Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Sting - 57th & 9th (2016)

  

Released November 2016

After dabbling in classical music with "Symphonicities" and writing a musical in "The Last Ship", Sting returned to his more recognisable style of laid-back, sometimes slightly jazzy rock/pop with this appealing album. The street intersection of the title refers to the roads he crossed in New York City on his way to the studio he recorded this album in.

TRACK LISTING

1. I Can't Stop Thinking About You
2. 50,000
3. Down, Down, Down
4. One Fine Day
5. Pretty Young Soldier
6. Petrol Head
7. Heading South On The Great North Road
8. If You Can't Love Me
9. Inshallah
10. The Empty Chair

"I Can't Stop Thinking About You" is an upbeat, riffy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either of The Police's last three albums. "50,000" is even more riffy in its beginning, before it delivers a quiet verse based on Sting's reactions to the passing of Prince and David Bowie. The chorus comes blasting back in, anthemically. It is a most atmospheric, evocative number. "Down, Down, Down" also has a very Police-esque guitar line underpinning it, together with a nostalgic-sounding chorus.

"One Fine Day" is another very typically Sting piece of pop/rock. Solid and muscular. "Pretty Young Soldier" is a strange, homoerotic historically-based song, while the chunky "Petrol Head" has some heavy passages and some echoes of Bruce Springsteen in places. "Heading South On The Great North Road" is an acoustic, folky tale reflecting Sting's North-Eastern roots. "If You Can't Love Me" is slightly messy in its structure, with a paranoid vocal. Maybe it grows on you, but I find its chorus part a bit discordant.

"Inshallah" is a peaceful, seductively rhythmic number and "The Empty Chair" is a Celtic-influenced folk lament to end this short but interesting album. It is a sensitively-constructed work whose sometimes introspective feel demands several listens.

B-

Sting & Shaggy - 44/876 (2018)

  

Released April 2018

This is an odd, surprising coupling from two artists whose halcyon days are behind them (66 year-old Sting and 50 year-old Shaggy). Maybe is is not so much of a shock, though Sting has always liked his reggae, from those credible early Police cuts and Shaggy has also like to extend himself soulfully beyond mere ragga-style toasting. I have come to this album a year late and was sceptical when I first saw it, but upon first listen I was proved wrong. It is quite an endearing offering and well worth a listen. It functions both as a good contemporary reggae album and also a good Sting album. The artists blend pleasingly well together without any awkward self-consciousness. It all sounds quite effortlessly easy.

TRACK LISTING

1. 44/876
2. Morning Is Coming
3. Waiting For The Break Of Day
4. Gotta Get Back My Baby
5. Don't Make Me Wait
6. Just One Lifetime
7. 22nd Street
8. Dreaming In The USA
9. Crooked Tree
10. To Love And Be Loved
11. Sad Trombone
12. Night Shift

"44/876" refers to the international dialling codes for the UK and Jamaica and is a quirky, fun and poppy number that sees both singers performing in their typical style. They merge quite well, although, for me, the bass sound is overpowering (and I love bass), but that is just the way of the contemporary genre. It is actually the only track where this happens, though. "Morning Is Coming" has a less booming bass sound, some archetypally Sting tenor saxophone backing and more great vocals from both of them. "Waiting For The Break Of Day" is an infectious Sting-dominated track that could easily be included on any of his other albums. Shaggy still has a vocal part, though, and it doesn't sound out of place. Personally, I find the sound production ideal on this one, in comparison to "44/876". Lovely, rumbling, melodic bass on it. "Gotta Get Back My Baby" has Shaggy singing more than toasting and he is pretty good, his vocals croaky and soulful.

"Don't Make Me Wait" is a lovely, summery, laid-back groove full of the feel of a Jamaican resort on a hot afternoon. Sting's voice on this is superb, as good as it has sounded for a long time. He sounds quite revitalised by this, coming across as if he is really enjoying himself. "Just One Lifetime" is a ragga cut with typical Shaggy vocals and rhythm. One would expect that Sting's arrival with his "Ten Summoner's Tales" delivery would just not fit in, but it is the opposite, it merges perfectly on another addictive pop/ragga number. "22nd Street" is a crooning, atmospheric, late-night Sting song enhanced by Shaggy. The strength of this album can be summed up in these two songs - the former a ragga song augmented by Sting, the latter a Sting song lifted higher by Shaggy. They do this really well.

"Dreaming In The USA" could, at times, be a Police song in its musical construction, although its lyrics are somewhat cheesy and superficial. It is infuriatingly catchy, however. "Crooked Tree" has Shaggy singing with a Buju Banton growl on a Sting folky, narrative song about a historical criminal's court appearance. It could easily be from his "Last Ship" album. The mood returns to a lively one on the poppy reggae of "To Love And Be Loved", which is another intoxicating, appealing number. "Sad Trombone" is a jazzy, very Sting song and one that would fit easily on to any of his solo albums. "Night Shift" is yet another really good song. This is up there with the best of Sting's solo output, for me. Stick it on a "Best Of Sting" playlist and it certainly would not sound out of place.

This is a highly recommended album, there is not a bad track on it.

B+

Monday, 20 May 2019

Curtis Mayfield - Got To Find A Way (1974)


  

Released November 1974

This was Curtis Mayfield's second album of 1974 and, on this one, even more than on its predecessor, "Sweet Exorcist", he abandons his hard-hitting "message" numbers and replaces them with his take on love. Unsurprisingly, it is both a wise and downtrodden one. Curtis was never really comfortable with pure pop or pure "I love you, girl" sentiments. It is always more like "you used to love me girl, what went wrong?" There is far less funk on here too, more strings and sweet soul sounds than "Superfly"-style gritty funk. For that reason, for me, this is a somewhat unremarkable album and one that just sort of washes over you, although, at certain times, there is nothing wrong with that. The album has been virtually forgotten in Mayfield's canon, it has to be said, however.

TRACK LISTING

1. Love Me (Right In The Pocket)
2. So You Don't Love Me
3. A Prayer
4. Mother's Son
5. Cannot Find A Way
6. Ain't No Love Lost

"Love Me (Right In The Pocket)" is typical Mayfield funk/soul to open the album with, although this time the funk is aimed at a girl Mayfield is after, as opposed to warning about pushermen or future shock. "So You Don't Love Me" is a strings-dominated, lush smoocher of a tune that still has Mayfield's cynical-about-love lyrics, however. "A Prayer" is a smooth, falsetto-driven soul number. Is it time for some copper-bottomed Mayfield funk? Of course it is, and, thankfully, it hasn't been abandoned completely, as "Mother's Son", with its heavy, thumping funk intro proves. It is probably the best cut on the album, full of atmosphere and deep funk. Killer guitar too. The bass/drum/lead guitar interplay near the end is sublime.

"Cannot Find A Way" has a message to it over its slow burning light funk beat, although the vocal is a bit low down in the mix. "Ain't No Love Lost" confirms that the old side two is funkier than side one, but it ends too soon and is is somewhat unremarkable.

Curtis would return in 1975, channelling his "Superfly"/"Roots" socially aware thing once more on the excellent, uncompromising "There's No Place Like America Today". This album trod water just a little. It is not a bad one, by any means, but there are better ones either side of it.

C+

Curtis Mayfield - Sweet Exorcist (1974)


  

Released May 1974

By 1974, you knew what you were going to get from Curtis Mayfield - six or seven tracks on an album, a mixture of orchestrated sweet soul and wah-wah guitar, horn-driven urban funk. The social message was launched in 1970 and it is still strongly there. Unfortunately, the fact that seven similar albums were released between 1970 and 1975 tends to dilute the effect somewhat and some of these albums have ended up slightly overlooked, which is a bit of a pity, as they are all impressive.

