and tonsils to The Bog, and possibly also resulting from the fact that Steel Works! so much resembles the work of a Front 242 tribute act that I'm not sure I would have been able to tell the difference had someone tried to flog this to me as the genuine article. Okay, so maybe they're not quite identical, at least in so much as it's possible to tell the difference between Blink 182 and Green Day, but you have to listen to this one a good few times before you notice the distinguishing features; and even then it's not easy to identify quite what those distinguishing features might be. The best way I can put it is that if Front 242 were channelling the robot from The Terminator, Bigod 20 represented the incarnate spirit of a big yellow digger, a JCB or something of the sort.

The Bog was also the title of one of the very first tracks I ever helped record as a member of the Pre-War Busconductors at the age of fourteen, predating the Bigod 20 song by a decade. I held the cassette recorder and described the process of trousers taken down whilst Eggy pretended to sit upon the lavatory and communicated the concept of excretion by blowing loud farting raspberry noises and trying not to laugh. The Bigod 20 song of the same name takes a quite different approach to its subject, sounding somewhat like a Tyranny >For You< out-take, as actually does a lot of this album - same bubbling sequencers and washes of pensive orchestral sound, and the grunting Herr Flick vocals, muscular EBM workout tracks for sweating men stomping about in clubs punctuated with slower numbers as the same men take a break and gaze solemnly into the northern sunset whilst thinking hard about destiny, or possibly about cocks and arseholes and all that good stuff. I actually have quite a low tolerance for this sort of marching up and down whilst frowning nonsense mainly because it's so fucking easy to churn it out without too much stress placed on anyone's imagination; despite which, and despite that Steel Works! might as well be the Barron Knights in a Belgian leather bar, it's hard to keep oneself from enjoying this album, so after a couple of plays I caved-in and just let my steel-capped toe tap away.

I still have to raise an eyebrow at America with its generic samples of US televangelists talking about Him upstairs, almost certainly an example of stomping Euroweenie politics along the lines of nyer nyer nyer you Americans with your guns, the point of which is muddied amongst soaring Olympian trumpet samples which make it sound like a song about how much Bigod 20 love America, and which makes me want to buy a hamburger from the nearest Hooters restaurant and then vote for George W. Bush, even though I can't because he's no longer a politician. I'm not even going to mention the irony of a German band whining about American cultural imperialism having recorded their entire album in heavily-accented English and released it through Bugs Bunny's parent company, although I just did, obviously.

Steel Works! is hopelessly unoriginal and full of shit, but somehow still a reasonably great album despite everything.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Toadies - Rubberneck (1994)


This apparently enjoyed moderate success in its day, and the band are still very much in existence and doing fine, but they had zero impact in England so far as I was aware and are therefore new to me; so if I appear to be praising an amazing new discovery that everyone else in the universe was already bored of by 1995, then sorry...

I recall Rubberneck quite well as having been heavily promoted in the advertising for Sam Goody record stores in various comics I was reading back then, mostly Vertigo titles such as Preacher in which Garth Ennis bravely cracked ground-breaking jokes about inbred rednecks of the southern states with names like Otis and Joe Bob, which no-one had ever done before. Garth Ennis invented it, you see. It was a whole new kind of storytelling. Anyway, design snob that I am, I still maintain that this album has one of the worst covers I've ever seen. It's not so much the third year art project illustration as the illustration in somehow unsettling combination with the swirly dollar store font of the title achieving the queasy effect of comic sans without actually being comic sans. Rubberneck somehow managed to look bad in the pages of the already excruciating Preacher, a comic in the context of which advertising for albums by even Bon Jovi and Poison packed a certain alluring punch. It spoke to me of fifteenth generation Nirvana tribute acts signed by increasingly desperate major labels; and then twenty years later I'm living in America, stood in a branch of CD & DVD Exchange with a copy of this thing in my hand. Three dollars doesn't seem much, and there's no way it can be as bad as the cover.

Astonishingly, not only is it not bad, but it's actually very, very good. Rubberneck is sufficiently of its time to at least support the hunch that Toadies were probably signed on the strength of check shirts and fuzz guitar, but other than that, they piss all over just about every other band to briefly benefit from the Seattle gold rush. For a start, they sound somehow definitively Texan, at least to me, a sort of mashed up Pixies and Lynyrd Skynyrd hybrid, or maybe what you would get if you gave King Crimson mullets and had them drive around the back roads of Bexar County for a while in a battered El Camino. Amongst such messy comparisons, the influence of the Pixies seems strongest with some sort of rockabilly element tucked away just beneath the drum stool, but Rubberneck has enough of its own sound to justify repeat listening; and not least because there's not a dud track on here. They're all growers.

Lyrically, there's nothing so crude or crappy as Garth Ennis bluntly recycling John Boorman's Deliverance with added Tarantino, but it's that same quiet rural horror, the kind of thing Tad used to do so well, here with the dark shadow of the Baptist church cast across secluded creeks full of snakes and prickly pear cacti; but crucially it does all this with soul, and with poetry, and without pulling the obvious scary faces.

