Saturday, 30 June 2018
Released in 1978
Prince Far I was one of the “toaster” DJs, who chanted/spoke/half sung lyrics over deep, dubby “riddims” in the mid to late seventies and early eighties. His style was that of a righteous preacher, railing in his deep, gravelly tones about Rastafarian ideology and dispensing warnings of damnation. Where he differed from other DJs was that instead of toasting over existing backing tracks from previous well-known recordings, the rhythms here were created by Far I and his team themselves. Far I also preferred to label himself as a "chanter" as opposed to the more rhythmic "toasters".
“Message From The King” has an infectious refrain, “black reggae music” sung over a mid-paced rhythm. “The Dream” has Far I croaking about righteousness over not much of a beat at all, to be honest. “Commandment Of Drugs” has a stark, almost indiscernible beat at times, just some quiet rim shots, while the Prince lectures almost incomprehensibly about drugs before some dubby guitar chops cut in. “Moses Moses” is more melodic in its backing, although, as with many of the tracks, the music comes and goes, alternating between quiet and loud, in a typical dub style. Prince Far I’s sermon is mournful and sad on this one. The thing about this material is that it doesn’t have half the melodic appeal of much of the roots reggae from the same period. It is far more slowed-down, far heavier in its beat and often one-paced in its rhythm. To be honest, I prefer the roots albums of The Gladiators, Burning Spear, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh and Third World and, when it comes to toasting/DJs, I prefer Big Youth, whose material was far more varied and inventive. Or U-Roy and I-Roy for that matter.
That said, “Black Man Land”, is a haunting, evocative cut, probably Prince Far I’s best, and in “Concrete Column”, Far I starts to almost sing, more than he has done in other tracks.
Despite some preferences for other artists and other genre variations, there is something very atmospheric about these big, thumping, dread-inducing, mysterious creations. It reminds me of Notting Hill carnivals in the early eighties just as it was getting dark and it all got a little menacing.
Tracks from this are something that appears as part of a random mix of my music in isolation every now and again or as part of a roots reggae playlist. When they do, I enjoy them, but more than half an hour is a bit heavy going.
Actually, my favourite way of listening to Prince Far I is on the “Dubwise” compilation of his work, produced by Virgin’s “Front Line” series, which is far more accessible, musically, with some attractive brass breaks and more upbeat, melodic parts. Far I’s vocal comes in every now and again, which is fine, because that is what it does anyway, but the backing is more intricate, less sparse and less one-paced.
Released in 2002
Misty In Roots were a multi-member “collective” founded in London in 1979 and had a few albums released with a moderate amount of success. Unfortunately, these albums seem to be pretty impossible to get hold of these days. The band seemed to be more of a live band than a studio one for many years, preferring to just play their music live. This album was a “comeback album” from 2002 - twelve years after their previous outing.
“True Rasta” starts the album as it is to continue - rootsy rhythms, vibrant horns, swirling organ, toe-tapping drums and percussion and a light, harmonious lead vocal. The usual roots Rasta conceits are all here - grave warnings of “Judgement Day” and the like. Roots albums all carry the same message, to be honest, but it doesn’t really matter, it is just the groove that carries it along. “Cover Up” is an anti-racist number, referencing the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It has meaningful lyrics and a vaguely James Bond Theme-ish brass riff. The whole track has a hypnotic vibe of superb percussion, “riddim”, punchy horns and exceptionally tuneful vocals. Great stuff. It is like a throwback to the glory days of roots reggae of 1975-1976 but with a contemporary vitality and instrumental experimentation - electric guitar, saxophone and sound effects. “Jah How Long” is a regulation devotional song but, as with the whole album, it is lifted by an immaculate instrumental and vocal delivery. “Almighty (The Way)” follows the same holy path. This really is a very devout album.
“Dance Hall Babylon” has a cool, laid-back light, airy but rootsy groove with some nice horn riffs and an attractive vocal. It finishes with a wonderful bit of saxophone. Despite its chilled out rhythm, it is a condemnation of the posturing, macho dancehall culture. “On The Road” is another deliciously relaxing summery groove. “Follow Fashion” is a lengthy nonchalantly carefree number that just sort of washes over you. Perfect for a summer’s evening. Some sumptuous saxophone on here. “Ireation” is a shuffling, danceable (in a slow way) Rasta slow skank. Once again, mesmerising reggae drums abound. Great stereo separation on the mastering as well. “New Day” has an upbeat, punchy brass intro and some muffled, mournful vocals. The musicianship is magnificent. Who are they? They are so good, yet there is such a dearth of recorded material from them.
The last few tracks are more of the same. The quality doesn’t let up, really. The last two tracks are impressive live cuts. This is a quite remarkable album considering it is pretty much the only release around. If you like melodic roots reggae you will love this.
Released in 1977
After an impressive, inventive and often inspirational debut album, the intriguing Third World returned in 1977 with this equally notable album.
Theirs was a mesmerising mix of roots reggae, soulful vocals, disco stylings on occasions and many “world music” sounds. The opening track, “Jah Glory”, is a perfect example of this - great, airy, tuneful vocals and all sorts of tropical sounds in the backing. Just perfect music for a hot summer’s day. There is, of course, a rasta consciousness to the band’s lyrics but it never overwhelms the music, that washes over you like a cool Caribbean breeze.
“Tribal War” is a Rasta-drum rhythm backed intoxicating groover, backed by some seriously “crucial” lead guitar and some deep, urgent lyrics. This is one of the most “roots” tracks on the album, suitable for any “punky reggae party” playlist. The mood changes now for the truly beautiful “Dreamland”, a cover of Bunny Wailer’s track from his “Blackheart Man” album of the previous year. This is a light, airy version that sweeps into your room like opening the window on a sunny day. “Feel A Little Better” has that thumping disco groove that the band used so successfully on their hit single “Now That We’ve Found Love” - harmonious vocals, rhythmic drums and some cutting, razor-sharp guitar interjections. The beat is hypnotic on cuts like this. Third World at their very best.
“Human Market Place” is the most melodic condemnation of slavery there is. The song has a tragic, serious message over an insistent, solid, dubby rhythm, with a great vibes solo bit in the middle and some excellent bongos. It also features some sampled “sound effects” market place hubbub noises that add to the atmosphere. Great bass on it too. “Third World Man" features some top class vocals and some almost electronic backing in places. Some stunning guitar in the middle passage. Like Peter Tosh, Third World were afraid to utilise rock guitar. “96 Degrees In The Shade” just exudes heat. It is simply one of the best hot day songs ever. An exhilarating backing, one used so much by UB40 on their “Signing Off” album three years later. Some Spanish guitar adds even more to the hot, summery feel. This is not an album to play in the winter.
“Rhythm Of Life” has an almost rock-style drum intro and is a potent but incredibly catchy number, with a singalong chorus refrain. It also has a sort of jazzy drum solo piece in the middle. It is a positive, upbeat end to a highly pleasurable album. The band’s debut album was good, but this one is even better.
As always, an excellent cover, too.
Released in 1982
Recorded at Tuff Gong Studios, Kingston, Jamaica
Reggae had changed somewhat by the early eighties. That essential, clear bass, cymbals and “One drop” drum sound that so characterised Bob Marley & The Wailers, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse and the many roots groups of the mid to late seventies had been replaced by a heavier, synth drum -dominated sound and more dance floor-oriented sounds. “Ragga” was on its way. Groups like Black Uhuru still expressed black consciousness and Rasta devotion, but against a less tuneful, less musically diverse backing.