This one is a bit more soulful and laid-back and the consciousness is ever so slightly downplayed in favour of a more romantic approach.

TRACK LISTING

1. Ain't Got Time
2. Sweet Exorcist
3. To Be Invisible
4. Power To The People
5. Kung Fu
6. Suffer
7. Make Me Believe In You

"Ain't Got Time" is a superb, deep, funky opener. Full of atmosphere, wah-wah, solid drums and Curtis's sweet vocal dishing out the wise advice. There is a Temptations feel to the track in many ways. Mayfield's voice is just a little deeper than on some of his songs, and it lends the song more gravitas. "Sweet Exorcist" starts as a lush soul number before it morphs into a deep, heavy funk chug on its chorus. "To Be Invisible" is a sensitive, slow burning sweet soul number, one of Mayfield's smoothest numbers for quite a while. As with all his songs, a deep wisdom underpins the lyrics, even on the love songs. Curtis was a serious, deep-thinking man.

"Power To The People" has a slight Staple Singers gospel-influenced feel to it. The interplay between the horns, drums and Mayfield's voice is instinctively effortless. "Kung Fu" is a delicious slice of appetising, tasty funk in the "Superfly" style. "Suffer" is a soul ballad in the O'Jays/Harold Melvin style. There is not much that can be said to analyse material like this, other than it sounds great, facile as that sounds. If you like soul music you will like it, simple as that. "Make Me Believe In You" sees the sublime funk return on another infectious groove.

As I said at the beginning, you know what you're going to get by now. If you like it, these are good albums, all of them, in their own right. You an't go wrong with any of them. If you just want to dabble in Curtis Mayfield, then "Superfly" and "Roots" would be good places to start.

B-

Curtis Mayfield - Back To The World (1973)


  

Released May 1973

After the huge, and somewhat unexpected success of the ultra-funky blaxploitation soundtrack, "Superfly", this album reverted to the heavily-orchestrated, lush, brassy soul sounds of Mayfield's first two solo albums, "Curtis" and "Roots". There is still some solid funk around, but it is less gritty and pounding than on "Superfly", which is a shame, to be honest. Mayfield's message is still one of concern for the contemporary world, both societal and environmental. The album is only seven tracks long, and is decidedly uncommercial. In that respect, it is considered something of a failure, which is unfair, as it contains some credible songs, just no catchy "Superfly"-style numbers. Mayfield was certainly not going to let up on his message, and indeed, didn't until 1977, when he started to dabble in disco. It was hard-hitting, urban, conscious funk/soul all the way.

TRACK LISTING

1. Back In The World
2. Future Shock
3. Right On For The Darkness
4. Future Song
5. If I Only Were A Child Again
6. Can't Say Nothin'
7. Keep On Trippin'

"Back In The World" is a typical pice of smooth, falsetto-dominated lush Mayfield soul, similar to some of the material on "Curtis" and "Roots". "Future Shock" features some delicious funky wah-wah guitar and some punchy horns. It is one of the album's tracks that is most similar to the "Superfly" material. This time though, Mayfield is saying "we got to stop the man from messing up the land...". Inspired by Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, the song contains warnings for more than just drug dealers, but for the whole world. "Right On For The Darkness" is a deep, industrial strength funky chugger, lightened only by some sweeping strings. Personally, I would have preferred it without the strings, just keeping the funk, which is heavy.

"Future Song" is  religious-themed, laid-back slice of sweet soul that a probably a minute or so too long. The tempo is upped, however, with the "Move on Up"-ish fast groove of "If I Only Were A Child Again". The horns and the percussion rhythm are great on this one. "Can't Say Nothin'" is a wonderful helping of brassy funk, with an almost swamp-blues style riff underpinning it. Mayfield's vocals are only incidental on what is essentially an excellent instrumental. A few more vocals arrive at the end, however, but it is still largely a musical outing. "Keep On Trippin'" ends the album with a melodic and soulful number that sees Mayfield's falsetto hitting those top notes once more. There is a hint of Motown in the song's verse structure.

While this is not a Curtis Mayfield essential, it is certainly not inessential either, if that doesn't sound too silly. It is not a poppy album, but, as with all his early/mid seventies offerings, it has serious credibility.

B-

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Curtis Mayfield - Superfly (1972)

  

Released July 1972

This is a ground-breaking "blaxploitation" movie soundtrack album that, along with Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" is up there as one of the finest representatives of its genre. While "Shaft" was a musical masterpiece of an album, this one contained more full songs and stands up as a straight-up soul album in its own right, irrespective of being a movie soundtrack. The theme was one of social deprivation leading to drug abuse and tells stories from the perspective of both the users and the dealers. It builds on issues dealt with by The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye and it goes even further. There is a convincing argument that this is the best "aware" soul album of the early seventies, if not of all time. Also, although both "Curtis" and "Roots" were great albums, this really takes some beating. The sound on it is full, deep and funky, with less string orchestration than on those two albums. It is certainly Mayfield's grittiest, funkiest offering.

TRACK LISTING

1. Little Child Runnin' Wild
2. Pusherman
3. Freddie's Dead
4. Junkie Chase
5. Give Me Your Love
6. Eddie You Should Know Better
7. No Thing On Me
8. Think
9. Superfly

"Little Child Runnin' Wild" is a hard-hitting, funky percussion-driven magnificent opener, with apparent similarities, lyrically, it would seem, to The Temptations' "Runaway Child Running Wild". However, Mayfield's song is autobiographical (for the movie's character), speaking of his deprived upbringing, whereas The Temptations' one is a narrative take of a young child on the streets. "Pusherman" is a sublime, beautiful piece of rhythmic, bassy funk with Mayfield's iconic falsetto giving us an uncompromising first-person description of the life of a "pusherman", hustling drugs on the streets - himself a "victim of ghetto demands". Mayfield takes a depressingly realistic view of things and, to an extent, the wonderful, atmospheric funk of the song's melody almost glorifies the pusherman, simply because the music describing him is so damn good. Mayfield views the issues from the point of view of the criminal which was a unique thing to do in 1972. Socially aware material had only been around in soul music for four years or so and for Mayfield to sing and compose from this perspective was certainly adventurous and risk-taking in the extreme. The balance is restored, however, in the sad tale that is "Freddie's Dead", about a life snuffed out but not by drugs, but run over by a car. It is all linked though, but you get the impression that the song just shrugs its shoulders at another death on these mean streets. The music is once again excellent - funky flute, shuffling drums, sweeping strings and "chicka-chicka" wah-wah guitars.

After these three stonking openers, we are reminded that this is a movie soundtrack album with the brief funky wah-wah and horns groove of "Junkie Chase". Very Blaxploitation. "Give Me Your Love"  once more features some totally delicious instrumentation. Man, those wah-wahs. The sound is so good as well. Fantastically clear yet deep and warm too. Mayfield's vocal takes a while to arrive and because the music is so good, you don't notice. When it comes it just makes it all even better.

"Eddie You Should Know Better" is a short, soulful song clearly written for the movie. It is excellent, however, full of atmosphere. "No Thing On Me" is a sumptuous piece of funky soul with Mayfield's character in a positive mood, claiming now to lead a clean life - "you don't have to be no junkie....my life's a natural high..." is the admirable sentiment - "sure is funky, I ain't no junkie...". Things seem to be looking up, thankfully. A bit of redemption. That positivity continues in the beautiful instrumental groove of "Think". This features some lovely saxophone near the end.

Finally, we get the barnstorming brassy funk of the title track, a true blaxploitation classic, that appears on every compilation of the genre. Although the album is only thirty-seven minutes in length, every second is dripping with atmosphere. Truly one of the best soul/funk albums of all time. Essential.

