Saturday 30 May 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #23: Funeral

Quite simply, as good a debut album as you will ever hear. Arcade Fire had been rather low key before they put out 'Funeral', but by god did they announce themselves in style. In spite of its ominous title and tragic background - four of the band members lost family members during its recording - 'Funeral' is a triumphant, celebratory rallying call. It kicks adversity firmly between the legs and sings defiant, joyous anthems, arms aloft.

All I'd heard by Arcade Fire was the two tracks they performed on Jools Holland's show, but the sheer energy of their performance forced me into buying the CD. One of the finest decisions I ever made. The running theme throughout 'Funeral' is our past - our childhoods, where we grew up, the things we did, the people we knew, what we learnt and what we're still trying to figure out. Yes, I say 'we' because whoever you are, wherever you're from, we've all had the same experiences even if they're very different.

The Neighborhood suite is an incredible achievement by such a young band. Tunnels sets things off at a pace, but still builds into something bigger; Laïka sounds like Talking Heads if they were a 6-piece alt-folk band; Power Out remains one of the best tracks of the 21st Century to date; and 7 Kettles is a fitting closer to side one, bringing us down from the tense euphoria before it all kicks off again on side 2. Punctuating these four is Une Année Sans Lumière, a quieter, melancholic moment that is perfectly placed in the middle of it all.

Side 2 opens with the lovely, yet strangely brooding Crown Of Love. There's a sadness about it that is completely defied by its sweet melody, sighing strings and angelic backing vocals. Wake Up is the arms aloft anthem that takes the roof off every venue it's ever played at (even the outdoor ones!). Haiti is where Régine Chassagne can shine, singing of her troubled homeland in her mother tongue over a melange of acoustic instruments and a slightly threatening cacophony rumbling away in the background. Rebellion (Lies) though is the real highlight for me. It's an incredible track, full of mischief and menace, celebrating the times we were up to no good and fighting back against the perceived lies fed to us as children. "Come and hide your lovers underneath the covers" sings Win Butler, cheekily. And we really want to, naughty smiles on our faces, but worried our parents might walk in when we're least expecting it.

Régine sees things out with the seemingly tender In The Backseat, its sting in the tail lurking three minutes in, and it all climaxes in a whirl of guitars, strings and drums before we're brought back down from the euphoric splendour gently, but with enough air still in our lungs to enjoy another day.

I'm a notoriously grumpy old git, and having suffered from depression for more than a decade, I can sometimes wallow in the murkiness of life's festering swampland. Yet 'Funeral' is a record I can listen to time and time again, whatever the mood, and emerge with my head full of positivity and vibrant energy. It's an astonishing, life-affirming album and one I think I need for the sake of my sanity. It is hailed almost universally as a modern classic. You simply cannot argue. No! You cannot!

Here's that phenomenal Jools Holland performance in which they stormed through Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) and Rebellion (Lies). Still blows my mind to this day; Regine especially is just fantastic!

And here they are doing Wake Up with some old geezer you might have seen before:

Friday 29 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 8

And so to the final trio. I think the series ran out of steam after the Berlin trilogy, at least as far as most of my audience's interest goes anyway. Some of you have stuck with Bowie since his 'golden years' though and been rewarded with some cracking music that is often overlooked. This last bunch also has some great stuff on it, giving this series - and Dave's career so far - a strong finish.

Heathen (2002)

Bowie had recorded a new album at the turn of the Millennium which included a mix of new material and new recordings of some of his lesser-known 60s songs. Entitled 'Toy', it should have seen the light of day in 2001, but due to various label scheduling issues, it was put back a number of times. In the meantime, work on 'Heathen' started.

'Heathen' saw the rekindling of an old partnership as Tony Visconti was brought in to produce his first Bowie album since 'Scary Monsters'. The magic shone through in the finished recording as 'Heathen' was one of the most confident-sounding albums Bowie had made for decades. The final product included a few tracks recorded for 'Toy', but everything fits together so well. Sunday opens the record in a somewhat understated way with the high guitar notes ringing behind a layer of backing vocals while Bowie's resonant voice controls the proceedings. Electronic beats take over the reins halfway through and the song becomes a fitting bridge between late-90s Bowie and the next decade.

Slip Away is one of those old tracks re-recorded for 'Toy' (originally entitled Uncle Floyd). It's an undoubted highlight. Afraid is a rocker and one of the best tracks in his 21st century canon. Slow Burn (featuring Pete Townshend) is another superb track, though admittedly an odd choice for lead single (but then, we were very used to Bowie doing that), while Everyone Says 'Hi!' is a glorious pop song that stands out as the most optimistic moment on an otherwise upbeat yet gloomy record (at least in terms of its lyrical content). The ominous thing about 'Heathen' is the fact its completion came just after the September 11th attacks in New York. Many have mistakenly thought this record is Bowie's reaction to those events, but the truth is it was almost done and dusted by then. What he wrote was influenced by what he felt about New York over a period of decades, yet it seemed eerily prophetic.

The covers are well worth a mention too. It was no secret that Bowie was a Pixies fan, but to tackle one of their songs could have been a risky move. Fortunately his take on Cactus is more than decent, his voice as detained prisoner reading a letter written to his sweetheart is never less than convincing. Dave Grohl pops up with some loud guitar on I've Been Waiting For You, a Neil Young song also covered by Pixies; and on I Took A Trip on A Gemini Spaceship, Bowie sings the lowest note he's ever recorded.

Looking back as Bowie sings "I demand a better future" it's surprising people have tended to overlook 'Heathen' when mentioning his finest work. There isn't a bad track on 'Heathen'. It was nominated for the inaugural Mercury Music Prize and was his highest charting album in the States for nearly 20 years, making the top ten around the world. Whether his future turned out to be better than he wanted - you'll have to ask him, but 'Heathen' was a pretty high bar to set for himself.

8.2 / 10


Reality (2003)

A year after 'Heathen' marked a resurgence in critical acclaim for Bowie, 'Reality' hit the shelves. His creative juices were truly flowing, especially when you consider there was actually an unreleased album sitting in the archives as well - that would make three albums in three years.

