Another New Thing, Bodies of Water, Jillette Johnson, Johnny Labelle, The KLF, Randy Newman, Staring At The Rude Boys (Compilation), Talk Talk, Wild Pink.
This Week's Music
It's just the way the cookie crumbled but nearly half the albums featured this week are from, or look back to, the 80s. It was a damn fine decade though, so no point complaining!
As ever this playlist can be accessed at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7cSveL7NpVp1xgrKxPe4av?si=SkFlSnvySeuYFpgG0WJFmA or via the Spotify link on the Home Page. The link to the Youtube playlist is https://music.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwV-OogHy7Eh_sy55y6i18Qj7w_Z3CQft
In the week that a space probe landed on Mars, we celebrate that with 4 category headings all about space travel and one cheap joke. Thanks this week to Dubstar (and others), Mary Chapin Carpenter, Deacon Blue, David Bowie and Pink Floyd.
It seems that the stars weren't out this week after all.
Between the Dirt and the Stars
Staring At The Rude Boys : Various
Cherry Red record label has an unbeatable reputation as pop music archivists. This latest collection follows the ska revival from the late 70s to the late 80s. It’s full of great, sometimes lost, ska tunes, starting with 2 Tone and finishing with the likes of The Riffs and Ska-Boom. No, I hadn't heard of them either, but that’s the beauty of Cherry Red compilations.
Of course, whether or not the collection appeals depends on your view of ska. As a genre, the music is simple, rhythmic, fun and short. Scarcely any of the 70 tracks on the CD version break the 4 minute barrier. 2 Tone are properly represented for their role in the 70s ska revival and, let's be honest, introducing many to the genre. Specials, Madness, Selecter, The Beat, The Bodysnatchers and Rico all feature here. Bands that transferred into ska from Team Mod such as The Merton Parkas and The Lambrettas get a look in too. But it’s the unknowns, the bands who would feature on Radio 1’s evening schedule but never attain chart success, who hold the most interest. That's a shame because bands such as The Larks, The Hotknives and The South Coast Ska Stars could and perhaps should have achieved greater success.
If there’s a criticism of the genre it’s that it became too easy. Some bands latched on to its popularity and performed a ska song as they would a waltz tune or song to a Bo Diddley beat. There’s also a fine line between fun loving, domestic ska and the novelty record. A few tracks - ‘Play My Record’ by Arthur Kay and the Originals is one example - fall the wrong side of the line.
Bringing together so many bands in one place to recreate a musical scene also allows for fresh insights. The sleeve notes are tea chests of trivia. I dimly recollect ‘Graduate’ from their airplay on Radio 1. I had no idea that in their lineup were Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal who went on to become Tears For Fears. Madness’ impact and influence on the wider ska population becomes clear when you hear the also rans en masse - even if those that followed were unable to match the same level of humour and domestic detail. And who would have thought that Kim Wilde (yes, that Kim Wilde) would have released a song that serves as a ska hymn to telephone box prostitution?
Taster Track : Sea Cruise - Rico
More Songs About Chocolate and Girls (Oh! Not that kind of Mars?)
A Billion Little Lights : Wild Pink
This is a subdued, unobtrusive record that, nevertheless, contains enough nice touches to elevate it out of the background.
Opening track ‘The Wind Was Like A Train’ sets the tone. It’s a simple, repetitive instrumental and vocal refrain but I found myself asking “Will there be more than this?” It’s almost in passing that you notice that the refrain is picked up by different instruments at different times, and that adds the interest to the song. ‘Bigger Than Christmas’ floats along gently on rolling stream of strings. It’s pretty in the sense that scenery seen from a passing car makes for a pleasant journey without providing your highlights of the trip. ‘You Can Have It Back’ sounds like the quietest hoedown on record. By the time ‘The Shining But Tropical’ arrives with its relatively energetic drums, and its less smooth, more jagged and less polite sounds you’re ready for it. It’s not sustained for long, but at least the music has roused itself.
It’s a shame it’s so unassertive because its quiet but clever touches could go unnoticed. ‘Amalfi’ creates its own sounds. That sounds like a small achievement - perhaps it’s an indication of how consistent and committed the songs are across the whole album, that any innovation or variation stands out.
At heart it’s an American album, dealing with American matters in a non contentious way. ‘Oversharers Anonymous’ tells of the slaughter of buffalo for example. It also sounds made for American radio. The slide guitar throughout positions it away from big cities and close to smaller communities. We’re still not talking Mojave Desert though, more small Texan towns. I’m guessing it will be a crossover hit on several US radio stations.