A-

Queen - Queen Rock Montreal (1981)


  

Recorded live in Montreal, November 1981

This was a Queen live album from the period that saw them at the height of their irrelevance (comparatively), for they were still able to sell out an arena/stadium. However, the punk, new wave, post punk, two tone and new romantic genres had left the band as a bit of a cultural beached whale. Their 1984-86 renaissance was yet to take place and the set of this live album was the bridge between 1979's "Live Killers" and the summer of 1982's "Queen On Fire". Where it is preferable, for me, over "Queen On Fire" is that there are none of the clumsy funk offerings from "Hot Space" that are in that set. The 1974 Rainbow concerts and the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon one are still the best live Queen albums, in my opinion. That was my favourite phase of the career.

Of course, Queen always played live with a vigour and vibrancy that made them an irresistible live act and this is certainly true here, although what is odd about this one is that the Canadian crowd are not familiar with a lot of the material, so songs are introduced to relatively sparse cheers, not the rapturous receptions they got in Milton Keynes the following summer, for example. It means that although the sound quality and performance is very good, a little of the electric live atmosphere is lost. That sound quality, however, is eminently superior to both "Live Killers" and "Live At Wembley". One low point of the album, it has to be said, is when "Keep Yourself Alive" morphs into the dreadful "drum and tympani solo" followed by the messy "guitar solo". Queen should have left the worst of the seventies back in the seventies. There were always messy parts in Queen shows, the early set "medley" was another infuriating one. The sets often lacked continuity because of this. This one is no different.

TRACK LISTING

1. We Will Rock You (Fast Version)
2. Let Me Entertain You
3. Play The Game
4. Somebody To Love
5. Killer Queen
6. I'm In Love With My Car
7. Get Down, Make Love
8. Save Me
9. Now I'm Here
10. Dragon Attack
11. Now I'm Here (Reprise)
12. Love Of My Life
13. Under Pressure
14. Keep Yourself Alive
15. Flash
16. The Hero
17. Crazy Little Thing Called Love
18. Jailhouse Rock
19. Bohemian Rhapsody
20. Tie Your Mother Down
21. Another One Bites The Dust
22. Sheer Heart Attack
23. We Will Rock You
24. We Are The Champions
25. God Save The Queen

B-

Friday, 17 May 2019

Queen - Queen On Fire (1982)


  

Recorded live in Milton Keynes in 1982

This was Queen at the nadir of their career, for me, long after their glory years of 1974-77 and before their Live Aid-inspired second coming of 1985-86. It was at the time of their venture into funk and synthesiser based riffs described, embarrassingly, by Freddie Mercury on stage in this show as being in the "funk, black category, whatever you call it...". It was a bit of a shame that Mercury felt he had to apologise for this, but it was a considerable deviation from the band's usual rock fare. Furthermore, I loved Queen in their 1974-77 period and I love funk too, but, for me, Queen and funk were never particularly comfortable bedfellows. Fair play to them for giving it a go, but it always sounded more than just a little self-conscious to me, as if they were just trying too hard.

Queen were a band struggling to stay relevant at this time, despite their later huge resurgence in popularity, and I always got the impression that the audience here were turning up out of loyalty, old stagers from the mid-seventies who hadn't moved on to punk and new wave and they put up with some of the material out of politeness. The band had yet to gain the new audience that 1985 would give them.

Regarding the sound quality, it has that certain je ne sais quoi that outdoor recordings often have that makes them ever so slightly more muffled and indistinct than their indoor equivalents. "Queen Live At Wembley" suffers even more for this. It is ok, sonically, but certainly not perfect.

TRACK LISTING

1. Flash
2. The Hero
3. We Will Rock You (Fast Version)
4. Action This Day
5. Play The Game
6. Staying Power
7. Somebody To Love
8. Now I'm Here
9. Dragon Attack
10. Now I'm Here (Reprise)
11. Love of My Life
12. Save Me
13. Back Chat
14. Get Down Make Love
15. Under Pressure
16. Fat Bottomed Girls
17. Crazy Little Thing Called Love
18. Bohemian Rhapsody
19. Tie Your Mother Down
20. Another One Bites The Dust
21. Sheer Heart Attack
22. We Will Rock You
23. We Are The Champions
24. God Save the Queen

The funk-inspired chuggers from the "Hot Space" album are "Action This Day" (although to be fair, this is far more of a rock song), "Staying Power" and "Back Chat" and they render the first half of the gig less enjoyable than the second. Two of their ventures into funk, however, are excellent - "Dragon Attack" and the now iconic and much-sampled "Another One Bites The Dust". "Get Down, Make Love", from 1977's "News Of The World", however, has always been awful.

As for the highlights - it is nice to hear "Save Me" and "Play The Game" played live, as well as the anthemic "Somebody To Love" and the ludicrous but catchy rock of "Fat Bottomed Girls". "Under Pressure" is played to please the many who will have bought the single the previous winter and Freddie Mercury takes all the vocals, including the Bowie slots. We also get "We Will Rock You" in its two incarnations, just as on 1979's "Live Killers" and 1981's "Queen Rock Montreal".

I always loathed "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", though, and still do. Sorry.

C

Queen - A Night At The Odeon (1975)

  

Recorded live at Hammersmith Odeon, December 24th, 1975

This was recorded on Christmas Eve, 1975 as a BBC TV special, live from Hammersmith Odeon. I remember watching on a tiny portable 6" screen black and white TV in my bedroom. Now it is available as a CD with accompanying DVD, which is great, after all these years. The music is my thing, so that is what I shall comment on. The sound quality is absolutely superb, much better, in fact, than Queen's "Live Killers" from 1979, which, for ages, was their only official live album. God knows why this was allowed to rot in the vaults for so long.

Queen were at the height of their first era powers here. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was at number one and their popularity had soared. For me, this was Queen at their very best. You can't beat 1974-1977 and Freddie with long hair, black fingernails and frilly blouses, none of that macho eighties stuff :). As always with Queen live gigs, however, they insisted on doing a "medley" at one point. Did they ever play "Killer Queen" in its entirety? I doubt it, which was a shame. Also, the magnificence of "The Black Of The Black Queen" deserves a full performance, not just a minute and a half. Sacrilege. On this set, even "Rhapsody" is included as part of the medley, which again is a mistake and this segment all sounds very clumsy. "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" and "Son And Daughter" are also frustratingly curtailed.

That has always been my negative over Queen live sets. The rest of my points are always positives. "Now I'm Here", "Ogre Battle" and the beautiful, underrated "White Queen" are delivered superbly, full of resonance and sheer live power. One forgets just what a muscular, heavy outfit Queen at this period were. This was an excellent live performance from a group really at the top of their game. Forget all that later stadium stuff, venues like the Hammersmith Odeon were made for Queen to rock the floorboards. And they did. Wonderfully.

TRACK LISTING

1. Now I'm Here
2. Ogre Battle
3. White Queen
4. Bohemian Rhapsody
5. Killer Queen
6. The March Of The Black Queen
7. Bohemian Rhapsody (Reprise)
8. Bring Back That Leroy Brown
9. Brighton Rock
10. Son And Daughter
11. Keep Yourself Alive
12. Liar
13. In The Lap Of The Gods...Revisited
14. Big Spender
15. Jailhouse Rock Medley
16. Seven Seas Of Rhye
17. See What A Fool I've Been
18. God Save the Queen

B+

Queen - Live Killers (1979)


  

Live recordings from early 1979

My proper Queen fandom spreads from 1974 to 1978, so this, their first official live album arrived right at the time I was leaving Queen behind as new wave full took over. Although I prefer subsequently-released live albums from earlier periods, such as "Live At The Rainbow" and "A Night At The Odeon", I guess this is a reasonable live document of where Queen were in 1979. They were in a transitional period, about to enter one of their least successful phases at the start of the eighties, but still clinging on to what made them a great band in the 1974-1977 years. This is actually quite a heavy album, and although its tracks are taken from several live shows from early 1979, it plays as if it were one full concert.

