Thursday, 30 July 2015

Prince - 20Ten (2010)

It's difficult to pinpoint quite when Prince went definitively off the boil, although for me it was roughly around the time of the song he recorded for Tim Burton's horrible Batman film. This was annoying as I'd always been partial to the occasional dollop from the Prince spigot, certainly since Sarah - my girlfriend of the time - gave me the Purple Rain soundtrack album for Christmas - and if you hold the sleeve to the light you can still read the biro indentation of her festive greeting written on the wrapping paper: how can you listen to this crap, you sexist swine? To finally answer Sarah's question, I found it quite easy to listen to Prince because, aside from anything, his records sounded nothing like those of the feckin' Birthday Party, which was more her department. More recently, I was coaxed into seeing himself perform at the Millennium Dome, a gig coinciding with that album he gave away with the Daily Mail. I was sat about five rows from the stage and, as anticipated, it was all very watchable regardless of the material, most of which was derived from Planet Earth. He eventually played the hits, but solo as a sort of karaoke set with backing tracks when the band went off to have a rest, which was a bit disappointing, but never mind. It was still a pretty good gig.

Planet Earth, the Daily Mail freebie album, a copy of which also came with the tickets for the aforementioned live recital, isn't terrible, but it's definitely post-crap Batman song Prince, one of those doubtless hailed as a long-awaited return to form by an ever dwindling oxbow lake of die-hard Prince obsessives, long-awaited return to form here amounting to not quite as bad as you might expect; see also Bowie, David. I'm not even sure how I came into possession of 20Ten which must presumably have been given away with Exchange & Mart, or Railway Modeller or something of the sort. I've a feeling it arrived in my hand by the same route as Kiss's Double Platinum, but couldn't say for certain. Anyway, it's here now, so let's get on with it.

Initial impressions aren't entirely favourable, and give rise to the feeling that New Power Generation might be more accurately rebranded Sexy Retirement Community; and in places it sounds as though the band is now just ol' man Prince fiddling about with his laptop whilst perched on the toilet so as to reduce the risk of not being able to make it in time. Compassion and Everybody Loves Me in particular could almost be Go-Kart Mozart, and I'm not saying that as a positive thing. However, once you're over these particular humps, the remainder just about does enough to cast them from your thoughts, and to be fair the same rinky-dink soundcard ambience never bothered me on any of those rap albums built up from the same sort of squelchy synthetic p-funk. Thus allowing the Charlie Chaplin of sexy songs the benefit of the doubt and forgiving him for Batdance, repeated plays reveal the majority of 20Ten to be decent at least above and beyond not quite as bad as you might expect. The second track, Beginning Endlessly raises the tone, reminding us of a time when every song on a Prince album sounded different, and we continue in roughly that spirit. He seems to have reigned in the more lurid excesses of songs about gussets, and the social commentary of Act of God may not hit quite so hard as Sign o' the Times once did but still manages quite a slap. In other words, not only is 20Ten not shit, but it's actually pretty decent - maybe not so immediate as Purple Rain, Parade, or any of the biggies of yesteryear, but it pisses all over Planet Earth.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Tinchy Stryder - Catch 22 (2009)

I've a feeling this was the last CD I bought before I left England in 2011; and so, landing in Texas with only those worldly possessions which could be stuffed into a single suitcase and a music collection chiselled down to about ten discs, this one received a fair old hammering for the duration of my first six months in San Antonio, at least until I was able to ship the great bulk of my shit over in February 2012. Consequently it has a particular place in my affections and carries certain strong associations. During my most recent return visit to the old country, I came close to big manly tears of nostalgia whilst eating proper sausage, egg, chips and beans in a Bermondsey cafe full of bricklayers and road sweepers with the radio tuned to some station playing roughly the same autotuned hybrid of grime and R&B as is heard on Catch 22. I could be missing something but this kind of thing now sounds very, very English to me - actually very, very London to further narrow it down. Possibly there are a million US stations playing variations on Tinchy Stryder, but I can't be arsed to sift through the great wealth of those playing country, western, country and western, western and country, and that We Are Young shite by Fun - which is apparently the name of the band, the really shit and annoying band.

Tinchy Stryder came up through grime as part of Roll Deep, and this album was apparently informed by a desire to break through into the mainstream, which is what it did, and does, to spectacular effect, mashing together all those weird pingy grime beats with big screen stadium trance techno, producing what may potentially be the most weirdly uplifting hybrid ever made. The grime element is true to its roots, raised on the sound of arcade games rather than Beatles albums and yielding sounds resembling nothing heard in nature, and not even heard that much in electronic music prior to 2009 - grinding synths burping away as the tonal equivalent to the sort of alien flavours only found in kid's sweets, the sort of thing Junior always seems to want from the ice-cream place when we stop by - bright dayglo turquoise and purporting to taste like cotton candy soda, whatever the hell that is. Add to this the trippy sequencers, glo-sticks, and Tinchy's confident but never puffed up delivery, and it's air-punching, head nodding, euphoric stuff which doesn't really sound like anything else I've heard.