The first thing to note about 'Reality' is that it is Bowie's most rock-fuelled record for decades. There's less use of electronics and more reliance on the classic guitar-bass-drums setup. That doesn't make it any less interesting than previous efforts though. New Killer Star has a host of catchy riffs and hooks that belie the ominous post-9/11 undertones in the lyrics. Never Get Old is utterly superb and features one of Bowie's finest vocals. The Loneliest Guy is a plaintive, minimal piano-led piece which is possibly the saddest song he's ever written. Fall Dog Bombs The Moon was one of the first tracks written for the album in the lead up to the Iraq War. It's one of his angriest, most political lyrics to date. Then there's Bring Me The Disco King, a song that has its roots back in the 70s and had been recorded for both 'Black Tie White Noise' and 'Earthling' before finally making it onto 'Reality' in a slow lounge jazz style.

I'm a fan of the cover of Jonathan Richman's Pablo Picasso. It's the most fun-sounding track on the record and it always cheers me up when I hear it. Can't really say the same for his take on George Harrison's Try Some Buy Some though. There's little effort to modernise it to fit in with the rest of the album so stands out for all the wrong reasons. The title track is also a bit of an odd one, coming across as something of a throwback to his Tin Machine days. It's loud, brash and lacking much in the way of a decent tune.

Overall though, 'Reality' rates quite highly, and with the great man on such a creative spurt, we felt we wouldn't have to wait too long for his next offering.

7.8 / 10


The Next Day (2013)
There are no doubt numerous reasons why Bowie was virtually silent for a decade following 'Reality'. The mammoth tour he undertook was hugely successful, both financially and critically - it was hard to follow. It may also have played a part in his subsequent health issues. Whatever, talk of imminent death, retirement and all the other rumours that abounded were proved miles off key when, from out of nowhere, Bowie dropped 'The Next Day'.

Leaving the ingenious way in which it was launched to one side, it would have been too easy to either laud it to the heavens or rip it to pieces. As it turns out, judging 'The Next Day' purely on the quality of its contents and how it holds together as an album, it is completely worthy of the acclaim it received. It's a very, very good record.

The title track opens proceedings and it's a scorcher; Bowie in full flow, like he'd never been away: "Here I am / Not quite dying." Oh yes, he's very much alive. The fact is, 'The Next Day' contains some of his finest work of the last couple decades. Love Is Lost continues the dark, ominous moods that had been present in Bowie's music for years, while Valentine's Day is the album's poppiest moment yet still hits the spot (much like Everyone Says 'Hi!' did on 'Heathen'). The shock comeback single Where Are We Now marks a period of introspection and refers to his Berlin years, while I'd Rather Be High is a comment on war, from Vietnam to the Middle East, from the soldier's perspective - a response to Fall Dog Bombs The Moon from 'Reality' perhaps?

There are also quirky experimental moments too, but the results vary. Dirty Boys is immense fun with its offbeat sax-led rhythms; If You Can See Me however is all over the place and a tad irritating. In fact, if there is one criticism that could be levelled at 'The Next Day', it's that it is a couple of tracks too long. There is a bit of a lull just after the halfway point. As well as If You Can See Me, I wouldn't really miss Boss Of Me or Dancing Out In Space. It does get back on track towards the end though. The opening riff on Set The World On Fire, and its searing guitar solo, sound like they were lifted from something off 'Diamond Dogs'; 'tis a thunderous stomper of a song. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is a glorious ballad that could have worked on 'Ziggy Stardust', and the closing drone of Heat could have been a highlight of 'Low'.

The Bowie of 2013 was far from the ailing old codger we were beginning to fear he had become. If 'The Next Day' is anything to go by, he's as fresh and exciting as ever, and the few new songs that have emerged since contain more ideas than many bands young enough to be his grandchildren will have in their entire lives. How long he'll make us wait before he decides to give us some more only Bowie knows, but if it's another decade, I'm pretty sure it'll be worth the wait.

8 / 10


Wednesday 27 May 2015

Welsh Wednesday #38

#38: Poodle Rockin' by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

A band that rode just beneath the wave of Cool Cymru and Britpop, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci were somewhat unfortunate not to have received the same mainstream attention of some of their peers (Super Furry Animals, Catatonia). In fact, they set a rather unfortunate chart record, being the act with the most Top 75 singles (8) without ever breaking the Top 40.

You wonder why songs like Poodle Rockin' didn't quite provide the crossover hit they deserved. They had a few gems in their catalogue. I'm not sure the band themselves were all that fussed about it necessarily, but it would have been nice had they had the opportunity to infiltrate the Top Of The Pops studio and had the pop kids scratching their heads in bemusement.

Poodle Rockin' was the second single from the band's sixth studio album 'Spanish Dance Troupe' from 1999. It reached the dizzy heights of number 52 in the charts, so not much chance of some primetime TV exposure this time around either.

Monday 25 May 2015

Memories of a thousand* gigs #41

(* probably not actually that many, but who’s counting?)

#41: The Primitives
Wales Goes Pop! @ The Gate, Cardiff - 29 March 2013
Support: Josie Long, The Wave Pictures, Evans The Death, Joanna Gruesome, The Tuts, Golden Fable + more
Also present: MrsRobster

One of the bands I loved that I never saw during my 'peak period' (1988-1994) was the Primitives. Not sure why, but probably because they rarely played down my way. So when the reformed Prims were announced as headliners of the inaugural Wales Goes Pop! festival in Cardiff, it was the opportunity I'd been waiting for for 20-plus years.

Wales Goes Pop! is a tiny festival centred around a converted church in the Cathays area of Cardiff. The Gate is a fantastic little venue, with several rows of pews around three sides and a standing area. Capacity is just 300, but that's plenty big enough I reckon. The event is a three-dayer taking place over the Easter weekend, but MrsRobster and I bought tickets just for the first day for a measly £15 each. As she was working (supermarkets don't close on Good Friday!) we chose to go for the evening only, although there was music taking place throughout the day. We just wanted to see the Primitives, truth be told. We did, however, get there early enough to see two other acts.

