Thursday, 21 September 2017

Wreckless Eric - amERICa (2015)


Wreckless Eric made a huge impression on me at an early age, and at least a couple of years before I actually knowingly heard any of his records. Most of my taste in music is fairly firmly rooted in me and Grez raiding his older brother's bedroom when we were teenagers. Grez's older brother - or Martin to his friends, that being a category which didn't include us - had all these amazing albums by people we'd never heard of, Alternative TV, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Faust, the Residents, Skrewdriver…

Well, it was All Skrewed Up which I believe predates the racist phase, but let's not get off the subject. Amongst Martin's records were several by Wreckless Eric, notably that legendary 10" album on brown vinyl; you know the one. If you don't, might I suggest euthanasia followed by reincarnation and then trying your hardest to get it fucking right next time around? How many 10" brown vinyl albums have there ever been?

Assuming we all know what I'm talking about, I maintain that the aforementioned 10" is blessed with one of the greatest covers ever. Eric looks like he's drunk, about to fall over, but really doesn't give a shit because he's having an amazing time regardless; and then there's that jacket, some funky print of eagles soaring across what probably isn't silk - all very New Faces or Opportunity Knocks and yet somehow so punk rock as to make most of those King's Road clowns look like ELO. Whether you ever regarded Wreckless Eric as punk rock probably depends on where you were stood at the time, but I guess it's okay if we keep in mind that the point of punk rock, at least according to some Sex Pistol or other, was not to destroy rock 'n' roll so much as to take it back to its roots, to take it back from all the bouffant hairdo fuckers who'd lost sight of what it was supposed to do in the first place, Geoff Lynne.

So, in accordance with my vaguely punky roots, I still find myself getting ready to sneer at the slightest suggestion of artists working past their sell-by date, but it's just a knee jerk thing, and it really doesn't apply to Wreckless Eric; because this isn't a comeback album, nor recapturing the glory days, nor sensitive sound recordings of all his new forest pals in Papua New Guinea, nor a true return to form as the perpetually misleading promise always has it, nor our man dabbling with ambient sludgestep; because amERICa is simply a new Wreckless Eric album and that's all you should need to know.

May as well cover the full distance and take the remaining few steps up my own arse, seeing as we've come all this way.

It took me a couple of years, but I chanced across the brown vinyl 10" in a second hand place in Norwich, and I bought it because Grez and myself had never got around to actually playing his brother's copy, for some reason. I bought it because I recognised the cover and I knew it would be good, as indeed it was. In fact it was more than just good. It was one of those greatest album ever recorded deals, or that's how it seems when you're in the middle of listening to the thing, playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror and miming along to Reconnez Cherie. It's difficult to pin down what made Eric seem so unique, and why I can't help bristling a little whenever I hear that pub rock song by Denim. He has an ear for a tune, and a weird little voice which sounds more like one of your mates than anyone you'd expect to hear on a record, and somehow it all comes together with such raw honesty that it would hurt if it didn't also have a decent sense of humour - it's something along these lines. Stand Wreckless Eric next to almost anyone you care to mention and the other person will look like a fake, a part-timer, an idiot with no idea what he or she is doing; and the crucial detail is that unlike so many rock 'n' roll hall of fame bores, Eric just gets on with it. He really is all about the craft unhindered by bullshit of any stripe. I had an argument with my mother about Shakespeare, her position being that the works of Shakespeare are the greatest things written in the English language because, whatever it is you wish to express, there will always be one particular way to say it which works better than all the others, and which is the most fluent; and so everything Shakespeare has said has been the best way to say that thing. I'm still not that bothered about Shakespeare, but I take the point and I'd say it applies just as well to the songs of Wreckless Eric. In terms of the heart, it doesn't get better than this. It speaks to me about my life, I suppose you'd say.

amERICa is Wreckless Eric's response to his having moved to the United states, which speaks to me about my life with particular resonance because that's what I've done too, and I know exactly what he's talking about. There's a faint country twang, but it still rocks like that bloke in the print jacket, and the honesty is both funny, painful, and even a little sad, just like on the best soul or blues records; and Transitory Thing nearly tears my fucking heart out each time I play it. Bloody hell. At the risk of hyperbole, amERICa might even be the greatest album ever recorded.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club - English Garden (1979)


