Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Ray Reagan & the Rayguns (2009)


You may recall Stan Batcow from such acts as the Membranes, Howl in the Typewriter, Ceramic Hobs, Blunt Instrument, and the Def-A-Kators, but if not, here's another unfamiliar pie in which he's had fingers, a band which played gigs, garnered fancy-pants record company interest, and accordingly went into the studio at some point during the eighties; at which point the tale fizzles into either thin air or is absorbed into one of the other four-million bands in which the Batcow has been involved over the years. The story behind this collection is that it comprises those studio recordings, arguably those vintage studio recordings, dug out of a box in the attic and finally whipped into some sort of shape.

I have to admit, upon first listen it sounded a lot like just another Pumf record. Stan has a fairly distinctive sound and songwriting style, which I suppose can be a hindrance as much as a recommendation; but the strengths of the album really begin to come through after a couple of spins, once it's obvious that this isn't quite just another Pumf release. I think the point at which it clicked for me was where I suddenly realised how much Ray Reagan & the Rayguns remind me of Hawkwind - particularly on the chugging Dopamine, although a faintly crusty festival vibe informs the enterprise as a whole. I'd say it reminds me of the Levellers in places, except I never liked the Levellers, and this is better, and presumably predates them by a couple of years; which seems particularly pronounced on Salt And Pepper, a thoroughly breezy account of getting raided by the pigs, country tinged, and so fucking catchy you'd swear you'd heard it somewhere before.

After about the fifth play it occurs to me that this might even be the best thing ever released on the Pumf label. It seems to represent all the strengths of those involved, not least being Stan Batcow as Ray Reagan, woven into something much bigger than the sum of its bits, and which doesn't quite sound like anything else after all. It's of its time, I suppose, with touches of pub rock and maybe the Stranglers somewhere in there, and even passages of cod reggae which manage to not sound fucking ridiculous; and there's a wonderful Hammond organ, or something of that kind. With a bigger, more expensive production - maybe from Clive Langer or whoever it was used to work on those Elvis Costello albums - this could have been massive, which I suppose potentially makes it a lost classic.

I sometimes wonder if Stan Batcow doesn't release too much, spreading himself too thin in certain respects, so it's nice to be reminded of what he can come up with when he's firing on all four cylinders.

On sale here, although you may have to root around for a bit.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Toyah - The Blue Meaning (1980)


I fancied Toyah something rotten when I was at school*, knowing her mainly as the punky presenter of Look! Hear!, a Birmingham based yoots programme featuring weekly performances by local acts such as the Neon Hearts, Ruby Turner, and others. Then, following her turning up on an episode of Shoestring, I realised she also had a band so I made my own Toyah badge using Humbrol enamel paints, copying the logo out of Smash Hits. Then, when I finally heard the actual music, it was okay, but somehow wasn't quite so amazing as I felt certain it would be. I mean, it was all right, but, well - you know...

I never heard The Blue Meaning at the time, having drifted away by that point, so I'm only just hearing it now, and incredibly - against all expectation - a couple of plays in and it's actually pretty fucking great. To backtrack, I picked it up as part of a double disc package along with Sheep Farming in Barnet, the first album, but not really an album seeing as it was just a collection of EPs and singles. Sheep Farming in Barnet was mostly the stuff I heard which left me underwhelmed, even at the age of fourteen. Neon Womb was great of course, and Danced and Our Movie, but once you're past those, it all blends into one and the individual tracks really don't work together as an album. She has a great voice, but nevertheless rather than sing she started out overacting to the music, like a sexier William Shatner - whoops, whistles, comedy John Major voices, all manner of funny noises - the kind of sounds which traditionally accompany spooky expressions of surprise made as though trying to convince the audience that you really are subject to the influence of dark forces. Similarly the music of that first handful of discs seems to be some prog band's idea of punk, or at least - cough cough - new wave; so the enterprise steers perilously close to resembling rock opera. I know that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing every single time...

Anyway, I guess once she'd got it out of her system with the stuff on Sheep Farming, whatever it was, The Blue Meaning really comes together as sounding very much like an album rather than a series of weird squeaking noises bearing no particular relation to each other. She's reigned in the overacting, developed a convincingly pseudo-operatic bellow, and the music rocks pretty darn hard, like it really wishes it had been produced by Tony Visconti. In fact I had to look at the sleeve to check that it wasn't, and I can easily imagine Next Day-era Bowie vocalising over some of this stuff. It's not punk, and never really was, and as has been pointed out from time to time, lyrically it's mostly pseudo-mystical horseshit about pyramids, crystal balls, and sphinxes: it's a self-involved teenage girl spending five hours putting on her make-up, making it look as weird as possible just so she can pull a spooky face and make you think she's deep and mysterious; but fuck it - you know all those Beach Boys records? They were just about cars and girls, most of them! Honest! If you've somehow mistaken The Blue Meaning for St. Paul's letters to the Galatians, then you're probably missing the point. I know how these days we're all busily declaring that everything from the eighties was tittersomely brilliant, at least now that we don't actually have to dress up in any of that shit, but The Blue Meaning is a real cracker of a debut album.

*: I recently discovered that the children's show Teletubbies was filmed on the farm upon which I grew up as a child, and of course Toyah was the voice of Teletubbies. I suppose, it might be a coincidence.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

David Bowie - No Plan (2017)


What's the possibility of my being able to write anything useful or meaningful about this? Minimal, I'd say, but fuck it - let's see what comes out...

It's been a year since he went and it still feels wrong, or at least unnecessarily weird - not least with that whole idea of Bowie having been the glue holding the universe together, which is why it's all turned to shit since and we've got fucking Wotsits Hitler running the show; and listening to No Plan facilitates my appreciation of how his being gorn still doesn't seem to make sense. Here are four tracks recorded while he was in the process of dying - as are we all, I suppose - one from
Blackstar, and three I've never heard, which I guess must be the last things he recorded and which failed to appear during his lifetime. The new material feels very much part of the album and the direction it took, sombre without necessarily sounding depressive, overtly jazzy, and somehow seeming both luxuriously lush and yet a fucking tough listen at the same time.

I don't want to get too bogged down in what it all means, because that's why you listen to the thing so there probably isn't anything I can say which is worth saying; but the crucial point is that, like Blackstar, the record does its job, and does it exceptionally well, and at least as well as any of Bowie's former glories. When I Met You is, I suppose, the last new Bowie song I will ever hear, and it feels like he knew it in so much as that it's kind of up, almost as though our man had grown tired of cataloguing the minutiae of his own impending demise.

See - I told you it'd be horseshit.

Just listen to the record.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wrangler - LA Spark (2014)


There's a new one out of course, but having grasped the possibility of someone from Cabaret Voltaire still doing something worth listening to, I realised I should probably catch up with this one first. Wrangler features Stephen Mallinder, but probably shouldn't be regarded as Son of Cabaret Voltaire given the patently significant involvement of Ben Edwards and Phil Winter, as expressed in the predominance of vintage analogue synthesisers, or just proper synthesisers if you prefer. That said, Mallinder's characteristic mumbling growl is pretty distinctive, and musically it's very much a groove vaguely in the tradition of The Crackdown - that same sort of pulsing James Brown workout with sequencers popping away left, right and centre. Weirdly, for a record which sounds like it doesn't even make use of anything digital, let alone sampling technology, for something which sounds very much triggered and plumbed in and even seems to utilise what I'd swear is a spring-line reverb, LA Spark manages to sound surprisingly new and squeaky - fresh even. Aside from those already mentioned above, I was occasionally reminded of Kraftwerk back when they resembled Open University lecturers - which is odd given how Florian and the lads weren't particularly electronic back then - but Wrangler otherwise very much resembles its own animal - not even the electronic equivalent of the rockabilly revival I was half anticipating. Not only is there yet life in the old dog, but this might even be one of the best things with which Mallinder has been involved - which is eye opening considering how he doesn't appear to have aged since about 1985; and that the other bloke is now reduced to solo karaoke performances as Cabaret Voltaire, which strikes me as extremely poor form, but never mind.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hard Corps - Metal + Flesh (1990)


The nostalgia industry really is bollocks, particularly since the eighties slipped back into territory viable for excavation. Slap this one on the deck and you might envision yoots throwing shapes in pastel clothes whilst declaring Metal + Flesh to be the most eighties thing evah with all its gated snares and octopads; but it isn't because the eighties, if you take the trouble to look closely, was actually mostly Dire Straits and nobody breaking Matthew Wilder's stride, and David Christie saddling up, and Karel fucking Fialka. It was shite, which is why Hard Corps sounded so amazing.