Gregory Isaacs bucked this trend, however. Firstly, although a dreadlocks, he was not one for singing out his religious fervour, praising Jah or warning of damnation. He was the self-styled “Cool Ruler”, the “lonely lover”. He was not a political man, either, at least not in his songs. He was a lover, interested in women, and, seemingly, little else. This is not to the detriment of his material - it was a kind of roots rhythms meets the burgeoning “lovers rock” genre of light, romantic tuneful songs. It was, to be honest, a breath of fresh air, after all that consciousness, Armagideon and crucial, speaker-pounding dub.
1. Night Nurse
2. Stranger In Town
3. Objection Overruled
4. Hot Stepper
5. Cool Down The Pace
6. Material Man
7. Not The Way
8. Sad To Know
The title track is very well known. An insistent, synth drum but appealing backing and a sensual, pleading vocal for Gregory’s nurse to treat him - “there’s a patient by the name of Gregory…”. “Stranger In Town” is an entrancing introduction to the “lonely lover” persona. Beautifully sung and gentle, lilting rhythms washing over you. “Objection Overruled” is one of my all time reggae favourites. Gregory’s voice is timeless, mournful yet hopeful, classic in its delivery. The backing is proper reggae and a melodious keyboard sound pushing the song along. Just a masterpiece of “ain’t to proud to beg” plaintive, pleading from a rejected lover. The quality continues with the impossibly melodic laid back skank of “Hot Stepper”. Again, this is lovers rock material but with a seriously crucial, bassy “riddim”. Such a wonderful, summery album. You just can’t play this in November, really. I am playing it now on a sunny Saturday morning at the end of June. All is one with the world. The song has a lovely piano part at the end too.
The old “side two” opened with the wryly amusing “Cool Down The Pace”, a slowly danceable request from Gregory to “cool down the pace for me little woman" and then we get “Material Man”, probably the most “roots” track on the album, that sees Isaacs ruminating on material goods and religious devotion. It has an almost perfect, subtle, underplayed rhythm. It goes without saying that the sound on this remaster is pretty near perfect. The backing is supplied by the excellent rhythm section, The Roots Radics.
“Not The Way” is another “lovers” style upbeat, vibrant skank. More great vocals and a totally captivating rhythm. Gregory touchingly urges us to treat our women well - “she’s your sister, so don’t mistreat her…”. “Sad To Know” is also a magnificent groove, just wonderful. Lovely backing with some intriguing percussion noises that sound like the call of some tropical bird and a constant, catchy piano line. Sad to get to the end of this album, Gregory.
Overall, I have to say that everything about this album is pretty damn perfect.
(The dub versions that come from the "deluxe" edition are excellent, particularly the saxophone-dominated "Unhappy Departure Dub", which sounds as if it has come straight from the South African townships).
Released in 1977
Recorded at Randy's Studio, Kingston, Jamaica
Peter Tosh’s 1977 “Equal Rights” was something of a breakthrough album, commercially. It was his second album and he was attempting to match old mate Bob Marley’s incredible global success (1977 was the year of Marley’s massively successful “Exodus” album). “Equal Rights” did pretty well, and Tosh became more well-known as a result, but despite his best efforts, he never quite made it.
Tosh was an “issues” kind of guy. The album was very political. For more so than religiously devotional. Political matters were far more to the fore than the common Rasta “give thanks and praise” roots fare. He didn’t have the ability that Marley did to mix political awareness with an instinct for a commercial tune, neither did he feel the need to occasionally leave the politics and go down the “Three Little Birds” or “Is This Love” route. There lies the explanation for his never being as big as Marley. Peter was too political, Bunny Wailer maybe too Rasta, Marley was both, and much more. Marley could always ensure his political utterances never overwhelmed his material by releasing a “Kaya” after every “Rastaman Vibration”, or releasing “ Jamming” as a single, or “One Love”.
1. Get Up Stand Up
2. Downpressor Man
3. I Am That I Am
4. Stepping Razor
5. Equal Rights
7. Jah Guide
9. 400 years
The albums starts, ironically, with a cover of “Get Up Stand Up”, one of Tosh’s contributions to Marley’s “Burnin’” album. While having an excellent, upbeat rootsy backing, Tosh’s vocal delivery is strangely staccato and sort of stuttering. Hard to describe, but it just sounds right, somehow. “Downpressor Man” is a funky-ish, powerful roots number. Tosh had a very melodious, emotive voice, however, which lifts even the heaviest politically motivated roots number to something appealing and lighter. This may be a heavy album, ideologically, but it has many light musical touches. “I Am That I Am” is a vibrant, slightly clunky number, while “Stepping Razor” has some excellent light guitar licks over a heavy, bassy backing and Tosh’s voice once again has that yearning quality. It has a real soul to it. The remastered sound on the album is excellent throughout, emphasising all parts of the music equally - bass and treble are perfectly aligned. “Stepping Razor” also has some searing rock guitar in it. Tosh was never afraid to use rock guitar to enhance a track.
The title track has a captivating, affecting melodious intro and Tosh’s voice just sounds marvellously sad and pleading on here. This quality is something almost unique to Tosh, although South Africa’s Lucky Dube got very close to it, on the same type of material. The song is, obviously, a plea for equal rights, yet is delivered almost beautifully and in such a laid-back manner so as to diffuse all militant anger. Tosh is an angry singer, but his voice just never sounds angry, just intuitive, instinctive and soulful. “African” is another aware song. I love it. Very catchy and some great lyrics about all black people being African, inside. Tosh has managed here to merge both political consciousness and his impeccable ear for a melody.
“Jah Guide” is the album’s one concession to Jah and religious matter. It has a funky, clavinet backing and some authentic roots rhythm, with some laid-back horns adding to the general relaxed feel of the song. Not really a song of fervour. Tosh sounds lazily accepting. “Apartheid” is an excellent, rousing number with obviously admirable sentiments that were completely relevant at the time. It was a fine way to end an earnest album. Personally, I do not find the political message as overwhelming as some reviewers I have read have done. Musically, it is very appealing and, for me, the message in the songs is fine, and necessary.
Friday, 29 June 2018
Released July 1980
Recorded at Channel One Studio, Kingston, Jamaica
Black Uhuru released this album in 1980, and reggae was beginning to change direction slightly after the roots boom of 1975-1979. What would eventually morph into “ragga” rhythms was beginning to make itself known - a harder, less melodic, more stripped down and instrumentally basic sound. Thumping synth drums, synthesised percussion, rumbling reduced bass notes, keyboard loop samples and the occasional bit of guitar. Personally, I prefer the lighter, more inventive sounds of The Gladiators, Bunny Wailer, Aswad and Burning Spear. For me, the great years for reggae were from 1969 to 1979.
Black Uhuru had a great vocal sound though, and their vibrant, insistent rhythm is certainly intoxicating. Their lyrical preoccupations are mainly oppression, racial awareness and lots of references to the joys of marijuana, as opposed to religious devotion.