All told, I like it despite its slightly unsatisfactory elements. I suspect though that some folk will see it as simply dull, and crave a bit more ‘wild’ in the sound of Wild Pink.
Taster Track : Amalfi
Is This What It’s Like? : Bodies Of Water
Two parrots were sitting on a perch. One said to the other “Can you smell fish?”. Tell that joke in a meeting and some people will get it immediately (and groan!). Others will have to think about it for a few seconds while a small number will continue to be baffled by it for some time. Bodies of Water are the musical equivalent of that joke.
The group is formed around David and Meredith Metcalfe. They’re a married couple and on songs such as ‘Illuminate Yourself’ it can sound as if they are singing to and for each other, rather than to an audience. They’re reminiscing about shared stories.
To call his voice an acquired taste is barely scratching the surface. It’s mannered and stylised and you cannot escape it. To call their sound a throwback to the days of hippie musicals such as Hair isn’t a criticism, it’s as accurate a description as I can find. Take the opening song, ‘Every Little Bird’. After 30 seconds or so to adjust to his voice (you’ll need longer) the beat kicks in and a new age of Aquarius is dawning. Its rhythms, melodies and vocals are undeniably catchy and showstopping. Clap those hands and shake that body!
The less successful songs such as ‘Back In The Canyon’ start as they mean to go on and chug along without too much by way of development. That’s their weakness. The more successful songs ask you to set aside what you think a modern rock song should sound like. The whole album is of its own times, a blast from a past that has been slightly distorted over the years. ‘Trust Your Love’ depicts this best. It’s a western sound played in an eastern way. That mismatch, like cheese and jam, applies musically and to the content. ‘I Know your Brother’ weirdly throws in a disco beat. It works. ‘I’ll Go with You’ is the kind of intense, yearning, besotted and slightly needy song that Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice specialised in during their Jesus Christ Superstar / Evita heyday. It’s as if the past 50 years of parity in relationships has been washed away.
This album’s difference is its strength. It shouldn’t work, but more often than not, it does.
Taster Track : Every Little Bird
Solid State Logik 1 : The KLF
(Many of the elements of the backstory to the KLF, from proving that anyone can make a Number 1 record if they follow the rules - not that the KLF were adept at following the rules - to machine gunning the audience at the Brit Awards, to burning a million pounds may be familiar to you. If you want a quick refresher though, here’s the link to their Wikipedia page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_KLF. )
Given the efforts that the KLF made to be noticed, I feel a little shame faced to say that they rather passed me by. It was simply timing - the demands of a young, growing family, not much spare money to buy music and not enough time to listen properly to the radio. I’m more familiar with them now, of course, but I’d never really listened to them at the time. The surprise decision to make their back catalogue available again, 30 years after deleting it, provides the opportunity to put that right. Maybe their decision to burn a million pounds backfired a little!
They don’t want to overdo it given there are more back catalogue compilations available and to come, but as a short 30 minute, 8 track collection containing versions of their best known tracks this is a good way to catch up. There are some live versions here, packed with urgency and aggression. Collaborating with Extreme Noise Terror makes sense and works. There are two versions of ‘What Time Is Now?’ One is live, the other is billed as being for America. It’s a massively over the top rendition designed to whip up crowds while painting a Spitting Image portrait of American culture. ‘It’s Grim Up North’ retains its force. Built around a recitation of towns from the Northern Heartland, these are nicely set against a fade into ‘ Jerusalem’ and birdsong. The collaboration with Dolly Parton, ‘Justified & Ancient, is a left field standout. Apparently she was nervous before collaborating with the band. I can’t think why!
In hindsight there is a distinct KLF sound, whichever incarnation is putting it out. Techno, house lightened with some good old glam pop. It’s anthemic, almost cartoon like stuff. At the time though it would have been thrilling wondering which way they were planning to turn next. All you could be sure of is that it would be unexpected.
In their field, liking or disliking this music is as irrelevant as liking or disliking the Beatles. They’ve made their mark and it’s not going to disappear in the wash.
In their field there’s always an illegal rave under way.
Taster Track : Justified and Ancient
It’s A Beautiful Day And I Love You : Jillette Johnson
There’s a puzzle waiting for you in this record, and it starts with the title. Is it a simple statement of fact, or is it a reminder to cling on to during difficult times? Well, here’s a clue. This isn’t a sunny sounding record. It’s a record that is full of uncertainty and uncomfortable thoughts, of unspoken matters and self doubt.