It was given a bit of negative criticism upon release and I am not quite sure why, although until this latest remaster, I have always found the sound a bit muffled. Not so anymore, it is solid, clear and powerful and has a raw, authentic live feeling about it, which is always good. In early 1979, it has to be said, though, concerts and material like this were becoming very passé in the face of the punk/new wave onslaught. Queen were already struggling with a relevance problem, only just over three years from ruling the world.

Queen always had an irritating habit of performing three of four songs in a "medley" format in the early part of their shows, so songs like "Death On Two Legs""Killer Queen", "Bicycle Race" and "I'm In Love With My Car" are frustratingly cut short while the awful "Get Down, Make Love", with its pointless and indulgent sound effects, is extended far longer than it should be. "Brighton Rock" is also given a full workout, although I don't mind that. "You're My Best Friend" is also only given two minutes, though. It is interesting to hear the later to be iconic "Don't Stop Me Now" played as just a track from the new album ("Jazz"). Its performance is a bit messy, to be honest. Overall, however, this is not a bad set. You can never get too much of "Now I'm Here" or "Keep Yourself Alive".

TRACK LISTING

1. We Will Rock You (Fast Version)
2. Let Me Entertain You
3. Brighton Rock
4. Death On Two Legs
5. Killer Queen
6. Bicycle Race
7. I'm In Love With My Car
8. Get Down, Make Love
9. You're My Best Friend
10. Now I'm Here
11. Dreamers' Ball
12. Love Of My Life
13. '39
14. Keep Yourself Alive
15. Don't Stop Me Now
16. Spread Your Wings
17. Bohemian Rhapsody
18. Tie Your Mother Down
19. Sheer Heart Attack
20. We Will Rock You
21. We Are The Champions
22. God Save The Queen

B-

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Weapon Of Peace - Weapon Of Peace (1981)


  

Released in 1981

Weapon Of Peace were a reggae group from Wolverhampton, West Midlands. They were heavily influenced by UB40, particularly in their use of the saxophone to drive many of the melodies. There is a laid-back feel to much of their material, with influences from Third World, Steel Pulse and Aswad too. They deserved more success than they had, releasing only two albums. I saw them live at Friars Club, Aylesbury, supporting Stiff Little Fingers in July 1980.

The sound quality in this release is excellent as well. Back to the group, there was something different and appealing about the UK-based reggae bands. While they had considerable reggae authenticity, there was always something slightly different about their sound the made them unique.

TRACK LISTING

1. Know Yourself
2. Don't Sit Around
3. West Park
4. Suspicion
5. No Time to Scream
6. Come Walk With Me
7. Jah Love
8. Feelin' Fine
9. Baby When I'm Gone
10. Love

"Know Yourself" has a UB40-influenced groove, complete with saxiphone and also a very Steel Pulse feel to it, particularly in the vocals. "Don't Sit Around" has an almost rock beat at times and some new-wave white reggae vibes too, plus a nice dub/saxophone interplay. "West Park" is a very Third World-influenced, breezy, relaxing skank, with some smooth jazzy saxophone and another nice dubby bass bit at the end. "Suspicion" is so Steel Pulse it could almost be them, both the rhythm and the vocal are exactly like them. It is still a good track though. Once again it ends with an extended dub passage.

"No Time To Scream" is very similar to UB40's "Don't Let It Pass You By" in many ways. The saxophone is Brian Travers-esque too. They also incorporate "The Last Post" into the rhythm at the end. "Come Walk With Me" is a summery, romantic groove of an instrumental.

"Jah Love" sounds as if it may be a slice of deep, pious roots but it is actually a lively, catchy and poppy number, probably the most so on the album. "Feelin' Fine" is back to the UB40 meets Third World thing. I think we know what we are getting by now. "Baby When I'm Gone" has an upbeat, harmonious skank to it. "Love" ends this album on a sweet soul note, almost a soul song as opposed to a reggae one.

Yes, Weapon Of Peace were pretty derivative, but they were still very good despite their obvious influences. Highly recommended if you can get hold of this. Downloading is probably the easiest/cheapest way.

B-

Journey - Escape (1981)




Released July 1981

When this was released, new wave, post punk, two tone and new romantic were all the rage, yet somehow, AOR albums like this always sold well and found an audience. In a way it was a few years ahead of its time in its classic "arena rock" as it was called then. It was, unsurprisingly, huge in the USA and is one of the best-selling rock albums of all time.

TRACK LISTING

1. Don't Stop Believin'
2. Stone In Love
3. Who's Crying Now
4. Keep On Runnin'
5. Still They Ride
6. Escape
7. Lay It Down
8. Dead Or Alive
9. Mother, Father
10. Open Arms

"Don't Stop Believin'" is my old punk's guilty pleasure and, you know what, I don't give a damn, it's bloomin' marvellous - the piano intro, that Neal Schon "diddly-diddly-diddly" guitar bit that gets louder and louder at 0.55 seconds onwards, then the power chords and, of course, Steve Perry's classic soft-rock vocal. Love it. Sorry. It is a genuine rock anthem. "Some will win, some will lose, some are born to sing the blues...." is one of the great rock lyrics of all time. Now get that air guitar out, man. Everyone becomes a rock star for a few minutes while this is on. Even me.

"Stone In Love" is almost as good, with a wonderful riffy opening and another killer vocal from Perry. More air guitar opportunities and hairbrush singing opportunities abound here. "Who's Crying Now" is also instantly recognisable by its keyboard melody and laid-back AOR chorus and ambience in general. It again is a classic of its genre. The solid rock of "Keep On Runnin'" has Perry adopting that traditional high-pitched heavy rock vocal style. "Still They Ride" slows down the pace a little with a big production, grandiose rock ballad.

The riffage is back with the rocking, upbeat title track. There is some great instrumentation on this as well, rollicking piano, jabbing synths and pounding drums. Great stuff. "Lay It Down" is simply another copper-bottomed chunky rocker. "Dead Or Alive" is a regular rocker of the kind Mott The Hoople spin-off Mott did a lot of in the mid-seventies. "Mother, Father" is probably the album's weakest number, being a little bit ponderous and overbearing. "Open Arms" is an anthemic closer.

This really was Journey's finest half-hour, there is not a duff track on this album. Of its type, it's fantastic.

B-

Journey - Journey (1975)


  

Released April 1975

This is the debut album by Journey, erstwhile stadium rockers-to-be. This is nothing like the output of the later, famous incarnation of the group. The group here contains Santana refugees Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie and respected session drummer Aynsley Dunbar of David Bowie's "Pin Ups", Lou Reed's "Berlin" and Ian Hunter's "All American Alien Boy" fame. He also drummed with The Jeff Beck Group. It is a sort of prog rock meets jazzy experimentation sort of thing, with some heavy rock bits here and there. It is not bad in places, but it ultimately suffers for not really knowing what it really is, or where it is going. It is not proggy enough for the hippies, not heavy enough for the rockers and not jazzy enough for the jazz rockers either. The cover's sub-Yes style is awful too.