Catch 22 is one of the most bizarrely artificial things I've encountered in terms of what has gone into the recipe, but it feels paradoxically more human, organic and emotionally potent than almost any other rap record I can think of. Of course, the heavy trance techno element probably disqualifies it as rap for those purists insisting that UK rap is only UK rap if it's been directly sanctioned and approved by Rodney P, but fuck 'em. When stuffing a handful of essential CDs into a bag and abruptly moving to another country, this one was a great choice.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Kiss - Double Platinum (1978)

...and before anyone gets to sneering, let it be known that the Young Marble Giants' Brand New Life is basically Strutter minus the awesome, so shut the fucking fuck up.

Growing up in England, Kiss passed me by in so much as the records were available but you had to make a special effort to hear them, which I didn't because I wasn't that interested. They looked a bit showbiz, very American and wholly ridiculous, and being as long-haired biker-orientated heavy rock was the default at our school I tended to avoid anything which sounded like it might comfortably sit between Judas Priest and Krokus in the record collection of kids who wore denim jackets with Motohead and States Quo written on the back in biro. That said, I was intrigued by the idea that Kiss had their own Marvel comic, and by my pen-friend Steven getting his wires crossed and insisting on the existence of a Sex Pistols album on which Rotten and the boys were quite clearly depicted wearing devil make-up and high-heeled boots with teeth. Then many, many years later as Beavis & Butthead sniggered over the video of I Love It Loud, I realised there might be something to this bunch, and although I'd never really developed any coherent assumptions about what they probably sounded like, they nevertheless didn't sound anything like I expected.

Another decade passed, and I found myself helping to clear my mother's house of the belongings of a long term partner who unfortunately turned into an enormous arsehole and had to be shipped off to a different city by means of a court order, and amongst these abandoned belongings I found this collection of what I assume to be the greatest hits of Kiss.

I really shouldn't be listening to this stuff. I mean seriously, there's a song called Calling Dr. Love and it probably won't come as too much of a surprise that said practitioner should endlessly espouse the medical benefits of good lovin' all night long - although I suppose that's the American healthcare system for you, which is obviously quite different to the NHS as it was back in England; and then there's Love Gun which is I suspect some sort of metaphor for the male generative member. This is why Spinal Tap failed, in my view. It did its best, but it still fell some way short of the genuine article. Even without the raw stupidity of the songs, the band are probably all so Republican as to make Rush Limbaugh sound like George Galloway, and there should probably be some sort of law against it, and yet...

Setting off on my morning bike ride with Double Platinum in my discman, I return two hours later driving an El Camino - passenger side door a different colour to the rest, obviously - wearing a mullet, and now regarding Easy Rider as a film with a happy ending; such is the power of Kiss. I guess I didn't imagine the music would be quite so direct or powerful as it is, direct and powerful in the way that the Ramones were direct and powerful, albeit working from a different, bluesier musical palette roughly equidistant between the New York Dolls and AC/DC. Nor is it really even heavy metal as we have come to understand the term, not with some of these tracks bordering on croaky Rod Stewart balladry but with the advantage of no actual Rod Stewarts being involved.

Kiss probably are the most ridiculous rock band of all time if you have your fingers in your ears, but with the sound turned up it becomes impossible to sustain the argument. I say ridiculous, but perhaps I really mean amazing...

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Sham Pistols - Natural Born Killer (1979)

I vaguely remember following the story in Sounds music paper as Steve Jones and Paul Cook, at a loose end following the implosion of the Sex Pistols, began hanging around at Sham 69's house. Sham 69 seemed to have got into the habit of splitting and then reforming on a more or less daily basis, but had reputedly definitely called it a day following the release of The Game, their disappointing fourth album which Pursey hated. Being a fan of both groups, obviously I was excited by the prospect of the Sham Pistols - a name I presume to have come from some journalist rather than any of those involved - whilst being at least a little sceptical, even at the age of fourteen, of what was essentially a supergroup, an entity forged through celebrity rather than the usual social channels. Peculiarly it turned out that I was right when Sounds reported how it had all fallen apart with everyone going their separate ways. Those involved had shared roughly comparable degrees of fame through production of noisy guitar-based rock records, beyond which they had nothing in common apart from the fact that I thought they were great. The two former Pistols declared that it had been worse than working with Rotten, and Pursey observed that he had known all along that it would never work, such were the differences between them.

Sham 69 seem to be remembered as the band responsible for Oi! in so much as that of all those punk bands of the time, they were the most conspicuously lacking any sort of art school heritage, and they appealed to football hooligans and your actual working class types who couldn't give a shit about bondage trousers or hair gel. Nevertheless they made some fucking great albums which probably don't sound anything like you would expect, combining monosyllabic terrace appeal with surprisingly refined musical or artistic touches presumably sprung from Pursey's slow transformation into Marcel Marseau. This transformation may possibly be why Sham Pistols were doomed from the start. Pursey was already moving towards whatever the hell Imagination Camouflage was supposed to be, and the belching Cockney steamroller of Steve Jones' guitar was pulling too much in the other direction, at least from where Jimmy was stood.