Whilst bands incorporating three blokes with synths may not have been particularly thin on the ground at the time, Hard Corps distinguished themselves by doing it better than just about everyone else and carving out their own identity at least a year or two ahead of the curve. It also helped that they really did sound fucking hard, kind of like what Portion Control probably aspired to with a drum machine that kicks you in the head as much as it shoves you out onto the floor; but instead of pretending to play army on the back of that crushing rhythm, Hard Corps built up a darkly layered sensuality from sombre melodies and the late Regine Fetet's heavily accented voice; so there are all sorts of forces pulling against one another in this music - dark, sexy, clubby, sad, solitary, icy, and yet somehow euphoric.

They sounded like one of those best kept secrets when I first heard them. It felt like a privilege to come across the occasional twelve in some neglected corner of the record shop - must have got there by accident and now it's mine! This is my fucking music. No-one else in the universe could possibly understand how great this is. I took Je Suis Passée around to John's house and tried to recruit him, but he just didn't get it, and I later realised that the man was a bit of a tit. Sometimes I wonder if my possessive fervour reached such intensity as to be to blame for why Hard Corps never really made it big. They couldn't escape from my devotion, such as it was, and how great I felt when I stuck Hard Corps on and wacked the volume right up. Fuck the Smiths - this is what it felt like to be young in the eighties.

All these years later I discover that Regine is regrettably no longer with us, and that they weren't even French. Some wonder has gone from the world, but this music still sounds so good it makes you want to either punch someone or have sex.

Shit.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Portion Control - Simulate Sensual (1983)


Unless I dreamed it, I'm still just about able to recall that brief couple of weeks when everyone thought Portion Control were going to be the next bunch of obscure industrial weirdies to hit the big time, although admittedly were we to enter discussion of just what I mean by everyone, we could be here all fucking afternoon. I seem to recall that Raise the Pulse got played by Kid Jensen or some other mulleted evening DJ, and then suddenly Test Department were on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and we all forgot we'd ever cared about hard rhythmic electronics.

Living out in the sticks with record buying habits dictated by what I could afford with pocket money and what I brought home from my paper round, I found it fairly difficult to get hold of anything much by Portion Control for the purpose of finding out what they sounded like prior to declaring them my new favourite band that you've never heard of; but the Raise the Pulse 12" turned up in a local record shop, and it seemed to represent what Depeche Mode should have sounded like - which was good - providing an appealing contrast of shouting, machine gun drum machine, and a tinkly little keyboard riff played on a child's novelty organ most likely shaped like a table covered in moulded plastic cupcakes with a smiling teddy sat opposite. I always enjoyed the pleasingly authoritarian name suggesting nutrient slop dispensed to worker drones by means of a spigot, and the rumour that it derived from all three of them being employed in the canteen at the Houses of Parliament; but more than anything they remained mostly a great idea, at least for me. There were articles and reviews in fanzines peppered with intriguing track titles and the notion that Portion Control existed as two distinct technological entities - AMAG and VMAG, respectively Audio and Visual Media Assault Group. It's like they were from the fucking future or summink!

Inevitably, whilst not actually disappointed, I was a little underwhelmed when I finally got my mitts on product a couple of years later. I suppose I'd expected some formidably growling dystopian cybernaut resembling what Front 242 sounded like at the beginning of the nineties, but it more closely resembled a supermarket's own brand version of Cabaret Voltaire. This is the problem with the fetishisation of music technology - as was - namely that you really have to have something creative going on besides access to a synthesiser and an effects pedal, otherwise the chance is that your music will date pretty quickly, in some cases before you've even finished recording it.

The thing which strikes me about this era of Portion Control, at least as I listen to it in 2017, is that I could have done it myself without too much huffing and puffing. I recognise all of the equipment and what is done with that equipment, leaving little room for that old industrial magic - which I state mainly for the sake of contrast with the truism of everything from the allegedly industrial eighties now being declared amazing and ahead of its time as a matter of course. I Staggered Mentally was a great album, albeit a great album which sounded one fuck of a lot like Cabaret Voltaire, and rebranded as Solar Enemy they were astonishing live, but this early greatest not actually hits collection is interesting mainly as a record of its time. It's decent, but I suppose the hype was better.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? (1984)


It was the timing which sucked me in, the timing combined with the novelty of a record made from replayed samples of existing sounds, something which then remained unknown outside the Fairlight CMI being put through its paces on an episode of Tomorrow's World. Back in 1984, I was obsessed with the Italian Futurists and felt they shared some sort of rebellious impulse in common with the music I tended to like; so when this lot turned up, openly acknowledging Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises manifesto and on a label named after one of Marinetti's concrete poems, it caught my attention; and yet something didn't quite sit right. It might have been some sort of misplaced proprietorial regard of Futurism on my part - these people were cashing in on the thing which only I knew about and only I really understood and they hadn't asked my permission; but also it was irritating how Trevor Horn, when asked about Zang Tumb Tumb, said only that it was an onomatopoeic percussive sound, adding I suppose it's rather Dada.

Next they seemed to be everywhere, and so much so that I heard every single track on this album long before I bought it, which was actually a couple of years later on a wet Saturday afternoon when I couldn't really find anything else in the record shop. By that point the thing had become so ingrained that it couldn't fail to sound good, as indeed it did, and as it still does. It's sharp, funny, and stupid, and it has all sorts of things going on, and it's beautifully produced as you would expect; but I don't know if it was ever important or even particularly ground breaking, as many have since claimed.

The samples were, so I am informed, mostly presets which came with the Fairlight CMI, so most of what Art of Noise did was in the arrangement, and presumably in Horn's ability to make it all sound as lush as a Ferrero Roche advert; because at best what we have here is what Throbbing Gristle would have been were they all nicely behaved Oxbridge graduates, which is why Paul Morley made for such a good fit. The clues are all over the place, not least in sampled bass lines playing what may as well have been Rock Around the Clock and so inadvertently foreshadowing Jive Bunny; and then more recently I rediscovered a tape of the Horn promoting the first Art of Noise record on the wireless, during which he opined:

I think the truth of it is that people don't learn how to play their instruments properly nowadays. They learn how to talk to the music press. They learn how to do their hair. They learn about what to wear and what to say, but the basic physical learning of - do you know of anybody in a group nowadays who is a good guitar player? Do you know if the guitar player in Duran Duran is a particularly good guitar player? In the old days you knew who was a good player, you knew that Eric Clapton [was a good guitar player].