I have to say, it was a bit weird. The place was absolutely crawling with hipsters for starters, but then when you have a line-up of lots of bands no one's ever heard of, that's not surprising. There were also lots of young kids running around. This isn't a problem - it's great that people take their kids to gigs. But the parents were sitting in the middle of the dancefloor on mats and blankets! There was also a record stall there, which is never a bad thing, and a merch stand.

The first act we caught was the Wave Pictures. I knew of this band and was aware of their cult status, so was actually looking forward to them. The hipsters, naturally, loved them, but I was completely unmoved. Lightweight, whimsical and instantly forgettable. The penultimate act of the day was comedian Josie Long who did a set trying out new material. She was hilarious. She did this piece about shopping in Aldi and coming across "the mystery aisle... you're like 'what do I need? Onions, tomatoes... Ah! Wetsuit!'" MrsRobster and I now speak meeting in "the wetsuit aisle" whenever we pay a visit to Aldi.

So we were waiting for the headliners to appear when something very strange started to happen. People started leaving! Yep, hipsters all around us headed for the exits. God forbid they should stick around to see a band who actually had hit records! Who their parents might actually have heard of! How uncool would that be? They left a small crowd near the front of the stage, few of whom were the right side of 40.

Sadly, the Primitives had seen better days too. Oh, Tracy looked terrific as she always did, but her voice was shot. She struggled with the high notes and hit a few bum ones that she really should have got right. The mix was too loud as well, at times it was difficult to make anything in particular out - it was all a bit noisy and cacophonous. The set itself was OK - a lot of the old classics intermingled with a few new ones from their recently released album, EP and single - but while MrsRobster and I expected to be thrilled by the comeback of one of the best bands of indie's golden generation, we felt rather let down and disappointed.

Maybe the hipsters were right after all. Oh dear god, have I just written that sentence? I hang my head in shame...


Saturday 23 May 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #22: Ray Of Light

Not expecting this one, were we? I wrestled over whether 'Like A Prayer' or 'Ray Of Light' would make this list. Both are absolutely worthy of being here, but my self-imposed rule of only one title per artist means I was forced to choose. In the end, I went for 'Ray Of Light'. For me, it's the most musically and vocally dynamic record of Мadonna's career. It's credited as being the album that brought electronic music to the forefront of mainstream culture. I don't care about that so much, but it did make me sit up and take notice of her again.

'Ray Of Light' is rich and varied in its sounds and moods, yet it never veers too far off the pop path Мadonna had travelled down in her 15 year career up to this point. However, it was more mature than anything she had done before, whilst remaining as relevant as ever. For me, electronic music can far too often drift into nonsensical computerised nothingness - no soul, no heart, no feeling. Here though, the electronics are used to amazing effect. Sky Fits Heaven is devastatingly powerful, belying the delicate melody Мadonna sings over the top. That contrast is stark but boy does it work well. The title track, one of the best tracks in her entire repertoire, is dynamic and exciting. Мadonna's vocal is astounding, showing off a range even she probably didn't realise she had.

Her spiritual studies play a part in the overall feel of the album too. There are a lot of references to South Asian mysticism and the Kaballah, in particular on Shanti/Ashtangi, where her reading of a Hindu prayer in Sanskrit over a driving electronic rhythm sends shivers down my spine. This meshing of the ancient with the modern may not have been entirely new, but it was practically unheard of for a mainstream pop superstar at the time. Then there's the ambient closer Mer Girl, which could in all honesty be a Björk track. No bad thing.

Ultimately though, as you probably know, for me he most important thing is: bugger the technical stuff, are the songs any good? Fortunately, 'Ray Of Light' comes up trumps here too. Aside from the aforementioned ones, Swim, Frozen and The Power Of Goodbye rate right up there among her best work. It's not surprising 'Ray Of Light' picked up so many plaudits in 1997. What is surprising is how good it sounds 18 years on. It's certainly dated much better than 'Like A Prayer', as great as that record is.

Some of you probably haven't got this far down this piece. In fact, some of you probably just read the title and got the hell out of Dodge as fast as you could. Deal with it. I stand by my choice. 'Ray Of Light' is an awesome piece of work and one that I'm proud to hold up as an all-time fave.

Friday 22 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 7

Outside (1995)

His artistic muse now returned, Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno for the first time in a decade and a half, both keen to rekindle the magic they conjured up in the late 70s. What resulted was undoubtedly the most ambitious and audacious album of his entire career. 'Outside' was a concept album set in a dystopian near-future, its protagonist Nathan Adler investigating the murder of Baby Grace, a 14-year-old girl. The story of 'Outside' is rather involved - you'd be better off reading about that on Wiki. But in a nutshell, it was intended as being the first in a series of albums, using some of the ideas and material Bowie and Eno came up with during jams before recording the album.

It turned out there would be no follow-ups in the series. Unsurprisingly Bowie had moved on artistically and conceptually by the time the next instalment was due. As it is, 'Outside' is the longest album he ever released, something he was more than aware of at the time. For this reason, 'Outside' suffers a little from its protracted nature. Thing is though, it's got some incredible stuff on it.

Hearts Filthy Lesson was the oddest choice for a lead single, being by far the least commercial single he had ever released. It did, however, set the tone; 'Outside' is dark, both in its subject matter and its music. The song bamboozled many when first released, but critics warmed to it once contextualised on the album. And that's really the main thing to think about when listening to 'Outside' for the first time; it's not an album of songs, it's a complete work. To listen to any part of it without the rest is to remove the whole context of it. Hallo Spaceman is another example. The single is just fabulous in its remixed form featuring the Pet Shop Boys, but the much more industrial feel of the album version fits wonderfully within the story of 'Outside'. On its own, it wouldn't have made as much sense.

Some tracks do work quite well singularly though. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town has that odd-yet-accessible crossover quality that Bowie perfected on 'Scary Monsters', while album closer Strangers When We Meet is a reworking of the track that appeared on Bowie's previous record 'The Buddha Of Suburbia'. Although some elements of 'Outside' are rather baffling - you could argue about the validity of some of the segues featuring 'Outside''s characters - on the whole it is something of a success. It was good to hear Bowie in exploratory mode again, and clearly enjoying making interesting music once more. 'Outside' divides critics, but I'm more than happy to give it a thumbs up, even if it can be quite difficult to get through.