“Happiness” is a shuffling, staccato piece of heavy-ish roots with dance-ish style drums and a big, pounding bass. Black Uhuru are definitely more dance and rhythm-influenced than some of the lighter, more instantly accessible roots artists. “World Is Africa” is upbeat and catchy and a great vocal and guitar parts behind the thumping drum beat. “Push Push” is a slow groove, with that electric sort of synth “boop” percussion sound. “No Loafing” and “There Is Fire” follow the same musical path, with the former condemning apartheid in its lyrics. “Sensimilla” speaks for itself - a ganja song. It has a hypnotic, mesmerising groove, however, and it the best cut on the album.
“Every Dreadlocks” is a lively concession to Rasta concerns and has a great beat to it, up there with ‘Sensimilla”. It again features that funny percussion noise, but to great effect. It is probably the most naturally reggae song on the album. “Vampire” isn’t bad either, rhythmic, with a nice drum sound on it, proper drums and a rousing vocal. This is very much an album of reggae as it was in 1980, facing considerable changes.
Released September 1976
Recorded at Aquarius Studios, Kingston Jamaica
This album from Bunny Wailer, his debut solo work, from 1976, has many overtones of his work with Bob Marley & The Wailers (“Catch A Fire” and “Burnin’”). Although the music’s foundations are roots, Rastafari and black consciousness, its rhythms are light, airy and melodic. It was very much in step with work of other artists from the roots reggae boom of 1975-1979, including The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Aswad and Burning Spear.
Wailer’s voice is medium high in pitch and he has a fine instinct regarding carrying a melody. The backing is largely easy skanking, with horn backing, as was very much the trend at the time.
The opener, the lengthy “Blackheart Man” is a mid-paced, intuitive skank telling of a mythical evil man feared by Wailer in his childhood. Apparently this man was a rastaman, and Wailer was warned to keep away from him by his mother. Basically, warning him not to become a Rasta. “Fighting Against Conviction” has an emotive, soulful vocal from Wailer, a catchy refrain and a lovely brass backing. A flute appears near the end, to great effect. The issues on this album are pretty clear - social oppression, hope for a better future and a religious devotion. Themes pretty common to most roots reggae albums. This album, though, is one of the most commercial, almost poppy at times, of most of them. “The Oppressed Song” is a slowed-down number, with an acoustic guitar opening that kicks into a captivating song, with some impressive guitar licks. It is more than a bit bluesy in places. there are several musical diversifications here, away from straight reggae.
“Fig Tree” uses some saxophone effectively as well, reinforcing that this is no regular roots album. “Dream Land” takes one right back to the Bob Marley & The Wailers material from the early seventies, with a delicious vocal from Bunny that sounds almost like a rock ’n’ roll ballad at times. “Rastaman” is a homage to all Rastamen in history and I’m sure it greatly influenced “I’m In Love With A Rastaman” by South African township band Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens.
“Reincarnated Souls” is another saxophone-enhanced number, while “Armagideon” is a more traditional roots, lyrically, but, that said, there is unique keyboard and also some melodica and what sounds like an accordion. Once again, considerable musical variety. “Bide Up” is almost soulful in its execution. The final track, as on so many other roots albums, is a devotional number, introduced by Rasta drumming. “This Train” is a holy piece of praise - “This train is bound to glory”, like a spiritual.
An influential and interesting roots album.
Released December 1975
Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey” was released at the end of 1975 and was at the forefront of the black consciousness movement within reggae. It was a veritable foundation stone of the whole roots reggae movement. It was tied in, of course, with Rastafarianism, and Jamaican Rasta hero prophet Marcus Garvey gives his name to the album’s title and, indeed its powerful, horn-driven title track that opens the album. This is very much a militant, issue-led album, with a dual attack of religious devotion and cultural awareness, as was so often the case with roots albums. As with the others, too, this does not detract from the appealing, tuneful sound of the album, however. This pretty much applies to all the roots reggae albums of the period. The mid to late seventies were fertile years for authentic roots reggae.
“Slavery Days” is an iconic song with clear references - “Do you remember the days of slavery?”. It was also successfully covered by Third World in the following year. The rhythmic, grinding insistence of “The Invasion” calls out “Where is your love, Jamaica?” in another plea for political and social unity and equality. A beautiful bass and and brass intro, with some nice flute passages also, leads us melodically into “Live Good” which sees vocalist and band leader Winston Rodney’s voice at its most mournful and yearning. It is also a bit of a misconception that reggae from this period was primitively recorded in a shack in a tenement yard in Kingston. The sound on this album, and on albums by The Gladiators, Big Youth and Aswad is superb. The bass is nice and warm and not incredibly “thumpy”, the horns (used throughout this album) and percussion are crystal clear and sharp.
“Give Me” is another brassy groove, while “Old Marcus Garvey” is a catchy lament for Garvey in his old age. All these albums are so, to coin a phrase, crucial, in summoning up the spirit of roots reggae in those vibrant, vital “punk crossover” years of 1976-1979, particularly in London. It went hand in hand with bands like The Clash and DJs like Don Letts, who promoted that whole “rocker and the ras” thing.
“Tradition” has an exhilarating, punchy horn backing and a trilling “duh-rrrooop-doo” backing vocal refrain. Great pounding drum sound on this track. The album comes to its close with three devotional tracks. “Jordan River” is just magnificent - great lilting guitar, sumptuous horns and Rodney garbling away in his “non-singing” voice about Jah people and the Jordan River. “Red, Gold And Green” introduces the iconic Rasta colours to an audience who may not have been familiar with them at the time. Again, there is such an intoxicating bass line on this, and all the songs.
As with so many roots albums, it ends with a Rasta-drum sound influenced pounding groove and a devotional, chant-like vocal.
Apparently, an original, far more raw, rootsier version was the one originally recorded, but the label, Mango, wanted the sound diluted to win over the American market. I am not sure mid-70s Americans were ever won over by Rastafarian-inspired music, not in the way UK music fans were. Punks lapped it up. The eventual album is still, for me, rootsy enough anyway. Its message and sound is still a potent and powerful one. A little of that rootsier sound can be fond however, in the ten “dub” versions of the album, that are included in the double header “Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost”. These are some copper-bottomed, seriously good slices of dub. Check out the bass on “I And I Survive”, the dub version of “Days Of Slavery”. High quality dub.
This was integral roots sound, roots voice and roots message.
Released in 1976
Aswad’s debut album, from 1976, saw them in their initial incarnation as a roots reggae band. In later years they exploited soul and pop influences to achieve a modicum of chart success. Here they are very much in a roots mould, similar to sort of material put out by Bob Marley on “Rastaman Vibration” - rootsy but with an ear for a tune and a use of lilting, melodic guitars as opposed to a bassy, dub-heavy sound.
1. I A Rebel Soul
2. Can't Stand The Pressure
3. Ethiopian Rhapsody
4. Natural Progression
5. Back To Africa
6. Red Up
7. Ire Woman
8. Concrete Slaveship
“I A Rebel Soul” is an upbeat, catchy opener, with Brinsley Forde’s emotive, throaty voice on good form and some very Marley-esque skanking guitar backing. Rather like The Gladiators, early Aswad blended a Rasta devotion with the recording of some attractive, appealing material. “Can’t Stand The Pressure” is in the same groove - sumptuous rhythm, harmonious vocals, that rimshot drum bit on the backbeat that The Wailers used such a lot. A quirky organ break in the middle too. “Ethiopian Rhapsody” is a laid-back instrumental of the highest quality. The instrumentation, sound quality and execution on this album is excellent for a debut outing.