Seriously, grandad, fuck the fuck off. Of course, Morley and Horn were only ever involved in the most negligible sense, at least according to J.J. Jeczalik, but it seems significant that they were able to hitch their wagons to the Art of Noise in the first place without anyone noticing a disparity. Morley dismissed later Art of Noise releases as novelty records, seemingly implying that this one should be considered high art, which doesn't really work. It's great pop music, but it was never art, which, considering how Art of Noise achieved a whole shitload of musical firsts, is quite shocking; but then you might also argue that Jive Bunny did a whole load of stuff no-one had done before.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Stephen Mallinder - Pow-Wow Plus (1982)


Somehow I always had the impression that Cabaret Voltaire was mostly Richard H. Kirk, musically speaking, which on closer inspection is obviously a ridiculous idea being as it relegates Mallinder to er... eye candy, cheekbones and mumbling, I suppose. It's taken me a thoroughly embarrassing thirty-five years to catch up with this solo album, but I guess it's never too late to find oneself standing corrected. My assumption of Cabaret Voltaire being mostly Kirk is based on how much his solo Time High Fiction sounded like them; so given that Pow-Wow could similarly also have been a Cabaret Voltaire release, I guess there was a point at which the two of them were musically attuned to an uncanny degree. Pow-Wow, here reissued and slightly expanded as Pow-Wow Plus, dates from roughly the same period as Red Mecca and 2X45 and could quite easily sit between the two as part of a set, with the only incongruity being that it's largely instrumental and maybe more stripped down in some respects. The new thing for me, or at least the thing which has been obvious all along but I hadn't really thought about, is how fresh this material sounds - even thirty years later - and how little it owes to rock music, or ever really owed. I know there were a lot of young men in vests bleating on about a dance influence at the time, but this really does owe most of its moves to the weirder reaches of black music, funk, soul, jazz, dub reggae, even bits of Parliament; furthermore, as with most of the music with which Mallinder has been involved, there's nothing demonstrative here, neither Bobby Gillespie wearing his influences on his sleeve nor Porridge jumping up and down yelling look at me, just a laid back groove quietly doing its thing without feeling the need to tick any of the traditional crappy industrial music boxes. I know Cabaret Voltaire are not without a degree of acclaim, but still I feel they remain underrated when you engage with just how good some of their music was.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Devo - Something For Everybody (2010)


I've always found the idea that anybody could have a single all-time favourite music artist a little weird, but if pressed I'd have to say mine were Devo in so much as that whilst there have been months, perhaps even years, without them being much of a presence in my headphones, there has never been a time when I've stuck on a Devo record and found I wasn't really in the mood for it. Setting aside a pre-pubescent fixation with the Beatles, Devo were probably the first group I really got into as a teenager, and got into with sufficient fervour as to get me buying the records. They scared the living shit out of me when I first heard that debut album, a red vinyl copy lent to me by my best friend Graham, but once I got past my suspicion of this music as something weird, unwholesome and mutated - which of course it was - I was hooked, and apparently for life.

A couple of years later I was hanging out with a former Cravat and we were talking about Crass, of whom we were both fans. Ideally, we concluded, Crass should make records which sounded like the Human League or Roxy Music by which to smuggle their message into the hit parade and reach people who might genuinely benefit from their perspective on society; at which point of the conversation I realised it had already happened, and that's what Devo were. Of course, whilst Devo may not actually have much to say about anarcho-syndicalism, like Crass, they've never been shy in pointing out everything which is wrong with our society and our forever needing daddy to tell us what to do. The main difference is that you can dance to the Devo version because it's fundamentally stupid and fun, and even though it was born from Gerald Casale's outrage at witnessing cops shooting kids at Kent State, musically it's the Monster Mash as envisioned for a future designed by John Waters and Hugo Gernsback; and it's like this because it's a satire on culture, not something removed from it and living by its own laws in Epping Forest - which isn't a criticism of Crass, by the way, simply an acknowledgement of different strategies.

Something For Everybody will probably remain the final new Devo album given the passing of a Bob, and a couple of those left behind supposedly no longer on the greatest of terms. Continuing Devo's taking the piss out of society, the music industry, and themselves, the album was supposedly written by focus group in response to questionnaires asking what consumers would like to hear from Devo. I remember filling in one online, and that's supposedly why we have the blue energy dome on the cover, as opposed to any other hue of headgear. We also got to pick which tracks made it onto this album which, tellingly, makes for much better listening than the collection of rejects and leftovers which was later issued as Something Else For Everybody. I say much better listening, but what I actually probably mean to say is that this is an unequivocally perfect album, illustrating as it does why there can never be a musical institution greater than Devo.

Yes, I know, and I don't care. There are people who don't get Devo. I've met them on internet forums sniggering about how Devo is like totally gay LOL before returning to the thread discussing which Judas Priest albums rocked the hardest, which sort of proves that Devo were right about a few things.

With Devo, each song is a puzzle in so much as that there is either a directly progressive message, or one otherwise implicit in the form, and it's usually communicated in terms which combine the novelty of the Archies with the mind-expanding strangeness of the Residents; and unscrambling that puzzle, you arrive at a place wherein it becomes impossible to sustain ridiculous devolved ideas, or so my theory goes. What this means, or what I think it means, is that if you get Devo, then you're probably doing something right; and you've probably never stood outside Planned Parenthood wearing an NRA t-shirt and holding up a crucifix; and you almost certainly didn't vote for the Annoying Orange. The music of Devo improves our world by making us better people, and if you need proof - next time you get your heart broken, eschew the usual soundtrack of miserable fuckers in favour of almost anything by Devo. I promise, you'll notice the difference in a very short time.

So yes, this will most likely be the final Devo album, which is a shame but - Lord - what a finale! Musically it's almost a summary of their entire career - the sharp, irresistible pop of Freedom of Choice, the synthetic grandeur of Shout, and the faintly disturbing mutant novelty of their weird primal phase - Fountain of Filth, Buttered Beauties and the rest, not even omitting the occasional Popeye-style ethnic caricature switched on its head as happens with Cameo. Something For Everybody rocks hard and dresses like the Jetsons whilst still managing to squeeze out a tear of more genuine feeling than anything Sting ever did in a rain forest.

In the bigger scheme of things
We haven't been around here more than a moment.
And yet too many, it seems,
Believe we are creating a brand new world around us.
We are creating a brand new world without us.
Maybe it really is okay.
Although we're digging our own graves,
At this moment.

I could write about how no-one really took them seriously because they were scared of the truth about de-evolution, namely that it was never a marketing gimmick like Adam Ant pretending to be a pirate or whatever; but some of us did take them seriously, and I guess we've been proven right because we're now living in the world described in Don't Shoot (I'm a Man).

This might be our very last chance. Let's not fuck it up.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sylvie & Babs - The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion (1985)




Yes, I'm well aware of it being Nurse With Wound, thank you very much, but I'm pretty sure it was listed as above when released, the reason being that Steve Stapleton regarded the Hi-Fi Companion as something quite separate and distinct from the Nurse With Wound canon, which it sort of is, or at least was. So I'm sticking with the original version of the story, plus I seem to recall the United Dairies mail order list had this down as something other than Nurse With Wound, and listed under comedy for what it may be worth - along with Hastings of Malawi, whatever the hell that was.

Of course, it's now difficult to get through a whole day without having to hear some cunt's aspirationally humorous plunderphonic deconstruction of existing bits of music, but back in 1985, 'twas not yet so overegged a pudding as it has become, and possibly because no-one had a sampler so it was harder. Sylvie & Babs were principally Stapleton and the gang making music with bits of other people's records, and - so I gather - making it the extraordinarily complicated way by splicing together inch thick strips of studio tape and so on in the spirit of Pierre Schaeffer and those guys as opposed to just sitting next to the radio with one finger on the pause button and then selling the end result to people with a photocopy of your knob on the cover like Hamilton Bohannon* would have done.