I hadn't realised they ever really got beyond hanging out and trying to understand each other's jokes, let alone studio recording or sharing a stage, so my ears extended out on stalks when I first encountered this, just like in a Tom & Jerry cartoon; and weirdly, given how much I expected of this union at the age of fourteen, it doesn't disappoint. Side one is four entirely new and substantially beefy studio tracks - only one of which was to be recycled by Cook and Jones' Professionals. Sham Pistols actually sound exactly like Sham 69 with Steve Jones playing guitar, and significantly better than anything Sham had done at least since That's Life - which I state as a fan, in case that isn't obvious. Side two comprises four songs recorded live in Glasgow, Pretty Vacant, the Clash's White Riot, and a couple of Sham 69 numbers. They're nothing earth shattering, but just for the raw energy and the sheer peculiar novelty of this record, everything works pretty well. Natural Born Killer should by all rights be an oddity, a collectors' item rather than something you listen to, but against expectation it adds up to something much fatter and meatier than the sum of its parts, with everyone bringing the best out of each other, even if they all secretly regarded each other as tossers.

It was never going to last, which is a shame, but it's nice to have something to show that it happened, and that it was very briefly as great as my fourteen year-old self once hoped.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Datblygu - Wyau & Pyst = 32 Bom = 1987-90 (1995)

About four million years ago I enjoyed fairly regular correspondence with a Welsh gentlemen who would compile and send me cassettes of obscure music from the land of his fathers, Pobol y Cwm, and Max Boyce, and in many cases music of such distinct character as to shame me into never again making the association of Cymru with such lazy reference points as I've given here - apart from just now. It seemed there was a thriving scene of artists whose preference for the Welsh language had excluded them from coverage in the mainstream music papers, this being the scene which, I suppose, eventually yielded the likes of Super Furry Animals, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Catatonia and others. I was never that fussed by any of these more recent acts. Even being able to understand the words - helpfully sung in English - they mostly struck me as generally unremarkable in comparison with Plant Bach Ofnus, Traddodiad Ofnus, and the mighty force of Datblygu, all of whom sounded more interesting regardless of songs being sung in a language I couldn't understand.

Having now lived with these two Datblygu albums for nearly twenty years - here assembled on a single compact disc - I'd now go further than describing them as merely interesting. In fact I have a hunch that Datblygu may have been the greatest band of all time by any definition that matters, at least in so much as that there is no conceivable way in which these thirty-two songs could be improved; and I'm aware that this will sound like hyperbole.

To start at what may resemble a beginning for some, Datblygu's David Edwards singing in Welsh was never intended as an angle or a novelty, and most of what he has said on the subject has tended to highlight the absurdity of asking a man why he chooses to sing in his own native tongue, and whether or not such a choice represents some sort of militant stance.

Musically speaking, Datblygu sounded oddly well suited to those crappy cassettes I once received through the post, Woolworths or Boots or Memorex with felt-tipped pen scribbled across crumpled inlay cards. This isn't meant to be an insult so much as an acknowledgement of their seemingly unapologetic attitude to recording - Bontempi organs, cheap drum machines, guitars sounding like they might benefit from a hasty restringing: it's not that it sounds ramshackle so much as that they were working to a budget of about sixty quid, so it's kind of basic without being in any sense lo-fi; and yet what the three individuals involved did with that sound was astonishing. The usual comparison is of Datblygu being a Welsh version of the Fall in reference to a certain loose quality, but it's not a great comparison, and you might just as well throw Wire or Einstürzende Neubauten into the pot. Einstürzende Neubauten might seem like a lazy reference to another band singing songs in languages besides English, but there's something in their forging music from ruggedly atonal sources, which is sort of what Datblygu do aside from the detail of the sources actually being musical instruments. Sometimes it's a horrible detuned racket, like that of Pabel Len until the point at which those twanging upper strings come in and it all sounds momentarily and paradoxically beautiful. At other times it's electropop, or it's pensive country and western - and I mean the real stuff with the twanging and the slide guitar as enjoyed by old codgers in trucks rather than Mojo readers recently moving on from Nirvana - or it's Bertolt Brecht, the Residents, children's novelty records, and despite the range, it always takes a couple of moments before you're able to tell just what it is that they're doing differently.

It's hard to really pinpoint what's so great about these songs. Technically they're kind of basic in places, nothing too fancy, occasionally chaotic; and yet even without any clear idea of subject given that my understanding of Welsh is limited at best, the emotional force is astonishing, at least enough to bring one close to tears under certain circumstances. These are generally not what you would call happy songs, although neither are they entirely depressive, ranging from spiky, angry, and sardonic to quietly thoughtful without incurring schizophrenia; and like the band, the songs are uncompromising and ruthlessly honest, because even when you can't understand what's being said, you can just tell by the tone.