TRACK LISTING

1. Of A Lifetime
2. In The Morning Day
3. Kohoutek
4. To Play Some Music
5. Topaz
6. In My Lonely Feeling/Conversations
7. Mystery Mountain

"Of A Lifetime" has a lengthy, grandiose guitar intro and some suitably haughty proggy-style vocals, it never really gets anywhere but is pleasant enough, with some great guitar at the end. "In The Morning Day" is a laid-back rock ballad that suffers from a muffled production. It has some kicking heavy parts in the middle and some superb drumming, together with some Deep Purple-esque swirling organ. "Kohoutek" has some Led Zeppelin-influenced keyboard parts and overall has some impressive guitar and drum parts in its instrumentation (there are no vocals). It rocks pretty solidly, to be fair to it, but without ever achieving too much I guess. It does sound a bit like an extended jam session, albeit a very good one.

"To Play Some Music" is more proggy in its rock structure. It has vocals but they aren't great and the whole sound is a bit of a mish-mash. It seems like the ex-Santana members have brought with them some of that group's sound but left behind the Latin bits, to the detriment of the offerings here. "Topaz" is the closest thing to a Santana sound here, featuring some searing guitar, excellent percussion and some vaguely Latin, space jazz sounds. a lovely rhythmic bass line underpins it as well. It is probably the album's best cut, for me. "In My Lonely Feeling" is typical big, thumping heavy rock balladry, but without any discernable hook. Its instrumental passages, presumably "Conversations" are nice though, with some Gary Moore meets Jeff Beck-type guitar soloing. "Mystery Mountain" is a powerful drum and organ-driven closer to this short album with some more indistinct vocals. The track reminds me of early Mott The Hoople in some ways. Some more good guitar is to be found on this one.

Look, this is an ok way to spend half an hour and, while for some reason I am not quite sure of, I own the album, I don't think I will be hurrying to play it on a regular basis.

C

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Wet Wet Wet - High On The Happy Side (1992)

  

Released January 1992

This was when Wet Wet Wet made it properly as a chart act, with a surprising number one in "Goodnight Girl". They continue their unique brand of appealing pop/soul with rock influences on this eminently listenable but now slightly dated album. It could do with a remaster too.

TRACK LISTING

1. More Than Love
2. Lip Service
3. Put The Light On
4. High On The Happy Side
5. Maybe Tomorrow
6. Goodnight Girl
7. Celebration
8. Make It Tonight
9. How Long
10. Brand New Sunrise
11. 2 Days After Midnite

"More Than Love" is a nice, sweeping ballad that suffers a bit through a muffled production, particularly on the verses, although it improves a bit when the chorus kicks in. "Lip Service" has a funky, brassy soul feel to it, with some wah-wah guitar, shuffling, gritty percussion and an affected vocal from Marti Pellow. Not a bad track at all. "Put The Light On" has shades of Del Amitri about it in its acoustic guitar backing and also in Pellow's voice.

The title track is lovely, with a nice late evening backing and yet another impressive vocal. It features a god guitar solo near the end. It is very early nineties though, sounding like the stuff Elton John was doing during the same period. "Maybe Tomorrow" has a thumping big bass line and an atmospheric, slightly mysterious feel to it. "Goodnight Girl" was a strangely catchy yet sparsely backed song that became the group's first number one. "Celebration" is an upbeat, acoustically-driven number, and, after an unremarkable beginning, "Make it Tonight" bursts out with its irresistible chorus.

"How Long" is a singalong, soulful but poppy number. "Brand New Sunrise" is a late-night jazzy, bluesy crooner with a delicious bass line. "2 Days After Midnite" is an excellent, lively piece of soul funk upon which to end an album that is far more than just an offering from a chart pop group. It has considerably more than just a bit of credibility about it.

B-

Bill Withers



Just As I Am (1971)
Still Bill (1972)
Live At Carnegie Hall (1973)
+'Justments (1974)
Making Music (1975)
Naked And Warm (1976)
Menagerie (1977)
'Bout Love (1979)
Watching You Watching Me (1985)

Bill Withers - +'Justments (1974)

  

Released in 1974

After two stunning albums of soul with some acoustic, some rock, some funk edges, and a stunning live album, this was the immensely talented Bill Withers' fourth offering. His star was unfortunately fading just a little, and this album disappeared pretty quickly and remained out of print for decades, until recently. That was a shame, because there is some good material on the album, both musically and in its aware messages. The sound quality on the latest remaster to be found in the "Complete Albums" box set is superb, too.

TRACK LISTING

1. You
2. The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
3. Stories
4. Green Grass
5. Ruby Lee
6. Heartbreak Road
7. Can We Pretend
8. Liza
9. Make A Smile For Me
10. Railroad Man

"You" is a rhythmic and funky opener with a deep back beat and Withers' soulful voice at its best, in its "Use Me" style. "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh" is classic, Stax-ish, Al Green-influenced soul but without the horns, featuring an intoxicating bass, organ and drum backing. Withers' vocal is bit Stevie Wonder in sound and delivery at times. "Stories" is an emotive, sparsely-backed ballad, while "Green Grass" is typical semi-funky Withers soul.

"Ruby Lee" has echoes of the infectious groove of "Who Is He And What Is He To You". Check out that thoroughly irresistible bass line. "Heartbreak Road" is another chunky, solid number with Withers' band once more sounding great. Lovely sweeping strings on it too. "Can We Pretend" is a Stevie Wonder-influenced, laid-back soul crooner with additional Spanish guitar from the legendary José Feliciano. Again, a sumptuous bass line underpins it.

"Liza" has a spoken intro over an electric piano, a bit like on Gladys Knight's "Help Me Make It Through The Night". It is a sensitive song written by Withers for his niece. "Make A Smile For Me" continues in the same pleasing vein, with the wonderful bass augmenting the song. The rhythmic funk is back for the final number in "Railroad Man". Withers' spoken intro is most atmospheric, while wah-wah guitar and congas cook up an addictive brew.

I love this album, it is up there with the classic soul of the early/mid seventies of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and The Undisputed Truth. Seventies soul was not only Aretha and Stevie. A most underrated, "forgotten gem" of an album.

B

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Television - Marquee Moon (1977)

  

Released February 1977

Although this debut album from New York's Television appeared at the beginning of the period that punk began to morph into new wave, it is certainly not a punk album, yet it hung around the coat-tails of the whole punk scene. It is more of a rock album with late sixties influences, but it undoubtedly had a huge effect on the whole post punk genre and is very much an album that sums up the spirit of 1977. It was far more successful as part of the UK's punk/new wave scene than it was in the USA. Maybe to those in the UK it had that exciting, urban US quirky edginess that appealed, as it did for The Ramones and Talking Heads.

TRACK LISTING

1. See No Evil
2. Venus
3. Friction
4. Marquee Moon
5. Elevation
6. Guiding Light
7. Prove It
8. Torn Curtain

"See No Evil" is a slowed-down punk meets post punk number with a bit of a feel of Magazine about it and a reedy, quirky Brian Eno-style vocal. "Venus" has singer Tom Verlaine again sounding very much as countless post punk vocalists would sound over the subsequent few years. Verlaine also has that slightly emaciated, bug-eyed look that Magazine's Howard Devoto had as well, and Joe Jackson. That whole anti-hero thing. It is also very late-era Velvet Underground-ish. "Friction" is great, so very post-punk before punk's fires had even started to burn themselves out. It is so evocative of those days, so urban, so "demi-monde".

Then we get the title track, "Marquee Moon" - punk ? At nearly eleven minutes long - surely not. Despite that, it has some simply superb slow punky riffery, great drumming, killer guitar and an intoxicating vocal. It was a rock song, but a rock song for the punk era, if that makes sense. Early Talking Heads based a lot of material around ruffs like those on this track. The guitar/bass/drum interplay bit just before the five minute mark is wonderful.