7.5 / 10


Earthling (1997)

I've often seen 'Earthling' derided by so-called critics. I don't get it. I can only assume they never bothered to listen to it before commenting. It's possibly my favourite post-'Scary Monsters' Bowie album. Sure, it sounds very different to much of his previous works, but isn't that what we expect of the man? 'Earthling' is rife with electronic rhythms and production techniques, mixed in with some of the dark and gritty industrial noises he used on 'Outside'. There's also some great tunes.

Little Wonder and Dead Man Walking are superb tracks, the latter especially with its powerful driving rhythms and heavy distorted guitars. I'm Afraid Of Americans remains a highlight of his entire catalogue, while The Last Thing You Should Do and Law (Earthlings On Fire) are delightfully intriguing, if a little ominous in their delivery.

I suspect the thought that Bowie might be making 'dance music' may well have put fear into the hearts of long-term fans and driven the negative feelings many had. They were wrong though. Bowie hadn't 'gone dance', but he definitely was influenced by the music and sound. He just took the good bits and blended it with lots of other things to produce something original and interesting. Little Wonder does sound rather Prodigy-like, but it's also clear he was very strongly influenced by Nine Inch Nails who toured with him in the States the previous year.

'Earthling' is an aggressive-sounding record, though not a necessarily angry one. In fact, work started on it within a week of the 'Outside' tour ending which might explain its high-octane levels and energy. It doesn't let up; even the album's slow-burner Seven Years In Tibet has a real edge about it that keeps the pulse racing.

This is Bowie's best 90s record by far. It's not a drum & bass record, but it does have some drum & bass in it. It's not an industrial record, though there are bits that sound like NIN, Ministry, KMFDM etc. It is, however, a David Bowie record, and one of his best.

8.4 / 10


'hours...' (1999)

Following the wild experimentation and loud industrial sounds of Bowie's previous couple of albums, 'hours...' came as something of light relief. It was his most straight-forward sounding song-based record since the 80s. It was also his mellowest. But it would have been unlike Bowie not to have tried something new, it's just that this time it came through in different ways.

Much of the music on 'hours...' started life as part of the video game Omikron: The Nomad Soul which actually featured characters based on Bowie and his band members. He also ran a competition on the Internet to write lyrics for an instrumental piece which became What's Really Happening, perhaps one of the very earliest examples of an artist engaging with fans through this then-fledgling medium. The winner's lyrics were recorded and released on the album and it proves to be one of the highlights. The finished album was also released entirely online for its first two weeks - unheard of for a major artist, and something the industry failed to latch onto for more than a decade hence.

And what of the music itself? Well it was certainly a little easier to engage with immediately than its forerunners. Thursday's Child is a ballad, and therefore a rather unusual choice for an opening track. Something In The Air and If I'm Dreaming My Life are a little darker and slightly offbeat in places, but a far cry from anything on 'Outside'. Seven is, for me, one of Bowie's most exceptional songs of his latter day period (although I confess to liking the remixed single version a tad more than the album version).

There are several nods to his past, most strikingly on The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell which revisits his glam days and sets them in the industrial menace of his recent offerings. In fact, 'hours...' does appear to have a rather introspective theme to it. Its artwork suggests a period of self-examination had taken place, the old, the recent and the future all being considered and scrutinised. Indeed, another skin was being shed here and the full rebirth would be revealed on his next record.

There is a weak spot though. Brilliant Adventure is puzzling. It's a short instrumental reminiscent of the Berlin period, but it sticks out like a sore thumb here. Pretty pointless in fact. Aside from that, 'hours...' is a good album, even if it doesn't have as much in the way of talking points as 'Outside' or 'Earthling'. It is consistent and focussed; its material strong and interesting. Bowie has always done songs well, and while he would continue to experiment and innovate, 'hours...' suggested it was being toned down a little and a more traditional approach was being considered.

7.8 / 10


Wednesday 20 May 2015

Welsh Wednesday #37

#37: Stwff by Gwenno

Gwenno Saunders is half Welsh, half Cornish and was schooled at the Seán Éireann-McMahon Academy of Irish Dancing. There's no doubting her Celtic credentials. She is perhaps best known as a former member of the Pipettes, but she has also played keyboards for Elton John, presented her own show on the Welsh language TV channel S4C, and currently hosts a show on Cardiff Radio.

When she gets time, Gwenno also makes records of her own. Last year, she put out 'Y Dydd Olaf' (trans: The Last Day), her first full-length solo album. It's 44 minutes of electronic bliss akin to Broadcast, mid-to-late period Stereolab, and fellow Welsh compatriots Gulp. It is named after Owain Owain's dystopian sci-fi novel about robots taking over the world. It's sung in Welsh and Cornish and it's a rather lovely thing all told.

Stwff (trans: Stuff - you'd guessed that though, right?) is a perky little number that has woodblocks in it. You can't beat a good woodblock, a very under-utilised percussive delight in my view.

Monday 18 May 2015

Just because...

I love a bit of Creedence, and JUST BECAUSE of that, I'm posting this brilliant, brilliant track today. It's the epic opening tune from their fifth album 'Cosmo's Factory' from 1970. Gets me going every time. And doesn't John Fogerty have the most amazing voice?!


Saturday 16 May 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #21: Songs From Northern Britain

It's too easy to use the 'Teenage Fanclub = Big Star copyists' cliche, but to be honest, it's difficult to argue with it. Not that it's anything to be ashamed of. Everyone should own at least one Big Star record just as everyone should own at least one Teenage Fanclub record. As far as I'm concerned, their fifth, 'Songs From Northern Britain', should be the one. It's a record that's almost faultless from the opening strains of Start Again through to the final chord of Speed Of Light.