To start again at the beginning, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as industrial, then you're a fucking clown; you wear big red shoes; you have a bowler hat on your head with a giant flower coming out of it; and when you drive your car, you honk the horn twice every few yards and the doors have usually fallen off by the time you reach your destination, which will almost certainly be a clown shop which you're visiting in order to make purchase of clown supplies. This description also applies, albeit to a lesser extent, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as a noise group or - ugh - sound artists; although Nurse With Wound are very much about sound and the psychological and physiological effects it can have on the listener: so it's definitely music, but works more like a sonic analogy of the art of Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other Dadaist types than does music with tunes, verses, a chorus, or which is made using musical instruments. The next sound you hear on a Nurse With Wound record may often be the last sound you would expect to hear depending on whatever has gone before, which distinguishes them from those acts more obviously reliant on repetition. It can be hard work listening to Nurse With Wound, but also very rewarding because it's never quite like anything you will have heard before, possibly including previous Nurse With Wound albums. They're not something you can listen to all the time, but every so often, you'll find there's nothing better if the time is right.

Well, that's the theory anyway, and I haven't actually heard the last five-hundred or so records so for all I know he may be cranking out handbag house with Nick Griffin these days, but for the sake of argument, let's just pretend it's still 1985 and that I'm right. I failed to buy this at the time because there was other stuff I wanted, and Nurse With Wound were an acquired taste even by my standards; also, it wasn't that easy to get hold of their stuff. I had Insect & Individual Silenced, which was fucking great, but apparently not so great as to keep me from flogging it when I decided I really needed those first two albums by You've Got Foetus On Your Breath. Millions of years later, I find this on CD and notice that I actually know three of the people who appeared on here amongst the lengthy list of collaborators, which is weird. In fact, I've been in bands with two of them; and one of them was Andrew Cox who was my bestest buddy for a while, and who is no longer with us, and who I still miss like crazy; so I couldn't really not buy it.

I suspect all those bargain basement cassette versions of Nurse With Wound have spoiled the real thing for me over the years, because in 2017 Sylvie & Babs sound drearily familiar rather than weird and surprising, at least on first listen. The key seems to be getting past the point of trainspotting where it all came from - snatches of My Boomerang Won't Come Back and the like, which seem intrusive whilst they remain familiar, although maybe that was the point. After a few spins, it picks up - which again is the opposite of what I expect to get from a Nurse With Wound record given how they seem so often reliant on shock and surprise; but this eventually settles into a sort of musicality suggestive of narrative which is almost certainly in the ear of the beholder. I suppose this could be what differentiates Sylvie & Babs from Nurse With Wound - unless it's just my lugholes - namely that increasing familiarity with the material brings some sort of pleasure, just like you get from Sting and Coldplay, beyond which, one is drawn to focus on the bizarre acoustics at play. That made sense in my head when I thought it.

The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion is decent, and it's nice to hear Andrew's voice again - repeating the phrase it ain't necessarily so, in case anyone was wondering - but it isn't startling, and more than anything it makes me wish I'd found some other means of financing my purchase of those early Foetus discs. Time to get looking for another copy of Insect & Individual Silenced, I suppose.

*: Name changed so as to protect the annoying.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water (2000)


Outside of this album, I find it really difficult to get past the off-putting impression of Limp Bizkit as having been a bunch of jocks - essentially what happens when members of the football team start writing poetry because someone told them it was a great way to up one's pussy-getting average. I also have Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, their debut album, and I've tried to listen to the thing but it only seems to reinforce the aforementioned off-putting impression of dudes emptying cans of beer over their own heads whilst bellowing awesome! Maybe I need to give it a few more spins. I don't know.

So what's different here? Why does this one sound so good?

I wasn't going to buy the thing. I looked at their pictures in Melody Maker and understood them to be nu-metal - which sounded like a pile of wank to me, sort of like metal apologising for itself. I'd encountered Slipknot fans in Southend-on-Sea with their ludicrous black flares and eyeliner, the most harshly commodified rebellion I had ever seen - boutique punk rock at its most comical. I wasn't going to buy the thing, but I was curious at DMX apparently having turned up on one track, and there was some sort of poorly defined association with Eminem; and then my girlfriend's little sister gave me a freebie because she was working at the record company.

I've never quite taken the view of rap metal being inherently worthless - although most of it clearly is - or that white guys can't rap, but Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water falters on both counts and the strength of the album is paradoxically that it works because of that. It isn't that Fred Durst couldn't rap, but he was never anything amazing in that department, and this whole thing would have sounded fucking ridiculous as a rap record with samples or whatever replacing the guitars. Durst's rhymes are mostly average and with that whiny upper register delivery he sounds like an eight-year old kid who just had his gameboy taken away from him, which itself accentuates the absurdity of all the homeboy schtick about Limp Bizkit being in da house and picking a fight with Trent Reznor for some innocuous comment or other; and it's because what is basically an American Walter the Softy crying into his ruined homework contrasts so starkly with the crushing riffs that we get a sound much greater than the sum of its parts. The beats are hard with a deep pensive bass and Wes Borland's guitar alternating between sharply gated walls of fuzz and something sounding surprisingly close to U2 without the bluster; all of which is pulled together as would be a hip-hop production yet without the end result sounding even like it's considered the possibility of calling itself rap. A few tweaks here and there and it could have turned out like one of those horrible whiny teenpunk bands, Green Day or Sum 41 or whatever, but the big difference is how that stuff parades its angst as a selling point, whilst all Durst's dirty laundry sounds so awkward and horribly personal - and with a bizarre mix of bragging and self-recrimination - it comes closer to the vengeful shit muttered under your breath when you're absolutely certain of no-one else being able to hear you. So despite everything, it's pretty intense stuff, like the volcanically impotent rage of the bullied kid who half feels that his muscular nemesis might even be right about some of that stuff. I should probably also point out that Durst sports a half-decent moody rock croon when he's actually singing.

That's why it works for me, and because the music is great.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bernadette Cremin & Paul Mex - Guilty Fist (2015)


Just to get the customary objections out in the open, whilst it isn't strictly true that I hate poetry, I probably hate enough of it to render the assertion more or less accurate; although, to break it down a little further, the specific sort of thing which brings me out in hives is poetry which knows that it is poetry and which introduces itself as such with either a wry Stilgoe-esque smirk or the sort of studied glacial nonchalance that can only be perfected by many hours spent gazing either into a mirror or up its own bumhole. It's the teenager who has somehow managed to have seen it all before and who understands just how shocking his words must seem to the audience at the - ugh - poetry slam, enunciating cock like the word might be new to us. It's my former housemate Steve poeting about how fucking her is like escaping from a drowning helicopter, when we all know he never even got close, and that the unlucky lady in question had more sense than to let that passive-aggressive little misanthrope anywhere near her ha'penny.

On the other hand, I very much like Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and others whose work I tend to think of just as writing, because that's what it is. So my criteria seems to rest upon how much the work is involved in the mythology of its own self-importance. In other words I like writing which just gets on with the communication without having to tell us what form it's going to take; and getting at last to the point, the writing of Bernadette Cremin, whoever she may be, very much belongs in this second category.

On the face of it, Guilty Fist is someone reading poetry to the accompaniment of suitably atmospheric music, except it's nothing so mannered as the description might suggest. Bernadette Cremin speaks her own words with the sort of gravity which demands you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention, and her testimony is spot on - clear and straight to the heart of the matter with chilling precision, neither showboating anything too ostentatiously shocking nor necessarily reducing everything to its lowest common denominator. She gets the balance exactly right, perfectly blending the narrative with the mood of the music, dispelling the suggestion of either being mere accompaniment; and this syncretism is further achieved when she slips into song and turns out to have a pretty decent bluesy voice.

Her subject matter seems to be highly personal and quite intense, so listening is a profoundly psychological experience. The music, mostly arranged by Mex, takes a downtempo direction with bluesy, jazzy, even occasionally pseudo-classical inflections. I'd say it reminds me a little of Portishead, except I never really liked them that much, and this is better. At times I'm reminded of In the Nursery when they were slapping marble columns on the covers of their records and pretending to be French, or maybe even Cranes, if anyone remembers them. Certainly there's a gothic element, gothic as in reading Mary Shelley with a glass of whine rather than dressing up like Nosferatu. Anyway, whatever it is, it's very powerful.