Much like a newly hatched duckling, I fixated on Bruce Woolley's Camera Club at an early age, albeit briefly. Graham lent me his Devo album, heralding my realisation of there being bands which made good records that weren't played on the radio, and which sometimes didn't even get in the charts. Somehow I'd assumed that all records made it into the charts. This was around the time that Look! Hear! first aired on the telly, Look! Hear! being a regional BBC magazine show presented by Toyah Willcox and featuring the sort of stuff which the kids on the street were into, yeah? Look! Hear! featured a few of those bands who weren't played on the radio and didn't even get in the charts, and so I began compiling a list in the back of one of my school books. I needed to remember the names so I could look out for their records. I've a feeling the list wasn't actually very long, maybe just three or four of them. Neon Hearts were in there, having made a big impression on me, as was Bruce Woolley, but I don't recall any of the others.

So there was a bit of a gap between my taking down the name and finding the record - purely by chance - probably about thirty years. I couldn't remember what I'd thought was so great about the Camera Club at the time, and initial spins left me puzzled. It was power pop with a skinny tie and an overly ornate keyboard, really just like a lot of other stuff which had been around at the time and which had struck me as interesting mainly on the grounds that it wasn't ELO, that it hadn't been played by Dave Lee Travis on his smugly flabby show, and that it didn't sound like it would rather be in California; and yet, the more I listen to this record, the more I discern its own unique identity.

English Garden is of its era, more or less prog rock hopefuls moving with the times by incorporating a few jagged edges into their sound, but at least for the sake of an interesting record. In terms of musicianship, it has more in common with Genesis and that lot, which probably shouldn't be too surprising given the involvement of Thomas Dolby before he'd even started shaving, and that Woolley co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean with Trevor Horn and the other Buggle. Camera Club renderings of both songs are included here. Radio Star seems a bit too smooth for its own good, but the latter improves on the better known version. What makes the album is personality and good old fashioned proggy song-writing plucking all manner of esoteric subjects or angles from the ether. In this respect, English Garden makes me think of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with a noseful of speed - on which subject, I can't help but notice a parallel between the back cover of this record and the front of Harley's The Human Menagerie.

Considering this was the guy who wrote Video Killed the Radio Star, it's surprising how little of it you could really describe as immediate, but it really rewards the effort if you give it time - vaguely punky and yet lyrical with Queen style vocal harmonies. English Garden occasionally sounds like the theme music for regional news programmes of the seventies, and I'm thinking Weekend World rather than Midlands Today. This one really creeps up on you and ultimately it feels a more rounded, satisfying work than anything from Woolley's more famous writing partners.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

David Bowie - Let's Dance (1983)


Just to reiterate, I drifted away after the third or fourth album hailed as a true return to form by latecomer Bowie zombies who had discovered the bloke when he played a whispy Gandalf in Labyrinth. I longed for a return to greatness, but time and again those amazing comeback and this time I'm not joking records proved themselves unlistenable. After Black Tie White Noise turned out to be an improvement only in the sense that a B.A. Robertson album is probably an improvement on anything by ELO, I decided that enough was enough. Of course it turns out that he eventually did remember how to make a decent record, and weirdly I've come to regard the run of albums from Heathen through to Blackstar as his best work. So, all you gormless wankers who spent the eighties crowing he's back and he's brilliant at every lame Tina Turner team-up, every guest spot with Gordon the Gopher, thanks for fucking nothing, you stupid cunts.

Anyway, it seemed like time to take the plunge and get hold of this one on the grounds that I may have been wrong. Let's Dance was a great single, but I hated China Girl with its plinky-plonky something Chinese this way comes riff, and the album cover looks like a card you'd buy for a fourteen year old boy. All that's missing are the words on your birthday and a racing car in the lower right corner; but the problem wasn't just that Bowie, having grown tired of pretending to read Albert Camus, wanted to be a pop star again. The problem was also that with the best will in the world, Let's Dance was never going to sound great stood next to Scary Monsters.