I instantly fell in love with its lead single Ain't That Enough when it first came out, and still adore it. It was going to be one of my '20 songs...' but I decided to do the whole album instead. I can't really tell you what's so special about this particular track, it's not unlike the rest of the album. Great tune, great vocals, great feeling. For some reason it just hits a certain spot like so few other songs do. That's not to suggest the other 11 tracks on the record don't connect though. Take The Long Way Round is my second fave - a wonderful melody, some fine harmonies and a little break in the middle that sounds like the Beach Boys. Winter is divine in much the same way. Even I Don't Want Control Of You, one of my lesser favourites, just forces me to sing along with its infectious and encapsulating tune.

The one weak spot - and it's not even that weak - is I Don't Care. I never skip it though, it fits pretty well and lends a slightly different mood to the overall feel of it all. I almost feel guilty calling it a weak spot. It's followed by a frankly brilliant triple whammy - Everest, Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From and Speed Of Light, the latter being another particularly high point. Maybe this is why I Don't Care doesn't quite live up to everything else on the album - everything else is just so strong.

With summer fast approaching, I can't think of many better summer albums to lie in the garden with while soaking up the rays. It's difficult to believe 'Songs From Northern Britain' is not just a title, but a description; it's definitely more California than Caledonia. It's Teenage Fanclub's high point for me. They were building up to this record during the early 90s; after it, things were never quite the same.

Friday 15 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 6

Never Let Me Down (1987)

The appalling effort that was 'Tonight' was, unsurprisingly, an unmitigated disaster. Bowie's fanbase was worried, and they had a right to be. Bowie himself, meanwhile, admitted to feeling disconnected from the new audience that his previous two records had brought him. He had to do something to put things right. The trouble was, he was in a bad place both artistically and motivationally. 'Never Let Me Down' was an attempt to make a record like the old days - properly written new material, recorded as a band. While significantly better than its immediate predecessor, 'Never Let Me Down' didn't succeed in winning his old fans over, and time hasn't treated it well.

Some of the songs are actually OK. What lets things down more than anything else is the production. The 80s have a hell of  lot to answer for, and loud, gated-reverb drum sounds are right at the top of the list. It gets so annoying at times, you can't actually hear the songs; they're drowned out by the relentless echoey pounding. Zeroes could have been one of the better tracks were it not for those fucking drums! I'm sure there are some good songs buried beneath it all somewhere. Time Will Crawl is one of Bowie's all-time faves, and it does stand out as one of the most listenable tracks. Beat Of Your Drum is also half-decent, while 87 And Cry is Bowie's anti-Thatcher song, which is worthy of a thumbs up for that alone, even if the song itself is little more than average.

The best bits are used up early on though. By the time we get to side two, things take a distinct turn for the worse. Glass Spider's intro is embarrassing, with Bowie's narration probably inspired by his acting turn in Labyrinth a year or so before. Shining Star is terrible. It's not sure if it wants to be pop or soul, but it ends up bringing out the worst elements of both. Not even the presence of Mickey Rourke rapping can redeem it. Too Dizzy is so poor, it has been left off subsequent reissues altogether at Bowie's insistence. Oh, and there's another pointless Iggy Pop cover in there too.

Initially Bowie seemed quite happy with 'Never Let Me Down', but over time he's come to hate it, Time Will Crawl notwithstanding. The ill-fated Glass Spider Tour which followed ended up making this once feted musical genius the subject of ridicule and derision. The game was up, something had to give. Bowie slipped away and formed a heavy rock band.

3 / 10



Black Tie White Noise (1993)

The Tin Machine project Bowie initiated after 'Never Let Me Down' may have been as critically derided as his recent solo output, but he emerged from it refreshed and rejuvenated. He had also married again and using this and his renewed artistic momentum, he made a fresh start. A new song, Real Cool World, from the movie of the same name, hinted at a new electronic direction. And so it was that in 1993, 'Black Tie White Noise' was unleashed - and it was different to anything we'd heard from David Bowie before.

The first thing to say is it was immeasurably better than its two immediate predecessors. The sound was fresh and modern and what it may have lacked in great songs, it made up for in imagination and creativity. Perhaps to play down his return, there were a couple of rather interesting decisions made. Firstly, it was released on a small fledging label - Savage - and secondly, the choice of its lead single. Jump They Say didn't exactly have strongest of melodies, and it was influenced by Bowie's schizophrenic brother who had died some years earlier. The same brother influenced Bowie's choice of covering Cream's I Feel Free. I'm not entirely sure it was a good call. Ditto for his rather camp gospel take on Morrissey's  I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday.

There was plenty to be positive about though. Miracle Goodnight is a superb track, a unique pop song that ought to have been the first single, not the tragically ignored third. Pallas Athena is also to be admired. It was the most experimental and intriguing thing Bowie had done for years. Sadly, there were some horrors too. Looking For Lester is just dire, and the final third of the album in general lacks the momentum that had kept things going up to that point.

Overall, while 'Black Tie White Noise' was far from the dreck that infected our lives during Bowie's "Phil Collins period" (his words), it wasn't a fully-fledged return to form. It did display a vigour and energy he had been lacking though, so it bade well for the future.

6 / 10


The Buddha Of Suburbia (1993)

I said at the start of this series that Bowie's soundtracks would not be included. I stand true to that. While Bowie did provide the soundtrack to the rather wonderful TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novel of the same name, the album released as 'The Buddha of Suburbia' wasn't actually the soundtrack. Instead, only the title track was featured in the series, while the rest of the songs were created using some of the music he composed for the original soundtrack. What we hear on this record bears very little resemblance to what we heard in the show.

This way of working enabled Bowie to come up with some of his most interesting and innovative music in more than a decade. Sex And The Church builds on the electronic nature of his previous album, and is a real highlight. It was probably never heard in clubs of the time, but had someone dared to play it, I'm sure it would have gone down pretty well and a hundred remixes would surely have resulted. Dance Like A Craze, Dad is a lot of fun in a psyche-funk kind of way, and Dead Against It is a driving electro stomper.

Strangers When We Meet is, like the title track, one of the more traditional-sounding songs on the album and was clearly highly regarded by Bowie. Unhappy with it being overlooked as part of this record, he later re-recorded it for 'Outside'. This original version is faster, louder and altogether more satisfying, though. There's also a nod to past glories - The Mysteries and Ian Fish, UK Heir are both ambient instrumentals not unlike those that appeared on side two of 'Low'.