Treat yo'self!

Mudhoney - Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)


The only reason for my failing to have nabbed this when it came out nearly thirty years ago that I've been able to come up with is that I was never a tool who based my record buying habits on whether or not a band was from Seattle and might thus be friends with that hunky Kurt with his dreamy blue eyes; plus it's not like I was short of stuff I wanted to buy that year. Mudhoney sounded like they might be the kind of thing I liked, not least because almost everything I played in the Dovers - the band of which I was a member at the time - was played through the same Electro-Harmonix pedal after which this was named, or at least after which the original six-track EP was named. This version also includes the preceding singles.

Still, better late than never seeing as this turned up in my usual store and there didn't seem like any good reason to not buy it. Nothing really stands out for the first couple of plays, but it quickly gains ground third or fourth time around. Mudhoney, as I now appreciate, were pretty much a slightly hairy garage punk band in the general vein of Iggy & the Stooges, wild but tuneful, and sounding very much like they'd be a blast live. The fact of their having been fans of Billy Childish isn't difficult to understand. In fact - if you'll pardon the supreme wankiness of such a digression, dear reader - they kind of remind me of the aforementioned Dovers, which is curious. I suppose we should have capitalised on having occasionally stood in the same room as Billy Childish, but never mind.

Providing they haven't turned into Supertramp in the intervening years without my knowing - which is possible given that I've only just realised they had albums other than this one - Mudhoney lacked the musical sophistication of Seattle favourites Tad, who I suppose might be characterised as a concrete mixer rendering expertly played Led Zeppelin covers; but on the other hand they sound a shitload more fun than Nirvana ever did, and I realise that view is probably mainly just me and no-one else. It's self-loathing and booze through a fuzz pedal cranked up far too loud, and yet you can sort of tell it wants you to have an air-punchingly good time; so there are none of those songs about only wanting cool people at their shows. I really wish I'd bought this at the time instead of that shitty Revolting Cocks record.

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free (2004)


This is one of those albums where I've had to forcibly extricate myself from all the irritation generated by everyone else who liked it before I'm properly able to appreciate the thing. I didn't bother buying it at the time mainly due to having got a bit bored of Mike Skinner's face looming out at me from every other page of newspapers I probably shouldn't have bothered reading in the first place. The Grauniad in particular couldn't get enough of the fucker, the most excruciating case of which I seem to recall being a twenty page illustrated feature based around Mike explaining his philosophy whilst playing board games in some local pub with his parents - and no I haven't made that up; I expect Dynasty Crew were busy that day, or maybe they were just too scary and nobody ever compared Bare Face What to Squeeze or other civilised songsmiths specialising in bitter-sweet kitchen sink balladry. Whilst not having anything against Skinner personally, and having enjoyed some of the beats he recorded for others, and at least recognising him as a force for good by some description, I just couldn't get past the Streets being rap for people who don't like rap - Stephen H. Morris for example, who in his musical history of the Medway towns compares Kids Unique to the Streets, presumably because that's what he's heard on Jo Whiley sandwiched between tracks by the Kaiser Chiefs, Editors, and all those other unlistenable indie wankers. It's rap for people who don't like rap because of all those black people sexist rappers singing about drugs and guns, like they do.

The irony is, I suppose, that I'm not sure the Streets quite count as rap, at least not unless we're adding Ian Dury, Bernard Cribbins, and George Formby to the canon. It's certainly urban in so much as that the influence of rap, hip-hop, garage and the rest are obvious, but that isn't quite the same thing.

Skinner spins a decent story once we've got over that thing he does of self-consciously meting out one syllable per beat, like it's some kind of reading exercise during school activities week. It sounds like he's drawing attention to his own shortcomings so as to let us know he's not taking himself too seriously and he won't be twisting his fingers into funny shapes like those rappers do, at least not unless he needs to make air quotes around any of those spicy words which kids on the street are always using; but yeah - once we're over that hump, A Grand Don't Come for Free is a highly listenable album. It's also a concept album, although the story is difficult to follow - something about splitting up with his girlfriend, having a shit day, renewing the TV licence, then finding that the missing thousand pounds was down the back of the telly all along, although where it came from in the first place is never quite clear. As belching working class concept albums go, A Grand is nothing like so rounded or satisfying as Sham 69's That's Life - and yes, I really did just write that sentence - but has some wonderfully tender moments, notably Could Well Be In, Blinded By the Lights, and Dry Your Eyes, none of which do anything which would startle Paul McCartney. The beats, as you might expect, are great, seamlessly working soft soulful acoustics together with the buzzing and bleeps of grime and the like - never cluttered, always clear and with a very much human pulse. It's a very good album aspiring to be a great album, but never quite getting there because the narrative just isn't as compelling as it thinks it is, and Skinner's voice isn't sufficiently interesting to keep it all rolling along for the duration; and it's only a great rap album if it's the only one you've heard; which is still a thumbs up, roughly speaking.

Front 242 - 06:21:03:11 Up Evil / 05:22:09:12 Off (1993)


Dammit - I used to love me some Front 242. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off - the second of these paired albums - when it came out, despite the alarm bells which went off when I noticed them subject to full page advertisements in various Vertigo comics of the time. I bought 05:22:09:12 Off when it came out and never fully warmed to it, which is why I didn't bother buying the other one. It sounded like half a record, something incomplete, which I guess is exactly what it was as I now realise. These two were originally meant to be a double CD, two halves of the same thing, roughly speaking a concept album about good and evil...

I suppose I could leave the review at that.




Front 242 were the greatest thing ever, at least for a short time, at least for most of the period beginning with Official Version and concluding with Tyranny > For You <, providing you don't hang around too long in the general vicinity of Front by Front. Sadly, 1993 seems to be the point at which they lost sight of what made them great in the first place, the moment where those lesser artists upon whom they'd had such a massive influence started to make the better records. Richard 23 didn't have a whole lot to do with either of these albums so I assume his input was in some way crucial, even if it was just telling the other two when something was crap. This was the point at which they turned up in Melody Maker wearing tracksuits and baseball caps and with a rapper now in the band.

So I already had 05:22:09:12 Off on vinyl, but I saw the two CDs for ten bucks which seemed like a good buy, potentially. It turns out that the two discs actually feature slightly different line-ups of the crumbling band, so I suppose the division is justified. 06:21:03:11 Up Evil features collaborative work with members of Parade Ground, whom I vaguely recall as being one of a million EBM also-rans perpetually clogging up nineties compilation albums with grunting tracks about working, obeying, stomping, marching, wearing Doc Martens and being really strong. Consequently the album is mostly generic techno of the kind made by people who don't actually dance - overproduced, too much going on, and with an excess of reverb invoking the same mood as is featured on every other cunt's record. It misses the point of what made Front 242 so special, namely that it wasn't the repetition. Unlike all those other aviator-goggled clowns, Front 242 worked because their music was composed along lines closer to the classical and orchestral than to the traditionally dance-orientated. There's repetition, but beyond the repetition there'll be some new element entering the picture with almost every bar, often details occurring just once during the track; so whilst it's nevertheless all very much programmed, it's a highly individual approach to programming. By contrast 06:21:03:11 Up Evil is mostly just your bog standard thump thump thump thump pulse pulse pulse rumble rumble obey my commands, weaklings goth chord goth chord and back to thump thump thump... It lacks variety.