The title track is, on the surface, as sunny as it sounds. The music soon develops a darker edge - not all consuming, but nagging away in the background. It sounds less a given and more as if she’s trying to convince herself, or her partner, of that fact.
It’s a tightrope of a record. It’s a record that balances jagged feelings with sweet moments. All is good while you’re on the rope but it takes a lot of effort not to fall off. That effort is reflected in her voice which isn’t strained exactly, but it is having to work hard to come out on top of her feelings and the music. It’s a challenging album to understand, but rewarding if you can put the different pieces together.
The tension is introduced with the opening track. The album title places everything firmly in the present. ‘Many Moons’ immediately looks back nostalgically to her teenage years, travelling the world, seeking fun and adventure and sleeping in hammocks. That last one sounds stressful to me. ‘Angelo’ is a million miles from Brotherhood of Man and is full of powerless regret. “If anyone could help, it wasn’t me.” she sings. Several of the songs end quickly, ‘Forgive Her’ for example simply tails off as if the matters in the song aren’t or cannot be resolved.
Musically, it’s a good guitar led album hinting at rather than realising a number of different styles. ‘Many Moons’ starts with a dream like quality suited to looking back through time. ‘Jealous’ is a stadium anthem in waiting. ‘Annie’ has a more conventional pop feel with shades of country twang throughout.
It’s a bravely personal album that ends on as close a note of resolution as can be found anywhere on the album. ‘Letting Go’ strikes a quieter note as if the album has been a private therapy session that has ended well. We joined her on her journey so we can be grateful for that.
Taster Track : It’s A Beautiful Day And I Love You
The Colour of Spring - Talk Talk
I mentioned last week that I’d been struck by Talk Talk’s influence on some current music without being over familiar with their albums. I recognised that I ought to listen to something by them to see if I knew what I was talking about.
The Colour of Spring came out in 1986 and is badged as a transitional album between their early synth pop and their later more organic, folk jazz music. I’ve discovered that it's difficult to review something for the first time with the benefit of hindsight. I’ve already traced what I believe to be their influence, so I’m at risk of forcing the music to fit those views. And it’s hard to comment as you would on a new album when you know that they disappeared from the charts pretty much after 1986, released only two more albums that generated critical if not commercial success and that main man Mark Hollis sadly died in 2019.
The Colour of Spring is a good place to start though, and it’s a strong album that holds up well. They’ve created something more timeless and less ephemeral than chart pop, although it feels as if it is simultaneously clinging to their synth pop past even as they take their first hesitant steps into a more organic and experimental approach.
If you reordered the album to reflect this journey, you’d start with ‘Life’s What you Make It’ - a great song and their most successful single. You’d follow it with second single ‘Living In Another World’ which undeservedly bombed at the time, barely making the Top 50. It has a similar feel to their earlier work, but there are signs that more heavyweight influences are coming into to play. Mark Hollis cited Miles Davis and Sartre as having an influence on the way he wrote this song. We can be thankful that this remains a great pop song despite many people finding the influences unlistenable and unreadable! Next up you’d have closing track ‘Time It’s Time’. It’s an eight minute upbeat song slightly at odds with the rest of the album. It’s an ambitious, highly accessible song and an excellent way to close the album, although it doesn’t point towards their future direction.
The next group on the album would start with ‘Happiness Is Easy’. This takes many pop elements - children singing, a strong chorus, stately piano and bass - and reassembles them into something familiar but different as if it had wandered away from the beaten track on a hike through the woods. If there’s a transitional track on the album it’s ‘Give It Up’, still recognisably pop but with darker undertones. It needs just a small step from this to appreciate ‘I Don’t Believe In You’, a melancholy song some way from the happy clappy sound of the Top 10. I’m not sure that, by this stage, Mark Hollis’ voice could be anything else.
That leaves two tracks that break with any attempt to sound like their old selves. ‘April 5th’ is a more experimental piece, tentatively exploring if they can carry off their tone and structures for a whole song. They can. It’s a haunting and natural sound, the sound of unseen animals in their burrows. The emerging woodwind is a lovely trembling touch that provides the song with real beauty. And finally, ‘Chameleon Day’ is as far removed from the layered kitchen sink orchestral synth sound as it is possible to get. It’s pared back piano, sparse and poetic.
Tracing their progress through this album and understanding the direction they followed with their future work, this can be seen and heard as a brave step. It’s a conscious decision to break with the pop charts in the interests of making music that is difficult but endures. As part of that it’s prompted me to explore their later catalogue in depth. I feel that after 35 years I’ve been missing out!