"Elevation" is very Joy Division, again before the latter existed. In my opinion, at least. The atmospheric "Guiding Light" has a lot of Patti Smith to it. "Prove It" has echoes of the mid-seventies in its construction, a bit David Bowie, a bit Roxy Music, not obviously but in there in small nuances here and there. "Torn Curtain" is a grandiose, sweeping epic of a track that, for some reason, does not quite get through to me as much as the others do, despie its obvious good points. Not sure why that is. Better, for me, is the non-album bonus track, "Little Johnny Jewel", which has lots of Velvet Underground running all through it, plus some jazzy guitar parts.

Overall, this was an album that was considerably ahead of its time, and was both innovative and influential.

B-

Monday, 13 May 2019

The Stranglers - Aural Sculpture (1984)


  

Released November 1984

The Stranglers had progressed from punk, to post punk, to dense electronica to finally reach some peace of mind with this sensitive (yes, really), often reflective and lyrically philosophical album. Musically is it both laid-back but also quite infectiously poppy. Maybe these overgrown punks had grown up at last. This is a very considered, adult album, unrecognisable as being from the band that gave us "Peaches" and "Hanging Around". It is almost like a different band. The Spanish guitar remains from the previous album, but is now joined by a three piece horn section and the welcome return of some lead guitar and "proper" drums, as opposed to programmed ones.

TRACK LISTING

1. Ice Queen
2. Skin Deep
3. Let Me Down Easy
4. No Mercy
5. North Winds Blowing
6. Uptown
7. Punch And Judy
8. Spain
9. Laughing
10. Souls
11. Mad Hatter
12. Here And There

"Ice Queen" is a sensual but punchy groover of a track, nothing much like anything the group had previously done, with big horn sections on the backing. "Skin Deep" is a beguiling and melodic number with an excellent, tuneful and mature vocal from Hugh Cornwell and some OMD-style drums. "Let Me Down Easy" is a delightful number, difficult to describe, almost sixties-influenced in places and soulful too. All delivered with a catchy, poppy beat. "No Mercy" is another entrancing song, new wave-ish and commercial in aspect.

Both the melodic "North Winds Blowing" and the quirky "Uptown" are thoroughly appealing tracks too. The latter is probably the closest to a being a recognisable Stranglers track. "Punch And Judy" is a riffy slice of piano and horns-driven Elvis Costello-style new wave fare. It's a great track. Lovely bass line underpinning it. It almost sounds a bit Northern Soul-ish with its "In Crowd" horn riff. Check out that bass and rhythm on the captivating "Spain". Are you sure this is The Stranglers? It comes complete with female Spanish spoken vocal parts too.

"Laughing" is a tranquil, soulful song that could be The Style Council. "Souls" is slightly Doors-esque but also featuring a poppy, new romantic sound. "Mad Hatter" has the band going all jazzy with a "doo-wop" vocal backing. All very incomprehensible as a Stranglers track but none the worse for it. Fair play to them for experimenting with totally different material. "Here And There" is great, with a new romantic-style haughty vocal and a punchy drum beat. Its backing is a bit like Culture Club meets Haircut 100 - yes, I know. Seriously, there is not a bad track on this truly excellent album. There is a fair case for this being The Stranglers' best offering.

B+

The Stranglers - Feline (1983)

  

Released January 1983

After several quirky, "post-punk" and experimental albums, and a brief return to new wave-ish sounds on its predecessor, "La Folie", this unremarkable (for me) album had The Stranglers going full on electronic and European-influenced, with its programmed drums and synthesisers. The electric guitars are almost gone, replaced by primarily acoustic ones. You couldn't get much further away from those two initial, angry, punky albums that the band put out. This stuff, to me, does not even have the post punk appeal of the late seventies output. It is all rather dull, unprepossessing and, dare I say, pretentious. Also, what has happened to Hugh Cornwell's trademark sneery vocal?

TRACK LISTING

1. Midnight Summer Dream
2. It's A Small World
3. Ships That Pass In The Night
4. The European Female (In Celebration Of)
5. Let's Tango In Paris
6. Paradise
7. All Roads Lead To Rome
8. Blue Sister
9. Never Say Goodbye

"Midnight Summer Dream" is an Ultravox-ish, keyboard and programmed drums piece of (sort of) electronica, with rather pretentious-sounding spoken vocals. A few listens, however, and I find myself liking it more and more, oddly. "It's A Small World" also has that very early/mid-eighties electronic beat to it, with the group again sounding like a new romantic group, particularly in the vocal styling. It has an addictive Spanish guitar backing, though. "Ships That Pass In The Night" is another in the Ultravox vein, dominated by keyboards swirls and sonorous new romantic-style vocals. "The European Female (In Celebration Of)" is a laid-back, atmospheric and gently melodic number with, unsurprisingly, European (mainly Teutonic) overtones. Another Krautrock-esque number is up next, the morose "Let's Tango In Paris". "Paradise" has echoes of Tom Tom Club in its vocals and quirky rhythms.

"All Roads Lead To Rome" is appealing enough, I guess, but its synth lines are so Ultravox meets Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark it is untrue. It just doesn't sound like The Stranglers. That said, I quite like it! Similarly, "Blue Sister" has a strange appeal in its mysterious vocal and throbbing bass line. "Never Say Goodbye" also has an infectiousness about it but why Cornwell has to put on that affected new romantic voice is beyond me. To be fair, these last three tracks have been intriguing and beg further listens.

Overall, however, this album just doesn't really do it for me. Yes I can see that it has hidden depths, and I agree that it needs several listens to absorb it into one's bloodstream, and I also have no problem with The Stranglers attempting to diversify, stylistically. Personally, I just don't think they achieve it here and the album has a somewhat cold, detached, unengaged feel about it. Maybe that is the wintry, Kraftwerk-esque effect they were going for, so who am I to argue? Some people probably consider this one of their best works. After a few listens, I warmed to it, so maybe that is what is needed.

C

Chicago - Chicago X (1976)

  

Released June 1976

By 1976, Chicago had long abandoned the bloated, jazzy, experimental double albums that made up their first three offerings. This was their eighth studio album and they were now concentrating on succinct, perfectly-formed, short poppy songs. This album forms a transition point from Chicago "phase one", finally, into the more commercial, easy-listening band that may people only knew them for being. Yes, this album contain the huge hit single that became their most famous song, but there is also still some pretty credible horn-driven, upbeat soulful rock on here. People who bought the album on the back of "If You Leave Me Now" may well have found themselves a little disappointed. Not me, I have always been pleasantly surprised by the album. It is certainly no "easy listening" offering. It is far more of a funky rock one.

TRACK LISTING

1. Once Or Twice
2. You Are On My Mind
3. Skin Tight
4. If You Leave Me Now
5. Together Again
6. Another Rainy Day In New York City
7. Mama Mama
8. Scrapbook
9. Gently I'll Wake You
10. You Get It Up
11. Hope For Love

"Once Or Twice" is a surprisingly frenetic, horn-powered lively bar-room rocker of an opener, while "You Are On My Mind" changes the feel completely with a summery, samba-influenced groove. There is a bit of Tower Of Power about the horn parts. "Skin Tight" is a solid, muscular piece of bassy funk rock.

"If You Leave Me Now" was a number one single, it was considered a bit of a throwaway by the band themselves. What did they know, huh? It has been heard thousands of times, but that still doesn't detract from its perfection. It is so nostalgic for me. Reminds me of the cold winter of late 1976 and the video clip of the band in concert that was shown on "Top Of The Pops". Of course, nobody could reproduce Peter Cetera's falsetto when singing along.