While as a whole it's not perfect - the jazz instrumental South Horizon is one for the skip button - 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' works for me as a bonafide Bowie album. There's a good balance of eclecticism and consistency, and it serves as a good link between the two records either side of it in his discography. Sadly, categorised as it was as a soundtrack album, 'The Buddha Of Suburbia' suffered from a lack of marketing and was largely ignored as a result. It was even unavailable for a number of years, despite Bowie citing it at the time as his favourite record. It remains one of his least known albums, which is a real shame as it's actually one of his better ones.

7.5 / 10


Wednesday 13 May 2015

Welsh Wednesday #36

#36: Erotica by Man

First off, a word of warning: if you download today's offering, please make sure there are no minors or people who are a touch sensitive in the vicinity when you play it - it's a bit raunchy.

Man formed from the ashes of The Bystanders, a pop group from Merthyr Tydfil whose close harmonies and melodic tunes were of a similar ilk to other bands of the time like the Zombies and the Dave Clarke Five. In 1968, at the height of psychedelia, the band reinvented itself, changing its name and musical direction. Man's debut album 'Revelation' came out the following year and captures the era perfectly. Their psychedelic rock experiments set them alongside the likes of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, with all four leading the charge of progressive rock (or 'prog') into the 70s.

While the band released the song Sudden Life as the album's single in the UK, in Europe (and curiously Angola) the track Erotica was put out instead. This largely instrumental cut was banned in the UK. I say 'largely' instrumental as there is a voice on there. Kind of. As the band noodles away, an uncredited female 'enjoys herself' over the top. Almost like a Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus for the acid generation, only ruder.

After four minutes, it's all over ("So what's new?" says every married woman ever...[1]) and we can cwtch[2] up and go to sleep. Man would go on to release another nine studio albums before splitting in 1976. They reformed in 1983 and have been active ever since, continually gigging and putting out records, their most recent being 'Reanimated Memories' which came out just a few months ago. I'm not aware they did anything quite so sensual as this since though. The little teases.

This post is dedicated to George and Walter who like a bit of Man.

[1] Except MrsRobster, of course.
[2] A lovely word; Welsh for cuddle. The 'w' is pronounced like a flat 'oo' as in foot or good.

Monday 11 May 2015

Vintage Vinyl #9

Neneh Cherry - Manchild 7"
Bought from Kelly's Records, Cardiff
Price paid: £1

I have to confess to knowing very little about Neneh Cherry. I remember seeing her on Top Of The Pops while she was very heavily pregnant, blazing a trail for women in pop music the world over. I later bought her second album 'Homebrew' on the strength of a track on which she duetted with Michael Stipe. Stipe also performed a rap on the same track and is cringe-inducingly awful...

Manchild was her second solo single, following the massive success of her debut track Buffalo Stance (one of the most magnificent debut singles of all time? Discuss.) It was more melodic and laid back than its predecessor, but a good track nonetheless.

Under the main LP racks at Kelly's, there's a shedload of plastic storage boxes containing 7" singles of varying quality costing a quid each. Each time I go there, I pick a box at random, mainly for amusement's sake. Occasionally I'll stop and look at something, smile and put it back. On one occasion though I spotted the Manchild 7" and decided it was more than worth a pound of my money.

After three solo albums, Neneh became more low-key, concentrating on other musical projects. Last year though, she released her fourth record to high acclaim. Decent though it is, there's nowt on there to compare with her early solo stuff.


Now I know I normally post both sides of my Vintage Vinyl singles, but I'm currently without my vinyl-ripping facility. I've searched high and low on t'internet for the b-side - Manchild [original mix] - to no avail. If anyone can oblige, I'd be grateful.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Memories of 2015 gigs 4-6

#4: Wolf Alice
The Globe, Cardiff - 1st April 2015
Support: The Magic Gang, Crows

I'd been looking forward to seeing Wolf Alice for some time. I was excited that I was going to get to see a new band on the very tip of stardom play what could be their last small venue tour before rocketing to fame. Then, two days before the show, I caught the plague.

OK, so it was just a cold, but as any self-respecting man will tell you, we get colds that feel like the black death, and this felt like one of them. Fortunately, I dosed myself up enough to drag myself along to the gig, with an ailing MrsRobster in tow. She'd been suffering with some pain over the previous week and was feeling a cold coming on herself. But she'd been to work, so she couldn't have been as bad as me. Either way, neither of us was in optimum gig-going form.

For that reason, we didn't rush to get there early. As a result we missed the opening band Crows. Many didn't though, as for a change, the Globe was pretty rammed from the off. We did see the Magic Gang (from Brighton) though. "What did you make of them?" MrsRobster asked me after their set. "Like a lightweight Weezer," came my reply. She laughed. "That's pretty much exactly what I was going to say." Talk about being on the same wavelength!

The main attraction was greeted by huge cheers from the unsurprisingly young crowd. Wolf Alice haven't even released an album yet, but their set provoked one of the most enthusiastic responses of any audience I've seen for some time. And why not - they are good. Like, really bloody good. Good songs, good sound, good singer. If I had to compare them to another band around at the moment, it would probably be the Joy Formidable (though MrsRobster heard a touch of the Sundays in there too). The only somewhat minor gripe I had is, as good a singer as Ellie Rowsell is, her stage presence needs a bit of work. I didn't quite get the energy I had hoped from her, not the energy or personality Ritzy of the Joy Formidable exudes, anyway.

The next time you get the chance to see Wolf Alice, they'll be playing major festivals and arenas. I hope they make a better job of it than Royal Blood. Personally, I think they're better in every area. Be prepared...



#5: Super Furry Animals
Great Hall, Cardiff University - 3rd May 2015
Support: The Magic Numbers

Question: why do people pay £30+ quid to see a legendary band play a hometown gig - their first in years - only to spend most of the show relentlessly chatting, interspersed only with trips to the bar? And they're always in front of people who - dammit - want to actually see and listen to the band! I know I'm a right misanthrope at the best of times, but jeez these morons really annoy me.