I've now played the thing a million times so as to give it every possible opportunity to sink in and to work whatever magic it may have, and okay - I will grudgingly concede that it isn't that bad, generally speaking. I can see how Dave may have felt inclined to revisit his roots, specifically his rhythm and blues roots as heard on those Lower Third records, because the problem with the sort of introspection which had informed his previous four or five albums is that one eventually gets sick of the sound of one's own voice, and so I guess he just wanted to have fun making a record again. With that in mind, it's to his credit that he therefore made a vaguely decent record with Let's Dance in so much as that it goes back to his roots without sounding like an exercise in nostalgia, even moving things forward a little in trying something new with the big, live, occasionally even raw, sound of Nile Rodgers' production. I suppose then this is almost Bowie's punk album, at least in spirit, or certainly more so than the austere noodling of Low or Heroes.

I can appreciate this record a little better these days, particularly given that The Next Day sounds like him trying to get Let's Dance right in a couple of places, but it nevertheless remains a flawed album. This investigation has reminded me that Modern Love was also a great single, and that China Girl would be decent were it not for the Charlie Chan riff; but if you took away either Modern Love or the title song, you'd be left with a great single and six above average b-sides. I firmly believe there's a case for Let's Dance as a better album than Low, Heroes, or Lodger, but I don't know whether that's really saying anything.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Above the Law - Livin' Like Hustlers (1990)


I seem to have lost touch with what's going on right now, musically speaking, and particularly where it comes to rap. I'm aware of some dude called Chance because I think he was on a reality show which I didn't watch, and there was also some new guy pissing people off by suggesting that lyrical ability was never important. I think he may have been called Future, unless that was someone else. The reasons for my disassociation are, I suppose, that I buy most of my rap on CD from second hand stores and I don't really do downloads or YouTube. I don't have the patience. Also, I'm about two-hundred years old and I've never really given much of a shit about keeping my finger on any particular pulse. I like new shit, but I'm not going to seek it out purely for the sake of seeking it out.

At the same time, I've always found it kind of irritating when old people bang on about how everything used to be so much better than it is now and whatever it is you're listening to will never have the passion or musicality of B.A. Robertson in his heyday. That was some shit to see, I tell you what.

Nevertheless, listening to Above the Law really makes me wonder whether the old fart contingent don't have a point when it comes to that which rap once had, but which it no longer has - from what I can tell, not that I'm really qualified to comment; so I suppose I mean what rap once had which had begun to look kind of thin on the ground by 2005 when I was last aware of any of this stuff. I say rap, but I mean hip-hop, because that seems to be the element we've lost, possibly.

Above the Law were right there at the nativity of what has come to be known as gangsta. They were signed to Eazy E's Ruthless label back when Dre and pals were still talking to each other, and I always had the impression that someone somewhere hoped they would be the next NWA; and given that Above the Law's Cold187um was fucking about with Parliament samples long before The Chronic or even Efil4Zaggin, the landscape would have looked very different without them, and it seems fair to say that they never received the recognition they deserved. Where NWA were a punch in the face, Above the Law went for a jazzier, more relaxed vibe. Their commitment to telling it like it was is obvious from a glance at the track list with titles like Untouchable, Another Execution, Menace to Society, and so on, but the mood is uptempo, soulful and even kind of happy. It's a sunny day album, keeping in mind that the worst aspects of reality may choose to intrude even when the sun is shining. Most startling of all, at least as I listen to this in 2017, is that the lads were still rapping like the Treacherous Three - as Ice Cube once put it - an old school sing-song cadence breaking what was seen as new lyrical ground, at least in mainstream terms. Musically we're only just into the era of sampling, still staying true to the turntable aesthetic, and skipping along on scratchy old Motown loops, piano riffs and pounding bass; and it's this bounce - the very thing from which hip-hop took it's name, according to some dude in the Bronx - which was getting thin on the ground even by '95; and it's not just the sound. It's what the sound represents - kids making music out of stuff they found on the local dump because who can afford a sampler, a studio, or any of that fancy shit? Rap lost the hunger which necessitated the sort of inventive spirit which made albums such as this one sound so fucking raw and out there and dangerous.