"Together Again" is another chunky, brassy rocker. "Another Rainy Day In New York City" is sort of Paul Simon-esque in places, with its cod-Latin rhythm. "Mama Mama" is a slow tempo, sweet soul number that will please the "If You Leave Me Now" fans. Some delicious brass on it. "Scrapbook" is an infectious piece of funk rock with more Tower Of Power influence. "Gently I'll Wake You" is a Paul McCartney & Wings-ish mid-pace unthreatening number. "You Get It Up" serves up more of that punchy, brassy stuff with considerable funk. Wah-wah guitars all over the place. "Hope For Love" is a soulful "message" song with some big orchestration. Overall this is a lively, appealing album that contains no tracks remotely similar to its most famous inclusion.

B-

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Chicago - Chicago III (1971)

  

Released January 1971

This was Chicago's third consecutive double album and, like the others, is a veritable cornucopia of musical styles - jazz, funk, rock, soul, psychedelia and country rock all merge together, backed by the now trademark brass. Chicago really were a most inventive group, yet an awful lot of their stuff went under the radar, comparatively. The "chocolate box" nature of the album's musical diversity makes for a challenging, but ultimately interesting and rewarding listen.

TRACK LISTING

1. Sing A Mean Tune Kid
2. Loneliness Is Just A Word
3. What Else Can I Say
4. I Don't Want Your Money
5. Flight 602
6. Motorboat To Mars
7. Free
8. Free Country
9. At The Sunrise
10. Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home
11. Mother
12. Lowdown
13. A Hard Risin' Morning Without Breakfast
14. Off To Work
15. Fallin' Out
16. Dreamin' Home
17. Morning Blues Again
18. When All the Laughter Dies In Sorrow
19. Canon
20. Once Upon A Time
21. Progress?
22. The Approaching Storm
23. Man vs. Man: The End

"Sing A Mean Tune Kid" is a nine-minute piece of funky brass punch. This is rally quite innovative, decidedly uncommercial stuff for early 1971. The are clear Sly & The Family Stone influences at play here. "Loneliness Is Just A Word" is a short, soulful jazz funk number, while the country-ish rock of "What Else Can I Say" has clear Band influences. The Beatles are in there too. The Electric Light Orchestra were quite influenced by this sort of thing in the mid seventies as well. The heavy, chunky "I Don't Want Your Money" also has The Beatles meeting The Band over a punchy brass backing. There is a bit of Canned Heat about it too.

The next part of the album is formed of a group of songs called the "Travel Suite". Despite that, there is no obvious connection between them. The breezy, melodic country rock of "Flight 602" is so CS&N you would almost think it was them. Country rock was very de rigeur in 1971, so, also, were drum solos and guess what? We get one! "Motorboat To Mars" drums its way into the soulful, funky groove of "Free". The musical variety on this album is stunning, you can never relax into a particular frame of mind or mood while listening to it. "Free Country" is a gentle interlude of piano and flute ambient doodling that, unfortunately goes on a few minutes too long, clocking in at nearly six minutes. It could easily have been left off the album, to be honest, but maybe paring it down was never in their minds. "At The Sunrise" is a McCartney-esque short and appealing number. "Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home" is a very early seventies slice of semi-instrumental, flute-driven indulgence. It's ok, with some captivating passages, but again, it goes on far too long. So ends the first half of this double album, which could have functioned effectively as a single album in its own right. It's a sunny day. I'm off out.

Back again.

The album's third quarter is somewhat "Abbey Road" in its composition - a couple of regular numbers before we get to a medley of short snippet tracks. Of the regular numbers, "Mother" is a pounding, brassy mid-pace rock song, a bit proggy in places. The trumpet/trombone interplay in the middle is superb. "Lowdown" is a staccato, bassy, rhythmic rocker with some sublime percussion and organ parts followed by an excellent wah-wah guitar solo. Five very short tracks now follow, under the generic heading of "An Hour In The Shower". There is quite a lot of Blood, Sweat & Tears influence on this part of the album. All the tracks merge into each other in a very "Abbey Road" fashion. "Dreamin' Home" sounds very Beatles-esque.

The final "Medley" is entitled "Elegy" and is pretty much made up of pointless indulgence, such as the cacophony of traffic and roadwork noises that is the appalling, unlistenable "Progress?". Yes it makes a point, I suppose, but sonically, it is Chicago's "Revolution 9". "The Approaching Storm" is funky instrumental jam, but, again it is pretty inessential.

Listening to this album in two halves is not a bad idea at all. It makes it easier to appreciate, in my opinion. Otherwise it runs the risk of becoming sensorily tiring. Is definitely a creation worthy of respect and attention, however. In fact, listen to the first three quarters and forget the last one!

B-

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Chicago - Chicago VIII (1975)

  

Released March 1975

This was Chicago's eighth album in seven years, and on this one they replace their jazzy influences somewhat with an upbeat brassy, r'n'b and soul sound. Some have suggested it is a weary, lazy album but I don't really get that. It sounds pretty vibrant and refreshing to me, with the usual inventive variety of tracks that have always been the hallmark of Chicago albums, together with superb musicianship.

TRACK LISTING

1. Anyway You Want
2. Brand New Love Affair, Parts 1 & 2
3. Have Never Been In Love Before
4. Hideaway
5. Till We Meet Again
6. Harry Truman
7. Oh Thank You Great Spirit
8. Long Time No See
9. Ain't It Blue?
10. Old Days
11. Sixth Sense
12. Bright Eyes
13. Satin Doll (Live)

"Anyway You Want" is a piano-driven, chunky rock number that sounds like the sort of material Ringo Starr was putting out at the same period. "Brand New Love Affair, Parts 1 & 2" is a deliciously late night soulful number. The track has an excellent horn/wah-wah guitar instrumental interplay in the middle. It has caught on to the whole funk/rock thing as exemplified by The Doobie Brothers and Tower Of Power at the same time. "Never Been In Love Before" is a laid-back easy-listening rock ballad with one of those recognisable, high-pitched Peter Cetera vocals. Supertramp must have been influenced by this, surely, particularly in the piano parts. There is a lovely, crystal clear percussion sound on this one too.

"Hideaway" is a heavy, riff-driven chugging rock number, as heavy as Chicago could get and it is pretty impressive. It is often forgotten that they could rock out if they wanted to. "Till We Meet Again" is a short, acoustic song that provides a pleasant interlude. They then get political with the piano-led Beatles/Wings rock of "Harry Truman". "Oh Thank You Great Spirit" is prog rock meets Hendrix-esque psychedelia in a lengthy and experimental track, full of innovation if not any catchy appeal.

"Long Time No See" is another one with a Beatles-ish influence, for me it sounds a bit like some of George Harrison's seventies material. "Ain't It Blue?" is a return to funky, punchy soul/rock, featuring some killer horns, searing guitar and impressive vocals. "Old Days" is a throwback to the poppy soul of some of the earlier albums. "Sixth Sense" is an infectious piece of funky, jazzy instrumental. "Bright Eyes" is a melodic, laid-back piece of samba-influenced summery fluff. "Satin Doll" is a lively jazzy instrumental again.

This is a better album than many give it credit for, despite the band being said to be exhausted while recording it.

B-

Friday, 10 May 2019

Ellen Foley - About Time (2014)


  

Released in 2014

After two different but equally excellent albums in 1979's "Nightout" and 1981's "The Spirit of St. Louis", and one subsequent patchy album in 1983, "Another Breath", Ellen Foley, the voice of Meat Loaf's "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" made an unlikely comeback in 2014. Over thirty years later - but she still sounds great. It does, however, sound a bit "retro", which is probably not surprising. I quite like it, which is also not surprising, but I am not sure if it would appeal to anyone other than those like me who had her albums in the late seventies/early eighties.