Taster Track : Happiness Is Easy
XYZZY : Another New Thing
So….. does anyone understand the neuroscience that explains how music can change your mood? I’ve known songs that have calmed me down, cheered me up, driven me on and triggered tears. I’d never come across one that made me grumpy before!
I was feeling great when I awoke but was soon possessed by a grump feeling that built through the record . That was a little unexpected because the first few tracks had lots to offer. ‘A Message’ opens with birdsong before becoming an electropop mix of catchy rhythm and mixed voices. By the end it’s a naggingly infectious ode to pheromones - the chemicals we give off to trigger a social response in others. (Thanks Wikipedia - my Unclassified mark in Chemistry ‘O’ level precluded me working this out for myself.) ‘Don’t Follow Your Shadow’ has a strong chorus - the closest track to a conventional song on the album.
But gradually it flattened my mood. Maybe it's the sterility and absence of warmth. ‘Hammers and Anvils’ is strongly constructed. All elements work together to create a sense of, well, hammers and anvils. This was pre 07:00 and people are trying to sleep around here even when I’m listening through headphones. I mean, really!
Maybe it’s the relentless passage of song titles. ‘Don’t Fail’, ‘Don’t Follow Your Shadow’ (I’ll do what I like in my house, mate) ‘The Ever…. Never Mind’, ‘No One Cares What You’re Thinking About’ (well, that makes all this reviewing worthwhile then) ‘Sit There And Stare’. You get the picture.
And another thing! By the time we’ve reached ‘This Is The Sound’ it's the sound of an angry telling off set to music.
There is a lot of clever stuff in this record. For all its clinical construction it has foot tapping moments and ear worms galore, particularly in the bass lines. If I have a more valid criticism than simply being pushed out of sorts it’s that it’s not a friendly record and, perhaps as a result of that, it feels two or three tracks too long.
So, I want to apologise for being grumpy. It’s not the band, or the record, it’s me. And, thanks for asking, I’m feeling in a much better mood now.
Taster Track : A Message
XVlll : Johnny Labelle
If this album were a book, it would be Thomas De Quincy’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it, you can catch the gist from the title.
If this album were a TV show, it would be Stars In Their Eyes, with Johnny Labelle saying “Tonight, Matthew’ I’m going to be Midge Ure singing ‘Vienna’.”
Some acts set out their stall to be wilfully different. That’s the case with some of the tracks on this album such as ‘Dolphins’ , It’s ultra, ultra slow, full of depth (in the singing tone at least, still not sure about the content!) and all atmospherics. It’s opaque, like the album cover, dark, unlit, foggy and enervating - the music of an opium dream. It’s the sound of an 80s black and white arthouse film - ‘Vienna’ taken to the next level.
Some people won’t be keen on the sound of that, me included. But thankfully, the ‘Vienna’ comparison means that the dark mood sections are intertwined with catchier, more melodic synth riffs. This is the case with tracks such as ‘In The Sun’, 'Beginning of the End’ and, especially in ‘Doppelganger’, where the atmosphere steps back to unveil a genuinely lovely song.
It’s touch and go in places but ultimately this has enough to attract the regular pop listener to its tunes. And if you’re drawn to the music noir of the remaining tracks, you’ll find quite a bit here to love.
Taster Track : Doppelganger
Dark Side of the Moon
The Natural : Randy Newman
I’m a big fan of Randy Newman’s film work.To borrow the title of this particular piece he seems to be a natural. His scores for ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘Marriage Story’ and ‘Ragtime’ stand strong independently of the film they serve. They are lush, melodic pieces that soar with emotion.
This soundtrack has none of those qualities. First it sounds like a score. That is, it’s designed not to be noticed or to stand out, but to create an appropriate mood for what’s on screen.
Most of the pieces are anonymous light classical. One exception is the main title theme which relies on a synth sound that hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s a weak, musical misjudgement presumably intended to sound more current to a 1983 audience. I suspect there have been too many cooks in this kitchen as four producers are credited on this track alone.
The problem is that Randy Newman’s personality is not allowed to shine through in the music. I guess that if you are both a hired man and scoring a vision that is not your own it’s not easy to plough your own furrow.
Two tracks almost redeem this soundtrack and album. They are the two jazz coloured pieces - ‘The Majors : The Mind Is A Strange Thing’ and the short ‘Iris and Roy’. In these tracks you hear Newman’s personality in abundance. He’s having fun and so you can too.
The completist in me is glad to have heard this, but for anyone else I’d turn to the three albums mentioned above for your Randy Newman film score kick.
Taster Track : The Majors : The Mind Is A Strange Thing.