Of course, I'm not suggesting it would be any better if everything had just stayed the same for the sake of it. There's no need for anyone to remake this album given that it already exists, but it should at least be better remembered. I don't know if rap is dying on its arse, or whether it just looks like that from here. Perhaps music itself is over as a medium, given the popularity of Ed Sheerhan, Mumford & Sons, and Imagine Dragons, artists I can't even be bothered to hate with any conviction.

I don't know.

I just don't know.

Livin' Like Hustlers is very, very good though. That's what you should take away from this.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Nitzer Ebb - Industrial Complex (2010)


I didn't even realise they had reformed until a little over a year ago, and this one is now already seven years old, or of equivalent vintage to the first Black Sabbath album by the time Never Mind the Bollocks hit the shops. It's thirty-two years since Nitzer Ebb's debut album, which in relative terms is the same span of time as divides the aforementioned Bollocks from the Andrews Sisters bothering the top slot with Rum & Coca-Cola, whatever the hell that was. The passage of time sure is weird, and I feel somehow obliged to scorn this with the same kind of disregard as was showered upon the Rolling Stones back in my days as a younger and at least thematically spikier man; but I can't because it would be silly, and good fucking God what a cracker of an album it is; besides I always liked Start Me Up.

My first impressions were something along the lines of chuckles over how they've once again dug out the sequencers, perhaps having seen the error of their Led Zeppelin impersonating ways, as heard on Ebbhead and Big Hit.

That's right, lads, I smirked to myself, give the fans what they want, because I am essentially a bit of an arsehole.

So they've gone back to the same basic musical recipe book we all remember from the years when they were that band who sounded a lot like DAF; and yet what they've cooked up from those recipes seems very much a continuation of where they were going on the aforementioned Big Hit. Industrial Complex comprises songs, and songs with all those complicated changes and linky bits people like Elton John tend to write, as you will begin to notice once you get past being pounded around the head with a pulsing sequencer. Furthermore, Douglas McCarthy's voice - always distinctly bluesy - sounds better than ever, wrenching genuine soul and pathos out of some of those lines. What this adds up to is, I suppose, that band who sound a lot like DAF making music which somehow feels like the Groundhogs or one of that bunch. Some of this may be thanks to the drums - massive, pounding, and certainly acoustic - pushing the music along on a muscular, organic surge in peculiar contrast to all the bleeps and squelches; and yet it doesn't feel in any way mannered, which I only mention in case I should have accidentally invoked Depeche Mode's self-conscious efforts to sound like a real band by having the one who looks like a poodle play harmonica during their CBeebies version* of an old SPK record.

Hit You Back, I Am Undone, and the white knuckle glam stomp of On the Road are as magnificent as anything this lot have ever recorded; and fuck it - they were always better than DAF. I don't care what anyone says.

*: I should probably thank Gary Robertson for this joke.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Steroid Maximus - ¡Quilombo! (1990)


I was quite excited all those centuries ago when I first heard that Thirlwell had a new band called Steroid Maximus, because that was how it was described in whatever rag I was reading - a new band suggesting something streamlined and punky with some guy on bass and maybe a drummer. It was a bit of a disappointment when the new band turned out to be just another secret identity, albeit one making no direct reference to the Foetus brand. I'd been excited because said Foetus brand had begun to sound a little fat and bloated at that point, basically a man growling about doing you up the bum whilst drinking moonshine to the sound of a million heavy metal guitars. Thaw had been a massive disappointment and the psychotic badass schtick was looking a bit saggy around the ballbag.