TRACK LISTING

1. If You Can't Be Good
2. Nobody Ever Died From Crying
3. All Of My Suffering
4. Guilty
5. If You Ever Had A Heart
6. Madness
7. Worried Woman
8. Any Fool Can See
9. I've Been Around The Block And Back
10. I Can See
11. Carry On (Party's Over)
12. Everything's Gonna Be Alright

"If You Can't Be Good" has a Searchers/Byrds-style jangly guitar riff, with a hint of Tom Petty about it and Ellen's vocals show she hasn't lost her power in all that time. "Nobody Ever Died From Crying" is an upbeat, riffy number with Ellen once again soaring above the music with her quirky but authoritative voice. "All Of My Suffering" is in a similar vein. "Guilty" is a down-on-my-luck bottleneck slow blues, with Ellen playing the hard done by victim.

"If You Ever Had A Heart" has a bit of early Rolling Stones about it somehow, not especially in the music, just something about the melody. "Madness" is a jazzy, late-night slow burner with echoes of Peggy Lee's "Fever" in both its backing and vocal. "Worried Woman" is a lively rocker that would not be out of place on "Nightout". "Any Fool Can See" is a mid-pace rock ballad with a superb, commanding vocal. On this it is as if Ellen had never been away and it is 1979 again. "I've Been Around The Block And Back" sounds a confessional song from a rock musical.

"I Can See" is an appealing, catchy rocker. "Carry On (Party's Over)" is a chunky, riff-drenched number.  Both these songs, while pleasant, are a bit unremarkable, however. "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" is a slow ballad to end what has been actually quite a short album on. You know, I was really enjoying the first three tracks but then I have to say it did all sound a little bit similar and a little bit like a dusty relic from days long gone. I can't say I disliked any of this album, but, unfortunately, I know I will probably not play it much in the future. I think that is a shame, but you just tend to know which albums will not get many airings. It was great to hear Ellen again but that is as far as it goes. Like an ex-girlfriend thirty years on...

C

Bruce Springsteen - Live In New York City (2000)


  

Recorded live in New York City in June and July 2000

This live album is composed of highlights from Bruce Springsteen's long awaited reunion with the legendary E St. Band and the concerts at New York City's Madison Square Garden. For me, like all Springsteen's "official", regular, mainstream market live releases it is slightly underwhelming and unrepresentative of the live Springsteen experience. The best live recordings are to be found via his own site as downloads, where entire concerts can be found from many periods in his lengthy career.

This one, like "Live 1975-85" and "Plugged" are not quite the finished article. That point made, I cannot argue that the material on here is good, and shows just why the E St. Band should never have been denied to the world from 1988 to 2000. It is good to hear vibrant versions of songs like "My Love Will Not Let You Down" (from the "Tracks" box set) and "Youngstown", with its blistering Nils Lofgren guitar solo. "Murder Incorporated" is a hard rocking rarity, too. The moment where it segues into the rousing "Badlands" is wonderful.

Some of the songs are given new makeovers, like "Atlantic City"'s full band version, "Mansion On The Hill"'s Hawaiian guitar backing and a strange country-style mumbling incarnation of "The River", which for me doesn't quite come off.

The second half of the release features three monsters in its ranks - a sixteen-minute "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" that includes the lengthy band introductions; the incredibly hard-hitting "American Skin (41 Shots)" and the emotional, uplifting "Land Of Hope And Dreams". Despite being later recorded in the studio for the "High Hopes" and "Wrecking Ball" albums respectively, these are the definitive versions of the songs. It is nice to hear an oldie like "Lost In The Flood" resurrected and "Born In The USA" played in its original bottle-neck bluesy version. "Ramrod" is a bellyful of rollicking roadhouse rock fun and there is a point a couple of minutes into "Jungleland" when the drums, piano, guitar and saxophone go into orbit together and you realise you are listening to the best good-time rock'n'roll live band - ever.

TRACK LISTING

1. My Love Will Not Let You Down
2. Prove It All Night
3. Two Hearts
4. Atlantic City
5. Mansion On The Hill
6. The River
7. Youngstown
8. Murder Incorporated
9. Badlands
10. Out In The Street
11. Born To Run
12. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
13. Lost In The Flood
14. Don't Look Back
15. Jungleland
16. Born In The USA
17. Ramrod
18. American Skin (41 Shots)
19. Land Of Hope And Dreams
20. If I Should Fall Behind

B-

Bruce Springsteen - Live At Hammersmith Odeon (1975)

  

Recorded live in 1975

This was Bruce Springsteen's first tour of Europe and this was the first gig of that tour. The British music press had hyped it up with the now legendary "finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen" posters, which the artist himself allegedly went around tearing them down wherever he came across one. By his own admittance, this hype had led to he and the band being as nervous as they could be when they stepped out on to the wooden Hammersmith stage boards on November 18 1975. Despite that, it does not show in the sound, or in the actual performance, although Springsteen does his level best to look completely incongruous by wearing a huge tea-cosy woolly hat and sporting an Al Pacino as "Serpico" style beard. He hardly looked like the "future of rock 'n' roll" as journalist and future manager Jon Landau had dubbed him after this gig. Springsteen himself has never been too happy about this show, preferring the return one on November 24.

It is an excellent live album though, with surprisingly good sound quality considering its date. Outstanding in fact. There is a very convincing argument for this being Springsteen's best official live album. Certainly it is as far as I am concerned.

After a slow, piano-based opener in Bruce's contemporary version of "Thunder Road", the band kick in to "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" and it is clear this is going to be something special. Springsteen shows his influences by including several brief "hint" snippets of rock classics in various songs during the set. Many of the songs are lengthy, extended versions, with the E St. Band on fire and you have to say that nobody had really done anything like this before. This was 1975 and this was nothing like David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elton John or Queen. Springsteen was taking rock 'n' roll romanticism and musical history and updating it to the present day, but it was far more than simply a revivalist show, it was definitely pushing boundaries. The white soul dreams of David Bowie's 1974 "David Live" are taken even further on the saxophone-driven "Spirit In The Night" and "The E St. Shuffle" is almost reminiscent of Van Morrison's "It's Too Late To Stop Now" from the same year. Like Morrison on that album, this is a singer in complete harmony with his band, while simultaneously controlling them like a general. This album is up there with Morrison's as examples of ground-breaking live offerings from the period. Indeed, the lengthy piano improvisation in the middle of "Kitty's Back" owes more than just a little inspiration to Morrison's "Moondance". On this track, as on others like "E St. Shuffle" and "It's Hard To Be Saint In The City", there are considerable jazz influences, a bit of funk in there on the latter, too.

It is a bit strange listening to the album now and realising that "Born To Run", played at sixth track in, was just another track off the new album, which had been released three months previously. It was not the show-stopper it would be on the next tour, three years later. The dramatic "Lost In The Flood" from Springsteen's debut album, seems to get a better audience reception. Not surprising, though, as it's great.

The ad hoc feeling of the encores "Detroit Medley" and Gary US Bonds' "Quarter To Three" is simply energising and exhilarating, even now. This was Springsteen at his most essential, raw and unpolished. For me, this is the best of him. 1975-1978. You can't beat those years.

TRACK LISTING

1. Thunder Road
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
3. Spirit in The Night
4. Lost in The Flood
5. She's The One
6. Born To Run
7. The E St. Shuffle
8. It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City
9. Backstreets
10. Kitty's Back
11. Jungleland
12. Rosalita
13. 4th July Asbury Park (Sandy)
14. Detroit Medley - Devil With A Blue Dress On/See See Rider/Good Golly Miss Molly/ Jenny Take A Ride
15. For You
16. Quarter To Three

B+