As they've just released a twentieth anniversary edition of this album, it probably doesn't really qualify as a lost classic; and having discovered that Toadies now have their own brand of beer named Rubberneck Red, I realise I may simply be waving an REO Speedwagon album in your face whilst whining there's this rilly 'tastic band, mkay, you probably won't have heard of them, but I have; but does it really matter?

Rubberneck sports the worst album cover this side of Ziggy Byfield and the Blackheart Band - not even mentioning the opportunity missed with the reissue - but this is nevertheless one hell of a disc, and indispensable listening for anyone who appreciates unsettling rural tales set to tight, crunchy guitar riffage.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Calvin Harris - I Created Disco (2007)


This stuff didn't make much of an impression on me when blasted out of a tinny speaker at work for the best part of a year, at least not beyond the fact that Calvin Harris at least wasn't the Killers, Kasabian, or the Arctic fucking Monkeys and was therefore already ahead of the game so far as I was concerned. More recently I happened to notice his having sat behind the desk on a couple of Dizzee Rascal albums, so here I am.

I Created Disco reminds me a little of LCD Soundsystem, although it may simply be parallel studio habits encouraging the comparison - dance music which harks back to the days before house came along to impose that ubiquitous hi-hat on everything, and a love of dry, punchy sounds which work well in large, crowded places, as distinct from the customary excess of reverb compensating for a lack of imagination and basic ignorance of the form, as is so often the case. Initial impressions foster a suspected love of kitsch and corn with Harris as a sort of dance equivalent of Look Around You, but the impression doesn't really stand up to repeated play. The music is too good, and there's too much love gone into its production for this to be some smirking exercise in reintroducing flares to the dance floor. Rather I suspect that Harris, having been born in 2012 and thus still a mere two years old, is too young to have been caught up in the spirit of nostalgia by which it's somehow okay to listen to ELO again; rather I suspect that he just loves making records and trying things out to see what will work. Thus on this debut we swing backwards and forwards between tracks invoking Kool & the Gang, or fat, squelchy bass numbers of the kind Snoop Dogg once favoured, Prince before he went tits up, and even mid-period Devo b-sides; none of which impinges on I Created Disco quite clearly being a new thing, at least as of six years ago, but new to me as I've only just heard it.

Nice work.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Eminem - The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)


I've lost track of how many times he's retired, having delivered his final rude word in album form as he looks forward to a solitary life of quiet contemplation and producing albums for Bobby Creekwater and Ca$his, whoever they were, but here we are again. Possibly it's only been the once, but somehow it feels like more.

Relapse, the first - or possibly second - comeback album, turned out to be one of the best things he'd ever recorded, against at least my own expectations, but this one, I just don't know...

I've listened to the album a fair few times but still come back to it without recalling much detail or experiencing any degree of anticipation, and am left on each occasion with a vague impression of eighty minutes of autotuned stadium rap wherein Eminem bangs on about the bitter struggle of being famous, as usual. On close inspection, this impression is actually wrong given that Rick Rubin has produced a few of the tracks here, for what that's worth; and what that's worth probably depends on how hard you're likely to come in your pants at the prospect of Rick Rubin tracks full of rock loops just like what he done for Run DMC back in the good old days when everything was better than it is now. Additionally, Eminem's own production now demonstrates much wider scope than it once did, having long since moved on from those plinky-plonky hip-hop Addams Family themes he kept turning out with all the gated snare and that.

Of course lyrically he continues to amaze, packing each line with the usual layers of echoing themes, puns, uproarious triple metaphors and all that other stuff which so endeared him to middle-class blokes with little round glasses who'd named their kids Jacob and Tamara following a Grauniad article in which some complete cock declared Eminem to be both the new Chaucer and the saviour of white rap. White people had been too embarrassed to rap after Vanilla Ice turned out to be a Republican senator, apparently, so Eminem was literally the first white man ever to rap properly like that Chuck D. The man said.

Ahem.

The problem is that by this point, I actually find it difficult to tell who the fuck he's whining about now. He was always one of the more self-referential rappers, a sort of microphone analogue to comic book twats like Joe Matt drawing comics about their porn addiction, followed by comics about the girlfriend reacting to his comic about porn addiction; but once you move away from mainstream media and lose track of whether Eminem is shagging Mariah Carey or back with wossername, there isn't much of this that makes a lot of sense without meticulously decoding all the metaphors and layered rhymes. At one point he even returns to his preferred easy targets of the old days, the Insane Clown Posse, but I can't tell if he still hates them, or if they turned up at his house with a fucking pie and they're all best buds now. There's too much information here, and whilst it's all lyrically dazzling, the content is obscure, at least aside from the track wherein he apologises to his mum for recording all those horrible songs about her, which if nice in many respects, also makes you wish he'd just been less of a knob in the first place.

The Marshall Mathers LP 2 may be far from his best, although he's yet to record a really bad album; and for all it's faults, at least this one tries, I suppose.