¡Quilombo! at least suggested some returning interest in a varied musical palate on Thirlwell's part, but I couldn't work out why it needed to be its own thing. Wasn't it just Foetus instrumentals, maybe things for which he'd never worked out a vocal? Maybe it was his classical incarnation, although that doesn't really work when you look too close. Only the worst kind of arsehole technophile believes you can sample a bunch of orchestras and make your own classical music. Perhaps, for want of a better term, Steroid Maximus was his soundtrack work; or maybe this stuff had always been intended as instrumental, and the notion of putting out a largely instrumental Foetus record went against the grain, for whatever reason. Maybe the world would explode were there ever to be a Foetus album with a title of more than four letters.

Then again, there's nothing actually wrong with this guy's purely instrumental work, and Lilith from Sink - for one example - is one of the greatest pieces of music he's ever recorded; so with this in mind I listened and let the thing settle, let it build up some familiarity. A couple of decades later, my initial reservations seem crazy. Taken as a piece rather than just a collection of unfinished instrumentals - which I suspect it never was - ¡Quilombo! alludes to exotica, easy listening and big band. It's all quite obviously built up from samples, although has been done with real skill and so avoids any distracting attention drawn to the methods of its own composition. Essentially it's a Foetus record made using just mood and atmosphere to invoke the customary unease, a record which seems to deliberately avoid stating the obvious in musical terms - hence the absence of scowling heavy metal guitars. One of these almost sounds like a sea shanty, for fuck's sake!

Actually, a couple of decades later, and taking into account that nearly everything about the record is wonderful - not even just the cover art, but the quality of the printing of the cover art - and ¡Quilombo! feels like a masterpiece in its brevity, its singularity of vision, and all of the peculiar musical hoops through which it jumps in pursuit of that singularity. It's Thirlwell stretching out and enjoying himself again after a tough couple of years, mixing himself a cocktail, still keeping it kind of dark and unsettling, but doing it in style.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Sleaford Mods - English Tapas (2017)


I'm a bit surprised how long it's taken me to acclimate to this one, and my initial feelings were mixed. I wanted it to be amazing but had a feeling that it wasn't, but after a couple of months I've realised I'm probably just over-thinking it. English Tapas is the first Sleaford Mods CD which didn't immediately superglue itself into the player and stay there for at least a month, and for all that it maintains the standard of workmanship to which we've become accustomed, there's nothing which quite leaps out of the speakers and smacks you in the face like Jolly Fucker, PPO Kissin' Behinds, or even TCR.

Still, they're neither of them getting any younger, and they've a few albums under their belts now, and you have to wonder how much more mileage they can get out of the existing set up, Bontempi drum machine, two notes for a bassline, and Jason Williamson telling us about the worst job he ever had. I suspect the lads have themselves similarly pondered this question, and part of the answer may be why English Tapas isn't simply a retread of Austerity Dogs and the rest. The differences are subtle, and nothing so obvious or misjudged as the introduction of either ballads or guitar solos, but the differences are there.

The music, while staying true to a certain vision, seems more considered somehow, not polished, because those rough edges are still at least half of the point, but more considered and more directed, less arbitrary - if that makes any sense whatsoever. There's an added complexity, even if it isn't directly expressed as the usual technowank which might be implied by that description; and at times it borders on minimal techno - at least on BHS - which I knowledgably state as the proud owner of a single minimal techno CD. Also, Williamson's voice has turned distinctly musical in places, maybe not quite singing lessons musical, but you can tell he's making an effort, trying to keep things interesting, trying to move it forward; and lyrically, there may be less obviously quotable post-modern zingers, but no-one could possibly accuse the boy of mellowing - which is surely the main reason for listening to Sleaford Mods.

English Tapas seems to be a first for this lot in so much as that it's a grower rather than an album which burps in your face with quite the same vigour as the others, but times have changed, and the Sleaford Mods now somehow play headline gigs at Wembley stadium, so it would be stranger if this were just a straight retread of the stuff we already know. They may now be huge, and maybe they hang out with Leo Sayer and Jordan, but this one at least suggests it's going to be a long time before they get flabby.

I'd love to know who they're taking the piss out of during the introduction to Just Like We Do, by the way - if it's anyone specific. My money's on Edwin Pouncey.