“Natural Progression” is an insistent, militant mid-paced number with some blues harmonica lending a real atmosphere to it. Once again, the guitar work is outstanding - used in the way that both Marley and Peter Tosh enhanced their recordings. “Back To Africa” is a laid-back Third World-esque summery vibe with more conscious lyrics.
“Red Up” is another captivating instrumental, with keyboard and guitar solos. This was not speaker-shaking dub booms and little else. There was some musical showing off being done here. Impressive stuff. “Ire Woman” is a little lightweight, and probably the weakest track on the album. The album’s lengthy closer, “Concrete Slaveship” is a very Marley-influenced number in the “Catch A Fire” “Slave Driver” vein with a meaningful lyrical content, convincing vocal and a general feel of competent professionalism. This was a very impressive debut album indeed.
One small drawback, however, is that it is too short, just four tracks on each side.
Material from 1976-1980
The Gladiators, were, along with The Mighty Diamonds and The Wailing Souls, one of those roots reggae groups from the mid seventies that combined a devotional Rasta consciousness with some melodic, mid-pace reggae “riddims”. Their brand of roots was, on the whole, upbeat, gently singalong and while having a full bass line, was certainly not in the realms of heavy dub. “Bellyfull” and “Mix Up” are classic examples of that sound. The sound quality on this album is excellent too, crystal clear on the trebly percussion and rich and warm on the ubiquitous bass lines.
A favourite of mine is the subtly melodious “Looks Is Deceiving” - a delicious slice of lilting reggae, rumbling guitars and some “stream of Rasta consciousness” lyrics about Babylon and parables and the like. “Chatty Chatty Mouth” has an irresistible piano intro and a booming, steady beat, just perfect seventies roots-inspired reggae. The Gladiators were probably my favourites of this particular arm of the genre. The vocals were the lightest and the most tunefully affecting. The backing is top notch throughout - crystal clear, rhythmic and toe-tapping. Their cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” is superb, as good as the original, to be honest, and that is saying something. Lovely clear backing, great vocal, great backing vocals and that omnipresent rumbling bass. Great stuff. Nice semi-dubby part two thirds of the way through.
“Eli Eli” is a very Rasta-inspired song and very uplifting with yet more soaring vocals. This really is seventies reggae of the highest quality. “Hearsay” is a warning type of song, as if delivered from a pulpit. There is lot of religious meaning in the lyrics to these songs, but it doesn’t really matter because the backing is so good. There is some lovely light guitar skanking parts on this one. “Rude Boy Ska” is suitably vibrant and joyful, with a thoroughly addictive singalong refrain. Another favourite is the rumbling “Dreadlocks The Time Is Now”, with an intoxicating skank. It is a militant, “culture conscious” song and should be on any “punky reggae party” playlist. It is just so 78-79 West London. Some excellent instrumental parts in it and a yearning vocal.
The percussion and bass at the beginning of “Jah Works” is just stunning. I love the clarity of reggae sounds like this. “Pocket Money” has another captivating riddim and bass line. Check out that big pounding thump of a bass on “Get Ready” and the cymbal work. Marvellous stuff. I could wax lyrical about all the songs on this excellent album. Needless to say they are all good. Just a breath of fresh summer air. Somehow this album suits a sunny summer’s morning.
Released in 1972
This was Big Youth's debut album, released as early as 1972, surprisingly. Big Youth was one of the first reggae “toasters” - DJs who “toasted” i.e. semi-sung vocals over an often recognisable beat from another familiar song, such as “No, No, No” on the title track of this album. U-Roy was one of the first exponents, closely followed by Big Youth.
I find it very difficult to review this particular “DJ” genre in the track by track style that I apply to say, rock, soul or folk albums. The tracks are relatively similar - drum shot kick start, a thumping, heavy dubby skanking beat and Big Youth’s assorted “toasts” over the top of the “riddim”. They just sort of envelop you in a bassy, floor-shaking cocoon for half an hour, which is enough to satisfy my need for some of the DJ vibe. Many of his utterances have been used by subsequent reggae/two tone bands, notably The Beat, who used "good God" and "well, look at dat" regularly.
In his toasts, Big Youth ruminates on various issues - consciousness, Rastafarian devotion, social problems, girls, the usual stuff. A favourite is the relative nursery-rhyme inspired nonsense of “Solomon A Gunday”, with its captivating trombone riffs and gentle, melodious riddim. This is a perfect example of the DJ/Roots genre. Incomprehensible chatter over a subtle beat. A lot of the backing tracks the Youth used are relatively tuneful and light in texture (the same applied to U-Roy’s material) as opposed to a heavier, dubbier backing. A lot of the tracks are derived from early seventies almost rock steady mid-paced beats - lightly skanking guitars and swirling organ parts, such as featured heavily on “Honesty”. “I Am Alright”, however, does have an impressive big, booming bass line, but it is also melodious. I love the bass line on this one. Youth’s vocal over the often solitary bass line is addictive. “Lee A Low" ploughs the same furrow as well. “One Of These Days” has a haunting vocal and an insistent melody.
“KG’s Halfway Tree” is an interesting track, with an odd violin-like sound at the beginning before some seriously floor-shaking bass. The violin samples are rather catchy and continue throughout what is an instrumental with no toasting. Dubby reggae meets classical music. Well, well, well.
“Pride And Ambition” is a lovely cut, and features a great vocal from Leroy Smart (what Big Youth’s contribution was is to that track is unclear). Smart’s voice is higher and more melodic. “One One Coco” features a Gregory Isaacs track and a mournful, instantly recognisable vocal from Isaacs. “Their Own Way Version” features a Big Youth vocal, singing properly here as opposed to toasting. “Be Careful” has Dennis Brown on sampled vocals and Big Youth on toasting.
Considering this was released in 1972, several years before the roots explosion that came with the punk crossover of 76-79, it really was very ground-breaking. Bob Marley & The Wailers had yet to release “Catch A Fire” and most other reggae that was being released and listened to was of the commercial, upbeat style of Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Dandy Livingstone. The world would not be ready for Big Youth for another four or five years.
Thursday, 28 June 2018
Released October 1982
Donald Fagen’s 1982 album, “The Nightfly, let’s be honest, sounds just like Steely Dan. Tuneful, deliciously melodic, immaculately played jazzy influenced laid back rock. It was one of those albums which became sort of "trendy" to own and declare as being wonderful, like "Astral Weeks", Sade's "Diamond Life", Television's "Marquee Moon" or indeed any of the Steely Dan albums.
2. Green Flower Street
3. Ruby Baby
5. New Frontier
6. The Nightfly
7. The Goodbye Look
8. Walk Between Raindrops
“I.G.Y.” is a wonderful, rhythmic piece of laid-back jazz rock, featuring some lovely guitar, percussion and brass parts and, of course Fagen’s instantly recognisable Steely Dan vocals. Some excellent, harmonious backing vocals too. Just a pleasure to listen to. There is an effortless funk groove to “Green Flower Street”. This was one of the first totally digitally recorded albums, and you an tell, the sound is truly superb. Fagen’s legendary perfectionism bore a sweet fruit here. The jazzy feel suits the excellent sound. This is just such a great late night album too, sitting there with just a dim light o and letting this wash all over you, settling you down for the night. It is probably jazzier than the Dan albums, apart from “Aja”. This ambience was continued on the gently grooving “Ruby Baby”. Just check out the piano/drums/saxophone instrumental passage in the song’s middle - just beautiful.