Anyway, it was a bloody horrible Sunday evening outside with some seriously heavy rain making the journey into Cardiff a little treacherous. We arrived halfway through the Magic Numbers set. Remember them? About a decade or so ago, they were being touted as one of the bands most likely to be huge as part of the so-called nu-folk movement, like a 21st Century Mamas & Papas. They enjoyed a few hit singles but then seemed to fade into obscurity. Shame because they actually played a really good-sounding set. The highlights were a song from their most recent album entitled Roy Orbison, set-closer and brilliant early hit Love Me Like You, and a track sung by keyboard player Alison (not sure of the title) showcasing what an amazing voice she has.

The Furries played a mammoth 2¼ hour set which covered all bases - the hits, album tracks, obscurities, pop songs, psychedelic wig-outs, electronic wizardry, English, Welsh - you name it, it was in there. Oh, except anything from the last two albums, which is odd. However, what they did play was never anything less than interesting. Zoom! was absolutely phenomenal, as was Run! Christian! Run! and Fire In My Heart, as sung mainly by the audience.

Joined by a trumpet/sax duo from The Barry Horns, there was nothing missing from the melting pot of madness the Furries conspired to throw at their audience. The International Language Of Screaming was welcomed with some mass la-la-la-ing; Slow Life was riddled with techno jiggery pokery, and Ice Hockey Hair was one of the most warmly received songs of the night. The lights and visuals were spectacular too, adding to the psychedelic experience.

On the downside - the venue isn't the best. It's a soulless space typical of the larger university halls. That may have contributed to the average sound quality - for much of the set it sounded like only half the drum kit had been miked up. And then there's those idiots again, who only seemed to take any notice of the band at all when Hello Sunshine was aired, no doubt just because they love the "I'm a minger / You're a minger too" line. Oh it's so frightfully amusing, Tarquin...

The annoying twats in front of us had cleared off half hour before the end (like, wtf is that all about?) so they missed out on a storming climax which concluded, as always, with a lengthy The Man Don't Give A Fuck, replete with yetis, aliens and Cian's crazy electro-frenzy interlude.

Overall, a fabulous display of everything we love about Super Furry Animals. Oh god, I wish they'd release some new stuff. Just a pity we had to tolerate all those people that we hate. They don't give a fuck about anybody else.


#6: Laura Marling
Colston Hall, Bristol - 5th May 2015
Support: Gil Landry

As far as I know, Laura Marling playing electric guitar has not prompted her fans to squeal "Judas!" during her shows this year, but the fact that she can properly rock has probably come as a bit of a surprise to many. Her latest album 'Short Movie' is notable for its loudness as much as the melancholy we've come to expect. There's no deterioration in quality control though.

There was another surprise for us in Bristol as she took to the stage earlier than expected - as part of the support act! Gil Landry from Louisiana is a member of the Old Crow Medicine Show, but has just released his third solo album. His set of acoustic country songs began entirely solo, but soon included a violin player, Marling's drummer and bassist and then the girl herself who duetted with Landry on Take This Body.

Laura's own set was masterfully arranged and executed. Again there was a slow build-up. A mesmerising opening suite of songs saw a gradual increase of personnel onstage as four songs from her most recent two records were interwoven into one seamless piece. Once the audience were allowed to express their appreciation through rapturous applause, the shackles were off. Out came the Rickenbacker and Laura Marling became an unlikely rock chick.

What was particularly interesting was the alternative arrangements of songs she's only just released. I Feel Your Love became swampy blues, while Strange was brash and chaotic. She also seems to have eschewed much of her earlier material as if to make a statement that she has been somehow reborn. Rambling Man and Sophia were both present and correct, but the majority of the set consisted of the new songs in whatever manner she chose to perform them. Some people hate this of course; no doubt the sort of people that went to see Super Furry Animals a couple nights before would have ranted endlessly about the one or two songs they actually knew not being played had the band decided to play new stuff. But while Devil's Spoke, Night Terror, All My Rage and Devil's Resting Place were all noticeable by their absence, I couldn't be disappointed with what Laura chose to do instead. The new songs made the set even more compelling than it might otherwise have been, False Hope especially.

That said, the real highlight for me was an oldie. Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) was beautiful, absolutely divine, spine-tingling. There was also a wonderful outing for her cover of Jackson C. Frank's Blues Run The Game, and the gorgeous Daisy, a song recorded for the new record but relegated to vinyl-only bonus track. I can see why - it's far too 60s folk to fit in with the new identity Laura's forging herself. Closing without an encore (she doesn't believe in them), she left us with the foul-mouthed title-track from said album, even louder and more brazen than the recording.

Laura Marling says very little between songs, appearing shy and self-effacing. Her music, particularly the bold, confident new songs, suggest otherwise though. There's plenty more to come, I'm sure.


Friday 8 May 2015

Bowie Albums Rated - Part 5

From the sublime to the ridiculous...

Scary Monsters (1980)

Having crawled out of the turmoil of his mid-70s hellhole with a clutch of critically-acclaimed albums to the good, Bowie embarked on a period of phenomenal commercial success as the new decade dawned. Clearly revived and raring to go, another new David Bowie emerged, and this one was to announce his arrival with one hell of a statement of intent. It started with his second number one single, which strangely, given the modern-sounding nature of his new direction, harked back to his past.

Ashes To Ashes revisited the pickle old Major Tom found himself in more than a decade on. But you know what I think about that track, so I won't dwell on it. But the excitement of this incredible return set up the anticipation of the impending arrival of what would prove to be a landmark recording.

Riotous, raucous and rowdy; 'Scary Monsters' is a hell of a lot of fun - this despite the haunting melodrama of its lead single and the sometimes difficult subject matter contained in the songs. There is much less experimentation and improvisation than on the Berlin records. The songwriting was more considered and purposeful. Bowie wanted to court more mainstream acceptance and 'Scary Monsters' was the first big step to achieving that. It has to be said, it worked. 'Scary Monsters' is one of his finest records, no doubt about that.