05:22:09:12 Off is marginally the better record with the grammatically dubious Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed recalling the majestic solemnity of Tyranny > For You <; except once you get past those two and dispense with the underwhelming rapping of Animal, you could still be listening to the first record. So we have two cracking tunes and the rest of it may as well be that scene from The Matrix where Samuel L. Jackson takes Neil to his underground kingdom of totally awesome tattooed crusties and they all listen to really loud rave music. There's also a Foetus remix of one of the tracks, I suppose, but the most that can be said about it is that it answers the question of what Front 242 would sound like if remixed by Foetus. This really didn't need to be two discs where a 12" of Serial Killers Don't Kill Their Girlfriend and Crushed would have done just as well.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

MERZfunder (2016)


Kurt Schwitters was an artist associated with Dada and Surrealist art movements, but mainly Dada. His best known work mostly comprised collages of found objects - bus timetables, scraps of newspaper and so on - and of all the Dadaists, he seems a strong candidate for the one who best tapped into the appeal of random images and juxtapositions, the way our eyes might fixate on a particularly interesting pattern caused by damp on the ceiling. Certainly he seems to be the one whose work has remained an enduring influence on everyone from Billy Childish to Nurse With Wound; and it turns out that he lived in England for a while, which I didn't even realise. He lived in Cumbria, specifically the town of Ambleside, and whilst there he turned a local barn into art. This barn is now known as the Merz Barn and, as the name probably implies, MERZfunder is a compilation aimed at raising money so as to ensure that the thing is preserved for the benefit of future generations. I guess England probably doesn't really have money to spare right now, especially not for art, the province of the liberal media elite, homosexuals, and people who don't like football.

This seems worth supporting, I said to myself, even though I don't ordinarily do downloads. The Shend from the Cravats is on there, and it features 114 songs by all sorts, so I envisioned something in the vein of the Residents' Commercial Album or Morgan Fisher's Miniatures compilation. I realised I was mistaken in at least one respect when the thing took over an hour to download. As stated MERZfunder features 114 individual pieces of music, but of course being associated with no physical format, it's under no obligation to keep it snappy. There are a couple of tracks of at least twenty minutes duration, and plenty of around ten - all adding up to nearly eleven hours of music.

Jesus.

Needless to say, reviewing this as I might review the latest collection of Miley Cyrus hits could take years being as I've thus far only listened to the thing all the way through once - albeit over successive weeks, so I'll stick to just the facts embellished with comments where I feel qualified to offer them. Contributors I've heard of include the Astronauts, M.Nomized, Band of Holy Joy, the aforementioned Shend, Security, Hagar the Womb, Neil Campbell, Rapoon, and Nik Turner whom older boys and girls may remember as having had something to do with Hawkwind. I've actually only heard of Security because I used to be in a band with one of them, although I've also had intercourse with both the Shend and Neil Campbell - not sexual intercourse, obviously; so this is one of those reviews of something featuring blokes I know, but given that the contributor credits for this thing probably account for a decent percentage of the current human population, you probably know someone with a track on this collection too, dear reader, statistically speaking; and accordingly MERZfunder features every single style of music ever, more or less.

As you might expect, there's Dadaism aplenty in myriad forms - everything from the sound of marbles chucked at a dustbin into which someone is doing a poo, to peculiar songs written by aspiring Martians. There's punk, free jazz, reggae, trad jazz, easy listening, ambient, just plain strange, and everything in between. Numbers which have impressed me enough to mention them here include Woefully Tired by Pampered Fists, the Shend's Pixie Denial, In the Here and Now by Deviant Amps, and the Staggs track which forges techno with a sample of Jon Inman saying I'm free! I feel fairly confident that the other hundred tracks are probably also decent on the grounds that I don't recall skipping any during my first marathon month's worth of listening. Another year might pass before I've heard MERZfunder all the way through more than twice, but in the meantime the sheer scale and range of the thing becomes a quality in its own right, almost amounting to pins stuck in random lists of names by virtue of how long it will take for this thing to achieve familiarity. I'm sure Schwitters would have approved.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fat Joe - Jealous Ones Still Envy (2001)


This being a rap album, it has occurred to me that I might like to skip the usual preamble about middle class wankers, given how I always end up writing the same thing. It would be nice, but I'm still reeling from Monday's facebook encounter with one David Yeomans, an Australian gentleman with a home page dominated by the Sonnenrad and praise for President Trump. The Sonnenrad is a symbol which was very popular amongst high-ranking members of the Third Reich, and surprisingly Yeomans is not a fan of rap music.

Hip hop is not my thing though, I do not like the beats or the culture and environment it emerged from. To support it is to popularise ghetto culture and that is wrong. You cannot say it doesn't either, just remember the number of teenagers in Australia with gang bandannas and acting like "homies".

Furthermore:

Yep, but it is a very destructive one and a very vicious one. For the most anyway, I will not deny there are a small few who do not sing about rape, violence and drugs, but it is the minority, and for certain not the popular ones.

I'd bother to address some of this, but 1) the opinion of a person who knows nothing about the subject upon which they have chosen to opine isn't really worth taking seriously, and 2) neither are the views of anyone with a big fat Nazi sun wheel as the masthead of their facebook page, so screw you, Dave.

This was Joe's first album following the death of Big Pun, his partner in rhyme and best buddy - a bereavement which led to the hugely acrimonious bust up with Triple Seis and Cuban Link of Joe's Terror Squad. I never quite worked out what happened there, but it sounded like a series of stupid misunderstandings piled one on top of the other. Anyway, at the time I was surprised that he even had a new album, given the circumstances; but I suppose I shouldn't be because those circumstances are what shaped this record. There are lighter moments, but it really isn't a happy collection.

He is really singing a lot about rape, violence, and drugs, Dave.

Joe has often spoken about how, whilst Pun was lyrically a natural, he himself has always had to work at his art, but it doesn't really show here. He isn't in Pun's league in terms of the weirder crossword puzzle clues, but there's nothing shabby or obviously laboured about Joe's testimony and he makes up for shortcomings with a delivery which renders almost every other track a declaration of war - complete with the trumpets in a few cases. King of NY and My Lifestyle both attain face-punching levels of bellowed swagger you wouldn't ordinarily expect to hear outside an M.O.P. record; and then M.O.P themselves guest on Fight Club a couple of tracks later so that all gets a bit sweaty and no mistake.

I guess they must be his "homies", Dave.

Half of Jealous Ones Still Envy sounds like the work of a man who just had his best pal die, and who's going to keep on cracking skulls until the pain goes away - supported by dirty, steel-toecapped east coast beats of the kind which otherwise customarily fail to score in the pop hit chart parade, which nevertheless became one of our fat friend's specialities - namely smuggling that grimy, uncommercial shit right into the heart of clubland and getting everyone moving like it's Britney Spears. The other half of the album makes concessions and is arguably more musically populist, but somehow without it ever quite feeling that way. The bittersweet What's Luv?, for example, could almost be the theme from My Little Pony, and yet there's a rough edge keeping it in line with the rest if you listen close. Only the Latin-tinged It's OK really spoils the pattern with a little Ricky Martin dance, but Joe is of Latino heritage so I guess he has as much right to indulge as anyone - although it's the only point at which I noticed what a long album this is.

I spent roughly fifteen years listening to little else but rap music, and mostly the stuff where they sing about rape, violence and drugs; and with hindsight I've noticed how this period was also the one during which my life became pretty tough going in certain respects. It makes sense, because there's nothing like this kind of music when you feel as though you're living under siege conditions by one definition or another. It really gets you through the tough times. Coincidentally, since January the 20th, I've found myself listening to a lot more rap than has recently been the case, and I've a feeling I may be listening to little else over the next couple of years.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mex - Intense Living (1981)


Mex should require no introduction, but then by the same token the Annoying Orange shouldn't be president, so if he does then I refer you to the reviews I wrote as reproduced here and here so as to avoid having to repeat myself.