“Maxine” is an impossibly laid-back bass, piano and vocal easy listening delight. “New Frontier” just has a wonderful, late night feeling, as indeed, does the soft soul of “The Nightfly”, which, instrumentally is almost jazz-funk-ish with some more Steely Dan-style acerbic, often cryptic lyrics. The playing on this album is incredibly good. If you look at the details of who played what, there is a whole raft of musicians, no wonder it is so good.
“The Goodbye Look” has a sort of bossa-nova meets Paul Simon’s “Late In The Evening” groove before Fagen’s voice kicks in with some very Simon-esque lyrics, thinking about it. Quite a lot of similarities - the wry comments, the acute observations. “Walk Between Raindrops” keeps up the jaunty jazz thing and ends the album on a high. You can’t really go wrong with this. A pleasure from beginning to end.
Released September 1972
Recorded at Bearsville Studio, New York City
“Give It Up” is a far more full-sounding album than the downhome , farm-recorded eponymous first one. From the first track, the rousing horn-driven fun of “Give It Up Or Let Me Go” we get an artist who is growing up, album by album. “Nothing Seems To Matter” is a soft, tender ballad backed by acoustic guitar, basic bongo percussion and a wailing saxophone. Bonnie got earthier as she got older, although she could always be sexy. Here she is still comparatively young and romantic, as opposed to hard-bitten and world-weary. “I Know” is a funky, bluesy groove with some New Orleans-style trumpet and a down ’n’ dirty vocal from Bonnie. “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” is a lovely, rich, bassy number with some more sumptuous saxophone and a sort of fresh, innocent sounding vocal, together with some clunky piano.
“Love Me Like A Man” is a slide guitar-led bluesy cornerstone of the album, with young Bonnie developing that blues lady voice and attitude. “Love me like a man” she pleads - ok , Bonnie, if you insist…Top notch guitar work on this one and a full, confident sound. After the slightly scratchy sound of the debut album, things have improved for this album. “Too Long At The Fair” is a nicely bass heavy slowie, with a sensual vocal and mysterious atmosphere. A convincing, rocking cover of Jackson Browne’s “Under The Falling Sky” shows how Bonnie can make a cover version sound as if it has always been her own song. This song suits her immensely. it turns into a roadhouse knees-up by the end of it - harmonica and keyboards giving it their all.
“You Got To Know How” is a jazzy, upbeat piece of bluesy fun, with some lovely saxophone and and a knowingly sexy vocal. “You Told Me Baby” is an upbeat slice of country rock in a sort of Fleetwood Mac style but coming years before their Stevie Nicks era. There is a real touch of Nicks in Bonnie’s voice here. “Love Has No Pride” is a plaintive, end of the evening, crying into your Budweiser, heartbreaker.
A bit like the early Jackson Browne albums, this is a good album, but it is still somewhat raw around the edges, and now, in retrospect, we know that better was to come.
Released October 1976
Recorded at Metronome Studios, Stockholm
ABBA albums, in the mid-seventies, were, to a certain extent, vehicles for their magnificent singles. There were three here - the iconic “Dancing Queen” with its entrancing piano hook and the chorus everybody on the planet knows; “Money, Money, Money”, another known by the world and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and one of many “a-ha’s” finishing off yet another absolutely exhilarating chorus. These were pop singles without compare and more than capable of standing alone as classics whatever else was on this album. Did ABBA need albums? Actually probably not, to be honest, but they put them out, nevertheless, in a bid to be credible. Did they achieve that? Yes and no. Let’s see what the rest of the album gave us.
“That’s Me” saw the beginnings of that bassy, thumping “Euro-disco” sound that would feature considerably in their music later in the decade. It contained the usual immaculate vocals, of course, and maybe if this had been a single we would all have been singing it. Somehow I doubt it though. The choices for singles were just inspired, it would seem, in retrospect, because these other tracks just don’t cut the mustard. For some reason, many people remembered “When I Kissed The Teacher”, even though it was not a single. Furthermore, it was twee and generally awful. As too, was “Why Did It Have To Be Me”, with what sounds like a kazoo solo, would you believe. It sounded like a Eurovision entry that finished half way down the voting chart. “Tiger” was another upbeat, pounding, Euro-poppy tune, albeit with a great hook. All these tracks are singalong, pleasant enough, totally harmless, but they lack that real gravitas and je ne sais quoi that the three great hits indisputably had.
“My Love, My Life” is probably “the best of the rest” and would have made a possibly acceptable single, to be fair. The less said about “Dum Dum Diddle” the better. Very much a poor Eurovision contender. The “other tracks” on this album are very much second division compared to the classics. Just listen to “Dum Dum Diddle” followed by the majesty of “Knowing Me Knowing You”. The difference is seismic. The ridiculous to the sublime. ABBA would produce a couple of reasonably good, balanced albums right at the end of their career, but not yet.
“Arrival” is a Celtic-influenced instrumental that is tuneful enough, but now sounds very shrill and tinny and although it has some grandiose appeal, it was more than a little throwaway. The sound on all this album, supposedly remastered, is pretty trebly throughout, maybe is just the reliance on strings and keyboards, but there is not much warmth or punch to the sound. Punk arrived in 1976, as a reaction to over-indulgent rock music. Maybe it was stuff like this it also needed to sweep away. Three undoubtedly magnificent singles does not a credible album make, unfortunately.
Released June 1970
Recorded in various studios
Deep Purple were a heavy rock band influenced by blues, rock n roll and, at times classical music. They were not as bluesy as Led Zeppelin, but they were rockier in places and their music was based a lot around keyboardist Jon Lord’s swirling organ riffs. As a teenager in the early 1970s, I despised Deep Purple and the boys who carried their albums around under their arms at school all day long, for no other reason than to show what great musical taste they had (or didn’t have in my opinion). Preferring Mott The Hoople and David Bowie, I found Deep Purple’s long-haired heavy rock posturing tiresome, even at such a tender age. However, time has proved to be a great healer, and by my thirties, I re-assessed them, favourably.
Fresh from a line-up change that saw vocalist Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover join the band, this was an earthy bluesy rocker of an album. The first track, “Speed King”, is very much influenced by rock ’n’ roll songs “Tutti Frutti”, “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Lucille”, by Little Richard. It has an extended guitar and organ intro before Gillan’s ideal heavy rock voice kicks in and it rocks, seriously. Great clunking heavy riffs, pounding drums and wailing vocals. Heavy rock heaven. Gillan’s high-pitched wail (which almost single-handedly launched a hundred more wannabes) features again in “Bloodsucker”, another copper-bottomed, hairy backsided rocker.
“Child In Time" is classic Deep Purple - ten minutes long, featuring changes in mood, vocal screaming, guitar solos, organ riffs. It was everything an old punk like me hated, but listening to it now, you have to say it is damn good. All five members come to the party, and how. It defines the genre, before “Smoke On The Water” would do so even more a couple of years later. “Flight Of The Rat” includes both a drum and an organ virtuoso part, what once seemed like indulgence now seems like great musicians enjoying themselves. Who am I to criticise it? So I don’t. I just let it rock. This is seven minutes of bona fide virile rock, essential stuff. A band who knew what they were doing at the top of their game. Jon Lord’s madcap organ solo is something to behold. Then Ritchie Blackmore comes in with some killer guitar. He even gets a bit funky at the end, in tandem with the drums. Fair play to them, very few did this sort of thing better, if any.