In spite of its huge commercial success, the music is often angry and dark; the synth sounds are harsh and the guitars rasp with menace, while Bowie's vocals sound desperate at times, none more so than on its terrific opener It's No Game (Part 1). The title track, which tackles the ominous subject of a woman's descent into madness, is another highlight, and Up The Hill Backwards swaggers in the face of the adversity of its subject matter - the public nature of his divorce and generally facing up to a crisis. In fact crises dictate the theme of the record.

There is derision and bitterness too. The brilliant Teenage Wildlife deals with Bowie facing the young new romantic upstarts who were on the rise. While clearly influenced by him, Bowie took issue with their repetitiveness and painting the world with a futuristic high-tech image that he didn't believe existed, or indeed, ever would. It is in many ways the album's centrepiece; the sound is bold, the vocal is confident and it has a bristling tension that pervades throughout the whole record. The momentum does fall away somewhat towards the second half of side two in my opinion, but the quality and impact of the first seven songs more than make up for that.

'Scary Monsters' has become the album that all his subsequent releases have been compared against. "His best record since 'Scary Monsters'" is a stock phrase so beloved of reviewers, yet it is easy to understand in a way. The next few years would see Bowie's reputation almost destroyed as an artist, so 'Scary Monsters' is held up as being the last truly great record he made. Good thing or not, it set a precedent that even the great man himself struggled to live up to.

8.5 / 10


Let's Dance (1983)

Three years was the longest gap between Bowie albums in 1983. In the intervening period, Dave had released a curious EP of Berthold Brecht songs ('Baal') and released collaborations with Giorgio Moroder, Bing Crosby and Queen. It was this latter one that set fans on edge. While Under Pressure gave him another number one, it was also a sign that he might be compromising his artistic integrity in return for commercial success. 'Scary Monsters' had been hugely successful, yet it contained enough uneasiness to disconcert your average punter.

When 'Let's Dance' hit the shelves, it marked an almighty shift in fortunes, which Bowie would not only regret, but also take years to recover from. Shunning his long-term friend and producer Tony Visconti in favour of Nile Rodgers was the first mistake. Bowie and Visconti wouldn't work together again for 20 years, and you wonder what might have happened had he been involved. Rodgers gave Bowie a sleek, polished, Americanised sound that would clearly sell lots of records. While Bowie was happy to gain a few hits out of it, he wasn't prepared for what followed.

The truth is, as far as the songs go, 'Let's Dance' isn't so bad. Modern Love, Cat People and Without You remain among the best songs of his post-'Scary Monsters' 80s output, while his remake of China Girl is probably the highlight of the album. What lets the whole thing down is Rodgers' bombastic production. There is absolutely no need for the elongated mix of the title track; it totally breaks up what could have been the record's most shining moment. Elsewhere, the horns get on one's nerves after a while, and those awful gated-reverb drum sounds are just way too dominant. I'm still undecided about Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar parts. There are times I think they work really well in the song, while other times they sound rather forced and contrived. Bowie himself has questioned Rodgers work, pointing out how Ricochet sounded "ungainly": "Nile did his own thing to it, but it wasn't what I'd had in mind when I wrote the thing." It is the album's low-point, I reckon.

Overall, the strength of the material saves 'Let's Dance', with the songs being more than good enough to stand the test of time. Sadly, its enormous commercial success forced Bowie into a corner and instead of setting his unique creative juices flowing, he felt obliged to cater for this new audience. 'Let's Dance' is therefore largely thought of as being the start of a phenomenally steep decline in Bowie's career.

7.3 / 10


Tonight (1984)

The new audience that Bowie found through 'Let's Dance' is the reason 'Tonight' exists. It's a disgrace. He even admits himself that 'Tonight' is an abomination, but at the time Bowie seemed to be suffering another sort of identity crisis. He was now a bonafide mainstream rock megastar, like it or lump it. He felt obliged to cater for his new audience and sadly now there is nothing we can do about it.

The awful 80s production is evident from the very beginning, a sound that was so un-Bowie it was as if there was an intruder in our midst. While Loving The Alien actually isn't a bad song, Bowie himself admits the demo he made of it was "wonderful [...] On the album it's not so wonderful." From there on in things get unfathomably worse. There's a dreadful cod-reggae styled cover of Iggy Pop's Don't Look Down, and the cringe-inducing atrocity that is the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. Utterly unforgiveable, but utterly unbelievable as well. This was never the same man who just a few years before had delivered 'Scary Monsters' was it?

If fans thought their hero teaming up with Queen a few years earlier was a bad move, you can only imagine what they felt when Tina Turner popped up on the title track. What was he doing??? The sad truth is, 'Tonight' has no redeeming features about it. Bowie went into it with very little new material and relied on old Iggy Pop songs and ill-advised cover versions. The very fact that Blue Jean is one of the record's highlights speaks volumes.

In 1995, Virgin reissued the album with three bonus tracks. The last of these was Absolute Beginners, taken from the movie of the same name. This in itself is a disgrace; 'Tonight' does not deserve to have anything even remotely as marvellous as that song associated with it. What Absolute Beginners did suggest though was that maybe 'Tonight' was just a blip, that Bowie's next effort would be a return to form. Let's face it, things couldn't stay this bad for long. Could they?

1 / 10


Wednesday 6 May 2015

Welsh Wednesday #35

#35: A Child Is Born In Cerrig-y-Drudion by Julian Cope

A contentious one this. You're all yelling: "Julian Cope's not Welsh, he's from Tamworth!" or something, aren't you? Well, the Drude's eligibility for this series is by birth. Yes, for Julian Cope was born at his grandparents' home in the village of Deri in Monmouthshire, which is just the right side of the border to qualify him as Welsh. That works for me!

As if to justify his inclusion, I've chosen a song that mentions the name of another Welsh village, this time Cerrig-y-Drudion in North Wales. I know nothing of Cerrig-y-Drudion, and very little of Julian Cope's career post-'Peggy Suicide', so don't expect much in the way of an informative article here. What I can tell you is that there is a new Cope retrospective called 'Trip Advizer' which concentrates on the period from 1999 to 2014. It includes A Child Is Born In Cerrig-y-Drudion which originally appeared on his 2007 album 'You Gotta Problem With Me'.