Intense Living was the second album and it's a huge pleasure to have it remastered and on a fancy compact disc and everything. As with Alternative Pop Music, it's still a little rough around the edges and I suppose might be termed lo-fi if you want to make a virtue out of the fact - which always struck me as a bit pointless, personally speaking; but the material and the sheer joy and punky spirit of the whole enterprise - or possibly post-punky spirit - should compensate for how difficult it is to hear Cliff Silver's wristwatch ticking away during the quiet parts. Where the first tape was mostly just Mex, so far as I recall, this one was Mex aided by the aforementioned Cliff Silver from Sad Lovers & Giants, and with a live drummer - or possibly a tape of a live drummer - and it's very different. In fact, it was very different to every other tape I bought that year.

I seem to recall my corner of 1981 involving a lot of long coats, many of them worn by myself, some sucking-in of the cheeks, and a fairly austere embrace of the return to year zero proposed by punk, or by some elements of punk. In the mean time, Mex had added shameless disco to the ingredients of his pop perfectionism, and not even the studiously cool kind of disco favoured by chiselled Mancunians with trumpets. I'm talking walking basslines, wah-pedal funk, flares, glitter balls, and a synth borrowed straight from the Open University Department of Television Signature Tunes. Add to this Mex's occasional Duane Eddyisms and somewhat whispy - at least on this occasion - vocals, and the result was a tape which just didn't sound like anything else in my collection, and didn't even seem like it was trying to sound like anything else.

Some of it has dated, I suppose - the short-wave radio twiddling of Alien Transmission - but not in a bad way, and the whole nevertheless sounds as great now as it did back then. If you require references, it might be argued that the first Denim album had something of Intense Living about it, and there are bits which remind me of LCD Soundsystem; but I'm reaching, because neither of those were ever embedded in my consciousness quite like Sea of Green, Full of Eastern Promise, or Keith in America.

Genuinely wonderful.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Ghost - Opus Eponymous (2010)


You've probably seen the pictures - a sort of demonic skeletal pope fronting a band of five identically anonymous guys in devil masks known only as the Nameless Ghouls. You may have wondered what they sounded like, or not as the case may be. I didn't because I assumed it would almost certainly be some guy throwing up into a food mixer as a thousand overdriven guitars thrashed out grunting riffs at five-hundred miles an hour; but a regular reader suggested I might like to give this a listen, and so I did, partially due to feeling a little guilty about all the fun I've had taking the piss out of Al Jourgensen whilst knowing said regular reader to be quite the fan; and partially out of a slightly craven sense of gratitude for the fact of my now apparently having a regular reader.

Amazingly, aside from a general enthusiasm for Satan, Ghost sound nothing like I expected, and I mean not one single box ticked - not even the same ballpark. Death metal seems a little bit of a stretch, as does black metal when you consider the names ordinarily associated with the genre; really it's more like the sort of thing which would be arbitrarily labelled heavy metal back when Black Sabbath were still something new. Ghost seem to recognise the musical arms race which has resulted in bands like Marduk and other church-burning types as a bit of a mug's game. It seems to have begun with the pursuit of pointless widdley-widdley guitar solo virtuosity - the sort of thing which only a complete fucking bore could ever appreciate - then going from one extreme to another until you end up with what may as well be someone grunting whilst stood next to a cement mixer. Ghost have wound it all back to a time predating even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, resulting in hard rock with a few proggy touches invoking the Glitter Band at least as much as Strapping Young Lad. The customary grunting and growling is eschewed in favour of a beautiful, clear voice, not quite so operatic as to be annoying but more in that direction than you might expect from a guy dressed as a demonic pope. Musically, it almost touches on Queen or even the Who from around the time of Tommy; and it really is pop - all the darkly chugging riffs and the vocal harmonies and the pseudo-psychedelic swirl of a church organ. Once you start listening to this thing, it's difficult to stop.

Of course, the raw pop appeal contrasts dramatically with both the subject matter and a bizarre image amounting to a metal equivalent of the Residents. Thematically, it's Satan all the way - Antichrists, Elizabeth Bathory, omens, witches, the black goat with a thousand young, and all that other good stuff which once kept Hammer Films in business. I'm mainly accustomed to Satanism as a sort of intellectual game played by slightly inadequate misanthropes who took Ayn Rand too seriously, so I've never given much thought to the possibility of it being an actual religion as an inversion of Christianity - as opposed to just kids flashing their arses from the rear window of the coach during a school trip. If it is an actual religion in some sense, then I suppose Ghost might be its representatives. They sound serious, but then they would do, I suppose. It could be the genuine thing or it could be Spinal Tap, and for me that's their great strength, thematically speaking - there's just no knowing beyond that we're clearly expected to have a blast listening to it, which we do.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Skids - Days in Europa (1979)


With hindsight, I wonder if it was this album which pretty much finished off the Skids. I don't particularly recall any widespread public reaction against the initial release of the record sporting a cover looking one hell of a lot like Nazi propaganda, but then I was fourteen at the time so maybe I wouldn't. The Absolute Game, the album which came after, sold better, but they otherwise seemed to have disappeared off the mainstream radar by that point. It can't have helped that Richard Jobson was clearly fascinated by the period of European history between the wars, and particularly the art. There seems to have been quite a lot of it around at the time, what with Bauhaus and then various New Romantic types invoking that whole cabaret thing. Jobson dismissed suggestions of Nazi sympathies as nonsense, as of course he would, and I have to say there's nothing on this album suggesting the sort of dubious nostalgia peddled by Death in June and the like. Mostly it seems to be about the contrast of the optimism and even idealism of that era - regardless of the thrust of at least some of that idealism - with how it all turned to shit, so far as I can make out. Thematically a lot of Skids material seems to have been about beautiful losers by one definition or another.

And the memory shall linger,
And the memory shall fall,
It was a day in Europa,
My regression recalls.

Hail to the mighty, the ritual begins,
Hail to Apollo, the cleanser of sins,
Hail to Europa, she always wins.

So far, so Von Thronstahl, but the key is probably - at least hopefully - in the delivery, which is more the ruined decadence of Diamond Dogs than Laibach. I suppose it's possible that someone might genuinely have been simply exploring contentious ideas and images, and given Jobson's parallel obsessions with Busby Berkeley and Wilfred Owen, I'm going to assume that was the case for the sake of argument; but also because we've all forgiven David Bowie, and musicians are by definition mostly idiots who do stupid shit without any appreciation of the consequences; and as an optimist I'm applying this to any subsequent records which may or may not have had the word joy in the title.

The Skids were musically a massive glam stomp scored to what seemed like the world's biggest guitar - the late Stuart Adamson's somehow characteristically Scottish riffing which can't really be described without mentioning bagpipes - big slabs of sound bisecting each bar like the abstract forms of constructivist art. It invokes a certain Celtic cultural identity although thankfully expressed without being at the expense of anyone else's cultural identity; and it's given form by Jobson enthusiastically hooting away like a big, happy modernist bloodhound - ever a champion of style as substance. Away from the Skids, Adamson's music donned a traditional fisherman's sweater then deteriorated into folksy homilies about women called Morag forlornly awaiting the return of Johnny from the wars, but let's not dwell on that.

Aside from the kerfuffle invoked by albums with pictures of Aryan sporting personalities on the cover, and the unfortunate patronage of national socialist wingnuts like Von Thronstahl, Days in Europa is actually not so good as it really should have been with Bill Nelson at the desk - amazing singles and then some other tracks, but really nothing like so convincing as either Scared to Dance or The Absolute Game. I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I dug out one of those for a spin, but never mind.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Placebo (1996)


This may have been the last decent vinyl album I bought before farsighted music biz Nostradami declared the medium dead and forevermore fit only for saaad mylar-bagged trainspotters with creases ironed in their underpants. I say decent vinyl album here to mean one which played fine and which hadn't been pressed on vinyl distilled from recycled squeezy bottles - as was the case with albums I bought by both Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls which sounded like they had been mastered on a Woolworths C60 found at the bottom of an old suitcase; and there's probably some kind of poetry in there somewhere, Placebo being a cross between Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls, a bit.