“Into The Fire” is a chugging, clunky slow paced drum-heavy broody rocker, with some pretty predictable riffs. Nothing special but you can never dispute Purple’s sheer power. Nice guitar solo in the middle though. “Living Wreck” has an excellent, almost funky drum and guitar intro and a rousing Gillan vocal. The guitar parts are addictive. One of my favourites on the album. “You said you were a virgin..full of promise and mystery..” sings Gillan. Never mind Ian. I’m sure you got over it. Seriously, this is a great track. A surprising rhythm to it.
“Hard Lovin’ Man” has a stonking organ intro and has Gillan back on tight-trousered vocal wailing over that similarly wailing keyboard. Compared to the previous track this is far more classic Deep Purple. Some great instrumental passages, including some manic stereo-separated guitar at the end.
Some editions include the single, “Black Night”, which was a catchy number with one of those singalong guitar riffs.
In conclusion, a listen to this every now and again is certainly not a bad thing.
Released July 2011
Recorded at The Bomb Shelter Studios, Los Angeles
Vintage Trouble are part of the contemporary blues/soul rock trend that has given us Curtis Harding, Nathaniel Rateliff, Leon Bridges, The London Souls and Gary Clark Jr., to name but a few. They take sixties-style blues rock and turn it up to the to the max with a full-on attack and some intuitive vocals.
“Hand Me Down Blues” is an absolute storming slice of searing, guitar driven blues rock that assaults your senses like someone has just attacked you with a chainsaw. The.vocals are magnificent . “Still And Always Will” slows down the pace, but only a little. It is a down and dirty burning hot blues. The pace and attack just doesn’t let up. I saw this band supporting The Who in 2013 and their sheer energy blew me away. Particularly from livewire lead singer Ty Taylor. The half full arena at the time loved them. “Nancy Lee” is a sumptuous, soulful gem of a song, like those classic sixties blues rock cuts but with a booming, heavy contemporary production. If you are worried about your tender ears hurting, stay well away from this!
Time to slow things down now for “Gracefully”, which, appropriately, is a most graceful number. Ty’s vocals are superb, a sort of throatier Sam Cooke, with all of Cooke’s timing. There is even a bit of Otis Redding in there. Some great guitar and harmonica dipped in axle grease introduce the grinding “You Better Believe It”. Southside Johnny would love this. “Not Alright By Me” is a delicious, emotive real slow number, with an understated backing and some pitch perfect vocals. There’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd in this band too.
“Nobody Told Me” is like Al Green meets Keith Richards. One of the best tracks on the album. The slow, cutting but melodious guitar parts are so late eighties/early nineties Keith, it sounds like it could have come from one of his solo albums from that period. A great song, rocky and soulful at the same time. “Jezzebella” is another industrial, Stones-y pot boiler of a track. This whole album is smoking hot. “Total Strangers” has a killer riff, with more shades of The Stones and even a heavier use of the classic T.Rex style of riff. I am listening to this in the garden on a roasting hot afternoon and it is raising the temperature even more. This is honest, hard-working blues rock of the highest order. “Run Outta You” is an extended, very traditional Led Zeppelin-style piece of blues balladry. Ty’s voice is at its most soulful here. Some excellent guitar half way through in a slowed-down Zeppelin way. It goes on just slightly too long, though.
This was a pretty impressive debut from a highly credible band. Apparently in a small stand up venue they are superb. Good stuff.
Released June 1970
Recorded at Sound Techniques Studio, London
Not long after recording the seminal, ground-breaking folk-rock album “Liege And Lief” with Fairport Convention, vocalist Sandy Denny left and with future husband Trevor Lucas formed Fotheringhay. This debut (and, unfortunately, only) album was released in 1970.
1. Nothing More
2. The Sea
3. The Ballad Of Ned Kelly
4. Winter Winds
5. Peace In The End
6. The Way I Feel
7. The Pond And The Stream
8. Too Much Of Nothing
9. Banks Of The Nile
It was not an album that drew on traditional folk balladry, like “Liege And Lief” had memorably done. It was almost a rock album with folky elements, to be honest. Quite a bit of “country rock” about it too. A full band is used - proper drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars and piano. The first track sets the mood - “Nothing More” is a solid, powerful mid-paced rock song, with a warm, rumbling bass and some excellent electric guitar. It is perfect laid-back folk-influenced rock. “The Sea” is beautiful, with Denny’s voice in full, haunting “Reynardine” mode and an addictive bass rhythm underpinning the song. Some lovely lead guitar bits flitting here and there. There is something about this song that Van Morrison would use to great effect in the future - just that blend of acoustic strumming and vocal.
“The Ballad Of Ned Kelly” sees Lucas on lead vocals. The narrative tale has real flavours of The Band’s “The Weight”. Some delicious, heavy-ish bluesy rock guitar in the middle. This is certainly not really a “fiddle and real ale” album. There are some convincing, credible rock elements to it.
“Winter Winds” is an entrancing, quietly atmospheric song, with a beautiful, understated bass line and a gentle vocal from Denny. If anything it is too short. “Peace In The End” is a longer number, this time a male vocal slow rock number, with some pedal steel guitar parts. There is a confident power to the delivery of these songs and a general pleasurable, almost joyful feel to the ambience of the whole album, even in the sadder, more reflective passages. You feel the band enjoyed making the album.
The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel” is probably the most folky song on here, lyrically, but the backing is very Crosby, Stills & Nash-harmonious country rock. There is some excellent lead guitar at the end, together with an addictive bass/drum/guitar interplay to finish. “The Pond And The Stream” is an ethereal, tender song that wafts in and out, again, in a very CSN manner. Another lovely vocal from Sandy Denny. The cover of Bob Dylan’s “Too Much Of Nothing”, (from “The Basement Tapes”) is a solid, Band-style rocker, again featuring some great guitar. The rhyming of “Vivien” with “oblivion” always made me smile on Dylan’s original. Here they use “Marion”, as did Peter, Paul and Mary on their original cover. The bass lines on all this album are very similar to those used on Bob Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" album and on Crosby, Stills and Nash's 1969 album. Very melodious and subtle.
The extended closer, “Banks Of The Nile” is the album’s one concession to traditional ballad sources and a corker it is too. A beautifully sung narrative concerning a sailor serving in the British Navy on the banks of the Nile and his lover who wants to go with him. Just gorgeous, musically, vocally and lyrically.
This was simply a perfectly executed piece of work. Such a pity that it was their only one. It was pretty faultless.
PS - the third photo is of Fothering(h)ay Abbey in Northamptonshire, after which the group were named. I remember a canal holiday as a child and our narrow boat floating round the corner and seeing that view. Even then I was overwhelmed.
Released November 1980
Recorded at Polar Studios, Stockholm
They were a strange thing, ABBA albums. The group were just so very much a singles one. Their singles were so good, and each album produced three, maybe four singles or, if not as many, a ‘b’ side that became well known. So, each album had its exceptionally well-known tracks and the others invariably became thought of as “filler”. Given the quality of those singles, it was not surprising. This album, as with all the later ones, is not a bad collection, to be honest.
