Wednesday, 15 March 2017

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


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

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

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

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


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

I suppose I could leave the review at that.




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

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

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

Thursday, 9 March 2017

MERZfunder (2016)


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

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

Jesus.

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

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

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Fat Joe - Jealous Ones Still Envy (2001)


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

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

Furthermore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Mex - Intense Living (1981)


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

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

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

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

Genuinely wonderful.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Ghost - Opus Eponymous (2010)


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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Skids - Days in Europa (1979)


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

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

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

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

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

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