I understand Brian Molko to be something of a tool - according to the testimony of at least one friend - and I additionally have the problem of trying hard not to recall their subsequent transformation into one of those turdy indie festival mainstays beloved of Jo Whiley and similar vessels of corporate spontaneity, particularly with that fucking abominable friend with weed single, whatever it was called; so I'm restoring my ears to an earlier setting, back to when they played Nancy Boy on Top of the Pops causing me to flounce down to the record shop and nab this before the place was converted into a branch of Iceland. I may be remembering wrongly, but mainstream rock had spent the previous couple of years turning itself back into bumfluff heavy metal but without either the tunes or the sense of humour - an endless parade of shuffling Barrys wiping their noses on their sleeves and jangling out a few vaguely baggy chords during the metalwork lesson. Rock was succumbing to testosterone poisoning and this seemed momentarily like an antidote - not only joyously faggy, but joyously faggy with a terrifying attitude problem.

Placebo's strength was in wringing something so catchy and hooky from what, on close inspection, was actually kind of self-involved and cranky, a glam post-grunge drone of oddball guitar snob chords with more than a whiff of Albini about it; and doing it without the lumberjack shirts or BO. In other words it was the contrast between hard and soft - the bruised intensity of Albini's Shellac, yet unashamedly effeminate. As an album, this one feels like some sort of emotional breakdown with tunes. It's all over the shop and yet remains beautiful and elegant from start to finish.

It was downhill from this point on, from what I heard, but it probably doesn't matter. Not many bands start off this well.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Master P - Mama's Bad Boy (1992)


I have a facebook friend called Melissa-Jane. She's one of those facebook friends you have as a facebook friend because she's your friend on facebook. She works at some kind of community yoots place in my old hood, and thus occasionally posts slightly demonstrative status updates about hanging out with da mans dem and the most bangingest dubstep producer being a fourteen-year old member of her yoots group. I'm sure she's listened to a fucking shitload of dubstep in her time, so she should know. Her other notable facebook posts have included a few house exchanges, people with names like Toby and Jemima, owners of a cottage in the Lake District very keen to swap for a few weeks if anyone has anything around the Dordogne; and some crowing over Jay-Z speaking out against overuse of the word bitch, because it's sexist to call a lady a bitch and that's bad. He's probably read my blog post, she snorted brayingly, because she had written a blog post about Jay-Z's sexist song 99 Problems. How can he say bitch, she probably asked in the blog post, when he is married to Beyoncé who is a lady and bitch is a word for lady? I say probably because I only remember the general thrust of it, most of which was qualified by Melissa-Jane explaining how she herself only listens to real rap, like that nice J-Live dude. Apparently J-Live has a significantly more respectful attitude to bitches than Jay-Z. I tried pointing out that Jay-Z nicked 99 Problems from Ice-T, but she didn't seem particularly interested; so I unfollowed her because 1) I don't really like excessively middle-class people, particularly not those who bang on about being down with the kids, 2) J-Live is rubbish, 3) no good ever came of knowing someone named Melissa-Jane, and 4) bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks.

Anyway, to get to the point, if we imagine some sort of metaphysical realness sphere - for want of a better term - the kind of thing Plato might have envisaged had he grown up around Bedford-Stuyvesant, then this Master P album would be at the exact opposite pole of our hypothetical sphere to Melissa-Jane, everything she stands for, all her treasured J-Live twelves, and everyone she's ever known or met. Mama's Bad Boy be some surprisingly ig'nant shit, and that's why it's a classic. It might of course be argued that I'm just some ageing cracker getting his anthropological jollies from things which scare middle-class people, but none of y'all bitches be sayin' that shit to my face, and Mama's Bad Boy is still a great album.

As the millionaire entrepreneur behind No Limit Records, Master P should require no introduction, but Mama's Bad Boy dates from way back when he very much did require an introduction. Musically it's a bit rough around the edges compared to later No Limit productions - your basic north California variation on the g-funk of the day - although the bass is nice and it has a warm studio feel, predating beats written inside a silicon chip and all that; but it works because that stuff still sounds great, a touch jazzy, summery with a nice low boom-bap contrasting hard against the lyrics. Master P has never been the world's greatest lyricist, but he sounded reasonably decent back in 1992, although to be fair there was less competition back then, and as always he makes up for what he lacks with personality - and of course the enduring magic of ig'nant.

It's poverty, shootings, waiting on that bubble up and the usual. Women tend to divide into those conducive to sucking a dick and those from whom one catches a venereal disease; and I'm awarding extra points for the creative retooling of We are the World:

We are the world,
We are the dealers,
We are the ones that sell crack-cocaine,
So let's start selling...

It doesn't even rhyme! That's how much of a fuck Master P doesn't give on this album. We're a long, long way from Arrested Development.

We need the ig'nant shit because sometimes life can be so crap that it's the only thing which makes any sense and which doesn't sound like bullshit; and yes, there's a certain aroma of celebration in some of the judicious beatings and shootings described here, and it's very irresponsible, and I'm sure Melissa-Jane would give Master P a piece of her mind should he wander into a certain yoots club; but if it bothers anyone, there's a heapin' helpin' of context at the end when our man - I'm guessing about eighteen years of age when he dropped this record - shouts out to everyone he knew at school who didn't live to appreciate his success, and it's one hell of a long list. So as with most ig'nant rap, yes it's funny because this is the sound of kids entertaining their friends and making them laugh; and it's funny that the term ig'nant will probably upset those who feel we should know better; and maybe it isn't Shakespeare or Chaucer or Common or Doseone or any of those boring wankers; but unfortunately it is real, at least on its own terms. Mama's Bad Boy is what happens when you cram people into run-down housing between a liquor store and a gun shop, so just be thankful that one good thing came out of it on this occasion.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Pixies - Head Carrier (2016)


'Holy shit,' I exclaimed upon finding this in the racks, having failed to anticipate that they might have had plans beyond those reunion EPs which ended up collected as Indie Cindy. 'Is this actually a proper new album?' I asked at the counter, because obviously I had to buy the thing even if it turned out to be just forty-minutes of Black Francis farting into a bucket lovingly and puzzlingly pressed up as 180gsm vinyl.

'Yes,' they both said. 'It's the new album.'

'Is it any good?'

'Yes,' said the woman.

'Have you heard the last one? I mean it was okay, but...'

'Yes. Don't worry,' she elaborated, 'this one's much better.'

It isn't that Indie Cindy was bad in any sense, but it just wasn't amazing where their first four studio albums were. It was material from a band getting back together after years apart, and it was a compilation, and for all that it had working in its favour, it very much sounded like both of those things. It was an assemblage rather than a complete self-contained entity, whereas Head Carrier really is the new album and very much feels like it.

I'm still getting used to the notion of contemporary Pixies in the year 2016, trying hard not to recall what I thought of the Rolling Stones back in the early eighties, and whilst I'm still not sure this is quite up there with Trompe Le Monde, it comes pretty fucking close, and the more I listen the better it gets. This older, wiser Pixies initially seem to lack some of the shock of their younger selves, as expressed in all those asides to violent Buñuel-esque images, but the stories told are as peculiar and distinctive as ever, like a more visceral take on the Talking Heads in their folksy Americana period. This one fixates to some extent on the martyred St. Denis of Paris, commonly depicted carrying his own severed head - hence the title - but how it all works is probably up to you. Musically we're back with that fucking massive guitar sounding darker, warmer, and less digitised than on the Indie Cindy material, and with Paz Lenchantin as a perfect fit for Kim Deal without any suggestion of karaoke; and it does what a Pixies record should do given that Black Francis originally formed the band with the stated intention of their being the greatest rock band of all time. We sort of lost sight of that on Indie Cindy, but Tenement Song and the faux-Tejano of Plaster of Paris are as powerful and chilling as any of their past greats.

They've still got it.