After a brief flirtation with disco and its layered, synthesised rhythms on the previous album, a more “back to what made them famous” approach was taken here, and a sort of return to that melodic pop-rock sound was seen. There was, however, a bit of Swedish melancholy to be experienced here in Bjorn and Agnetha washing their dirty linen in public in the dramatic and, despite its miserable message, strangely uplifting “The Winner Takes It All”. Agnetha deliberately accentuated her Swedish accent in the song just to bug Bjorn, because she knew he hated her doing that. The ostensibly joyous “Super Trouper” was actually quite morose in its verses, Agnetha describing how alone she felt calling someone (presumably her new lover) from a gig in Glasgow and how lonely she felt singing to twenty thousand of her fans. The Beach Boys-influenced “On And On And On” was really quite a cynical, “brassed-off with the whole fame thing” song that reads as quite a surprise if you read the lyrics. All about meeting tedious people at showbiz parties in Stockholm society. Not very “Dancing Queen” at all.
In addition to these world-weary observations there are the nostalgic songs, wishing things were like they were before - “Happy New Year”, the lovely, melodic “Our Last Summer” and the almost tear-jerking and anthemic “Like Old Friends Do”.
“Lay Your Love On Me” is the only nod to the sort of dance grooves that had influenced the previous year’s output. It was actually pleasant enough. Personally, I didn’t mind any of their disco stuff. Everyone was doing it in 1979. It always had a great hook, as you would expect from Ulvaeus and Andersson.
That leaves “Andante”, “Me And I” and “The Piper”. “Andante” has an almost classical intro and is generally a light, loved-up typical ABBA song, with perfect harmonies. It could have been from 75-76. Something sad about its descending strings though. Behind the apparently joyful sheen is a mournful nostalgia. “Me And I” is a dramatic, somewhat overblown piece of Euro-pop. Again, it is a throwback to the pop glory days but it utilises some disco electronic brats and those strange “spacey” engineered vocals. The chorus is very “Brotherhood Of Man”, sounding a lot like “Angelo”from 1977. “The Piper” has those immaculate harmonies again, some military drums and some medieval-style flute over a typical early 80s disco-ish bass. A bit of an odd song to categorise, particularly with its Latin lyrics in the middle. God knows what it was all about, to be honest.
As I said, strange things, ABBA albums.
Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Released August 1994
Recorded in Manchester, Cornwall and Liverpool
By the time Oasis came on the scene, in 1994, with this hard- hitting breath of fresh air, they were already a band “for the younger generation” for an old veteran of the seventies and the punk era like me. I felt I was too old for them. My time was Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, The Clash and The Jam. As for these parka-wearing, posturing Manchester oiks, well, I’d seen it all before. I am, unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) a man of my time. I know nothing about Blur, Pulp, Supergrass or any of that lot. Seriously, nothing at all. However, I do like Oasis. Something about their “in your face” attitude and seismically thumping derivative rock struck a chord in my old punk soul.
This album really blew some cobwebs away after the musical desert that was the synthesiser and drum machine-dominated late eighties. It was real rock - played with electric guitars up loud, big, thumping bass, a proper drum kit and sneering vocals from Liam Gallagher, who owed Johnny Rotten just a little. Music was crying out for this type of band.
“Rock n Roll Star” was a storming opener, featuring all the characteristics described above and “Shakermaker” a rumbling, raucous but rhythmic delight. “Live Forever” has an addictive drum and bass guitar intro, some great lead guitar, straight out of the seventies and some lyrics for twenty -somethings to get all nostalgic about when they were only starting out. “You and I we’re gonna live forever..”. Too f***ing right, man. Great song. Seriously great song. These oiks could play. I’ll have some of this.
“Up In The Sky” is a lesser-known rocker with an excellent guitar intro and some late sixties-influenced lyrics and a Lennon-esque vocal delivery. Oasis took snatches of the sixties and seventies and they put their own unique stamp on it. They certainly had their own identity, despite their obvious influences. The sound on this album, as on all the band’s albums, is loud and raucous. It shakes you floors played through a good system and is an exhilarating experience. Just listen to the bass, guitar and percussion almost menacing intro to “Columbia”, another rarely-mentioned song which is refreshing to check out again. It is monstrously powerful if you’re in the mood. Not really late night, dim lights stuff though.
What I quite liked about Oasis, unlike some of my punk heroes, who claimed to despise music had gone before, like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, while secretly liking them, Oasis freely acknowledged their respect for artists like The Beatles, The Jam and even Noel Gallagher’s childhood favourites, Slade. I remember he did an interview early on when he extolled the virtues of Slade’s relatively obscure “How Does It Feel”. I respected Gallagher from that moment on.
“Supersonic” is well known, and in many ways, it is Oasis. Whiny vocals, acerbic lyrics. Everything you have come to expect from them, as indeed is the vibrant “Cigarettes And Alcohol”, with its slight “Get It On” riff “borrow”. “Bring It On Down” is a fast-paced number with some excellent drums. Another little-mentioned but quality track. “Digsy’s Dinner” is a slightly punky thrash with a vaguely Beatles-ish tuneful bit in the middle. “Slide Away” is a lengthy chugger of the kind that appeared on Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood”, but as alluded to earlier, Gallagher’s vocals render all their songs unique. They also had a real ear for a hook of a chorus. The guitar in this is almost Led Zeppelin-esque in the middle solo.
“Married With Children” is a semi-acoustic, slightly low-key end to such a bombastic album. It would be the next album “What’s The Story...” that really did it for Oasis, and deservedly so, but there is a “first album” raw appeal to this one. It was certainly a stunning debut.
As an afternote, the bonus material on the latest 2014 "deluxe" remaster is interesting and high quality. Strangely, the sonic bombast used so blatantly on the eventual album is not used nearly so much on the "alternative" and "demo" versions. They are much subtler, more nuanced and quieter. Acoustic guitar is used a lot more. Listening to them it is almost like listening to a different band. The loudness is toned way down, Liam's voice is much less mannered, nowhere near the same amount of Johnny Rotten-isms. It all sounds very like Paul Weller's "Wild Wood" material. There are some excellent live cuts too.
Recorded in California
There are some albums for which, however many years pass since their recording, always remain close to my heart. This is one of them. Despite being in dire need of a remastering, having a bit of a bright, tinny, late eighties sound, it is simply a wonderful collection of melodic, piano-driven, emotive songs.
Bruce Hornsby’s lyrics are perceptive, moving, worldly-wise, mournful and yet uplifting all at the same time. His ear for a catchy tune is superb and his piano-playing is unique and instantly recognisable. I read someone compare it at times to Rachmaninov. I wouldn’t know but it certainly is integral to the perfect soundscape of this album.
The opener, the environmentally-conscious anthem of “Look Out Any Window” gets the album off to a vibrant start, Hornsby’s insistent piano driving on his accomplished rant against chemical pollution in search of profit. This is just a rock song, but its arrangements are unusually grandiose which lends huge impact the song. “The Valley Road” is an upbeat, tuneful singalong number that covers up a dark tale of an unwanted pregnancy - “everybody said she’s gone to her sister’s, we all knew what they were talking about...”. Hornsby has the ability to dress a serious subject up in the most beautiful of melodies.
“I Will Walk With You” opens with the most delicious piece of piano before Hornsby’s sad, yearning, evocative voice comes in. It just moves me so much. Beautiful. Lovely lyrics and delivery. Just perfect. The two mighty cornerstones of this album come next - the image-packed, often bleak but inspiring “The Road Not Taken” with its lyrics about falling in love with an Appalachian girl and the sumptuous “The Show Goes On”. The former has some simply majestic piano passages and a gorgeous hook. A gentle accordion sounds in the background like a mountain breeze at times. The piano passage in the middle break is almost classical. The song is heartbreaking but inspirational at the same time. Few songwriters have this ability. Hornsby does, as does Mary Chapin Carpenter. “The Show Goes On” is a lovely, romantic (yet at times sad) song, with yet another exhilaratingly catchy hook. The piano introduction is again truly magnificent as is the beautiful bit in the middle. It is so hard not to go over the top and wax lyrical about songs like this. It is just wonderful. I can’t help myself.
A few comparative rockers are also in Hornsby’s canon here - the nostalgic “The Old Playground” where he vaguely remembers his childhood amongst wiser, older emotions; the blues-harmonica enhanced “Defenders Of The Flag” a song whose meaning I have never been quite sure, but it comes across as a wryly cynical one; “Jacob’s Ladder” is a corker, a full on potent rock song with a great opening line - “I met a fan dancer in downtown Birmingham..”.
Just when you think that is that for wistful, poignant love songs we are treated to the treasure that is “When The Dreaming’s Done”. Some Parisian-style accordion drives this entrancing song along. For anyone who is or has been head over heels in love with someone this is for you. One of my favourite songs of all time from one of my favourite albums of all time.
Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Released April 2004
In many ways, this is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s most accomplished album. Written in the wake of 9/11 it contains some truly beautiful, emotive, mature and genuinely moving lyrics. It was certainly no country rock album, no tuneful guitar riffs and hooky choruses. Many of the songs are gentle, reflective and sung against a many-textured soundscape. It is packed full of emotion, but it is certainly not brooding or melancholy. It is certainly sad when it needs to be, but it is a sadness of maturity, of acceptance of mortality, of a beed to change but to respect the past. Feelings fly around the album, like swooping birds, they come and go, from song to song and eventually it all fits together in one complete, life-affirming whole. From quite a lot of sadness comes a state of grace, of spiritual, inner fulfilment. All this from a gnarled old punk like me? Yes, for sure.
“What Would You Say To Me” is a fiddle backed gentle, country-ish slow groove with Mary’s voice just at its peak - melodic, expressive and that unique homeliness that makes you feel as if she is in your room and that you know her. Some lovely laid-back piano and guitar in the middle too. A big, dramatic instrumental and vocal ending lifts you up high. A fine piece of slide-style guitar introduces the lovely “Luna’s Gone”. It has a hook, but it is a gentle hook. No tub thumper or country stomp.
“My Heaven” is one of my favourite songs of hers. A simply beautiful song where Mary ruminates on what it like in Heaven - her own personal Heaven - “Grandma’s up here and Grandpa too, in a condo with “to die for” views...”. What a line. Also up there is her “childhood dog and Dad’s old chair”. I’m almost in tears just listening to it and writing this. Just one of my favourite songs of all time. No question.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, or any more moving comes “Goodnight America”, a beautifully sung, low key work of perfection. “I’m driving into Houston on a rain-swept Texas road...”. A gentle piano lifts the melody higher. A song full of character. Another quietly emotional song is “Between Here And Gone”, sung quietly against a gentle piano and violin backing. It is a song about loss and grief. The whole album moves me greatly.
“One Small Heart” has a slowly shuffling fiddle, slide guitar and drum beat and tender lyrics about “one small heart and a great big soul that’s driving...”. “Beautiful Racket” sees MCC break out her electric guitar and rock out a bit, albeit tunefully as always. Nobody else can make an upbeat, joyous rock song still sound so intrinsically sad. Uplifting yet reflective simultaneously. Some nice lead guitar at the end, almost Springsteenesque. “Girls Like Me” is familiar ground for Mary, exploring her shy, sensitive character and looking back on her younger days, Janis Ian style. “River” is a big, full, graceful slow rock song with a pounding drum sound and swirling E Street Band-style organ and clunking piano notes. Great guitar too. Mary’s voice is strong and dominating throughout.
Then there is “Grand Central Station”. It is a 9/11 song, but it is no flag-waving call for revenge. It is one man’s story of that day delivered sensitively by Mary Chapin Carpenter. It is impossibly emotive. It is a serious compliment to say Bruce Springsteen could not have written any better song than this. “Tomorrow I’ll be back there working on the pile....”. Nothing more can be said. A truly mighty song.
“Shelter From Storms” wraps us in Mary’s emotional security again, with another sparsely-backed uplifting lament, if that is not to oxymoronic. Beautiful piano at the end. “Elysium” is a suitably titled closer for this heavenly-inspired album, an acoustically-driven reflective song that breaks out into a rising semi-chorus, accompanied by some mournful, almost Celtic violin. This is holy music. This was a holy album.
Released June 1992
Recorded in Springfield, Virginia
After three excellent but average-selling albums, this was the album that really broke it big for Mary Chapin Carpenter and her appealing brand of melodic country rock and wordly-wise, often wittily cynical lyrics from a female point of view. Hers were no “hard drinkin’ and hard lovin’” songs, they were about struggling bring up kids, trying to make it in a career, about travelling the world, about lovers, husbands, wives, friends and family. In my view, she is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of her generation and, indeed, of many others. Her songs have meant so much to me for over twenty-five years now.
This is undoubtedly the most commercially accessible of her many albums, and the one that got her on to Radio Two and the like. It starts with the irresistible, lively rock of “The Hard Way” with a killer riff and uplifting harmonious chorus. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” is a MCC classic. A rousing piece of country rock about a put-upon wife who eventually has enough and says “I don’t love you anymore”. Just a great splitting up song, from a different perspective. “The Rhythm Of The Blues” shows MCC at her, quiet, sensitive, observant and beautifully emotional side. Just a lovely song. She can do a ballsy rock/blues number too and does that just that with the wryly witty barroom boogie of “I Feel Lucky”. The country blues continues with an impressive cover of Dire Straits’ “The Bug”, which suits her down to the ground.
“Not Too Much To Ask” is a slow, lovely ballad, a duet with country singer Joe Diffie, while “Passionate Kisses” is a vibrant, singalong cover of a Lucinda Williams song. “Only A Dream” is another moving slow number, packed with character and descriptive images. The songs and their delivery are just so damn good. They never fail to move me.
One of my favourites from the album, and indeed of all her songs, is “I Am A Town” - an evocative song about travelling south in the USA, with a delightful tiny piano coda of “Dixie” at one point. Again, just great images in the lyrics. Both “Walking Through Fire” and “I Take My Chances” are upbeat, radio-friendly country rockers, but not without some world-weary lyrics, particularly in the latter. MCC can play a mean guitar too, and her songs often have addictive riffs.
The final track is a beauty. “Come On Come On” is a cinematic, atmospheric corker of a song, in which MCC sings of her parents’ visit to Paris in 1948. Again, it is haunting and simply beautiful. Words cannot express how wonderful these songs are. Just a fantastic album.